Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lundi Gras

Yesterday, Monday, ECG came home from work early to pack up for his business trip to the general area that tends to (in)famously celebrate a certain holiday that reaches its corpulent peak today, Tuesday.

And yes, although it is unfortunate, his trip is strictly business-oriented.

We had planned to have an early dinner to make preparation for the trip a little easier, but the golden afternoon light made my fingers itch for the camera, so I got started cooking a little later than intended.

Can you blame me?

My tardiness didn't matter much though, because I had a quick meal planned for the night:

Carrot sticks, red pepper slices, and sugar snap peas with a dippy dressing,

A panfried smoked pork sausage (or two),

and pancakes.

Not just any pancakes, but these "Fat Monday"-worthy pancakes, richly flavored with the happy combination of orange and vanilla, fluffy, warm, and moist. These are a good send off to someone whose return you look forward to even before his departure. They are good times indeed.

"Creamsicle" Pancakes: aka When-Orange-Meets-Vanilla-in-a-Hot-Pan
Adapted from a recipe on Epicurious found here.

You will need:
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup sour cream
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
the finely grated rind of an orange
freshly squeezed orange juice as needed
butter as needed

To make the pancakes:
Whisk the first five ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk buttermilk, sour cream, eggs, vanilla, and orange rind in another large bowl. Slowly mix the moist ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir just until blended, still a little lumpy. If you like your pancakes thick and ridiculously fluffy, you're finished with the batter. If you like your pancakes thinner and moistly-eggy, add a few tablespoons of orange juice to thin the batter a bit until it is the consistency you like.

Melt a knob of butter in your large skillet over medium heat. Ladle batter into the pan to make pancakes the size you like. Cook until the bubbles rise to the top of the surface of the pancakes and begin to break and firm up around the edges. Carefully use a spatula to turn the pancakes over, and cook a couple minutes until the bottoms of the pancakes are browned pleasantly when you lift the edges to examine them. Transfer the pancakes to a plate, add a knob more of butter to the skillet, and repeat until you've finished the batter.

Serves two on Fat Monday, three on any other day.

Why no pictures of the pancakes? Because they look like . . . pancakes. Yummy, yes. Tender and celebratory, yes. Pretty, no.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's Coming Up

WARNING: This post contains explicit gardening content. If you aren't interested in manure, heirloom veggies or fruits, heavy physical labor, and extensive seed lists, this is not the post for you. If, however, that type of content is as titillating for you as it is for me, read on.


Rain, rain, and more rain. This weather has pushed me indoors and allowed me time to reflect on some of what I've accomplished in the garden in the last few months.

The winter garden plot that I planted in October, soon after we moved in to our new house, is beginning to come heartily into full production. In it, I planted two varieties of fava beans, sugar snap peas, carrots, kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage, rutabagas, parsnips, salad greens, and a variety of garlics. I've been collecting all sorts of greens for braising and salads for the last couple months, but now the larger crops are coming into their own. I've been collecting bowlfuls of sugar snap peas (along with their top tendrils—so good in stir fries), a few small carrots here and there, and now, rutabagas too. I planted two open pollinated varieties of rutabagas this year, Joan and Laurentian.

Joan is on the left in the photo above. It has a smoother root, with a more violet top, rounder shape, and a stronger resistance to clubroot than my experience with Laurentian. Laurentian is on the right. It gets bigger a little faster, has a longer shape, a more burgundy top, but is much more likely to get knobby with clubroot. Although I've tried, I've been unable to taste a difference between the two. Right now, with the cold weather, they're both incredibly sweet and delicious, wonderful cut into wedges and roasted.

After I built the first plot, the one that is producing right now, I started figuring out where I wanted other plots. I've built the second one now, and this week, I pulled out the two flowering (not producing!) plums that were in the way for plots three and four. The four plots will allow me to rotate crops to avoid disease and pest buildup, and to move legumes through them to help fertilize naturally. The two existing plots are (and the others will be) approximately 12 feet by 12 feet. To build them, I dug a foot deep and piled the soil up to the side of the plot. I then laid down hardware cloth to keep out the gophers and moles, returned the soil to the plot, and added more soil and composted material. I built short retaining walls with rocks from the property, cinder blocks from the incinerator bins ECG and I tore down, and broken concrete a landscaper friend donated to me. I hope to finish the two remaining plots in the next couple of weeks (if the rain lets up) so they'll be ready for the massive rush of spring planting.

Since we have the space on this property, we can think about more than just vegetables. This fall, I built a berry bed and planted Youngberry (a blackberry variety) starts that a friend shared with me and strawberry runners that a coworker shared. A mysterious, kind, and fascinating man gave ECG and me banana pups, so we built a banana on the east side of our bedroom, where it will get sun for the half the day, shade in the hottest part of the day, and reflected heat from the house all winter long to keep them from freezing. Not knowing quite how beautiful it would be, I put a Sunshine Blue blueberry bush in a big red-glazed pot (where I could monitor its soil to keep it adequately acidic) where it has thrived. This fall, it gave me berries then beautiful teal and burgundy fall color. It has already begun its spring flush of bloom, set a few fruit, and shows no sign of stopping. I hope to purchase another of these babies—they're wonderful plants.

