Saturday, December 14, 2013

Teachers, Nature, Men, and Food

In second grade, I had a magical teacher. She told stories of treks across the Amazon, where she and her team bushwhacked ten miles at a time, and at the end of the day, they'd set up camp for a few days, building tents from what they'd bushwhacked. The limbs of trees they'd just cut provided support for the tents, she said, and sprouted and grew leaves right away, growing where they were stuck in the ground. Her tales, like those limbs, grew tendrils in my brain and sprouted drawings from my hands. I loved her. After school, when I was supposed to be catching the bus home, I sometimes slowly paged through her book on seashell identification. The anatomical drawings, Latin names, and crinolined, turreted mollusk homes could keep me captivated for hours. My mom would have to leave work and pick me up, which likely caused incredible frustration, but I don't remember her ever yelling at me for this. After all, at bedtime, Mom was the one who told tales of lavender skies, tangerine clouds, and trees taller than the eye could see.

Later, in another state, I had a very different, but equally magical teacher. Mrs. O told stories of growing up on her Central Valley farm that her Japanese parents had built after losing their first farm during internment. She could imitate a hen with perfect bobbing head and shake of the wing-shoulders. On our sixth grade camping trip in the Sierras, all the girls slept in giant bunkroom. On our second day there, I, always the late riser, woke to Mrs. O gently shaking my foot, saying "Good morning, Sunshine." That trip we learned about the edibility of manzanita and lichens, learned how to tell directions in the woods, and draped ourselves in good smelling tree moss. A few weeks afterwards, she pulled me aside and gave me a post card that clearly made her think of me, a picture of a young horse running across a field of wildflowers with the inscription, "Good morning, Sunshine" across the top.

Mrs. O had a tradition, that unfortunately would be impossible now, of having each of her students over once during the year to eat dinner with her family. I couldn't wait for my turn. When my day finally arrived, she drove me towards her home. We had to stop at the bank before heading to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner. I waited in the car while she ran in.

When she came out, she told me she had just had a vision of my future husband. She told me he'd be about ten years older than me, sandy haired, and have a tan suede jacket in the closet. While she was only one-third correct, she made me think about my future in a way that I hadn't before then.

In the grocery store, we walked through all the aisles in a leisurely, food-loving way. She pointed out foods I didn't know and I showed her things I loved. By the fish counter, she pointed to tiny jars and asked if I'd ever had any kind of fish eggs. No, I told her. She smiled, and that night I had my first caviar.

In yet another state when I moved in the middle of a grading period during sophomore year, on my first day of classes, I entered my French class after getting lost (and tearstained) along the way. My new-to-me French teacher, Mr. T, greeted me kindly. He told me he'd seat me between the best-looking boy and the nicest boy in class. He situated me well. Soon, I learned the best-looking boy was smart, and I developed a crush. Then, I realized the nicest boy was also smart (despite his complete lack of ability to learn a foreign language), and realized he was good-looking, too. The previous crush faded quickly. Guess which one I still keep in touch with.

In Mr. T's class, I made a French onion tart for an assignment. My classmates cringed at the idea of that many onions, so Mr. T and I had many more slices to enjoy for ourselves. And, man, did we ever enjoy them: folded just-caramelized onions with thyme and butter piled, sweet and rich, over a flaky butter crust. I still can taste that tart.

My school teachers, though not the only teachers who've guided me, taught me that forest, men, and food offered adventures. From their lessons, I've experienced no end of delight.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on a Banana

Some people have a Thanksgiving wreath hanging on the front door. Hanging on our door, ripening in the steadier indoor temperature, we've got a bunch of bananas from the little banana grove in the backyard. 

Banana trees aren't trees at all, but instead herbaceous plants that fruit only once per stalk before dying. The stalk I cut this bunch off of is now sad and leafless, clearly on its way out. This week, I will machete it to the ground and chop it up to mulch around the the root mass that already has "pups" of various ages, including one very mature one that will likely flower as soon as the weather warms in spring. Growing bananas is an exercise in cyclicality: the pup emerges from the root mass, flowers, fruits, dies, and rots into the ground; immediately next to that pup is another in another stage. While one flowers, another emerges, while yet another feeds the roots as its body decomposes in the thick mulch.

