Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My first "greenhouse"

Well, my Christmas present has first little greenhouse! It probably barely qualifies as one, since it is basically a shelf with a fitted plastic cover. Had I been a little more crafty and resourceful, I probably could have rigged one up myself. But, I received some holiday spending money specifically designated to be used towards gardening supplies, so I decided to try it out. I seriously considered buying this asparagus harvesting knife, but restrained myself. A simple kitchen knife does just as well, and it's not like I'm harvesting from a giant patch!

I have read all the reviews of this type of mini-greenhouse, and people were generally positive. Most of the negative critiques had to do with the propensity to being blown over and that the cover wears out after a few seasons. But, for 50 bucks, I'm not sure what people want. Folks generally say to put it in a protected area, with bricks or heavy pots on the bottom, and it will stay in place. Part of me wanted to hold out until I had the space for a beautiful, more permanent structure. In buying this cheap, intermediate tool to extend my growing season, I am going against some commitments I recently made to myself about long-term investments. In the end, my desire for a different approach to seed-starting won out. Additionally, with space at a serious premium, this was just about the size of sunny real estate I was willing to give up in my yard.

For years, I have struggled with seed starting and getting a jump on the growing season. So many books instruct the beginning gardener to place little pots in a sunny window. But no matter how sunny the window, my seedlings usually turned out leggy. And now, with a curious toddler about, nothing lasts very long on a window sill. I tried grow lights as well, which worked a bit better, but made me feel a bit disconnected from the "natural" process. It all seemed too industrial, and walking into the eerie glow of my basement at seed starting time made me feel like I was on Star Trek.

I did find an interesting suggestion for seed starting in some now-forgotten gardening book I skimmed through at the library. The author suggested that, if you don't have your own greenhouse, just befriend the local independently-owned nursery. Give them your seed packets, have them start the little buggers, and then buy them back at the three dollar price tag that the nursery puts on all of their seedlings. She argued that the premium was worth the labor saved, and that also the nursery gets to sell more heirloom seedlings. I don't have the chutzpah to try this. Nor does one ever, in my opinion, get into gardening to avoid unnecessary labor. So, hopefully this mini-greenhouse will give me a jump start on the season. The shelves can be moved later, to give me more container-garden space. Or, one reviewer did say she grew a vertical container garden of lettuce and microgreens on the shelves, once the summer heat rendered the cover useless.

It is indeed still winter, but the solstice has passed and the new calendar year is upon us. This greenhouse is a harbinger of the new season, like the first sighting of a warbler or the new blades of chives pushing up through spring earth. I will have to wait for March for the latter two, but until then, I can plot my seed-starting on my four tiers of "growhouse".

Monday, December 28, 2009

Quality versus quantity

At my current job, I am occasionally required to provide breakfast for a working group of 16 colleagues. This is always a source of unnecessary anxiety for me: what should I make? what ingredients to use? how much to spend? Most people bring boxes of supermarket-purchased croissants, or Dunkin Donuts or McDonald's. On principle, I am opposed to giving any money to the fast food chains. The temptation is great though: it is quick and easy to procure at six in the morning. Nor do I work with a bunch of foodies -- everyone greets the Egg McMuffins with guilty joy. The same can't be said for the homemade granola I brought a few months ago.

I just read a great post on another garden blog, Daphne's Dandelions, wherein the author admitted that she didn't use her home-grown and carefully-stored produce for a Christmas potluck. She decided to cook with store-bought ingredients. Though she felt this really wasn't in the Christmas spirit, she wanted to save the good stuff for herself and her family. I face this same dilemma with the breakfast I must provide tomorrow. Do I stay up tonight baking bread, and bring in one of my precious cheeses or garden-grown preserves? Do I spend a lot of money on organic and locally-sourced ingredients for a crowd of people who are just as -- if not more -- happy with fast food? On the other hand, why would I serve my respected colleagues food of lesser quality than that which I would feed my own family? In the larger scheme of things, this is a small issue. I have many better things to ponder and wring my hands over. It's not like my own pantry is free of cheap supermarket staples, or that everything I put in my mouth is the hard-won fruit of my own labor. But the tension between quality and quantity is never more apparent to me than with these breakfasts.

It comes to this: no one likes to be up at 6 in the morning in a Chicago winter. I assume that most of us would rather be sipping coffee with our families. I want my colleagues to feel appreciated and valued, especially given the sacrifice they are making of their own time. The way I would demonstrate that appreciation to my own family would be with homemade food, usually a long time in the making. That being said, granola or homemade yogurt -- no matter how lovingly made-- won't be comfort food to a colleague used to more standard American breakfast fare. I am tempted to make McMuffin-like sandwiches with local eggs, home-baked biscuits and home-cured bacon. But I don't want to wake up at 4 in the morning to do so, and I couldn't bear it if it got a bad review. So I'm going to low-ball it with something sweet and rich: scones. These are a crowd-pleaser -- these scones were my mother's signature baked good at her bed and breakfast. They are quick to whip together -- especially if you bake them in a large circle scored into wedges, rather than individual rounds.

In place of the raisins, I will fold in some chopped figs that I preserved in a brandy-laced syrup in the fall. To another batch I will add some dried cherries I've been looking to use up. Will my colleagues care that the scones are made with homemade yogurt instead of store-bought buttermilk? Who knows? Likely not. They'll probably just think I'm crazy for not stopping at Dunkin Donuts on the way in. But hopefully they will feel comforted, and I will have fed a crowd with just enough homemade love to let me breathe easily.

Sarah's Scones

2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
6 Tbsp butter, cold and cut into small pieces
1/2 c yogurt or buttermilk
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup raisins or other dried fruit (cut into raisin-size pieces if large)

1. Preheat to oven to 400 degrees

2. Mix together all the dry ingredients. When well blended, cut in the butter with a pastry blender.

3. In another bowl, stir together the yogurt, egg and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture, mixing just until moistened. Gently fold in the raisins.

4. Pat the dough into an eight-inch circle on an ungreased cookie sheet. Score into eight wedges.

5. Bake for 18-20 minutes, cool 5 minutes, then serve.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Christmas plant dilemma

In the wake of the holidays, I always face the decision of what to do with the various holiday plants that I have acquired over the season: the miniature pines, the poinsettias, the bulbs. Should I keep them, and nurse them along for another season? Am I hardened enough to toss them out without so much as a blink? I am loathe to trash them, largely because it feels so wasteful. Yet I have never been particularly successful at maintaining these plants for future use. No wonder, too, since most are tropicals, and ill-suited for my cold, dry house.

My worst case was a potted Norfolk Island pine that I received as a "Christmas tree" in the winter of 2005. I knew I couldn't maintain the light, temperature and especially the moisture levels that it needed to thrive. It plodded on for years in a sorry little corner of two different guest rooms, drying out all too often and dropping needles until it resembled a Dr. Seuss-like umbrella tree. Finally, I read an article by Gerald Klingerman, from the University of Arkansas extension, who advised a hilarious yet very wise approach: the "winter hardiness test". He writes, "Leave your overgrown Norfolk Island pine on the patio and see if it'll survive an Arkansas winter. Of course it won’t, but you can appease any feelings of guilt by saying you were doing it in the name of science." Done and done.

In the course of providing substandard care to multiple houseplants, I have learned that unless a plant is particularly delicate, it will soldier on despite a harsh environment and neglectful care. The plant won't thrive, but it will survive. My Norfolk Island pine is a testament to a pathetic, struggling survival. The only thing sadder than a house with no plants is a house with two or three neglected pots of sorry-looking specimens. These plants, dried out, leggy and sometimes infested with various blights, bring a funereal gloom to the house. The worst part is that I placed it in the guest room-- hardly a way to bring a festive, welcoming mood to out-of-towners.

