Thursday, April 29, 2010

Candied violets

I have to remind myself next year to not schedule so many business trips in the tender weeks of late Spring. While in Vancouver, I missed the sprouting of the shallots, the first blossom of the Early Girl tomato, and the initial burst of intense forget-me-not blue now edging my front bed. I missed the unveiling of the 2010 One Seed Chicago plant: bee balm (I voted for it!). I also missed my husband's birthday, and while he is not one for big occasions, it is sad to pass a milestone alone in the house while son and wife are off eating halibut.

To make it up to him, I have constructed a mile-high chocolate cake garnished with candied violets from our backyard. I couldn't resist a homegrown garnish, even though the cake is replete with exotic ingredients. I had never candied violets before, and learned some lessons in the approach. The general idea is simple: coat the flowers in egg white, dust with sugar and let dry. Most recipes advise painting the egg white on with a paintbrush. I was put off by the preciousness of the individual petal painting, and was glad when I found a recipe that instructed the cook to swirl long-stemmed violets in frothy egg whites, "roll" in sugar, and dry them. Unfortunately, this method gave me a series of gloopy blossoms, barely recognizable under a thick lava of wet sugar.

When Martha Stewart tells me to do it her way, I should listen. It always works. So, I raided my son's craft box for a clean paintbrush and painted each delicate petal. I did ignore the call for superfine sugar. Regular granulated looked just fine. I organized the violets on waxed paper, snipping each stem off, and dried them in a warm oven for a few hours. Thanks to the egg white, many of the violets stuck to the paper and were too delicate to remove without incurring serious structural damage. After all of that work, I have six violets to show for it. This is all further evidence that I was not made to be a pastry chef. So I will use what I have and break out the grill. For though violet petals may be delicate, big hunks of marinated meat are not, and this is what the birthday boy wants for dinner.

Friday, April 23, 2010

First fruits

The nights are still cool but my garden is full of sweet promise. The first of the fruits are starting to set: the strawberries, the grapes, the figs. Blueberry blossoms hang like porcelain bells from their thin branches. I think these are two year old plants, so I am advised by various authorities to not let them bear fruit. I assume this is in the interest of diverting energy solely to plant growth. I will probably let the berries mature on one of my three bushes, to give my son a taste and also in the name of science. I will be interested to see if next year there is any difference in the size and production of the plants.

Alpine strawberries

Ozark beauty strawberry

Kadota fig

Concord grape

The dessert table beckons, if my greedy family lets any fruit actually make it in the door. Usually the strawberries are gobbled while crouching in the garden, the morning sun glinting off the dew. I have more hope for the grapes; the texture is a little slimy right off the vine, so this late harvest will likely make it to the jam pot. As for the figs, I have a vision of home-cured prosciutto draped over a homegrown Kadota fig....a little taste of the Tuscan countryside right here on the west side of Chi-town. I will need a long, hot summer to see any ripe figs, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. Either way, I will have beautiful fig leaves to decorate my cheese plates and the romance of a potted fruit tree in an otherwise concrete-laden corner of my urban yard.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring seedling protection

After the warm spell a few weeks back, Nature has emphatically reminded us that frost will threaten Chicago well into May. Blankets hopefully stowed away in closets have been pulled back out and spread once again across the bed. I recycled my milk gallon "cloches" during the early 80 degree weather, only to spend a hasty evening with a box cutter this past weekend, fashioning more.

This is not to say the garden has suffered. The peas, spinach and other cold-weather greens (mizuna, mustard, kale, chard) are thriving, but not yet at harvest stage. The herb garden is almost lush, and I can add tarragon, chives, thyme and oregano to my dinners with renewed culinary abandon. The first flush of asparagus is over, and I am waiting for another round of spears. The first of the strawberries are poking out of faded blossoms, and the rhubarb is looking almost prehistoric in size. But how have some of my other spring seedlings fared, those both naked and protected? Here is a photo update of my various experiments.

1. Cold frame lettuce: I sowed lettuce "tom thumb" on March 6th in both the cold frame and in a bed nearby, unprotected. After 6 weeks, there is a marked difference in the size of the seedlings - I didn't have a ruler, so I am using my size-11 foot for reference.

We have already thinned out the cold frame lettuce above for an early spring salad.

This unprotected lettuce has barely passed "microgreen" stage.

2. Store-bought vs DIY wall-o-water for tomatoes: As I posted a few weeks back, I set out two very small sweet 100 seedlings, with barely one set of true leaves. One went into a 2L pop-bottle fort and the other into a purchased Burpee brand wall-o-water. It pains my DIY aesthetic to report this, but the wall-o-water is vastly superior (and I even cheated and gave the DIY seedling a slightly sunnier spot!).

