Tuesday, May 29, 2007

First Harvest

I've snipped plenty of oregano, thyme, and chives from the garden already this year, but tonight, I performed my first real harvest: a bowlful of basil. The tomatoes and peppers are setting like mad, the eggplants are beginning their slow elongation, and the melons have started the very first of their male flowers, but those fruiting crops are still a long way off. The basil, however, is already lush and about to burst into blossom, so I cut the tops off all my plants to ensure prolonged leafing, with the wonderful side benefit of a healthy crop.

I knew before I pruned what I'd be making for dinner tonight: tagliatelle with pesto and a side of grilled Italian sausage. (Yes, the meat is the side, for pesto, as you know, steals the show). However, I wanted to try something a little different, something I had read in Clotilde Dusoulier's book (named after her blog) Chocolate and Zucchini. Tonight's pesto would not be fortified with pine nuts, the usual thickener, but instead with pistachios.

Boy, was this fun to make. The smell in the whole whirling, food processing experience made it hard for me to wait until the pasta was finished cooking to taste the pesto, so I didn't. I dipped a spoon in for smidgin' of the paste. Green, garlicky, sweet goodness! The pistachios sweeten up the pesto more than pine nuts do, and their pretty green flesh amplifies its color. Tossed with the tagliatelle and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan, this meal made both ECG and I moan. When I asked ECG my customary dinner-time question, "Will you tell me about the best part of your day?" he answered, "Right now, eating this."

I'll be making this each time my basil plants near blossom. I'll toss it with pasta, smear it on bread, dip vegetables in it, and grin each time. Poor basil, you'll never bloom, but you'll be making me very happy, just the same.

Pistachio Pesto
Adapted very slightly from Chocolate and Zucchini

You will need:
1 cup shelled and unsalted pistachios (I bought the roasted unsalted pistachios at Trader Joe's and shelled them myself)
3 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 big bunch of basil leaves, stripped from their stems (Dusoulier calls for a cup of tightly packed basil, but that isn't an easy way to measure, not that I have a better way. Actually, I do: I should have weighed the basil, but I forgot to. Sorry.)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/3-1/2 cup good olive oil

To make the pesto:
Combine pistachios, garlic, salt, and a few healthy grindings of pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the ingredients until they are chopped finely. Add the basil leaves and cheese. Turn the machine on, and while the ingredients are whirling about the bowl of the food processor, pour 1/3 cup of olive oil in through the opening on top. Let the ingredients spin until they begin to turn from distinctly separate grains into more of a paste. It won't be completely smooth, but it will definitely hold together and appear more condiment-like than chunky salad. If you'd like a looser pesto, add more oil. Turn the machine off, remove the lid, take a deep breath of that amazing basic-garlic-goodness, and taste for salt and pepper. Adjust as necessary.

If you aren't going to use the pesto right away, pack it in an airtight container, and pour a layer of olive oil over the top to keep it from oxidizing (and turning black-ish). It should keep a day or two in the refrigerator.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Perfect Three Day Weekend

Hiking in the hills with students who have never seen a stream before.

A fluffy pinky-peach peony bouquet.

A real reason to celebrate: ECG's very successful defense of his PhD dissertation. This leads to a happy brunch with friends--baked eggs, good white bread, the first jam I've made in the season, bacon, fresh juice, and coffee.

And of course, the joys of organic gardening.

The luxury of time that a three day weekend provides is just a nibble compared to the feast of summer, and this weekend served very well to whet my appetite. I'm hungry for more free days.

Is This a Problem?

I'm a bit worried folks, not hysterically so, but worried all the same. My tomato plants are lush and suprisingly huge, already hanging with green orbs of expectations. But, my well-loved Black Krim plant looks strange. Although the plant is growing with vigor, blossoming beautifully, and apparently as apt to bear fruit as a bad decision, its leaves are curling.

This plant's leaves have curled like this throughout all of its life so far. I've looked for bugs, fungus, or some other type of obvious cause, but have found none. None of the other plants in the octagon are affected, and this one doesn't seemed slowed down by its case of the curlies.