So, now I face my poinsettias. Should I keep them? I could follow the instructions available on multiple gardening websites about putting them in a closet and giving them 12 hours of darkness each night. That way, I could make them bloom again for next year. The cheapskate and the budding botanist in me want to try. But what if they turn out sad and ugly, rather than the lush specimens I have now? I guess I can always try the "winter hardiness test". The larger lesson for me may be to just ask well-meaning gift givers to find a different "gardener Christmas present". Perhaps a packet of seeds, or a new trowel. And as for the other houseplants sitting around the house, I will keep the best, like my beautiful peace lily. But the bedraggled kalanchoe that was a Valentine's present three years ago just needs to go. It is certainly a sorry testament to enduring Valentine's love. But maybe, just maybe, I will find the right care instructions on the Internet and finally figure out how to get it to rebloom. I'm not ready to test it's winter hardiness just yet.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas garden outings

Is there a bigger selling point for the west side of Chicago than the peaceful botanical oasis that is Garfield Park Conservatory? The lush vegetation, the children's room and the events (like the awesome Halloween party with owls, wolves and other critters) make it a regular destination for our family. The first winter with a baby can be a little tough in this windy, cold neck of the woods - cabin fever sets in early. The balmy greenhouse of the Conservatory was a life-saver...a little bit of the tropics in the January snow, plenty of other young parents and no entrance fee at that. As a local Christmas destination for gardeners in the dead of the Chicago winter, the holiday flower show is unmatched. They have some bee-keeping classes coming up. I really want to go, but I know its just going to send me down the rabbit hole of another time consuming hobby. I've pitched it to my dubious husband as an informational session, nothing more. Still, I am pondering the way I could fit a hive into my life. In terms of livestock, after worms, what else but bees to fit into a very small urban garden?

Unfortunately, we have not hit the flower show yet this year, as our first winter garden outing of the season was to the Lincoln Park Conservatory. This, too, is a beautiful destination, but really, in my mind, doesn't hold a candle to Garfield Park. Either way, I remain grateful that the city maintains two of these conservatories given the tough economic times (yes, I know they are uncharacteristically closed today just for that reason). Lincoln Park has an annual model train show that we first discovered last year. The trains weave among poinsettias and models of local architecture crafted from natural materials like bark and seeds. Last year, we were charmed. Now, having been to the model train garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden, it seemed a little rinky-dink, but our little one still loved it. It did look like it had been scaled down this year -- the overhead tracks weren't up. Makes me wonder if the same will hold true for the Garfield Park holiday show. The seed-and-bark houses really intrigue me. Really, they can't be that hard to make as long as you have a crafty bent. I think it could make a fun project with my kid one of these winters. We could build a model of our house and then sneak it into the train show, guerrilla-style. It would be funny to have a rogue representation of an undistinguished Chicago single family house nestled amongst the models of the museums, train stations and Lincoln Park row houses.

The various plant rooms at the Lincoln Park Conservatory have a darker, denser feel than Garfield. My absolute favorite thing is a Victorian glass terrarium perched on a small stand -- in it are a collection of carnivorous plants. They are walled off like tigers at a zoo -- one can only peer in and thrill to the danger. I don't know if they are in there for cultivation reasons-- I assume it's actually because too many folks tried to touch. But it does make them more precious to me, to have them glassed in and set apart. Then yesterday, I arrived home to another pile of seed catalogs. Shumway's is selling seed for Venus fly traps and pitcher plants. I could grow my own carnivorous terrarium! I need to investigate though -- this can't turn into another hellebore situation, where I bought seed prior to educating myself about the "up to 18 months" germination times. Now, to find myself a Victorian glass terrarium with my Christmas money....

Saturday, December 19, 2009

K-town test kitchen

Wintertime offers the opportunity to catch up on my reading of all things gardening, cooking and homesteading. The Chicago Public Library's online hold system is sending me a steady supply of books from all corners of Chicago to my local storefront branch on North Avenue. Since I have no weeding or harvesting, I also have more time to experiment with ideas from these books. For example, several have featured recipes for homemade marshmallows. Whenever I read accounts of homemade marshmallows, writers invoke the foodie-est of all labels: "a revelation". "Revelatory" is a related descriptor, oft employed in a similar manner, as in "the taste of the house-cured bacon was revelatory". I picture a cadre of critics and foodies marching around the city experiencing revelations like a band of modern-day mystics. Anyway, I figured marshmallows would be a fun Christmas activity. Christmas is the time for miracles and revelations, so why not? Also, homemade marshmallow shapes would look awesome in my Christmas cocoa.

The basic idea is to soften some gelatin in water, boil some sugar syrup, dump it in to the gelatin and beat it into a cloudy mass. This sugary air-whipped mass is then pressed into a pan. Once it cools, it can be cut into shapes and rolled in confectioners sugar. Simple enough, right? As soon as the boiling hot sugar syrup hit the gelatin, and billows of hoof-smelling vapor wafted skyward, I began to wonder if this was a good idea. The whipped product was extraordinarily sticky, rivaling only bubble gum in the way it clumps in toddler hair and clothing. But I wrangled it into the pan. Now, I distinctly remember a Martha Stewart Living Christmas cover from a few years back that featured marshmallows cut into gorgeously intricate snowflakes. Reader, be warned. I could barely cut these into squares, despite all manner of hot water and "nonstick" spray. In the end, I had a pile of white misshapen squares. Okay, they weren't to magazine standards, but the taste could still be "revelatory".

I sunk my teeth in. And that's when I remembered I don't eat marshmallows plain, since I don't really like super-sugary things. It tasted like a marshmallow, a little wetter than jet-puffed. But a plain, sugary marshmallow none the less. My son and husband --who both have a serious sweet tooth-- dutifully tried one each, then walked away. I took them to work and my colleagues gathered around. Much to my delight, they hopefully asked if it was more homemade cheese. Everyone took a sample anyway and a collective "meh" rose from the group. Fortunately, at my office, anything skirting close to edibility will disappear within an hour of placement on the conference room table. The marshmallows were finished quickly, but not with the chorus of approval that met my feta cheese and rosemary crackers.

The book that is occupying a lot of my attention right now is Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Centre Terre Vivante. This French research and education center is an authority on four-season and organic gardening. I first discovered them through the writing of Eliot Coleman. The book is a collection of folkways and recipes from European kitchen gardeners. It is both an anthropological archive and a forward-looking tract on low-energy preservation techniques. The recipes use alcohol, oil, dehydration, salt, sugar and lacto-fermentation to preserve garden bounty. Lacto-fermentation has the ring of molecular biology to it, but if you've made sauerkraut (usually the gateway lacto-fermentation experiment for most cooks) then you know what it is. The book has some inspiring recipes (oil-preserved spheres of sun-dried tomato paste) and some that make me a bit queasy (lacto-fermented Swiss chard ribs, anyone?).

There is a shocking lack of food-safety advice in the book, and what there is mostly echoes the pioneer wisdom to "scrape the mold off and if it is slimy or smells bad, don't eat it" . I can't decide if I find this refreshing or disturbing. It also has me hesitating on whether to try the recipes. As an American reader, I am conditioned to reading preservation books that adopt an authoritatively "scientific" voice, berate me with bold-fonted medical warnings, and drown me in pages of government standards. Eugenia Bone's preservation book had clearly been retroactively edited to cut back on some of the recommended "use within" time frames, and I was surprised she was even allowed to admit on those pages that she has occasionally eaten things preserved more than a few years back. Is there merit to all this food-safety hand-wringing , or is this just a manifestation of our anxiety over the wisdom of folkways? How much of those safety disclaimers are just publishers' fears of legal liability? I am willing to eat moldy cheese, and I am an avid maker of homemade alcohol products. But I'm not sure about keeping jars of unsealed vegetables in my cellar. I might be able to stomach it, but I have this horrifying mother-vision of my kid flopping over with an attack of botulism. Are lacto-fermented Swiss chard ribs really worth the gamble?