The property came with a mature, but very sad-looking, Meyer Lemon tree. I gave it regular water through the fall and early winter and the rain has taken over for me lately. When I received the gargantuan manure delivery, I mulched the tree heavily, but kept the mulch from touching the base of the tree. The tree has responded. Shooting from every part of the tree is purplish new growth and clusters of blossoms. I can't get over how good it smells.

I've also planted a few fruit trees. To feed ECG's undying hunger for good satsumas, I put in an Owari Satsuma. Where the pampas grass used to be (its' a California invasive, folks, on the "Do Not Plant List," so as drought-resistant and rugged as it is, please stop planting it!) I put in two heirloom plums, an Elephant Heart and a Bavay's Green Gage. And along the front entrance walkway, where they'll get filtered shade for a couple hours in the hottest part of the day, but full sun for the rest of the day, I planted two heirloom apples, Golden Russet and Wickson, both excellent eating, cooking, and especially cider-making apples. (Homemade cider: I see it in my future.) For each of the fruit trees, I lined the planting holes with hardware-cloth or chicken-wire baskets to protect the main root ball from the gophers that strafe our topsoil from the bottom up.

Inside, I've started the seeds of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and groundcherries. They're growing quite happily and will be ready to put in the ground in a few weeks. I've also researched varieties, purchased and traded for seeds, and made myself a little list of what I want to purchase from my fellow Seed Saver's Exchangers once I finally get my Yearbook. (Is anyone else still waiting on the Yearbook?).

This is what I've already started indoors and what I'll be planting directly for my spring and summer crops. I'll break down and buy a few seedlings of readily available varieties (herbs, and some tomatoes like Black Krim and eggplants like Ping Tung, for example) to fill out the plot, but this is what I'm growing for sure.

Blue Coco Bean
Rattlesnake Bean
Indian Woman Yellow Bean
Dog Bean
Sonora Gold Tepary Bean
Black Mitla Tepary Bean
Black Seeded Yardlong Bean
Red Noodle Yardlong Bean

Fish Pepper
Buran Pepper
Red Ruffled Pepper
Pimente de Barcelona Pepper
Peter Pepper
Goldie Groundcherry
Wes Tomato
Eva's Purple Ball Tomato
Teton de Venus Tomato
Opalka Tomato
Japanese Pickling Eggplant

Armenian Cucumber
Uncle David's Dakota Dessert Winter Squash
Queensland Blue Winter Squash
Seminole Winter Squash
Tromba d'Albegna Squash
Birdhouse Gourd
Orangeglo Watermelon
Collective Farm Woman Melon
Ananas d'Amerique a Chair Verte Melon
Boule d'Or Melon
I'm still looking for another melon: We ate wonderful melons last summer on our Portugal trip, but I don't know what they were called. They were oval-shaped, pale green-fleshed, and had skin with netting that ran the length of the melon. Does anyone know what variety this is? I should've saved seeds . . ..

Joseph's Coat Amaranth
Red Malabar Spinach
Corn: I'm looking for a sweet open-pollinated corn. I've been spoiled by the sugary-enhanced hybrids that fill most of our markets, and although that is not what I want to grow, I do want something that has some sweetness, not just starchiness. What has grown best for you? I welcome your recommendations.

Genovese Basil
Lemon Basil
Nigella sativa

Whew. I feel good. Having the time to reflect on this helps me see how much I've accomplished and how much I have to be excited about. Bring on the spring; I'm ready to grab it with both work-gloved hands.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Ones That Aren't Around

I once participated in a crime.

Over a decade ago, a person I once knew asked me to help her perform an act that she felt was completely justified. Her ex-boyfriend had a piece of art that she had given him when they were together, and she wanted it back. Lying, she told him she was about to participate in a local art show in which she wanted to include the piece, and "would it be okay if I borrowed it for a month or so for the show?" He agreed without hesitation.

Here is where I come in. The person I once knew really did not want to see her ex-boyfriend, even if it meant getting back something she felt that he didn't deserve to have. So, she asked me to drive up the coast to where he lived and pick it up from him. And I said yes.

It was a long drive, but on the way there I didn't think too much about it. The day was similar to the gorgeous Southern California winter days we've been having lately, a day where the clouds break to sunny blue sky, the mountains are green green green, and everything is so clean and bright, as if no one could imagine sadness. I had the music up loud and played the drums against the steering wheel as I zipped along, skirting the mountains and over to the ocean. The trip there felt effortless and quick. When I arrived, I pulled up to a cute beach bungalow and knocked on the door.

