Monday, October 19, 2009

An Early Frost

Fall is a bit of a melancholy time in the garden, especially after the first frost when it is time to take out dead plants. I don't know what our "standard" first frost date is around here but to my memory we have usually had a couple more weeks before it got to be a real problem. This year it was before mid-October.

Of course, there is frost and then there is frost. I have found that there are approximately three types of response of plants to dropping temperatures. First are the ones that turn up their toes and die the first time the thermometer gets to 32° F. These include squash, tomatoes, and nasturtiums. Then some others can take a brief dip to around 32°. These include peppers and eggplants, and probably beans. Others do just fine, thank you, with repeated low-thirties temperatures. The cabbage family and many herbs (but not basil!) are in this class. According to my plant physiology studies, the magic temperature for failure of many of the protections that these plants have against frost damage is 28° F. So these days I'm keeping a wary eye on the weather forecasts. Meanwhile, my remaining cabbage, some late-planted lettuce and self-sown dill and cilantro are fine, as are the scallions. I just had to pull out frost-damaged green beans, with pods still on them (I wasn't fast enough), and most of the peppers and eggplant are gone now too after we hit around 30°. I've constructed a tent around the remaining green peppers in hopes of letting some of them ripen.

Meanwhile, there is the garlic to get planted. It is going into the new bed so I'm off to dig in compost.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Terror of Tomatoes: So Much of a Good Thing

It's fortunate that we choose not to remember unpleasant things and that we compartmentalize memories. Otherwise, we might never order so many garden seeds. We'd look at those lovely pictures and think, "Oh, no - the harvest!!".

Now is the season of desperate processing. Even with the depredations of a late-season tomato late blight infection, the tomatoes have advanced from one kitchen counter, to a second, to a table in the basement. I've pulled out the last of the vines but I'll have tomatoes ripening and asking to be processed for another week or two.

I grew three varieties this year. My old reliable for fresh eating and casual cooking is Carmello, which I've been buying from Renée's Garden. It is a tender-skinned variety bred for flavor that grows medium-sized red round tomatoes. This gets made into tabbouleh, gazpacho, fresh salsa, broiled tomatoes, and of course eaten as luxurious big fat red tomato slices.

I've usually grown an Italian plum-type tomato too, and lately it has been Pompeii, also from Reneé's Garden. They produced very well this year and made large long fruits.

This year I added Amish Paste from Cook's Garden. These are described as "acorn-shaped" and that works pretty well. They are supposed to be meaty and good for sauces. Some of these fruits were huge.

I can't compare flavor for these last two, because I combined them. I usually think of plum-type tomatoes as "paste" tomatoes. So I just quartered them and cooked them together in a couple of slow cookers, a.k.a. crock pots. I cover the pot until the tomatoes juice up and begin to cook, then remove the cover and let them cook down all day. Then I run them through a food mill to remove skins and seeds, and the result is a moderately thick purée which I freeze in jars.

What I do with the Carmello when it exceeds fresh eating requirements? I skin them (by placing briefly in a pan of boiling water and then pulling the skins off) cut them up, and cook them down. This goes into various dishes for freezing, like cabbage rolls and a huge batch of spaghetti sauce. But I also make a simple basil-tomato sauce for freezing. It can be used as is or as the base of other sauces and it is a good way to use the basil I grow every year.

Basil Tomato Sauce

For each large pot (about 6 quarts) of cooked tomatoes, cut up 1 medium onion and 6 garlic cloves. Cook them in about 1/4 cup of olive oil until translucent (don't let the garlic brown) and add the tomatoes and a plentiful quantity of fresh torn (not chopped) basil leaves. Simmer with stirring until thickened, 1-2 hours. Add ground black pepper and salt to taste (I often omit salt since tomatoes are fairly salty in themselves).

I've often used this from the freezer to make a more complex meaty spaghetti sauce. It can also be used to make a sauce with roasted red peppers.

Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

For each quart of Basil Tomato Sauce, roast and peel 1 ripe red bell pepper (or more). Put the pepper and the sauce into a blender and purée till smooth. Season with black pepper and 1/4 t each salt and sugar (or to taste).

I serve this with Eggplant Parmigiana. Both the prepared eggplant and the sauce freeze nicely for midwinter meals.

The Basil Tomato Sauce is just fine as is for dishes like traditional lasagna.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mon Petit Chou

Not for nothing do the French use cabbage as a term of endearment. Cabbage is an enormously solid and reassuring vegetable that has provided good nutrition for the humanity of the world. It is productive, high in nutritional value, and best of all, stores well. I've written previously about its role as a storage vegetable and of course about its evocation as sauerkraut. I'm enormously vainglorious and possessive of my cabbages and delight in their translation from little plants in late April to amazingly huge heads by August.

This year I planted three varieties. Ruby Perfection (red cabbage), just a few. It stores well, we like the German red cabbage (Rötkohl), and I'm trying to learn other ways to use it. This year, a new variety planted specifically for sauerkraut. Kaitlin, a new F1 from Johnny's Selected Seeds, is supposed to be a late-season, good storage cabbage ideal for kraut. I'm hoping it will solve my problem with early splitting. So far it is not very big (I planted it last so maybe it got a slow start) but looks very healthy. But this post is devoted to Tendersweet, my darling little cabbage (mon petit chou).

Tendersweet (again, from Johnny's) was an experiment last year. I found that it was not ideal for kraut but was wonderful for fresh eating and cooking. As the name implies, it is a delicate, thin-leafed cabbage. The head is endearingly flat and the soft leaves peel away easily, which makes it perfect for cabbage rolls. (See the recipe in last year's post.) Last year I froze a number of these in meal-sized portions and we mournfully pulled the last from the freezer around January. More this year.

Because it is so mild and delicate, it doesn't need any of the fussing around that you sometimes read about with salting or brining. I just cut thin slivers across the head with my sharp knife and it can be used for slaw or even served with a simple vinaigrette. Even the midveins are not harsh and coarse as some cabbages can be.

