Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Easiest

A quick post today, just to tell you, that if you don't grow it (and eat it) already, you should.


It's hard to kill. I've never seen a pest attack it.

It grows in the cold, even sprouting under snow sometimes.

It grows quickly, to salad size in a month and stir fry size in two.

It tastes good: mild, green, and crunchy.

As it matures, each plant creates a flat green rose against the garden soil. I've never captured a good photograph of just how pretty it is, but imagine a perfectly symmetrical, highly petalled English rose in British racing green. Magnify that image by eight or so. That is what the plant looks like when given enough space to spread.

There ain't nothin' easier in my garden.

Friday, January 23, 2009

One Woman, One Wheelbarrow, and One Huge Pile of Crap

Tim Dundon, the self-proclaimed guru of poopoo and Altadena local legend, delivered nine cubic yards of composted horse manure (mixed with wood shavings, plant parts, and straw) to my house on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr Day, a work holiday.

Like every other moment of daylight lately that I was not at school, I was outside. I had been working already in the early morning, cleaning up beds where I wanted to spread the mulch, weeding, and removing some unhealthy plants. Also outside was my neighbor kid, practicing his skateboard tricks on the small square of concrete in his yard.

When Tim drove his truck on my lawn and lifted the dump-bed to deliver the whole nine yards, my young neighbor stopped and tipped his board up to his hip, holding it as his jaw dropped. More and more manure fell, and an avalanche of steamy, fragrant fertilizer grew into a mountain on my front lawn. Finally, the dregs sifted out the edge of the truck, and Tim lowered the dump-bed. He stuck his head out the truck window, shouted a few friendly directions to me, then drove off the lawn, out the front fence, and away. Feeling his awe, I turned towards my neighbor, still motionless with his board up. I grinned at him and shouted, "That's a whole lotta shit to move." Surprised by the shit or by the fact that I used the word or perhaps both, he laughed.

And the day began.

With the exception of a couple bathroom breaks and a half hour lunch break, I spent the entire day moving manure to different parts of the property and building a huge pile in the back to compost further before eventually using it as an soil amendment. I would shovel a wheelbarrowful, push it to where it needed to go, and dump it. Then I'd do the same thing again, over and over, until I lost track of the number of times I filled the wheelbarrow. While the day began chilly and overcast, eventually it warmed to nearly 80 degrees. I cursed the sun for breaking through the clouds. I worked and worked until it was too dark to see. Then I cursed the sun for going down. I hadn't finished—I still had about a cubic yard to move—but, crusted with dried sweat, reeking of manure, and unable to see much more than a few feet in front of me, I had to call it quits for the day.

As Slumdog Millionaire (go see this movie!) so beautifully illustrates, sometimes, to get to what we really want, we've got to slog through shit.


On another note, I apologize for my complete lack of recipes as of late. Recently, all my creativity and energy has shot straight to my job and my yard, and when I've found time to cook, I've relied only on old standards, fried eggs with garden veggies, or whatever simple cupboard meal that falls together. But rain, the first rain of the year, has arrived. My garden will take care of itself while I'm stuck inside. In the meantime, the kitchen's call is mighty powerful; the scent of this soup intoxicating, the color extraordinary, and the flavor vibrant enough to make not having my hands in the dirt okay.

Curried-Squash and Red Lentil Soup
Adapted for ease, simplicity, and intensity of flavor from February's Gourmet.

You will need:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 lb butternut squash (or other sweet-fleshed winter squash), peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch dice
1 carrot, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch dice
1 onion, peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch dice
1 celery rib, chopped into 1/2 inch dice
1-3 fresh red chilies, minced
2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of good curry powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup of red lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 1/2 quarts water
salt to taste
fresh lemon
loads of fresh cilantro

To make the soup:
Heat the oil and butter together in a heavy pan over high heat until the butter foams and subsides. Add all the squash, carrot, onion, celery, chilies, garlic, ginger, and salt, and cook, stirring when you remember to, until the vegetables have caramelized spots and are soft. This took me about a half hour.

