Sunday, February 28, 2010

Piquant pickle plans for 2010

After months of sitting on my shelf, some pickle alchemy has finally occurred with my green bean pickles, a.k.a. dilly beans. I hadn't even planned on pickling green beans last year, but thanks to One Seed Chicago, I had a glut of blue lake pole beans in my garden come fall. I decided to put up a few jars of dilly beans -- I love dill pickles, and I didn't feel like blanching and freezing my whole bean harvest. Dilly beans look particularly nice when canned, especially when neatly arranged in an upright but slanted pattern around the edge of the jar.

I opened a jar for company around Thanksgiving and one taste made my eyes smart: very vinegary and harsh. I was tempted to get rid of all the jars right then and there, but decided to let them mellow for a few more months and recheck. Just this weekend I sampled them again, and am happy to report that the flavor has rounded out nicely. Now, the beans are tangy and garlicky with just an edge of dill. Because the beans are raw packed prior to canning, they remain surprisingly crisp. They surpass any dill pickle you can buy at the grocery store. I have decided I need to grow dill again this summer, just to have the heads to stuff into the pickle jars. As I sit here munching on my latest culinary coup, I am pondering what pickling projects to slate for the upcoming garden season.

Last year, I canned three different vegetables: cauliflower, green beans and brussels sprouts, the latter two from my garden. In addition, I fermented a small amount of sauerkraut and a few big jars of napa and radish kimchi. I will continue on with the sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as the dilly beans, but I must be a ruthless culinary editor and nix the sprouts and cauliflower in the upcoming canning season. The sprouts were more a novelty than a real treat, and after surprising friends with a bloody mary cleverly garnished in locavore style, I ran out of uses for them. They do seem to be popular though - I recently saw a jar of pickled brussels sprouts being sold as an artisanal local product for a heart stopping 8 dollars. The cauliflower turned out better, a decent sweet and sour pickle recipe from Eugenia Bone, but if I'm doing sweet and sour pickles this year, I'm going to revive my old habit of pickling watermelon rinds.

My other definite pickling project for 2010 is going to be a foray into poor man's capers, otherwise known as pickled nasturtium seed pods. I've had my eye on this thrifty gourmet project for a while, and thus had been planning to grow nasturtiums this season. I also wanted to have a taste of the 'spicy' leaves and flowers of the nasturtium (disconcertingly, referred to as "nasties" on many a blog). Still, the main motivation was to grow a source of homemade capers. I was, then, pretty excited to hear about the seed GROW project, a communal growing project for garden bloggers, featuring no less than the mighty nasturtium. Every blogger who signed up received a packet of seeds from Renee's Garden, and will post monthly updates on the nasturtium's progress in their gardens. Stay tuned -- any post relating to the seed GROW project will be tagged with this signature:

"I'm growing Nasturtium "Spitfire" for the GROW project. Thanks, to Renee's Garden for the seeds."

Capers will definitely make it into more cooking projects in my kitchen than the brussels sprouts. I use them in pasta, mainly, and sometimes with fish. However, the single best use for capers, in this East Coast girl's opinion, is for a New York Sunday brunch: bagels with cream cheese, lox, red onion, tomato and plenty of capers on top. Real bagels! Not frozen ones. And definitely not the hamburger-buns-with-a-hole-in-the-middle I have seen passed off as bagels in certain parts of the Midwest. My personal nasturtium project for 2010 is this: a completely homemade Sunday brunch. Homemade bagels, homemade cream cheese, homegrown tomatoes, onions and "capers" and, finally, salmon I've cured in my own kitchen. Catching the fish myself is out of reach at this point. I'll settle for making gravlax.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The small pleasures of bread baking

Most Saturday mornings, I make a loaf of bread for weekend snacks. The recipe varies, as does the shape, but my loaves usually have a neat series of straight parallel lines or a large criss-cross slashed into the top. A few quick runs with a razor blade just prior to baking yields a nice finished pattern that I always admire. This morning, I turned the dough into a blazing hot cast-iron dutch oven, and forgot my usual ritual of slashing. The happy surprise was a gorgeously cracked crust. It reminds me of a watershed map, a giant river branching into ever smaller streams and brooks.

Ah, the small pleasures of bread baking. A loaf like this gives me the same grateful feeling as finding a new flower or pulling the first radish of the season.

I also made this bread look quite "artisanal" with a technique I learned from Jim Lahey, via Mark Bittman: flouring a cotton dishtowel and using it to wrap the dough during the second rise. The flour thus clings beautifully to the surface of the finished loaf, in a way that I have never been able to achieve by just sprinkling flour on the dough prior to baking.

The New York Times recently published a great bread making article by my favorite kitchen scientist and food nerd, Harold McGee. He examines the benefits and downfalls of the new-fangled wet doughs and no-knead techniques being promoted by folks like the aforementioned Lahey. McGee hits on some critical issues in bread making and they are sadly ones that I have only learned from hard experience and disappointing loaves. First, when it comes to flavor, salt matters - a lot. Romanticize the salt-free Tuscan loaf all you want, it just doesn't taste good unless it is dipped in a heavily flavored sauce or smothered in garlic and tomatoes. Second, wet doughs can lead to gummy loaves. More importantly on the topic of dough is his advice on shape: for the best loaves, stick with baguette style or small rolls. A good boule or round loaf is very hard to achieve in the home oven: the heat, moisture and air circulation just can't get close enough to the conditions of professional bakeries. The cast-iron dutch oven method that Lahey developed is the only way I have ever made round loaves that don't come out like a dense foccaccia.

Oh, to have a bread oven! I wish I had the space and zoning permits to build an outdoor adobe oven for bread and pizza. Maybe one day I can find a house that has a built-in bread oven: check out the kitchen in this New Hampshire home recently posted for sale in the Times. For a 1790's hearth like that, I would be willing to sacrifice bedrooms, bathrooms, and location. I could live anywhere! Well, as long as it had space for a garden. A garden and a hearth....what more could a girl want?