It began splitting last week after a lot of rain, so I harvested a number of the larger heads for a small batch of sauerkraut, and stored some others for near-term eating. Happily there are still a few smaller heads out there waiting for later use.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Bad Year for Garlic

Last year's harvest of garlic, my first, was very successful. We ate our homegrown garlic all winter, right up to mid-June, when I reluctantly bought one head of store-bought to see us through to harvest again. I was so pleased that I have ordered more than twice as much seed garlic to plant this fall.

But this year's crop seemed ill-fated. First, when I received the seed garlic from Johnny's, there was a note that they had detected some fungal infection on the New York White and let them know if any problems developed. Yet it was the German Extra-Hardy that had penicillium mold on them. I violated the first rule of gardening, which is Never plant bad seed. It was so late and the fall weather was so capricious (we did have a very early winter, with snow the week before Thanksgiving), that I just put everything into the ground, including some of my stored garlic.

Not everything came up in the spring. Further, when I first ventured out to the garden after the thaw, quite a few cloves had heaved out of the soil. I pushed them back in, but I don't think it worked. Probably mulching would have helped. Once the plants did come up, many of them were very small. Then we had unusually cool wet weather all June and into July. I harvested the garlic earlier than I wanted to, about mid-July, because the plants were flopping over and I didn't want the bulbs to rot in the ground. The harvested bulbs sat in my garden shed to cure for a couple of weeks before I sorted and cleaned them.

The yield was just under 9 pounds. I estimate that my home-grown garlic cost about $2.50 a pound (seed garlic is expensive). But worse, I saw symptoms of disease on them. I identified the likely cause as a Fusarium immediately because of the pinkish color. Sure enough, Fusarium rot is a known problem on garlic.

I think that most of affected bulbs were the softneck type, New York White. Luckily I didn't order that again this year. I noticed that even after a couple of weeks curing in the shed, the cut stem of the garlic was still moist, a bad idea.

According to an excellent source on garlic cultivation that I just found, stiffneck garlic is most successful in Northern home gardens. Apparently the softneck type (which I have never cared to braid) is easier for market gardeners to plant, but the stiffneck type is hardier.

A difference between stiffneck and softneck is that stiffneck must be pruned of its flower scape in June. Not a problem for me. These yield a delicious bonus - they are good in stir-fries and especially good in scrambled eggs.

The three varieties I've ordered for planting this fall, German Extra-Hardy, Russian Red, and Music, are all (by chance) stiff-neck. I've also found a new source that I might explore.

Meanwhile, I've cleaned the garlic from this year and put it into the driest spot I can find. I hope to beat the fungus to eating it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kohlrabi Final - Slaw Food

With maybe 15 pounds of kohlrabi still occupying my refrigerator, I did some browsing and found that a local food blogger (Shana of Gastronomical Three) had pulled together all the wisdom on using it for slaw and related recipes. One thing I didn't like about so many of the recipes was that they required the use of several different vegetables/fruits in addition to the kohlrabi, especially apples. While I like combined vegetable dishes, I also like to be able to make a simple dish for tonight's supper without assembling a long list of characters. So as a first pass, I simplified to this:

2 small kohlrabi, peeled and grated (used a food processor)
1 carrot, grated
About 3 tablespoons finely shredded sweet onion
About 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 mint leaves, chopped
Japanese seasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
ground black pepper

The mint was Shana's idea but I didn't want it to dominate the salad, so used a very sparing amount. First I marinated the onion in the rice vinegar, then added the other ingredients. It was good, light and refreshing, lasted a couple of days in the refrigerator, and served well as an ad hoc addition to a sandwich (salami on marble bagel, if you must know). Notice, no added fat!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pickled Kohlrabi Chinese Style

In my continuing quest for uses for kohlrabi, I tried the recipe for pickled kohlrabi in my Chinese cookbook. It worked.

First, a story. The first time I ever saw an actual living kohlrabi was when I visited the home of some colleagues, one of whom was Chinese. We were all young instructors at a small college in the Midwest, and Gene liked to cook. We were fortunate because he and his wife invited us over for some homemade Chinese food. (This is how I learned to stir-fry.)

They had recently bought their first house, a new house in a subdivision. They had a very small garden in the back. The only thing growing in it was kohlrabi. He didn't prepare it for us but I wondered for many years why, of all the possible vegetables, that was the one they grew. I am now convinced that it was so they could make this pickle.

Actually, it is not quite a pickle but the product of short fermentation, like sauerkraut but for a shorter period. The result is a pleasantly tangy product that is somewhat radish-like and somewhat reminiscent of kimchi. I think that it might be something one would serve alongside many dishes, and like kimchi, it could become a regular part of daily meals.

Kohlrabi Pickles (Pow Tsai: Szechuan)
slightly modified from
"An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking"
by Chang, Chang, Kutscher and Kutscher,
Crown Publishers

For a 1 quart Mason-type canning jar, prepare a solution of 2 cups boiling water and 1 Tablespoon salt (not iodized). Allow to cool.

Peel 3-4 kohlrabi, depending on size (recipe says 1 pound) and cut into slivers.
Cut fresh ginger into slices. Use 4.
Peel 2 cloves garlic, slice.
Place all these vegetables into the jar.
Optional: also 1 "red-hot pepper", seeded and sliced.

Pour cooled salt solution over vegetables. Add one tablespoon wine (I used a dry white wine.) and screw down cap. Place on counter. After three days, refrigerate.

Notes: Carbon dioxide bubbles form by the next morning. It appears to be a classic lactic acid fermentation. Best not to screw down lid too tightly, since some pressure might build up.

I substituted a tablespoon of Sambal Oelek for the hot pepper. A little too hot for my taste. One could use a red dry "Japanese" pepper instead.

Friday, June 12, 2009

First Fruits

We've been eating lettuce for many weeks and finished off the first crop of spinach and arugula some time ago. But for some reason, it feels more real when you start to get the big substantial vegetables. It seems only yesterday that I put the kohlrabi into the ground, and suddenly it is huge. Time to start picking it before it gets too big and fibrous.

