Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The year of the pepper

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dispatch from the IGC Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I choose cosmos....

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

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

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

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The first of the figs

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

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Yard long vegetables

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bogus "seasonal" recipes

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Homegrown luxury

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

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

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

They break your heart every time

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

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

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

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

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