Should I be worried? If it is a real problem, does anyone know how to fix it?

Thanks for your input. I really, really am looking forward to a good crop of Black Krim.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hope Springs in Purple

One of my professors, Dr. Smith, used to tell us a story when urging us towards specificity in our writing. I have no idea about the veracity of this tale, but I believed it because Dr. Smith said it. He was Scottish, dreamy, and would rock on his toes when telling a story. Everyone listened raptly, even my friend Josh who would be hung over, wearing remnants of his girlfriend's eyeliner, and sporting lopsided bedhead. This story began like this:

Nabokov used to guest lecture at various colleges throughout the Northeast, and when he would, aspiring writers would descend upon the campus, hoping to get the opportunity to sit in on one of his lectures.

Dr. Smith told this story more than once, but his accent was too sexy to ignore, even if you had heard what he had to say before.

At one lecture, a student waited until all the others had left, hoping for a moment to speak directly to the writer. More than anything, he wanted a nugget of writing truth, some clue that would help him achieve at least a fraction of Nabokov's success. When the room cleared out, he gathered his courage and approached his literary hero. He asked, "Sir, is there some suggestion that you have that could help me become a better writer?"

Nabokov responded with a question, pointing out of the classroom window. "What is that you see out there?" he asked.

The student looked out the window, smiled, and responded, "A tree. Why do you ask?"

Nabokov frowned. "A tree? You will never be a good writer." He turned, walked away, leaving a bewildered young man in his wake.

Professor Smith went on to explain the necessity for naming things specifically; a tree isn't a tree--it is a harbor for seagulls, a shade for lovers, an English oak, a cottonwood--but never just a tree. I tell this to my students each year. We laugh together at what a crappy teacher Nabokov was, to leave his student more confused, and most likely quite frustrated, but they get what I mean by telling the story. Something happens each year here in Southern California that teaches the same lesson more effectively than I ever could, no matter how good the story, or how well I tell it.

Every year, the jacarandas bloom.

A tree is not a tree. A tree is, as my usually non-sentimental friend SM says, "food for a soul."

A tree is grape candy.

A tree is why my out-of-town friends tell me I live in a resort, not a city.

A tree is time for AP exams, college graduations, summer in sight. It is a fragrant lavender smoke of hope, falling gently on a whole city.

Hope Gelato

No, it isn't laced with jacaranda blossoms, but it is the same color, and just as hopeful-- a vibrant gelato that will make all of the blueberry lovers you know swoon. Now that blueberries are hitting the farmers' market, buy them. There are multitudes of delicious approaches to blueberries, but I suggest you try this, as it is one of the truest ways to experience blueberry goodness.

You will need:
1 1/2 cups of washed blueberries, picked over for stems
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup lowfat milk

To make the gelato:
Stir the blueberries, sugar, and pinch of salt together in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Make sure to stir frequently to keep the fruit from sticking to the pan. Once the mixture boils, reduce the heat to medium until the fruit began to soften and burst. This should only take a few minutes, perhaps three or four. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the mixture into a food processor. Pulse the machine a couple of times. If you like pieces of fruit in your gelato, as I do, do not completely puree the mixture, but leave it chunky. If you prefer a smoother gelato, puree completely.

Stir in the lemon juice, pour the mixture into a lidded container, and place in the refrigerator for at least three hours, preferably overnight, so it is solidly cold.

When you are ready to make the gelato, stir in the cream first, then the milk, and immediately pour into your ice cream maker. Follow the ice cream maker's directions to complete the process. Place the gelato in the freezer in an air-tight container. To serve, set the container on the counter for few minutes before dishing to assure a smooth, dense consistency.

Serves six as a sweet flourish at the end of a dinner party.
Serves four as a substantial dessert for a balcony barbecue.
Serves two as a meal.
Serves one in a large bowl when that one may be in desperate need for large quantities of hope.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Farming Fresh: An Interview with Mike Taylor

It’s hot.

It’s hot and dry.

