Saturday, May 31, 2008

Not the Ordinary

(30 seconds of television advertisement during prime time television, preferably a program that appeals to a young, urban crowd. Music, energetic and hip, plays in the background, but engine sounds are still audible, especially as the car takes a corner. Behind the wheel, a hipster shifts gears. Here comes the voiceover, a youthful citified British accent.)

You thought you knew what efficient cars looked like. You thought that any car the averaged over 50 miles per gallon on the highway looked just like a car that averaged over 50 miles per gallon on the highway.

You thought wrong.


ECG and I stopped by our local classic Mini garage to take pictures the other day. For over a year now, I've walked by this garage on the way to the garden plot, and each time I pass, I drool a little bit. I know the classic Minis are the size of tin cans, but hey, that is the size of car I like. But what I like even more is the fact that given a few adjustments, the car runs 56 mpg on highway and 48 in the city. With one of these babies, retro is green.

(For any readers who decide to enlarge the photos for a better look, please remember, as you may catch a glimpse of me in the reflections, chrome distorts!)

Kefta (Grilled Meatballs)
Adapted from Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, by Paula Wolfert.

If summertime and warm weather means—as it does to ECG and me—grilling, but you're not interested in burgers again, here is a solution. They're incredibly flavorful and different than the everyday quick meal, turning the stereotype of ground meat on its head. Although Wolfert mentions that the addition of ras el hanout is optional, I say it is mandatory. The mix of out-of-the ordinary spices and herbs adds just a little mystery to these tasty replacements for burgers. Serve the meatballs with yogurt sauce (thick yogurt mixed with crushed garlic, salt, and a smidgin' of olive oil), garden greens, and fresh pita bread.

You will need:
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb, beef, or bison (I suggest using the best free-range, organic, local meat that you can find, because the quality makes a real difference. In California, often bison is the best bet, but in New Mexico, Colorado, and other states, one can often find wonderful local lamb.)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup combined of finely chopped parsley, cilantro, mint, and marjoram.
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout
salt and pepper to taste

To make the kefta:
Combine all the ingredients and knead well enough to mix all ingredients thoroughly. Cover the mixture and allow the flavors to blend for at least an hour in the refrigerator before shaping into meatballs. With wet hands to prevent stickiness, shape the meat mixture into balls (with diameters approximately 1 1/2"). Prepare your gas or charcoal grill, making sure to grease the grill rack, then cook the meatballs on medium-high heat for a few minutes before rolling over and browning the other side. ECG and I like our meatballs rare, so it only takes a couple minutes per side, but if you like them well-done, plan on four minutes or so on each side.

This will serve two people with leftovers for two nights, or it can serve up to six for one meal.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Greens and Beans (Growing Challenge)

What possible kinds of salad greens can one grow when it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (and spitting hail the size of nickels) on Thursday of the same week? Granted, it has been a strange week, but it still points to the problem: if one is looking to grow salad greens when it isn't fall or winter (or early spring) in Southern California, one is almost out of luck. It's warm so the lettuce turns bitter and bolts quickly, the arugula gets hotter than wasabi, the spinach goes to pot, and even the chard (though not technically a salad green) gets sad. For someone who eats a lot of salads, it's a pretty dismal salad-growing scene, I tell you.

Or at least, that is what I used to think.

Let me say here, before I go any further, that I still supplement my salad greens from the farmer's market. I religiously buy bags of baby arugula and sometimes lettuce too. However, I've found that I've been able to supplement these purchases very substantially with the following three crops that seem to be growing quite happily, despite the variations in weather and water that Southern California has thrown our way.

1) Orach (aka Mountain Spinach, French Spinach)
Orach stays leafy in the cool weather, and like other green vegetables, goes to bolt when it warms up, but unlike other leafy greens, the flavor stays great, even as it goes to seed. What's even better is that the flower heads are slightly grainy, salty, and succulent, and taste fabulous tossed in a salad or stir fry too. In fact, I think I sometimes like the flower heads more than the leaves. Overall, the flavor is very mild and slightly salty. The leaves are very flexible and don't have too much texture, but they add a lot of color and nutrients to a green salad. The small leaves are remarkably tender, but the larger leaves need to be stripped of their tough veins before tossing into a salad. Orach is a good vegetable, indeed a beautiful one, and I'm happy to have planted it in late February, for it has been treating my salad bowl quite wonderfully for a couple months now.

