Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Season, New Life

Snow is in the forecast for Friday, and after a six-week hiatus from gardening and writing, I face today the mountain of chores long overdue for my ragged, late-fall garden. I spent virtually the entire autumn in the low-energy state of early pregnancy -- napping, cooking just enough for family needs and generally guarding against any extra expenditure of effort. Now, at four months along, my energy is back, together with a mountain of gardener's guilt: all the tomatoes and green beans unpicked! The pounds of grapes left to the birds! The basil frost-bitten and unworthy of a few last batches of pesto!

And how lucky, indeed, that this life of gardening, cooking and preservation is more hobby than necessity. I shudder to imagine how many indigenous and settler women living in this area two hundred and fifty years ago had to shoulder weeks of food-gathering in a state of fatigue and discomfort, lest their families be left hungry in the snowy season. My family will have a few less pesto dinners and jars of grape jam over the winter, but overall will remain generally unaffected by my period of retreat from daily chores. The garden looks visibly worse for the wear, but it is nothing that a few afternoons of elbow grease can't fix.

Among the mess of overgrown plants and weeds, I found fall crops thriving from neglect -- Swiss chard, mustard and kale are all leafing out beautifully -- a few leaves of ruby red chard are pictured above. The radishes -- daikon and black Spanish -- are big and juicy, ready to be pulled and stored for winter.

I am thinking hard about next year's garden -- the 2011 seed catalogs haven't even hit the mailbox, but the planning needs to start now. The birth of my next child coincides with the last frost date -- a spring garden, beyond some lettuce and radishes, seems out of reach. The early summer, too, will probably be a wash, given all the energy a new baby requires. I have gathered several shallot and garlic varieties to plant this week. Normally, I am loathe to dedicate too much precious garden space to these crops -- they hog the beds at a time of high use -- spring and early summer. But next year they can grow undisturbed as my family expands.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The sweet smell of autumn

Autumn is right around the corner, and -- despite the 90 degree day that we are facing tomorrow --there is no more insistent a reminder of this turn of seasons than the scent of concord grapes. The arbor hangs thick with ripening fruit right by the door of the garage. I arrive home every evening to the heady scent of sun-baked grapes. The birds are getting a lot this year, and I am not sure I have it in me to make grape jam this season (especially since we never finished the jars from last year!). But the vines are worth it just for this sensory luxury of inhaling the scent of their fruit.

Concords can startle people with their scent, as for many their sheer grapey-ness conjures memories of Welch's juice and PBJ sandwiches and hard candies. There is no subtlety to the perfume of the concord -- it smacks you in the nose with its fruitiness. But I love the rich aromas that hit me as soon as I step out of the garage -- the ripening concords are a gentle salve to the wounds of a hard work day. We often find our son sitting below the small arbor, sniffing ardently as he maneuvers his trucks.

I arrived home today with a sense of relief -- my month of burdensome work hours is over and I can return to the normal pace of life. Leaving for the hospital before dawn, I have missed the quiet mornings in the garden with my son. The garden looks ragged and deflated, a horticultural reflection of my inner self right now. Fortunately both I and the garden will soon be renewed by late mornings and early afternoons spent outside, enjoying the fall weather.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Good and Sweet Year

Tonight begins the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Apples and honey are the traditional foods, symbolizing a sweet new year. Our family is not observant -- actually not religious in the slightest! --but I try to celebrate the traditions of my mother-in-law and her family with my young son. He is an easy mark on Rosh Hashanah -- what 3 year old wouldn't want to dip apples into honey as a snack? As a gardener, I also gravitate to a new year celebration tied to the autumn seems more in keeping with nature's cycles than the usual January gloom of the secular celebration.

Round challah bread is traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah as well, symbolizing the cycle of the year. I am making this recipe from Martha Stewart tonight-- it will get a second rise in the refrigerator while we sleep and tomorrow will it bake up into a gorgeously round loaf. The recipe gives a delicious twist on the traditional challah by incorporating apples directly into the dough. The resulting bread is eggy and rich, but not cloying. It is a comforting way to start this new year...and may these coming months as good and sweet as the bread.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The second coming of the nasturtiums

July was a cruel month to my nasturtiums and, by the end of the month, they had withered away to straggly, yellowing stems. I ripped the nasturtiums out of the corner of my yard, as the dying foliage looked particularly horrible against the lush August green of the rest of the garden. As I tore out the plants, I noticed little rootlets hanging off the main stems. I decided to replant these rooting stems and see what would come of it.

A month later, I have a thriving little nasturtium plant. It isn't the length of my old plant, but this salvaged little chunk of rooting stem has impressed me with its vigor. What otherwise would have gone into the compost pile has surprised me with a second life.

I had grand plans when this project started to pickle the seed pods as a homemade version of capers. No seeds appeared on the first growth of the plant -- I think it withered in the heat before it could think about reproducing. Maybe this second chance will offer some seeds. I know what to look for, thanks to an educational post from Mr. Brown Thumb. I fear there may be no homemade capers in my future....if there are, I will post them next month in the final installment of this project.

“I’m growing Nasturtium ‘Spitfire’ for the GROW project. Thanks, toRenee’s Garden for the seeds.”