It’s hot and dry, the hills are on fire, smoke has made the air orange and dense, and what we really need, what we need more than anything, is a drenching rainstorm.


My students, many of whom speak Spanish as a first language, call a cool, damp day “fresh.” In English, fresh and cool don’t mean the same thing, but in Spanish, they do. I wish today were fresh.


On Saturday morning, the weather was already starting to heat up. When I interviewed Mike Taylor, we had to escape to the shade of a eucalyptus to keep cool. Taylor is one of my favorite vendors at the market, and I felt lucky to be able to steal some of his time for an interview. At first, I had a bit of a struggle. Chatty and personable, he’s quite popular, and this trait, combined with the fact that his name had just been mentioned in LA Times’ Food pages, made it hard to get a few uninterrupted minutes to ask questions. But, generous with his time, he asked his equally affable son to cover the stand for a few minutes while we stepped away, under the shade of a tree. Leaning against his car, light-colored pet fur catching the light on his black guayabera, Taylor began to share with me some of his gardening philosophies.

Mike Taylor is unique among the vendors; instead of raising his produce on a large farm and driving 100 miles into the metropolitan area to sell us his goods, he drives maybe 15 miles or so, from West Covina. You see, Mike Taylor’s organic farm is his yard.

Raised by a family that grew their own food organically, Taylor began farming his own yard about ten years ago, turning the space into something that would give back to him and his family. He believes that everything he plants should have a purpose-- a scent, flavor, color, or nutrient. Therefore, grass plays only a small role in his yard: what there is of it is for walking on. The rest of the space is devoted to a huge variety of goodies, including multiple varieties of citrus, tomatoes, melons, corn, chard, arugula, garlic, and on and on. This mixed-up garden, full of diversity, directly reflects his own philosophy on the greater world, one of “giving back.” In order to keep the world from becoming more and more non-productive, more and more paved over or falsely greened with ChemLawns and Weed N Feed, he wants his land to benefit more than itself, just as he hopes to benefit the environment and the people that live around him.

Not everyone comprehends his goal to be an integral part of the environment and community. Occasionally, Taylor receives calls from the city, calls spurred by neighbors who don’t understand his yard and consider it unsightly. He’s made an effort to make his front yard beautiful, growing the loveliest of his crops in the front, rainbow chard, nasturtiums, and Japanese eggplant, but some people expect a yard to be manicured bushes and weed-free lawns, so he patiently takes the time to show his neighbors what it is that he’s growing, and explaining, just as he does to me, why he grows it.

When asked what problems he sees in the ways Southern Californians garden, he doesn’t even hesitate, answering that he observes “too much dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. People here don’t want to recognize that in the winter, a lawn shouldn’t be green—it should be dormant.” He argues that many Southern Californians, lulled by the natural beauty and temperate weather, don’t want to live seasonally, but want what they want when they want it, which is all the time. According to him, customers even ask him for watermelon in December. Taylor delivers even his complaints with a smile and a curl in the corners of his eyes. He’s not angry—he’s just passionate about what he believes.

This passion is the center of his success. I asked him for a useful garden tips, and he answered, “Passion . . . diligence. Don’t give up if things don’t grow for you at first.” According to Taylor, growing well demands gardeners recognize that lots of what happens depends not entirely on the gardener, but also on the whims of nature. He doesn’t chase nature away from his crops, but accepts it, even when it causes loss. He laughs and describes the parrots that sit in his fig tree, peeling the outer layer of the fruit off to get to “the good stuff.” Even when nature destroys his crop, he finds it fascinating.

Not all of Taylor’s advice is philosophical; he can be practical too:

  • Know your soil. If your soil is healthy, you can grow anything. Healthy soil will feel “alive with loam” when you pick it up.
  • Supplement your soil with compost and amend as necessary with organic LGM planting mix.
  • Since water usage is going to continue to be a problem with this drought, maximize your efficiency. Use drip and soaker hoses rather than sprinklers or surface watering, and sink plastic gallon planting containers next to your larger plants. Water directly into the plastic pots, which will then serve as reservoirs, watering deeply without wasting any water.
  • To grow blueberries in Southern California, choose varieties such as “Sunshine Blue” that can handle the heat. Plant in nearly straight peat to provide the acid soil the plants need.
  • Spend time with seed catalogs. They can be great sources of information.
  • If you grow vegetables in pots, a great way to have a garden on a balcony, remember to water more frequently.

