Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Salvaging the onions

I admitted defeat with my onions yesterday -- the stormy, wet weather had beaten them down beyond all redemption. Their green tops were folded over, bedraggled on the ground. Other plants -the tomatoes, the melons, the cucumbers -- have been thriving in this humidity and have grown to gargantuan proportions for this point in the season. Certain parts of my garden look more late August than late June. There was no way for the onions to compete. I pulled out the first broken plants, with their immature bulbs, and brought them to the kitchen for immediate use....so much for my visions of rich French onion soup from my own garden this winter!

I had defrosted some chicken for dinner, and remembered a simple recipe featuring chicken and onions that my husband and I ate almost weekly early in our marriage. I believe every couple must have food like this....staples that once sustained them that for whatever reason -- be it changing tastes or changing fortunes -- have been relegated to memory. This was a dish that we ate a small table in a basement studio apartment in New York City, after long days of school, a first culinary foray into fancier dinners than pasta or eggs. This was a time when I read the Wednesday food section of the Times religiously, cutting out recipes that looked doable in an hour or so, with ingredients that wouldn't stretch our budget too far. This one was courtesy of Mark Bittman, author of the "Minimalist" recipe column, and it is a good recipe. A great one in fact. So great that I am surprised this recipe didn't survive the move to Chicago. It was high time for a stroll down memory lane.

And how glad I am to have local chicken to cook with! My new meat and egg CSA, Grass is Greener Gardens, has been a rousing success for my family. I won't specifically knock the other local meat CSA's I have tried, but I will say that Grass is Greener offers good value, high quality and a responsive staff...things that I found lacking in others. And their chicken is edible without having to braise it for hours on end. So here is a link to the recipe, Chicken with Vinegar. When Bittman originally wrote about it in the newspaper, he listed balsamic vinegar rather than red wine vinegar, which yields a sweeter, more complex sauce. Choose which you want, but I remain true to the 'original' recipe as I knew it. How pleasant to eat an old memory, and this time share it with a son, in our own house with an ingredient from our own yard. We have come a long way from that basement studio, but good recipes stand the test of time, and this one will enter the repertoire once again.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fiori di Zucca

Here we have the first zucchini blossoms of the season, promising one of the most delicious and fleeting of garden delicacies: stuffed squash flowers or fiori di zucca. I have posted before about my general disappointment with edible flowers -- the humble chive notwithstanding. Well, here is yet another exception. When stuffed with cheese and served forth with a light sauce, these zucchini flowers offer a gentle and unsurpassed garden-y flavor, an opportunity to savor the essence of early summer.

Now, many recipes call for just cooking with the flowers themselves, but for a more visually appealing and delicious variation, try to use flowers still attached to slender baby squash, like the one pictured above. Needless to say, this is a gardener's recipe. I have occasionally seen the flowers for sale at the farmer's market, albeit at a shocking price. I also wonder how well they hold up on the ride home, as my flowers start to fade after a few minutes on the counter. I have never seen for sale the stage of flower I am calling for -- half blossom, half fruit. All else aside, I would grow zucchini just to have access to this ingredient.

It can be painful to harvest these immature squash -- early season scarcity erases the memory of a late summer kitchen overflowing with 3 pound monstrosities. I repeat to myself that soon enough I will be churning out more zucchini breads, pasta sauces and pickles than my family can handle. Sacrificing a few early fruits is a small price to pay for this exquisite plate of food.

Fiori di Zucca
(adapted from Mario Batali's Molto Italiano)

12 zucchini flowers, gently opened and stamens removed
1 cup of soft goat cheese, room temperature
1 egg
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound of cherry tomatoes, preferably 'sun gold'
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for sauteing
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
8 fresh basil leaves
more basil for garnish, cut into chiffonade

1. In a bowl, stir together cheese, egg, scallions, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stuff a heaping tablespoon into each blossom and set aside.

2. In a blender, combine the tomatoes, 1/2 cup olive oil, vinegar, basil leaves and 1 teaspoon of salt. Blend until smooth and pour through a strainer into a small bowl.

3. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and line a baking sheet with paper towels.

4. Heat a saute pan over medium-high and add two tablespoons of olive oil. Gently fry the flowers in small batches, flipping once, until golden brown on either side. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you are cooking the rest.