The stalk that this bunch came from began blooming at the end of May and reached its gorgeous peak in June. (I posted pictures of it here.) While I watched and waited, the fruit slowly fattened but never seemed to be ripening. Last year, one of my plants had flowered later in the year, setting a few fruit that never ripened as the winter wore on and frost and wind turned the plants last few leaves to sad ribbons. Even though my bananas grow in a relatively protected place right next to the heat sink of the house, the subtropical winters are tough on the tropical, heat-hungry plant. This year, as the weather cooled in the beginning of November, I began to worry, so I followed the model of an elderly Filipino man whose house I drive by every morning on my way to work.

His garden is a narrow strip of green on a busy corner. Along the sidewalk, he has a long line of paint buckets planted with lemongrass. On an old tree stump, he's built a large tree-shaped trellis, upon which he's grown the mightiest specimen of dragonfruit I've ever seen. This fall, it was covered with fruit. He has papayas and a patch of corn, peppers and herbs I can't identify. He also has two perfectly manicured clumps of bananas. The stalks of his plants are short, maybe stretching to 10 feet, and in each clump, two stalks are fruiting. Loaded with hands and hands of fruit, the fruiting stems are huge, at least double in length and fruit quantity of my plant's. Each morning, when I drive by his house, I check for signs of ripeness. When October turned to November, I noticed that he had placed large transparent plastic bags over his fruit clusters, clearly to hasten ripening in the last of the warmth. I, guided by the evidence of his yard, trust this man to know what he's doing. I followed his model and placed a plastic bag over my fruit. And now I have bananas.

The variety that fruited for me this year is called Blue Java; it is also known as Ice Cream. In my limited experience, the fruit from this variety are short and fat, very thin-skinned, and intensely fruity in flavor. The fruit is much more aromatic than a large store-bought Cavendish banana. 

I've got so many things to be thankful for. The bananas are just a bunch of them.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gifts of The Road

My friend and I escaped the fall with a road trip into autumn.

Books and I have been lovers since I was an infant, but we've been on a break lately, simply because my the rest of my loves and responsibilities usurped the place they had held in my life. Prior to our trip, I had not had a chance to read for more than fifteen minutes at a time, and that perhaps only once a week. But, on our trip, I woke early one morning and read for hours in the library of our temporary home, giving my stresses over to the giant hand and my mind entirely to the book.

For much of the rest of the long weekend, we toed sand and trails and accidental turns that led to unexpected space.

Here, we stopped. Here, I took pictures with my phone, sending them immediately to my husband. Here, I wrote. This is us.

On our trip, my friend and I encountered a manta ray, wild turkeys, pelicans, cormorants, lots and lots of crabs, sea anenomes, starfish, and parakeets. We also found parts of ourselves.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Progress Report: The Front Meadow

These bottle bugs that E and I brought from Rosario hang in the crepe myrtle that grows at the edge of the meadow.

Last year, my friend Russ of LA Farm Hands helped me install a puddle of meadow in my front yard, replacing what I had left of a lawn. (If you're curious, you can read about that installation here.) I've enjoyed the meadow for a year now, and today, I spent a few minutes looking at pictures of it just post-installation, comparing those photos to the way it looks now. Let's take a look at it this morning:

The clumps of Carex praegracilis are widening, but still haven't tangled into each other.

I didn't know to expect the pretty golden curls on the aging leaves. C. praegracilis is providing more textural interest than I anticipated.

I like the way the light plays on it.

The ipheion I tucked in a couple places to provide winter color is sending up its foliage; midwinter it will put on a show of starry blue-lavender flowers. Last winter's performance lasted well over a month.

The rainlily (Zephyranthes candida) foliage disappears into the sedge's leaves, but its surprise, crystalline flowers feel like treasures when they appear.

Overall, I love how this meadow is shaping up, even though it has not yet fully grown in. It's so much more interesting than a lawn, it takes less water to look good, and each season gives it new pleasures to enjoy.

Monday, October 14, 2013

October Slump

In October, all I want to do is be in my garden, watching the season shift; it's a gentle, easy-to-miss shift, and I feel like if I walk inside at all, I'll miss what is good. But work in October is alarmingly busy, I experience stress and depression addled by the changing seasons, and my beloved gardens, books, and kitchen get ignored. This time of year, I'm lucky to see my gardens in the daylight, and when I cook, I cook giant messes of food that last us for days. Right now, we're working through an Italian meatball soup I made on Sunday that I hope lasts us for most of the week.

