Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bean Counting (Growing Challenge)

I just finished my taxes and submitted them electronically; thank goodness for the ease and efficiency of online filing. In celebration of completing part of my civic duty, I thought I would spend some time with the beans that I will plant this spring.

Next weekend, I'll be planting this beauty, Blue Coco, a pre-19th Century French heirloom, that promises to be a real looker. It is a vigorous grower with purple tinged leaves and dark purple beans. It is also supposed to be tough, able to tolerate both heat and drought. I'll plant it in one of the pots that I've prepared for growing pole beans.

In two weekends, the next two varieties will go in the plot. The first is a dry bean, a Native American heirloom that matures early and supposedly cooks up to creamy-beany goodness. It is called Indian Woman Yellow, and is a bush bean that I've been wanting to grow forever. I'm curious how productive it will be and how worthwhile it will to be to grow dry beans in my limited spaces. Perhaps, since it is so early maturing, I'll be able to grow a couple rounds and thereby increase my yields.

The second is a bush wax bean that I'll also plant directly in the garden. Pencil Pod Wax debuted in 1900 and sounds like it has stood the test of time. The variety also promises to be able to continue to produce once the heat comes. Although the dry seeds are long and black, the fresh pods are pale yellow and crisp.

Sometime in the middle of next month, once the weather does begin to warm up, I'll plant the Asian yardlong beans my brother sent me. They have small, black seeds and long, flexible pods. I've never even eaten them before, but I'm excited by the prospect of growing a bean that not only endures the heat, but thrives in it. They'll go in the other pot I've prepared for pole beans.

And finally, if I can scrounge up a little space somewhere, highly unlikely but I can't give up the hope, I'll also try out a couple Contender bush beans, sweet green beans that are crisp, productive, and disease-resistant.

I may be finished with my taxes, but I think the bean counting is just beginning.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Handfuls of Huge Flavor

Future House Farm, thank you for your E for excellence. This post is for you.

We've been receiving rain at least once a week since November, which means that I haven't watered in months. The clouds roll in and out, dropping snow on our mountains and keeping my little plot happily moist. The peas are plump, the lettuces are heading beautifully, the tatsoi is blooming, and everything green is just so green.

During the winter and spring, it's possible to grow a whole lot of food in my plot, but since I'm a variety addict, I grow quite a few different crops. That means I have a consistent influx of small harvests. Rarely do I have enough of any one vegetable to serve a crowd, but since I have so many crops, I've learned to mix and match handfuls of different vegetables for a huge variety of green side-dishes. I've come up with a little equation that works to make wonderful side dishes for two and can be adapted for more (if you have more veggies available). This equation can work for you whether you have bits and pieces of garden produce or odds and ends from the market. Here's my secret to green garden goodness:

fat + 1 aromatic +2 (or more) green veggies + 2 (or more) flavor enhancers + 1 color or texture addition (optional) = yum.

I mix and match garden ingredients according to my little equation to come up with some sort of vegetable wonder almost every night. For example, tonight I wilted a sliced shallot in duck fat, tossed in chopped sugar snap peas, a handful of fava beans, ribboned kale, and a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves. I covered the pot to let the ingredients steam a minute in their own moisture, tossed the ingredients around, then removed the lid and sauteed everything until just cooked and still crisp. I sprinkled coarse sea salt and a couple drops of sherry vinegar over everything, and had a vegetable side dish fit for royalty.

Here's your mix and match list:

Cooking fats:
Olive oil
Walnut oil
Bacon fat
Duck fat

Garlic clove, crushed
Shallot, thinly sliced
Crushed red chili
Slivered preserved lemon

Green Veggies:

Fava bean tops
Fava beans
Chard, cut in ribbons
Pea shoots
Sugar snap peas, cut in 1 centimeter lengths
Side sprouts of broccoli, chopped very coarsely
Kale, cut in ribbons
Green garlic, cut into 2 centimeter lengths

Flavor enhancers:

Pancetta or bacon, cooked and chopped
Lemon juice
Sherry vinegar

Color or texture:

Calendula petals
Walnuts or pistachios
Cruciferous blossoms (broccoli, tatsoi, mustard, arugula, etc)

Choose your cooking fat and wilt whatever aromatic you're using in it. Toss in the veggie combination you have available, cover for a minute, remove the lid and stir around in the heat. Add the flavor enhancers, color or texture if you'd like it, and coarse sea salt. Serve.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Longer, More Peaceful Days (Growing Challenge: Pole Beans)

I have two balconies at my condo, only one of which receives any sun. But, I do have friends who love fresh, good food and who rent a place with a back yard; because of their generosity, I have a vegetable garden.