5. Put 2 or 3 blossoms on a plate, drizzle with the tomato sauce. Garnish with basil chiffonade.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gallery of Failure

The June blossoms are cascading across garden blogs in a rainbow of colors. Gorgeous photos of lush foliage and romantic arbors are glittering through my internet browsing. I know you can shoot any garden carefully, edit well, and probably wind up with a montage somewhat able to convince the casual viewer that you reside within the pages of a gardening magazine. I don't begrudge these bloggers their brag books -- I love to see the healthy plants and flowers and to appreciate, for example, the way they have creatively planted a container.

I have been blue all week and don't have the heart to gloss over the many disasters brewing in my garden. I have decided to post my own photo gallery, but of the abject failures of June, the blights in my otherwise thriving little patch. Do I post these just to be grumpy? No. Perhaps a reader will have an idea for how to rescue the situation. Or perhaps my less-than-perfect outcome can serve as warning to others in gardens to come (Yeah, right! We gardeners never learn!).

  • The sweet pea and asparagus patch

I read in a garden book that one should grow sweet peas among asparagus plants - the flowers would wind their way up the spears and the whole effect would be quite romantic. Instead, I have an overgrown shaggy mess in the corner of my garden. Weeds are thriving, since everything is so snaggled together that any maintenance is near impossible.
  • The passion fruit vine

This plant seems to be the caviar of the garden for slugs and snails. I cannot keep the leaves from being shredded as soon as they emerge. This poor little seedling is the only one that has survived the onslaught -- it has been limping along for months. Now, many passiflora references attest to a "slow start" for transplanted seedlings, but this plant has literally been frozen in time since March, when I put it out under a cloche. I probably jumped the gun with the weather - but I was hell-bent on extending the growing season to see if I could get mature fruit.
  • The kiwi vine

Now, speaking of "frozen in time" this kiwi vine has done absolutely nothing since I planted it upon arrival from the Stark Brothers nursery. I followed planting directions to a T. Since the roots burn easily, I have been careful to not fertilize. Most references attest to the vine's vigor and the need to begin training the first year. Since it has less than a foot of sorry-looking growth and a few wimpy leaves, I have no idea what I am supposed to be training. Do I rip it out, or wait to see how it does next spring?
  • The toothache plant

The Spilanthes oleracea seedlings I nurtured all spring suffered mightily in the recent wet,nasty weather. Dave's Garden plantfiles reports no insect problems and "glossy" foliage, but this is a bedraggled plant that also seems to have had it's share of insect predators. I can only hope that the numbing effect of the leaves worked their magic on these pests.
  • The rose mallow
I wintersowed some rose mallow seeds and failed to do my research when transplanting the seedlings: mature height is 48"-60". I planted the seedlings in front of my peonies, and now have a silly front bed with tall, skinny plants in front of short, stout plants.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A tale of two squashes

When I scored some red kuri squash seeds in a seed swap this spring, my reasonable inner voice told me to back away slowly and leave the squash -- with it's large leaves, tenacious vines and high water needs -- to a gardener with more square footage. But my inner crazed gardener beat down that reasonable voice and I furtively tucked an envelope of the seeds into my pocket. I had to be furtive -- my husband hates squash plants, thanks to my foray in decorative gourds a few years back that turned our backyard into a Little-Shop-Of-Horrors of unchecked growth. So the question was, where to grow it?

I have a large, open compost bin tucked behind the garage that is dedicated solely to yard waste like leaves, grass clippings and the like. Since it is just an open wire bin, I do not compost food scraps in there (those go into my rodent-proof plastic composters). This hidden yard-waste area abuts the alley and gets an extraordinary amount of sun. It also is screened by the grape arbor and therefore unlikely to be seen easily by a squash-phobic partner. So I planted the seeds directly into the compost pile -- I had read that this works reasonably well. So yes, even in a tiny urban garden, I can have secrets.