Kohlrabi is the version of the cabbage family that produces thickened stems as its major food offering. (The fresh leaves are also edible, like kale or collards.) I love to plant the purple variety Kolibri (Johnny's Select Seeds) because it is fun. It looks like an alien from outer space. It also seems to have a fine quality. In kohlrabi, that means a mild, slightly nutty taste and fibrous material limited to a little near the base.

As I reported before, seeds were started March 20, and the seedlings placed in the cold frame April 12. I was too busy to record the day they were planted into the row but I would guess it was the first week of May. Now suddenly they are huge! It is so satisfying to harvest the fruit of my efforts. Now to find good ways to use it.

Conventional recipes based on Anglo/American tradition are not very inspiring. They begin with cream sauce and end there. Here's what James Beard (American Cookery) had to say about it: "This is rather a bastard me it is a mystery why people really care for it...Mrs. Rorer felt that kohlrabi was more nutritious than turnips and that it was pleasant served with Hollandaise sauce." He mentions cream sauce "gauge one per person" and also serving it with melted butter. For an updated version, see this from the New York Times.

The way I have usually begun serving it is peeled, sliced, cooked until tender in minimal water, then with butter, salt and pepper. We consumed three for two people without any effort last night. It is mild but has a pleasant distinct nutty flavor. I expect that I will use it in a gratin before the season is over, probably with onions and some of my frozen roasted red pepper.

But where it really comes into its own is with pickling. I found a recipe that apparently originated with Shepherd's Garden Seeds that worked very well a couple of years ago. It makes a fresh delicious pickle that can be served as a side dish. This year I'm also going to try the Chinese version in which kohlrabi is subjected to a short-term fermentation and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and hot pepper.

Pickled Kohlrabi (Shepherd's, 1994)

Peel and slice 3 kohlrabi, 1/4 inch thick. Peel one carrot and slice into thin sticks. (I think I sliced the kohlrabi into equivalent sticks last time.) Parboil the carrot briefly (should yield to a fork but not be soft). Place raw kohlrabi, carrot, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, and a sprig of fresh dill into a quart canning jar. Heat pickling mixture to boiling and pour over the vegetable mixture in the jar, filling the jar completely. Let cool, then refrigerate for 3-4 days before use. Will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Pickling Mixture
3/4 c white vinegar
1 1/4 c water
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes

Note: the original version of this recipe called for two carrots. I found that this made it into carrot and kohlrabi pickles instead of the other way around, so reduced to one carrot. The carrot itself is very good in this treatment and provides color, but to me the point is the kohlrabi.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Grandmother's Kitchen

My friend Kim recently had a post titled "Grow Some of Your Own Food" that asks questions beyond just food to general self-sufficiency. It echoes to some extent the principles of the Transition movement that encourages a focus on community resiliency, partly based on supplying needs at the community level. All this started me thinking about how just a couple of generations ago, this would have been taken for granted. It made me think of my paternal grandmother and her life.

The generations ran long in my family. My father was born 13 years after my grandmother, Alice Victoria Young Nix, was married, and he was in his mid-30s before I was born. So I have some memories of a woman, born in 1879, who was married before the turn of the 20th century (1897) and how she organized her kitchen and garden.

I was too young to notice much about how things were done when my grandparents lived on a little farm near Comanche, Oklahoma. I remember that they had a cow and chickens. I think the farm was only for their own subsistence; my grandfather ran a furniture store in town. By the time I spent a couple of summers in Comanche, my grandmother was widowed. They had moved into town, where she had a fairly small plot of land (using my memory and my mature estimation, I'd say about 3/4 acre or less).

Grandmother had worked much of her life outside the home as well as in it. My grandparents were married in Texas and moved into Indian Territory before Oklahoma statehood; she once told me that they drove a covered wagon in the move. She mentioned to me that she had worked in the post office, and also that she and my grandfather had been the distributors for government commodities. I would guess that that was during the New Deal. My grandfather always seemed to have operated small businesses like furniture stores or general stores. But I think that their livelihood was relatively precarious and that what food they could grow for themselves was important.

The house I visited in the town sat roughly in the center of its lot. On one side (just outside the kitchen door) was a chicken yard and coop. The chickens roamed around that part of the yard, scratching and pecking, and were fed cracked corn (I enjoyed throwing it on the ground for them). There was a rooster. Grandmother collected a lot of eggs and may have sold a few of them; from my memory, I'd estimate she had a couple dozen chickens. The chickens were also for eating. When my grandfather was still alive, he cut one's head off, using a hatchet and a wood block. I remember seeing the decapitated chicken running around frantically (that metaphor has always had real meaning for me). Then she plucked and cleaned it. It was probably fried chicken, since that was a specialty of hers.

On the other side of the house, there was a substantial vegetable garden. What I remember most about that was the two rows of strawberries, which I found to be messy, with runners everywhere and needing weeding. She had a few flowers near the house, like four-o'clocks and hollyhocks, and some lilac bushes, but most of the property was given over to food production.

I was too young to take in much of the operation of the kitchen. But I remember that they had a real icebox. Once a week someone delivered a block of ice from the icehouse, and there was a little tube near the bottom where melted water had to be captured. I think the stove was some kind of gas, certainly not wood-burning. To the end of her life (when she had a kitchen of her own), Grandmother kept a flour drawer. Instead of keeping flour in a canister, it was in a drawer of the kitchen cabinet. She didn't have one of those fancy Hoosier cabinets, but you get the idea.

I'm sure that one reason for the drawer was that baking was an important part of daily routine. She made mostly short breads (namely, biscuits and cornbread). When she spoke of yeast-risen bread, it was as "light bread", with the emphasis on "light": LIGHT-bread. It wasn't so usual on the menu. She bought white flour in large sacks (25 lbs or more). The sacks were made of a flowered calico fabric which was then recycled into aprons, tea towels, and even quilts.

When they had their own cow, they made butter, but there was a local creamery and I think she bought her dairy goods there once they moved into town. She rendered her own lard, though, producing wonderful pork cracklin's from the skin. I'm pretty sure that was used for the biscuits.