Friday, February 26, 2010

My favorite grain

One of the more welcome trends in food magazines of late has been a genuine emphasis on recipes featuring whole grains. In years past, many magazines would have but one or two such recipes, usually relegated to the diet or healthy living column. Either that or they were designated as the token vegetarian option amidst recipes for braised pork belly, grilled steaks and their ilk. Too many of these older recipes were reminiscent of earnest 1960's melanges of minimally seasoned nuts and grains that sprang from such books as Diet for a Small Planet and The Moosewood Cookbook. I forget where I read this but it is true: look at any of the recipes from Moosewood and mentally add bacon. It would taste much better, wouldn't it? So here's to the mainstream culinary press, who are finally putting out whole-grain recipes that can actually compete in flavor with a platter of pork belly.

I also am relieved to see the introduction of more variety in the whole grains featured in the recipes. No longer is the emphasis solely on brown rice or barley. Quinoa has stopped being presented as an undiscovered "exotic grain" and spelt is popping up with increasing frequency. But my absolute favorite whole grain is farro. Food editors too have seemed to recently discover that farro adds a rich nutty flavor to any dish. Farro has a very pleasing texture, the ideal of "al dente". Farro prepared risotto-style is far more flavorful and satisfying than than a true risotto made with arborio rice. Indeed, it boosts the texture and flavor of the dish so much that I find it unnecessary to trick it out with the usual risotto finishes of butter and a huge handful of parmigianno.

Farro's exact definition is murky and controversial. In a few recipes it is presented as another name for spelt, which adds to the confusion. Everyone agrees farro is a type of wheat, but beyond that, disagreements abound. According to wikipedia, this confusion arises from regional differences in Italy as to which type of wheat is grown and labeled as farro: emmer, einkorn or spelt. The type I use is emmer wheat, as best I can tell. It is hard to find, even in a big city like Chicago. I haven't checked Whole Foods, they must have a box somewhere on their shelves. I know I can reliably purchase farro from Caputo's, the independent Italian grocery chain to the west of the city. I make sure there is always a bag of farro on my pantry shelf.

I first tasted farro in Siena, Italy, where it was served in a thick vegetable-grain soup. It was a stick-to-your ribs meal --classic peasant fare -- and I thrilled to the depth and flavor of the dish. When I finally found farro stateside, I tried to recreate the soup. It tasted so-so, not at all living up to the intoxicating memory. Of course, this was likely because even a humble soup tastes better when you are newly married and sitting in a rustic osteria in a gorgeous medieval Italian town. Martha Stewart, as usual, came to the rescue and published a recipe for farro risotto so delicious that it has become one of my special "company" dishes. I have found it to be a hit with small children as well, if they are adventurous and willing to taste something that doesn't look like buttered pasta.

More recently, I found another winning farro recipe, a warm salad of farro and red cabbage, redolent of thyme. In the picture is above, it is the dish on the left. The other dish is a platter of roasted root vegetables tossed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with homemade feta. This was a real late-winter vegetarian feast! My weak photography skills do not capture the real color of the farro dish -- thanks to the cabbage, the whole platter of food had a gentle purple hue. This pleased my son to no end, who asked for seconds and thirds of the "purple pasta". My husband was a little more wary -- especially as the purple color deepened as the dish cooled. But it was hard for him -- even with the reservations about the color palate -- to deny that it was filling and bursting with flavor. I made both the root vegetables and this dish because I was afraid neither one would "be enough" to serve on its own. What folly! Both were incredibly filling and we are still eating the leftovers days later. And I didn't even think about adding bacon.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tomato experiment

Last year, two men at work were locked in a no-holds-barred race to have the first tomato of the season. Every day they discussed at length the walls-o-water, the cloches, the coddling. I found it all a bit tiring. I felt this macho race to be first had little point, since shortly we would all be up to our necks in warm-season crops, with coworkers carefully avoiding us lest they be handed another bag of cherry tomatoes or zucchini. I employed none of my colleagues' soil-warming techniques and wound up only a few weeks behind the mean time, I had radishes.

I'm sure botanic journals are bursting with scientific reports on various approaches to starting tomato plants on a large scale. I like to read nerdy science stuff as much as the next garden geek, but sometimes I wonder what these carefully controlled professional garden trials have to do with my little home plot. I'm not trying to produce acres of productive, disease-free plants, or bring a sturdy fruit to market. I just want my lazy August bowls of insalata caprese. While we're at it, I wouldn't mind enough tomatoes to meet my spaghetti sauce needs for the winter months. Beyond that, is it just production for production's sake? Can you actually ever have too many tomatoes?

Moreover, can you ever have them too soon? By the beginning of September my family has usually tired of the salsas and tomato salads that we were savoring a few months prior. We are looking forward by then to winter squash, root vegetables and fall greens. By starting the season early, am I just creating an early start to the tomato ennui of late summer?

I saw a package of walls-o-water on sale last month, and decided to give them a try. My husband snickered, reminding me of my professed disdain for these contraptions last season. But I bought them, and hence the first tomato seeds were started a few days ago. I am not desperate to be the first with tomatoes on the snack table at work -- I'll leave that to the boys -- so why did I buy the walls-o-water? Mostly, I am just curious. I love to learn new techniques in both the garden and the kitchen. Do they really work so much better than plain-old "transplanting when the soil warms"? Maybe I just don't know what I'm missing out on. I sneered at salad spinners until I tried one, and was immediately converted. I suspect that a few extra weeks of tomatoes will probably not alter my life significantly, but at least the next time I roll my eyes at my competitive colleagues, I can do so from experience. And if my family ever goes deeper into local and sustainable eating, this season extension technique may be the difference between a new salad or yet another bowl of dried beans!

Since I was doing a head-to-head trial of walls-o-water versus my usual transplanting practice, I figured I'd throw in another branch to my research study and wintersow the same seeds. I just placed them in wintersown containers outside. While the wintersowing folks make no claim to earlier harvests, they do argue that the technique yields sturdier, healthier plants. I've never had much problem with tomato plant vigor (knock on wood). Usually, it's the opposite -- they seem to grow into every corner of my garden as soon as I turn my back. By the end of August, I can't keep up with all the tomatoes. Even if the wintersown seeds end up maturing later than the other plants, they can act as replacements should I lose a plant to pest or disease. Somehow I suspect all will do just fine in the end, and I will wind up with even more tomatoes than I usually harvest. Fortunately, I am trying out Opalka paste this year, and a surplus should just mean more days in the kitchen making sauce. Remind me how nonchalantly I wrote that last sentence when I am complaining about a weekend-long canning extravaganza this summer.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Supermarket gardening

Is there a bigger racket in supermarkets than the herb section? Tiny little plastic boxes filled with a few wilted sprigs go for two or three dollars, sometimes more. With large herbs like sage or basil, that price can break down to over 10 cents a leaf. For anyone who gardens, even on a windowsill, it is shocking to do the math on the retail value of your herb plants. I look at my ratty, overgrown thyme patch and realize I've got close to a hundred dollars of culinary gold!