So, here I sit, reading the recipes over and over again, and deciding whether to have a date with potential danger. In the end, the experimental cook in me will be unable resist the siren call of these heirloom recipes. But I don't think they'll be going into my cellar, unheated or no. I will simply have to cede more fridge space, already limited thanks to the kimchi. This, of course, goes against the whole idea of low-energy preservation. Perhaps when I get a bit older, I'll be less of a nervous-Nelly about all of this. After all, could there be a better exit for a cook and gardener than dying at the hands of your own green beans?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Are these groceries worth 6 bucks?

Logan Square, which borders my neighborhood to the east, now boasts a food co-op. Given my growing commitment to supporting local food systems, I was excited to check out the The Dill Pickle Food Cooperative. For those who don't know, a cooperative grocery store is, as the website states, "an independent, democratic organization that is owned, operated and financed by its members". My friends who live in Hanover, New Hampshire get to shop at their amazing local cooperative grocery store. That place is established and huge, and prices are reasonable, although nowhere close to the prices of factory-farm-supplied national grocers. I knew whatever I found on this stretch of Fullerton Ave was not going to be anywhere close to the Hanover emporium. But I had high hopes! The website thrilled me:

The Dill Pickle is a cooperatively owned and governed neighborhood grocery store that aims to provide sustainable, local, and organic goods at an affordable price in Chicago’ Logan Square neighborhood.

I visited on the first weekend it opened. It was a soft opening and clearly there were kinks that had not been worked out (the line was painfully long). I was not overwhelmed by the selection or the prices. I left disappointed (and empty handed because of that line), but open minded. I needed to go back when things were less hectic, when I could poke around, talk to the staff. I got off work early today, and returned to the co-op.

I really, really wanted to like the store. I am, however, still uncertain if the co-op even comes close to living up to its thrilling mission statement. "Local" and "affordable" are probably the most dubious claims at this point. In the produce area, I saw "local" on exactly three things: mushrooms, apples and shallots. A majority of the shelf real estate was dedicated to organic packaged foods, most of them national brands. I didn't see any local claims on the bulk bins.

Now, on to the affordability issue. The produce prices are farmer's market prices. To my (middle-class) eye, they are not unreasonable, but certainly not a bargain. The prices wouldn't make regular Whole Foods shoppers blink. But, "farmer's market prices" echoes the ongoing issues facing local food systems in poor neighborhoods. Even though Logan Square is gentrifying, most folks who live nearby (especially to the west), aren't going to pay a dollar for a single onion when they can get a 3 pound bag for 99 cents at Cermak Grocery. Now, here is where everyone chimes in about the taste and health-giving benefits of high-quality organic food, but I for one am not prepared to say that these prices are affordable to a family of six living on minimum wage. So is this a neighborhood grocery store, or a convenient pseudo-Whole-Foods-outpost for the higher-income folks that live in the vicinity? Even more egregious to me was the mark-up on processed and prepared foods. For example, a local yogurt brand was priced two dollars above the price at Stanley's, a nearby produce market. I simply don't understand this differential in profit-margin.

Finally, we need to discuss the chicken: the small, frozen, cut-up twenty-two dollar chicken, that the co-op was selling. I have been thinking a lot lately about the premium price commanded by local, organic meats. I'm beginning to wonder if the emperor has no clothes. I am willing to pay more for higher quality. I understand that small farms can't match the volume of factory-like farms, and need to build in a larger profit margin. But is the meat really worth four times as much? Along these lines, I found this blog post very provocative, as well as the impassioned discussion in response to it. It basically questions some of the profit-margins expected by local farmers, and challenges the extraordinarily higher prices of locally-raised meat. I'm not sure where I fall on this issue yet, but a wisp of doubt has begun to creep in. I still feel that the best available value for local meat is a CSA, if you can keep up with the amount of meat you get. I guess my mistake was in thinking that the co-op would act somewhat like a CSA, and that by collective purchasing, we would get CSA, not retail, prices.

So, the activist in me is shouting, "Become a member of the co-op! Voice your opinion! Vote to change the price on that yogurt bottle!". Membership costs 250, that can be stretched to 50 bucks a year over 5 years*. 50 dollars a year! Two chickens! There are some member discounts and no fixed work requirement, but the main return is the warm glow of investing in this well-intentioned start-up and a vote at the table*. I am torn. I support it in theory, but the reality is scaring me off. I'd rather spend that 250 bucks at the farmer's market, direct to the farmer, or on seeds to grow my own local produce. I wonder whether I should finance a store catering to hipsters that buy twelve dollar organic vanilla extract. But if more folks like me joined, maybe we could change that. Is this where I want to put my energy?

*Corrected info, thanks to comments!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Winter Garden Project Update

Planning for my winter garden projects can often mimic planning for the actual garden itself. A long season stretches out ahead of me. In a fervor of excitement and overconfidence, I forget my work obligations, my family obligations and my budget constraints. Example: I actually printed out blueprints for a 6 foot long grape arbor, imagining I could set it up in my basement prior to the spring. A whole month of winter has gone by, and nothing has been done except lying on the couch imagining myself lounging in the dappled shade of fruit-laden vines. I have tabled that project for the moment. Anyway, that's where I want to put a chicken coop....someday. Here's the project updates, mostly to remind myself for next year, when I get carried away again.

1. Worm Bins

The worms have been relocated to the basement. They lived with us in our front hall for the first few weeks, but I was forced to send them into the netherworld of our house. First, the bin did smell. It wasn't a bad smell, but it was definitely not odorless. Before the worm bin enthusiasts jump all over this one, I promise that I did set up the bin correctly. It wasn't too wet, it had enough bedding and I was careful not to overfeed. But, I would come home after work, and my whole house was permeated with a gentle "rotting leaves" kind of smell. Not unpleasant, but also not the ambiance I'm shooting for in my living room. Second, in the interest of my worms' health, it was also better to move them a little further out of reach. Having them that close to the kitchen definitely led to the temptation to overfeed. The basement is more conducive to a weekly or biweekly burial of vegetable scrap. The rest just goes into one of our outdoor composters to freeze over until spring. The worms are just not breaking down the amount of vegetable matter that I thought they would. Maybe this is because they are new to their bin, and it is winter. I will keep an eye on this, but for now, they are barely scratching the surface of our daily compostable scraps.

2. Cold Frames

I have decided where the cold frames are going, and have measured out the area. They will get pride of place in a spot adjacent to the asparagus bed, since it gets some of the best southern sun in my garden. Something happened with the heavy rains in the fall, and this normally level section of my garden was regraded into a micro-slope. Now, I am trying to figure out how to prevent a spring bog in this little 3X5 ft area. I am probably going to dump a good amount of compost on there in the next few weeks, and let it over-rot until the spring, Lasagna-garden style.

As for the frames themselves, I have enough wood scrap around to build the base, most of it old shelving from the closet I re-organized this summer. I had planned to use some old storm windows as the top of the frame, until I started my library research. Jeff Ashton, author of The 12-Month Gardener, argues against use of recycled windows in cold frames. Kids, he warns "at some point, will climb on top of a cold frame, or kick through some other home-spun glass contraption. Apparently, the allure of a raised too much to resist...I've heard horror, animals, or adults who were cut because they fell onto the frame, climbed on top and broke through, or sat on the frame thinking the glass would hold their weight". While I do usually try to avoid the "danger at every turn" approach to parenting, Ashton's warning seems wise. I am the mother of an avid climber, and can only imagine the damage that shards of glass could do to his little legs. So, I am planning on a reconnaissance mission to the hardware store to see what types of fiberglass or plastic I might be able to use.

I think this cold frame project is in reach before the cruel winds of March roll in, and my fingers get itchy to plant radish seed. I have a whole list of other things I wish I had the time to do over the winter: the grape arbor, a home-built wooden cheese press, seed starting shelves in my sunniest window, a chicken coop for the long-awaited chickens, and, most fancifully, a small urban greenhouse. That greenhouse will likely not materialize in the next few years, but I just found a cool jar, so my son and I will create a terrarium. Right after I finish those cold frames.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

How to say latkes in Korean?