She moved into a small apartment of my parents' house in her 80s and cooked rarely after that, except some things for herself (I was horrified by her love for brains and eggs). I didn't learn many recipes from her. But her special cornbread dressing (lots of sage) lives on in our own Thanksgiving tradition. Another thing she made for every Thanksgiving was "ambrosia". I recall that as thinly sliced oranges layered with lots of sugar and coconut. We didn't make it after she stopped cooking altogether. I did love her sugar cookies. They were light and pillowy, not heavy and fatty. When I was a teenager I once asked her for the recipe and she took me into her kitchen and "commenced" (as she would have said) to pull fistfulls of flour out of the drawer, and measured sugar by handfulls and salt by pinches. I quit in disgust. Wish I could tell that impatient teenager to go back and try to measure those amounts, because I've never been able to find an equivalent recipe.

I don't think my grandmother thought of herself as a special cook, or of her garden and chickens as a special hobby or avocation. She simply made her own domestic food industry that supplied a high percentage of their needs. It was modest, ordinary, and taken for granted as the way one lived.

Southern-style Cornbread Dressing

1 recipe cornbread (NOT corn muffins!) - extra credit for using bacon fat or lard to make it
1 cup stale light bread, cubed and dried
1 medium onion
1-2 stalks celery
2 eggs
turkey drippings and broth from boiling the neck
(I now supplement this with homemade chicken broth from my freezer.)
Dried sage, rubbed just before use
salt, pepper

With hands, reduce the cornbread to crumbs and mix in the dried light bread, also reducing that to crumbs. Chop onion and celery and add, along with sage, salt, and pepper. Mix in the two eggs. Stir in as much turkey drippings as you can spare and the broth from the neck. Add more boiling water (or homemade broth) if the mixture seems too dry. You are making something like a savory bread pudding and it should be quite moist but with no free liquid standing.

This may be used to stuff the turkey but we always baked it in a greased pan on a rack under the bird. It should cook for at least an hour (contains raw eggs).


Cornbread comes in many varieties.  Some make a very dry cornbread that is almost nothing but cornmeal, leavening,  and fat.  Some make a sweet concoction that is almost more like breakfast muffins.  My family has always used a middle path.  This recipe was originally published in Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book (Penguin edition, 1961) and is our standard.

Perfect Corn Bread


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn meal
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt


2 eggs
1 cup milk         and mix with a spoon until well combined.

Add 1/4 cup oil.  OR  melt about 1/3 cup bacon fat or lard in a 9" iron skillet. (Or use a kitchen balance to weigh out 2 oz of nonhydrogenated lard (your own rendering or a local source).

Mix the fat into the batter, make sure the skillet is well oiled, and pour into the skillet.  If not using a skillet, grease a baking pan.  (The iron skillet is both the most authentic and the best functional choice.)

Bake at 425° F for 25 minutes and decant from the pan to cool.

(The bacon fat or lard will yield the richest and most authentic cornbread for this dressing.)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Extreme Planting

Late May is the moment of truth in the vegetable garden. All those appealing pictures in the catalog, those seedlings lovingly raised for transplant, those visions of harvest and culinary preparation of new varieties, are for naught if they are not planted. We are between the threats of frost of early May and the likely heat waves and thunderstorms of mid-June. Now is the time.

So I find that I am doing as farmers have done forever - planting and working the soil from dawn to dusk, or as nearly as I can. No problem getting to sleep at night - I fall into the bed and turn out the light without ceremony, only to wake with the birds thinking of what to plant where and the other tasks that must precede that. Last winter my (non-gardening) husband announced that he would help me to expand the vegetable garden by removing the turf from more of the back lawn (it is composted and the topsoil used in future years). This had several consequences. I expanded my reach by ordering more varieties and twice as much garlic. Then I decided to plant things I had not tried before (the potatoes are looking fine, not sure if I should have gotten those onion sets), and of course it seemed reasonable to plant more of everything. Now the original garden is nearly full, but with several rows of direct seeded vegetables to go, plus the squash and cucumbers. Meanwhile, my husband sprained a muscle so now I am removing the turf myself from the area where all the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants (plenty of each), currently waiting in the cold frame, are to go.

But the kohlrabi was planted and the stems are starting to swell already.

And we are eating lots of salads from the lettuce, arugula and spinach planted back in March.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Transplant Conundrum

The gardener's holy grail, right up against yield and taste or quality, is getting the maximum out of the growing season. Season extenders like row covers, plastic mini-greenhouses, and even hoophouses have become popular. So it seems natural to get a jump on the season by starting plants indoors and transplanting seedlings once the weather is more favorable. Another garden blogger in my area reported planting her kohlrabi by direct seeding and I proposed a race. We planted at about the same time - my germination log says I planted Kolibri (Johnny's Select Seeds) on March 20 and her blog report is dated March 22.

The seedlings (now about 3 weeks old) were pricked out some time ago and yesterday I put them into the cold frame for hardening up. They mostly have two true leaves by now. I'll probably plant them into the row in about another two weeks, depending on how the weather goes. My cold frame has an automatic opener so that when the internal temperature gets too warm, it opens to vent. Meanwhile the seedlings are being treated to fluctuations in temperature (but not below freezing) and real sunshine. I know from past experience that they will really take off once into the row.

But as simple and elegant as this process (which I use for all my brassicas, or cole crops) is, I was startled to find that it is controversial.

Recently I purchased a book, "Gardening When It Counts", subtitled "Growing Food in Hard Times". Its stated purpose is to explain subsistence gardening, that is, growing vegetables out of necessity rather than fashion. The main point - and a valuable one - is to use plant spacing rather than intensive gardening, to reduce necessary inputs of fertilizer and water. Unfortunately the book also contains a number of diatribes. One of them is against the use of transplants. The author, Steve Solomon (who founded Territorial Seed Company and now lives in Tasmania, apparently for the fine gardening to be done there), has nothing good to say about use of transplants for any but the most frost-sensitive plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants). I was particularly dismayed to see his criticism of growing brassicas from transplants. He claims that the harvest is not much advanced and complains that everything becomes mature at once. He hit home with his mention of cabbages splitting, since I've had that problem. But his advice to plant just a few seeds every week for a while sounds burdensome.