Many of you know that last year, I started a garden in E and JCC's backyard that was an 8' by 8' octagon. In that little raised bed, I grew a few varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, melons, chilies, and herbs. Despite the limited space, the garden meant that I did not buy any eggplants, tomatoes, or herbs all summer long; I even put up a few cans of tomatoes and dried others after sharing my harvests with the CCs and other friends.

This fall, a crew of friends helped me pull out more of the lawn and build a larger, shared plot, my portion of which is about 6 1/2' by 13'. In it, I grew all sorts of cool weather vegetables, and because of it, this winter and spring I have not purchased lettuce, broccoli, peas, or other green leafy things. Every green vegetable that ECG and I have eaten at home has come from this garden.

Currently, the fava beans are just getting close to harvest, and each day, I "feel up" the beans, checking if they're swollen enough to pick. I couldn't help myself the other day and had to sample the beans inside. They were like beany peas: tender, juicy and so very green tasting.

Clearly, this garden has been a good way for us to become more aware of what we eat and where it comes from. Like any garden though, it has tossed some challenges my way. First, an evil black walnut tree lives on the same property, so my planting and designing always requires consideration of where the walnut's poisonous juglone won't knock out members of the Solanaceae family. Second, the plot receives much less sun in the wintertime than I anticipated, so everything has grown very slowly this season. Third, someone once thought long ago that morning glories climbing along the side fence would be a lovely addition to the yard. Yes, morning glories are pretty little buggers when they bloom, but they're mean little buggers in just about every other capacity. They don't respect their boundaries: they shove other plants out of the way, crawl over everything, root and seed themselves everywhere, and demonstrate a general disregard for all other living creatures. I find them rude.

The biggest challenge though has been something that has nothing to do with sunshine, trees, or unruly vines. It has been the back neighbors.

Immediately behind the back fence of the CC's yard sits a little house. All this past summer, fall, and winter, angry screaming emerged from that house. The couple who lived there hurled vicious daggers of hate at each other, and when the man would come outside and see me in the garden, he hurled them at me too. When JCC and I spend the better portion of a day cutting out lawn for the larger plot this fall, the man stood outside of his house, just feet away from us, and—as my students would say—"talked smack" about us the whole time. Once, when the walls of the little house shook and the shouting was a constant, ferocious roar, I was so terrified that the two were killing each other, I stumbled inside the CC's house and asked E to call the police.

These were frightening people. Being in the garden alone meant I had to have a cell phone on my person and I had to watch my back. It meant, that though I loved the little vegetable garden, I didn't spend hours there, but just stopped by to do what I had to do before getting out of there.

Two weeks ago, the couple moved out. One day, like an earthquake, they sent shock waves of anger out from their little place, and the next day, they were gone. The neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Everyone is happier. Since they've been gone, I've met neighbors who never ventured out to chat before. I've seen JCC run around his own backyard, shouting, "I have my yard back." It even seems like the garden itself is happier, growing exponentially in the last couple weeks—I know it may just be the days getting longer, but it certainly seems like the whole place has a different mood. Yesterday, I spent hours in the garden. While I was working there, this is what I heard:
  • kids playing
  • a jet fly overhead
  • a windchime
  • parrots
  • mockingbirds
  • hummingbirds' wings
What I didn't hear was anger.

Now that I feel comfortable spending time in the very back of the yard, I've prepared pots to grow what doesn't fit in the ground. After falling in love with a huge red-glazed pot, I brought it home and put it up against the back fence to grow a winter squash in. I've never had a place to grow winter squash before, and now the back fence is a safe zone, once it gets warmer, I can plant and train (as much as one can train squash vines) butternuts along the chain link fence. Also in the back corner, I prepared pots with sticks pruned from the front hedge for pole beans that I'll plant in a couple weeks. I've never grown them before either, and now I have the chance.

The garden is a lot bigger when it isn't hemmed in by hate.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sweet Sweet Lovin'

I used to hate Valentine's Day. I still think it is a cheap commodification of something profound, but I love to give presents, and now that ECG is a permanent part of my life, I'm happy to have yet another excuse to give him something. This may make my beliefs about Valentine's Day fraudulent, but at least it is a generous fraudulence.

This year, ECG received a book, a good dinner of braised duck, roasted sweet potatoes, garden greens, and one hell of a dessert: Coconut Cake with Meyer Lemon Curd filling.

If your honey deserves something sweet and worthy of his or her goodness on Valentine's Day or any day, this may be the perfect gift. It's so fluffy it is almost cuddly, nearly as sweet as the one you love, but balanced by the tang of lemon curd that echoes your love's sharp wit.

Coconut Cake with Meyer Lemon Curd Filling
I adapted the cake part of this recipe from one I found here. This recipe makes three 1 inch layers of not-quite-white cake (I use organic sugar and organic free-range eggs, which add their wonderful extra nutrition and flavor but prevent any semblance of "white").

