Once a two-room lumberman’s cottage back in the 1860s, today what was first converted into a farm house and now is a weekend home for the Ferrantella family features lush gardens with cascades of brightly colored blooming plants such as lilies and hydrangeas. But beyond that, in the backyard and then further away along a tree-lined path leading into the back acres are vegetable gardens overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, basil, sunflowers (or at least those not eaten by very hungry ground hogs) and tomatillos.
The gardens are the project of Kyle Ferrantella, who with his parents and two older brothers, has spent weekends and summers at this house on Pier Road in Coloma, Michigan just north of St. Joseph and a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan. His earliest memories of the family’s Michigan weekends are gardening and completing outdoor chores with his father, TJ who is also an avid gardener.
“Kyle, our youngest son, and these gardens were born in the same year—1997 and his interest in plants started with frequent trips to the now closed Limberlost Nursery,” says TJ, noting that his three sons were raised between Pier Road and the family home in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood.
“I remember mortaring the path here when I was about five—I think my dad was trying to give us something else beyond the city experience, ” says Kyle.
The emphasis on country living established a career path.
“The Circle Garden behind the garage was Kyle’s first garden, which he set up in the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school,” says his dad. “His objective was to establish a fully organic garden and, perhaps, sustain himself with produce from the garden. Since our soils is sandy, he augmented the soil with truckloads of manure from Blessing’s Farm on Hagar Shore Road. Kyle started The Back Garden by clearing the entire area of trees and scrub. This is a production vegetable garden that uses the same methods and techniques that Michigan State University uses at its research farms. Kyle’s perspective on plants, gardening, and agriculture was heavily influenced by Monte Don’s book The Complete Gardener.”
After graduating from Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, Ferrantella moved to the Pier Road house which stands on a 5-acre lot on a round-the-year basis. He recently completed his Associate’s Degree in Fruit and Vegetable Crop Management at Southwest Michigan University which included classes through Michigan State University in plant biology, plant pathology, horticulture and entomology or the study of insects. This fall he’ll start his junior year at Andrews University where he plans to earn a degree in agriculture technology.
Ferrantella also works at the 350-acre Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC) on Hillandale Road in Benton Harbor. According to their website, they’re located in the most horticulturally diverse region of the state and the work done there includes breeding several types of fruit and conducting variety evaluations of numerous fruits and vegetables as well as evaluating production practices, including the use of high tunnels for fruits and vegetables.
“It’s one of Michigan State University’s research farms,” says Ferrantella whose projects at SWMREC include working on the hybridization of different varieties of peppers.
The farming aspect is completed by the addition of poultry.
“Once Kyle moved here fulltime, adding chickens seemed to be the natural thing to do,” says his dad. “They live in what was initially constructed as a tree house for our sons. The tree house required absolutely no modification to be used as a chicken house so it worked out well.”
Besides taking classes and growing a masses of veggies, Ferrantella sells his produce from the farm he calls Pier Road Produce at the Niles Artisan Market and also from his home. Over the years, though he’s still intent on making a living from the soil, his goal has morphed in some ways.
“When I first started out I would have told you I wanted a large farm with hundreds of acres,” says Ferrantella. “But you basically have to inherit a farm or have a lot of money to have a big farm. Now it seems like the way to make a living farming is to find a niche and mine right now is growing tomatillos.”
Also known as Mexican husk tomatoes, tomatillos are small green fruit encased within a paper-like covering that despite the name aren’t tomatoes at all. Instead of sweet and juicy, they are tart and firm. Frequently used in Mexican dishes, tomatillos have quite a history and can be traced back 52 million years to the Patagonian region of Argentina.
Ferrantella uses tomatillos to make salsa and also, along with other vegetables from his garden, giardiniera or Italian pickled tomatoes which can be used on sandwiches, particularly Italian beef, as a spread on crackers or as a topping for grilled meats and fish. His mother, Karen, takes whatever vegetables he’s grown to make such dishes as the family favorite, stuffed peppers.
In some ways, the Ferrantella property has come full circle to when the Pratt family owned a multi-acre farm here back in the late 1800s and early 1900s before they turned their land into a large resort that closed in the 1950s.
“It’s great place for farming,” says Ferrantella. “My brother got me a job landscaping in Chicago one summer that paid well and I thought, oh I can make money playing in the dirt.”
