Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

From "The Country of Marriage," by Wendell Berry.

"Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in."

And on to what 2011 brings us. May you and yours be brave with each other and keep on going in.

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite Color

I took these pictures while running errands in the rain today. What wasn't an errand: finding persimmon trees to photograph.

Around here, persimmon trees wear their own Christmas ornaments. When we do cut the fruits down and out of the tree, we set them artfully around the house, as if each persimmon were a piece of handblown art glass. It's all a sham though. The fruits, though beautiful, are so plentiful some people complain about having a persimmon tree. It rains persimmons here.

The two photos above are of two different unidentified astringent varieties I brought home from a recent California Rare Fruit Growers meeting.

I'm not complaining, for I love persimmons.

The tree that had been on the property when the previous owner moved in, that had never produced for her, and that had only given me six fruit last year, bore heavily for me this year.

A fraction of the tree's harvest, cut down to protect the fruit from the jubilant clouds of marauding parrots. I love the local parrots, but I also really want to be able to eat my tree's fruit.

This tree is a mystery. I have no idea what kind of tree it is, and I've even checked with experts about what it might be. Most people who are familiar with persimmons know the two most commercially available varieties, Hachiya and Fuyu. Hachiya is acorn shaped and astringent; that means it is only edible when it feels like a water balloon in its state of liquidy ripeness. Fuyu is flattened and nonastringent, a pumpkin color, and crunchy and mild. Variations abound on the astringent and nonastringent theme. There are gold-colored and hat shaped and narrow spade-shaped astringent persimmons, and persimmons that are even astringent unless they're fertile and seeded. Among the nonastringent varieties are types that are like pumpkin colored four-leaf clovers, and others that are round around the girth, but flattened from top to bottom.

The fruit from my persimmon tree is definitely nonastringent, edible and delicious when it isn't yet soft-ripe, but excellent even when soft and yielding. It is nearly round and a deep orange. The flesh is juicy and flecked with tiny russet specks.

It's my favorite persimmon, and I had nothing to do with it. I inherited it.

Now I have a wealth of fruit, so I've got to learn how to use it. While I've experimented with many dessert-like persimmon recipes (here and here are two recipes in regular persimmon-season rotation), I've never considered using them in any kind of savory preparation. Until this year, that is. Overwhelmed with more fruit than I can eat fresh, I hit the books for a solution and came up with A Passion for Persimmons: A Collection of 87 Persimmon Recipes with Commentary by the Author. It's a cute book, published by Ojai Valley Library in memory of its author, Ann Crozier. The recipes that I've tried have been hit or miss, but here's a definite hit.

Mainlining Vitamin A Curried Carrot and Persimmon Soup
Adapted from A Passion for Persimmons, by Ann Crozier.

Like a Thai yellow curry, it this soup is rich with coconut milk, an addition that does amazing things to the curry spices. I can picture myself riffing on this recipe in the years to come, spicing it up more, adding lemongrass, maybe some galangal. When I made it this week, I used duck broth made from the carcass of a recently consumed roasted duck, and I was able to toss a few leftover nuggets of duck meat into the soup as well. But chicken meat would work just as well, or no meat at all. If one chooses to use veggie broth, this is a vegan meal, a very, very delicious vegan meal.

You will need:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 nonastringent (Fuyu or similar or whatever the heck my persimmon is) persimmons, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 heaping teaspoons of curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 quart broth
1 13.5 ounce can of coconut milk
a handful of leftover meat (optional)
lemon juice to taste
cilantro for garnish

To make the soup:
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the carrots, persimmons, celery, onion, ginger, and garlic, and saute for about 10 minutes on medium heat, or until parts of the persimmon begin to caramelize a bit. Add the curry powder and salt, and continue to saute for another minute or so, until the mixture is very fragrant. Pour in the broth, and scrape up the good bits from the bottom of the pan. Let the mixture cook at a high simmer for about a half an hour. Remove from heat.

Working carefully, fully immerse an immersion blender and puree the soup. Pour in the contents of the can of coconut milk and the optional meat, and stir to combine. Return to heat and heat again until just simmering. Add lemon juice to taste.

Serve garnished with fresh cilantro leaves.

And no pictures of the soup, you ask? No reason to have any. It's a puddle of my favorite color.


If you'd like to see what others are harvesting this time of year, join us at Daphne's Dandelions for Harvest Monday, where gardeners from all over the world share images of their latest harvests.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


I love to imagine what they looked like: overgrown amber "pears" hanging from dead trees, large silver-laced leaves twining in and around the brittle wood. The trees were carefully girdled, killed by slicing into the cambium layer around the entire tree. Once the trees died, members of the Seminole tribes would plant squash seeds around the base of the tree, and these vines would climb the tree and fruit in the air. Up there, the fruit was less likely to rot than if setting on the damp soil.