The amusing lesson in all of this, however, is that the most developed tomato seedling is the one I have left out to the elements:

Of course, this is an Early Girl, not a Sweet 100, so maybe she is just living up to her name. Her foliage is denser, her stems thicker. Lesson: if I am that committed to having home-grown tomatoes on the 4th of July table, perhaps time would be better spent growing earlier varieties, rather than coaxing mid-to-late season varieties into early harvests.

I have also noticed that my almost completely neglected wintersown tomatoes are rapidly catching up to my coddled sweet 100 seedlings. They too have thicker stems and denser foliage. Maybe all the indoor-start-hand-wringing is for nothing, and I should wintersow everything and be done with it. This is probably the sensible plan, and one that makes sense given my limited time. But then what would I fuss over in the waning weeks of winter? What would I do if I had no seedlings to run out and cover with homemade cloches? Why garden if you don't want to take pains, foolish though they may be?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Dandelions on the table

The annual torrent of curses is now pouring forth from my usually mild-mannered husband as he digs the first crop of dandelions out of our lawn. Weed though they are, I can't say I begrudge their presence. Dandelions bring a bright, cheery punch of yellow to otherwise neglected lots in our neighborhood. My son is having great fun following his father with the "compost wagon" and collecting the yanked plants for our various piles.

Had we been a little earlier in the season, my husband's efforts could have been directed towards the kitchen rather than the compost pile. All of our recent travel made us lag in the lawn foraging and by now, in full flower, the dandelion greens are bitter. The new rosettes are the tastiest, but even they are an acquired taste in the era of the mild tasting plastic-packed "spring mix" available at the supermarket. Last year, I collected enough rosettes to make a filling for Greek hand-pies, basically a fried turnover oozing with a feta, onion and dandelion greens stuffing. Even tricked out with the onions, cheese and fried dough, the greens were a tough sell for my dinner guests. I admit I ate them mostly on principle and with a copious amount of wine to wash them down.

On a more palatable note, I made dandelion wine long ago and am pondering the manufacture of another batch. There is a dilemma, however: the recipe I used came from the king of all foragers, Euell Gibbons, and calls for a large bucket of blossoms. Even without my husband's manual war on weeds, our paltry lot would hardly yield enough blossoms for a quart jar, let alone a bucket. But where should I turn for more? I am pretty skittish about urban foraging in these parts....who knows what pesticides and heavy metals and residues lurk in the vacant lots and fields. I watch my neighbors pour large bottles of chemicals all over their yards courtesy of Home Depot. The wine may be a project stowed away until I have the time to access a more reliably pollutant-free area of land.

So, I have made a note to try to catch the young rosettes in time for eating next year. This time, forget the feta. I'm going with bacon. As most chefs have tiresomely proved in every restaurant I've visited this year, add bacon to anything and people will order it in droves. In her excellent memoir, Little Heathens, Mildred Kalish recalls the bacon-drenched dandelions of her childhood in Depression-era Iowa. Though now eighty years have passed, she still recalls with relish the first Spring days with new dandelion greens on the table, braised in a hearty amount of bacon fat. They surely tasted ambrosial to her hungry six year-old body after months of canned- and dried-food drudgery. Be you gardener or cook, if you have yet to read this book, I suggest you immediately place it on the reading list. It is full of such gentle wisdom and kind judgement that one leaves the pages almost jealous of the deprivation Kalish suffered, dandelions and all.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Violets and onions

The spring violets are in full bloom in my yard and they gave me cheery company as I planted onion sets this morning. I had hoped to have some "dark freckles" violets blooming among the common dooryard variety that edge my brick paths. Thanks to a high wind and a poorly anchored greenhouse, I lost all my freckly seedlings a few night ago. No matter. The common variety is the state flower of Illinois, after all. If the dooryard violet is good enough to represent my state, it should be good enough to grace the paths of my humble plot. Hopefully, the pleasant flowers will grace our dinner table as well. I plan to candy them as an edible adornment for my husband's birthday cake next week. I'll probably be the only one in my family willing to eat them.

As for the onions, this is my first go at raising them in my backyard. I generally avoid growing storage crops, thanks to the size of my yard. Unless I dedicate the entire space to a single crop, I will not raise enough to get me through a week, let alone a year. I was curious, though, about how garden-raised onions taste compared to store-bought. Moreover, alliums --both edible and decorative -- do very well in my yard (or perhaps they're just easy to grow!). I picked up some heirloom yellow onions from a garden catalog, as well as some red Italian onions from Caputo's. In price, Caputo's definitely wins: at a $1.29/lb, I bought a bunch of 50 sets for 38 cents. The catalog was nearly twenty times that price! I trimmed the roots and tops as per instructions and in they went. I planted them a little close, since I'm planning on yanking some as green onions.