I have a list of things I want to explore in words: pomegranates, the meadow out front, the entire Capsicum baccatum species, but for now, my brief complaint is all I can get down.

I miss writing and plants, and I don't know which of the two I miss more.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The End of September

The last Boule D'Or melon of the year.
The black scabiosa that is slowly naturalizing in my yard has set copious seed; next year, hopefully, there will be even more of these moody beauties.

The Wickson tree bears flavor bombs and right now, they're beginning to get good.

The bedraggled, summer-worn Hot Cocoa rose lives up to its name when backlit by the southern sun.

The Indian Mallow blooms even when everything else is tired.

The skin shed by an alligator lizard.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Deep Purple

For four years, I've worked to stabilize genetics for plants that produce deep purple tomatillos from an original source of Baker Creek's Purple Tomatillo seeds, which at first grow-out produced mixed green, lavender, and occasionally purple tomatillos. This year, after years of roguing out plants that didn't match my ideal, I had no outliers; each produced inky-purple, very sweet tomatillos, and loads of them. Supported by tomato cages, the plants grow taller than I am, and they are covered with golf-ball sized fruits. As well, unlike their tomato relatives, they appear unfazed by the root-knot nematodes that have invaded my garden beds. When I pulled them up to clean out their bed for fall this week, I discovered their roots were smooth and nematode-free.

Since I've been working to pin down these genes, I've had to grow out more tomatillos than I would likely do so otherwise. Consequently, at the end of each summer, I am rich in sweet, deep purple marble-fruit. In the past couple years, I've been making big batches of salsa morada that I freeze to use for dinners during the winter. When I'm busy, I defrost a quart and make rolled cheese enchiladas in salsa morada. When I'm really busy, the enchiladas are stacked rather than rolled.

Quite unlike the large grocery-store green tomatillos, the fruit of this variety is near black on the exterior with purple flesh among the very ripe and mottled purple flesh among the near-ripe. It is much sweeter than the standard green tomatillo.

This year, I saved seed from my largest-fruited plant to grow out next year in an attempt to gradually increase fruit size, but if I lose flavor, color, or quality in this venture to produce larger fruit, I'll ease off on that goal. What I've got is already quite special.

A friendly acquaintance recommended I name this tomatillo "Wenger Ink." Any other suggestions?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ugly Bumps

I grow a lot of food here, as you know, and I have no problem showing off my bounty, yet if that is all I do, I am lying. Failures and struggles happen here at the ranchito, too. This summer, I've begun a battle against a bitch of a soil pest: the root-knot nematode. Luckily, most of my favorite fruit trees are on Nemaguard rootstock, which helps them withstand both the bugs and the droughty nature of our climate. The tomatoes, though, they suffer. I planted ten plants this year and harvested approximately the same number of pounds. Harrumph.

Though I knew nematodes were my problem, I didn't know what to do about them. I had tried this spring to use beneficial nematodes to help counter the root-knot nematodes, but that turned out to be an expensive yet value-less investment. I went then to wise members of my local produce exchange—a font of local gardening knowledge—and the Internet for solutions, and I've learned, as is often the case with a difficult problem, there is no silver bullet. Instead, I'll have to incorporate additional strategies into the crop rotation, compost and manure amendment, and liquid seaweed fertilizer that are already my practice.

How I know I have root-knot nematodes:
  • Ugly bumps. Last year, when I pulled out my tomatoes and a few other plants, I could see the heavily galled, deeply scarred roots. These weren't smooth main roots with lots of healthy, happy feeder roots, but instead a medusa-head of succulent-jointed ropes. I hung my hopes too heavily on what I thought a winter free of food would do to the root-knot communities. They, persistent suckers as they are, made it through the winter quite happily to hit this year's crop even harder.

  • Weak plants. My tomatoes, squash, and melons really struggled this summer. They'd wilt after only a single day without water, when usually they'd need water only twice a week. If I looked at them wrong, they'd get sick. Most of the flowers on my tomatoes just fell off rather than setting fruit, and the majority of my squash and melons aborted fertilized fruit because they just didn't have the means to support the fruit to maturity. Beans, sweet potatoes, tomatillos, and peppers seem to be able to tolerate the nematodes better than tomatoes and cucurbits.