The Seminole pumpkin fascinates me. It's a beautiful fruit, tawny colored like a butternut and similar in flavor, with a deep orange, very smooth flesh. Also like the butternut, it belongs in the C. moschata species, a vigorous species that deals well with heat and even humidity. I grew it this year up trellises, and my only regret is that I didn't plant it earlier in the season, for when I had to pull the vine out for my winter veggies, it still had fruit on it yet to mature. But it's beautiful, and tasty, and grows really, really well here, and there's a lot more to the story behind this pumpkin.

Serving as a primary food source for the Creek, Muskogee, and Calusa peoples (collectively identified as Seminole) for at least five hundred years in Georgia, Alabama, and especially Florida—it is documented by Spanish visitors upon their arrival to Florida—the Seminole community passively bred the pumpkin to be long lasting and hard-skinned. "If they opened one in October and saved the seeds, rodents would have probably gotten them. Or insects or fungus. So they would eat on them throughout the fall and winter, and the longest keeping ones would be the last to be eaten. The best keepers provided the seed by unintentional selection" (Dr. Bradshaw, cited by Freeman). Both the high protein seeds and the flesh served as an important winter food. The Seminoles used the pumpkin in cornbreads, a version of frybread, and dried the flesh to use in throughout the year. The food was so important that, according to some sources, its loss caused devastation:

"When Chief Chekika was tracked down and killed by the U.S. Army after his raid on Indian Key, his body was hung from the trees of a small hammock west of Miami. To add further emphasis to this act, all of the Seminole pumpkins hanging from the trees in the hammock were shot to the ground. More than symbolic, this was a most effective way to cause starvation among these Everglades renegades." (Campbell)
That story caught me and wouldn't let go. And so I continued to explore it, and I haven't found much that I'm sure is reliable. There seems to be discrepancies surrounding the 1840 Indian Key raid and whether or not many claims surrounding it are true. However, all accounts do make some of the same claims, that the raid occurs right in the middle of the Second Seminole Wars, that the government of Florida at the time had a $200 price tag on the head of any dead Seminole, and that in this raid, between seven and thirteen white people and no Native Americans died. I'm no expert in any of this; all I can say is that a lot of fear and anger seems to have fueled everyone involved.

One person who died in the raid was a Dr. Henry Perrine. About him, I can find plenty of solid information. In fact, on Google Books, I even found this:

In this petition, Dr. Perrine seeks to establish a township in southern Florida, where he'll cultivate tropical useful plants to test their suitability for American agriculture. His enthusiasm shines in this paragraph from the text.

Congress granted Perrine his request; however, because of the climate of war, Perrine and his family didn't stay at his township long, but instead attempted to find safety at Indian Key. There, the raiders killed him.

I wonder what Perrine could have accomplished if his history had turned out differently. I wonder what would have happened if Seminole heads didn't have price tags. It's a sad story for everyone.

Except, perhaps the pumpkin. The pumpkin survives.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The History of Appalachia, One Bean at a Time

We took nearly every wrong turn on the way there; of the four turns it takes to get from the center of Berea to the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, otherwise known as Bill Best's house, three we took were incorrect. What should have been a fifteen minute drive was thirty, but they were hilarious misturns, full of slaphappy laughter and a joyful disregard for time. Being tucked in the rolling hills of Kentucky on a clear gold and blue autumn day makes it hard to feel anything but pleasure.

When we finally got close to Best's home, we could see the mountain at the end of the narrow valley wore a dark forest-smoke top hat. We rolled up to the front of the house anyway, parked the car, and walked toward the front door. While I was the one of the three of us who instigated this mission, I still felt a bit awkward. I was about to knock on the door of someone who I deeply admire and who I'm still surprised I had a chance to meet. But before we got to the door, Bill Best came around the corner, greeted us, and welcomed us into his home.

Who is this guy with whom I'm so enamored? He's the first person to ever receive a PhD in Appalachian studies, and a former professor of Appalachian studies at Berea College. (As a sidenote, Berea College in itself fascinates me. It predates the Civil War, and from its inception, offered equal, integrated education to both black and white students. It's historic motto, "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth" still informs the decisions the college makes. Having only seen it from the outside, but still able to see the diversity and art this college cultivates, the healthy and happy town this college supports, I know I need to go back there.) He's the author of several books and is writing another on Appalachian beans and tomatoes. Informed by the way his family in mountainous North Carolina grew their own foods, saving seeds of the most productive and flavorful of their crops, he became more and more disgusted by the directions agriculture took in the 1960s. As a result, Best began to explore the seedsaving history of Appalachia, and later, founded the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. At the center, he's collected beans from throughout Appalachia, over 300 varieties so far. He's discovered that every mountain valley has a bean that hails from it, a bean with a history and a heritage. He has theories about the background of greasy beans, the legendary satiny, "fuzzless" varieties found in the rural South—he argues that they stem from a very old Cherokee variety. He also argues that the genetic material so carefully preserved through the history of Appalachia deserves saving. And, at 79, he's still going strong, telling us before we left that he may have to go fight the fire. Yup, he was gearing up to fight a mountain fire.

