Roof Garden Rocket (RECIPE)

I made a decision in early April that has improved my quality of life immensely: I broadcasted hundreds of lettuce seeds throughout two, 2 ft. x 6 ft. raised beds on my rooftop.

One bed was seeded with “European Mesclun Mix,” from the Baker Creek Seed Bank in Petaluma, California (a gift from my lovely fellow editor here at Civil Eats, Naomi Starkman). The second bed was filled with “Ultimate Salad Bowl,” from my other favorite place to procure seeds, the Hudson Valley Seed Library. For four weeks, the sun, soil and water has worked its magic. Now, I have delicious red and green curly lettuces, baby kale, radicchio, endive, mizuna, mustard greens, mache and orach (a relative of spinach). And arugula!

Now, every day for a week, I’ve gone up to the roof, picked a variety of greens and herbs, washed and prepared a salad — and if its nice weather and not too windy — I take some time to eat my lunch up there, where there’s a spectacular view of the city. This is a necessary respite for me: There is no wi-fi up on the roof, and I leave my phone down in the apartment, giving myself the time to be “out to lunch,” as Cathy Erway described in her apt post about our changing food vernacular on the newly relaunched markbittman.com.

I will admit that there was a round of initial work here — building the infrastructure of the garden, which required dedicated hours for bringing 1500 pounds of soil up six flights of stairs (I live in a tenement building with no elevator), along with the boards, tools and amendments to build and prepare the beds.

But the growing part is easy. To paraphrase Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen, if you grow good soil, the plants grow themselves. Good soil is all about compost, and I add a little seabird guano now and then, too. As an added bonus, when you are working with good soil sowing closely is not a problem — and you can thin seedlings out, eating the baby leaves and letting the other plants get bigger. For lettuce, even a windowsill is adequate for growing. There is no space too small for happy-in-dappled-sunlight greens, and there is absolutely no special expertise needed.

Having a garden in the city is not about meeting all of your food wants and needs. Instead its about highlighting what you eat — adding something freshly picked to a dish (it really does make light years of difference taste-wise), or for me, starting ten bush bean plants from seed so that I can get enough of a harvest by early June to make my pickled ‘Dilly Beans’ to give away and serve as snacks.

But its also about the simple pleasures of planting a seed and watching it grow. It is only now, when I have perennial herbs and plants re-appearing, garlic coming up from last fall’s planting, and towering Tuscan kale that tastes sweeter after the winter frost, do I realize the value of the hard work of building a garden on the roof: a place to work a little patch of soil in the city and reap abundant rewards.

Last fall I planted spinach and arugula, which stayed dormant under a cold frame throughout the winter. I removed the cold frame at the end of March and the plants bounded into giant green bushes that we ate from in April. Now, as the arugula goes to seed on one side of the garden (which is really not so bad, as the leaves haven’t lost much flavor and the flowers are delicious), I have even more arugula thriving and taking root in my lettuce bed. The unpredictability of gardening lay in its creative challenges: when life gives you too much arugula, make pesto!

Arugula Pesto

Serves 2

a big bunch of arugula
two cloves of garlic
1/2 lemon (or to your taste) or 2 tablespoons cider vinegar works, too
1/4 cup of olive oil
1-2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

In a food processor or mortal and pestle, combine the ingredients and process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning.

I served my arugula pesto over gnocchi, the recipe adapted from Mark’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I was serving two, so double it if you like more. When the gnocchi were done, I added shallot and butter to a cast iron pan with salt and pepper. After it cooked for a few minutes, I added a splash of white wine and let it cook off a moment, then added the gnocchi and about 1/2 cup of the arugula pesto. I cooked it until warm, then served the gnocchi with fresh-grated Parmesan.

Homemade Gnocchi

Serves 2

1 medium spud, preferably the starchy brown russet type
1/2 cup of flour
Hardy pinch of salt and pepper

1. Peel and boil the potato in a pot of water until soft, but not falling apart. Keep your boiling water, just turn it off for a few minutes. Put the potato in a bowl and mash it with a fork or process through a potato ricer if you have one (I don’t). The goal is to remove all of the lumps. Add the salt, pepper and flour and combine them well until you have a malleable dough. (I break down and use my hands here, which really helps produce a dough-like consistency.)

2. Roll out a section of the dough into a 1/2 thick tube, using a knife to cut it into one-inch pieces. Then use the back of a fork to press each one into a gnocchi, starting at one of the cut ends (How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has a great visual; see above). Start the heat under your water again, and you can begin dropping the gnocchi into the boiling water, without overlapping too much. They will cook for about a minute before rising to the surface, at which time you can place them on a plate, and they are ready to combine with your sauce and eat.

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