I first saw the practice of growing cabbage from transplants in visiting fields in Wisconsin where cabbage was grown for commercial kraut production. They planted transplants as early as possible, using a mechanical planter. I've always done it and been happy with the result. So I'll probably continue, but I'm going to be more observant. In particular, I'll be interested to know how my gardening acquaintance's kohlrabi advances. I'm guessing that right now her kohlrabi looks a lot like the lettuce I planted on March 18 and grew under row cover. The little seedlings are just now beginning to put out a true leaf.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pollan's Progress

Michael Pollan is the prophet for the local food/real food movement, to the extent that there was a serious effort to have him named as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration. He is probably the person most single-handedly responsible for shifting the perspective of a significant proportion of our nation regarding food and how it should be produced. If he did not coin it, he has clarified and explained the concept of "industrial agriculture". Reading his book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006), has been what many have described as the signal moment when they realized that they had to redefine their relationship to food, and how it is produced. He has certainly had a profound influence on my thinking.

I've become more and more interested with his progression to where he has arrived. I was intrigued by his statement on a recent TV interview that he had reached this place because of his experience as a gardener. If I recall correctly, he said that gardening had made him think about food and how it was produced. I've been reviewing his books and his personal evolution, as reflected through them. The books are remarkable in that they are both intimate and lofty. While he poses big, universal questions, he then muses aloud, relating his own personal experience (with sometimes embarrassingly self-revelatory snips, like reading The Selfish Gene while stoned on pot), and yet manages to place the subject within an extensively researched and broad historical context (most of his books have a comprehensive bibliography) .

Pollan is a journalist who wrote extensively for the New York Times Magazine before beginning with books. But he bought a piece of an old farm in Connecticut in 1983, began to garden, and then to write about it. This eventually led to his first book, "Second Nature", first published in 1992. The book made quite an impression on me when I read it shortly after its publication. It is a personal exploration of his own evolution as a gardener, with chapters on miscellaneous subjects like choosing a tree to plant (alas, it was a Norway maple), the politics of garden catalogs, his grandfather's garden and what he learned from it, lawns, weeds, and rose gardens. There are some amusing stories, some that are touching. But Pollan gives away his real identity as a seriously serious writer in the Introduction: "...I soon came to the realization that I would not learn to garden very well before I'd also learned about a few other things: about my proper place in nature...about the somewhat peculiar attitudes toward the land that an American is born with...about the troubled borders between nature and culture; and about the experience of place, (and) the moral implications of landscape design..." He then somewhat bashfully admits, "It may be my nature to complicate search for large meanings in small things...". Yup.

Probably the most significant chapter in the book is "The Idea of a Garden", in which he explores most of those questions from the Introduction. He tells a sad story of old-growth trees in a Nature Conservancy tract that were felled by a tornado. What to do? Remove the trees, which would make the forest pretty again, and less likely to be a fire hazard? Or let "nature" take its course by leaving them in place? The final decision in such cases is destined to meet some human desire (whether for a pretty scene or a sense of untouched wilderness). This leads to a musing on what the real "nature" of such a place really is, and what is the meaning of wilderness in the presence of humans. The overall conclusion is that we treat all of nature as a garden, even when we are trying to "preserve" or to "restore" it.

His next book (if we skip over a book about building a house) was The Botany of Desire (2002). Here again is the theme of the interaction of humans and nature. But a new insight is expressed here - that we are interacting with plants, influencing their evolution while they influence us. Pollan chooses just four plants to discuss, the tulip (a discussion of tulipomania and our fascination with flowers), the apple (Johnny Appleseed, wild and heritage apples), marijuana (humanity's need for intoxication), and the potato.

Particularly in this last chapter, we see the present Pollan emerging. He discusses the spread of the potato across Europe and the effects of the late blight epiphytotic in Ireland in the 1840s, while also traveling to Monsanto in St. Louis to learn about genetic engineering. Talk about going into the belly of the beast - just as he would later buy a steer and follow it all the way to the slaughterhouse, he obtains potatoes that contain the gene for Bt resistance and plants them in his own garden (he would later discard them rather than serve them to the unsuspecting). He later visits a potato farmer in Idaho, where he sees the many baths of pesticides that potatoes grown conventionally must be treated to. (A moment of hilarity ensues when he is served a potato salad made of freshly dug potatoes that include the genetically engineered variety as well as some presumably pesticide-treated ones.) Afterwards, he visits an organic potato farmer, whose complex adaptive strategies are described at length. And then for the first time, he uses the phrase "industrial agriculture", as he discusses the efficiencies of monoculture and the problems it creates. (Of which the Irish potato famine is again presented as a prime example.) After musing on our collective responsibility for demanding perfect McDonalds' french fries and thus perfectly industrially produced potatoes ("the problem of monoculture may be as much a problem of culture as it is of agriculture"), he goes home to harvest his own (untreated) Kennebecs.

So - the perfect circle, from the gardener to the front lines of the food system, and back to the garden again, where it all begins.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Green Mystery

Ah, spring, thou art come at last. I am in my garden, and the students are drinking green beer. Both of these are related to the celebration today of St. Patrick's Day. Who or what St. Patrick was is scarcely relevant to the fact that it gives us all a chance to wear or consume green. But it is also the day on which I aspire to be planting my first crop of the year. I didn't quite make it today because my vegetable garden is still a little too "mudlucious" (apologies to e.e. cummings). Since it was in the mid-60s today, I'll see tomorrow whether I can cultivate a row of soil and sow some lettuce seeds. Some years I have been able to do this on St. Paddy's day. I cover them with row cover and after the obligatory late March snow storm, I find little lettuce seedlings smiling up at me. It means we can enjoy early salads.

I think every human being must notice and rejoice in spring. But to a gardener it is truly like a universal rebirth. There is nothing to make the heart rejoice like the first flowers. I found snowdrops and winter aconites blooming under the shrubs on our east border just a few days ago. But what is even more notable is that our plants are preparing to do their work again to make possible human life and all animal life on this planet for another season. Pretty generous of them, all considered. Although I am thoroughly enchanted by the flowers, another important discovery was that the garlic I planted late last fall is sending up sprouts. The garden has begun.

