Monday, June 28, 2010

Spiced Up and Looking

Right now, the garden is fattening up my spice cabinet. Along with more poppy seed than I can imagine using this year, I'm reaping all kinds of good goodies. But I don't know what to do with them all. Help!

Coriander Seed

I love cilantro for many reasons, not the least of which are its sweet, citrus-y, wine-y dried fruits that make the spice we call coriander. So, this winter, I planted tons of cilantro, and now I have fields of coriander to harvest. I use coriander in lots of ways; it adds a bright note to curries, it spices up the grapefruit bitters I made this winter, it adds complexity to the pickled garlic I put up last week, and it intensifies roasted tomatoes (a la Orangette, an oft-used recipe, I tell ya). But this year, I have more coriander seed than ever before, and I'm starting to explore some options I've never considered. I've read about coriander lemon jelly and coriander-orange bread, coriander gelato and coriander cookies. I already have several cups of dry coriander harvested, so I have plenty to use in a variety of applications. What are some of your favorite ways to use coriander?

Fennel Seed

Fresh fennel flowers taste like root beer barrel candies to me—yum. I've been grazing on some of the flowers, leaving plenty of seed to ripen for harvest later in the summer. Unlike my husband, I'm a fennel lover, and especially love fennel seed in tomato sauces. In fact, when I can't think of anything else to make, more often than not, I toss a chopped onion in some olive oil to begin to brown, add a generous shake of fennel seed, some hot pepper flakes, and plenty of minced garlic to cook just until super-fragrant. I stir in a generous spoonful of homemade tomato paste, then add a can of tomatoes. I let this cook down, spike it with some vodka, swirl in a smidge of cream, salt to taste, and man, it never disappoints when tossed with good pasta. Even ECG loves this dish. And with pork, fennel seed sings opera. But I want more ways to use it rather than just making my Italian food delicious. How do other cultures use fennel seed? Guide me, o wise readers.

Nigella Seed (aka kalonji, black cumin, etc)

Just like when learning a new word, when learning a new spice, one finds it popping up in unexpected corners. Before growing it, I knew that nigella showed up frequently in Indian food, but I didn't expect it in the string cheese from the deli at our neighborhood ethnic market (and when I say ethnic, I pretty much mean all ethnicities—groceries here range from Panamanian to Bulgarian to Lebanese to Thai to Peruvian and everything in between). Labeled "regular flavor," the cheese with the nigella has a nutty, earthy, slightly cumin-like taste. I've gathered over a cup of nigella already, and I still have lots of harvest to go. I plan to use the nigella seeds sprinkled on homemade naan and in other baked goods; how do you imagine it put to use?

If you would like to see what others are harvesting this time of year, head on over to Daphne's Dandelions for her Harvest Monday roundup.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Three Mondays ago, as I was getting my classroom ready for the school day, one of my students walked in carrying a Tupperware container. Smiling even before she entered the room, she walked straight up to me and said, "I've been wanting to since we read To Kill A Mockingbird this winter, but I finally was able to this weekend. I made it!"

"Made what?"

"Lane cake." She set the container in front of me. "It took forever. I know why it is so special that Miss Maudie makes it, and it is so good. I brought you a piece." It was beautiful, a silver white cake with a cooked white frosting and boozy, rich coconutty filling. I ate it all before the first break of the school day.

Each winter, my freshman classes read To Kill a Mockingbird. My freshmen read Of Mice and Men too, but with that book, I feel as if my brain will drip out of my ears every time I have to teach it again. On the other hand, To Kill a Mockingbird always feels new and meaningful. This year, as I led my students to the textbook room to pick up the books, we encountered a junior who was out running errands for his teacher. He asked my kids what book we were going to pick up. When my students told him we were on our way to get To Kill a Mockingbird, he sighed and said "Oh, you are going to fall in love with that book." Seriously, he—not an AP or honors kid, otherwise I would know him—told the kids that they were going to fall in love with a book. And at the end of the To Kill a Mockingbird unit this year, one of my students stuck around after class. Once everyone was gone, he said to me, "Remember how that guy told us we were going to fall in love with this book? Well, I did."