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah and, much to the delight of my little boy, we lit the candles on the menorah. The real festivities will come tonight, however, when I make latkes and we have a chance to play dreidel. Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays we observe in our hybrid family. My husband and I are philosophical and religious mutts, with parents who are atheist, Jewish, and Lutheran. Having trained in cultural anthropology, I wince a bit at our patchwork of holiday observations. Do these traditions lose their meaning when they are removed from the context of one specific religion? As a mother, however, I can put these academic anxieties aside. It is such a joy to see my son's face illuminated by candles, his usually active body made peaceful by contemplation of the flame. I imagine my husband as a small child, doing the same with his mother. What can be wrong about continuing this family tradition?

Hanukkah celebrations usually involve foods fried in oil, to reference the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. While the idea of homemade doughnuts always tempts me, I hate deep-frying in my kitchen. Every surface gets greasy, and my ventilation system leaves something to be desired. Pan-fried latkes, potato pancakes, are my usual choice. But what recipe to use? Thin or thick pancakes? Matzoh meal or no? Onions chopped or grated? These debates can reach rabbinical levels of debate among Jewish cooks.

In the winter, my own mother, the daughter of German and Polish immigrants, always made thin, wide potato pancakes, loaded with applesauce. These days, I eat Eastern European foods mostly for nostalgic reasons, to remember her. A taste of borscht or a bite of these pancakes sends me back to nights in a warm winter kitchen with my sisters after basketball practice. But her latkes were, rest her soul, greasy. Eastern European foods seem a bit dense and under-seasoned to me now, and I usually choose to prepare spicier and lighter recipes for my family.

Mark Bittman, my beacon of sensible and delicious cooking, solved the latke problem for me. I found a recipe for Korean vegetable pancakes in his book The Best Recipes in the World. They are crowd pleasers, and very kid-friendly despite having a kick of kimchi in the batter. The soy based dipping sauce works much better, in my opinion, than heavy condiments like applesauce or sour cream. Bittman suggests a pinch of cayenne or a chopped hot pepper in the batter, but I just rely on the spice of the kimchi. For best results, the potatoes and carrots need to be coarsely shredded. The grating disk of my Cuisinart works really well. As a final note, to the seasonal eaters and root-cellaring homesteaders out there, any winter vegetable works here. I've made these with parsnips, sweet potatoes and even radish.

Korean Vegetable Pancakes
(adapted from Mark Bittman)

2 potatoes, peeled and grated
3 large carrots, peeled and grated
4 scallions, chopped
1/2 cup cabbage kimchi, drained and chopped
1 egg
2 Tbsp flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Oil for frying
Dipping sauce (recipe below)

1. Put potatoes and carrots in a large, clean dishcloth. Gather the cloth, and twist until the vegetables are pressed tightly. Squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Combine in a bowl with everything but the oil.

2. Preheat the oven to "warm" or 200 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with several layers of paper towels. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large skillet and add the batter in large spoonfuls. Fry until browned on both sides (usually 6-8 minutes total). Drain on the paper towels and keep warm in the oven.

3. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

2 scallions, minced
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp sugar

1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cracking open the jars

After I finish canning, I have absolutely no desire to actually eat what I canned. First, I am simply dazzled by the neat rows of pickles and preserves. I can't bear to break up the display. Second, after spending a weekend elbow deep in fragrant concord grape juice, my senses are so over saturated that I want nothing more than milk and bread for a few days. I need to recalibrate. Finally, if you are canning properly, this means that you are at the peak of the season for whatever produce you hope to preserve. Why eat the processed version, when you have an abundance of the fresh one right outside your door?

The memories of the canning weekends have faded, and holiday celebrations have started, so my jars are beginning to disappear from the pantry shelves. I tried a lot of new recipes this season, mostly from Eugenia Bone's new book Well Preserved. On the negative side, I have finally decided to stop canning apples. I just like them raw. No one in my family likes applesauce, no matter how much I gussy it up. I tried Bone's spiced apple recipe, and am underwhelmed by the results. It turned out dry and horribly sturdy: it maintained its shape when shook from the jar. On the brighter side, her recipe for pear, port and thyme conserve is a definite keeper. Not only does it boast a rich flavor, but the texture is varied: the raisins are soft, the pears are ripe but firm , and the almonds are crunchy. It would taste good turned into a sauce for pork or duck, but my son and I like it best rolled up in crepes.

My work requires me to be out the door early most mornings, and to compensate, my son and I get up early, usually around five or six. We then have at least two hours together before I need to leave. I do my best to give the mornings an unhurried feel. I have found that one of the easiest ways to slow down is to make breakfast together. Of course, with a two year old, "together" is a challenge. Crepes work well: I do the stove work, and his chubby little hands now roll the crepe around the filling with expert finesse. We have recently started filling them with the pear conserve. The thyme in the recipe gives the crepes a savory edge that avoids turning breakfast into an overly-sweet dessert. If I have one quibble, it is that I cut the pears too thick. Next year, I'll go for a smaller dice. I also will make more jars, as I am already starting to eye my waning stores with concern. In the spirit of careful rationing, this morning I suggested we use our Concord grape jam to fill our crepes. My son would have none of it, and seemed to scoop more of the pears on than usual in protest. Oh well....we'll eat lavishly, then wait for next fall to roll around.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pride and prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an urban gardener in possession of a good portion of shade must be in want of a new shade plant. Hostas only go so far, and already they command a large area of shady real estate in my garden. "Large" is, of course, a relative term, when one considers my narrow Chicago lot. Earlier this fall, I summoned previously hidden wells of plant cruelty and heavily edited my backyard beds. I divided, I dug up, I composted. Now, I am left with some gaping holes, mostly part-sun to light shade. I have finally cleared the way for a nascent obsession: hellebores.

Now, I admit, I tread fashionable ground on this one. It is like admitting a nascent obsession with butchering, locally-sourced cocktail ingredients, or Grizzly Bear's latest album. I am making an effort to accept that I am an ordinary dilettante gardener, and that I should stick to the tried-and-true plants noted in gardening books for their ease, economy and reliability. Who am I to be too proud to plant begonias and impatiens? How dare I be a snob about hostas, especially when they brighten up otherwise dank corners in my yard? But, I do have a kernel of prejudice for the ordinary. I welcome work-a-day plants in my garden, but long for some corners of "plantsmen's plants" and rare specimens. This is not unlike the aspiring cook's habit of serving a comfort food like macaroni and cheese, but lacing it with a rare ingredient like truffles. The dish may seem ordinary at first, but take a bite and you will understand that the cook knows something special, has taken the time to offer a precious taste.

Ever since I laid eyes on a "Lenten Rose" at a nearby fancy-pants nursery this past season, I have been plotting my entrance into the world of Helleborus. Reading of them in Our Life in Gardens only stoked the flames of enthusiasm. I was scared off by the price last year -- the plants are expensive, partly because of burgeoning demand and partly because they are a challenge to produce quickly on a large scale. As usual, I am now ashamed of my chintziness: once they are well-situated, this is a plant that keeps on giving. Plant Delights Nursery gives a wonderful testimonial of a hellebore garden from the 1940's surviving despite being home to a frat house for over 50 years!

I firmed up my budgetary resolve for this upcoming season, and was ready to spend for a few good plants. If it meant less pots or annual flats, so be it. Then, as I was perusing the first of the seed catalogs, I noticed a package of H. orientalis seed for a couple of bucks. Impulse seed purchases began early for the 2010 season. Of course, it was only after they arrived that I started to do my research. Germination can take over 18 months! Only the freshest of seeds should be planted! I scanned the hellebore websites with growing dismay: impassioned gardeners battled over the minutiae of germination, but all seemed to agree that it was best started in the spring or fall. So, I was faced with a dilemma. I could hold on to the seed for direct sowing in March, or I could try to kick-start the process now. I worried that holding on to it would compromise the "freshness" factor. I worried that starting it now would leave me with tender seedlings at the wrong time of year, should my efforts succeed. I do recognize the irony of my worry over a two-dollar packet of seeds, when I had previously decided to drop a hundred bucks on mature specimens in the spring.

