Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer Sugar

In the summers when I was a kid, my mom often gave my brother and me irrigation duty out in the huge veggie garden. It daily topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so we lived in our swim suits during the summers, dunking ourselves occasionally in the above-ground swimming pool behind the back yard to cool off. When my brother and I went out back to water the garden, my mom always required us to wear our cowboy boots for protection against the rattlesnakes that we occasionally found near our compost pile. Swimsuits and cowboy boots, those are two of the things that make me think of the long days of childhood summers.

The other thing that brings me right back to being 11 years old, chlorinated water drying on my brown skin and lots and lots of dreams in my head, is sweet, just-picked corn. Sometimes, when my brother and I were out watering, we would rip an ear right off the plant, husk it there in the garden, and eat the sweet thing raw.

After gnawing the cob to oblivion, not a kernel left untouched (as a side note—my husband eats his corn haphazardly, often missing a kernel here or there as he scarfs up its goodness, and it drives me crazy; it is all I can do to keep from picking up his cob after he is done and nibbling at the remaining kernels), we'd suck the juices out of the sugary stalk attached to the ears. So, so good.

Now that I am able to have my own out back veggie garden in which I have to keep my eyes open for rattlesnakes, I can finally grow my own corn.

No, it isn't ready to harvest yet, but every time I look at it, I drool a little. Okay, I drool a lot. I hear, however, that drool is a great fertilizer for sweet corn, so that means I should have a remarkable crop.

Curried Corn Soup
This is my own recipe that I created last night when I had a pile of good farmers market corn on my hands. In it, the corn's sweetness is enriched by coconut and curry, and brightened with lemon juice. It's spicy, smoky, and summery, and eating it, you may just experience that lifting warm freedom of summer.

You will need:
1 large red (or orange or yellow) sweet pepper
4 ears of corn, shucked
1/2 large onion, finely diced
1 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons Madras curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 can coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth
lemon juice to taste
diced avocado and cilantro for garnish
optional: diced leftover grilled zucchini or yellow squash

To make the soup:
Place the pepper on your gas burner and blacken it on all sides, turning it occasionally with tongs. Once the pepper is blackened, set it aside to cool a bit before carefully removing the skin. After peeling, split the pepper open, remove the seeds, and dice. Set aside.

Over a large bowl, run a sharp knife down the length of the corn cops, cutting the kernels off the cob at their base. After you've cut all the kernels off each cob, scrape the flat side of the knife firmly down the length of the cob to squeeze out all the milky juice into the same bowl. Set the bowl of corn aside.

In a large, heavy pot, heat the butter and a tablespoon of coconut cream that has risen to the top of the can of coconut milk. The burner should be set to medium-low. Add the diced onion and garlic, and toss the alliums with the fat in the pan. Let the mixture cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is less opaque all the way through, but is not browned. Add the salt and curry powder to the pan, stir, and heat until fragrant.

Add the diced sweet pepper, corn, and collected juices (and leftover grilled vegetables, if you have them—I used two pieces of leftover grilled yellow squash, finely diced) to the pan. Stir to mix and coat the corn with the flavors of onion, garlic, and curry. Stir in the coconut milk then add the chicken broth. Simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes until the corn is tender and the flavors melded. Add lemon juice to taste, and adjust seasoning as necessary with salt and black pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls and top with cilantro and diced avocado.

Serves four people on a dreamy summer day.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Graduation, Death, and Chickens

Despite the fact that, when I was 13, I would have cried if someone told me I had to do it, I stood in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, on Friday, reading names at my school's graduation. I had no fear—I just enjoyed the smiling faces of each kid as I called each forth to shake hands with the school board and principal. I was giggly. I told kids I was proud of them as they walked up to me. The students' enthusiasm and pride spread to me, and I floated on adrenaline and joy.

While I was experiencing this, my grandmother died.

Even in my giddiness, I knew my grandmother wasn't doing well because my parents called just as I arrived at District Field for the ceremony to tell me that my grandmother was still asleep from the anesthesia she received in her hip surgery that day. They weren't hopeful, but they expected her to last a day or two. Instead, she passed quickly, never waking up from her surgery. When graduation had finished and I made it back to my car, I found a message waiting for me, letting me know she had died.

I'm going to have to take some time to think about how best to write about Harriet, my grandmother, but I can tell you this now: she was tiny, she was smart, and she loved books. When I say she loved books, I mean she loved them so much that she was a librarian, that she brought books home for me the day I was born, and that she read every single day of her life. Part of my obsession with the written word had to have come from her. Someday later I'll tell more about her.

So Friday night, I was high on graduation-adrenaline and down from the loss of my grandmother, and the combination of feelings, along with the excitement of what the next day offered kept me from sleep. I spent the night tossing and turning while processing the memories of my grandmother and thinking about the smiles of my students; I replayed their graduation speeches again and again in my head, excited for their futures and recognizing how little they controlled them. I got up at 2 am to do some kitchen cleaning, and though I went to bed again to try to sleep, I gave in for real and got up in the early morning and went outside to finish what needed to be finished: our coop.