Last month, I saw a delicata squash seedling at a plant sale. Remembering how delicious delicata can be, I couldn't resist adding the plant to my secret squash experiment. The seedling joined the red kuri in the compost pile -- at the time, they were the exact same size. I figured I could grow one plant up the fence and let the other cascade down to the ground. Now, a month later, I am puzzled by the disparate health of the two plants. The delicata is stunted and yellowing. The red kuri is green and lush. If both were sickly, I would guess that it was an issue with nitrogen availability in the young compost pile, too much soggy weather, or perhaps some kind of pathogen carried over from composted diseased plants. Are the kuri and the delicata squash so different in their cultivation needs that one can thrive while the other struggles? My only guess is their true difference: the kuri was sown directly and the delicata transplanted. Other theories welcome!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looking ahead to fall

The Territorial Seed Company mailed out its Winter 2010 catalog this week. The tomatoes are just blossoming and already I must think about the first frost date? It is hard to consider brassicas when the taste of June strawberries lingers on your lips. Initially, I reacted to the catalog with a snarky muttering about seasonal marketing - was Territorial following in the spirit of Walgreen's, who seems to stock Christmas decorations right after the Fourth of July? Then I noticed the excellent fall sowing chart on page 4 and realized the company was merely giving gardeners the heads up for seed starting. Thanks to Territorial, many a gardener may avoid buying Swiss chard transplants from a boutique garden shop at inflated prices this fall.


Witloof Chicory

The catalog wasn't a total shock....fall crops have already crossed my mind. The parsnips and Witloof chicory went in last week. I have pulled up the spent pea plants and many of the spring carrots -- leading to some gaps in my beds. Originally, these spaces were destined for herb and pepper transplants that I have been nursing along in containers. Considering I already have four pepper plants going like gangbusters, I have been rethinking my options. We are, after all, still working on the peppers preserved from last summer. The herbs are doing well enough in containers, so I will just pot them up into larger ones. I may put in July scallions instead, or if I can bear to have empty space in my summer garden, wait until August to sow some more lettuce. It is hard to imagine frosty air at this point, but I know with a little forward thinking, our garden eating won't end with tomatoes.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Atomic reds?

I am a sucker for seed names -- a romantic reference or a clever descriptor always makes me want to grow that variety. Who cares how delicious or reliable the more-mundane-named variety is? Enticed by the name on the label, I picked up some atomic red carrot seeds at a seed swap in early spring. Atomic red! It was thrilling -- radiant, nuclear, flaming hot red! I couldn't wait. Scarlet Nantes had nothing on atomic. Baker Creek Seeds describes them as "brilliant red". Google images showed me gorgeous bundles of blood-red roots. I planted them early, as soon as the soil could be worked, in a deep raised bed. Today, I pulled the first few. I include the strawberries as a "red" color reference. Are these carrots even red? Let alone atomic red?

Beyond the unremarkable color the taste was poor -- woody and slightly bitter. I was disgruntled -- did I harvest too early? Were the seeds mislabeled? Then I found an interesting note on the website of Ed Hume Seeds:

"When raw, its roots are light pink and somewhat rough in appearance. When peeled and cooked, the carrots turn blood red in color. It's flavor and texture are also significantly improved by cooking"

Okay, so maybe it was a cooking issue -- I peeled and steamed them. Here is the cooked color:

No dice on the color, but the flavor did improve. They were now sweet and tasted very carrot-y. They would be a good addition to soup. But their color is orange. Just plain orange. Nothing neon, nuclear or atomic about it. Now I am on a quest for a red carrot -- never mind the beets, tomatoes and strawberries that decorate my garden in crimson hues. Next year, I'm going for Red Samurai. I think this may be the same as Kyoto Red Carrots, but Samurai has a better ring to it, no?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A twisted nose

The nasturtiums are leafing out nicely. No flowers as of yet, but enough foliage to let me harvest a few leaves for a taste. Whooo-wee! Does that clear the nostrils! The nasturtium entry in Alan Davidson's essential Oxford Companion to Food remarks that the taste is similar to watercress, which is all well and good, yet he goes on to caution that the leaves should be used sparingly. That should have raised alarm bells prior to tasting these leaves.

Davidson also reports that the name means 'twisted nose' in Latin -- and no wonder! This is pungent stuff -- closer to horseradish and wasabi than arugula or watercress. I could maybe see myself tucking a few leaves into a roast beef sandwich, or rolling up some slivers in homemade sushi for a wasabi-like kick. But these zingers aren't going into my green salads -- the tender garden lettuces would be overwhelmed. I look forward to the blossoms to see if they are more or less pungent than their leafy predecessors.