2) McGregor's Favorite Beet

I love beets in all forms. My parents have pictures of me as a baby with red beets smeared from head to toe. (Can you imagine what it must have been like to clean up after baby-me? It couldn't have been fun. Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I like beets even when they're green, their greens, that is. One of the venders at the Santa Monica farmers' market sells baby beet greens unmixed with any other green, and on the few occasions a year I get to go to the Santa Monica market, I always buy myself a big bag of baby beet greens as a gift to myself. I love their salty succulence, the way they feel between my teeth as I bite down on my cool salad. This fall, I culled my beet crop relentlessly, every "throw-away" seedling hitting my salad plate. But here, in the late spring and summer, beets just don't grow as well. The roots get woody and bitter quickly, so I didn't plan on planting a summer crop. That was until I found this little heirloom from Scotland (Scotland? Seriously? How can a Scottish plant do so well in SoCal?) who is breaking all my beety-expectations. It's a beet grown primarily for the leaves, which are lance-shaped and tender, even when mature. Although planted in late February, McGregor's Favorite has livened up my salads for only a month or so.

3) Mâche (aka Lamb's Lettuce, Corn Salad, Doucette, Fetticus, Field Salad, Nüsslisalat, and and even sometimes Rapunzel, yes, that Rapunzel)
Once again, this is a plant that bolts, but it grows so fast and the flavor doesn't diminish in the heat, that as long as I have succession-planted a steady supply of this little number, I'm in good hands. And oh, good is indeed the word. The texture of a healthy butter lettuce and a good, green flavor, combined with many more nutrients than lettuce, this is a quality addition to the garden. As well, it reseeds itself happily and provides me with seeds to spare. (Speaking of seeds, would anyone like some mâche seed? I could send a few people seed I've collected from my own plants to get them started in their own gardens. Let me know in the comments if you're interested.) I imagine that once the days are consistently over 90 degrees Fahrenheit here this may not hold up as well, but I've been enjoying this for months and expect to enjoy it another month or so. Then, I'll plant it again in September.

And on to the beans, planted in late February, of which I've already been able to harvest a handful of each snap variety.

1) Pencil Pod (Black) Wax
Although the soft gold color never fails to attract me to wax beans at the market, when I get home and taste them, they unfortunately usually live up to their name: they're waxy, tasteless, and have none of that juicy-beany-goodness that I love in a bean. That experience, so disappointing, hasn't not proven true with this bean. I'm not sure if it is because they are just so fresh when I pluck them and eat them right in the garden, or if it is the variety—an oldie but a goodie—but these are just darn good beans. They snap loudly. They crunch juicily. They make me smile.

2) Blue Coco

Covered in gorgeous green and purple foliage and lavender flowers, this variety is a visual knockout. Luckily, it's good in the kitchen as well as the garden. This bean has two distinct types of crops. When I catch the beans young and slender, they're amazingly sweet and beany, perfect french-type beans to eat raw or lightly steamed. When I'm slower on the draw, the beans mature to be large and flat, and are still great eating, but in this case, they need to be stringed and cooked longer, preferably with olive oil and garlic. In either case, they're delicious. As a side note, like every other purple bean I know, they turn green as soon as they've been blanched.

3) Contender
A contender indeed, especially in the realm of productivity. I didn't plant many of these guys, but boy, the few that I have are covered with beans. The beans are relatively straight, perfectly cylindrically-podded, and sweet and crunchy. They're an all-around good bean. I'd like to try planting them again in the fall, for I think I can get two happy crops from this variety.

I've been combining all of these crops lately in large salads drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette. But now, I'm putting the challenge in your hands. Consider this palate of vegetables: what masterpiece would you create with them?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heirlooms New and Old

When ECG and I first opened the battered cardboard box that had clearly been used many, many times, the first thing we discovered was a shock of human hair.

We opened further and found a round belly marked with a bellybutton like a smile. Under the belly's gut hung vibrant laquered robes.

On its backside, we encountered a string (emerging from what would be its anus had it one), that when pulled, made the arms move up and down.

And its face? I guess I should say his face, since he is so clearly human-ish and even quite personable. Well, his face is impishly curved into the happiest of grins.