I decided to plunge right in. The source of the seeds offered little instruction as to the best method of germination, so I will have to go with the Internet on this one. I went with the most authoritative post on one of the gardening forums, who advocated for Tom Clothier's method. Soak the seed in warm water, then subject them to months-long cycles of warm and cold, with the aid of your refrigerator. The first cycle will probably take about 5 months, which will hopefully give me some seedlings in April, just in time to put outside with protection. We'll see what happens. I applaud the seed-sellers who managed to lure me into a seed impulse buy before the year even turned. But, should this experiment work, this gardener will be ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the company who, by bringing her into the world of home germination, had been the means of uniting her with hellebores.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bean sprouts

Any book of of winter gardening projects usually dedicates a page or two to home-grown sprouts. Sprouting seeds at home is more than a winter pastime, and you hardly need the excuse of snow on the ground or a case of January gardener's malaise to break out the mung beans. They taste better then store-bought and they are cheaper. At nearby supermarkets, a small bag of limp, watery sprouts will set you back at least 2 dollars! At nearby Asian markets, there are bins of cheaper sprouts, but I lately have also begun to question the healthfulness of any store-purchased sprouts. These little guys are a set-up for food borne-illness: moist environment, balmy room temperature air, and every shopper digging into the bin. The dregs at the bottom look like an E. coli dream. To my growing chagrin, stories of salmonella contamination on sprouts have been surfacing in the national media every few months. All this is to say that home-grown sprouts are the way to go.

The one drawback of sprouting at home is that it requires some advanced planning. If you want Vietnamese spring rolls or vegetable pad thai this very night, you will have to forgo sprouts. Occasionally, I substitute julienned cucumber or carrots, but neither matches the crisp texture of mung bean sprouts. With a few days of forethought you can have a bowlful of juicy bean sprouts, all for a few cents and free of diarrhea-inducing pathogens.

I buy my mung beans in bulk from the local Korean food emporium. I also notice that the seed companies sell bags of organic sprouting seeds, albeit at a much higher price, and I'm sure the local health food stores sell them as well. I do not know if these mung beans hail from Asia or if they are locally-grown....for more committed locavores, this is a topic that needs investigating. Soak a handful of the seeds in a bowl of cool water over night. In the morning, drain the seeds and put them back in the bowl. Here, I should note that books, the Internet and Youtube all give instructions for purchased or homemade sprouting contraptions involving screens and cheesecloth. I have had excellent results just using a bowl, and suggest that you save your time and money and do the same. If you want the thick sprouts you see at the store, you will need to weigh down the sprouts with a bowl of water or weighted dinner plate. If you don't mind skinnier sprouts, then just cover the whole bowl with a cloth. Every morning and night, rinse the beans, drain them and then cover them up again. In four or five days, you will have a giant bowl of sprouts.

The mung beans I sprout still have their green skins -- if you want to be rid of them, submerge your sprouts in a big bowl of water and agitate. The skins will rise to the top and you can skim them off. I have stopped caring about this, but if you want them to look the "right" way, go for it. After that, dry the sprouts really well (a salad spinner is the easiest method) and then stick them in the fridge. You will have crisp, fresh sprouts for days -- easy to toss into any stir-fry or Asian noodle dish. Their light juicy taste is a welcome addition to dinner, especially if one has been eating seasonally and consuming mostly cold-weather brassicas, greens and root vegetables.

The world of sprouts extends well beyond mung beans, but I am just not that big a fan of alfalfa sprouts on sandwiches and other such California-cuisine flourishes. If you are interested, I highly suggest perusing the Youtube videos on home sprouting. There are some hilariously earnest instructional videos, touting the health-giving benefits of all sorts of home sprouts. These videos usually feature people that look like they have sprung straight from a 70's commune, Birkenstocks and all. Bust out the macrame materials, the Moosewood Cookbook, and have yourself a retro sprouting afternoon.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sourdough starter

In third grade, I attempted sourdough biscuits for my entire class as part of a project on Alaska. They didn't turn out well -- hard and flat -- but I did learn an important lesson: serve any bread hot and dripping with melted butter, and most people will eat it, no matter how hard or misshapen it is. Over the years, I created many starters from various recipes. Most suggested a paste of flour and water, leaving it open to the elements to capture the wild yeasts floating around. The end product was unsatisfactory in terms of both flavor and texture. Usually the sour taste was absent or off, and the bread rose poorly. I wanted the wild, local flora that I had harnessed to yield a perfect bread, but I never came close. Some of this had to do with my beginner bread-making skills, but it also had to do with the quality of the starter. Perhaps if had captured wild yeast from San Francisco's touted microclimates, the flavor would have been better. I enjoyed the process and the idea of what I supposed to be making, rather than the actual finished product.

So, dear reader, I cheated. While visiting my best friend in New England, we went on a big family outing to the King Arthur Flour company. That store is a baker's paradise. It sells all the tools and raw materials you could ever want, although I am a little disappointed in how many pre-made mixes they were hawking. High on a shelf in the bread section, I found a tiny envelope of LA-4 French Sourdough starter. I bought it, for an astounding 10 dollars for 5 measly grams. King Arthur sells this starter as a single-use product that you add to a sponge dough to create an "assertive sourdough flavor". A little bit of research revealed that they were merely selling a dried version of the "right" wild yeasts. There was no reason not to refresh it and reuse it, except perhaps that you wouldn't keep paying too much for more of their product. The only caveat I found was that over time the "wrong" wild yeasts might infest the starter and the flavor would change for the worse. Since the envelope gives you enough for at least 5 starters, I don't think this will be a problem. And clever DIYers out there suggested that while the starter is still young and the flavor is "right", you spread some of it on a cookie sheet to dry, crumble it up, and store the powder as a source of the future "right" yeasts.

The bread it produced was great: sour, chewy and a decent rise. Admittedly, I added a tiny pinch of standard commercial yeast for good luck. I basically just created a sponge (a slurry of starter, water and flour) and let it sit for a day. Then I mixed it into a wet dough (more flour, some salt, pinch of commercial yeast). I saved a bit of the sponge to rebuild the starter. After that, I followed the basic principles of Jim Lahey's "no-knead bread". Lahey's method of baking in a Dutch oven works quite well, approximating the environment of a blazing hot stone or mud oven. I just borrowed Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field from the Chicago Public Library. Building a bread oven from my own mud is on my home project life list. For now, given the restrictions on our space and our fire insurance policy, I will bake my bread in a Dutch oven.

Now my little crock of tasty sourdough starter is bubbling away on my counter. I'm not sure it is something I'll be using on a weekly basis, as my son and husband favor softer, sweeter breads. I am satisfied that I have finally achieved good homemade sourdough flavor, albeit with a boost from King Arthur. I am going to try the starter in our weekly pizza dough, and imagine the day that I'll be baking it in my hand-built adobe oven. My dreamed-of goats will be prancing around me as I do this. For now, I'll settle for a prancing toddler.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wax begonias

As I was cleaning out the last of the fall debris from my garden a few weeks ago, I thought some of my sturdy wax begonias might look nice in a vase. I cut off twenty stems and displayed them in a low, narrow glass container, to good effect. The coppery leaves looked excellent with some rust colored candles I had picked up at a craft fair. I was pleased to have pink flowers gracing my Thanksgiving season table, refreshingly delicate when compared with the usual wheat-and-maple leaf cornucopias. I am not a very good caretaker of cut flowers, and I went about my life, ignoring the little flowers that were thriving away in the light of a southern window. I realized this morning they had roots. I had inadvertently created a nice collection of new begonia plants from my cuttings.

Wax begonias belong to that dubious category of plants recommended for "children and new gardeners". As soon as I read a phrase like this, the snob in me wants to reject these begonias out of hand. But then I remind myself that I have a child and I am a (fairly) new gardener. Sigh. This year, I am still going to try my hand at more sophisticated projects, like growing hellebore from seed. But wax begonias have their place: they are cheap, easy to grow, and look nice in a shady patch in my garden. And my child does love them.