Friday, September 3, 2010

Passiflora incarnata alba

The most anticipated flower in my garden bloomed today -- passiflora incarnata alba, the passion flower. I started these seeds early in the winter and have been nursing this plant along ever since, first under a cloche and then against the onslaught of the slugs.

All of my careful ministrations were worth it when when I returned from a long day of work this evening to find two blossoms quivering in the wind. The scent is tropical and the flowers look other-worldly. Neighbors gathered around for examination and discussion, as the vine is climbing my front fence. I have a feeling these passion flowers may be "shoplifted" off the vine, much like the moon flowers that grow nearby. Every morning, I notice a blossom or two has been plucked off. Such is the fate of showy flowers grown along a busy sidewalk.

I imagine a a teenage girl took one of these giant moon flowers, to tuck behind her ear, like a flamenco dancer. The petals look like rumpled white silk. I personally would pick the passion flower, although the numerous ants scurrying on the underside of the flowers would be an unwelcome surprise in the hair.

Of course, I should just rest on my laurels and enjoy the flowers, but now I am calculating the days until the first frost and wondering whether the vine will set fruit. Given the autumn chill and winds right now, it is hard to imagine I will have any passion fruit cocktails in my future. But a long Indian summer may be right around the corner, so who knows? And if not this year, perhaps next - the woman who sent me the seed says it is hardy to zone 5 if mulched carefully.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Time warp

No matter how carefully I tend my home life of urban farming and slow cooking, there are times when my professional duties overwhelm any homesteading reveries. The past 10 days have been a harsh reminder that the skills that pay my bills have less to do with my green thumb, and more to do with my medical training. I am tending patients right now, not plants. I leave early in the morning and come home in the evening, exhausted. As I stumble through my garden on the way to my house and bed, I am lucky if I remember to pick the ripe tomatoes off the plants. Forget about cooking with them! They are getting thrown in the freezer, for a big batch of sauce once my workload eases in a few weeks.

I will admit that given the small size of my garden, I sometimes micromanage every single pot and bed. I take great pleasure in this daily intimacy, watching every seedling emerge, charting the slow growth of an individual fig, plucking each withering leaf off the tomato plant. This time of intense work has forced me to step back and let my garden grow on its own, untended. Despite negligent watering, my fall container lettuce ('pot and patio blend' from Territorial) is up and thriving.

The red kuri squash is large and deepening in color. The last I checked, they were yellow and fist-sized, with the blossom still attached!

My pole beans are finally nearing harvest, at least two weeks later than last year. Fortunately my bean plants grow right by my back door, so I will remember to grab a bowl of beans before I head in to crash on the couch.

The heavy work load has made me watch my garden in time warp. Rather than the slow, minuscule daily changes, I am now only able to observe week by week. My garden feels more productive -- is it because we are now in the heady days of early September or because a watched horticultural pot never boils?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The year of the pepper

Every year in my garden, one plant does very well, outpacing all others in productivity and vigor. Each year a peculiar set of elements - rain, light, perhaps whatever I laid down as mulch the year before -- combine to create near-perfect conditions for one of my edible crops. 2006 was the year of basil, 2007 the year of the tomato, 2008 the year of the zucchini, 2009 the year of the green bean. This year, there is no doubt: 2010 is the year of the pepper. My cucumbers ran a close second, but they all recently fizzled out, while the pepper plants are still going like gangbusters.

I am growing three varieties of pepper this year: orange thai (pictured at the top, drying), spanish padron (pictured above), and a mystery pepper (pictured below). The mystery pepper came in a seed packet labelled "pizza my heart" that billed it as seed for a 3-inch conical container pepper. Check out this link or this one for what the "pizza my heart" pepper was supposed to look like. Instead I am getting very large (read: not container-friendly) plants with 5- to 6-inch elongated peppers, pictured below. What gives? Looks more like a NuMex Joe Parker to me!

It is a felicitous mix-up, since the mystery peppers are by far our favorite. I am roasting them for pizza, pickling them in vinegar and drying them for winter use. The padron peppers are okay -- more thin-walled than the mystery pepper, and the heat varies from sweet to sweat-inducing burn. According to one source, they are officially considered a mild pepper, but thanks to a genetic variation, every tenth pepper is hot. Apparently, they are most often sold and eaten green. Lazy gardener that I am, many have turned red on the plant before I can harvest. At this point, the Spanish dry them and grind them into a paprika. I have been stuffing them with feta cheese and herbs, to much acclaim.

So there you have it, 2010, the year of the pepper. This is not idle naming -- indeed, it has become a critical way for me to mark life's passages. 2007, the summer of my son's birth, is forever entwined in my memory with the flavor of sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I recall 2006 -- our last summer before the baby -- as a sweet, heady time redolent of pesto. I will now recall the summer of 2010 whenever I bite into a spicy pepper. I find it especially appropriate since my sister's recent marriage took place in New Mexico -- a land abundant in green chilis and gorgeous red ristras of dried peppers. This, too, has been a summer of personal loss, with days that smarted and burned, much like that tenth hot-as-hell padron pepper....but, as with life, you keep on. Close your eyes and bite in. You never know -- this time it may taste sweet.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dispatch from the IGC Show

The Independent Garden Center Show took over Navy Pier this week -- and though I am but a humble local garden blogger, I thought it worthwhile to stop by and check out what the area garden centers would be growing, promoting and teaching in the upcoming year. The show has educational sessions and speakers, but the main action seemed to be the giant hall full of vendors. There was row upon row of garden product vendors, including my favorite seed companies, like Renee's and Seed Saver's Exchange.