This little guy is what my uncle gave ECG and me for our wedding. It's a Vietnamese water puppet, a puppet traditionally used by rice farmers when their paddies would flood. They'd hang a screen, position the puppets on buoys or stands in front of it, and maneuver the puppets from behind the screen. Since this ancient art arose from the rural villages of Vietnam, the puppets (and their puppeteers) usually performed comedies and dramas based on the everyday life of the villagers. Some puppets would mock village members while others would honor the village leaders. Apparently, most shows opened with a comic performance by a smiling little-boy character who would tell jokes and entertain. I think our puppet is one of those little-boy characters. He certainly has already provided us hours of entertainment, and yet, we have not named him. We're stuck. Any ideas?

I wonder what he's seen and where he's been and how old he is. I wonder whose history he has been a part of. I don't even know exactly how my uncle got his hands on him. Whatever his name is, and whatever history he has experienced, we are quite happy with the new addition and will treasure him, a happy friend to follow our family through our future history.

I was the recipient not too long ago of another kind of history.

Following the excellent advice of the very wise Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots, I joined Seed Savers Exchange this year. Because of this, I am now able to purchase carefully maintained heirloom and other open-pollinated seeds not available elsewhere. The catalog is huge and daunting at first, but with time spent poring through the thousands of offerings, it becomes more of a spring of inspiration rather than a tome of obligations. It's quite amazing actually, and I encourage every gardener to subscribe, if only for the opportunity to lazily page through the plentitude that is out there that so few others get to find.

However, I'm not writing now to explain the catalog. Instead, I'm writing to tell a story, and I hope it is a story that will follow me through the rest of my gardening life.

I love poppies, all kinds, but especially the gorgeous silken varieties of Papaver Somniferum. I planted a few seeds of the readily available breadseed poppy last fall that are just blooming now.

As I read and reread the Seed Saver's Exchange annual Yearbook Catalog, I came across a description of a poppy, "Brother Paul," on which I had to get my green thumbs. I sent my three dollar check to the supplier hoping to plant the seeds this fall again when it is poppy-planting-time, and soon after I ordered, an envelope arrived with the seeds and my check. What? Why would he send my check back?

I looked at the check. In my haste, I had written three hundred dollars in the amount line. Struck with embarrassment, I sat down immediately to write him a correct check and a note apologizing for my ridiculous error. I sent the note the day I received the seeds.

A few days later, I received another envelope with another packet of a different variety of poppy and a long, handwritten letter. Claiming no need for apologies, the note explained that although the vendor had noticed my check was a "tad high," he is so proud of Brother Paul that he distributes the seed for free. In his letter, he included an even more vivid description than that which was listed in the catalog. He wrote:

The "perfect" Brother Paul will demonstrate a slight ruffle about the petal margin. This, in tandem with the color scheme, red edges encasing a white corolla center itself rimmed in light purple, make it the most beautiful poppy in its species. So I choose to believe.

You can see why I'm drooling over this poppy. But getting this seed for free and the silly mixup with the check still isn't the point of the story. The point of the story lies in the second package of poppy seed that he sent to me, seeds that he explained later in his letter. Once again, here are his words:

I enclose a gift along with your check. These seeds come from the poppy originally grown by Thomas Jefferson on his estate in Virginia. [. . .] For some years now the operators of the estate have discontinued its sale. [. . .] As far as I know, I am one of the only persons who possesses this seed. It represents an unbroken chain of seed transmission that extends back over two hundred years. No one should be burdened with bearing that responsibility alone. [. . .] As of this year, there will be only 4 people left with this seed including yourself as one of them. 200 years of living history in the hands of 4 individuals.

Oh, how I treasure this little, manila envelope.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Under an dramatic charcoal and blue sky in Taos, New Mexico just over a month ago, ECG and I married each other.

Perhaps everyone looks at their wedding days like this, but to me, it was the most important, happiest day I'd ever imagined. It wasn't a fairy tale, it wasn't as if my prince had come and rescued me (ECG is no prince, and certainly I'm no princess), and it wasn't the fluffy white affairs we see in movies. I had no hours at the beauty parlor beforehand. No dress and tux fittings beforehand. No cumberbunds. No string quartet.