As a botanist, I've studied details of the miracle of photosynthesis, by which plants convert the energy of sunlight into carbohydrate and thus food. Think about it— our entire global economy is based on it. It is the basis of our "growth strategy"—without a continual energy input, nothing we recognize would exist. And though this process varies in some qualities within organisms that practice it, it always requires chlorophyll, where the actual energy capture occurs. And that is green.

It is surely not an accident that many ancient religions made spring into a special event. And many of them celebrated the green. Most notable of these were perhaps the Druids. From my extensive reading of the literature— er, that's the English mystery novel literature—I know that the Green Man is still regarded as a mythical figure in some English recreations of rituals.

The "mystery religions", secret societies that celebrated the renewal of life, often through the rebirth of a dead god or emissary, have often been cited as the precursors of Christianity. Of course this has been controversial but many Christians, including Martin Luther King, have taken the trouble to rebut this concept. As one of these explained, "The annual vegetation cycle was often at the center of these cults. Deep significance was given to the concepts of growth, death, decay and rebirth." It might be noted that we of the Christian tradition celebrate Easter in the spring, with eggs a symbol of new life. Zorastrianism, another religion sometimes credited as a predecessor of Christianity, made the first day of spring as the beginning of the New Year. Persians (Iranians) still celebrate this festival, called Nowruz . Though they are mostly Moslem now, this ancient Zorastrian holiday (at the spring equinox) is very important in Iran, and is celebrated among other things by having a bowl of wheat, lentil or barley sprouts on the table, as well as an egg for everyone.

My own belief is that all of these rituals and celebrations indicate a deep understanding that those first green sprouts of spring mean that the universe will continue, the plants will bring it to life around us, and we will also persevere, by grace of the green. Lift a mug to it, if you will.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hunger and Appetite

I've been thinking about hunger recently. Our local food pantry has been participating in a survey of "Hunger in America", which is directed at people who utilize food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food distribution programs. I volunteered to help administer the survey, which required asking some perfect strangers rather intimate questions. "In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry but didn't eat because you couldn't afford enough food?...was your child ever hungry but you just couldn't afford more food?...did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" (Emphasis mine.) I'm happy to say that no one so far answered "yes" to that one but they did say they had been required to choose between food and paying for utilities or rent - and answered "yes" to the first two.

It is hard to think of people being actually, physically hungry in our overfed and obese nation. But it is happening. Our local pantry is trying to meet the needs of more and more people. One of the other volunteers, who also works at a soup kitchen, said that they have had to cut back on second helpings so there is enough to go around at lunch, causing some tension.

The economic problems in our country are causing other people to cut back on eating out and learn to cook at home. I was reading Jane Brody's suggestions for eating on a reduced budget and found that I am already doing most of the basic, simple things she offers. These amount to using relatively unprocessed food (or what a recently discovered blogger calls first-order food) and cooking them at home. But it occurred to me in reading it that part of the problem for most of us is not hunger, it is finding the appetite to eat these sensible food choices. Doesn't this make your mouth water? "Cabbage...more than your money's worth of only 17 calories a cup eaten shredded and raw." (from the article) I thought of this with my new acquaintances at the food bank, too. They are being given fairly basic foods that will keep them from being hungry, and should be nutritious. (Although there are more canned goods and boxed cereals than I like.) But what does this do when what they are really hungry for a pizza or Chinese take-out?

We know the reasons to eat mostly unprocessed food, especially local produce or that you have grown yourself. It is more nutritious, more healthful (NOT "healthy", please!) better for the environment, and sometimes less expensive (at least, it costs less than buying prepared food or going to restaurants). Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food has pretty much laid it out for us. But his conclusion is pretty depressing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Where's the fun in that???

What it means is that we are all in for some serious attitude adjustment. We have to relearn our food instincts, unlearn the first preference for sugary fatty easily assimilated foods, half of which are pizza. Fortunately, there is an army of food bloggers out there with ideas. I even know one that is all about cooking and eating kale. We can use spices, seasonings, oils and vinegars to make our basic foods more palatable. But elaborate preparations with exotic ingredients may require more time and money than are practical on a day-by-day basis.

There will always be holidays and feasts, and everyone deserves a treat now and then. But I think that the most essential step in coming to grips with "the food problem" is learning to appreciate the very nature of the food and then simple ways to prepare it. It requires rethinking your expectations and retraining your appetite. It probably helps, too, if you are just a little hungry.

Simple Vegetables

Here are a couple of easy everyday ideas for vegetables. Disclosure: I grew up in the South so don't work well with raw or lightly steamed unadorned vegetables.

Carrot and Raisin Salad
Raw carrots, grated (large size holes) example: 2 large
Black raisins example: 1/4 cup
Commercial mayonnaise just to moisten example: 1 teaspoon

Mix and serve immediately, or will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Amazingly sweet.

Roasted Vegetables

This is so well-known and obvious that I hate to mention it, but just in case...

Any fleshy dense vegetable - carrots, yams good example
Scant olive oil
Dried herb like oregano or basil
Salt, pepper

Peel, cut into roughly equivalent sticks, put on baking sheet, cover with a film of olive oil, bake at 400°. They become incredibly sweet and soft inside. Potatoes (cut in discs) like this too, and I've also done brussels sprouts though they get crunchy on the outside. I was shocked that I liked beets roasted with peel on, then sliced and a little vinegar added. On the Splendid Table, the first recommendation is often "turn on the oven to 400°". And have you tried asparagus cooked this way?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This Garden Earth

Thomas Princen's book, The Logic of Sufficiency, is not an easy read but contains plenty of food for thought about the socioeconomic principles by which we live and their effect on our planet and ourselves. (Yes, I'll get back to the garden at the end.) He points to the ascendance through the last century of the concept of "efficiency", which is used here as a catchall phrase for many terms and practices that characterize the "market" approach (my summary, not his).

He contrasts this with what he calls "sufficiency"; "the sense that, as one does more and more of an activity, there can be enough and there can be too much." I love the illustration on the cover - the glass not half full or half empty, but full. And yet it is not running over.