In terms of trends, I was impressed by the amount of vendors who were marketing various systems for urban gardening/raised bed gardening. There were a lot of innovative systems and prepackaged kits, including one from the original Square Foot Gardening man, Mel Bartholomew. There was a definite focus on edibles, from seeds to fruit trees. Finally, there seemed to be a lot more rain barrels than composters -- it made me wonder why composting is not a hotter business for garden centers.

Due to my work schedule, I couldn't make it to the speaking session by the ladies of Garden Rant as planned, but I was able to go to a fascinating talk on marketing heirloom vegetables. The lecture was given by David Cavagnaro, who worked for eight years at Seed Savers Exchange. It made my heart leap with joy to hear his advice to garden center owners:
  • Encourage your clientele to be stewards of living genetic diversity with heirloom seeds
  • Educate your clientele that there are specific heirlooms for specific uses (i.e. sauce tomatoes versus stuffing tomatoes, or cider apples versus pie apples). Sell both early and late maturing varieties.
  • Grow what you sell so that you can speak to consumers from authentic experience. If you can't grow it yourself, enlist local gardeners who can test and advise.
  • Sell heirlooms suited to your region. He brought up the excellent example of the over-exposed Brandywine: it has become the reigning queen of heirloom tomatoes despite being quite a challenge to grow successfully in certain areas.
He also discussed some heirloom varieties that are his particular favorites -- I am definitely going to try the Feher Ozon pepper next year!

I encountered many a booth hawking mulch, pots and hardscaping items -- all fairly standard garden center fare. Proven Winners and their ilk abounded as well, with the usual big-box perennials, including a plant with a breast cancer tie-in. Sigh. Then there were the booths promoting the garden-center-as-boutique idea, with table upon table of "presents for the mother-in-law": soap, sachets and wire tchotchkes. I don't begrudge the garden centers these items -- they are shelf-stable, and probably help fill in the retail slump-times when folks aren't picking out their spring transplants. But still, it chafes me when I go to a garden center and there is one or two seed racks tucked in an out of the way place to make room for the carefully displayed herbal perfumes and garden trowel charm bracelets.

There were some real gems, however: vendors with high-quality products that made me want to whip out my wallet right there! I hope some local centers checked out the tools by Clarington Forge, or the canning and gardening tools by Burgon and Ball. I salivated over the modular chicken coops by Creative Coops and longed for the cold frame by Maine Garden Products. One of the cooler things I saw was a bulk seed display by Livingston Seed -- it works in the same way as buying rice and nuts at the health food store. Just scoop, weigh and pay for the desired amount. Why haven't I seen this before ? (Here's a guess -- there's a bigger profit margin in selling seeds in a pretty paper package). Anyway, such a good idea, especially for urban gardeners who only need a small amount of each seed.

The IGC Show was overall a much more heartening experience than the springtime Chicago garden show....and now I hope local centers start carrying some of the cool products that were featured and promoting the ideas espoused by David Cavagnaro!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I choose cosmos....

In his delightful gem of a book, Annuals for Connoisseurs, Wayne Winterrowd recalls an older gardener who continued to scale back her garden, bed by bed, year after year. At the end of her days, she left herself with nothing more than a single small plot of zinnias that she could see from her sitting room. "Those she could not forgo". I was utterly charmed by the idea of the flower you cannot forgo.

"All gardeners must have some one flower with which they hope to end their days", writes Winterrowd, and he himself is torn between zinnias and marigolds. I choose cosmos. Yes, they are big and bulky for a small urban garden, but their airy foliage is a delight, and their sweet flowers remind of quiet summer moments in the garden. This year, I am growing the 'Rose Bon Bon', sent to me by Renee's Garden. The double flowers are frilly and deeply colored, and make for a beautiful informal arrangement in a jelly jar.

For the garden to end my days -- and may it be a long way off! --I would pick a less showy variety, 'Antiquity' perhaps. For as Winterrowd advises, "the choice must be of something simple and naive, easy of cultivation, full of lusty good health and carrying in its open flowers a memory of all the gardens one has known and loved".

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The first of the figs

The first of the Kadota figs are ripening. They are soft and very sweet, but a little insipid when eaten fresh. They are best for canning and drying. Unfortunately, I only have one potted tree, so gathering up enough ripe figs at the same time to justify an afternoon of canning or dehydrating is a bit of a challenge. The first ripe ones will go to fresh eating, and once the "main crop" comes in (read: twenty figs) I may try my hand at a small batch of fig jam. Such is the plight of the backyard homesteader. No bushels of fruit for me; just enough for a small, tantalizing taste.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Yard long vegetables

The salad we ate last night for dinner featured an embarrassment of garden riches....homegrown corn, tomatoes, potatoes and beans. The color of the beans is a bit jarring, no? A nearly black component of a salad doesn't exactly bring to mind summer freshness. In their raw state, these beans are a rich maroon. They are red noodle yard long beans and they are far outpacing my pole beans.

The first red noodles appeared two weeks ago, and they have cheerily put out armfuls of long, pencil-thick beans. I have meters upon meters of maroon beans to deal with on a nightly basis. I blanched them for this salad, but they make a good stir-fry as well. The color serves a practical purpose, too: the beans are very easy to find, whereas I often miss green string beans that camouflage themselves well amongst the similarly-colored foliage.

