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!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Living Seasonally

It seems like cruel and unusual punishment towards fellow gardeners to enthusiastically review an out-of-print book, but I cannot help myself. A kindred spirit with better Internet shopping skills found a used copy of Living Seasonally by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. He generously loaned it to me, and I have been enthralled by their writing and their vegetable gardening ideas for the past week.

The two men have a large property in rural Vermont, on which they raise almost everything they eat, including veal and poultry. While this is clearly beyond the reach of a novice urban gardener with an --ahem -- smaller plot of land, so many of their ideas translate well to any edible garden. Most of their growing tips and enthusiastic endorsements of certain plants will be tested in my own garden in the months and years to come. The two men are at once enormously sensible and deliciously romantic: how can I resist Egyptian tree onions or home-forced endive after reading of their experience?

I most enjoyed their discussion of the tension between sustainable living and seasonal eating. Anyone with homesteading ambitions, be they urban fantasies or rural realities, looks forward to "Independence Day": the day when everything that you put in your mouth --from sunrise to sunset-- has been produced from your own land. In the drive towards that goal, there is always the troublesome possibility that seasonal eating will go by the wayside. The two men discuss how one year they cut, blanched, and froze twenty or so heads of cauliflower to stuff their freezer full for the winter. Did that enhance the self-sustainability of their enterprise? Perhaps. But frozen cauliflower is frozen cauliflower. Eating this product in late March is not strictly "seasonal" living. I had the same feeling as I canned my tenth jar of grape jam this fall. We are a family who at most goes through two or three jars of preserves a year. Were my jars of jam an act of living off the grid or just useless overproduction?

The two men eventually decided that there would be no freezing of produce, and that preserves (i.e. oil packed tomatoes) would be made in the reasonable quantity that would be consumed the course of a season. While this might mean a few duller days in late winter, they felt that it enhanced the small moments of celebration when, for example, two perfect weeks of cauliflower were available from the garden. For that time, and only that time, they would feast, and then be sated with their fill of that vegetable.

This whole idea gets back to my concerns about overproduction. I am so used to the idea of a "good" vegetable garden being one in which there is row upon orderly row of heavily producing plants. But we are three people only! We just don't need a whole row of zucchini. If I can mentally break out of the row mentality, I still struggle with the need for multiple specimens. For example, I planted three Brussels sprout plants this year -- what a folly! The plants thrived, and put forth a huge amount of sprouts. We happily ate them for a few meals, yet a few did suffice, since none of us are true aficionados. Then I was stuck with quarts of sprouts in peak form. I gave some away, and pickled others in a spurt of ridiculous thriftiness. One jar of pickled Brussels sprouts is interesting. Five become a bit of a chore to slog through. I am not growing this produce to survive the winter. I can have my sprout feast one weekend and be done with it. I can revel in the luxury of a small celebration, versus the grim mentality of sustenance.

As winter closes in, and visions of 2010 seed catalogs dance in my head, I am meditating on my goal of producing delicious, unique seasonal tastes. I want my family to have fleeting celebrations, all the more poignant for their short duration. The one we have already effectively established is breakfast radishes. I always plant a row as soon as the soil can be worked, and for a brief two week period, we load baguette slices with radishes, butter and salt. It is our harbinger of spring and we devour our treat, but never try to extend the experience with a second planting of radish seed. Eck and Winterrowd have only steeled my resolve in this matter. Note to self: reread in the spring, right before I look at my packet of radish seed and decide, "lets just plant all of it -- I have a pickle recipe, somewhere".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

44 days

I mentioned in my first post that I was testing two recipes for a French cordial called Liqueur 44. The "44" refers to the number of coffee beans and sugar cubes that are added to a a quart of vodka or rum, along with an orange. It also refers to the number of days that the concoction should sit and infuse prior to sampling. So, forty four days have past, and my two brews have been decanted and strained into decorative bottles.

Lest you think I have hopped on the trendy train with home-infused cocktails, this is a traditional European recipe. And while food magazines like to present cordial-crafting as some new idea originating in the far reaches of Brooklyn, it is a time-honored peasant tradition (see the first post of this blog). I will admit this is my first foray into crafting an aperitif with ingredients that do not originate from my garden or a local source. Having just nipped at the results, I can't say I am persuaded to abandon my favored recipes for Thyme Liqueur and Quince Eau-de-Vie. Is it terroir? Likely not. These recipes are just more earthy and more interesting than the flavors of of Liqueur 44. Liqueur 44 is jazzed-up Grand Marnier.