What I am doing as I clean out the beds now and into the future:
  • Amend with more horse manure than ever. This will provide as rich as possible a medium to support struggling plants. As well, it will add more organic material to help ensure water retention, a deep challenge in our soil.
  • Seed a winter cover crop of rye and mustard. I'll do this in half of my beds, those that will host next year's tomatoes and melons, come mid autumn. Root-knot nematodes are unlikely to feed on rye roots (apparently rye doesn't appeal to those buggers), so the plants will grow heartily over the winter, pulling up nutrients with their extensive root systems. While the nematodes may nibble on the mustard roots, the mustard will have its vengeance in the spring when I cut both the rye and mustard down and dig the plants into the soil. The mustard will gas the nematodes, and the rye will decompose quickly and feed the surface soil with the nutrients it pulled up from the deep.
  • Add dried molasses to the soil. With every plant I plant, this fall, this winter, and next spring I'll be adding dried molasses. The molasses helps feed the microbes that both attack the nematodes and work symbiotically with the plants' root systems. This may be something I need to do forever.
  • Plant French marigolds. Tagetes patula, when attacked by nematodes, interrupts their reproduction. I plant to start loads of French marigolds in the early spring so I can plant them thickly among my tomatoes and melons next year.

What I could but won't do:
  • Solarize with black plastic. Yes, this would kill my mean root-knot nematodes, but it would also kill my lovely worms, happy microbes, red spiders, and other good guys.
  • Mulch heavily in the vegetable garden. I'm a huge proponent of mulch in most places, but in my vegetable garden, I've found it makes it impossible to direct seed beans or squash or okra, or any of those other delicious vegetables that grow best when they stay where they started. Mulch provides a home for hoards of sowbugs that take out seedlings overnight. (And, don't join the chorus that sings "Sowbugs only eat decomposing matter"; I've watched them munch down a bean seedling. Sowbugs and seedlings do not mix. That chorus sings the wrong tune.)

Monday, September 02, 2013

Smoky Eggplant and Summer Squash

Lady Emma Hamilton: A David Austen rose that handles the late summer heat in my yard. Not many roses do so well this time of year.

When much of the rest of the northern hemisphere starts to experience fall, here, we hit the peak of our heat. It is the time of year when all cooking should happen outside. We've been grilling all of our meats, and I've been grilling the veggies too, loads of grilled zucchini, onions, whole okra pods, and loose knots of Asian long beans. For a party though, I wanted something a little more elegant than just slapping veg on the hot grill, and the eggplants I had were so beautiful. So, this dish happened.

Smoky Eggplant and Summer Squash
I found the inspiration for my version of this recipe here when I was searching for a recipe that included grilled eggplant and tahini. I am really happy with how this turned out: a rich combination of smoke, nuttiness, tangy-ness, and a hit of hot earth from the cumin. Substantial enough to be a main dish, this could also serve as a side, accompanying perhaps grilled marinated chicken and a zingy salad. Or, this could be a great tapas with lots of other savory nibbles for a warm-weather cocktail party.

You will need:
3 large eggplants (Italian and Japanese varieties both work)
3 summer squash (any variety: pattypan, zucchini, crookneck, etc)
Olive oil
Salt, pepper, and ground cumin to taste
Lemon or lime juice to taste
2 Tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup labne (or, if you can't find labne, use Greek yogurt; it will be looser, but still yummy)
2 cloves garlic
a handful of chopped cilantro or mint or both

To make the dish:
Light your grill, let it heat up, and place your eggplant on it. Turn the eggplants occasionally, until they are mostly blackened. Once they are charred, remove them from the grill and place them in a covered bowl until they are cool enough to handle. Covering the bowl creates a humid environment, which helps the eggplants release the skin more easily later.

While your eggplant is cooling, cut the summer squash into large pieces. If you're using zucchini, cut each into two or three pieces lengthwise. If you're using pattypans, cut them across their bellies. Smear the summer squash with olive oil and place them on the grill, cooking until they're just tender and have pronounced charmarks. Remove them from the heat and arrange the pieces in the bottom of a large serving dish.