The other big producer in my garden has been the Armenian cucumber, also known as the yard long cucumber. These are long, narrow, snake-like melons that have a taste and texture very close to a citrusy cucumber. These melons grow very quickly and, unlike my regular cukes, seem only to become more productive the hotter it gets.

I have read they don't pickle well, and we simply cannot keep up with production. I have started giving them away in zucchini-like fashion. Most of my victims are too intrigued by the novelty of a melon the size and shape of a child's arm to turn it down. Soon they will learn that one can make only so many salads and raita before calling it a day on these suckers. I have three of these plants this year, and next year I will definitely only plant one.

Yard-long vegetables are tempting to the home cook and gorgeous in their shape and size. But yards and yards of produce can be a kitchen challenge for a small family. If you plan to go the yard-long route, you better have lined up a stable of friends ready to receive August garden overflow.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bogus "seasonal" recipes

I went to a Barnes and Noble for the first time in a long while and was shocked by the rack of newly released cookbooks -- nearly two prominently displayed shelves of glossy hardcovers emphasized local food, seasonal produce and kitchen gardening. Snark all you want about trends and recession-era fashions, but it warms my heart to see this ethic become mainstream. There was even a thick stack of one of my favorite recent books, The Seasons on Henry's Farm. A decade ago, this book would have been sold only in health food stores and garden catalogs. Three cheers for it holding it's own next to the table of teen vampire novels.

I flipped through the books and, as with most genres, they were of varying quality. They were uniformly beautiful, with close up shots of garlic scapes and oil-slicked greens. The recipes are what separated out the wheat from the chaff. Clearly, some authors knew what they were talking about and others, well, had jumped a little too quickly on the locavore bandwagon. One book that proclaimed an ethic of "growing your local community" featured pineapple salsa. Unless your local community is Hawaii, that ain't local, baby. I have nothing against recipes featuring fresh fruit, and love a good pineapple now and then. But pretending that you can march over to the farmer's market and pick-up a pineapple to go with your grass-fed pork chop is a little silly.

More subtle, but entirely more irritating to me as someone who truly sweats out the season in her vegetable patch, were some of the garden-based cookbooks. The authors nailed the basics: tomatoes in summer, kale in the late fall. Their lack of gardening chops -- or even their lack of a keen eye for farmer's markets week in and week out -- was shown in the many of the dishes featuring combinations of produce. Apricot and rhubarb marmalade? My rhubarb is long past harvest when the apricots ripen. Corn and melon salad? My corn was picked this week, and my melons are just the size of baby's fists. Most annoying to me are the "summer" recipes featuring greens and tender lettuces. By the time tomatoes are ripe on the vine, any lettuce left in the garden will be bolted and bitter. I just planted my fall lettuce seed in the shadow of tomato plants, heavy with ripe fruit. That's as far as these two garden products will come to each other in my house, unfortunately.

Even my current favorite food writer, Francis Lam of, is not immune to "seasonal" gaffes. He wrote a column last week waxing poetic on the powerful flavor of local eating but then gave a recipe for a tomato and arugula pasta. My arugula peters out in early May, and I get another crop in late September. Even the farmer's markets are low on greens this time of year. My list of examples goes on and on, but I am starting to feel a little too grumpy. After all, if these books get someone to plant their own flat of lettuce or raise a tomato or two, that is a good thing. And, as my husband observed after I concluded my bogus-garden-recipe rant, most of the real hard-core gardeners are too busy weeding to sit back and write a cookbook.

Friday, August 6, 2010

If only all children could have a school like this...

Today is my son's first day of school. He will be a student in the early childhood classroom of a Montessori magnet in the Chicago public school system. This school has a garden, albeit a few raised beds on an old asphalt basketball court. I'll take it -- any outdoor activity is a luxury in a school system imperiled by a city that pours money into TIF's instead of education. In honor of the start of his formal education, I wanted to share with you some images of the school I wish he could go to.

While in Santa Fe for my sister's wedding, I had the chance to visit the school where she works, Camino de Paz Montessori School and Farm. Here's a description from the website:

"Camino de Paz is located on a working organic farm.
Daily practical experiences, along with service learning,
outdoor education, arts and music provide a meaningful
context for academic studies"

Here are the greenhouses and cold frames where the students raise vegetables:

"[Students care for animals, prepare meals, process foods and help on the farm. They run a poultry business, selling their eggs at the Camino de Paz Farm booth in local farmers' markets. They construct and maintain animal habitats and their own garden plots"

Here is a loom in the fiber arts area, where folks can spin and weave the wool raised from the farm sheep:

Just a brief visit to this beautiful and purposeful school made my heart ache for all the kids in classrooms across the country who must make do with some houseplants and a gerbil and, if they are very lucky, a raised bed or two. Who needs gym class when you spend a morning shoveling compost or pruning grape vines? How can the students at Camino de Paz not have a superior education to the children who do not have the opportunity to participate authentically in the life of a farm? As Maria Montessori wrote, "[E]ducation is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Homegrown luxury

There are those in my generation who may remember a TV game show from the early 1990's: Supermarket Sweep. The show pitted two couples against each other in a supermarket and culminated in a frenzied shopping spree. The point of the spree was to fill your cart with the highest-value items in the allotted time. Everyone went for the shallots, which were inexplicably located on a dry-goods shelf, individually packaged in a cardboard box. Why weren't they in the produce section? Could they have tasted any good packaged like that? This pop-culture childhood memory has colored my opinion of shallots to this day. They are luxury, high-value, worthy of a shopping spree. So please understand the thrill I get at the above picture of my most recent accomplishment: a braid of homegrown shallots.