Kyle Ferrantella’s Giardiniera (Italian Pickled Vegetables)
1 celery rib
5 to 6 tomatillos, husk removed and cut into small chunks
12 pearl onions or one large sweet onion, diced small
12 pitted green olives
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
1 small jalapeno pepper
1/4 cup salt for the brine
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon dried oregano or 3 tablespoons fresh oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Remove the seeds and ribs from the red, yellow and jalapeno peppers. Cut into 2 inch strips and then 1/2 inch slices.
Cut the celery and carrot in quarters and cut in 1/2 inch slices.
Cut the pearl onion in half or the sweet onion into a small dice
Cut the cauliflower in quarters and cut out the core and large stem. Break the florets into pieces about the same size of the other vegetables.
Place the green, red and serrano peppers, celery, carrots, onion, tomatillos and cauliflower in a bowl. Stir the salt into enough water to cover the vegetables and pour the water into the bowl to cover the vegetables completely. Add more water if necessary.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.
The next day drain salty water and rinse vegetables well.
Cut the olives in half.
Mix the garlic, oregano, black pepper and olives in a bowl. Pour in vinegar and olive oil and mix well. Pour the mixture over the vegetables and mix well.
Spoon the giardiniera into a large jar, fill to the top with the oil mixture and seal the jar tightly.
Refrigerate for 2 days before eating.
Giardiniera will keep in the refrigerator of at least 2 weeks.
Karen’s Stuffed Peppers
2 pounds lean ground beef
1 pound ground turkey
Brown rice prepared and set aside to cool ( I double the recipe using 2 cups rice and 4 cups water)
6-8 medium to large green peppers (use as many as need to use up the meat mixture once prepared)
1 1/2 – 2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 large onion,–chopped and sautéed until onion appears clear in color
3 large cloves garlic minced and sautéed ( add to onions just before they are done–so you don’t burn the garlic)
1 1/2 – 2 cups grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried red pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground pepper
I – 2 jars of pasta sauce
Cut off the tops of the green peppers and clean out the seeds. Place peppers in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes. (This is particularly helpful to do before cooking the stuffed peppers especially if the peppers are very hard) You just want to blanche them so the skins are a little less tough before you bake the peppers. Don’t over boil them!
Once they are blanched, place pepper upright in a glass baking dish so they fit next to one another. add about a 1/2 cup water to the bottom of dish.
Combine the ground beef and turkey, Add the cooked and cooled brown rice, chopped tomatoes, sautéed onion and garlic, parmesan cheese, oregano, basil, red pepper, and pepper and about 1/2 the jar of pasta sauce. Mix together thoroughly.
Stuff each pepper with the rice/meat mixture until it is level with the top of the pepper. Top each pepper with about a 1/4 cup of pasta sauce. Tightly cover with tin foil and bake about 1 hour. After one hour, take off foil and bake another 1/2 hour. You may want to add a little more pasta sauce to the tops of each pepper during this last half hour of cooking! (Internal cooking temp of pepper should be at least 160 degrees)
Let peppers sit for about 10 minutes once done, then take some of the juices from the bottom and drizzle over peppers before serving.
Note– I add plain Greek yogurt on the side to my peppers when eating them.
Fried Green Tomatillos with Peach Habanero Sauce
From Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen by Eddie Hernandez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018; $30).
8 tomatillos, husks removed, rinsed and patted dry
1 cup whole milk
½ cup sour cream
1 large egg
1 cup self-rising cornmeal mix
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil for frying
Peach-Habanero Sauce (recipe below)
Cut tomatillos into ¼-inch-thick slices.
Whisk together both types of cornmeal and salt in a second shallow bowl. Place a cooling rack in a sheet pan. Line a second sheet pan with paper towels.
Heat ½-inch of vegetable oil in a Dutch oven or a large heavy pot or skillet over medium-high heat until it is 350 degrees.
One at a time, dredge the tomatillo slices in the cornmeal mixture, dip in the egg wash, dip again in the cornmeal mixture and set on the rack. Gently place a few slices at a time into the hot oil; do not crowd. Fry on both sides until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel-lined sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining slices, allowing the oil to return to 350 degrees between each batch.
Serve hot with Peach-Habanero Sauce for dipping.
1 ripe peach, peeled and sliced small, about ½ cup
½ habanero, stemmed and minced (remove some or all of the seeds and membranes for less heat)
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and mix until blended. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Refrigerate until ready to use.