I carefully save my summer herb harvest in the freezer. I do like the look and smell of drying herbs. If fresh herbs aren't available, however, I prefer to cook with frozen. For tougher plants -- sage and thyme - I just freeze them in ziplocs with as much air pressed out as possible. The more tender leaves -- basil and parsley -- I freeze in oil as pesto. There is one herb, rosemary, that I can always use fresh, since it is growing away happily in my guest bedroom. I plan to try more of this windowsill culture next winter.

Sadly, I miscalculated with my sage this year. I ran out of frozen leaves a few weeks back, thanks to several dishes of chicken saltimbocca. I have some dried crumbly sage in a jar, which would probably do okay in a poultry stuffing. The recipe I planned to make this weekend is a parsnip risotto and, for taste and aesthetics, fresh or frozen leaves would be best. I guess I could cook something else, but I have a big stash of parsnips, so I really want to make the recipe. And, yes, I can be a resourceful cook and substitute ingredients. But on the first go at a recipe, I like to follow the prescribed method. Finally, sage is sage. If I use rosemary, it's not like I'm substituting yogurt for buttermilk.

I stood at the grocery store this morning, a sorry little box of sage leaves in my hand, eying the $2.99 price tag. I weighed my interest in the parsnip recipe against the shame of paying that much for something I grow for pennies in the summer. My son, always observant, remarked to me that he had found a "match" for my box. I expected this to mean he'd found other boxes of sage, but actually he had found a nearby shelf with organic herb plants on it, including sage. They are the earliest "gardener trap" plants that I have seen set out this year, luring the rookies (or the experienced but desperate) into buying plants way too early in the season. Many looked leggy and root-bound, but the pot of sage didn't look half bad -- a salvageable salvia, if I repotted right away. There were at least double the leaves on the plant as there were in the box. Price? $2.99. Even if I stripped all the leaves off the plant and killed it, I would break even. I only need a few leaves, though. So the rest of the plant can be nursed on the sunny windowsill alongside my rosemary. Score one for the supermarket: their gardener's impulse purchase trap worked. Is it just coincidence the plants are priced the same as all the herb boxes? How many other shoppers have done the same mental calculation this weekend?

My son must have really caught the supermarket gardening spirit, since after his apple at lunch he carefully presented me with 5 seeds that he wanted to plant. He insisted he had to grow a tree. They must have been talking about Johnny Appleseed at daycare this week. Now, apple seeds are tricky. I know they can be home sprouted, but, from what I've read, they won't grow out to be like the actual apple from whence they came. And, it will take a very long time to discover this -- years and years, in fact. Not the ideal toddler project, but my son was insistent. I surfed the Internet and came upon some charming stories -- a family who has an apple tree they rescued after it sprouted in their compost pile, a 30 year old whose grandma still has a tree he planted from a seed as a little boy. It couldn't hurt to try. I tried to convince him we should cold stratify and sprout them in a wet paper towel like many sites instructed, but he wanted a cup of soil, just like the other seeds we are starting. So now he has a little pot of apple seeds on his windowsill.

I suspect he may kill the seeds with the ferocity of his love....if they ever even sprout, given no stratification. He has already asked to water them three times, insisting they are "thirsty to grow". If this project doesn't work, I know there are other supermarket garden activities we can try, well beyond the standard 1970's avocado pit. In fact, we bought a pineapple this morning, and I had an inkling of a memory that the top could be rooted. I found many websites with instructions and several referenced the book Don't Throw It, Grow It! The Chicago Public Library system will have it in my hot little hands in a fortnight, so stay tuned. This is likely the beginning of a long gardening relationship with my supermarket.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Invasive plants

My main winter project, the cold frame, is finally built and waiting for a layer of paint. With the Winter Olympics on full-blast, I have stayed away from my cold workshop in the basement in favor of a cozy spot on the couch and good view of the speed skating relay semifinals. The paint can wait for another day, or at least until I have finished analyzing all the men's figure skating costumes. The amount of actual athletic content in the programming is slim compared to the commercials, emotional back story segments and commentary, and it would take a more patient viewer than I to sit uninterrupted in front of the TV for this many hours each night. Fortunately, my laptop comes in handy while enduring yet another credit card commercial and I have frittered away the time between half-pipe runs surfing the gardening Internet universe.

I stayed away from the seed selling websites for a few nights, but eventually I could no longer resist -- I wanted more information on what I already have and even started noting seeds that I will plant in a few seasons, when I -ahem - have more space. Visiting any garden retailer, be they virtual or brick-and-mortar, is, of course, a dangerous business for a woman with limited real estate and too many seeds as it is. Over on Garden Rant, Amy Stewart posted on the agony of a tempting nursery catalog despite a garden already bursting at the seams. I feel her pain. Though there are many seed sellers who I love to click on, Summer Hill Seeds is by far my favorite -- the owner (Illinois-based by the way!) favors the rare and unusual. Tidbits of interesting trivia are scattered throughout the plant descriptions, like this one, for Prickly Caterpillars, scorpiurus muricatus:

"In days past, caterpillars were added to salads to surprise unexpected diners, but not meant to be eaten mostly because they are so hairy."

I had to have them, and I am already deciding which honored guests will get this this unexpected salad surprise. Oh Summer Hill, you always manage to open my wallet.

But then -- oh, the horror! -- I stopped dead in my web surfing tracks when I saw climbing nightshade seeds on my beloved website. What? My new favorite seller is actually asking folks to pay money for these seeds? The description tells the unwitting gardener that this is a "desirable" vine with "loose clusters of beautiful star-shaped blooms". Not only is this plant potentially toxic to young children, who inevitably will be drawn to the bright red berries, but in my experience it spreads with unmatched aggression here in Chicago. Apparently, it is invasive all over North America, if one is to believe the hate mail posted in Dave's Garden forums. It is difficult to uproot and smells bad when ripped out. No matter how hard I try to eradicate the vine, my permissive neighbor always ensures that more seeds will spread my way. I have never photographed my own backyard specimens of this weed in full bloom. As I am not a poster of others' photos, the image above is all I can offer. I pulled this corpse of a climbing nightshade vine out of my neighbor's chain link fence this morning.