After the eggplants have cooled enough to handle, remove their blackened skins, and cut them into large chunks. Place the chunks on the serving dish around the pieces of squash, distributing the vegetables evenly across the platter.

Sprinkle salt, ground pepper, ground cumin, and lemon or lime juice over the contents of the plate. Drizzle the pomegranate molasses all over the plate's contents as well. Make sure your tahini is well-mixed, then drizzle the tahini over all.

With the side of a large knife on a cutting board, smash the garlic cloves, then mince the smashed cloves. Scrape them in a small bowl and stir in the labne. Add a teaspoon or so of olive oil, then stir together the combination so the labne gets silky-rich with the olive oil and natural garlic juices. With a spoon, plop dollops of the labne mixture over the squash and eggplant on the serving platter. Finally, sprinkle the chopped herbs over the rest of the ingredients and serve.

This serves four as a main dish and many as a side.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Mix for the Road Ahead

My friend Sarah and her husband have a game they play when they're in the car for long stretches, a game which she taught me on a road trip she and I took together a couple falls ago. With the MP3 player or phone plugged into the stereo, the passenger chooses a song to play and explains why he or she chose to play it. After that song finishes, the driver chooses the next song—the catch is that the second song needs to be connected to the first in some way or another. When the driver tells the passenger which song to play next, he or she explains the connection the song has to the previous song: perhaps one line in the lyrics of the first song has a word or phrase that is also in the second, or maybe the first song brought to mind a story that reminded him or her of a person that loved this second song. The second song plays. Then it is the passenger's turn to choose again, and he or she tells the story of the connection of the second to the third. There is fun in the listening to the music, but even more fun in the telling of and listening to stories.

Though I'm back to work for a couple days of meetings and preparing my classroom, school starts with students on Monday. I'm excited and nervous. I dread waking up to alarms and peeing by the bell. I can't wait to thrill in the excitement of new learning and belly laughs. This year, I will have taught seventeen years. Occasionally, I think that I'm almost done, but more frequently, I look forward to many more years.

Right now, though, I've got the back to work jitters. I know I'll sweat a lot Monday, so I will need to wear something that hides sweat, but I'll also need layers because the A/C in my classroom is on steroids. I know I will be terrified of the quantity of names to remember because I'm no good at names, but I also know it eventually will happen. I know, from many years of doing this, the first day is one of the easiest days because everyone is on their best back-to-school behavior, so I will not be able to make any valid predictions about my students based on Monday. I also know that this year will be an awesome trip.

Let's put together a back-to-school mix, one to pump me up and keep me moving along on this adventure. I'll start.

I choose Pixies' "Here Comes Your Man." Walking my dog a couple days ago, this song came on my player as we were returning home. I began belting it out, and once in the backyard, hopped around dancing with my hands in the air. The Pixies are unique because they still move me. When I was 17, I thought I'd die without Pearl Jam, and when I was 23, I thought Weezer was doing something amazing. Now, I think "Hurl Jam" may be a better name for the former, and I usually skip over every Weezer song that ends up on a playlist. But the Pixies, they never went away. So far, that's true for teaching, too. Each year, I've been frustrated by something different, but I've also found new things and people to love about the job. I haven't reached an "I'm done with you." Teaching, so far, is the Pixies.

So, listen to "Here Comes Your Man," sing along with the Pixies' weird lyrics, see if you can keep from echoing, "so long, so long," howl along in the background of the guitar solo, and give me another song and story for this year's mix.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rosario, Argentina: In The Details

(Click on the photos to scroll through them; because of their larger size, the formatting gets funky in the standard view, and I haven't figured out how to solve that yet.)

The drapes match the flag.

Who are these beauties?

Curves and angles and metal shutters.


That one with the curved balcony is for sale.

I spend a lot of time in Rosario looking up.

The new reflects the old.

Broken neon and a bee.


Curves against spare white walls.


How can you not?

At a restaurant on the river's boardwalk.

The storm killed the tree; the artist brought it back to life.

The best colors for a produce shop ever.

Life in the cemetery.

Beauty in the cemetery.

Death in the cemetery.

The birth of Rome in neon and iron.

This may be my favorite building I've seen in my time in Rosario so far. Check out the concrete ivy vining up above the side door. Look at the curved panes, the pink and white tile work, the horse-shoe shaped entrance.