Stir in the curry powder and ground pepper, frying the ingredients together until very fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Stir in the lentils and add the 1 1/2 quarts water, then lower the heat to medium low. Simmer the ingredients together, stirring if you feel like it, for another half hour or so, or until the lentils are tender. Salt liberally; taste and salt again; taste, and if you need to, salt one more time. Brighten the flavors with the juice of half a lemon.

Ladle a big bowlful and toss on a mini-mountain of cilantro leaves.

This serves 4 amply.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Okay, you can probably tell, if you read this site more than a time or two, that—despite occasional complaining (see last post for evidence of that)—I'm a pretty optimistic person. Simple things can make me very happy.

For example, this upcoming weekend, I will receive 9 cubic yards of composted manure. That may not sound terribly thrilling to many of you, but to me . . . well, it is heaven.

On the other hand, last weekend ECG and I received a very large something that the non-manure-inclined among you may also appreciate. It is a gift that has had the both of us dancing around the house. A friend gave us a piano.

Oh, it has a dead key and a few sticky ones, but it is a piano. It is making music on demand; it is part of the sound of a home—at least what ECG and I both think is the sound of a home, as we both grew up playing on the pianos in our respective living rooms. It is sitting down and concentrating on a page that doesn't glow. It is hitting the same well-worn chutes of melodies that have existed for hundreds of years; it is experimenting with notes and sounds in a way only the person touching the keys at that moment can. Because of its very presence, it is a muse, and this muse is ours.

On a related note, I have harvested my first head of broccoli at my new home this week. (Why a related note?—because they're both beautiful, because they're both comforting, because they both mean home.)

To prepare it, I've done nothing anything fancy, but instead, I enjoyed it's very broccoliness. Homegrown broccoli is a different vegetable altogether than even the best broccoli from farmers' markets, because it has never had a chance to develop any sulfurous off tastes, and its sugars are still sugars, not yet converted to starches. Very sweet, homegrown broccoli tastes like what it is: chlorophyll-rich flower buds. For my tastebuds, the best way to eat homegrown broccoli is after a light steam with a bit off good butter melting into the knotted up flowers and a few crystals of salt, sitting like snowflakes, on the emerald branches. This is the way that I learned to eat broccoli, the way my mother learned to eat broccoli, and the way her mother probably learned to eat broccoli too. With this head of broccoli, I refused to invent anything new. With a gift this perfect, why try?

What can top the goodness of homegrown broccoli? One thing. ECG, avoider-extraordinaire of all things green, tonight asked a question I never thought would ever emerge from his mouth: do you have any more of that broccoli?


Monday, January 05, 2009

Handy Tips for the New Homeowner

1) Get exercise while practicing your French!
Come home from work, tired and cold, put a kettle on for tea and check your mail. Change from your work clothes to jeans and a light sweatshirt for puttering around the house. When your kettle whistles, pour yourself a cup of steamy tea and place your cold fingers around the mug to warm them. Dump the teabag in the compost bucket on the counter and decide that you really should run out quickly and take out the compost. Don't even think about a jacket, because you're only going to be out for a second, grab the compost bucket, and step outside. Realize that the door clicked a little too loudly when it closed. Grapple with the handle, but recognize that it won't turn because you've locked yourself out. Shout "Shit!" Get on your knees, unhinge the swinging cat door, and try to reach up to unlock the doorknob. Curse your long arms that aren't long enough. Realize that you are very chilly lying against the concrete floor and the only warm part of you is reaching, unsuccessfully, through the cat door. Rehinge the cat door. Sigh. Shout "Shit!" again. Run in place while watching the sun set. Try to vigorously complete outdoor chores in the dark. Wait for your husband to get home.

2) Get a good cry and kill aphids at the same time!
On the last weekend of vacation, when you're already beginning to feel the back-to-work blues, recognize the tell-tale, sticky-shine sign of aphids amongst the overwintering chili peppers on the patio. Put on your steely grin and tell the buggers they won't win. Go inside the house and make your potent anti-aphid mixture: toss a small onion, two cloves of garlic, and one teaspoon of ground cayenne in the food processer, process until it is a liquidy muck, then pour in a bowl; add 1 quart of water and let the mixture sit for a while; strain the mixture into a large spray bottle, add a teaspoon of mild detergent, swirl to mix, and attack the attackers. Thoroughly douse the leaves of the peppers with the spray. Make sure to lean low and spray the undersides of the leaves. Look closely. Spray upwards, getting the little meanies on the bottom of the leaves. Spray yourself in the eyes. Cry.

