Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hard Work and Celebration

First, please excuse the nature of today's writing. You may find my style less articulate than usual, for I'm exhausted from a hard day's work followed by beer. At least I know I'll sleep well tonight.

This morning, this is what my garden plot looked like. The sod had been cut out, whatever grass and weeds I could find removed, and the soil leveled as well as possible.

I called in all my favors from ECG, JCC, and RWW and ensured a work team of strong folks with good senses of humor. After several mishaps that slowed our day down a bit, we were finally able to rent a rototiller from Lawn Mower Corner, a shop just around the corner from the garden with the most helpful and friendly staff imaginable. When we told them we weren't even going to load the tiller into a truck, but instead walk it home down the street, they first laughed, then cut us a deal. ECG asked, since they were feeling so neighborly, if they'd do the neighborly thing and just lend us the machine. They laughed. Neighborliness has its limits, after all.

We tilled.

And tilled some more.

RWW and I took his boss's truck to run errands: picking up the compost to further amend the soil and the stepping stones that RWW had salvaged. When we got back, JCC and ECG had nearly finished installing the frame. They had dug a trench around the exterior of the space and sunk the cedar planks, screwing the corners together as they worked. (Cedar isn't the fanciest option for edging, but it lasts longer than other woods and works well in the space and circumstances I have in which to garden.) This proved to be the most difficult task of the day, for the trenches were a bitch to dig.

When the frame finally fit, with a lip extending just an inch or so above ground, we added the compost and dug again to mix the soils. Then we raked the soil level. At this point, the dirt was so aerated, each of us considered laying down in it to make "dirt-angels." The rototilling and soil-mixing had turned it pillow-soft and deliciously fine-crumbed.

One of my favorite features of this vegetable garden space already is the choice of stepping stones we made. RWW had recently driven by a Shell station and discovered it in a state of demolition--the workers had broken up the concrete. He filled his truck with irregular chunks, knowing that he could use them in his own garden and share some with me. Each chunk is at least 4 inches thick, some more, and each has its own quirky irregularities. To allow me to access all parts of my side of the plot, we shoveled out a depression for each chunk, then set them where they'd create a practical path. When setting stepping stones for a permanent garden, it is important to make sure they're set in materials that will keep them from sinking or moving; however, since I may want to move these "stones" around and maybe even take them with me elsewhere someday, we just set them into the depressions in the soil. They're heavy enough to stay where we put them.

I wove a 75 foot soaker hose through the 7 by 15 foot space, holding it in place, at least temporarily, with JCC's old tent stakes.

Finally, we called it a day. I ordered pizza for all and we each sat down to a well-deserved beer or two.

And so I ended up with fingers that look like this?

I don't care. The day--hands in dirt, good company, satisfying result--was completely worth my crusty fingers. Besides, hand modeling was never in my future.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Best Laid Plans

Last night, it rained. It rained and rained and rained, and right now, it is raining again. Thank goodness, because it is the driest year on record in LA County. Despite this wonderful turn of events, I'm having my own personal pity party. I know we desperately need the rain, and really, I am very grateful; however, my garden plans of rototilling and building the garden's frame are ruined. No, they're not really ruined, they're just postponed, but I'm disappointed just the same because I cannot wait to plant. My fingers are itching to plant. My dreams are full of fall planting. I must plant. But, I must plant a week later than planned.

To make myself feel better, I'm going to share my seed choices for the year, that way we can all dream about planting-time, and even better, eating-time. Check out what I've planned then take a moment to let me know what meal you would anticipate making with the harvest.

Source Key:
SSE = Seed Savers Exchange
SOC = Seeds of Change
BC = Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
HA = Heirloom Acres Seeds
T = Twinleaf
BI = Botanical Interests

Seed List for Fall 2007-Early Spring 2008 Vegetable Garden
Brown Dutch, T
Four Seasons, SOC
Sucrine, SOC

Other Greens:
Apollo Arugula, SSE
Broadstem Green Chard, SOC
Di Cicco Broccoli, SOC
Dinosaur Kale (Cavalo Nero), SOC
Monnopa Spinach, SSE
Tatsoi, HA

Sugar Snap Peas, SOC and BI
Windsor Fava Bean, BI

Red Core Chantenay, SOC
Thumbelina, HA

Other Root Crops:
Detroit Dark Red Beet, SOC
Golden Ball Turnip, HA
Harris Model Parsnip, BC
Laurentian Rutabaga, BC

The Warm Winter Mix from Gourmet Garlic Gardens (I haven't received my order yet, so I don't know the exact strains that Bob Anderson, aka The Garlicmeister, will send me, but the mix includes Asian, Artichoke, and Marble Purple Stripe varieties as well as two Creole varieties.)