The lighter colored bottle is from a recipe from Saveur. This recipe is the more straightforward of the two -- rum, orange, coffee and sugar. The darker bottle is from Susan Hermann Loomis' essential French Farmhouse Cookbook. It is vodka-based, and adds a vanilla bean and a peeled banana to the infusion. Both are a little cloying, as is store-bought Grand Marnier, if I must be honest. If I make it again, I will cut the sugar. There is not a pronounced coffee flavor in either, but there is indeed something taming the citrus notes in both. If I didn't know it was coffee, I would have guessed chocolate. Loomis' has an additional odd but not unwelcome undertone -- funky, overripe -- probably from the banana that slowly blackened in the vodka over the past month. I don't taste the vanilla bean at all.

I'll give the Saveur bottle away as a holiday gift - it is pleasant, beautiful and likely more welcome than another tin of cookies. Loomis' recipe will stay in my cupboard -by Thanksgiving or Christmas, maybe the funky character will be more prominent. My quince liqueur is still "working" as they say, and this is the recipe I would encourage you to try. Your guests can taste orange flavor anywhere, but quince flavor --pineapple and roses? lets just say quincey-ness-- is special. This drink is called a ratafia, an after-dinner drink, which according to Loomis, comes from the Roman tradition of ending a business deal with a drink -- rata fiat, "deal concluded". I'm not sure how many business deals I will seal with this drink, but many a cheery holiday celebration will be the more so for concluding with it.

Quince Liqueur

2 quinces, grated (including peels and seeds)
1 cup sugar
2 cups white rum

1. Put all ingredients in a jar, close tight and shake hard. Place in a cool, dark place.

2. Shake the jar every few days for five or six weeks. Strain into a bottle and discard the solids. Tastes better after several months of storage.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Kimchi festival

Kimchi, the ubiquitous and varied pickle of Korea, is a classic seasonal dish. From what I have heard and read, November is the time that home cooks prepare the large vats of the pickle that will sustain their families' palates throughout the coming year. As a cook, I am a newcomer to the world of kimchi, having mostly dabbled in cabbages and radishes, although there seems to be a recipe for almost any vegetable one can grow or forage. No matter what the item being pickled, or the level of seasoning, kimchi is invariably a revelation of bright, pungent flavors. For me, it is an effervescent reminder that seasonal, local eating need not mean a dull experience.

All too often, I am put off by the earnestness of the "local eating" movement, especially regarding salt and spices. I am weary of the food writers who, having "discovered" seasonal produce, instruct cooks and eaters alike to honor the beauty of the vegetable by serving it lightly steamed on a plate with the barest of seasoning. Does this approach make the preparation and consumption of the produce any more virtuous or "authentic"? Several years ago, I pored over a found copy of Living the Good Life by the proto-back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing. While I found their life and philosophy thrilling, I did sigh at the scenes of their dinners. Who among us really wants to sit around with earnest locovores eating unseasoned lettuce from a wooden bowl and extolling the inherent flavors of the leaves? When my husband and I went to Chez Panisse for the first time several years ago, we looked about at our fellow diners thrilling to the "natural" flavor of the beans and squash and began to think that maybe the emperor had no clothes. We were paying over hundred bucks for what was fundamentally under-seasoned but excellent garden produce.

Enter kimchi -- a firm rebuke to any under-seasoned earnestness. Today I made three types, from the article recently published in Saveur ( ). Yesterday, we spent a long morning at the local Korean mecca, Super-H Mart, finding salted shrimp and the right type of radish. It can be a little daunting to look at 10 pounds of cabbage and radishes and realize that I am but a dilettante in this culinary world of pickling --some families have entire refrigerators just to store their kimchi. Of course, I do not serve it at every meal. I have a half-cup or so left of this last year's batch, which I will be stir-frying with shiitakes and slivers of beef for dinner tonight. That is a stand-by meal for us, as are the bright little Korean vegetable pancakes bursting with kimchi that have entirely replaced German potato pancakes in our family (sorry, Mom). Finally, while this may not be "authentic", once you replace dill pickles with kimchi on your hamburgers, you will never look back.

