The Random Garden: Spring

Nasturtiums bloom yellow and orange–almost red–under their spreading green umbrella shades, covering the piles of landscape clippings that otherwise just sit and decompose next to the trash bins. The sunny flowers form hillsides. They wink at us as we walk by.

Portugal’s municipalities offer sometimes-green and sometimes-brown bins for lixo (trash) on every corner in the towns, along with recycling bins in yellow (plastic and metal), green (glass), and blue (cardboard and paper) at every other trash site. For reasons unclear to us, folks will haphazardly throw their castoffs at the bins rather than into them at times, but, for the most part, this communal waste system works fairly well.

But from the organic waste (old palm fronds in winter, olive cuttings in the fall, various hackings year round) comes a salad–the addition of nasturtium’s sunset colors to the green leaves we have growing in our back yard.

In pots and patches of the bed carefully laid out and edged with recycled bamboo shoots, the first seedlings sparkled then burst forth out of the ground at the beginning of April. We had already resurrected arugula and sorrel that we’d picked throughout March, to toss into salads and top a tart or two. Now these unexpected bounties joined with what looks to be the second year of our Random Garden.

Straight out of the compost heap, the Random Garden surprised us last year with its spontaneous fecundity. Since we moved in, we had collected food scraps, such as eggshells, coffee grounds, lemon rinds, onion peelings, and potato skins, pushing them into a corner of the yard to ferment and coalesce. Last spring, we spread the rich murk from the bottom of the pile onto the beds in an earnest attempt to turn our sandy dune of a back yard into workable humus. The year before, we’d failed to grow more than four 4-inch zucchini in this sad plot–never in my life have I witnessed a *failed* zucchini crop! But once a healthy layer went on top of the old bed, we planted chiles and lettuces…but again, little grew well.

Until the tomatoes came. And the squash. And the pumpkins. All sprouted from the seeds left dormant in the compost. After a few weeks our back yard was nearly subsumed by a sprawling abóbora (a general name for squash but most often pumpkin-like) that interlaced with two (or three?) vines of butternut-type squash. A chorus of 20-odd tomato plants nearly took over the tea rose climbing on the back wall. In the fall, we harvested two big abóboras and several squash, and we’d enjoyed throughout the summer dozens of the local coração (heart) tomatoes that I could have sold as organic heirlooms back in the States.

And now, our Random Garden II looks to be off to a roaring start: Tomatoes and squash have returned, joined by what looks to be a potato plant or two. Will we get a purple sprouting broccoli too? The coming weeks will tell.

In the meantime, I’ll make my version of hummus in honor of the newly fruitful soil outside. Several years ago, I read a great recipe for hummus in Cook’s Illustrated, and over the years have adapted it and evolved it to my tastes and what I have on hand that’s fresh and tempting. With the addition of sorrel leaves and za’tar spice blend, my current hummus captures the zing of the spring, perfect to enjoy with a glass of Arinto to toast the coming Random Garden of Summer.

Hummus with Sorrel and Za’tar

Hummus com Azeda e Zaatar

1 jar or can of cooked chickpeas (410g to 540g with liquid or 14.5-ounce can), drained and rinsed until foam disappears

1 cup sorrel leaves, washed and roughly torn

1 garlic clove, minced

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1-3 tablespoons tahini paste, to taste, loosened with a tablespoon of warm water

1 teaspoon za’tar spice blend (or thyme)

at least 3 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Pulse chickpeas in food processor briefly 3-5 times until roughly chopped.
  2. Add sorrel leaves, garlic, lemon zest, and lemon juice, and pulse briefly 3-5 times. Scrape the sides of the bowl before adding further ingredients.
  3. Add tahini paste and water, and pulse continously for 15 seconds.
  4. Add za’tar spice blend, and one tablespoon of olive oil. Pulse 1 or 2 times.
  5. With the food processor running, drizzle remainder of olive oil through the chute slowly until the hummus has reached the desired consistency. To my ear, it changes tone to a light “thwacking” sound when 3-4 tablespoons have been added, but this depends on what size can or jar of chickpeas is used, as well as how much water comes along with the tahini.