Right now, with the rain flying slantways and a cool breeze blowing, I can practically smell the turnips and rutabagas tossed with garlic cloves, salt, olive oil and thyme roasting in my oven. What do you crave?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fall is the New Spring

At least in Southern California it is. During this time of year, we prepare to plant all the crops that the heat of summer confuses or fries, crops like lettuce, cilantro, and carrots that bolt impossibly quickly during the summer heat. This is the time that Southern California gardeners plant the crops they miss most during the rest of the year.

And this fall, preparation for planting is more work than ever because the octagon, the cute 8'x8' plot that I've been tending in the back of my friends' duplex, is growing. The neighbors who live on the other side of the duplex are interested in growing a winter garden as well, and since the octagon is cramped for even one (albeit ambitious) gardener, we knew we needed more space to make it work. The result is that even though I'll be splitting a plot, it will still be more space than I currently have.

After school throughout the last week, I have been stopping by the garden each day to cut out sod. If you've never cut out sod before, believe me that this is very difficult work. This is the type of work that makes me want to kiss my diplomas.

Finally, today, with the very generous help of a wonderful friend, I managed to finish removing it all. Although I had slathered myself in sunscreen before heading over to the plot to work, I did not realize that my shirt would ride up with all the bending, so now I have an angry red smile of sunburn across my lower back to prove that I really did work in the sun for a good portion of the day.

My friend helped unscrew the frame that had existed around the previous plot and we lifted it out of the way. I may use pieces of the old frame somehow in the new one, but for the most part it is already decomposed. I plan to build the new frame out of rough cedar, a wood that is more resistant to rotting and will hopefully last me through my tenure at the garden. I don't need to plan a garden frame that will last for forever since ECG and I have a definite plan to, sometime in the not-so-distant future, own a home with a yard.

In the upcoming few days, I'll temporarily pot the herbs and plants I want to keep through the fall and winter, then I will rototill and add compost. Towards the end of the month, after all the hard work, comes the time that every gardener loves: planting time.

It's only a couple weeks away, and I wait for it with bated breath. When it rolls around, I'll post what I planted, where I planted it, and any special tricks I may use. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a perfect Southern California fall recipe.

Fig-Gravenstein Jam
Figs literally drip from the trees around here this time of year. I'm serious, they drip. They overripen and ferment if no one picks them, and they drip from their little belly buttons as they drop off the fragrant trees. My friend RWW and I liberated fruit from one such untended tree recently and were both gifted with more figs than we could possibly eat before they spoiled. Eating jammy-ripe figs every late-summer is a benefit of living in this place, but having the bounty to make jam with them is an even more special blessing. I spent my teenage years in Minnesota, where figs only appeared in Newtons, so I am quite aware that I'm lucky to have this bounty.

This jam tastes like fall. The sharp brightness of the apples and red wine vinegar balance the intense sweetness of the purple fruits, and cinnamon and and lemon peel round out the flavor. It is very good paired with roast pork, on top of vanilla ice cream, or swirled with yogurt for a jumble of sweet and tart, smooth and crunch. It is a soft jam, much softer than other almost caramelly fig jams, and as such, can serve as a very elegant applesauce alternative.

To make 4 1/2 pint jars, with a smidgin' left over to nibble on, you will need:
2 pounds of ripe, rinsed figs
1 pound of gravenstein or other tart baking-type apple
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 1/2 cups sugar
the juice of one lemon
one cinnamon stick
2 2" strips of lemon peel, yellow part only, removed from the fruit with a fruit peeler or sharp knife

To make the jam:
Peel and dice the apples into 1/4" to 1/2" dice. Cut the fig into quarters or eights, depending on the size of the fruit. Mix the fruit and all other ingredients together in a large pot on the stove and turn the heat to medium-high.