The point is that "efficiency" is aimed at increasing yield or wealth for individuals or groups, which leads to more and more exploitation of resources, whether they are soil, water, trees, human effort, or the ability of the planet to absorb insults like pollution and global warming. But our planet is near its "biophysical" limits (see also "Spaceship Earth") and we need to adopt approaches that are sustainable on a system-wide level.

This is beginning to sound like an environmental text, but it is not, though he does refer to environmental concerns and endorses "ecological rationality". It is really more of an essay on economics and how assumptions and beliefs about economic mechanics have brought us to where we are, at the brink of a catastrophic tumble (again, my words, not his). One of the frustrating things about reading the book is that he teaches by long example, such as the story of Pacific Lumber (long-term management of old-growth redwoods) and a lobster fishery (deliberate restraints on fishing to maintain stocks). There is no list of bullet points for a quick take-home message; it requires really studying all the examples and what they mean about behavior that incorporates frugality, moderation, a sense of limits, and allowing respite (his term) for people, animals, and natural systems. (Note that "resources" is actually an efficiency-type term.) A great windup is where he shows that "efficiency" is to blame for mad-cow disease. He also mentions (in a book published in 2005) that we have been turned into "consumers" and driven into debt in order to support a society built on efficiency.

Since Princen doesn't supply sound-bites for his thesis, I won't try to either. It does have strong echoes of Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. I heard Hardin speak in the 1970s and his favorite story was about the common pasture where 10 cattle could graze without harming the capacity of the pasture to renew itself. If 10 farmers graze 10 cattle, all goes well. But one of them decides that he wants more, so puts an additional animal onto the commons. It suffers just a little but then the others see that someone is getting more than they are, so they put additional cattle on too. Soon the pasture system collapses and can't maintain any cattle at all. That is where the market ideology (aka efficiency) has nearly brought us today.

Yes, I'm postulating that our entire planet is like that pasture - or like a garden. If we can learn to take only from it what is sufficient, while we continually build up the soil and understand the complexity of the plants, animals, and physical environment that make it up, our garden can support us for a long time. We should cultivate it wisely.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Memories of times past

I'm not Proust, but I had one of those experiences just now. I was cooking a recipe gleaned from a local blogger (Maan's Beans) and looking into the pot with tomato, onions, garlic and green beans and I was suddenly transported back to a Safeway in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where I was buying my very first zucchini. Where I grew up, we didn't have zucchini. We had summer squash, mostly pattipan. We cooked this by cutting it up and boiling it with butter and salt and pepper and probably some sugar. But I was a curious child and would browse the supermarket shelves for hints of new and better things. (Frozen vegetables were still not common.) So I found the Del Monte Italian Zucchini, and took my prize home to try it. It was boiled in a tomato sauce, probably with some onion and Italian seasonings. As I recall, it was pretty bland, but I was enchanted with this wholly new foodstuff. What kinds of people might eat this every day? Where did it come from and where was it going? Romance is half the battle with food, anyway.

Later, I grew (and ate) plenty of zucchini, mostly sauteéd in butter or made into ratatouille or a sort of squash-egg-brown rice material that helped get us through graduate school (this was my Diet for A Small Planet phase). I got thoroughly tired of it and there was definitely no more romance.

Lately, I've been experimenting with all types of summer squash, planting different types with a premium on flavor. So in filling out my seed order, I naturally gravitated to Costata Romanesco, said to be the most delicious zucchini. Of course, with my disillusionment with zucchini, that wouldn't take much. Still, something about it made me put it into my cart.

Only later did I wonder what I had done. Why did I buy this weird ribbed zucchini? So to Google, of course. I have now concluded that this may be the original Italian zucchini, before the hybridizers got to it. It is reputed to have a really excellent flavor. But there's more! It is also what the English call "vegetable marrow".

VEGETABLE MARROW! I've been trying to figure out what this is for years. It seems that C. R. ages very well and when it gets to be big (submarine), it retains an excellent, non-pithy structure and is very fine for stuffing. Expatriate English are reputed to pine for this vegetable, which as I understand is served with a white sauce. According to a farm blog I found on Google, the farmer was able to sell his big submarines at market to these starved refugees, though his CSA customers scorned them. But there's more!

When Hercule Poirot tried to retire from detecting at an estimated age of 101, for a time he retreated to the English countryside and grew vegetable marrows. One of Agatha Christie's latter mysteries began with him throwing these (presumably still edible) vegetables over the fence and disturbing some spinsters. I've always wondered what those were.

So the Romance of zucchini still lives. I just hope it really does taste good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Garlic in Winter

I don't recall much fresh garlic being used in our house when I was growing up; I think it was limited to a clove here and there and maybe almost exclusively garlic salt in a few recipes. Most of my early cooking used garlic salt, until I realized that I was adding a lot of salt to get that garlic flavor. I started to use fresh garlic and then a lot of it. I was struck with Alice's rule early on. You know, Alice from Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant", that started "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant". Actually this song (1965) was mostly about the Vietnam War, but it briefly made Alice Brock a star, and she published a cookbook. Here's what she said:

"Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good."

Did you get that last part? I seem to have, because I use copious amounts of garlic in every dish where it seems reasonable.

Starting around 2007 there were a lot of reports that most of our store-bought garlic was coming from China. This was a comedown for our famous garlic capital, Gilroy, California. Part of it was a disease that devastated the crop, and partly because of cheap labor in China. As one industry source explains, Chinese garlic has been found to be contaminated with arsenic, and its quality is also not as good. But China has often been the only source of fresh garlic readily found in winter. I was dismayed to see a big case of it in the back room of a grocery I patronize especially for their local produce.

I planted my first crop of garlic in the fall of 2007 and harvested it in late July, 2008. Since then I've been storing and using it. Some home truths I have discovered are that yes, there really are substantial differences in quality among varieties; and storage really is an issue. The cloves start to sprout. After dithering about where to store them, they ended up in my pantry closet. The garlic to the left is German Extra Hardy. It doesn't seem to sprout as readily (I pulled the clove shown off precisely because it was sprouting). This is a stiff-neck variety with very large cloves, and not many per bulb or head. The cloves and bulb to the right are New York White, a soft-neck variety that can be braided - but I didn't. Now as January draws to a close, I have almost used up the New York White, skating ahead of the sprouts. I hope that the German Extra Hardy lasts into the next harvest, but I doubt it. We eat a lot of garlic.