I know that one woman's weed can be another woman's undiscovered European heirloom, but really it is just too much to bear for me to think of my garden nemesis being intentionally planted by other gardeners. Based on the message boards, I know several folks to the south would feel the same shock and disgust that I am growing maypops, Passiflora incarnata. At least maypops are native -- and the flowers look far superior to the nightshade's. Here in Chicago, the most visibly vilified invasive plant species is buckthorn -- there is a movement afoot to get rid of it. At a Garfield Park Conservatory event, they even had crafts for kids featuring buckthorn that had been ripped out of North Park Nature Village. Yet, for those not in the local area, the king of all invasive species here in Chicago is fauna not flora. Yes, I am talking about the Asian carp. It even has its own "kill zone". I'd like to start a Climbing Nightshade kill zone, with my back yard being ground zero. As I won't resort to herbicides, its me and my garden gloves against this marauder. Come to think of it, my son might be strong enough to help me rip it out this long as he doesn't snack on the berries.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When plants and food are better store bought

While I do always appreciate the handmade and homegrown, I am a sucker for florists' plants in full bloom. I love coaxing plants into blooming, but there is such a thrill when someone else does all the work under professional plant-growing conditions, and I get to enjoy the fruit, or blossoms rather, of their labor. For me, this red florists' cyclamen is a far superior gift to a box of Valentine chocolates. I spent my morning sipping coffee and appreciating the gorgeous leaves and flowers. My house is cool, so it may do well, though humidity is an issue. I'll put it near my fern, to remind me to mist.

I have also learned the hard way about certain store bought products being superior for cooking. The lesson came last weekend, when I decided to cook ahead and freeze some dumplings to eat on Chinese New Year. Yesterday was our Valentine's party and it went off quite well, if I do say so myself. Here's a picture of the sweets I made:

Of course, I overcooked and spent most of last night packing away all of the cheeses, roasted vegetables, cookies and candies, desperately trying to shoehorn one last container into the fridge. After an epic day of cooking, hosting and cleaning, I knew I would be left with little desire to dive in to my usual Sunday cooking projects. If I hadn't thrown the party, I would have probably spent all day making the insanely delicious Shanghai soup dumplings that I wrote about a while ago. Yet I knew I would not have the energy for dicing aspic. So last weekend, when I came upon a Fine Cooking article on traditional foods to celebrate the Year of the Tiger, I decided to make these dumplings and freeze them for a quick heat-and-eat meal in my haze of post-party fatigue.

The article waxed poetic on the authentic way to make dumpling wrappers, complete with instructions for fashioning a small rolling pin from a wooden dowel. To me, instructions for projects like this are nearly irresistible. I am a moth to the flame. Make a recipe harder and more intricate, especially in the name of authenticity, and I must cook the dish, no matter what hurdles are set before me. Obscure ingredient? Who cares! I have a toddler who loves quests of all sorts and gladly hops into the car seat for "dinner adventures". He has ridden with me to the ends of Chicago in search of specialty products. This particular dumpling recipe involved no such quest, but rather a time-consuming and generally unnecessary process of rolling my own wrappers. I could understand this coming in handy, especially when one lives in a region that has few supermarket options. But I live within short driving distance of multiple Asian supermarkets. They all sell locally made dumpling wrappers in generous stacks for less than two dollars. And, to be honest, Chinese cooking is popular enough that even my Grandma who lives in a small town in Wyoming can pick up won-ton wrappers at the local Albertson's. This general accessibility was yet another enticement for me to kick it up a notch on the DIY difficulty level and roll my own wrappers. I had a spare dowel, and all it took was a saw and some mineral oil to fashion the proper tool.

It will come as no surprise that the wrappers took hours to produce. Even with careful rolling by an experienced cook, they were uneven, misshapen and prone to tearing. Additionally, the recipe yielded about twice the filling necessary for the amount of wrappers provided by the dough. A reasonable person would have called it a day and made meatballs with the rest of the filling mix, but of course, this was just a siren call to try the wrapper-production process all over again. Sadly, my rolling skills showed no measurable improvement during the second attempt.

Eaten on the day of, the dumplings tasted great and held up okay when boiled, but did better when pan-fried pot sticker style. Most of the dumplings, though, were carefully frozen for today. This morning, I inspected our planned lunch and found that the dough had done something odd: each dumpling was encased in a fragile mosaic of frozen dough shards. The shards seemed held together by a thin web of dough, with the surface of each dumpling sporting a museum-quality craquelure finish. I freeze dumplings all the time, and I have never seen this happen with store bought wrappers. Nor does it happen with my frozen homemade ravioli, although, with an egg base, that dough has more structure. I tested a few of these morphed dumplings on the stove top and the filling promptly oozed out and made the water a chunky, greasy mess. I would post a picture of the dumplings except that I quickly threw them out in a fit of disappointment. So much for planning ahead -- at least we have tons of party leftovers! From this day forward, dumpling wrappers are a thing better store bought. Complicated recipes be damned! The year of the tiger has started inauspiciously from a culinary standpoint.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Seed starting with children

Valentine's day is soon upon us and an assortment of children ranging from 1 month to 4 years old are descending upon my house tomorrow for a holiday celebration. Valentine's Day conveniently falls on a holiday weekend this year and, being a government employee, this means I have Friday to prepare and Monday to recover. I figured this party would be a nice activity for the folks who aren't going out of town for the long weekend. It was also a way for me to get around the usual birthday party ritual of opening a pile of gifts, which always leaves me slightly queasy.