ECG had done such a good job converting a doghouse and building a pen to attach it to for our portable coop, and I had spent a couple afternoons priming it and painting it, but we hadn't had a chance to finish attaching the wire walls and floor that would protect the birds from the raccoons, coyotes, and hawks in our 'hood. But I did it early Saturday morning, well before ECG was awake and before most of my neighbors roused. I wrestled with hardware cloth and managed to give myself hundreds of small puncture wounds as I lined the frame. I finished by 9am.

I rushed out of the house with a map and an empty pet carrier, picked up my friend SWW, and we were on the road to a ranch out in the country where my chickens waited for me.

In the weeks prior, while looking for a reliable place to buy pullets (female pre-laying chickens), I found a ranch not too far away that raised interesting breeds. I called the owner and had several frustrating conversations with her: she was a know-it-all, scattered, and impatient. But, she was close and she had a good product, and when it came down to it, those things won out. When SWW and I drove out there Saturday, we fully expected to have a quick encounter with the rancher, purchase the chickens, and get back on our way home.

It didn't turn out that way at all.

Instead of crazy-angry, the kind of crazy we expected from the rancher, we found crazy-fun. First off, when we got there, she wasn't there. We waited around the gate, taking pictures of the friendly roosters who kept wandering over to check us out. Her entire front yard was one cage after another: chickens, ducks, peacocks, turkeys, geese, pigs, an emu, and in the back, behind the house, we could see goats and hints of other animals. When she did arrive, she arrived in a whirlwind of dirt, animal dander, and happy hysteria. She jumped out of her car and into her house, running back out seconds later with two baby animals under her arms.

She shoved a baby chihuahua into my arms, a baby potbellied pig into SWW's and shouted, "Here, hold these guys! They need to be socialized!" Then she turned to a giant Brahma rooster and yelled, "Chick-Chick!" She turned to us, "See, he knows his name!" She turned back to the rooster, "Get back over the fence! You know you need to be on this side!" Chick Chick came to her, she picked him up and shoved him into my arm not occupied by the chihuahua. "Here, hold him for a second!" While SWW and I held our assigned animals, the rancher ran off again. She came back with the chihuahua's parents and gave us them to hold too. We were out of arms, so we just started putting animals down on the ground around us. She went off and came back with the potbellied pig's mama in her arms (quite a bit to carry), the pig's udders (are they called udders on a pig?) swollen huge. Luckily, she didn't shove this one on us too, but just showed her off. A little later, she ran back to the emu cage and shouted at us to look. "Watch! This is Emmett! Emmett loves attention!" And she began stroking his head and neck until he wrapped his neck against her own. She massaged his back, rubbing the opposite directions of feathers, and he collapsed into an avian pile of relaxation against her, and she fell down into the dusty dirt with him, laughing.

Neighbors came by and the animals were passed around their arms. An elderly couple with a van full of day old bread came by to give it to the animals, and the chihuahua ended up in the wife's arms for a while. Grandparents brought their grandsons by with a few roosters in tow; their 4H project gave them more boy-chickens than they expected, and they gave them to the rancher to take care of. A woman and her adult son brought a peacock chick that the man had found being chased by his cat. The rancher put the chick in a cage with food and water. People flocked to the rancher because they knew, kooky as this woman is, she'd take care of whatever they brought her.

When the stream of people slowed a little, the rancher showed me how to tell the difference between a male and a female chick, what a chick looks like when it's scared itself to death and broken its own neck, and, as she rubbed it between her fingers, demonstrating its texture and color, what healthy chicken poop looks like. This is a woman who thrills in life: noise and death and shit and genetalia. And when I was with her on Saturday, that thrill was contagious.

As a result, I brought home three chickens on Saturday that may not be the most practical, may not be the most productive, but certainly may bring the most fascination to my life: One Black Jersey Giant, the largest breed of chicken, a huge, beautiful bird that shines green in sunlight. One Cuckoo Marans, a splatter of black and white, and a layer of chocolate-brown eggs. And one White-Crested Blue Polish, a bird with a top hat.

Though I haven't figured out names for each of them yet, I've figured out one. That Blue Polish, her name is Harriet.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


This spring's rain: it was not as much as we needed, but enough to grow pounds and pounds of the best garlic I've ever grown.

Here is my 2009 crop, in the order each matured for harvest:

1) Shilla: Powerfully flavored, slightly mustardy, and large-headed, Shilla is a Turban hardneck that matures early. It matured two weeks before some of the others, and was ready for harvest the second week of May. This is the first year I grew it, and I'm thrilled: it gave me great yield and great flavor with absolutely no trouble.

2) Ajo Rojo: Gosh, this is a gorgeous garlic. The outer skins are shiny and translucent, tucking deep burgundy clove wrappers underneath. It is a strong garlic, but not overwhelming, wonderful in sauces and stews. It is a Creole garlic, and it grew much better for me this year than last. Thank goodness, because I love this baby.

