Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A wedding offering

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

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

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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The savory side of canning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 23, 2010

On sharing the garden wealth

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 19, 2010

Better late than never

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vertical versus horizontal cucumbers

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Blossom End Rot

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

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

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Preserving cherries

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

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

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

July Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Recreational hardship?

An article on Salon recently discussed the cultural phenomenon of "radical homemaking" -- namely, a "new" movement of folks embracing self-sufficiency and shunning consumer culture. As the author puts it, this is the idea that

"we don't have to rely on nameless, faceless corporations to feed, clothe, shelter and entertain us. Instead, we can take ourselves out of an economy that requires endless hours of work while others raise our kids and chemists make our food -- all so we can go out and buy stuff that wrecks the planet....Radical Homemakers survive on home-grown food, old-timey skills and a willingness to help the neighbors"

I didn't know my family lived under an official lifestyle label -- and, no, I am never going to identify as a "Radical Homemaker". Anyway, I don't think we truly qualify since I do work outside the home, and do not foresee a time where I would feel comfortable going without health insurance (bartering for colonoscopies? I don't think so!). But most of what I do (home cooking, gardening, canning, cloth diapers, cheese making, etc) falls under this new trend according to Salon. Well, everything old is new again, at least if you are a culture critic. Most of what the article describes are merely activities that defined the 1970's back-to-the-land homestead movement. And in the 1970's, most people said the back-to-the land movement was merely a nostalgic and naive replication of the earlier times of our hardscrabble foremothers.

The article is not celebratory -- the author declares she is a failure at radical homemaking: she hates gardening, doesn't want to cook, and resents living in the borderlands of bourgeois wealth. The actual labor required for old time survival skills seems to shock this member of the newly "poor" educated elite. I put poor in quotes because these are folks just regressing to the mean national income, not dropping below it. Ideas of poverty are relative, and in this specific case it means being unable to shop at Crate and Barrel. The author seems attracted to the principles behind radical homemaking but she admits "the way they propose bringing about change requires too much of the kind of work I frankly don't want to do". Yes, change is hard. This is where I am lucky -- gardening, cooking and homesteading crafts are a pleasure -- my family thrives on it. We are not suffering over grim bowls of porridge. We are gluttonously scooping handfuls of tomatoes into our maws while relaxing in a yard full of heirloom flowers.

More fascinating to me than the article itself is the comments section -- as usual for Salon, the article attracted both vitriolic attacks and passionate defenses. The comment I can't get out of my mind is a sneering dismissal of this homemaking trend as "recreational hardship" for rich people. The implication is that folks like me would rather be eating Smucker's strawberry jam from the local Safeway, but for status and entertainment and cultural cache we choose to can and eat inferior homegrown stuff (footnote: Slate also weighed in on this topic). This attack recalls Marie Antoinette and her boutique dairy where she and her ladies-in-waiting could picturesquely milk well-groomed cows while the mud-covered peasants suffered beyond her gates. I will let that commenter sit in judgement, snarking away at my apparently trendy lifestyle. I feel nothing but empathy for those who don't have access to homegrown strawberry jam, and long after this so-called new trend has faded, I will be living the way I do -- and hopefully I will be able to scoop up all the unused beehives, cheese presses and gardening tools at the garage sales of folks who bought them as stylish lifestyle accessories.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Flowers in the vegetable garden

My nasturtium 'Spitfire' tee-pee is coming along nicely, although it may be hard to appreciate in this photo, given the visual background of vertically climbing Armenian cukes and a big zucchini muscling in from the side. The nasturtium still boasts mostly foliage, despite careful neglect with the hose and no fertilizer (the oft-recommended approach to get heavy-blooming nasturtiums). I can see lots of little buds up close, so I expect that later this week, I should have a nice tall pyramid of orange blossoms. The overall health of the plant is good, but some older leaves show a bit of curling and this patchy damage:

This nasturtium is more of a sprawler than a climber -- it has required many a twist-tie to keep the growth vertical. This last week, before long days of professional work, I had to venture out in dawn's early light to tie up more of this exuberant plant. Most folks in my neighborhood were still asleep, and there I was, trying to train a lanky, sprawling plant into a nice triangular shape.

As a passionate but harried vegetable gardener, I sometimes wonder why I put any energy into flowers -- I could have spent those precious pre-work minutes nipping suckers off tomatoes or weeding the herb bed. In his off-kilter but occasionally charming book, Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor (with Katherine Whiteside) reports that even the most practical French vegetable gardeners -- "the crustiest old men" -- always have some annual flowers spilling out of their potager. And why not? They add color and scent to chores. This is not all for aesthetics -- nasturtiums and marigolds offer excellent companion benefits, should one believe the organic gardening folk wisdom.

Yet it is those most excellent garden writers, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, who persuade me that I am right to include flowers among my crops. They argue that for annuals like nasturtiums "their charm resides to a large degree precisely in their naivete, their simple sense of ease and well-being, just in themselves, just in what they are. It is true their colors are often bold and unsubtle....but they are beloved by children, and to any adult they offer the same kind of lift to the heart that occurs when walking through FAO Schwartz at Christmastime". And when facing a week's worth of weeds or an overgrown strawberry bed, who among us doesn't need a lift of the heart? The blooms give me courage to go forth, to carry on. And they do look nice against the cucumber leaves.

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