Several writers also note that this is plant is a "classic choice" for apartment buildings and gas stations, much like my beloved and oft-maligned dusty millers. Instantly, I can conjure the image of sorry little begonia plants spaced too far away from each other, arranged in too regular of a pattern, and surrounded by a pile of dyed-red wood mulch. Not really the ambiance one is looking to create in a backyard oasis. To avoid this, I am going to change over to container plantings this upcoming year, and stagger them around the shady spots of my garden. If they still reference a gas station, so be it! I am an urban homesteader after all.

As for those containers, I guess I have a head start. We'll see if I can successfully overwinter these new cuttings. If I can't, I know there will be large, well-priced flats for sale at even the most basic nurseries. Gas station owners need to shop somewhere, too!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Planning ahead

My Chicago ristra : the last of the garden chili peppers

The first of the 2010 seed catalogs have arrived, and I have been spending a good many hours poring over them. I have a very small garden, and this is the time of year when I feel the most regret: I could grow so many more types of vegetables, if I only had the space! Of course, in late August, when I can barely keep up with the weeding and harvesting of my tiny plot, I shudder to think of how I would handle even five more square feet. And most folks I know who do have larger garden plots also lament that they do not have enough space. No matter how big your plot, it may just be the nature of gardeners to always want more space to try other plants, other methods of culture.

The tiny garden forces me to consider my exact intention for the vegetables I raise. If only my intention could be to live largely off my own land! Self-sustenance, for reasons of size and time, are out of reach. For now, my efforts are largely divided into three categories. The first two were my most obvious starting place: growing things I cannot buy easily and growing things that taste significantly better than store-bought. Into the former category falls my herbs, rhubarb, and zucchini (for blossoms and young fruit). Into the latter category falls my tomatoes, strawberries and pole beans. After several years of buying wizened shallots at inflated prices, I am adding shallots to my garden in 2010. Since I can only find them occasionally, even at this inferior quality, file them under both categories. And, after my rousing success with strawberries, I am also trying out container-grown blueberries this upcoming year. They should be virtually guaranteed to taste better than the mealy, overpriced fruit sold in the nearby stores.

Finally, there is the category of vegetables I grow just out curiosity: asparagus, eggplant and hot peppers, for example. Heretical though this may be, I am unconvinced that these plants taste better than store-bought or offer any economic value. Yes, I know I can tell myself that there is an indescribable flavor added to anything one has produced from ones own land and efforts. And there is something to be said for the health benefits of moving off of the industrial agriculture grid in any way you can, even with a postage stamp garden. But from a sheer culinary perspective, I remain unconvinced. I grow them because I want to know how to, and I imagine that one day, when I try to go for a sustenance-level garden, I will need to know how to.

This final category offers the most flexibility, except with the asparagus, which, as a perennial, I am stuck with for now. I could dig it up, but it is very exciting to see the spears pushing up out of the ground. And even if it doesn't taste better than store-bought, it doesn't taste worse. I am, however, editing out the eggplant totally. And I am downsizing to one Thai bird pepper plant this year. No more serranos! I can buy them off the local farm truck for pennies. This means I have room for some heirloom carrots this upcoming year, as well as some cold-weather greens and onions.

The plant that I know I shouldn't grow -- but have become totally obsessed with growing over the past few years -- is horseradish. It can be invasive. It is unnecessary. I only cook with horseradish a few times a year: cocktail sauce for our annual shrimp boil and a spicy condiment for the occasional steak sandwich. It is not a critical part of my cooking repertoire, to say the least. But I really want to know what fresh-grated horseradish tastes like, and I am always a bit dubious of the sad little jar of the prepared root that I buy at the fish store. I certainly only need one plant, but my favorite catalogs sell them in packs of five or more. So, I will order it. I will foist off the extras on gardening friends, as I did with my extra asparagus crowns. Because I know gardeners. They can't truly say no, neither to seeds nor crowns nor rhizomes. They'll likely snap up whatever new plant is offered for the taking, no matter how small the garden. There's always a space somewhere -- and after all, they're curious.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving bread

I live in a primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Every day, Mexican food vendors set up shop on the main streets with big containers of tamales for sale. To accompany the tamales, they sell cups of atole or champurrado, a thickened hot breakfast drink. When I lived in Mexico, in the countryside, atole was a breakfast staple. Tamales, however, were special -- festival food. Anyone who has made them understands why. They are a labor of love, each tiny packet of masa individually wrapped in a sheath of corn husks. An elderly woman from central Mexico was lamenting the other day about the sheer availability of tamales in the neighborhood. "They used to be special", she sighed. "Now they are a daily food, and this is no good". She herself only makes them at Christmastime, and she feels that their appearance on her table but once a year make them taste all the better to her family.

I, too, have learned the value of special, annual foods. Even if they are not labor-intensive, it is worth saving certain recipes for festivals, large and small. It adds a thrill of anticipation, and sets the day apart, especially in a commercially-driven environment that has created holiday "months" rather than days. My son is still remembering the apple-studded challah I made for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and asking when "Rosh Hashanah Bread" will come again. My husband has already started the countdown to the duck in clementine sauce that I always make on Christmas. Thanksgiving always brings a special sweet bread, from Martha Stewart . Rich, citrusy and studded with dried fruit, it is just the thing to eat before facing the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. It will fill bellies until the mid-afternoon meal begins. This bread is a memory-thread that runs through the beginning of my adult life: I've eaten it in a small New York apartment with my sister and mother, in Minnesota with my in-laws and in Chicago with my own small family. To eat it more than once a year would diminish the strength of these memories.

This year, the bread actually features a home-grown ingredient: poppy seeds. I was browsing for early spring-sown seeds at a local nursery, and found a packet of "Hungarian Bread Seed Poppy". The lady at checkout gave me the eye after I told her I wanted to grow the seeds for my kitchen and reminded me curtly that this was the opium poppy. I did my research, and the seeds of this particular flower have been saved for generations for culinary purposes. A state extension office website gives this advice:

"All plant parts except the seeds are toxic and contain alkaloids used to manufacture opium and morphine. It is legal to grow Papaver somniferum in the United States for garden and seed production purposes".

The lady could have saved her attitude! The seeds grew into tall, sturdy plants with delicate pink flowers and gorgeous dusky green seed heads. In early fall, I gathered up the seed heads and hung them to dry for a few weeks, until the seeds rattled inside. After sacrificing a few as maracas for my son, I split them open to harvest about a tablespoon of blue-grey seeds per head. From a very small flower plot, I generated a cup or so of seeds. I stuck them in the freezer, specifically thinking of the Thanksgiving bread. Today, my harvest was gently folded into the cream cheese filling of my bread.

I toasted a few tablespoons of the seeds last night to garnish our carrot soup. As my husband and son scooped the speckled orange soup into their mouths, I did have one horrible moment of imagining the two of them nodding off in a heroin haze like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Needless to say, we all survived the night. Today, as I bite into my bread, there will be no fear. I will thank the Eastern European seed-savers who brought this culinary seed to this area. I tried to get every seed head in the garden, but I know a few split before I could dead-head. Poppies are enthusiastic self-sowers, so I'm looking forward to a new crop springing up in the over-wintered bed. Here's to a new Thanksgiving tradition....maybe next year I can add my own dried cherries or blueberries.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shanghai Soup Dumplings

This year my family and I joined a meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). City-dwellers who don't have gardens of their own usually subscribe to CSA's for a weekly delivery of local seasonal vegetables -- for ones in your area see Aside from scoring mad locavore street-cred, a subscription to a CSA tests your inner Iron Chef (Battle Kohlrabi anyone?). I had never heard of a meat CSA, but I found a list of them in a Reader article last winter and thought I'd give it a whirl. For twenty bucks a week, I got to pick up a monthly delivery of meat from a local farm. The most thrilling part was the shiny silver thermal bags the CSA gave out to tote your protein home.