3) Red Toch: This is my primary garlic, the one I grow the most of and rely on throughout the year. It has big fat cloves that grow out below the roots, creating heart-shaped large heads. Raw, cooked, roasted, this not-too-hot garlic tastes good however I prepare it. It is an Artichoke variety that seems to love our particular climate and gives me a reliable yield of fat heads.

4) New York White (aka Polish White): This is another Artichoke variety—a type that grows very well for me—but is stronger in flavor than the other two artichoke varieties I grow. It gave me medium-sized heads with big fat cloves and rich and medium-hot flavor. This is a great all-purpose garlic.

5) Applegate: My third Artichoke variety, Applegate has proven itself a couple times for me now. It yields large heads with fat cloves wrapped in rich parchment with purple and peachy-pink stripes, another of the beauty queens. Very mild-flavored, this is the perfect ingredient to use in recipes that call for raw garlic.

6) Metechi: A Marbled Purple Stripe variety, parts of the exterior wrapping are deep, deep purple. It is also deeply, deeply hot. This is the most pungent of the bunch, as well as the prettiest plant as it grows. The foliage is sturdy and symmetrical, with a soft blue blush. This was my first year growing it; I'll definitely grow it again. Hopefully I will be able to harvest larger heads from it next year. I just harvested it as it seemed so much later than my others and I thought it had to be ready to come up, but I should have let it go another week or so.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

V is for Vignettes

Two weeks ago, ECG and I went for a walk around the corner from our house and into the canyon. On our return, we ran into a couple on horseback searching for a runaway horse. Apparently, another rider had been out with a friend, dismounted, then on the remount dislodged the saddle, startling her horse. The horse took off without the rider, but with all the tack, and has not been seen since. This horse has been missing for two weeks. Two weeks! Was the horse stolen? Was the horse eaten by bears or mountain lions? Did the horse get its bridle caught in a tree and inadvertently hang itself? Each of these is a very real possibility. I live 11 miles away from downtown Los Angeles, but events like these make me feel that we're still part of the Wild West.


There are many benefits of occasional meet-ups with people who are as garden dorky as yours-truly. Here is one:

This morning, a man well into his eighth decade, but none the slower for it, responded to complaints about gophers. He said, "Here's what you do. You take the cat hair, or the dog hair, or whatever pet hair you have around, and cut it up real fine. Then you sprinkle it into the holes you find around the yard. When that male gopher gets looking around, sniffing at that hair, he's sure to bring some of it home to the nest on him. His lady gopher is going to take one sniff of him, ask him what the hell he's doing with someone else's hair all over him, and kick him out of the nest. No man in the nest, no babies, no gopher problem. Easy as that."


A few weeks ago, a friend of ECG's held a limoncello making party. Although he lives smack dab in the middle of the city, he's got a lemon tree out back, and has more lemons that he could possibly use himself. So, he picked half of them, asked all his friends to bring a liter of Everclear or Vodka (after making it myself a couple times now, I prefer Everclear over vodka for a cleaner lemon flavor), and threw a party. Imagine the scene: a room full of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and English voices swimming through air rich with the scent of hundreds of lemons being simultaneously zested by happy people. Several party-goers arrived hoping it was a limoncello drinking party, their eyebrows raised and curling lips expectant, but, when discovering that the limoncello wouldn't be ready to drink for a few months, had faces that melted into disbelief. A few bottles of wine and beer sufficed for those who were disappointed; however, most of us were drunk on the lemon-oil-rich-air. My hands were lemony-beautiful even the next day.


In the school hallway the other day, I nearly ran into a former student, one who is days away from graduation, without recognizing her. Her shiny black hair, once long enough to nearly reach her butt, was gone, replaced by a tousled bob. "Your hair!" I gasped, "You look beautiful, but I almost didn't know it was you." She looked at me steadily with her huge smile, and she said the most perfect words: "I donated it."

Every day, my students teach me how to live.


Coffee Brined Grilled Chicken Legs

Adapted from Phil Lempert's Supermarket Guru, a recipe site I found while searching online for an interesting brine. Serves 2.

Save some of the stories from the week, and while you grill on the back patio with a friend or lover, tell the stories slowly and with luxurious detail. Relax, sip something yummy, and enjoy the fact that grilling doesn't happen immediately. Then, devour these smoke-infused juicy legs with grilled corn and braised chard.

You will need:
2 shots of good espresso
1/4 cup salt
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon each of whole mustard seeds and whole peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
3 cups water
2 whole chicken legs (thighs attached)

To prepare the chicken:
In a large shallow bowl, mix together the espresso, salt, sugar, and spices. Ad the water and lemon slices, and stir until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Place the chicken legs in the mixture, making sure they're fully covered by the brine. If you need to, you can place a plate over them to press them into the liquid. Refrigerate for three hours, turning, if you need to, once to make sure all sides get adequate "brinage."

Prepare your grill, and cook over medium heat until the juices run clear from the thickest part of the legs, and the meat is smoky and rich.