In her memoir Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden1 author Alexandra Risen2 tells two stories of discovery: one pertains the garden around the house into which she moves with her husband and young son and the other pertains her Ukrainian-born parents, who were displaced by WWII and finally migrated to Edmonton, Canada, in 1953.
The book is a pleasure to read. Each chapter moves forward both the story of the garden's restoration / development and Risen's personal journey through her earlier life and her mother's final years. Being a mother herself, Risen reflects how her experience informs her relationship with her son. Each chapter ends with a suggestion on how to make use of plants or fruit foraged in the garden. Not all such suggestions are recipes: for example, there are instructions on how to make a wreath with willow branches, and Valentine cards with bleeding heart flowers.
While a lot of the book is serious—from the Prologue, in which Risen describes her last meeting with her father, to the story of the hardships imposed on both parents by history and the war, to her mother's funeral—there are also a lot of light moments, mostly related to the evolution of the garden, from dealing with contractors, regulations and unexpected disasters, to how Risen's husband and son find their place in the garden and make space in themselves for it.
There are no similarities between my parents and Risen's in terms of character, heritage, or experience—besides the fact that they all lived during WWII. My childhood was also different from hers on many levels. Finally, I am not a gardener, though I have a beloved garden. I think the characteristic that brings me closest to Risen and that has made her book such an interesting reading for me is the desire to understand our parents, a desire that in both cases is intertwined with their aging and death.
FTC disclosure: I have received an advanced reading copy of Unearthed from the publisher3. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.
If I were to have tea with Risen one day, I would have garden stories of my own to share, about raccoons and nasturtium, fox and foxglove, poppies and kale, deer and swimming pool. I would also make sure I have some Earl Grey tea to offer her and a slice of the onion and ricotta tart I created inspired by her book.
Our gardens are in different zones, so it is not surprising that different plants grow in them. The one plant I cannot do without from my garden is thyme (timo): I use fresh thyme in most of my dishes. The other day, this is what I saw when I passed one of the several thyme plants I have:
Nasturtium grows exuberantly in my garden, as I have written here and elsewhere4. I can harvest flowers, leaves and seedpods to use in the kitchen. I use some flowers in the tart. The last plant from my garden I use is winter savory.
When Risen finds sugar maples in her garden, she taps them and makes maple syrup (sciroppo d'acero). I cannot follow her in this enterprise. One of my favorite DIY endeavors is making ricotta using the whey (siero di latte) left over after making certain kinds of cheese. Finally, fresh onions, tender, juicy and sweet, are one of my favorite ingredients this time of the year. To develop the tart recipe I used red onions from the farmers' market and candy onions5 from my CSA box.
As base for the tart, I used a beloved simple dough from La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well6), the seminal Italian cookbook Pellegrino Artusi self-published in 1891:
153. PASTA MATTA (CRAZY DOUGH) It is called crazy not because it is likely to do something mad, but for the simplicity and ease with which it can serve as the necessary dress for a variety of dishes, as you will see.
Sprinkle water and salt in due proportion over the flour and form a dough loaf that can be rolled out wafer thin.
Differently from the previous version of the dough I presented here7, this time I used all stone-ground whole-wheat flour of three wheat varieties, all grown in California. The result is a decidedly rustic tart that is great warm out of the oven but also reheated the day after.
Ingredients for the dough:
- 1 3/4 ounces / 50 g whole-wheat pastry flour, possibly stone-ground (I use locally grown soft white wheat Alturas and milled by Beck's Bakery8 )
- 7/8 ounces / 25 g whole-grain stone-ground Sonora wheat (locally grown and freshly milled by Capay Mills9) OR whole-wheat flour, possibly stone-ground
- 7/8 ounces / 25 g sprouted whole-wheat flour, possibly stone-ground (I use locally grown sprouted Blanca Grande wheat freshly milled by Capay Mills)
- A pinch of fine sea salt
- 2 ounces / 55 g lukewarm water
- 1 teaspoon / 5 ml extra-virgin olive oil
Ingredients for the filling:
- 12 ounces / 340 g fresh onions, possibly organic, clean weight (for example, torpedo or candy)
- 2 teaspoons / 10 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- Leaves of several sprigs of fresh thyme
- Leaves of a sprig of winter savory, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
- 1/16 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- A dozen fresh garden nasturtium flowers, cleaned (optional)
- 5 ounces / 140 g fresh ricotta, possibly homemade
How to make the crazy dough
Place the flours and salt in a bowl, add the water and oil and mix until you obtain a dough. Knead until nice and smooth. Let it rest, well covered (e.g., wrapped in plastic film), for half an hour.
How to prepare the onions
Slice onions into thin half moons. If large, cut in short sections.
Heat olive oil in a skillet. (Alternatively, if you have an oil mister, coat well the bottom of the skillet.) Add onion and stir to coat. Add the thyme and winter savory leaves and stir. Cook on gentle heat until the onions are tender, 20 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper, add the nasturtium flowers, if using, and stir. Let cool while you roll the dough.
Lightly dust with flour a piece of parchment paper about 13 inches / 33 cm wide. Working on the parchment paper placed over a working surface, roll the dough into an 11-inch / 28 cm diameter disk.
Add the ricotta to the onions and stir until distributed uniformly. Spread the onion and ricotta on the rolled dough to form an even layer, leaving a 1-inch / 2.5 cm border of clean dough all around.
Fold the uncovered border of dough over the filling and pleat it at regular intervals.
The final act
Slide the parchment paper with the assembled tart onto a baking sheet.
Bake approximately 32 minutes until the crust is crisp. Check after 30 minutes of baking.
Take out of the oven, cut and serve.
I love this tart: it is surprisingly delicate in flavor and the creaminess of ricotta makes it rich without being heavy. The crazy dough offers a rustic support to the duo.
Check out the Unearthed blog party page
1 The book's page on the publisher's site
2 Alexandra Risen's Facebook page and Instagram account @alexandrarisen
3 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Twitter • Facebook • Tumblr • Pinterest • Instagram
4 Garden Nasturtium on my writing blog
5 Candy onions from my CSA box
6 English version of Artusi's cookbook
7 Post with recipe for Carrot and fromage blanc tart
8 Beck's Bakery, Arcata
9 Capay Mills
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the torta salata con cipolle e ricotta audio file [mp3].
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FTC disclosure: I have received the linen free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.