This spring, while the soil was still cold and the weather raw, I planted big, fat shallot bulbs in my backyard. They cheerily sprouted and produced....lots of small shallots. Apparently big bulbs yield many small shallots and small bulbs yield a few big shallots. So, I'm saving my small shallots and replanting them next spring to see if this advice holds. I saved the biggest (most are the size of a fat garlic clove) and braided them into clusters, for drying by the kitchen window. I can twist them off for a vinaigrette or Thai fried rice and luxuriate in their abundance.

If I wanted to blow all of my shallot treasure in one wildly delicious meal, I would make a bowl of shallot and cherry confit. This is possibly the single best recipe I have ever clipped from Martha Stewart Living -- and that is saying a lot, coming from me, an inveterate recipe clipper and unabashed Martha fan. This is more of a jam than a true confit. It is rich, sweet and packed with flavor. Cut a baguette into slices, smear it with some warm, soft goat cheese and pile a heaping spoonful of this confit on top. This is the humble allium at its finest, and most luxurious.

Monday, August 2, 2010

They break your heart every time

Here is my nasturtium tee-pee before I left on an out-of-state trip:

Here is my tee-pee as I found it, six days later:

Annuals break your heart every time. At some point, they just pucker out and there you are, left with the wilted, tattered remains. Have the plants reached the end of their life? Was it the heat? Was it too much rain? I am going to pick off the nasty bits tonight, and see what I can salvage. I can't leave you with the image of my sorry yellowing mess, so let me share the gorgeous centerpieces of my sister's wedding this past weekend:

These are homemade buckets of New Mexican wildflowers, surrounded by wind-fallen apples. Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart.

“I’m growing Nasturtium ‘Spitfire’ for the GROW project. Thanks, to Renee’s Garden for the seeds.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A wedding offering

My sister is getting married this weekend and we are all looking forward to celebrating with the happy couple. I leave my garden with some trepidation, knowing that a few days of not picking cucumbers or tomatoes could promise a pathetic vegetable patch on my return. I have promised the neighbor kids a monetary reward for keeping the vegetables picked and the containers watered. Twelve year-olds, however, have better things to do than maintain my garden, so we'll see how well it goes. No matter. I have put up plenty of dill pickles over the weekend, so if this is the last of the cukes, it won't be a tragedy.

The night before the official nuptials, my sister and her husband-to-be are hosting a pot-luck picnic, with fried chicken and beer. Price of admission is a side dish and I know just what I would bring, if I weren't travelling across the country with a three-year old. So I am posting it here, as a kind of virtual offering. This is a perfect picnic dish and one that, for me, evokes a wealth of childhood memories. And what is the point of family at a wedding if not to remind the bride and groom from whence they came, of their past and of the way it will shape their future? I would bring the dish because it is a bowlful of our younger selves. The taste is of summers at the town pool and playing softball at the park and riding our bikes home from babysitting jobs. One bite and I am back. This is the dish I would bring because it is my mother's recipe, and it tastes of her, and her kitchen and everything she loved about lazy summer afternoons.

My mother passed away five years ago and as the eldest daughter, I feel I somehow need to let my sister feel her presence at the wedding. I could stand up and give a toast, but I would probably cry if I spoke of my mother. I prefer joke-filled, upbeat toasts, and I am loathe to give a damp, weepy speech. Also, toasts weren't my mom's style. She was humble and calm and not given to public speaking. If she was brash and loud, it was in the kitchen, with her food. My mother was an exuberant cook and her summer fare was rich with tomatoes, corn, and basil. This dish, full of onions and bright dressing, is just what she would have brought to the pot-luck. She would have put down the bowl with a smile on her face and joy in her heart. She would have cracked open a cold beer and raised it in celebration. So here's to the happy couple. I give you a recipe that perhaps you will make one day with your own kids, creating their own lazy summer memories.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The savory side of canning

With apricots and cherries in season, I am up to my ears in jam, despite the unavoidable fact that my family prefers salty preserves over sweet ones. It was time to put up some more savory treats, so I turned to a newly released book: Homemade Living: Canning and Preserving with Ashley English (I received a review copy from the publisher). Ashley English writes a blog, Small Measure, that will certainly be of interest to anyone who has found their way here to K-Town Homestead -- it is chock full of posts about a sustainable, homemade life. I am always a bit wary of books by bloggers -- all too often the books seem little more than printed-out posts (case in point: The Foodie Handbook). English's book comes off as a stand-alone effort, much to her credit. A blogging sensibility does infuse the book, however; like the best of the blogs on the web, it is carefully designed, with lovely photos and an appealing and accessible layout.

The book is full of information for beginners, as well as challenges for old hands. I put myself somewhere in the middle skills-wise, and was intrigued by most of the recipes. I say most because she includes a "classic" recipe for canned corn -- seriously? Canned corn? Freezing wins out on this one for me. I tested three recipes that worked with what was available at the farmer's market this week as well as spilling out of my own overflowing summer garden. Alas, the Cardamom Apple Cider Butter will have to wait until fall!