I've been vegetarian, and vegan one summer, but after meeting my husband, I went back to omnivorous ways. This isn't to say we eat a lot of meat -- in general we eat low on the food chain. Meat is usually a condiment or a small part of a dish, if at all. And that was the problem with the CSA -- we couldn't keep up. Steaks, sausages and ethically-raised chicken piled up in my freezer. We only received a dozen eggs a month. I would have gladly taken a few dozen more in exchange for those much-coveted grass-fed rib-eyes. I ended up letting my subscription lapse, reasoning that I could spend a little more less often and buy locally-raised meat on an as-needed basis. At some point in our lives, I suspect we will turn vegetarian. I edge a little closer with every reading of Michael Pollan or viewing of Food, Inc. But for now, I am omnivorous - and this left me with a freezer of chicken.

I must be honest here. I know I should say this chicken tasted better. I should weep over its authentic flavor. But these chickens were stringy. These chickens were dry. I suspect some of this may have had to do with the freezing process, and some of it because these were hard-scrabble free-range birds who actually used their muscles. Either way, they did not make for good eating. I braised and coddled these birds and they were near inedible. While excavating my freezer this past weekend, I found 3 pounds of this chicken lurking in the back, taunting me.

I had been eyeing this recipe for Shanghai Soup Dumplings for a while The chicken was perfect for the broth/aspic component. If you aren't familiar with soup dumplings, they are similar to other steamed Chinese dumplings, except they are stuffed with a gelled aspic of highly flavored broth. When the dumplings steam, the aspic melts and forms a hot pocket of soup inside the wrapper. This pocket of liquid goodness explodes in your mouth when you bite in. Actually, I must be honest here, too: "explodes in your mouth" is what the food blogs and restaurant critics say. "Dribbles down your chin unattractively" or "squirts all over the crotch of your pants" is probably a more apt description. Any way you have it, it tastes great.

Be warned! This is a serious weekend cooking project. And, it makes a lot. Have several friends on call to come over and share in the riches. It will be a bittersweet moment for you, the cook. It is thrilling to watch people slurping down your homemade concoction, but it can take minutes for a few people to demolish what took you hours upon hours to prepare. But this is slow food at its best -- hard-won flavor and classic technique. There can be something very relaxing about forming 100 dumplings while listening to a book-on-tape in your kitchen. When you finally taste it, you will be glad of the time spent reducing broth and cutting the aspic into 1/8 inch dice. Chowhound message boards abound with debate over the proper way to eat these. All I can say is dig in, but do it over a bowl. That way you can slurp up any drippings that missed your mouth on the first go.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Olives for the holidays

Fresh olives recently appeared at Caputo's, the Italian market a few miles from my house. I can't overstate my commitment to this store -- it is the only place in Chicago I have found reasonably priced and delicious prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. It also carries "hard to find" (read: available for a small fortune at Whole Foods) Italian staples like dried porcini, farro and salt-packed anchovies. Their produce, both in terms of price and selection, is second to none. You have to be choosy with it -- it is often sold on the edge of over-ripeness.

For several weeks, I have noticed ancient West Siders, who still greet each other and chat in Italian, picking over a wooden bin of these fresh olives. These are the same people who I regularly observe sniffing fennel and tossing iffy specimens aside with disgust, berating the butcher for a poorly cut piece of beef, and wheedling with the deli guy for a few extra scoops of the house-made ricotta. The olive-gathering intrigued me: how could I ignore anything meriting the interest of this group of well-aged foodies?

I walked over and began to talk to them. From kindly Korean grandmas at Chicago Food Corps to young barbacoa aficionados at Cermak, most folks are excited to have anyone ask their advice on the purchase and preparation of beloved foods. These guys were no exception, and I got a long, increasingly animated didactic on the correct way to cure fresh olives. One guy pulled me aside near the parsnips, out of earshot of the others, and confessed he had a three year-old batch still "working". If I wanted a taste, he'd bring some next week. I demurred, but bought a small sack of the olives.

Elisabeth Luard, the food writer and historian, offers a recipe for cured olives in her book The Old World Kitchen. She gives instructions to smash each olive with a hammer, which I'm sure would have delighted my toddler. I opted for the less dramatic approach: a clean slice with a paring knife down the side of each fruit. I packed the olives in brine (1 cup salt to 1 gallon of water) and left them in a jar, weighed down, to mellow for 6 weeks. At this point, I am supposed to taste them and see if they are ready. If so, I am to dress them in spices and lemon and serve them up, along with a nice glass of sherry, to transport my guests to Andalusia.

Olive season is late October to November, so six weeks of curing usually corresponds to readiness at Christmas time. My grandma always served a small dish of canned black olives as a snack before holiday dinners, so this will be my update of that tradition. Luard described these olives as "a pleasure to be savored under the silvery leaves of an ancient grove". Alas, it will be winter time, and unless tennis-shoe-and-plastic-bag-decorated power lines count as an ancient grove, I'm out of luck for finding the proper setting in which to munch these.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Popcorn failure....yet again

A few nights ago, I made my son his first bowl of popcorn. He comes from a long line of popcorn lovers. Winter weekends at my childhood home involved my father popping a batch of corn in a pot most people would reserve for the cooking of six good-sized lobsters. He filled an enormous plastic salad bowl to the point of overflowing, and would lie on the couch with the bowl balanced precariously on his abdomen. The corn would be tossed into his mouth by the handful as he watched football or basketball. More than one emergency dental visit resulted from my father's particular love of the burned, unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bowl. With this storied heritage, how could I have not made my son a bowl of popcorn earlier? Chalk it up to gardening mother folly: I wanted his first taste to be from his own harvest.

When I ordered the popcorn from a seed catalog this past spring, it was not without anxiety. I have tried to grow corn in several different urban and suburban plots over the years, starting when I was fourteen. Whatever stalks didn't end up stunted or blown over were usually harvested by local critters just as I was planning to harvest the ears. Moreover, even if I just grew corn as a decorative element, it always ended up looking gangly and out-of-place in my beds, like an awkward teenager at a dance (on a side note, sunflowers always end up this way for me too). It was enough to make me take a hiatus from corn growing for several years.

When I moved into this neighborhood, I noticed corn growing in unlikely places -- vacant lots, for example, and cemented front yards on Pulaski Road. My neighbors from Mexico City and San Juan sniff at this -- a little bit country for their tastes. It did inspire me to reconsider corn growing, and in a bout of rage against the highly processed toddler snacks lining the shelves at the local store, I gave in and ordered a seed packet. As per usual, the first few months were hopeful and rewarding -- beautiful stalks shot up, green and true. I planted them next to the pole beans in my square-foot garden raised bed, and when I stepped out of my garage and surveyed the towering greenery I thrilled to the American-ness of it all. But I should have known better, especially about popcorn. Regular sweet corn is harvested while still green. Popcorn must be left to dry on the stalk, sitting for week upon tempting week in the late fall garden until ready to harvest. Of course, as the stalks matured and other food sources dried up, what I think were raccoons discovered the corn. Overnight, the ears were picked to shreds, with sorry, naked cobs perched on their browning stalks. My only consolation is that we picked one ear while green, so my son could see the growing kernels.

So, as movie night neared this weekend, I sighed and bought some popcorn kernels from Whole Foods. My son was excited to watch the cooking process and shoveled the popcorn in with an alacrity that would have brought tears to Granddad Dave's eyes. My handfuls had a tang of bitterness that comes only to gardeners who are continuously thwarted in their attempt to raise a plant against all odds and their better judgement. Why had I tried again? Why didn't I heed the warnings of other gardeners, who talk about raccoon-repelling techniques from electrified fences to peeing all around the base of the plants? Never again, I promised myself. Never again.