Man, I live for these moments.

Miss Maudie's most famous line in To Kill a Mockingbird is to tell Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill mockingbirds because "they don't do anything but sing their hearts out for us." Metaphorically, Miss Maudie may be right, but literally, she's flat out wrong. Mockingbirds are assholes. If you have an outdoor pet you know this; mockingbirds are the birds that harass your cat or dog every time the poor animal accidentally looks in the birds' direction. I've seen mockingbirds doubleteam a cat, pecking around it's face until the cat found cover under a car. If I'm out working in the garden and I get too close to a mockingbird's nest, even though I mean no ill intention, one of these birds will come swooping at my face, flapping and threatening until I give it enough room. And as for singing their hearts out? A friend commented recently on the annoying bird imitating a car alarm that she thought she had left behind in her old apartment. Yup, that car alarm bird you hear? The one that goes "eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw eeeeeaaw, wooooot wooooot wooooot, waha waha waha" and so on is a mockingbird. So much for singing.

No creature, mockingbird or otherwise, is completely innocent.

Of course, I know what Miss Maudie was trying to say; in the novel, she is one of the many "mockingbirds." As much as I love Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo, and oh my, hero-extraordinaire, Atticus, it is Miss Maudie who lives most vibrantly in my head. In the 1930's in a very small Southern town, she's a self-sufficient widowed woman who rejects most of the town's tradition of prejudice, and who works hard every day in her garden, wearing men's overalls. She's sharp tongued, but she treats all sort of people—children, even people with whom she is angry—as equal to her, and though she is a woman of deep faith, rejects unthinking "religiosity." She's not perfect. Though she rejects many of the strictures of her town, she is a product of her era and geography, and doesn't always put up a big enough fight against the -isms that surround her. Scout and Jem, the novel's main characters, look up to Miss Maudie, galvanized by her strengths, limited by her weaknesses.

Now that school has just ended, I spend entire days outside. The other morning, I rolled out of bed, put on shorts, a sportsbra, and my high school gym shirt (the best sweat-in shirt ever—I don't know what it is made out of, but it stays so much cooler any other shirt I've ever owned, and it has lasted me 20 years). In the heat, I dug out the weedy sod, laid down hardware cloth to keep the gophers out, and built a two foot wall of broken concrete. I filled the new sweet potato bed with a combination of garden soil, coconut coir, and partly composted leaves. By the end of the day, I knew I had worked hard and my body had that same relaxed, heavy-muscle feeling that happens after too many glasses of wine. Even after I was finished, I had a hard time making myself go inside, and instead, found more chores, there are always chores, to do outside until the sun set. Harper Lee writes, "Miss Maudie hated her house: time spent indoors was time wasted." I will not waste time.

It is hard for me not to see myself in Miss Maudie, my strengths and weaknesses. When I was in high school, a friend once told me the image that he had of me in my future. He imagined that I'd live in a small town and ride a bike everywhere with a basket full of flowers on the front. I'd know all the neighborhood kids' names and share my flowers with them. It's a cheesy image, I know, and he was teasing me, but in some ways, I hope it isn't too far off. But I don't want to give my neighborhood kids flowers, I want to give them words and sentences and logic and argument. Meanwhile, as I aim to do all of these things, I know I fail at many others, and like Miss Maudie, cannot always see the changes I should be making, the changes my students need me to make.

Despite her weaknesses, Miss Maudie teaches that scuppernongs are for sharing, that words have power, that homegrown and homemade is meaningful, and that, even when the world seems terrifying and so wrong, things are changing for the better. I hope to accomplish the same.

What a fascinating school year it was.


