By Jenny Neyman
In any other setting, calling someone “the compost king” might be grounds for taking offense. But when it’s said in the middle of Don Thompson’s garden off Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kenai, amid expanses of potato plants that produce 4,000 pounds of spuds annually, a thicket of knee-high strawberries, hearty berry bushes and wrist-thick fruit trees, and hothouses holding Alaska wonders of corn, sweet potatoes, beans and sunflowers, the comment was said and received with the utmost sincerity.
“I just love dirt,” said Kay Gardener, a volunteer with the Central Peninsula Garden Club, wiggling her bare toes into the nutrient-rich soil Thompson produces in his
hay-bound compost heap for use in feeding his expansive garden. “And he is like the compost king. Look at his pile there, he’s gone to a different level.”
Composting is how Thompson and Gardener met, years ago at a workshop on the topic sponsored by the club. On Saturday, it was a club- and Soldotna Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event that brought them together again. Thompson volunteered his garden as a stop on a Central Peninsula Garden Tour, and Gardener volunteered to be a tour guide to greet the steady stream of people stopping to marvel at the extent of his green thumb.
“To go in there and see sunflowers and corn in Alaska is amazing,” said one visitor.
That kind of response is exactly why the club wanted to do the tour, to dispel the myths that Alaska isn’t suitable for any agriculture beyond potatoes and cabbages.
“We’ve had a lot of people, all different levels, come by. Some who are gardeners and some who aren’t, and are just coming to see. That’s what we do is inform people of what grows here and how to do it. And there’s so many talented people around here — it’s amazing,” Gardener said.
She volunteered to be a greeter at Thompson’s site in part due to their friendship, and in part to be able to listen in on his conversations and perhaps glean some tips for her own garden. At Gardener’s house, they’re working toward being self-sustainable, she said. Because, of course, she enjoys agriculture.
“Yes, I’m a gardener. By name, and it’s a hobby, too. We raise our own meat and I do all vegetables now,” she said. “I like to visit Don because every time you talk to him he’s just a fountain of information and he’s a very generous individual,” she said.
Sure enough, every time a visitor was drawn in to the soft-spoken Thompson, they came away with some seeds of knowledge cultivated from Thomposn’s 40-some years of agricultural experience in Kenai.
In his hothouse holding onions and leeks, Thompson pointed out that the onions were almost ready to pick, with the papery yellow orbs bulging from the soil. The tall green tops may look droopy, but that really just means they’re about ripe.
“Once they’re lying over they’re just about ready to harvest. They’ll push themselves right out of the ground,” Thompson said.
At his strawberry patch, which he started by digging up wild strawberries in Nikiski, transplanting them and
nursing them into a thriving thicket, the berries might look under ripe by their pinkish color, but the fruit is bursting with flavor and juice, even if the color never turned the expected deep red of store-bought strawberries.
“That’s about the color they get right there,” he said, holding up a pinkish-red berry. “It looks like they’re not ripe, but try it. Pretty good, huh?”
His berry bushes and fruit trees are planted in old tires.
“Number one it keeps the water in, and fertilizer it keeps it right there. And in the wintertime when the voles come up underneath it they can’t get in there and go around the tire,” he said.
Much of his knowledge has been cultivated through his own experience — years of experimentation, trial
and error. His hearty crop of leeks is a new experiment, this year, he said, as are the row of sweet potatoes in another hothouse.
How else do you know what works and what doesn’t if you don’t give it a try?
That’s common advice in the gardening world, both during the planting and growing season and now, as plants ripen and harvest begins. It’s important to be open to new ideas to make the most of whatever bounty comes, whether it’s from your own garden, gifted from a green-thumbed friend or purchased at a local farmer’s market, said Michael Roddey, a chef, assistant professor and chair of the culinary arts program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Roddey spends time in the summers visiting farmers markets throughout the state, as part of a Chef at the Market program of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture, setting up a travel kitchen and demonstrating ways to cook whatever produce and products are locally produced.
“The purpose is to promote local produce and show people what they can do with things. Like kohlrabi is one that’s sometimes foreign to people, so we started off the day with a pea and kohlrabi salad. My approach to it is getting to the market and seeing what they have and what they have in abundance, because it does me no good to bring over two cucumbers and use them if people can’t buy them here,” he said.