I do appreciate that Saveur took the time to write a long, passionate article about the preparation of this traditional dish. It did cause a cringe-inducing moment for me though, with its quick mention of North Korea and the challenges of finding places to sample the traditional pickle of that region. Food writing can often ignore the political reality of food preparation, and the human toll of starvation and famine. One need to look no further than the horrifying story recently featured in The New Yorker ( ) to know that for many people access to even a daily staple like kimchi is a right no longer afforded by the current dictatorship. As I taste the product of my morning's efforts, I am sobered by the memory of my reading. The flavor is pungent, and there is a sharp swallow of grief to chase it down.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Strawberries to bed

I woke up this morning to find my raised beds heaved out of place by the overnight cold. One side of the strawberry bed had burst open -- the victim of a curious toddler having removed some of the reinforcing anchors. I had been waiting to mulch my strawberries. All my references had advised to mulch only after several frosts. But, I figured if it was cold enough to make the soil in my bed expand this forcefully, I should mulch now. I don't want my strawberry crowns to be damaged or heaved out of place. So, after a rib-sticking breakfast, my toddler son and I went out to face the 6 am cold with a pile of newspapers, and we layered them around the plants. Then, we spread a good 4 inches of shredded wood on top.

The traditional mulch for strawberries is barley straw, which I am sure is more picturesque than the newspapers and wood I used. Straw mulch was difficult for me to find, and I don't have a pick-up for transporting a big load anyway, so the bags of organic shredded wood from a local nursery were my compromise. I saw last season that the North Park Nature Village offers straw mulch for the taking. I worried that this free straw would bring seeds of the North Park prairie plants along with it, and I don't want troublesome weeds in my beds. Apparently the city offers free mulch as well -- from chipped trees -- but you have to take a lot, and some folks have reported insect infestations following its use. Strawberry care sources also suggest using leaves as mulch or just newspapers, but I have tried both in other areas of the garden and they blow away. And the newspapers look terrible -- soggy and depressing.

I have been surprised by how engaged my son has been in the care of the late fall garden. I thought he would only want to participate when big vegetables were growing and the soil was squishy and earthworms abounded. Indeed, whenever I see discussions of children's gardening -- Joe Eck being the one exception--, there is focus on rapid production of showy plants or easily harvested vegetables. But my son has enjoyed composting debris, layering mulches, and planting bulbs. This is a reminder to me that children too can enjoy chores and the excitement of planning for another season. If we only offer them radishes and sunflowers in "children's gardens", then how will they ever learn the peace of a spent garden, well-tended, or the subtle pleasure of a cold morning and sweet-smelling mulch? We worked together to spread a satisfyingly large pile of mulch around the bed, and I watched as he fit the rhythm of gardening into his own toddler life: "Good night, strawberries! Go to bed!" he chirped as he patted down the wood. "Don't let the bedbugs bite!".

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


My fall garden is not much to look at: my annuals are all gone, and most of my perennials peak late spring to mid-summer. The bare bones are tantalizing for me: I mentally fill in every corner with my new projects for next year, or old friends returned. In a larger garden, one can plan the beds so that there is always some kind of flowering or botanical interest occurring at a given time. To do so in a garden my size, I would either need to relinquish my vegetable real estate, or have one specimen for each time of year. So, my garden peaks over a two month period, then the late summer vegetables take over. The one thing of beauty right now, beside the fading grape vines and peony leaves, are my sedum.

There are two types of sedum that I am familiar with, the tall perennial and the creeping ground cover, Sedum spectabile and Sedum spurium respectively. Both are in my garden: the S. spurium, or two-row stonecrop, flourishes in a moist, neglected patch of earth bordering the north side of my porch. The tall sedum, or showy stonecrop, have a lovely mounded habit. A big round specimen anchors the end of one of my beds. The flowers mature just as all my other flowers fade, and I'm told they are a favorite of butterflies and bees. The sedum "Autumn Joy" (incidentally a possible cross between S. spectibile and another species S. telephium) has pink to maroon flowers that my son calls "flower broccoli", an apt description. The foliage is green and fleshy, with real dimension, like a succulent. The greenery is a presence from spring to early winter. Indeed, sedum is most often cited in my gardening books as an "excellent backdrop" to flowering summer plants.

If the offerings at Home Depot and Lowe's are any indication, it must be a popular plant, and no wonder: as long as it is in full sun, it seems to thrive on neglect and average soil. Sometimes I feel a twinge of shame of loving something already seems cooler to only grow hellebores, or other less mainstream plants. But the sedum is indeed my autumn joy, and it will always have a place in my beds.