Nothing went the way we've seen it elsewhere. It was better. I had dirt under my fingernails on the day I married because I had helped plant the courtyard with colorful annuals earlier that day. (Despite the protection of the courtyard, we didn't dare risk planting the flowers earlier because it still dipped below freezing at night in Taos in April.) Later, as I "prettified" myself, my friends joined me. In a happy frenzy of femininity, my friends
helped me with my makeup and curled my hair into ringlets that rebelled joyously all night. The team of women forms one of my favorite little memory snapshots of the wedding weekend: SWW standing up against me as I sat on the toilet seat, the curling iron creaking and snapping in her hand, and KB's face right in front of mine, as she adjusted my curls and checked my makeup. The closeness of these woman in the tight bathroom, sweet with their perfume and the hairspray they applied to my hair, felt so warm and real. I wanted the close physical presence of my friends just before I entered marriage. The physical presence of family and friends followed me throughout the day: within minutes of being married, my dress was already pressed flat against my body from the many hugs I'd received.

My family, especially, worked hard to make the day meaningful. My mom, the master of everything floral (and many, many other things), put together every bouquet herself, every wristlet and boutonniere. She was up until 5:30 the morning before the wedding working on the flowers, and there were flowers enough for just about everyone. She made sure all sorts of people got boutonnieres, for when it came down to it, there weren't just a few men and women "of honor." In the eyes of ECG and me, everyone there was the "wedding party." All of the 70 or so people at the wedding stood up with ECG and me and promised that they would support us through our life together.

And so, since everyone was part of the wedding party, since everyone was there support us as we joined our life together, clearly, there were quite a few toasts to us at our wedding.

This was an aspect of our wedding that I didn't know to expect. I had heard toasts at other weddings, and these were often kind, generous words that were heartfelt and meaningful, but they weren't addressed to me, and so I couldn't feel the impact of them. But at our wedding, these words made our hearts do backstrokes and dolphin-jumps in oceans of love. Both of our fathers told us that they loved us and gave us guidance towards the gift of marriage. My mother spoke about the importance of everyone there. Our uncles reminisced, our friends told us that they loved us, that they'd be there for us, and that they'd always be part of our lives. ECG's sister made us smile, and my brother, well, my brother reminded us of family love so intensely and so passionately that love slipped out our eyes and rolled down our cheeks. Love trained my mascara into my laughlines and brought the hands of ECG and me together into a fierce grip.

A wedding is more than just two people saying "I love you" to each other. Our wedding was a joining of two people into a family, and the joining of their families and friends into one huge new organism, as SWW put it in her toast to us, a framily.

Whole Preserved Kumquats

Now that I am married to ECG, I can say this is a family recipe. Passed to her by her mother, this recipe has been passed to me by my mother-in-law. She grew up eating these in Argentina, and her family would enjoy them with Gruyere or over vanilla ice cream. Last night, I served them drizzled over dark chocolate ice cream. They'd be great on cakes and adding their zingy-sweet-citrus pizzazz to other desserts. All those applications are delicious, but lately I've been enjoying them on their own, pulling the big jar out of the refrigerator and dipping a spoon in, lifting out a perfect, glistening kumquat drizzling its syrup, and eating that glorious kumquat standing up in the kitchen. Sometimes (don't tell the hygiene police), I sneak the same spoon in for another.

You will need:
Kumquats (just picked from your friend's tree and very well washed of dust)
That's it, only three ingredients. The quantities of each are dependent upon the quantities of the other ingredients. This will become clear in the directions below.

To make the preserved kumquats:
Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to boil. While you're waiting for the pot to boil, pierce the kumquats with the point of a sharp knife in several places so the kumquats don't explode when cooked. Once the water is boiling, carefully pour in the kumquats, let the water return to a boil and boil the kumquats for five minutes. Retrieve the pot from the burner and drain the kumquats.

For the next step, you will need the same weight of both water and sugar as your weight in kumquats, so after the kumquats are drained of extra liquid, weigh them. If you end up with a pound of kumquats, that means you'll need both a pound of sugar and a pound of water. Whatever your measurements are, bring the water and sugar to boil in a large pot. When the mixture is boiling, add the kumquats and boil for 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand until the next day. (If you're worried about sanitation, which shouldn't be too much of a problem with all this sugar and acid, you can refrigerate them until the next day.)

Repeat the process: scoop the kumquats from the syrup, bring the syrup to a boil, add the kumquats, and boil them for a half hour. Remove the pot from the heat and let it stand until the next day. Repeat one more time for the third day.

After boiling the third day, the syrup should be thick and clear orange, the kumquats should be transparent, and the whole mess should be a treat from citrus heaven. As my mother-in-law writes, "It is a lengthy process, but the end result is really worth it!"