Monday, April 18, 2022

Clarence and Easter Morn

My bearded iris began blooming yesterday, Easter Sunday. 

Their bloom date reminded me of another iris that belonged to another woman in another part of the state. I knew this woman in the early 2000s. and she was in her 80s, quick with a smile and to share an opinion. She was mad about iris. Beds and beds of bearded iris filled her front yard. While she had so many iris of so many colors, she had a favorite: Easter Morn. It's a simple iris, mostly white with a little gold veining near the gold beards. Its fragrance is spicy and sweet. I looked it up and discovered that Edward Essig patented it in 1931. Even though it's considered a historic iris, it was younger than my elderly friend. She claimed that no matter how early or late Easter fell in the spring, Easter Morn would always bloom on Easter Sunday. 

My iris is not Easter Morn. I'm pretty sure the variety I have here in San Francisco is the tall bearded "Clarence," patented in 1990. There's no storied history I know of attached to this particular variety. However, to me, it has a sweet provenance. I received the rhizomes as a passalong plant a few years ago from another elderly friend whose garden is full of color. She's in love with flowers, and each spring starts loads of blooming annuals from seed to go along with her flowery perennials. When I met this friend a few years ago, she had red colored hair, but she stopped dying her hair during the pandemic and it is now the shiniest, most incredible silver. Most of the time when I see her, she's wearing a pink jacket, red lipstick and her silver hair glows. She's beautiful.

I planted the rhizomes she gave me a few years ago in the late summer, and they promptly bloomed that fall. The standards are silvery almost white gradually darkening to a pale lavender. The white falls darken to a watery blue-lavender towards the edges. While the beards are white, the tiniest hint of yellow emerges from the center of the blossom. The individual cell walls are translucent enough to catch the light and each cell sparkles, as if the blossom is crusted with tiny gems. Amazingly, though the heaviest bloom is in the spring, it reliably reblooms in the autumn. In a previous garden, I've grown more unique and more colorful bearded iris, but I've never grown an iris as floriferous as this variety.

Last year, I divided the part of the patch that had grown dense and started a new stand. This morning, I counted 16 spikes in the original stand and 6 in the new clump. Clarence is indefatigable. I'll need to divide part of the original clump again this summer, and I hope to share rhizomes with my friends and neighbors.

Somewhere, in another garden sometime in the future, Clarence will bloom wildly for its new host, and that person will smile over the unstoppable nature of hope.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022


I stuck my hand in my pocket and found a loose piece of purple sprouting broccoli that I had harvested earlier, but that didn't make it to our dinner. I popped it in my mouth.

"Did you just pull a vegetable out of your pocket and eat it?" Scott raised his eyebrows at me.

Yes. This isn't an unusual experience. I live and eat and create in this space because of what grows in the back yard.

My garden drives my kitchen and much of my free time and it informs what I build at the pottery studio. What I build at the studio pottery shapes what I cook. It's all a tangle. I can't think of living in a home without also thinking about feeding the home and creating tools for the home. Because I once had an overabundant lemon tree, I began making preserved lemons, and now that funky salty flavor is often central to my greeen vegetable dishes. And since that flavor is central to my cooking, a lemon tree was one of the first fruit trees I planted here in San Francisco. Because Scott and I drink pourover coffee, I made us a pourover set that makes us the perfect amount for what we need each day: two cups for me and three for him. 

In no previous garden has sage grown as abundantly as it does here in San Francisco. I grow the Berggarten selection of culinary sage, which has broad silvery leaves and stays relatively low and dense. The gophers leave it alone. Light brown apple moths have annoyed it in the past, but it recovers quickly and seems to grow even better after an attack. I planted two plants that over the years have spread into dense 2'x2' patches of fragrant foliage. And, sometimes, the plants even bloom for me.

Because I have riches of sage, I have shared handfuls of it at each Seedheads meetup. I've also learned a few really good things to do with it:

1) Sage salsa verde: In a food processor, dump a handful of sage leaves, enough parsley leaves to equal triple the amount of sage leaves, grated lemon peel from at least one lemon, a garlic clove or two, a couple tablespoons of capers, a couple anchovies, salt, and pepper. Add a little red pepper if you feel like it. Start blitzing the mixture then drizzle in olive oil until it is the consistency you hope for. Sample it to see if it needs more salt or a squirt of lemon. It should be salty, sharp, and deeply umami-ish. Serve it with lamb or pork or even chicken. The next day, spread it on bread to make sandwiches with the leftover meat. You can also replace the sage with mint for a different flavor profile.

2) Sage bread crumbs: Grate frozen stale bread to make at least a third of a cup of bread crumbs. Grate the rind off half a lemon into the same bowl, and grate a garlic clove into it too. Finely mince 10-12 sage leaves and toss them in the bowl. In a frying pan over medium heat, add a glug of olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add the bread crumb mixture and begin frying the crumbs, stirring frequently. As they cook, sprinkle the pan generously with salt and pepper. Cook until the breadcrumbs are evenly brown and crunchy. Taste for salt and season as necessary. Use them instead of parmesan over simple spaghetti dishes or over vegetables or fish. They add not only flavor but also texture.

3) Brown butter fried sage leaves and walnuts: Each autumn, I make as many winter squash tortellini as I can manage in one day. The filling is simple: mashed roasted winter squash, parmesan, ricotta, egg, salt and pepper. I freeze it on trays, then bag it to keeep in the freezer for Scott and I to eat during the winter. When I cook a batch for the two of us, I get the pasta water going. When it is boiling, in a different pan—a frying pan, I begin melting a big knob butter. As it just starts to brown, I add sage leaves and chopped walnuts to sizzle in the butter and flavor it as it browns. This is about the perfect time to add the pasta to the boiling water; it doesn't take but a few mintues to cook. The browning butter infuses the sage leaves, which become crunchy and savory and release their oils into the butter. The same happens to the walnuts. I scoop the just-cooked tortellini from the boiling water into the frying pan, tossing everything around, and the tortellini fry together with the flavorful brown butter, some even gaining a browned, delicious crusty side. Just before serving, I taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly. The brown butter fried sage and walnuts are also good with other pastas and over cauliflower.

The three recipes above are staples in my cooking now that I have befriended sage. But, I have so much that I want more ideas. Anyone have a good sage cocktail idea? What about using it with vinegar? I think there is an idea to suss out there that I haven't yet explored. Any preserving ideas beyond drying? Ideas to use sage with fruit? Bread? What about how it might appear in pottery?