I know I have barely planted enough for a pot of onion soup, but of course I have this Little House on the Prairie vision of thick onion braids hanging from my attic rafters. It was all I could do not to plant all 100 sets. I had to chant to myself "zucchini, tomatoes and peppers" over and over again, lest I forget why I was not using all available garden space for these young onions.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let the garden scrounging begin!

There is a tipping point every year when the garden saves me, and I know that -- from a culinary perspective -- Spring has truly arrived. Last night, I came home late from work and I looked at my hungry family and then at my sparsely stocked pantry. I realized the only thing between us and a restaurant was the garden and -- joy of joys! -- the garden saved us. Hooray for the seasonal miracle of the first garden scrounge!

Now, I cannot pretend that a garden scrounge means the difference between eating and not eating. It's not like we are old-time pioneers or dogmatically self-sufficient homesteaders earnestly eating the stored pinto beans and sauerkraut until the first of the dandelions spring up in our yard. In a charming passage in their beautiful book of essays, Our Life in Gardens, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd tell an old Vermonter neighbor that the scorned barberry bush was once a plant of great medicinal and edible value to early Americans. The neighbor scoffs "Well, in those days they had to eat just about anything they could find". Barberries are indeed a true garden scrounge.

For me, a garden scrounge just means the difference between eating well and eating indifferently (PBJ at home), or between eating well or eating expensively (restaurant food). But it is a wonderful thing to face the prospect of takeout pizza or jelly sandwiches, and realize that by your own gardening efforts you can scrounge up a tasty dinner. So last night, armed with a sharp knife, I crept around the garden in the waning light. I found a good handful asparagus as well as the first of the mint, and with the help of some butter this became a quick pasta sauce. I sprinkled it with finely sliced chives to finish, and the whole dish tasted bright and green, just like Spring itself. The tarragon is in full leaf, and I took a good amount of leaves to make a dressing for the tired old romaine lettuce wallowing in the vegetable bin. I thought about using the cold-frame lettuces (tom thumb and little gem) but we already had thinned out the first round for a nibble last weekend, so I let them alone. The romaine leaves almost tasted fresh with the delicate anise flavor of the tarragon clinging to every bite.

All in all it was a successful garden scrounge. Had it been a lazy Saturday instead of a tired Tuesday night, I could have even scrounged a dessert: stewed rhubarb. And if I wanted to put on airs, I could have garnished it with mint.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Oh, for acidic soil!

I just returned from a business trip to Portland and am now filled with acid-loving plant lust. The rhododendrons and azaleas were just beginning to bloom, in stunning colors from deep blood red to pale yellow. Set against the background of a mixed conifer forest, the plants were a sight to behold: glossy foliage and clusters of richly hued blossoms. Growing up in New Jersey, I had seen my fair share of big, healthy rhododendrons, but these West Coast behemoths were in a totally different class. I would post a picture, but I only had a cellphone camera, and won't besmirch the beauty of the plant with a hazy, poorly-lit image.

Hardiness issues aside, the thick clay soil of my little plot is not acidic enough for these plants to thrive. I could amend it rigorously, but methinks it is an uphill battle. I should probably just stick to the plants that do well in my "native" conditions (I write native with a cocked eyebrow, since I am unsure how native any soil in this area can be after centuries of urban disruption). Yet I know rhododendrons and azaleas, among other acid-loving plants, are thriving in areas near my house, like the Chicago Botanic Garden. I found their trick (and no, it's not a staff of professional landscapers): rather than conditioning native soil, the gardeners grow them above ground in raised beds.

But oh, for acidic soil! My little boy is a lover of blueberries, both real and literary, thanks to Robert McCloskey and his timeless Blueberries for Sal. When my son asked to grow blueberries, I was loathe to indulge him, for the above mentioned pH challenges of our area. Yet how could I say no to my budding homesteader? Encouraged by the pile of garden catalogs pushing "patio plantings", I now have three container blueberry plants living in big pots in my backyard. Along with the plants came some disks of sulfurous soil acidifier that we mixed in to the potting soil.

So now we wait....I'm not sure how old my son will be when we finally reap the benefits of these fruiting bushes, but for now we have Sal and her blueberry rival, Little Bear. We will pick with her in the bucolic Maine of the 1940's, and await the arrival of our own acid-loving fruit someday.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Rhubarb and ... tomatoes?

Up came the rhubarb this weekend. Already I feel oppressed by the looming harvest, and I am down to just one plant this year. I always make a pie or cobbler, maybe a fancy cocktail like a Rhubarb Collins, and then I scratch my head. There are plenty of quick bread and muffin recipes out there, but my family doesn't eat a lot of sweet baked goods. Orangette recently posted a roasted rhubarb recipe, so I may give that a whirl, though it looks fairly similar to several stewed rhubarb recipes I have made in years past. Unfortunately, these recipes were lauded mostly for the amount of whipped cream or creme fraiche I piled on top of the unsightly rhubarb melange. I could can the rhubarb, but we are still trying to eat down the other sweet preserves I put up in the fall....pickles go much more quickly at our house. This pickle idea got me thinking and with a quick google, I have found my recipe for 2010: rhubarb pickles. I will report back if they are worthy for the recipe file.

