The Zoe tree

The Zoe tree, a story of love and growing vegetables

Here’s my Times Union story from August. See it on their site here, or see below. This story goes along with Make Your Own Quinoa Bowls, Tomato Salad with Pickled Onions and Herbs, and Fresh Peach Milkshakes.

There’s a tree in our backyard. It isn’t big by tree standards, but it’s one that stands large in my heart. I like to admire this cherry blossom tree from my kitchen window. In summer, I can see its round green-ness. In fall, the leaves are warm and red and I love to see its stark branches, dark against white snow come winter. The real prize, of course, are the bright pink blossoms that, even after many years, still surprise me every spring. This tree I purchased on a particularly hard day when my daughter Zoe was in middle school. She was crying. I was crying. (If you’ve had middle school children, you know.) The tree was a consolation for me, a comfort. We call it the Zoe tree and I love that tree so much. 

The Zoe tree

I’m writing about the tree because it’s one of the things that has grown strong in our backyard. We haven’t had much luck with other things. The flowering bushes, the many varieties of trees we’ve planted, they don’t all make it. Leaves turn brown. Spots appear. Whatever we do, it’s wrong. It’s the same with vegetables. We’ve tried everything from eggplant to lettuce and broccoli, and nothing lives like that tree does. It thrives. There are all kinds of ways I could compare that tree to my own Zoe. My favorite though, is despite hardships, they both bloom. 

Aside from my Zoe tree, a few plants do survive. There are a peppering of flowers, tall grasses, an old wisteria vine. It’s enough to look like a garden, even if we have to dig up the plants and trees that don’t make it each year. This year, among the survivors, are a group of very happy tomato plants. Imagine! Tomatoes growing in our own backyard! We actually have a harvest. 

Here’s a few recipes, featuring summer produce, celebrating both children and plants that grow and bring joy. 

First, a salad. This recipe answers the age-old question: What the heck do we do with all the tomatoes? There are a few different shapes and colors in our garden: small red globes and bright yellow pear tomatoes. Elliot has been sauteeing them, to stuff into turkey sandwiches, or adding them, chopped, to instant ramen. Zoe dips cherry tomatoes in pesto. Paul eats them directly from the vine and I love to slice those tomatoes, still warm from the sun, and make them into salads of all kinds. The salad recipe here is strictly for tomato lovers and doesn’t mess around with any leafy greens. The tomatoes here are simply dressed with good olive oil (the extra virgin kind), a crumble of salty feta cheese and a healthy handful of oregano. Tomatoes are often only paired with sweet basil; when a change is in order, seek out fresh oregano for its strong and slightly bitter flavor. There’s a twist here, in puckery and sweet pickled onions. This dish, comprised only of those beloved tomatoes and a few tasty bits, is good alongside so many things. It’s beautiful to look at, too. 

The quinoa bowls were born from an idea Zoe herself gave to me. If your kids are anything like mine, they love to eat out. They go out for coffee, for smoothies, for ice cream and sandwiches, even when there’s a full refrigerator. One evening, Zoe said she was going out to buy a bowl for dinner. A bowl with quinoa, chicken and vegetables. Wait a second, I said, hold on. We have all of those things, right in that refrigerator. And so we made bowls from what was in the fridge that night, and have improved upon it ever since. Bowls are more than the vessel that holds your morning cereal. It’s a dish, a collection of food that typically involves healthy stuff, like whole grains, leafy greens and vegetables, lean meat. Then, herbs, seeds, cheese and drizzles of dressing. The thing is, bowls are so great because you can lay out a bunch of healthy foods and let everyone make their own. And it’s served, of course, in a bowl, to hold all of the good things and the dressing that goes over it. Here, nutty, healthy quinoa goes along with lean chicken, red peppers, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and a tasty, creamy dressing. Use this recipe as a guide and create your own bowl station. As long as what you’re offering has lots of color, crunch and flavor, the bowls will be filling, appealing to the eye and taste good, too. 

Lastly, there’s a recipe here for something so very simple, it doesn’t really need a recipe. In summer, we eat pounds and pounds of peaches. We cannot get enough of them. When it’s not too hot, I like to bake peaches in pies and crisps. I have a recipe for a peach coffee cake. It’s been a summer, though, that begs for purchasing pies rather than baking them. Leave the baking to professionals, I say. Lately, any homemade desserts around our house are cool. So with an abundance of very ripe peaches, an overly warm kitchen and a sweet tooth, I made a few batches of fresh peach milkshakes. There’s a few things to know about making them best. First, buy good vanilla ice cream, the kind where you can see the little flecks of vanilla bean. Also, use locally grown, very ripe peaches, only because they are the sweetest and when they’re grown right here, why not? A tall glass of peach milkshake has creaminess, the right amount of sweetness and the right summery feel. There’s no judgment from anyone if you decide to skip over dinner and have the milkshake instead. 

Outside, the Zoe tree is still nice and green and strong and happy, nestled in the ground near our fence. The tomato plants are still giving fruit as well, and every day we go out to pull more to add to omelets, sandwiches and salads. Our daughter Zoe doesn’t make me cry anymore and there’s no running off to the garden store to calm myself with trees. Zoe is a beautiful, strong and independent young woman and just like the tree named after her, she continues to bloom and spread joy, every day.

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