Marmalade, Love, Arugula, and One Last Flower

This week's recipe was originally published in our Homestead Journal, way back in 2016, in an issue titled Muddy Boots and Lacey Valentines. I've always loved that title, the way it sums up February so neatly. The juxtaposition of sweet (sometimes cloying) sentiment and the messy, muddy realities of mountain living. And while this February has not been particularly muddy, it's nevertheless still a perfect time to make this marmalade. Whether or not the rain falls. Whether or not anyone is buying you roses, or writing you love letters. It's a good time for this marmalade, because citrus are in season, and because marmalade especially, uniquely among preserves, walks that delicate balance between sweetness and bitterness; good medicine for a time of the year when romantic love is marketed and commercialized as something altogether lighter, sweeter, and fluffier than it is. It's the perfect time, because, while it isn't particularly muddy this year, it has been quite windy; that recent windstorm toppled trees, and knocked half the crop off the blood orange tree. (I foresee much of this marmalade in our future.) For myself, when I love, when I make jam, I want not just the taste of sugar, but the rind, too, the parts that are often discarded or dismissed; too much, to pithy, too strong, too tough. I want to simmer the bitter peel in sweetness until it is transformed; not subsumed, not hidden, but elevated, integrated, made useful at last, seen and tasted. I want the wholeness of the fruit, the whole heart, the backstory, the history, even the potential for loss, that hides in plain sight at the center of every beloved thing. I want an old spirit, I want zest, I want acidity and complexity. I want to stir a pot with a wooden spoon, savor the complexities with sourdough toast, as steam rises from my morning coffee. I'm in love with this marmalade, basically, is what I'm saying. Among other things.

Muddy or not, there's been plenty to do on the homestead. When we are not harvesting citrus, or picking up windblown redwood branches, or canning delicious metaphors, we have been enjoying the short, warm days in the garden. The weeds are going off! The delicious edible weeds, and the pesky, prickly weeds. The weeds that are flowers and the weeds whose names I haven't learned yet. The weeds we feed to chickens and the weeds we heap in piles right there in the garden, and the weeds (like oxalis) that we cart far, far away, or burn, to prevent their tenacious corms from taking over the prime growing space. So many weeds. This recent warm spell has really shown us how much temperature matters to young plants; plants both weedy and vegetable, that languished for weeks and even months, are all of a sudden rocketing (there's an arugula pun, y'all) towards maturity. In some cases, this means that the plants are bolting without providing much produce (I'm looking at you, arugula, and it isn't even funny). This can happen if the plants are cold and slow for a long time- as soon as warm weather hits, they bolt, sending up flower stalks in a desperate bid at reproductive success. We've been eating lots of arugula, too, before the flower buds open, trying to make the most of the crop. The lettuce seems to be faring better, forming nice heads, not bolting. We're not sure what the difference is; perhaps we seeded the arugula too densely? but we're making note, filing away this small mystery in the messy filing cabinet of memory (and maybe even writing it down in a garden journal, too, so we can refer back to it later). The peas are loving this sun and warmth, with thick stems and strong tendrils twined about their supports. Cover crops are coming along, onions and garlic are of course still hidden beneath the soil, but the greens look nice. Did you know that you can harvest some of the onion greens for use as green onions, without damaging the bulb? The greens are tender and sweet, perfect for scissoring up like chives, atop soup, salads, or whatever seems to yearn for an allium accent.

It's pruning time on the homestead as well. We call it winter pruning, but even here, at the beginning of February, we can see the buds swelling, popping, beginning their spring already. Even the apples, who seem to barely have lost their summer leaves, are already beginning to show their flower buds, and the plums have been about this early bloom for weeks already. The long, straight shoots that we cut off of apple and plum and pear especially, make wonderful, pliable garden sticks; we save them to make pea and bean trellises for the veggie garden. If you stick them right into the ground after pruning, they may even manage to pull up enough moisture to continue their flowering cycle, and some tenacious sticks may even root into the garden soil! This is less than ideal, really, but it is nice to get to see the flowers open, and the bees appreciate it. Mostly, it is just a fragrant, tender reminder of how much life there is, pulsing through every part of this world; even the branches that we cut away, who have lost their trunk and even their very roots, still try to find a way to put out one last flower.

By Jessica Tunis