I jumped in with a refrigerator pickle recipe for Persian Cucumbers. Spicy, snappy and redolent of cloves, they made a good accompaniment for my hummus. I must caution that these pickles are for true clove-lovers. The next time I make them (and there will be a next time), I am cutting down the cloves at least by half. It is a gutsy recipe and I appreciate the bold spicing. So many canning books keep everything mild enough for a ninety-year old Midwestern grandma.

I moved on to the tomato-basil sauce, using a combination of two varieties from my garden: mortgage lifter and peiping chieh. Now, I know mortgage lifter is a slicer, but they are low-seed and meaty, and frankly we can't keep up with the output (how many two-pound tomatoes can a family eat?). I had to do something with them, so they went into the canning pot. English's recipe and my produce yielded a thin, bright sauce -- not mind-blowing, but better than any canned "pizza sauce" you buy in the store. I will probably use it as a base for a more complex pasta sauce, rather than just dump it on pasta all by itself. I am going to try this one again with a true sauce tomato, once my opalkas ripen (if I don't lose them all to blossom end rot!).

Finally, I canned up a recipe for fennel relish (pictured at the top of the post). English organized a lot of the recipes by season and filed this one under "winter". Hmmm...peppers in winter? The late-July farmer's market today had fennel, onions and red bell peppers for sale. So, it seems like a summer recipe if you want to make it from locally-grown produce. This recipe yields a product that needs a month or two to mellow in the jar, letting the spices meld before taking a true sample. So I cannot speak to the taste, but the recipe was straightforward and easy to follow. These jars are easy on the eyes too -- I love the red pepper slices and black peppercorns against the pale green fennel. If I have a quibble, it is that the book assumes the reader will generally know how to put the preserves to good use. While English does offer some quick suggestions before the recipes (i.e. "slather on a ham sandwich"), folks might be left scratching their heads at 4 pints of fennel relish. A few actual recipes for the use of each preserve (as are offered in Eugenia Bone's book or the Williams-Sonoma guide) might help home cooks realize the full potential of their efforts.

Overall, this is an excellent book and an especially good choice as a gift for someone who wants to start canning. This is not an encyclopedic effort, but rather a well-edited collection of interesting projects. Those huge textbook-sized canning manuals can be intimidating! While it is ideal for the beginner, especially given the clear step-by-step photos, there are enough challenging and unique treats for the master canners in our midst. This definitely earns a place in my canning library and, come fall, you can expect a post about that apple butter!

Friday, July 23, 2010

On sharing the garden wealth

This morning I experienced two conflicting emotions about sharing the bounty of my garden. On one hand, I need to foist off my surplus now, lest our family develop some kind of nutritional deficiency from living entirely off cucumbers. I collected a large basket of produce this morning from my beds, including the giant cucumber above that sneakily swelled up on a rogue vine behind the AC unit. I feel overwhelmed by the amount of food I bring into the house every day this time of year. I have pickled and canned and frozen, as well as served untold bowls of cucumber-and-tomato-based dishes over the past few weeks. My genial colleagues are always ready to eat up any produce I bring to work, and this basket is destined for the table in the break room this morning (with the exception of the red yardlong beans, that are much better cooked than raw).

On the other hand, when it comes to my neighbors on either side of my house, I feel quite possessive about my plants and produce. Consider the red kuri squash plant that I am growing in my compost pile. The plant recently has put out a long side vine that has wound its way into a narrow space next to my neighbors garage. I can see that it has already set several fruits -- fruits that will be out of reach to me through the fence that separates our two properties. I began to look around for my pruners, ready to lop off this wayward branch of the the plant -- I stopped myself just short of the amputation. Why did I care? Why was I so intent on my plant not supporting squashes that might land on my neighbors table instead of mine? This wasn't all sheer greed, though I admit that I'd rather focus the plant's energies on the squash that I can pick. Even if the squash was totally growing on my side of the fence, I'd likely push a few squash into their hands at the end of the summer, encouraging them to roast it and enjoy.

I believe my impulse to prune was tied up in issues of neighborliness as it relates to tight urban areas like mine. We live incredibly close to each other -- despite brick exteriors and latched windows, they know when the baby is up early and we know when our elderly neighbor leads a prayer meeting. We all are careful to respect each others' privacy. We greet each other when feeling gregarious. We avoid eye contact when, for example, I want to lose myself in the peace of weeding and my young neighbor wants a quiet smoke after a long shift. We are aware of each other, mere yards apart, but try to exist in our separate mental worlds, to create spiritual isolation amidst intense physical togetherness.

This plant breaks carefully constructed boundaries. It takes liberties. It encroaches. It insistently acknowledges that we live as a tribe, entwined despite our various efforts to pretend otherwise. I will leave it as it lies, but check with my neighbor that he doesn't mind that this plant is thriving in a forgotten spot behind his garage. I could just ask him through the fence as he smokes, but I will probably go around the front and knock on his door.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Better late than never

My strawberry patch had a second flush of ripe berries over the weekend. Given the wealth of fresh plums, cherries and peaches on our counter right now, I feared that the strawberries would go uneaten. What? Homegrown strawberries uneaten? Well, we find these July berries to be a little less luscious then the first June crop -- blander and drier, likely secondary to the inevitable heat and water issues of high summer. Come fall, they sweeten up again.

