There was no place for a garden in our small backyard without digging up the lawn, and I didn't want to do that. But there was an unused, dry fishpond, rather crude, that an earlier tenant had made by digging out a spot and hand-sculpting cement into place to form an oval pond. In the way of unsupported concrete, it had cracked widely in several places, making it incapable of holding water but suggesting to me a new use as a small, well-drained garden.
I imported soil and sheep manure from the ranch where I worked, mixed them thoroughly in my concrete-lined garden, watered, waited long enough to let the fertilizer mellow, and then planted seeds.
Since I was shoveling, hauling, and working the ground anyway, Laura asked me to prepare a flower bed in the front yard, and I also worked in fertilizer there. She wanted flowers through the spring and summer and to celebrate the birth of our first child in the fall.
I planted the flower garden near the front steps as I waited for seeds in the vegetable garden in the backyard to sprout.
The northern Sacramento Valley's hot, long summers are ideal for most crops. Before long, we harvested and ate a variety of vegetables from our garden.
I began to cook soups that took advantage of our crops and provided full meals for us. I cooked enough brown rice for Laura and me and, on occasion, guests. I boiled whatever vegetables were ready to harvest from our garden, snow or sugar snap peas, green beans, beets, kohlrabi, kale, collard greens, mustard greens (with careful attention to whether they were starting to get strong-flavored and therefore must be used sparingly), green onions, chives, yellow crookneck squash, zucchini, squash blossoms, tomatoes, and whole small carrots, or later, larger carrots that I cut up.
Timing was essential for the best- tasting soup. I put the vegetables that needed to cook longest into the boiling water first, and I put the quickest-cooking in last. While the vegetables simmered, I added tamari soy sauce, garlic, and sometimes, sparingly, nutritional yeast.
I didn't allow any of the vegetables to cook very long. I wanted them just short of fully cooked, so that they were still crisp and held their integrity as individual vegetables. The exception was tomatoes, which didn't hold together and spread their juices and seeds throughout the soup. It was as perfect as if I'd carefully planned it that way.
I didn't have room in our garden to grow corn, but generous friends had more corn coming from their gardens than they could eat , and I frequently sliced the kernels from the cobs with a sharp knife and added corn near the end of the cooking time.
I sprinkled grated cheese into the soup or put a generous layer onto each bowl. White cheddar cheese was my favorite, but any cheese we had available would do, and changing cheese brought variety to the soup, which varied further according to what vegetables I had harvested minutes before I added them to the pot. It was never the same twice.
I hammered together a table of plywood and 2-by-2's, and on many late afternoons or early evenings we ate in the backyard, enjoying bowls of hot soup while feasting our eyes and our noses on the brightly colored flowers in the center of the table, freshly picked from Laura's flower garden.
We gave thanks before, during, and after our meals for our vegetables and flowers, and for the memorable meals from our small, concrete-lined fishpond garden.
Often that summer, we continued to sit in the backyard after dinner as it got dark. Sounds of the small town around us drifted past trees and shrubs to where we sat. I told Laura that if we were very still and listened carefully, we could hear the vegetables in our fishpond garden growing for our next day's harvest. So we sat quietly and listened. One night, our first child, within weeks of being born, moved and adjusted her position. Laura said, "She's listening, too."
We were all quiet together. We were sure we heard the small sounds of life - growing, living - all around us, with us.
2 cups water
Two garlic cloves, chopped (use more or less, to taste)
Two cups fresh vegetables - whatever is available - cut into bite-sized pieces
1 level tablespoon nutritional yeast, optional (See note below. It adds flavor, but is easy to overdo. )
1/4 cup tamari soy sauce (Use more or less, to taste. See note below.)
2 ounces grated cheese (white cheddar or mozzarella preferred)
Bring water to a gentle boil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add garlic.
Add vegetables that require the longest cooking time first. For example, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and summer squash require up to 10 minutes. Add other vegetables in time to cook them through without overcooking. Kale should cook 3 or 4 minutes. Green onions can be cooked 2 or 3 minutes, but if they have a strong onion taste, cooking them longer will reduce the strength of the onion flavor. Spinach leaves require only a minute, and snow peas need to be cooked just long enough so that they're hot. If using fresh tomatoes, peel them before adding to the soup. (Peel a tomato by dipping it in boiling water for 15 seconds. Let cool slightly; the skin will easily peel off.)
After stirring in vegetables, cover the pan. Maintain a gentle simmer. It is not necessary for vegetables be completely submerged in the liquid if the pan is tightly covered.
After vegetables have cooked, stir in the nutritional yeast, if using. (Note: Do not use regular yeast, the kind packaged for making bread. Nutritional yeast is a different product; it's sold at natural foods stores. A substitute - also at natural foods stores - is brewer's yeast.)
Stir in tamari soy sauce (which is also available unsalted; some cooks may prefer that for a less salty taste). Simmer 1 additional minute.
Pour into a bowl and sprinkle grated cheese on top.
Makes 1 large serving.