For the cake, you will need:
1 cup butter (room temperature)
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 egg yolks
5 egg whites
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup coconut milk

To make the cake:
Cream butter and shortening with sugar. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. In a smaller bowl, sift flour, soda, and salt together. Beat in the flour mix alternately with buttermilk and coconut milk, beginning and ending with flour mix. In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites into batter gently, so the batter is as light and fluffy as possible.

Pour batter into three prepared round cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until the cake centers bounce back when gently pressed in the center. Remove the pans from the oven and allow to cool for ten minutes on racks before turning the layers out on to the racks to cool completely before frosting.

To fill and frost the cake, you will need:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
One batch of my recipe for lemon curd, which you can find here (I usually make it with Meyer lemons because that is the best lemon locally available, but it is very good made with whatever organic, unwaxed lemons you have on hand).
2 cups grated coconut

To assemble the cake:
Whip the cream and sugar together until the mixture forms soft peaks.

Place one layer of the cake one a cake plate and, using a butter knife or small spatula, spread with a generous layer of lemon curd. On top of the first, place the second layer and spread the top of this one with lemon curd as well. Finally, put the third layer on top. Pile the whipped cream on top of the cake, and using that spatula again, carefully work the whipped cream over the top and sides, to evenly cover the cake. For the finishing touch, sprinkle the grated coconut over the cake and around its edges.

Serve this cake and sit back and wait. Your generosity will be rewarded. I guarantee it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

If You Got Any Seeds Need Startin'

This week, a long-awaited package arrived: my first setup for early-season seed-starting at home. I purchased a stand, a two-bulb light fixture, and seedling heat-mats to help me get my own seedlings off the ground. I feel like Dill Harris (aka Truman Capote) in To Kill A Mockingbird, but instead of crowing to his new acquaintances, "I can read," I feel like telling everyone that I can start seeds.

"I just thought you'd like to know I can start seeds. You got any seeds need startin' I can do it." It's a very good feeling.

So why put forth the expense of time and money (not really that much money, mind you, especially if I do this every year) purchasing these materials to start seeds? Why take the time? Here's my list of reasons.

1) Keeping the good stuff around.
It's impossible to find started plants of some heirloom varieties of vegetables, partly because some of them have less disease resistance and are therefore less desirable to some growers, and partly because hybrid seeds are cheaper and glut the market, leading some growers to limited options. But, through specialized seed companies and seed exchanges, thousands of fascinating, old varieties of seeds are available. As we know, the reduced genetic variety of food plants now grown limits the availability to older genetic material found in our heirloom plants. Who knows when or if this genetic material may be needed to deal with new viruses or other threats? If people grow some of the old varieties, at least they're out there somewhere if they're someday needed.

2) Eating well.
The famous Brandywine tomato that steals the show at farmers' markets each year was once a nearly extinct variety, passed around in the Amish community. Nowadays, more and more people are able to find Brandywines and experience good, full tomato flavor. Many more modern, hybrid (not open-pollinated) varieties are more productive than our old varieties, but frequently, they just don't taste the same. I want my tomatoes to taste like the complex, amazing fruits that they are. I want peppers to be more than just watery crunch, and everything else I grow to have flavor as well.

3) Self-sufficiency.
Being able to grow my own food, from the very seeds (some of which I've saved myself, and more and more of which I hope to save and carry on for generations) I've planted, makes me feel remarkably capable, and that feeling is like crack to me. I wonder from which of my ancestors I've inherited this. Who farmed and saved seeds, saving only from the best plants, over time developing landraces that were particularly suited for his or her garden?

4) Experimentation.

Science is fun.

5) Good stories.
If you start following the links I've provided for the seeds I list later in this post, you'll find that just about every variety has some kind of fascinating narrative behind it. I'm an English teacher, a storyteller, and an insatiable reader: I live for good stories. They make me happy.

This weekend, I've started my tomatoes to plant in the garden (and a couple on a balcony) come mid-March. I also planted my pepper and eggplant seeds to transplant in the garden at the very end of March or the first couple days of April (I've got to get them in before I head out of town to go get married!).