I do understand that en masse gift opening is a treasured part of most American childhoods, as are sweets and party decorations. However, with a Valentine's party, my son could host his friends and revel in balloons and cupcakes without Mommy wincing inwardly as he greedily tears open a gift of a toy gun, baby video game console, or other such contraband in this liberal hippie household. Even my husband, who is less earnest than me about only having peaceful, nutritious toys, resents the influx of plastic and electronic noise-making clutter that comes with every new round of gift giving. I still laugh sympathetically at the memory of a birthday party we attended last year wherein the two year old birthday girl received, no doubt from a loving but childless relative, a three hundred piece miniature plastic grocery store set. I could see every parent in the room calculating the hours of pickup represented by an afternoon with that box. I do recognize that all of these gifts are given in the spirit of love and give us an opportunity to teach our son about generosity and gratitude. Nor have I arrived at the point of some parents who insist on no birthday gifts or who make their kids donate everything to charity. Those folks are doing their best to raise their kids as they see fit, and I commend them, but that is a little too extreme for my tastes. So for now, I will have quiet family birthdays involving books and a small toy and which focus largely on food and candles. And I can use other holidays - like this Valentine's Day! -- to host a guiltless gift-free party for my son's little friends.

I realized as I planned this party that, as the hostess, I could easily fall in to the same gift trap I was seeking to avoid. Goody bags and party favors also usually involve lots of mass-produced and near-disposable plastic baubles. The easy answer to this would be candy - and lots of it! -- but I know my crowd. While some of the parents wouldn't care about a sack of chocolates or lollipops, I know that many are trying to raise their kids without exposing them to the usual amounts of over-sugared, high-fructose corn syrup snacks. For that reason we are serving apple bread refashioned as Valentine's cupcakes. I am making fruit punch, though -- it's a party after all! Kids can have some juice, can't they? Everything in moderation, including moderation. But what to do about the party favors? That's when I realized my ace-in-the-hole: my saved seeds from last year.

I went on a seed saving jag this fall, and now have many baggies of seeds stored in my basement. I saved most in amounts that cannot be reasonably planted in my tiny garden. After sharing many with gardening friends, I still have plenty of beans, tomatoes and various flowers. I also have too many seed packets, partly from my winter tradition of seed catalog impulse purchases, and partly from the generosity of gardening friends who are looking to unload a similar overstock. I decided that the perfect party activity would be to decorate a small pot, fill it with soil and plant a few seeds. Thus, each child can leave with a party favor, and one that will likely last longer than a plastic water gun from Target.

Now, what seeds to plant? I feel that I have three ways to go on this: exciting seeds, fast germinators or ones with cute holiday references. By exciting, I mean seeds that toddlers will enjoy using: large, brightly-colored and satisfying to manipulate. Minuscule seeds like cactus or begonia are nearly impossible for my adult hands to handle. Even larger ones like marigolds would be hard for chubby fingers that still fumble with shoelaces. Corn and peas are big and bright and also have added value as being recognizable to little ones. A scarlet runner bean, however, is just the thing: black and purple, large and with a pleasantly smooth surface. I also happen to have a large jar of them from last season.

There is an argument to be made for planting fast germinating seeds: most garden websites advise parents to use these seeds since rapid results should keep the kids readily engaged in the process. Browsing the blogs and websites of elementary school teachers, I found lists of seeds that are reliable for fast, high-percentage germination. Of the seeds I have in my stockpile, they recommend cosmos and marigolds. Notably quick and reliable vegetables include lettuce and radish. Several experienced teachers recommended rye and other grasses, which pop up the quickest at 3-5 days. I remain unconvinced about selecting seeds based on this characteristic of fast germination. For one, even three days is an eternity for my little boy. Secondly, I bristle at the suggestion that kids must always be given the seeds with the most rapid results and high yields: why can't even young children appreciate a longer wait? And the occasional seed failure, while discouraging, is a fact of gardening life. With the fruit of your labors also comes the detritus destined for the compost heap.

Finally I considered the Valentine's theme seeds. Sweet 100 tomatoes have a cute name, and I can also tell the kids how tomato plants were once known as "love apples". Alpine strawberries are red, and sweet as well, although they tax even my patience for germination. I could also be more ironic, aiming to entertain the parents with Valentine's seeds like bachelor buttons or love-lies-bleeding.

In the end, I am going with Scarlet runner. My son loves to sort and count them, and they have a magic Jack-in-the-Beanstalk look about them. They are also no slouches in the speed of germination department. Lastly, the name "scarlet runner" has a certain tang-- perhaps conjuring the image of ill-fated Valentine's hosiery or an adulterous Hawthorne escapee? Alright, that is stretch. Come Saturday, however, chubby hands will be plunging these gorgeous seeds into Valentine's planters. I can rest easy knowing that I have not distributed party favors destined for the landfill, though perhaps they will wind up the compost heap.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Garden book round-up

The seeds germinating in our upstairs bedroom have let me live in a dream state of near-Spring for the past week. I woke this morning to another thick blanket of snow, and the heavy flakes have brought me to back to Chicago's wintry reality. There are few ways, at this point, for me to get out my gardening ya-ya's. The seeds have been purchased, the catalogs thumbed through until pages have started ripping from the binding staples. The seeds that should be started early have been started. Last weekend, I even prowled the local garden stores, looking for clearance shelf bargains prior to the imminent 2010 restock. I am restless. This mild state of gardening desperation is, I suspect, a boon to nursery retailers everywhere. Isn't it the anxious itch for Spring that makes otherwise thrifty gardeners impulse purchase gloves, trowels, and inappropriate plants on the first day the sap starts rising?

In this same prowling and restless state, I went to the nearby Barnes and Noble to check out their stock of gardening books. The offerings were disheartening, mostly coffee table landscape books, second-rate container gardening guides, and marijuana growing manuals. While I do concede that a few familiar gems were mixed in (like Our Life in Gardens and the Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening) in general there were few real classics or even hot new books, like the bulb one everybody was crazy about at Christmastime. I really should know better than to expect more from the big-box bookstores, although I do suspect the more suburban North Shore bookstores might have a larger selection. If I ever buy books these days -- and I rarely do -- it is from Amazon. Online browsing, however, does not have the same therapeutic heft as standing in front of a shelf of real books.

So where does the literary gardening woman go in Chicago? In New York, I had the Strand, my favorite used bookstore. In New Jersey, there was the annual College Women's book sale, a dusty treasure trove of -- among other things -- gardening books. For every outdated 1950's gardening manual, there was a 25 cent copy of one of Euell Gibbons' guides or an out of print edition of Living the Good Life. I have not found an equivalent to the store or the sale here in Chicago. Yes, there are some used book stores, but their garden related stock is scant, and pricey. The Chicago Reader book swap had slim gardening offerings last I went. Maybe a local blog reader can point me in the direction of some yet-undiscovered source. But for now I have only the Chicago Public Library. And trust me, I ain't complaining. The library has an astounding array of garden books spread out over its many branches, available to me at the click of the mouse, and delivered rapidly to my local branch for pick up. For all of the downsides of living in one of America's largest urban centers -- the crime, the pollution, the stifling bureaucracy! -- I can crow that I have access to one of the most excellent public library systems in the country.

