Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bean Blossoms (Growing Challenge)

I haven't finished writing about Italy or our wedding, but I realized that it has been quite some time since I've written about the crop, my little collection of beans, on which I'm focusing for A Growing Challenge.

First to bloom and set fruit is Indian Woman Yellow. The flowers are a lovely soft cream color: they look like Victorian pantaloons.

Their first beans are tiny, slender little things now, but seeing them, I can already imagine their swelling sides, pregnant with future soups and refried beans.

The Pencil Pod Wax are also beginning to bloom, a soft, even lavender with long "landing pads" for pollinators.

The winner of A Thinking Stomach's Legume Beauty Pageant is Blue Coco. The vining stems are a deep burgundy-purple, the lush foliage dark green with purple blushes, and the blossoms are purple on the upper edges, fading to a soft pink. This plant could easily serve as an ornamental, they are that lovely. I can't wait for the vines, already as tall as me, to begin blooming more profusely.

The Asian Yardlong (aka Asparagus or Snake) beans are not close to blooming yet, but they're beginning to grow vigorously. They started slowly, but all of a sudden, they are thigh-high and climbing briskly.

Beyond beans, a couple other interesting things are happening in the ol' garden plot. The edible flowers of my black hollyhock, the variety that Jefferson chose to grow in his extensive gardens at Monticello, have just begun to unfurl. Honestly, I can't get enough of Jefferson's choice of plants—they've never disappointed me. I planted these as seedlings last spring, and since they're biennials, I've had to wait until now to see them come to blossom. The wait has been worth it.

Another curiosity I planted last year is the Egyptian Walking Onion. This variety sends up scapes that are loaded with little mini-plants that eventually fall over and plant themselves where they fall. The mini-plants can be harvested to start new plants elsewhere, or dried and the little bulbs pickled. The larger bulbs underground never get huge, but can be used just as any other onion, if one chooses to harvest them. I think I'll focus on the Egyptian Walking Onion as a producer of small bulbs, my pearl-onion producer.

Also on the allium front, while checking the bulb size of my Korean Red garlic yesterday, I accidentally got a little too aggressive and dinged the bulb of the plant I used as a guideline. Rather than risk letting the damaged plant get sick, I pulled it out. And with it, I made the most glorious salad dressing I've made for quite some time.

Green Garlic and Honey Salad Dressing
This recipe should make enough for a large salad (for 4-6 people) or two smaller ones (for 2-3 folks). I used half of it one night's dinner salad for ECG and me, reserving the rest in a jar for the next night's salad.

You will need:
The juice of one lemon
The same amount of good olive oil as lemon juice
One large stem of green garlic, cleaned, roots and tough parts removed, and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste

To make the dressing:
Toss all the ingredients in in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles a creamy green-gold vichyssoise. Taste test with a leaf of whatever salad greens you are using; check for a balance of salt, tang, sweet, and garlicky-warmth. Adjust ingredients as necessary.

This tasted particularly good on a tangle of Marveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce and salty-tangy orach from the garden, combined with arugula from the farmers' market. Use it with whatever greens are in season in your garden or market right now.

After eating, be warned: this is raw garlic. Breathe accordingly.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Nonscientific Observation of Italy, Part 2: Transportation

I drive a car that, by American standards, is so small that one of my students once said to me, "Ms. W, why do you even park? Why don't you just pick up your car and carry it around in your purse?" As a normally-sized urban dweller with no children, I love my small car and small cars in general. I see no reason for so many of the monstrosities I see all over the road. But, in Italy, I did not see one Hummer, Navigator, or Denali. In the more rural areas, we did see 4x4 Suburus, Volvos, and occasional Rovers, but for the most part, the cars were small.

Really small.

And as expected, we saw mopeds, motorcycles, and bicycles everywhere; moreover, we saw all sorts of cars that just aren't available in the United States, makes of which I had never heard. ECG (the expert in all things automotive) tells me that every European country has at least one national brand, and these national brands are available all over the continent. One of our rental cars, a Renault completely unavailable in the United States, started without a key, but with a credit-card-like gizmo instead. We inserted it then pushed the start button.

For the most part, we loved driving in Italy. The small roads were dotted with small towns with big churches and bigger views, while the large roads were maintained to an incredible state of smooth, traveller-oriented perfection. The autostrades, the freeways of Italy, are maintained by funds from steep tolls, but those tolls are clearly put to good use. More than just well-marked and easy to navigate, the autostrades have another wonderful quality: the Autogrill.