Meyer Lemon Ice Cream

I may not be making Lane cakes for all the people in my life who deserve them, but I will make ice cream as often as I can. And since my tree is still spitting out lemons, now super-ripe and fattened as blimpy grapefruits, I can make this perfectly balanced lemon ice cream. It's silky, just the right amount of tangy and sweet, and rich enough so that a little scoop is very satisfying.

You will need:

2 fat Meyer lemons

1 cup heavy cream

4 egg yolks, beaten smooth

1 cup sugar

pinch of salt

1 cup cold whole milk

To make the ice cream:

Wash the lemons well, and remove the yellow zest with a fine grater. Juice the lemons; you will need one half cup, and you'll likely end up with more. In a large saucepan, stir together the lemon zest, one half cup of the juice, the cream, the egg yolks, the sugar, and the pink of salt. Stir the ingredients until they're combined, the place them on medium-low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture thickens a little and is just about to simmer. Remove the mixture from the heat.

Pour the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the grated peel, ensuring a silken smooth ice cream. Pour the mixture into a lidded container, and place the container into the refrigerator to chill for at least four hours, but preferably longer.

After the mixture has chilled, add the remaining cup of cold milk and stir to combine thoroughly. To finish the ice cream, follow the directions your ice cream maker provides.

Serve this to a mockingbird you know, someone a little bit of an asshole, a little bit of an innocent. We're all mockingbirds, after all.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The 2010 Garlic Harvest

I've been working on a meaty, essay-type post, but I'm also still plugging away at the last push of grading for the school year before graduation on Tuesday, so the post lags along—a few sentences a day, as I think of them between papers. But the garden doesn't rest no matter how much real-job work I have to do, so here is a picture-heavy, word-light post of the finally completed allium harvest. Cleaned and almost completely cured, I have now put most of my garlic seed stock in storage (in labeled paper bags in a dark, dry closet) with just a few of the later harvest to store away in the next couple weeks.

I've chosen the two most attractive bulbs of each variety to photograph. I haven't had a chance to taste each variety yet, but I'll give a brief note on growing habits with each portrait. And, you can read notes (if you're interested) on varieties I've grown before here. I've presented the portraits below in the order of harvest this year.

Without further ado, I'd like to introduce the garlic class of 2010.

A Turban Variety

As you can see, Shilla gave me some of my largest heads of the year, but it also gave me some of my smallest. The plant matured what seemed to be impossibly early, in the early part of May, and if I had waited any longer, I'm pretty sure the heads would have split. Next year, I'm going to be careful to plant only the absolute largest cloves to ensure lots of heads like those pictured above.

A Turban Variety

In its first year in my garden, Sonoran yielded medium-large bulbs that are all approximately the same size; there were no huge or minute anomalies. It grew quickly and vigorously, nipping at Shilla's heels for early maturity. It has pretty, rounded heads with dark brown-purple stripes.

Red Janice
A Turban Variety

Red Janice bulbs are identical in shape to Shilla and color to Sonoran. It grew very well this year, its first year in my garden, and steadily produced large, many-cloved heads. As you can see in some of these pictures, Turban varieties often have pointed cloves, the top of which tent the bulbs into a weak crown. If this variety tastes as good as it grows, it is a keeper.

A Turban Variety

Blossoms bulbs are uniformly huge, another surprise for its first year hear. If a garlic does this well before even acclimating over the course of a few years to soil and climate, it should be stellar later. Like all the Turban varieties, it grew quickly and harvested early. All Turban varieties have vigorous, slightly raggedy (for a garlic, that is) foliage that is a medium green, not blue-tinted like many other varieties.

Lorz Italian
An Artichoke Variety

Lorz Italian really struggled this year, its first in my garden. It was so slow to get started, and it quit growing earlier than I expected it to, considering how small the plants were. The bulbs turned out larger than I imagined they would despite the sparse foliage. However, many of them were misshapen, and quite a few had miniature bulblets just above the bulb. On the positive side, the nicest bulbs were better formed and larger than the seed stock that I planted. We'll see if another year acclimating will produce nicer heads.