The online hold system at the library is indispensable, but still it is basically a borrower's Amazon -- a click-and-ship, minus the supersaver shipping. But even Amazon is more conducive to browsing, with its suggestions and "list-mania". With the library website, you need to do a directed search for specific authors and titles. The library holdings are so vast and varied, and the keyword search function so limited, that I find it difficult to genuinely browse. So all this lead-up was to announce that this is why I go directly to different branches, to lurk among their shelves, nosing out books I have yet to find online. This habit has acquainted me with the quirks of the various branches: the collections in other languages, a particularly excellent librarian at one location, and, much to the delight of my two year old sidekick, the goldfish in certain children's sections. So, after the disappointing visit to the bookstore, and in the full throes of garden Spring-itch attack, I headed to a new branch this weekend and found two books I have been meaning to read: The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch and Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon.

The Garden Primer, from what I can tell, aims to be the equivalent of an all-purpose cookbook, like my beloved How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. It covers nearly every topic in home gardening, from shrubs to vegetables, from tools to composting. Each topic has a brief yet sensible entry. I did, overall, find the primer a bit unsatisfying. The entries, though well written and succinct, usually sent me to the computer for more information. Additionally, anything aiming to be a general primer necessarily sacrifices a certain regionality and charming sense of place that interests me as a reader. I know she is a four-season gardener in Maine, so I would have preferred to hear more about that, rather than Zone 9 invasive vines. My favorite aspect of the book is that Damrosch seems to have actually done and tried everything she writes about in the text. I have leafed through one too many garden manuals only to find the same worn advice, the same diagrams, the same "facts". How many of these garden authors have actually built and used the insulated, vented root cellar that I see recommended in every manual of vegetable gardening? How many of these authors have actually tried to till under green manure without a rototiller? Have any of them really tried vermicomposting? Now that I have started a worm bin myself, I read their few paragraphs on the topic with a skeptic's eye. It all seems to be recycled from some big gardening wiki in the sky. So here's to Damrosch for writing with the authoritative voice of actual experience.

The authoritative voice is certainly present in Steve Solomon's book, Gardening When it Counts. The pages are bursting with highly opinionated and occasionally cranky tidbits of advice. I don't mind a crank when they are actually speaking from experience, so I read Solomon's wise words with joy and amusement. He also writes with refreshing skepticism on well-worn gardening topics, questioning some "truths" about composting, eviscerating the garden and seed industrial complex, and acknowledging some of the genuine limitations of homesteading. Almost every homesteading manual I have read -- and believe me, that's a lot of them -- blithely, nay almost smugly, lists the benefits and joys of living off the grid. It all looks so easy on the page! Few acknowledge the drudgery of months of winter greens. Solomon makes me laugh out loud with surprise when he predicts likely tooth loss from soil calcium depletion if one was truly living off the land. I was expecting, however, a more "survivalist" mentality, especially given the subtitle of the book. On the topic of soil amendments, while Solomon does offer advice on how to use compost and manure exclusively, he is pessimistic about long term soil quality with such a plan, and endorses a mix of homemade fertilizer using bulk products from the agricultural store. He also stands firmly against intensive raised-bed gardening. While I applaud him for bucking a trend, and agree with many of his critiques of this method, this makes his book of little utility for the urban gardener. His method requires two tracts of land (one active and one fallow) around 3,000 square feet in area. Just one of these tracts is larger than the entire footprint of my city lot (on which, mind you, sits a house and a garage). So I recommend this book for its grumpy, grandfatherly wisdom, but it is certainly a text that makes me wistful for a larger swath of rural real estate. For now, I am forced by my environs to go with the intensive potager method.

So, dear reader, if you too are suffering from Spring itch and need to get your garden ya-ya's out, these two books may sate your appetite for a while. While the flakes fall, I will sit with these two experienced dirt farmers and plot out my own follies. Perhaps, one day, I will speak with the same optimistic wisdom as Damrosch or the bemused skepticism of Solomon. I will have my own failures and successes to report, and --who knows?-- maybe I will actually have built that oft-diagrammed root cellar.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Food writing and France

I picked up some local cream this week from a farm in nearby Wisconsin. I am astounded how thick and rich it is compared to the usual "ultra heat treated" cream I find at the grocery store. This local product is close to the consistency of yogurt. Just a few spoonfuls have added a silky richness to my sauces that I can usually only achieve with a beurre manie. This thick, intense cream brings to mind M.F.K. Fisher's writing on the cream of France. Her books no longer live on my shelves -- they were long ago loaned out to kindred spirits -- so forgive me if I am short on details. In one of the most charming passages in her long body of work, she recounts cooking with French heavy cream in her first humble kitchen in France. For a quick lunch for friends and family, all she needed to do was pour a few cups of the rich cream over a pan of cauliflower, bake it, - et voila! -- she had an unctuous, full-bodied gratin. Even 50 years ago, she was lamenting how the cream had changed since her first youthful culinary adventures. She complained that the cream of yore had been replaced by a liquidy light cream that required careful reduction over a low flame prior to use in a gratin, lest you be left with a soupy mess (as an aside, Marcella Hazan echoes a similar lament about Italian cream in her Classic Italian Cook Book).

I adore M.F.K. Fisher. Along with her memoirs of her early French experiences, her essays on wartime scrounging and hunger - "the wolf at the door"- rank among my all-time favorite food writing. Other Francophile writing also has much to recommend it; I always enjoy returning to Waverly Root's exhaustive Food of France, Peter Mayle's first Provence book, and the recent Julia Child memoir My Life in France. One can hardly discuss the food writing of France without mentioning A.J. Liebling and Hemmingway, but I find them less compelling than the aforementioned writers, perhaps because these two men are so intensely focused on the consumption, rather than production, of food. But my "desert island pick" of French food writing is The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin. If you enjoy cooking and writing, I urge you to run, not walk, to the nearest library, and get a copy of this book.