A young woman answered the door, presumably the new girlfriend, and smiled at me. She had expected me, so she had the piece right by the door. After a few pleasantries, she handed it to me. The ex-boyfriend poked his head around the corner, smiled and waved. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, not really wanting to hang out with people I was stealing from, I thanked them and left. Once in the car, I pulled the wrapping off the piece and looked at it: it was beautiful, a combination of craft and personal details so unique, it clearly had been created just for its recipient. The drive home was not nearly as pleasant as the drive there. Weighted down by this piece, my car was slow; traffic appeared from nowhere, and I couldn't find a happy tune on the radio.

Finally, I got back to my neighborhood and handed off the goods to the person I once knew. She thanked me for helping her get back what she felt she deserved. She did not smile.

I've thought about that day over and over since it happened. I wish I hadn't said yes to that person I once knew who I know longer know and who I hope is happier than she once was.

I have a cookbook in my collection that isn't one that I go to for recipes too frequently (although it certainly contains a few winners that are on my regular rotation). Instead, I keep it because the spirit of it is important to me. The Ex-Boyfriend Cook Book: They Came, They Cooked, They Left (But We Ended Up with Some Great Recipes) by Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen is a collection of stories about ex-boyfriends and recipes they received in the process of sifting through these men. Here is a passage:
When I moved from my studio apartment into a one-bedroom three floors up, I quickly realized that my new neighbor was my ex-boyfriend Edward's new girlfriend. Actually they weren't that new, just new to me.

I rarely saw Edward, although every Monday and Wednesday afternoon (my days off) I heard him with Annabell through the thin walls. No matter how badly things have gone, how clear it is that you need never speak to someone again, to hear him with someone else is difficult. Take a moment to imagine it; not fun.

I had mostly forgotten this boy—a sweet, misguided painter—but faced with these intimate sounds, I felt oddly jealous and irritated. I wrote a few melancholy poems on Mondays and Wednesdays, drank a lot of cheap wine and reflected on the few really cool things Edward and I had done together.

Once we'd hiked to Carson Hot Springs after dark with two bottles of good wine and stayed the night, drinking and talking and risking the $500 fine for crossing the government-owned suspension bridge across the Wind River. Another time we rode our mountain bikes to the top of Dimple Hill in early summer. Ants, itchy weeds, our attempts at improvisational poetry and Edward's sweet mouth make up the montage of that excursion. It's impossible to sum up any relationship without slighting either party, so I won't even attempt it. The tangible thing that remains is, once again, a recipe . . .. (16-17)
To me, the book is more than a collection of recipes left by men who left, but instead a collection of parts of people that helped make the writers who they now are. When I think about that piece of art I helped steal from a (probably) unsuspecting man, my heart hurts. First, I feel horrible for participating in a theft of any kind, but more importantly, I took from him a tangible thing that may have represented how much someone once cared about him, how much fun they had while they had it. Perhaps this item may have symbolized what he had learned and what he then knew he needed from someone else. Or, perhaps I'm making a bigger deal of this then I should. Perhaps he has those memories and he doesn't need the art to remind him of them. Whatever the situation, I'm sorry.

Citrus-Vanilla Shortbreads
My own recipe.

I once made a batch of these for a man I didn't love who didn't love me. It took us a while for us to figure out that we didn't love each other, but I'm so glad that we did.

We both loved these little coins of cookies though. They are fragrant like citrus blossoms, simple, and subtle, perfectly paired with an afternoon cup of coffee or after dinner cup of Moroccan tea.

You will need:
3/4 cup unsalted good butter, softened
1 tablespoon finely grated citrus rind (today I made me cookies with a mix of Meyer lemon and Eureka lemon rinds, but I think my absolute favorite way to make these is with lime rind)
the scraped out seeds of one vanilla bean
1/3 cup sugar plus extra
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 and a scant 3/4 cup flour

To make the cookies:
Preheat the oven to 350.

With your mixer, cream together the butter, citrus rind, vanilla bean seeds, sugar and salt until the mixture is light and fluffy. Slowly mix in the flour, just until all the ingredients are completely combined.

Roll dough into 3/4 inch balls and place 12-15 of them spaced regularly on a silicone- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Pour a couple tablespoons of sugar into a saucer. Take a clean glass with a flat bottom out of the cupboard, smear the bottom of it completely with your greasy hands, then dip the glass bottom in the sugar in the saucer. Use the sugar-coated glass bottom to press on of the dough balls flat, to about 1/4 inch thick. Dip the glass in the sugar again, and repeat on another dough ball. Continue with the rest of the cookie sheet, dipping the glass in the sugar between each.

Place the cookie sheet in the preheated oven. Bake for 10 minutes, then check. Most likely, they won't be done. The cookies usually take about 13-14 minutes to cook for me. You know they are done with the very edges begin to turn toasty-tan. Don't let them cook any longer than that, or the cookies will take on too much of the browned butter taste and lose the citrus and vanilla inflections.

Repeat the process with the remaining dough. This recipe makes about 30-36 cookies.

As I serve these to the man I love this week, I'll say a silent thank you to the men I don't: thank you for getting me here.