3) Take a break from housework and read a good book!
Spend a good part of your vacation working with your husband to get the house organized. After much unpacking and discussion, realize what you really need isn't too much to ask for, just two tall bookcases. Figure that you can fit in a trip to Ikea before dinner. You know you'll have to lug stuff home, so fold down the seats in the back of your little car. (You're proud of your little car. It may be small, but boy, with those seats folded down, you can fit so much in there. You tell everyone, "It's my little pickup that gets 40 mpg.") At Ikea, wander happily with your husband through the showrooms, discussing your options, considering the pros and cons of each possibility. Make a decision together, a nice one about which you're both excited. Talk about how hungry the both of you are, and how you're looking forward to the amazing leftovers of spaghetti and meatballs. Go to the warehouse and find the packages of the units. Turn to your husband and say "They look a little big." He will say, "Yeah, but we can fit them in there. We'll just lay them on top of each other, down the middle." Think to yourself, "Of course we can fit them in there—it's my little pickup that gets 40mpg." Purchase the shelves. Cart them out to the car, open the hatch, and say, "Oh shit." Try to fit them in the car anyway. Try for a long time. Recognize that they will fit in the car but you won't. Kiss your husband goodbye before he drives away with only the shelves for company. Walk to the bookstore across the street to read while waiting for him to go home and come back. Try to find a corner where no one can hear your growling stomach. Torture yourself by reading only cookbooks.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Until 1954, it was legal in Southern California to dispose of trash by burning. Most rural and not-so-rural homes had giant fireplace-like incinerators somewhere on the property. Although someone built our house in 1947, only a few years before the ban on incinerators, that person still felt burning was a good way to eliminate rubbish, and planted an incinerator down in the deep corner of the property. Giant anti-smog protests in the '50s helped pave the way for the change that would create auto emissions guidelines and outlaw incinerators.

When we first visited our house during an open house, we had no idea what this fireplace was doing way in the back, so far from the house. Why would anyone put a living space so inaccessibly located, so right-on-the-edge of what should be a rambling vegetable garden (but was then a collection of a few unwatered and dying tomato vines, weeds, and sad looking lemon and persimmon trees)? We had not yet learned about incinerators.

Our incinerator is a giant chimney flanked by two cinder-block walled collection areas. A previous owner had turned the collection areas into planters, piling soil on top of unburned waste. Because there is no water source to the planters and because they get so darned hot, they dry out very quickly and make ineffective planters. They must go.

This week, we've learned a whole lot about incinerators, at least the one we have, as we've struggled to pull down one of the collection areas. We'd like to leave the fireplace as a crumbling focal point in the corner of the garden—I think it will look gorgeous with red malabar spinach climbing over it—but the collection areas take up space that I want to plant. So, ECG and I set to them with sledgehammers. This, of course, has involved some smashed fingers and sore muscles, but we've had some pretty exciting discoveries.

Here is what we've found so far:
  • Lots and lots of terra cotta pots, still in great condition.
  • Yards of steel cable.
  • An old, rusty shovel blade.
  • Several terrifyingly huge black widows.
  • Parts of iron tubing.
  • Many unidentifiable pieces of industrial-looking metal, some steel, some iron, some fragile aluminum remnants, now bright turquoise with corrosion and age.
  • A lizard with his back claws stuck in his tail. ECG lifted him out of the soil and set him in the sun, but he'd just struggle slowly with himself and not move. We couldn't figure out what exactly was wrong until we decided that it was not just an oddly twisted leg, it was immobile because he was stuck to himself. Gently, ECG pulled the little claws out of his own tail and released his leg. The little lizard immediately scampered off.
  • And at the bottom of the structure, a foundation built of now-fragile concrete and local granite rocks and small boulders. Those rocks will have happy homes working as edges for vegetable beds.

I wonder what we will find when we pull down the other side.