I generally have a low opinion of celebrity chefs, who are more focused on promotion than actual innovation or authenticity. Everything this breed of chef puts out seems to have been shellacked into a carefully edited product that promotes their ever-expanding brand. I approached this book with trepidation, yet after a few pages was completely enthralled. Who knew Jacques Pepin was such a marvelous writer? And he is writing in his adopted language, no less! Putting aside the evident technical skills of the author, the narrative itself is so engaging that the reader turns the pages with an alacrity usually reserved for guilty-pleasure books like Lee Child mysteries. Pepin shares the often painful details of his harsh childhood, yet writes with such a generosity of spirit that the reader almost wishes to be fourteen and poor and working 16 hour days in a resort hotel kitchen.

After befriending Jacques on the pages of his memoir, I sought out his cookbooks and TV programs. The PBS series that he put together on the basic techniques of French cooking is probably the best set of instructional programs I have ever watched. My favorite episode involves Jacques breaking down a side of salmon with deceptive ease. His gentle guidance changed my entire approach to preparing fish. Jacques' rigorous training in thrifty kitchens always bubbles through in his teaching: he has a suggestion for little dishes based on almost every scrap and discarded morsel he generates in the production of the main meal.

After smugly proclaiming my disdain for celebrity chef culture, I must now admit that my favorite show on television is Top Chef. If you are unfamiliar with the series, it is essentially Iron Chef meets American Idol. And if you somehow have escaped all knowledge of American reality TV, then I will tell you that it is a contest wherein young chefs are given culinary challenges and they are eliminated one by one until the finalists meet in a three-course all-out kitchen battle. The series has gone through many seasons, but my favorite moment ever on the show involves none other than Jacques Pepin, invited to participate in one episode on a panel of celebrity guest judges.

The scene: Carla, an eccentric Southern caterer, is facing an uphill battle against more traditional chef contestants. The battle: each celebrity guest judge picks the food they want for a hypothetical "Last Meal". Jacques picks squab and peas and Carla is assigned to prepare this "last meal". In a bold move, edited by the producers to foreshadow guaranteed elimination, Carla simply roasts the squab and serves the peas with tarragon. No risottos, no foams, no gelees. Just a plain preparation that most decent home cooks could crank out on a weeknight (albeit with chicken not squab). Jacques, master technician, takes a bite. He tells Carla that, if this were his last meal, he would die happy. Can one ask for more than hearing that from Jacques Pepin?

Perfect peas bring me back to another treasured passage from M.F.K. Fisher, in which she documents her quest for ideally cooked peas. On the hillside of a French -- or is it Swiss? -- farm, she has the water boiling in an outdoor pot prior to even picking the peas. Fisher recounts in hurried paragraphs the rush to get the new-shelled peas cooked and buttered and on the table prior to losing their ephemeral garden freshness. The whole event is written with a breathlessness and suspense normally reserved for tales of Olympic-level athleticism. She wrote this at a time pre-Alice Waters, when most gourmet recipes still involved processed and packaged ingredients. What foresight! What simplicity! As a gardener, cook and writer, can I ask for more inspiration than to read these pages prior to planting my spring pea seeds? Which reminds me...who did I loan those books to? I need them back before April.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Martha in my garden

The garden issue of Martha Stewart Living arrived in my mailbox yesterday to both my delight and chagrin. I wish I could muster the disdainful attitude of the bloggers over at Garden Rant -- their manifesto proclaims boredom with perfect magazine gardens and a love for "real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens". Many gardeners call the seed catalogs "plant porn", but for me, Martha's annual garden issue is the real hard-core deal. The sweeping vistas, the picturesque compost bins and gorgeously weathered stone walls are akin to the airbrushed abdomens and gravity-defying double-D's that litter the pages of any Playboy. Tantalized yet guilty, I pore over every page of Martha's garden issue like some hormonal teenager. I know it is enhanced, overly-groomed and astronomically expensive, but I want it. I want it all.

First, the disheartening. Martha gathered several tomato experts as well as four-season-garden-guru Barbara Damrosch for a tasting of heirloom tomatoes. Not one of the tomatoes I am growing made the list! The only one I've even tasted is a Green Zebra, and after two disappointing growing seasons in my scant garden space, I have nixed it from my repertoire. I feel inadequate. The tomato in the article for which I am definitely considering finding space is Reisetomate, which first popped onto my radar screen thanks to those anti-Marthas the Garden Ranters. Of course, now that Martha has featured it, the chance of getting my hand on some seeds are nil -- maybe I can get to them if the issue has yet to hit newsstands. I also sighed longingly over the article on an artist that sculpts garden fire pits. The 2008 catalog lists the prices from $4,000 to $50,000. Gulp. If only they also came with the gorgeous settings, like the Atlantic beach-scape in the opening photo! For now, I must content myself with a rusting Weber grill and a vista dominated by plastic Disney figurines.

On the happier side of things, I was excited to see some of my chosen 2010 plants featured in the magazine's article on fragrant gardens. I had, for example, been mulling my choice of sweet peas for several months, and finally settled on Cupani's Original from Seed Savers Exchange. Martha's gardening editors give it their stamp of approval, hailing Cupani's for its heat tolerance and bicolored blossoms. I also was glad to see my favorite doyenne of canning and preserving, Eugenia Bone, featured in the cooking section. My absolutely favorite piece, though, was from Stephen Orr, a writer from the New York Times, in which he extols the pleasures of gardening gloveless. I, too, find it much more pleasurable to go without gloves, no matter what it does to my hands. I have been trying to be more conscientious about hand protection, especially since my day job involves a lot of human contact. But who among us hasn't given themselves over to the "gritty, muddy, slightly painful joys of the purely tactile"?

The February/March issue of Organic Gardening is also on my nightstand, and has a much more reasonable approach to gardening. I will definitely be inter-planting onions with lettuce after reading their 3-season garden plan article (also, by the way, starring Barbara Damrosch - is she on some PR tour?). But a close-up picture of a dew-kissed organic cabbage is just never going to get my blood flowing the way it does when I ogle the impeccably designed landscapes featured in Martha Stewart Living. In another life, with limitless time and money, these oases would be mine. Just as in another life, with limitless time and money, I could sport a magazine-worthy abdomen.