Bring the mixture to a boil stirring occasionally to keep from scorching the bottom, and continue to cook, skimming and discarding foam from the mixture if necessary, until a candy thermometer tells you that you've reached 221 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fish out the lemon peel and cinnamon stick with tongs and discard them (or better yet, throw them in your compost pile), and carefully ladle the jam into sterilized jars. Seal according to the USDA's instructions for canning.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Church Picnic Cake Walk

I volunteered to bake two cakes: the now-famous Chocolate Stout Cake and my grandmother's Almond Pound Cake. To help me get the cakes to church safely, yesterday ECG cut two pieces of plywood and sanded them down to make "cake transporters" that I lined with tinfoil. Driving to church today meant taking every turn and gear change at the pace of a slug on ludes.

They made it!

And people walked, hoping to win one of the many lovely cakes. Whose lucky number will get called?

A huge moth, the size of a hummingbird, flew through the crowd, providing a fascinating distraction from the sugar for just a moment.

Folks couldn't stay focused on the moth for too long; as people began to win, joyful applause erupted from the group. My cakes were chosen quickly and I have to admit that I felt a twinge seeing them go. It's the Third Law of Home-Economics: When one knows how good a baked-good tastes, it is very hard for one to let go of that good-tasting-baked-good. Happily for me, the winner of the Chocolate Stout Cake decided to share her loot with everyone.

Everyone except for him.

My Grandmother's Almond Pound Cake
I've already posted the recipe for the amazing Chocolate Stout Cake (do make it, and do double the frosting recipe--you will not regret it), but I also wanted to include the recipe for my grandmother's pound cake. This was her most-requested recipe, and if you make it, you'll see why. With the help of a good mixer, this is a cake walk to make, and it is everything a good pound cake should be: moist, rich, fine-crumbed, and incredibly fragrant. In addition, it is lovely with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and can be dressed up with a dark chocolate sauce or piled high with perfectly ripe fruit. Moreover, if one just can't bring oneself to eat it all in a week or so, it can be cut in half, wrapped well, and frozen to brighten up another, otherwise pound-cake-free day. I don't know if my grandmother ever made it for any cake walks, but if she did, I'm sure this cake was picked up mighty quickly. It's a winner.

You will need:
1 pound of unsalted butter, at room temperature*
1 pound of powdered sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature*
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

*It is imperative that these ingredients be at room temperature for the batter to come together smoothly enough to beat in the air necessary to keep the cake light and beautiful. If the ingredients are too cold, it is much harder to emulsify the fat, and therefore the cake might end up being a brick. If you're short on time, warm up the eggs and butter by setting them in warm water for a few minutes before preparing the recipe.

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour your favorite bundt pan.

Place the butter and powdered sugar in the bowl of your mixer and begin stirring on a low speed so the powdered sugar doesn't fly all over the place. (Believe me, if you start too strong, you'll have powdered sugar everywhere. I know from experience--you should have seen the snowy state of my kitchen counters yesterday.) Once the sugar and butter have begin to come together, turn the speed up to high and beat the mixture until very pale and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary to make sure the butter and sugar have mixed evenly.

Add eggs one at a time, beating after each until the mixture is fluffy again. Once again, use your spatula to scrape down the sides as needed so that each egg is evenly beaten into the mixture. After each egg has be incorporated, add the salt and almond extract and beat well. (In my grandmother's handwritten recipe, the phrase "beat well" shows up four times, each time anything is added to the batter. I think she was very serious about beating this batter well.) The batter should still be fluffy.

All at one time, add the flour and beat just until the ingredients are completely combined with each other. Use the spatula to scoop and push the batter into the bundt pan. Smooth the top of the batter with your spatula then place the pan in the preheated oven. Bake for at least an hour and fifteen minutes (and up to an hour and thirty minutes), or until the top is a crisp, golden brown and the edges are just beginning to pull from the sides of the pan.

Let the cake cool in the pan for at least twenty minutes before you try to remove it from the pan. Use mitts or silicon gloves to help you if you still find the pan hot. To remove the cake, place the serving plate or platter upside down on top of the cake pan, place one hand on top of the platter and another under the cake and invert the whole kit and kaboodle. The cake should release itself on to the serving platter.

After an hour, the cake should be completely cooled and ready to serve, sliced however thickly or thinly you prefer. Enjoy!