But when we first arrived, he was in no hurry to leave. As we entered his house, he introduced us to Rimbaud, his black cat that would already be huge even if he weren't fat, but since he was fat, he fit solidly in the class of gargantuan. We sat in his living room, and he told us about his house, a house his wife designed in the 70s and that he and two workmen built. It's a solid yet sky-scraping A-frame with a fireplace that runs up to the tippy-top of the living room ceiling. Building it out of fossil-ridden limestone, Best created the fireplace himself, tucking lucky-find arrowheads into the masonry.

After he let us in, he went to fetch from the freezer—for long-term storage—the seeds I had emailed him about purchasing. He came back with six bags of carefully packaged beans. Here is what I purchased and what I learned about each:
  • Rose Bean: From the Rose family of Madison County, KY, this bean is a pole bean, good for green or dry, with gorgeous feather-speckled seeds. This is one of the prettiest dry beans I've seen. They even made my husband oooh and aaaah.
  • Frank Barnett Cut-Short: "A mutant bean from the River Bean of Ed Meece of Somerset, Kentucky, this cut-short is a true breeding deep beige bean. Grown originally by Frank Barnett of Georgetown, Kentucky, this bean is a good producer and a very flavorful and tender bean" (
  • Pink Tip Greasy: "One of many pink tip varieties of beans, this is the only pink tip greasy bean that I know of. From the Bethel area of Haywood County, NC, this white-seeded bean is excellent for many uses" (
  • Striped Hull Greasy Cut-Short: "From Jackson County, Kentucky, this is a tightly packed greasy cut-short with white seeds. Many hulls have light green streaks on them" (
  • Partridge Head Bean: "This bean is widely grown in the South-Central part of Kentucky and in the Cumberland Plateau area of Tennessee. It is used as a green bean, as a canning bean, and as a shelly bean. It is especially popular in Clinton County, KY where almost everyone grows it" ( To me, the seed looks like a smaller version of a pinto.
  • Pete Ingram Fall Bean: This, I have to admit, is the one I'm most excited about. It comes from the grouping of "fall beans" that folks in Appalachia have grown for autumn harvest for generations and generations. It's a blood red, round bean, good for dry. About it, Best writes "From Pete Ingram in Indiana but originally from Eastern Kentucky, this fall bean is a deep red color. It is a climbing bean with an excellent flavor" ( I have a feeling that this will produce well for me with a beginning-of-September planting.
So I bought the bean seeds and a packet of Vinson Watts tomato seeds, my friend bought another package of Vinson Watts seeds, and we sat and chatted for a spell. The smoke plume on the other side of the mountain loomed large though, and Best worried he'd have to protect his farm that reached to the top of the ridge behind the house he built. We left the house, thanking him profusely, leaving Rimbaud very well-petted. I felt rich with history and food and potential.

We couldn't wave as we drove away, for Bill Best was turned away from us, glaring down the fire at the end of the valley. Part of his treasure drove away with me, safe from a Kentucky wildfire; it hopped on a plane and ended up here, ready to bring a bit of Appalachia to Altadena come next planting season.

Seeds. There are no better souvenirs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky

All it takes is corn, rye, malted barley, water from the limestone hills, and years and years in charred oak barrels. While it loses an angels' share in the process of aging, it becomes something miraculous. Bourbon.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Sweet Taters

When I set out to create this garden, I set out to grow things that my husband and I love to eat, and to provide as much of that food we love as possible. What I have discovered in this process is that we love a lot more foods than we knew we did. I didn't know that there were hundreds of kinds of peppers with a huge range of flavors from citrusy to mellow, sharp to smooth, juicy to cocoa-powdery, nor did I know pepper flowers of different species looked different from each other. I hadn't ever had a salad that was made entirely of mache or nibbled on cucumbery salad burnet. Though I had read about fava greens, I had never had a steaming, slightly charred stir-fried plate full of them. I hadn't tasted garlic scapes, the subtleties in flavor between different varieties of garlic, or the fresh bite of Egyptian Walking onion greens.

I planted sweet potatoes because I love sweet potatoes. I did not know beforehand that the leaves were mighty tasty steamed or sautéed. And, before looking into sweet potatoes to grow, I didn't even know there were so many varieties.

Yesterday, while I was harvesting my first ever crop of sweet potatoes, I kept squealing with surprise and delight as I pulled up plants. One great pleasure of harvesting sweet potatoes is that one has no idea of what one will pull up. Some of the vigorous looking vines had only one normal-sized root hiding beneath; others had large clumps of six to eight meaty roots. E came out to see what I was doing and shot a picture of me with mud, bad hair, beat-up paint stained clothes, and a bunch of large-rooted potatoes.