Roddey was cooking, educating and entertaining vendors and shoppers at the Soldotna Saturday Market on
Aug. 4. He got there early, took stock of what was being sold — fresh peas, kohlrabi, cabbage and kale being among the offerings — and built a menu from those ingredients.
Other than some alder-smoked sea salt he had obtained from a vendor in Sitka, he had no fancy ingredients under his poufy white chef’s hat — just some cooking oil, a few different vinegars, some judiciously applied Tabasco sauce, salt, pepper and lemon pepper. Instead of overpowering ingredients, he used simple seasonings and good cooking techniques and let the food speak for itself.
“You can go fancy with the local food but you don’t need to overpower it. Because it’s so fresh and it has the inherent nutritional flavor, you don’t need much. Allow the food to speak for itself, don’t overthink it, and don’t be afraid to experiment,” he said.
He started the afternoon by blanching some fresh peas, then adding shredded kohlrabi and onion on top to wilt down and soften up a bit — but not so much that the crunch is stewed to mush — and seasoning with a little salt. He divided that and flavored one batch with some lemon thyme, and another with some basil pesto. For another dish he sautéed some kale, starting with a cheaper cooking oil — canola, safflower or vegetable — and finishing with a bit of olive oil.
“Vegetable oil, canola oil have a higher smoke point than olive oil, and olive oil is more expensive. So whenever we talk about sautéing, by the time you achieve the temperature in the olive oil, you now start to really waste that high-priced item and you start to lose the flavor, it breaks down. So the way I teach my students is we cook with something else and finish with olive oil,” he said.
Another trick is to season — though sparingly — as you cook.
“As you add things to the pan, add a little bit of seasoning. I think one of the things people found as they ate
this today is when I cook food it doesn’t just taste good when you first put it in your mouth. So many times you’ll eat something and it tastes good but as you chew it’s sort of gone, it goes flat and doesn’t have any flavor because the seasonings aren’t properly applied. We can cook something and add a bunch of salt at the very end to bring up some good flavor, but it lacks depth and dimension,” he said.
Roddey’s less-is-more approach served to retain flavor and texture in the dish, rather than trying to overcompensate for overcooking by overseasoning. The cooking process and seasoning was just enough to meld everything together, but each element retained a bit of its own character in each bite.
“See? That’s crazy good,” Roddey said.
That wasn’t just his interpretation. Vern Kalp, a “fishing fool” visitor from the Lower 48, was impressed with Roddey’s samples, and the farmer’s market in general.
“My daughter’s a chef,” he said. “Anytime I see a farmer’s market I stop in. You can’t find this in the stores. This is really neat.”
Evelyn Piatt came to sample some of the peas Roddey had gotten from her daughter’s stand at the farmer’s market. And Taylor Carver, a student at Aurora Borealis Charter School in Kenai, stopped by Roddey’s booth with her family. The peas were a big hit with the kids, much to the delight of Roddey.
“That’s the winner. That’s what makes the big difference. If we’re able to influence the younger generation and get them hooked where she says, ‘This is my favorite.’ — that’s awesome. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter how many 40-and-ups we hit or 30-and-ups we hit, we need to influence that younger generation because they’re the ones that have the world after we’re gone,” Roddey said.
It’s important to teach kids, or anyone unaware, that locally grown produce is worth the effort and the price, even if it costs more than a hamburger from a fast food joint, he said. Growing, cooking, storing and consuming your own food is preferable to shipping it in from elsewhere, especially in Alaska with the carbon emissions needed to transport items from the Lower 48 or beyond, Roddey said.
“People don’t realize what that means to the carbon footprint of that half a pint of strawberries that makes it into your supermarket basket in December or January. That’s traveled from Chile, come across the waters on a plane — which is the worst way to transport food. Then, for us, it hits Seattle or what have you, then it probably goes on a truck to a plane, or it goes on a barge to Alaska, then it goes on a truck to Kenai or whatever. It’s unfortunate,” Roddey said.
“The more that people can do to not overbuy and have to throw things out and continue to put things in a plastic bag landfill, the more smarter choices that we make — in recycling and purchasing. The beginning use to the end use, the more we can link that chain together and make it holistic, the better,” he said. “I think one common mistake is not knowing what to do with what you have. The season all culminates at the same time. And not capitalizing on the bounty and not knowing what to do with it would be a shame.”