Red Toch
An Artichoke Variety

For me, Red Toch just won't quit. It's a reliable producer of large-cloved large bulbs. The plants are typical artichokes, with larger, floppy green leaves. Like other artichokes, it sends up no scape, so all of its energy goes into those big ol' cloves.

A Marbled Purple Stripe Variety

Small and weak looking its entire life, I wasn't sure that Bogatyr would give me anything, but sure enough, each blue-tinted plant gave me a small head with four or five large-for-the-plant's-size cloves. Keeping me from being disappointed over Bogatyr is my memory of Metechi, perhaps my favorite garlic for flavor, that used to give me small heads that were often single cloves (rounds), but that now grows very well for me. Though small, Bogatyr is mighty pretty, with chiaroscuro coloring in creams, browns, and purples.

Ajo Rojo
A Creole Variety

Ajo Rojo is vigorous and leafy, and each year I grow it, I get bigger and prettier heads. It's a funny grower: most plants give nice scapes (yum, stirfry!), but some don't try to flower at all. There is something about this plant that seems natural here; it feels like the garlic that would grow here natively if garlic were to be native. Thank goodness it is DELICIOUS!

A Marbled Purple Stripe Variety

I cannot believe how well Khabar grew for me; as it is a Marbled Purple Stripe, and it is its first year in my garden, I didn't expect heads this large. But grew it did, and mightily so. I wonder how it will compare in flavor to Metechi, my standard for Marbled Purple Stripe flavor. Like other Marbled Purple Stripes, it grew with gorgeous architecture: geometric, symmetrical, and teal-blue.

An Artichoke Variety

Consistently, Applegate gives me the biggest, curviest, most seductive heads. However, I don't grow much of it because it is so mild that its best use is raw, and I use more cooked garlic than raw garlic. But I keep it around because it is drop dead gorgeous, peach and tan and creamy, and everyone I share it with really enjoys it.

A Marbled Purple Stripe Variety

If you're curious what acclimation does to garlic, scroll up to review Bogatyr. That is what Metechi used to look like for me. Look at this baby now! Almost every head is as large as those pictured, and each is only six or so huge cloves. Thank goodness Metechi is warming up to my microclimate because this is one of my absolute favorite garlics. Very late to harvest, Metechi stays pretty in the garden a long time, holding its almost horizontal blue-green leaves to the very end.

A Porcelain Variety

Everything I have ever read about garlic varieties tells me that Porcelains are not supposed to grow well in our warm climate. Well, Music may grow larger in other climates, but for its first year in my garden, it grew very well. In fact, the plants themselves were downright mighty, towering over all the others by about eight inches. The long leaves splayed out to form an urn shape, and they held their color for a long time. I harvested it alongside Metechi, my standard for late garlics, but I think Music could have used another week. The heads themselves are silken and beautiful, similar in appearance to a Ajo Rojo, but with larger cloves.


Since nearly all of my garlic is cured and ready for storage, I've bagged the eating garlic to hang in the work room off the kitchen. The most full bag contains Artichoke and Turban varieties because some of them are the shortest storing. The bag on the bottom left contains Marbled Purple Stripes (and the Music will go in there too, once they're finished curing), long lasting and so good in flavor for winter cooking. Finally, the bag on the bottom right is full of Ajo Rojo, my longest storing garlic. Under the silky-white outer wrapper, each clove is thickly blanketed with royal burgundy wrapping, holding in its goodness for a long, long time.

As well this week, I bagged up about four pounds of Sharon's Shallot, a tawny-colored shallot that I received from another Seed Savers member.

And finally, I'm about halfway through the Monticello poppy seed harvest, and I've already collected a quart of seed. Poppy seed recipes, anyone?

Phew, that was a lot more words than I expected to write.


If you'd like to see what other folks are harvesting this time of year, stop by Daphne's Dandelions, where Daphne graciously hosts Harvest Mondays.