Apparently, the Italian driving culture is one that believes in frequent, fully-replenishing stops. Every 60 kilometers or so, it seemed, we passed another Autogrill, some of them (as pictured above) straddling the autostrade. When we stopped to check our first out, I delighted in the good espresso and tasty food they served. ECG told me that yes, these were great, but wait until we stop for a meal at a truck stop in Germany someday—then I'll really learn the mighty splendor of road food. That may be the case, and I look forward to that day, but in the meantime, I'll fondly remember how good, how remarkably superior to American fast food joints that sprinkle freeway exits, the Autogrills and other roadside stops were.

Although we had heard about the difficulties of driving in Italy—people had warned us that it is nearly impossible to drive through the throngs of traffic in Rome, that no one paid attention to lane markings, and that braking happened unbelievably late and fast—we were surprised at the lack of road rage. Admittedly, in the concentrated areas it was harder to know what to expect out of our fellow drivers, but we didn't hear all the honking and swearing and see all the obscene gestures that we hear and see when driving in traffic here. When pedestrians crossed the street unexpectedly, everyone stopped and no one honked. It was remarkable.

I've written a whole lot about driving for someone who, in general, prefers to walk. Our honeymoon appealed to both ECG (the driver) and me (the walker) so much partly because we both got to do a whole lot of our preferred mode of transportation. People walked everywhere in Italy, down small country roads, through city streets, and up and down staircases. I found a lot of staircases with which to fall in love.

In Venice, no one drives, so everyone walks or takes a boat. We arrived in Venice by boat and left by boat, and walked while were there, marvelling at all the kinds of boats that populate in Venice. Everyone knows about the gondalas and vaporettos, but the private boats of the wealthy and the working boats of the laborers fascinated us. Before going to Venice, I knew that everything happened by boat, but I didn't realize what that really meant. We saw reconstruction happening on a house, and the workers hauled concrete, one bag at a time, out of a canoe to hand-pulley it up to the third floor. The garbage man arrived in a boat. Take a moment and imagine what it would be like if your garbage man arrived in a boat. Yeah. It was quiet. Inefficient? Terribly, but oh-so-quiet.

Like nearly everyone who visits Italy from another continent, ECG and I flew in and out. We flew in to Rome and had no problems in the airport. Nothing stands out in my memory of the Roman airport (Fiumicino), but that may just be because I was already running on very little sleep. However, the airport in Milan (Malpensa) is another story. This is the only event in all of our modes of transportation on the trip that ECG and I became frustrated. Frustrated is an understatement. In fact, frustrated is a very gross understatement, the kind of understatement that is so understated that it might as well be a word for something completely different than what we were experiencing.

We walked through the entire airport looking for the British Airways desks. There were no British Airways desks at any of the counters. The large computerized screens that listed the locations of airlines, next to British Airways, only listed this: --. I'm serious, just that: --. Finally, after walking through the entire airport twice and going to the Information desk to only find no one there, we encountered a small, perhaps 10" wide and 3 ½ foot tall computerized kiosk on which we could check in. Once we managed to check in there, the printout told us to bring our desks to the British Airways counter. Alas, if only we knew where that darned counter could possibly be.

As we stood there, lost and angry, a perfectly-proportioned British Airways stewardess ran towards us. She stopped just shy of us, her forehead beaded with sweat, and caught her breath. I don't know how she knew we were there, but she did, and she informed us that the airport moved the entire British Airways operation to a new counter in a new wing and that even the employees didn't know about the move until just that moment. You read that correctly. Malpensa moved British Airways without telling British Airways they were to be moved.

Alas. It sure was a beautiful airport though.

What to drink after you've driven, walked, boated, or flown in Italy (or anywhere else, for that matter):
Meyer Limoncello
I had never tasted limoncello before going to Italy, but knowing that I would drink it on my honeymoon, I started this recipe before I left anyway. I first sipped limoncello in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, sitting at a square, trembling from cold and the constant excitement of being in Italy. Later in the trip, when I finally began to accept the reality of being in Italy, I sipped it again in an inn after a long day of driving. After months of steeping and maturing, my own limoncello is now finished, and it is lovely and delicious, and I get to remember the chilly taste of my honeymoon all hot summer long.

This recipe takes a while, but the wait is worth it. To learn to make it, I relied heavily on the excellent, detailed directions I found here. I adapted the directions towards what "felt" right for my tastes. Since I use organic sugar, my limoncello has a slightly more amber tint than a clear yellow, but to me, the amber-yellow color is still beautiful.

