Farmin' ABC's: Aphids, Borscht, and Caterpillars

Aphid Borscht?


"Oregano Doesn't Have Legs, Dad"

That's what my 10-year old daughter said. She's right, you know, and she should know. At harvest time, I bring in bushels of wholesome if uninspiring vegetables from our 15 by 30-foot garden. You might think that "bushels" is a figure of speech, but just ask my indentured laborers: my son and daughter. They will confirm every word, especially that "bushel" part. 

Well, "uninspiring" is perhaps a tad misleading, for mounds of produce piled on our kitchen counters, table, floors and hallways has in fact inspired me to many a great culinary adventure. For instance, take my beets. Please. (Sorry, Mr. Youngman.)  We have a clay-laden soil that beets evidently love, and they showed us their affection annually. Only problem is, nobody in the family really likes beets. I've planted them because they grow so well. Not the best reason, perhaps, but what can I say?  I'm a cheapskate, and free food by the hundredweight really appeals to me.

And, in the case of beets with the family, to no one but me.

There are not a lot of ways to prepare beets: boiled, served with vinegar (I'm a former Vermonter, eh-yah.); cold, in beet salad like my Dad made; and in borscht. I'm sure my children rue the day I learned to make borscht from a pastor in Chester, Vermont.  He'd invited me for lunch, and put a bowl of (I -didn't-quite-know-what-but-Mom-always-taught-me-to eat-whatever-I-was-served-especially-when-I-was-a-guest) soup in front of me.  I tried some of the hot purple stew, declining the sour cream proffered by my host.  As I had no expectations, I was doubly delighted with the taste, and polished off several bowlsful. There was no need to feign appetite; it was really good.

That was the start of my avocation as The Baron of Borscht.

To make borscht, you also need cabbage. That's easy enough to come up with, as it's always cheap to buy in autumn. Alternatively, you can scavenge along a rural roadside for cabbages that have fallen off farm trucks. (Don't knock it until you've tried it. You are going to cook it anyway, so calm down.)

You also need onions, some spices such as basil (fresh if possible), oregano, a bay leaf, pepper, and salt. I add a little olive oil for flavor, instead of throwing in some meat like my pastor friend did. His wife added a secret ingredient: about a cup of tomato paste. This, she maintained, improved not only the taste but also the color of the borscht, reducing the soup's otherwise intimidating purple to a rather inviting magenta.
If you are unusually inexperienced in the kitchen, I will add that you also need water.

Boil all this up, and there you are: cheap, healthy, ethnic and plentiful. I like borscht, and I've had some of the best, and made by genuine Russians, too. At Holy Trinity Monastery, the beautiful Orthodox church and farm in Jordanville, New York, try to stick around long enough for the monks to ask you for dinner. They may make the best borscht in North America. I have Polish acquaintances that would dispute this, however, one going so far as to attempt to instruct me in distinguishing between different types of borscht. This apparently can become almost an exercise in taxonomy: there is white borscht, red borscht, something pronounced "baar-scht" as opposed to "boor-scht," and on and on.

But nobody but me makes aphid borscht, and back to my confession.

My particular variation on the borscht theme is to add broccoli, another vegetable my soil (if you can call it that) will yield in quantity. There are zillions of ways to cook broccoli, of course (and don't forget raw, with dips or in salads). Still, when you fill an entire freezer with broccoli and there is still more a-comin', you have to use this green stuff up somehow.  I, of course, toss it in the soup, which includes my minestrone, pea soup, and lentil soup as well as borscht. 

Now being a natural kind of guy, I do not use pesticides. No need for any chemical bug-killers with broccoli or beets, or, for that matter, anything else that I grow: lettuce, green beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes or even raspberries. Nope, just good-old-fashioned cow manure, or grass clippings, or compost, or some cheap fertilizer from Wal-Mart. Or all of the above. You too can be drowning in fresh food.

Here's a trick to double your broccoli harvest: after you pick the first few batches of florets, let the broccoli plant stay rooted and growing in your garden. It will probably bloom again, and maybe even again after that. Broccoli is tough and fairly frost-resistant. I live just south of the Canadian border, remember, and even I can get multiple broccoli harvests up to Thanksgiving.

If you do not spray your broccoli, you do get some wildlife living in it. Broccoli caterpillars, always quite small, happen to be exactly the color of broccoli itself. They are thus quite invisible to the salad eater. Fortunately. Or not, depending on your point of view. My daughter wishes to share with the world a Great Truth that she believes she has personally uncovered for all time: broccoli caterpillars turn yellow when cooked.  So the simple way to get rid of them is to lightly steam your broccoli, and the now-yellow critters will be easy to spot.

At this juncture, you must think that I wantonly fed my family half of the world's insect species. That is only partly true.

We did eat the aphids.

Not intentionally, mind you. It's just that aphids are extremely tiny, and they literally stick together and to broccoli stems, up under the florets where they know you are not looking. Even cooking fails to dislodge them, for their little boiled corpses are to be found in their hundreds still clinging to broccoli spears.

Some will fall off, and float in, say, your borscht. And this brings us to the day when my daughter bravely insisted to me that there were bugs in her soup.

"No," I asserted with all my science-teacher authority, "Those are not bugs. That's oregano."

My daughter was utterly unconvinced, and upon looking very, very closely, uttered the line, "Oregano doesn't have legs, Dad."

So she was right.  Big deal!?  Well, yes. I realized that in my organic zeal, I had failed to be fair to my family. Perhaps it is not right to feed your kids bugs.  (This story got out, by the way, and echoes of it can still be heard throughout the school district.)

I came up with a chemical-free solution, though: a week or so before broccoli harvest, I will drop one of my many unemployed, idle and hungry spiders onto each broccoli plant. Returning as soon as the next day, there are no more aphids to be seen. Yes, I like spiders. Insect bites annoy me more than most people, and insect damage to crops pleases no one. So when anybody finds a spider roaming idly around the house, they stick an upturned glass over it to save it for me. What they do not know is that I put these spiders in the garage and the basement, where they quietly prosper, waiting to be called up to the big leagues outdoors. My supply is thus assured.

I'd like to add that spiders are basically quite harmless little guys. Even tarantulas are incapable of doing any serious harm to a person, James Bond movies notwithstanding. If you are very sensitive to bug bites, have a known medical condition, or handle Black Widows, the rules are of course different.  But even I do not actually handle the spiders. You can move them about to your heart's content with a cup, a scrap of cardboard, or gloved hands.

Spiders in your garden do your bug-killing with Green Beret precision. Early morning outback in my yard, you can see the dew drops on several dozen spider webs. I think of them as my employees. They eat insects, and they work cheap. Put them to work, and sit back. Your broccoli, like mine, will no longer shelter the bugs that your little princess won't, for some reason, eat.

Copyright 2001 and prior years by Andrew W. Saul.

Andrew Saul is the author of the books FIRE YOUR DOCTOR! How to be Independently Healthy (reader reviews at ) and DOCTOR YOURSELF: Natural Healing that Works. (reviewed at )

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Andrew W. Saul


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