I had never gotten around to canning strawberry jam in the peak of the June harvest -- I made a refrigerator batch that was gobbled up in a day and then all the extra berries went to a friend with a weakness for late-night strawberry shortcake. I figured now was the time to put up some jars of preserves. If you are planning on serious strawberry preservation (either freezing or canning), June-bearing varieties are probably a better bet than everbearing. The problem with everbearings is that, after a relatively sizable June crop, they put out a few berries every few days. This is fine for garden snacking, but you rarely have enough ripe all at once to make a cobbler or a big amount of jam. I had read that putting some white-shouldered berries in jam is a good idea, because they have higher pectin levels, so I put some under-ripe berries into my jam pot. I had just enough to make 5 half-pints. If I hadn't also been canning apricot jam, it would have hardly been worth it to clean and sterilize all the equipment, let alone heat up my whole house with the water-canner!

I made a new recipe, strawberry balsamic jam, from Eugenia Bone's Well Preserved. This is the first of Bone's recipes that has disappointed. One, there's too much vinegar, making for an overwhelming sweet-and-sour effect; two, the balsamic gives the jam a very dark, unappetizing color; and three, the recipe inexplicably instructs the cook to scoop out the cooked fruit with a slotted spoon and just can that. I had trouble understanding how this made any sense -- the fruit had given up most of its liquid to the sugar syrup. I couldn't have filled one half-pint jar with the actual fruit solids. Bone tells the reader to can the syrup separately. Anyway, I canned everything together.

In the end, the jam tastes fine -- definitely usable, especially if I pair it with cheese or other savory dishes. It just doesn't have a bright, clean strawberry taste. Dialing back the balsamic to 2 tablespoons instead of 5 might really help the recipe, but I am too much of a scaredy-cat to mess with canning recipes. I never tinker with the ingredients or processing times and I never use amateur Internet recipes. I like to see that the recipes published in books have been safety tested per government standards, or whatever such bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I snicker at stuff like that, but I fear the botulism, and will take my canning recipes government-approved.

So here I am with five jars of "sophisticated" jam. Sigh. Classic strawberry jam may be simple and naive, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes "gourmet" recipes --in their effort to make foods taste more complex or nuanced -- end up overshadowing the key ingredient. Have we all become such fancy chefs in the kitchen that we can't serve up a simple dish? Next time, I'm just going to let the strawberries be strawberries, and save the balsamic for my salad dressing.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vertical versus horizontal cucumbers

I have four cucumber plants in my garden this year. Two are in a raised bed, sprawling along the ground in a forgotten corner of our patio. Two have been trained vertically up the sunniest section of fence in my yard. Both receive the same amount of water and light, but the sprawling plants are well ahead of the vertical climbers. What gives?

The vertical climbers are lush with leaves and covered in yellow blossoms. I planted these seeds at the same time, but the horizontal sprawlers are now laden with cukes. A bit of (non-scientific) internet research confirms that vertically grown plants have lower yields. One source attributed this to increased water loss in vertically grown vegetables, but argues that while per-plant yield is lower, per-square foot yield comes out ahead. I guess what confuses me is that difference isn't in yields as much as it is in maturity -- -- the horizontal plants are in some kind of two week time warp ahead of the verticals. Is it because the verticals have to put more energy into growing up rather than sideways?

I am in no hurry for the vertical cukes to start producing, because we can barely keep up with what we have. We have already had to compost a few behemoths that were uncovered well past their prime -- and here I thought that only happened with zucchini! I am planning on pickling the smallest cucumbers as cornichons this weekend. We are having Greek salad for every lunch -- yes, life could be worse. The lesson in all of this is the usual one for me: next year, fewer plants will do.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I can't spend my summers in the French countryside, but at least my garden lets me eat like I'm there. The garden stars have finally aligned to give me all the critical ingredients for one of our favorite summertime dinners, a French tian. Tian is just a fancy way to say a baked vegetable casserole. Larousse Gastronomique officially defines it as "an earthenware ovenproof dish from Provence, square or rectangular, with slightly raised edges". I live with a Minnesotan. A hotdish by any other name is still a hotdish.

My favorite version of tian has a base layer of sauteed onions, topped by a layer of potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini. The whole thing is redolent of thyme and basil and gets pretty juicy, especially if you are cooking with freshly picked garden produce. So have a baguette handy for sopping up the goodness. If the thought of a casserole in the middle of summer makes you wilt, never fear. Make this early in the day, in the cool of the morning. Drink an iced coffee to combat the kitchen heat. Then leave this on the counter and come home to a delicious room temperature dinner. Somehow this becomes much tastier after sitting out on the counter for ten hours, just how day-old soup or stew tastes more complex and rich.

With this on hand, I can crack open a bottle of rose and pretend I am in Provence, eating at a stone table with fields of lavender in the distance. Of course the insistent throb of music on car speakers and the grating melody of ice cream trucks remind me emphatically that I am on the west side of Chicago -- but the smell and taste of this simple dish are as close as I can get to an airplane ticket out of this hot, loud city.