You will need:
20 clean, organic Meyer lemons
1 ½ liters of Everclear (for my first batch I used vodka, a suggestion I originally posted here, but the second batch worked MUCH better with Everclear)
2 cups filtered water
4 cups organic sugar
1 large, at least 2 liter sized glass canister (like the kind used to make suntea)
2 clean, sealing, 1 liter glass bottles
about 3 months of time

To make the limoncello:
First, make sure that your lemons are completely clean; wash them well and dry them. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the yellow zest off of each lemon in strips. Do your best to not include any of the white pith in the strips. Place the lemon zest in the large canister and pour the vodka over it. Lid the canister and swirl the mixture. To protect the mixture from light and temperature fluctuations, place the canister in a dark, cool place and swirl it every few days to release the oils from peel. Do not open the canister for two months (although, if you're anything like me, you'll be dying to, just out of curiosity).

After two months have passed, create a simple syrup by combining the sugar with the water and heating, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted but the mixture has not reached boiling or caramelization point. Remove the simple syrup from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Open the canister that you've been wanting to open for months and pour the cooled simple syrup into it, swirling to mix. (A note: I've made this a bunch of times now, and I find it helpful to strain the peels out BEFORE you add the simple syrup. Strain, return the alcohol to the jar, then add the simple syrup. Also, you can adjust the amount of simple syrup to your tastes. Make the whole amount, then taste as you add so that you can get the level of sweetness you're looking for. Remember, the flavors still have time to mellow, so it will be pretty sharp still at this point.) Close the canister again, and place it in the cool, dark spot for another two weeks.

It will finally be time to use those great, rubber-stopped bottles. (Mine are simple, but I love the look of them just the same. I've read that some people use lots of smaller bottles, available at places like Cost Plus or the like, and give the small bottles away as gifts.) Whatever bottles you are using, make sure they are very clean. Before you pour the liqueur into the bottles, strain it several times. First, strain with a simple sieve to remove the lemon peels. Don't stop there though; for a clearer liquid, strain once or twice through coffee filters. Carefully, and using a reliable funnel, pour the liqueur into the bottles and seal. Place the stoppered bottles into the dark spot, and let the mixture mature for at least two weeks before opening. Once opened, you may want to keep it in your freezer, so it is always very cold.

Enjoy this with family, friends, or—as my wise friend SWW calls them—framily. In short, drink this with someone you love.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Nonscientific Observation of Italy, Part 1: Agriculture

I'm back. I'm married. I'm very, very happy. My wedding was an important time, beautiful and exceeding every expectation, but I'm still thinking it over, reflecting on it, and working it out. I'm not ready to write about it yet. On the other hand, I'm more than ready to write about our honeymoon in Italy, from which I just returned and during which I took all sorts of notes.

Like everyone who visits Italy, I've come back smitten with the beauty of the architecture, the tangible art, and the living history. I could write pages and pages about the way Florence's duomo filled our inn window with its colorful geometry or how Venice really does glitter. I could tell you that David is stunning and the food, well the food is heavenly. But hasn't everyone heard that before? Isn't that why so many go to Italy in the first place? So instead of falling into the trap of describing the well-trodden paths of centuries of tourists, I'll try writing a series of posts on various subjects that may seem a little less familiar. I am quite aware that these observations may be far from reality. I was a love-struck observer for just over a week in a country that I can in no way claim to understand. But I'll give it a shot anyway, as long as the reader bears with my biases and naivety. I'll start with, for me at least, the obvious place to start: growing food.

If the readers of this site haven't noticed already, I'm a geek of all sorts, especially when it comes to plants. I'm a vegetable-garden-junkie, so as ECG and I traveled from Rome north, zigzagging across the country, I scribbled all sorts of notes on what I saw happening in balconies, yards, and small farms.

The first thing I noticed about Italy, as we took the train from the airport into the city, is the fact that every spare piece of land behind every apartment building, no matter how run down or elegant, housed plots where people grew vegetables. As well, above the train and everywhere else we explored in Italy, apartments sprouted balconies festooned with wisteria (blooming in various stages up and down the country), sedums, geraniums, herbs, or a combination of these. Everyone's hands seem to be in the dirt, even those of city dwellers.

ECG and I found seedshops and mini garden centers all over, even in the most concentrated centers of cities and towns. We couldn't wander a few blocks without encountering a florist who sold flowering plants as well as food plants and vegetable and herb seeds.