The Solanaceae Lineup of 2008

Amish Paste: This is listed in Slow Food's Ark of Taste as an endangered tomato, another Amish treasure. It's a teardrop shaped red variety, supposedly balancing sweet and tart perfectly. I purchased this seed packet from TomatoFest.
Black Krim: Although it was my favorite tomato I grew last year, I failed to save the seed. This year, I won't fail again. If you want to know why this tomato lives permanently in my heart, read what I wrote last year about it here. I purchased this seed packet from TomatoFest.
Blondkopfchen: A sweet little blonde number with nipples? How could I go wrong? This is a German variety, famous for its large clusters of golden sweet fruit. It sounds like a yellow version of Riesentraube. I received this seed packet from Trudi at through her amazing seed-distribution program.
Red or Gold Currant: I loved Matt's Wild Cherry last year, but I wanted to experiment with a different tiny-fruited variety this year. I hope to grow a currant variety in a pot on my west-facing balcony and let it tumble over the railing. I received this mixed-color packet of currant tomatoes from
Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart: C'mon, how could I pass up a tomato with that name? On top of the name, and whatever the whole story is behind it, this promises to be a huge, sweet, beautiful fruit, good for fresh eating and cooking. I purchased this seed from TomatoFest.
Isis Candy Cherry: These promise two-toned, red with gold starburst fruit. I'm not a hundred-percent sure about this variety, but since I'm so curious about it, I'm going to try it anyway. I plan to grow it in the other sunny pot on my west-facing balcony. Source: TomatoFest.
Marglobe: This is an old open-pollinated commercial variety that is the parent of many modern hybrids. It's supposedly a heavy-producing, rich-tasting determinate variety—I will plant it in a pot to put in a spot behind the vegetable plot. (That's a lot of ps.) Source:
Persimmon: Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson grew this variety, while other sources say it was introduced as an open-pollinated variety in 1982. Either way, every review I've read claims that this is one of the best gold tomatoes out there, rich with complex tomato flavor and not very seedy. Source:
Thessaloniki Oxheart: Another variety from, this variety is hard to research as it seems to have a mysterious background. The few reviews I've found about this variety (not identical to the similarly-named Thessaloniki) extol its remarkable versatility; it sounds like it will be a winner in the garden, in the kitchen, and on the table.

Red Ruffled: I wanted an intensely sweet, thick-fleshed pepper, and this sounds like it fits the bill. Source: Seeds of Change
Balloon: This Capsicum baccatum may be one of the most unusual peppers ever. The plant grows tall and fruits prolifically, the fruits hang like upside-down tulips all over the plant. What is most unique about this pepper though is the flavor: the flesh of the fruit is sweet while the white interior membranes (placenta) is hot. I can imagine stuffing these peppers for hors d'oeuvres, using them in jams, and just popping them in my mouth. I received these seeds from Heirloom Club.
McMahon's Texas Bird Pepper: This is another of Slow Food's Ark of Taste selections. The tiny round fruits are supposedly very hot and very beautiful. It is a small plant that I should be able to fit easily in a garden corner. My brother gave me these seeds.
B's really hot pepper: I'm planting seeds from the peppers that my former student gave me.

Italian Pink (unknown variety, chosen by description): Curiosity got me here. Is this an eggplant similar to Rosa Bianca or Rosita? I don't know, but I'll find out. Source: Heirloom Club.
Ping Tung: Loads of long, lavender fruit—look at this picture and you'll see why I knew I had to try growing this plant.


First-Ever Grow Station: A Photolog

Step 1: I purchased my materials. I needed a source of light, a stand for that light, heat mats, and organic, sterile seed starter mix. Everything else I already had.

Step 2: I prepared my pots. I used old yogurt containers (which I'll be able to reuse as seedling pots if I send them through the dishwasher for a sterilization) and cups.

Step 3: I decided exactly what I wanted to plant and created waterproof labels. I used very sticky stickers with indelible pen, but others have used popsicle sticks, plastic markers, or even chopsticks.

Step 4: I filled each pot with dampened seed starter and pressed it into the pot to remove air pockets, eventually filling each pot to a half-inch below its rim. To ensure that at least one seedling survives in each pot, I set three seeds on the surface of the soil in each then sprinkled dry starter mix gently over the seeds. Finally, I spritzed each pot again with a squirt bottle to ensure even moisture.

Step 5: To make sure that the pots don't sit in their own drainage water, I poured a layer of pebbles in the bottom of two trays. The pebbles should elevate the pot bottoms above run-off level. I set the pots together closely in the trays, and to make sure the atmosphere is humid enough for the seeds to sprout, wrapped each tray in clear plastic. As soon as the seeds sprout, I'll remove the plastic.

Step 6: Since I'm starting the seeds out on my north balcony and not inside, I needed to make sure I had a mild heat source. I set down a thick layer of used paper (drafts of ECG's dissertation, to be exact) to act as insulation from the cold concrete, and laid the mats on top. I set the wrapped trays on the heat mats, and lowered the light to just a couple inches above the pots. Once the seeds sprout, I'll need to rotate the trays so that each seedling gets exposure to both natural and florescent light.

Step 7: I plugged the florescent light into a timer set to give 16 hours of light a day. Seedlings need a lot of light like babies need a lot of attention.