In spite of the facts that GEH lasted better and is easier to cook with because of those huge cloves, I'm planting less of it in 2009 in comparison to other varieties. The reason is that the flavor seems to be harsher than the NYW. Yet I'm not ordering NYW at all, because the heads are so small and it sprouts so early. But I'm expanding my planting and have ordered more of two new varieties, Music and Russian Red. It's a little strange - I have now ordered garlic to be planted in October-November of this year (2009) and harvested in 2010. Meanwhile under the snow this last year's plantings are waiting for spring.

I'm looking forward to trying a recipe another blogger listed. It uses a lot of garlic and looks like a good reason to get plenty of green beans planted next year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Since I've been predicting disaster for years, I particularly enjoyed an article in the January 26, 2009 New Yorker discussing "The Dystopians". It describes the people who have made it their career or at least their avocation to tell the rest of us about how bad things are going to get. An outstanding example is the author James Howard Kunstler, who has written such books as The Long Emergency. I only discovered him with this article. Another author mentioned is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan. That one I read last winter, before our economic system collapsed enough that everyone noticed. As the author of the article (Ben McGrath) notes, these days are great for celebration of "triumphant pessimism".

Now Taleb is getting a major following from newly converted financial professionals. His writing is very hard to follow; he alludes to chaos theory and various statistical models without really explaining any of them. The basic idea is that we fall in love with the current trend and situation and expect that things will go on forever as they are, only maybe getting better and better. His clearest exposition of this is with the story of the turkey who enjoys day after day of plentiful food, water, and sunshine. The turkey confidently predicts that this will go on forever, and his predictions are good - until Thanksgiving Day. This was exactly like our county's budget director who every year presented a budget with ever-increasing totals and the comment, "The best prediction of the future is the past." Now the county has a $10 million deficit and is closing entire departments. Unfortunately, my protests at the time had little effect, and someone once informed me that I was a "contrarian". "I told you so" after the fact is pointless and unsatisfying.

McGrath reveals a taxonomy of sorts of pessimists - "peak oilers", "back-to-the-land types", and generalized Cassandras, "doomers". My husband has been a "peak oiler" for decades and the Hubbert Peak was one of the themes of our household discussions. More recently we've both read lots of Jared Diamond. His book, "Collapse" gives a detailed backward look at how many societies have failed, and there are many uncomfortable parallels to be found with our own. There seems to be a fatal human tendency to ignore the long-term consequences of our actions. Since I see the universe in terms of thermodynamics, I have always had trouble with people who persist in believing in the free lunch.

My particular place in the taxonomy of "doomers" is the back-to-the-land type. I've been looking with horror for some years at our drawn-out food chain - how can we possibly be expecting a stable food supply from a distance of thousands of miles? Just as Voltaire cultivated his garden during the dying decades of the French monarchy, I am seeking to find a self-sustaining life to the extent possible. Thus the support for local enterprise, local farming, and thus I grow and preserve as much of our own food as I can. Food security is the most basic human need and it is not a given. We should be worried. I am. More on that later.

Part of being self-sustaining is learning a new way of eating and cooking. I've been learning new ways to use my bountiful sauerkraut production. Here is a new recipe I just discovered. It is modified from one I found among my mother's files.

Winter Slaw with Apples and Sauerkraut

1 quart sauerkraut, preferably raw (drain, place on a board, and cut up into smaller pieces)
1 apple, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 small or 1/2 large sweet onion (Walla Walla type), chopped
1/2 sweet red pepper, chopped (I used frozen, roasted and peeled red pepper)
1 T seasoned Japanese rice vinegar (contains sugar and salt)
1 t sugar

Marinate the onion briefly in the vinegar, then add the other chopped ingredients, then the sauerkraut. Mix and chill for a little while before serving.

Note: no salt needed - the kraut is slightly salty, as is the vinegar.
Adjust sugar and vinegar to taste.

This has a nice fresh flavor and is a very light dish.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Red Peppers in Winter

As I related last fall, red peppers have become a major crop around here. We have a couple of days in the fall of broiling and peeling, then I have a wealth of little quarter-pound packages in the freezer where that sunshine is available all winter long. So what do we use them for? They are wonderful, just thawed, on egg salad sandwiches (and probably on any sandwich). Perfect on pizza. I sometimes make a roasted red pepper sauce out of all the little pieces (hate to use up the nice big slices in the blender). Of course, any mixed vegetable dish benefits from a dash of color and flavor.

But putting them into meat loaf is one of my all-time success stories. They add a richness and subtlety when chopped and mixed with ground meat.

Here is a meatloaf that is neither dull nor intrusively spiced up. I make it as a full loaf pan recipe and freeze slices for future use. It could also be made into smaller loaves.

Meatloaf with Roasted Red Peppers

1 pound bulk pork breakfast sausage, raw
1 1/2 - 2 pounds of lean ground beef, raw
1 medium onion, minced
1 1/2 t sugar
1 1/2 t salt
dash each garlic and celery salt
2 c breadcrumbs*
2 eggs
1 c milk
2T ketchup
2T pickle relish**
1 T horseradish
2 T hot paprika
2 T mixed chili powder***
1/4 pound roasted and peeled red pepper, chopped

Mix all together. Best to mix the meat with dry ingredients first (takes a lot of hand mixing), then the wet ones, finishing with the milk and eggs at the last. Don't be afraid of overworking the meat - makes for finer texture. Place in a greased loaf pan (will be very full) and bake at 375° for 1 1/2 hours.

*Use packaged bread crumbs if you must, but I dry heels and odd bits in the oven and grind them with my blender. They'll keep a long time dry on the shelf.
** Actually I use my green tomato relish, which has spices in it. Ordinary pickle relish should come close, or you could try a chunky salsa.
*** This is the kind of chili powder that has spices like cumin and oregano mixed in. I use Pendary's Original.