On a horticultural note, the nasturtiums remained virtually untouched by pests, until a few nights ago when these little holes appeared in several leaves. I don't actually see any bugs, just their wake of (minimal) destruction. Any ideas? flea beetles, perhaps?

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

Friday, June 4, 2010

Never a surplus

No matter how much I long for the first strawberry, within weeks of the glorious inaugural bite, I am up to my neck in the fruits and ready to call it quits. I can barely keep up with harvesting them, let alone eating them or preserving them. I have 5 pounds of strawberries sitting in my fridge that I was going to turn into jam yesterday. But after a full day of work, then picking and cutting off runners, I was too tired to sterilize jars. So the whole lot was shoved into the fridge. Shoved in alongside the other giant bowlful I already had sitting there. If I don't make jam tomorrow, I will freeze them instead, for smoothies and sauces. Something that was just a few weeks ago an anticipated luxury has now become a burden.

I face this rapid transition from scarcity to surplus not just with strawberries, but with tomatoes, green beans, and summer squash -- namely, all the plants that I grow in much too much quantity for the size of my family. Not so with peas. Because I only have eight plants, in one square foot of garden space.

Square foot gardening keeps me in check with peas and other harvests -- I have two 3ft x 3ft beds, for a total of 18 square feet. I grow a different vegetable or herb in each. Initially, one may think that this style of microgardening is a little silly -- I mean, 4 ears of corn, really? But it offers -- in a very limited space - a way for my son to taste many different homegrown crops. It also offers a way for me to learn how to raise them, to be ready for the day when I can grow more than 9 beets or 16 radishes. And to be honest, 9 beets is just about enough for our family. If, for some reason, we all get a beet craving, I can always supplement with the farmer's market.

Raising crops on a microscale like this also allows me to focus on enjoying them in the moment. I am never overwhelmed by the harvest. I am never too busy thinking about preserving the surplus to savor the just-picked taste. Several of my square foot crops never even make it to the table. Carrots are washed and eaten on the spot. The peas are opened and gobbled as a quick early morning snack before the pre-work weeding. There is never a surplus of peas. I never even gather enough to serve as a side dish. I am shocked whenever I see home gardeners give pea recipes -- for soup, sautees and the like -- they must have a large bed dedicated to peas, and a lot of patience for shelling. Me, I'll stick to raw snacking, a pod here and there. It is a fleeting taste of early summer, and the scarcity makes it all the more precious.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Do people really eat this herb?

There are some herbs that are best left to the appreciation of the eye and nose, to flavor the landscape rather than the table. Maybe I have yet to unlock their culinary secrets. Given the wealth of delicious, easy to grow herbs available to gardeners, I am puzzled as to why anyone would grow borage, for example, for culinary reasons.

Now, I love herbs. My herb garden is a constant source of flavor for my kitchen. Gleanings from my plants find their way into the family dinner almost daily, be it chives cut into eggs, mint leaves ripped off the stem for a quick garnish, or basil pounded into unctuous pesto. I drink my herbs as well, steeping them for tea and liqueurs, or even blending up a lemongrass-ade. But even I have my hippie-herbal-chef limits, and borage definitely crosses the line. Does anyone really eat borage? Does anyone really look forward to borage the way, say, that I do to a sprinkling of rosemary on bread, or tarragon in my sauce?

My Rodale gardening reference advises gardeners to eat borage leaves "raw, steamed or sauteed as you would spinach". On a more ominous note, M. Grieve, author of Culinary Herbs and Condiments (Dover 1971), reports that borage leaves were "formerly considered good in salads". "Formerly" I presume to mean "in a time when folks were too near starvation and scurvy to turn down anything green". The surface of the plant is thick with stiff, prickly white hairs. Though hailed as a source of delicious honey and for a "crisp cucumber flavor" (undetectable on my tastings), the hairy borage leaf is not something I would willingly eat again. It's like eating fur. Finally, as if the hairiness of the leaves were not enough, M. Grieve also writes of Borage's uses that "stems and leaves supply much saline mucilage". Shudder. The less mucilage on my plate the better.