So why do I grow rhubarb? Mainly because of the season: aside from asparagus and radishes, this is a reliable early harvest in my zone. I like the color, and the plant does well in a forgotten part-sun location behind the grape arbor. It also chafes me to see rhubarb for sale at local supermarkets for ridiculous sums....$5.99 a pound? Are you kidding? This plant requires little besides letting it alone, and not harvesting too many stalks all at once. In the end, I always end up foisting off the extra rhubarb on the poor souls who have expressed modest interest in my gardening endeavors. The unsolicited stalks are just a foretaste of the zucchini feast to come, my dearies.

Speaking of summer harvests, my early tomato trial has begun! I put out three seedlings this weekend, one under a wall-o-water, one inside a DIY ring of 2L pop bottles, and one out in the elements. This is a flawed study, as a majority of my tomato seedlings suffered irreparable damage while I was off gallivanting in Paris. Ideally, the plants in my experiment would all be of the same variety, but currently I only have two sweet 100's and one early girl to play with. I left the early girl out in the elements, to see if she lives up to her name. I have another round of tomatoes started in my greenhouse, just in case none of these experimental plants works out. With opalkas and sungolds added to the mix, we will, as per usual, have too many tomatoes (see above discussion on foisting off harvests).

Finally, I noticed yesterday that my wintersown tomato seed is up! Pretty early, likely secondary to to the freakish warm weather we've been having. Is this a sign that my experiment is going to do well? They are peiping chieh tomatoes sent by the wintersown lady, Trudi. I have been web searching for taste descriptions of this seed, as I had never heard of it until Trudi sent a package to me this winter. I found several references attesting that it is a good cropper (sigh) and an ominous post from Trudi herself on gardenweb about how they taste delicious with mayonnaise. What doesn't taste delicious with mayonnaise? If this is all that can be said about the taste of this variety, should I be worried?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Now the green blade rises

Chicago is in midst of a deliciously warm Spring, and I find it almost unbearable to have to hold on to my seed packets and not plunge all their contents into the thawing earth. Oh, the cursed phrase "after all danger of frost is past"! During cold, wet Springs, it is easy to defer the seeds and transplants, one feels so protective after a winter of careful planning. But this warm weather is felt like tomato and pepper season on Friday. How could there be any danger of frost when I can garden barefoot?

I have three packets of nasturtiums this year, a "jewel mix" from Pinetree and two climbing types (a home-saved "moonlight" and Renee's Garden "Spitfire"). I am tempted to select just a few from each pack and press my luck, or start some early indoors, but I will wait. I have too many garden chores ahead of me in these coming weeks to add another set of seedlings to fret over. To everything, there is a season, and for nasturtiums, it will be May.

Today I am resowing my sorrel, which did not come up, either in the cold frame or in the unprotected ground. It counts as my first failure of 2010, along with watercress (became leggy and died within a week) and Passiflora foetida (nary a seed germinated). On a more successful note, my first sowing of Cupani's Orginal sweet peas is already bursting out of the ground among the the asparagus spears. Today I am starting more sweet peas, including my windowbox mix. I will also sprinkle nigella and poppies in my front bed, and add borage and seasoning celery to my herb garden. Hopefully all this activity will slake my seed-lust, if only for a little while.

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

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Slowing down

I almost pulled out the garden hose today, to reconnect it to the outside spigot. I would have had to wrestle it over a mountain of cardboard, plastic and glass waiting to go to the local recycling center. After a long day at work, I didn't have the energy. So I just grabbed my biggest watering can and filled it from the spigot over and over again. It was slow work, but pleasant. Rather than drenching my beds in one overzealous hose soak, I gently sprinkled each individual plant and seedling. It turned my quick chore into a much longer exercise, but it also allowed me time to focus on each plant, to appreciate the seedlings, to notice small growth that would have otherwise gone undetected.

I discovered, for example, that my asparagus is coming up. The spears are dark purple, and I wouldn't have noticed them shooting up from the earth had I used the hose. As I was bending over the spinach seedlings, gently raining water on each one, a I noticed a small asparagus head poking out nearby. There are at least a dozen spears coming up, and likely more tomorrow. Along with the chives, tarragon and baby greens, the asparagus will be a welcome addition to a (somewhat) homegrown Spring dinner this weekend. So here's to slowing down, even as Nature is speeding up.