Of course, I will forget my pain and try again in a few years. Until then, the 2010 Pinetree Garden Seeds catalog just gave me a new idea: harvesting popcorn shoots as a micro-green. "The shoots are very sweet, like fresh picked corn". The sweetest taste would be my own fresh-popped kernels, but until then, this may suffice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cheese making in the city

As a gardener and cook, I get restless for winter projects. The winter section of any "garden through the year" book usually focuses on forcing bulbs, caring for house plants, and planning for the spring. Sometimes, the author describes (in great envy-inducing detail) their enclosed winter garden, or their warm greenhouse redolent with tropical blooms. Sadly, a personal greenhouse is not available to me. Maybe I will force bulbs this year: I need to remind myself that I am not obligated to stick to big gaudy amaryllis. But cheese making is my real winter craft. I have the time, and it mimics the patient waiting of gardening....weeks and months go by before you can taste the product of your effort.

Now, this is admittedly not a true "seasonal" project. From my (quite) limited experience and occasional bedside reading, pasture-raised cows and other mammalian livestock are not pouring forth gallons of creamy milk in the winter. I assume this has to do with the amount of pasture food available and seasonal patterns of calving. For better or for worse, the industrial dairy complex has made milk available year-round, at a stable price. The politics of contemporary dairy and egg production are discussed at great length by more qualified writers than me (see Pollan, as a start), so I will leave it to them to enumerate the horrors of this practice. Like it or not, this is the milk I have access to at the moment. So, I am using it here, all though I do shell out for the freshest, least processed milk I can find. I have, though, made great cheese with -gulp of guilt- Walgreen's milk. My ideal would be to make cheese from my own organically-raised pasture fed animals. Since my livestock for now consists of red wriggler worms, I don't have many options.

The Chicago Reader just featured a discouraging article about cheese making. I rolled my eyes while reading, since the author seemed to have not used a reliable recipe and chose mozzarella as her project. Homemade mozzarella is often the starting point for new cheese makers, and I think this is a mistake. Visions of creamy pillows of buffalo milk mozzarella dance in your head, and what you get is dense rubbery balls. This has to do with the quality of the milk (farm-fresh unpasteurized is best), and a lot to do with technique. Good mozzarella (or I should say passable mozzarella) only comes with careful measurement of pH and temperature and sacrificing your hands to uncomfortably high water temperatures. A new cheese maker is probably not going to take the time to find pH testing strips, so whatever accessible low-tech recipe they use is probably going to yield an inferior product.

A much better plan is feta cheese. It is salty and sharp, and its texture is more forgiving for the home producer. Now, you will still need to invest in some cheese making products, but it's like worm composting! With a few clicks on the Internet and the price of a round of drinks, you will have the needed components for months of DIY fun. I always use Ricki Carroll's -- I haven't found a local source, although I'm sure its out there. The best feta recipe I have tried is a recent one, from Fine Cooking:
I've made it twice, and it is really good, far better than supermarket feta cheese. I served it to co-workers on crackers with my Concord grape preserves and it disappeared rapidly.

Once you feel comfortable with basic cheese making techniques, fun projects abound: check out Ricki Carroll's book Home Cheese Making. Gardeners can wrap their cheeses in their own fresh herbs or age them in brined grape leaves from their vines. Not all of the cheeses will taste great on the first attempt, but that's part of the fun. When you do make a great cheese, like the feta above, success is all the more sweet. And with every attempt, you gain skills and experience. I will be ready when I finally get my own goats!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rosemary in winter

The first three years that I lived at our house, I planted rosemary directly into the herb bed in my garden, treating it as an annual. Every fall, I would clip off thick branches and freeze them, to be used slowly over the course of the winter. I always hoped that somehow my plant would defy all hardiness predictions and survive the Chicago winter. Inevitably, I would be back at the nursery buying another pot in the spring. I still frown in frustration when I read of folks in zone 5 creating "shrubs" of rosemary -- either they mulch more effectively than I do, or have found a hardier strain.

This summer, I rescued a nice fake "terracotta" pot from a neighbor's trash pile and decided that a potted rosemary plant would suit it best. I was able to balance the pot on some old cinder blocks in the hottest, sunniest corner of my little backyard garden. This spot is smack up against the back wall of my house, so it receives the reflected light and heat from the light grey siding. The plant grew much better under these conditions than it ever did in my actual herb bed. I suspect it also helped that it was far from the reach of my hose and watering can, and thus exposed to near-rock-garden environmental conditions. And I mean rock garden: only my collection of semper vivum grew there before.

At the end of the summer season, I brought the rosemary indoors, and gave it my one area of prime "sunny window" real estate (the other windows in my house have only partial sun throughout the day). It has been doing well, but I must curb my usual houseplant watering practices. I put a shallow dish of hens and chicks beside the rosemary to remind me that I am going for Mediterranean conditions, not the moist tropical care that my other houseplants crave. We'll see if it survives the winter -- hopefully come May I can place it back in its sunny outdoor spot. If it doesn't survive, oh well! I'll just buy my usual plant at the nursery, and long for the day when I can move to a higher zone.

One must be careful when cooking with rosemary -- too much, and the dish suffers from an intense piney-ness that can bring to mind soap more than food. I infuse my sauces with a branch (no need to chop) and then fish it out prior to serving. And in the garnish department, a sparkling holiday cocktail of limoncello and soda looks rather jaunty when decorated with a branch of rosemary impaling a lemon twist. My current favorite recipe is homemade rosemary and olive oil crackers: one taste of these, and you'll never again shell out four bucks for the Trader Joe's version. The recipe is adapted from Karen Solomon's recent book Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It. She gives instructions for many fancy variations on the cracker, but simple squares, liberally topped with salt, are easy and delicious with red wine. Watch the baking here. You want to skirt as close to well-browned as you can before tipping over into burned. This is no time for pale, delicate pastry. The crunch and carmelization suit the aggressive rosemary flavor.

Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of sugar
pinch of black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup water
More salt for sprinkling

1. Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times. Whisk together the wet ingredients and pour into the food processor, only enough to develop a single ball of dough (add a bit more water if needed).

2. Turn the dough onto a big sheet of plastic wrap and pat into a large flat rectangle. Cover with more plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or so. Preheat the oven to 375.

3. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll as thin as you can manage, usually 1/8 inch. Prick all over with the tines of a fork. Sprinkle with more salt, and roll a few times to embed. Cut into squares (pizza roller works best).

4. Transfer squares to oiled and floured (or parchment lined) baking sheets bake for about 10 minutes, but watch carefully. Once well-browned on all edges, remove to a cooling rack. I often end up removing some a minute or two before others, due to uneven rolling and weird oven microclimates. Do not underbake.

Friday, November 13, 2009


After many years of talking myself out of vermiculture, I took the plunge and ordered a pound of red wrigglers for winter composting. I set the worms in a thick plastic bin I found for $1.99 at a local store. I drilled a few holes, added some wet newspaper and voila!

I was underwhelmed by the amount of worms when they arrived, but according to the seller, worms can lose 70% of their body water during shipping. I gave them a good drink in their bedding, and hopefully they will plump up.

I have already identified two challenges of worm composting for my family. First, my curious toddler wants to see the worms every few minutes. Clearly, these critters want to be snuggled down deep in their bedding, and my little guy wants to have them sit at the breakfast table with him. This is likely a function of natural curiosity and our pet-deprived home. These are the first non-human creatures we have (intentionally) hosted in our home. Fortunately, feeding the worms is almost as good as seeing them, so my son's job will be to carefully place scraps in the bin. If it takes him an hour, so be it. The second issue is the sheer amount of vegetable matter our family of three produces. Websites give various ratios for amount of scraps per square foot or per pound of worms, but the basic message is not to overwhelm the worms, especially not in new bins. Last night, as I stared at the mountain of compostables from our vegetable pad thai and fruit salad dinner, I realized that unless I dedicated some serious square footage to vermiculture, I was still going to be making the cold trip out to our regular composter.

We'll see what comes of this experiment, but I am embarrassed at my years of delay after seeing the low cost and ease of this project. If anything, it has inspired me to look at some other simple gardening projects I have been eying with trepidation for years. The worm bin has let loose the flood gates, and this winter, my son and I are going to have a new basement project: building cold frames for an early spring harvest!