Everything I’ve sampled that Taylor grows is fantastic, but without exaggeration, his blood oranges beat any others I’ve had elsewhere. They are raspberry sorbet drizzled with orange juice, a ruby dessert in a nubbly peel. They are beyond good. Praising his blood oranges, I ask him if there is anything he can’t grow. “Pumpkins. I don’t have the space for pumpkins. Someday, I’d like to grow a world-record pumpkin.” In the meantime, he’s thrilled to eat his delicious tomatoes, ripe off the vine, and to toss just-picked corn on the grill. We’re lucky he shares his bounty with us.


I haven’t seen Mike Taylor’s garden, but I can imagine it. I picture the deep shade under a healthy tomato plant, shade over soil “alive with loam” and bugs and happy worms. I hope that with time and experience, I can create as healthy and productive a garden. I hope that, like Mike Taylor, I can make the world a little more “fresh.”

Friday, May 04, 2007

How Green is My Garden?

That is the question I've been pondering lately. NPR has spent the last few weeks focusing on the environment, Calendula and Concrete has asked us what we're doing to be green, S and RWW have just organized a completely sustainable luncheon, and my students and I have just read Kingsolver's "Lily's Chickens." I can't help but consider what I'm doing to help and harm.

Do I need to garden to live ecologically? Do I need to expend the water it takes to grow vegetables in the desert? No. I can get perfectly wonderful, organic, local produce at my farmers' market. I can support farmers who have a real reason for using water: they must sustain themselves and their families. Even with the octagon, I'll still shop at the farmers' market--the garden is not feeding me completely. As I'm not able to grow all the produce I will eat, I'll continue to support those farmers, even if (let's keep our fingers crossed) my summer tomato bounty might put a dent in my regular buying habits. Clearly, growing some of my own food, delicious as it may be, is a luxury.

By gardening vegetables here, I know I'm using more water than I should, in the same way I know that when I eat beef, I'm eating pretty darned inefficiently; however, just as I can't give up meat since it is an essential part of me eating happily and healthfully, I know I need to have this garden right now. Like many of you, I consider my meat purchases carefully, always choosing organic, and seeking out local products. Buying meat this way requires more effort, time, and certainly more money, but I'm more than happy to sacrifice these in order to help protect myself and those I care about, as well as this planet on which we all depend.

In a similar way, I'm trying to do little things to help compensate for the water I'm using in the octagon. I planned the garden as water-efficiently as I could in the space that I have, using a system of connected irrigation ditches for deep watering that encourages deeper root growth, so when it gets hot, I won't have to water as frequently. I've been thinking about other ways to be "green" as well. Every batch of coffee grounds or egg shells or other immediately compostable item goes straight into the bed (I hope to create some kind of real composting system in the not-so-distant-future); I use no pesticides--of course--not even natural ones (unless you count my flicking the occasional plant-threatening bug away as pesticide, an act which could considered such, as I'm "ciding" a "pest"); and here's the clincher, though the octagon garden is at the CC's house, 1.1 miles away, I don't drive there. I walk. Yes, I walk in LA.

Is that really just rationalizing away my guilt? Perhaps. But I need this garden. When I have a crappy-ass day at work, I can't wait to get home and walk over and see bugs eating other bugs. It's all the violence necessary to make me feel better.

I've become friends with a white spider who makes her home between the two Japanese eggplants. Every day, she crawls out of the traps she's created in the curled young leaves to greet me, and her skittish swinging and erratic flitting over the plants makes me feel less skittish and erratic myself. I need this spider. I need to keep a home for her.

I know what I'm doing and that I'm both part of the problem and part of the solution. This garden reminds me of that daily.