Yes, the culture critic in me would say that both shelter and skin mags are precisely designed to create feelings of inadequacy so that we spend more trying to reach unattainable goals. Neither the landscapes nor the abdomens have anything to do with the dirty, shabby reality of daily life. Yet, I do want to hail Martha for championing the organic, the heirloom and the homemade, even though I know many feel she is simply gentrifying folk-ways. For me, she is another welcome voice in the chorus of people preserving lost arts, emphasizing sustainability and supporting independent seed companies. Who cares if she does it all while wearing $300 garden clogs?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Winter sown seed on Candlemas

It is halfway to Spring and snow is falling in Chicagoland in big, thick flakes. I am glad for this reminder that we are still in the thick of winter, since it was only yesterday that I got around to starting my winter sown seed project.

As a cook, I thrill to the discovery of unfamiliar recipes and cooking methods. After years of braising, baking and stir-frying, it is always wonderful to feel the occasional jolt of the new and unexpected -like when I recently found a recipe for roasted garden radishes in Saveur. Rarely do I feel this jolt in my garden reading: year after year, the magazines and books recycle the same methods and advice. I tire of the litany, in the same way that I tire of reading, yet again, a cooking article on "sexy" Valentine's menus or reusing Thanksgiving leftovers. But new excitements still lurk, beneath the oft-repeated articles on "discovering" heirloom tomatoes. Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest recently awakened my imagination, and got me thinking about the way I limit myself to edible gardening only in the warmth of summer. This primed me to be especially interested in a recent blog post at Artful Greens about an unfamiliar approach to seed starting: winter sowing.

It is no small excitement to flutter about with seed mats and grow lights, especially in the doldrums of January, but it always makes me sigh and wonder why I have complicated everything so much. All of these expensive accessories, all of the time rigging up wiring! Looking at my fussing, it should be a wonder my foremothers ever managed edible gardens and beautiful flowers. encourages the curious gardener to throw the received wisdom of modern seed starting out the window. Sowing flats in the dead of winter, and leaving them outside under protection avoids all the nicking, filing and stratification we put seeds through just to mimic the treatment of a winter outside in the ground. Advocates of this method argue that not only does it save time and money, but it also yields hearty seedlings that are more productive over the long term. As further enticement, the lady at will even send you free seeds for the price of postage. With nothing to lose but two first-class stamps, I signed up.

My seeds came yesterday, and thanks to my husband's voracious milk habit, I had plenty of containers ready to recycle as mini-flats for my winter sowing. I found a great pictorial post on how to prep the jugs at the blog Our Little Acre. Some folks do a "U" shaped cut in the side of the milk jug and use it like a pull down flap. The cut-in-half method at Our Little Acre seemed easier in the long run, especially when removing seedlings. Above you will see my collection of nine "flats", with everything from columbine to kale, soapwort to tomatoes. If nothing comes up, all I have lost are some stamps and a pleasant afternoon in the basement, getting my fingernails dirty for the first time this year. I suspect, however, that something will germinate, and I will be converted to this new low-tech method. I am especially interested in the tomatoes. Beside what sent me, I may put out some Opalkas and Sweet 100's just to see what happens. I may never be able to rid myself of the heat mats, especially if I want my passion flowers and cacti. But just as a new recipe launches me on new adventure in the kitchen, this method has renewed my enthusiasm for gardening, no matter how thickly the snow falls outside.

Monday, February 1, 2010

First germination of 2010

I checked on my first seed-starting projects of 2010 today and was excited to find some babies popping up! I started my Passiflora incarnata seeds a mere two weeks ago. My web research had indicated that germination could take months, especially for seed that wasn't fresh out of the fruit. As is typical of gardening advice on the web, germination instructions varied wildly: some sites recommended soaking seed in passion fruit juice prior to planting, some said to nick or pre-soak in water while others just said to plant directly with no foreplay. I suspect some of the confusion stemmed from people discussing "passion fruit" seed rather than the specific scientific name of the plant -- there is more than one Passiflora! The seed packet had minimal information, and said germination occurred at 30 days to 3 months, with only a 30% germination rate. I planted 9 seeds and left them on top of my fridge, which I hoped would keep it at a tight 70 degrees. Last week, when I pulled out my seed heat mat, I decided to stick the P. incarnata on there, as I suspected that even with the radiant heat of the fridge, my kitchen temperature was more in the 60's on average.

Ahead of schedule, I have two seedlings. Maybe more will pop up -- I am owed another one, if I am to trust the reported germination rate. I wasn't expecting such rapid progress -- now I am worried I started too soon. Fortunately, I saved some seed for this exact scenario -- when you are facing a spotty "days to months" germination prediction, one always needs to keep some reserves. I will be breaking out the grow lights sooner than expected, and hopefully I will have a nice healthy plant to put out in the spring. For all of the hand-wringing about the difficulty of propagating from seed, the Maypop passion fruit seems to be cheerfully resilient. Many gardeners in warmer zones complain about the plant's invasiveness, and by all reports the hardiness limits are underestimated. I will hedge my bets (if I only have these two seedlings) and stick one in a pot to bring in to overwinter, and one in the ground, close to the house to benefit from a warmer microclimate.

The other little seeds that popped up are my cacti -- I got a packet from Pinetree Garden Seed on a whim, and picked up a bag of cactus mix medium on sale at Lowe's. The seeds are incredibly small and must be sown on top of the surface since they need light for germination. I stuck these on my seed mat as well. At first, I had Saran wrap over the rectangular container, but when water condensed it drooped onto the medium. When I pulled up the wrap, little black specks were sticking to it, and I couldn't figure out for the life of me what was potting medium and what was a cactus seed. I scraped as much as a could back onto the surface, and put a seed starting tray lid on top. Here is the first germinator! The packet was a mix of several different types of cacti, so this is another "days to months" scenario. I will keep a close watch -- I may need to prick out the early risers and transplant to a different pot as environmental needs change.

Finally there are my hellebore, which are still in their cold stratification period. They currently inhabit the butter compartment of my fridge. I get to pull the bag of seeds and medium out on March 15th and send it into the homestretch of germination. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it works. If not, I have to repeat the 5 month warm-cold-warm process. Aargh! I am so desperate for some hellebore that I may just suck it up and pay the premium prices for a plant at the nursery. My passion fruit and cacti give me hope, though. Maybe my seed-starting stars have aligned for 2010.