The two varieties I planted grew differently from each other. The Violetta had lovely vines with bright green leaves and a few regularly-shaped neon violet roots with white flesh. The Red Wine Velvet had purple-tinged purple growth and many (six to eight) irregularly-shaped, burgundy-skinned, orange-fleshed roots.

As tempted as I am, I have not yet tasted either of the varieties. Instead, I have to cure them, a process in which the tender, disease-prone skins of the roots firm up at high humidity and warm temperatures while some of the starches convert to sugars, sweetening up the roots. I wrapped the sweet potatoes in large towel, placed them in a box, then placed the box next to my husband's computer, a place I figured would be warm all the time. There they'll sit for 10 days. I hope that makeshift process, imitating what large farmers do with their harvests, works here. 10 days, I can't wait.


If you'd like to see what others are harvesting this week in gardens the world over, stop by Daphne's Dandelions and check out Harvest Monday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Fall comes around here and chiles follow. I've been busy, too busy for words, but I've got a few recipes to share.

(From top left: Chilhuacle Negro, Dedo de Moca, Chile Rallado, Aji Panca (orange form), Pimento, Bishop's Crown aka Chapeu de Frade)

(Much hotter than I expected: Either Tobago Seasoning or Datil Sweet. I mixed up the tags, so I'm not sure which it is.)

(I purchased this seed from a fellow Seed Savers member who identified it as an orange form of Aji Panca. I'm not sure that is what it is, but I am certain it is a Capsicum baccatum, and it is beautiful, productive, and delicious, so I'm keeping it!)

The chile peppers' names read like a fragrant, tongue tingling poem:

Aji Panca Chapeu de Frade Datil Sweet
Chile Rallado Ancho Rojo Pimento
Pimente de Barcelona Zavory
Fish Tobago Seasoning Red Ruffled
Chilhuacle Negro Roberto's Cuban

Sweet Chile-Garlic Sauce

Many props go to Linda Ziedrich, author of The Joy of Pickling in which this recipe appears, who, when I emailed her about hot-water canning this recipe, replied promptly and helpfully. She actually replied to my email. I'm a fan for life. This is a delicious dipping sauce for eggrolls, grilled meat, and many other good things. A friend emailed me recently with the following suggestion: "You know what Christina's chile-garlic dipping sauce is really good with? In-N-Out fries, that's what!" It's sweet, hot, and very, very garlicky. Yum.

You will need:

1 cup cider vinegar

1 cup water

2 cups organic sugar

2 teaspoons pickling salt

1/4 cup minced garlic

1/4 cup Southest Asian Chile-Garlic Relish (see my post here for the recipe)

To make the sauce:

Bring all ingredients but the last to a boil in a large, heavy pan. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt crystals. Boil the mixture gently for about 30 minutes, or until it begins to thicken slightly.

Stir in the relish and increase the heat to medium-high to bring it to a rolling boil. Boil the mixture for about 2 minutes, or until it reaches 230 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat.

Pour it into sterilized jars, and this is what Linda Ziedrich wrote in an email to me about hot water bath canning the sauce: "You could certainly can it; it's really like a soft pepper jelly. A five-minute bath in sterilized jars, or 10 minutes in unsterilized jars, should do it. In fact, this sauce should keep for a long time at room temperature even without the hot-water bath."

Makes about 1 1/2 delicious, sticky, garlicky cups.

Sweet Heat Jelly

The Ball Blue Book (not the Blue Balls Book, get your mind out of the gutter, c'mon!) provides a recipe for jalapeno jelly that suggests pureeing the jalapenos and adding green food coloring, but I like little gems of chile suspended in the naturally-colored amber jelly, AND, I prefer the medium heat and complex flavor of the orange Aji Pancas, spiced up just a bit with a very hot Chile Rallado. The proportions of the recipe below are the nearly identical to the Ball Blue Book (minus the food coloring), but the recipe differs in the process. This jelly is fantastic with cream cheese and crackers or toast. A friend recommends it on cornbread.

You will need:

3/4 pound finely minced ripe, medium-hot peppers (I leave a few of the seeds in for flavor and interest, but remove most)

2 cups cider vinegar

6 cups organic sugar

2 three ounce packages of liquid pectin

To make the jelly:

Combine the peppers, vinegar, and sugar, and stir over medium heat until the sugar crystals dissolve. Bring the mixture to a boil and let boil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Do not let the sugar brown.

Stir in both packages of liquid pectin, then return to boil, and keep at a hard rolling boil for 1 minute, stirring all the while.

Remove from heat and carefully ladle into sterilized jars. Process for 10 minutes in a hot-water bath.

This recipe makes 2 1/2 pints of spicy, tangy, sweet sunshine-y jelly.