Provencal Tian
(adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris)

Olive oil
2 large onions, sliced into thick rounds
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound of potatoes, unpeeled, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 pound of zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 pound of tomatoes, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds (or just halve cherry tomatoes)
1 bunch of basil
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 ounces of gruyere or parmigianno cheese, grated (optional if you want this vegan)

1. Preheat oven to 375. Lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan, and cook the onions over medium-low heat until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Spread the onion evenly over the bottom of the baking dish.

3. Layer the potatoes, zucchini and tomatoes over the onions in one layer, fitting them tightly. I like to make long stripes of alternating vegetables. You could also do concentric circles. Tuck the basil leaves among the vegetables. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, pepper, and the thyme leaves and then give everything a good drizzle of olive oil. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.

4. Take off the foil, sprinkle with the cheese and bake, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, or until well browned. Serve warm or room temperature.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Blossom End Rot

One of my Opalka tomato plants has come down with blossom end rot. Blossom end rot (BER) is not a pathogen-borne disease, but rather a calcium-uptake issue. Either there is calcium soil deficiency, or conditions (drought or excess water usually) lead to impaired calcium delivery from the roots. None of the other neighboring tomatoes are suffering similar issues, so I am loathe to blame this on a soil calcium deficiency. Also, this area is pretty heavily composted each year, and my compost is rich with egg shells. This plant has been lagging behind the others -- spindly and few leaves. I suspect the lie of my uneven clay soil is to blame - drainage is not ideal in this specific area. Also likely to blame is this crazy weather -- the area around this plant especially can look very parched, and then it gets completely soaked with these quick, heavy storms.

Even though I am convinced this a water issue, I gave all the plants a good soak with compost tea, as well as some organic fertilizer. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the early fruits on this single plant will be the only ones affected. I don't think you necessarily have to remove the fruit (not a contagious situation), but I didn't want the plant pouring energy into deformed tomatoes. An interesting tidbit I found is that paste tomatoes like Opalka are more prone to blossom end rot. Many folks attest to the productivity of this variety, so hopefully the next round will come out healthy!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Preserving cherries

It is hard to face another canning project so soon after the flush of June strawberries. Early July offers a little bit of breathing space in my own edible garden. There is little to eat aside from young squash and the earliest of the cherry tomatoes, which are eaten immediately upon discovery. My blueberry bushes -- more likely candidates for preservation -- are young and only have a few berries on each one. There aren't enough to fill a hand let alone a pint jar! One would think I would take this time to relax and store up canning energy for the August pickles and tomato sauce. But no, the cherries caught my eye at the farmers market today. I couldn't resist.

A recipe from Eugenia Bone's canning book Well Preserved has been burning a hole in my recipe file for a while: Cherries in Red Wine. We are not heavy users of jam and jelly around here, so I clipped this more versatile recipe when I came across it last year. These cherries can be a dessert with, say, vanilla ice cream, or made into a savory dish with some shallots and a sprig of thyme. My husband had a duck breast dish in Paris that featured a cherry and wine sauce, quite similar to what I jarred up today. Please note that Ms. Bone has also corrected the original recipe to 6 cups of wine (rather than 2 quarts). Even with the correction, you will end up with excess wine syrup. It is tasty, but the citrus-clove flavor profile is more winter than summer time. I decided to toss it, but a truly thrifty person with more freezer space could probably save it and find a use for it as a sauce or drink base come fall.

Of course, the pain in the rear with cherries is the pitting, and my hands and nails are now stained dark. I now have five pints of cherries in wine, and they will be a welcome treat when the menu turns to cloves and rich wine sauces in late autumn. We had the first of the local corn for dinner instead. I had planned on leftover cherries for dessert, but after pitting four pounds this afternoon, I needed a break!

Friday, July 9, 2010

July Surprises

This week has brought me two sets of flowers I have never seen, from my hen and chick plant and from my spider plant. The hen and chick flower stalk is a little jarring -- making for an oddly asymmetric and top-heavy container. The mother hen plant will die after flowering, but fortunately there are plenty of chicks to take over. Some folks cut the stalks off, but I will keep it for now-- I want to try my hand at collecting and germinating the seeds.

Last fall, my son rooted a spider plant baby in a little dish of dirt at the Garfield Park Conservatory. He has long since moved on to more delicious plant projects (strawberries, blueberries), but I tended this little pot all winter. Now it has started to seriously flower. There are spider plants all over my office but I can't remember ever seeing a stalk with oodles of white flowers on it --there must have been at least twenty in the first flush and you can see in the picture that more buds are forming. I put the plant on my porch for the summer, so perhaps that is why it suddenly became so enthusiastic?

The other July surprise is my sudden change in horticultural fortune. A few weeks ago, I posted grumpily about the poor performers of my summer garden. Well, those plants must have been shamed by their cyber-scolding because they suddenly are showing signs of vigor and health. Above is my newly leafing Issai kiwi vine. Here is my once-bedraggled passion fruit vine:

Even my toothache plant has started to flower abundantly with these weird, wacky globes. No wonder this is also called an eyeball plant!

Lest you think my gardening luck has completely turned around, check out my fingerling potato leaves:

Now is this blight? This humid weather is a dream for fungal infections. As I have never grown potatoes before, I also wonder if it might just mean the plant is reaching the end of its life -- it flowered abundantly about 3 weeks ago. I may turn out one container just to see. Stay tuned....