Even in Rome, fascinating, filthy, ancient-boned and graffiti-walled Rome, food plants grew. Between the cobbles of the maze of narrow streets in the historic center, rogue arugula plants caught my eye. In the ruins of the Forum and Colosseum, figs and apricot trees shot haphazardly from crumbling corners. Sturdy stalks of fennel were just beginning to bloom, bolstering eroding banks.

Food is famously central to the culture of Italy: is part of food's importance due to the fact that the country is full of gardeners? Is it related to the fact that so many good foods grow wild, from the bay trees that fill the more southernly groves to the wild cherries that sprinkle the forests of higher elevations and latitudes?

As we drove through different areas of Italy, I noted different farming and gardening habits based on regional climates and geographies. Here are some of the notes that I took.

Rome to Pisa and Florence
Fennel is a weed and grows lushly along roadways with thick flower stalks. Olive trees invade even the forests. Every backyard—and sometimes even front yard—garden includes at least a couple lemon, fig, and orange trees. Between rows of fruit trees in the small orchards, fava beans grow, providing nitrogen for the trees as well as a food crop. Right now, it is olive pruning time, and after shaping the trees into short, wide urn-shapes, farmers burn the branches. Small vineyards cover hillsides. Here, it is hard to tell whether the grape or the olive reigns supreme. Every once in a while on the more remote roads, we spot a small (no more than five at a time) herd of the famous, giant white chianina cows. In good restaurants, we are able to order bistecca fiorentina, the huge filet-plus-t-bone steaks from the chianina. Nowhere did we see large herds of animals. Purple-headed artichoke fields are everywhere.

Florence to Bologna
Mountains! In the lower elevations, grapes and olives grow, but as we climb higher, we encounter less grapes and no more olives. All citrus and fennel disappear. Instead, hedgerows are full of wild apples, cherries, and roses. Muscari and primrose also grow wild along the road banks. The farms, and there are many, seem to grow wheat. Solid, bright green grassy fields blanket hillsides. We see no more favas or artichoke fields, although I do see small clumps of artichokes in yards, planted under fruit trees, some of which are just beginning to bloom. Work horses relax in green paddocks and chickens cluck in just about every yard. We see small herds of sheep.

Bologna to Dolo and Venice

It is flat. Flatter than flatness. It reminds me of the Central Valley of California, though clearly not as hot. In each small town on the flat plain, a tall steeple marks the center, so towns are recognizable for miles. Windbreaks of poplar and beech frame the flat fields, protecting them from the gusts that must bulldoze their way through here at other times of the year. Unlike the way I've seen fruit trees growing in other areas of Italy, here the trees are espaliereed into narrow rows and are very closely planted. The orchards are mostly apple and pear. Rapini grows as weed here. I don't see the red poppies I saw further south, but they may not be blooming yet because of the difference of climate. Closer to Venice, lots of vineyards, pruned high, fill the fields—the grapes are just beginning to bud. Also, we see large, flat, very green fields—rice?

Dolo to the Lakes and Malpensa
Leaving Dolo, we see artichokes again, silver this time instead of the purple farther south, planted along the edges of gardens, especially interplanted among fruit trees. Also, peas begin to show up, climbing supports made from twigs stuck in the ground. At this time of year, the pea vines are about a foot and a half tall. Lots of cherry trees, smaller cultivated onces than the wild ones we saw in the forests at higher elevations, mark the ends of rows in frequent vineyards. I see apricot trees too, pruned into wide urn shapes, but the apple and pear trees we see are still pruned in the tight espaliereed rows. We see more orchards closer to Brescia, where the terrain becomes quite hilly. In the mountains around the lakes, we see (and hear) herds of sheep.

These observations (and others) lead me to the following conclusions:

1) Agriculture here is highly regionalized. The mass shipping of produce from one geographic area to another distant area doesn't seem to happen nearly as much as in the United States. For example, when we ordered artichokes in Rome, they were purple; in Venice, silver-green. The house wines were always local. Even the sparkling water
we found in restaurants and shops, although not an agricultural product, was local. It got bubblier the further north we went.

2) The regionalized agriculture leads to regionalized agricultural products: the house salami and cheese we bought at a roadside farm stand in one area is quite different from the salami and cheese at a stand in another area.

3) The average person appears to be more aware of where his or her food comes from, especially since frequently, some of it comes from his or her yard.

4) Farming appears to be small-scale, apparently creating produce and products that are healthier (and thereby tastier) than the large-scale products found here in the United States. This is logical: a farmer can really know his animal, tree, or vine if he or she only has a manageable number of them.

Why is Italian food so famously wonderful? It clearly starts with the farming and gardening practices. Conscientiously raised food tastes better.