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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Sense of Place

the green green green of hosta in June

Recently, I contacted a woman I had known in both high school and college. I was going to be in her neck-of-the-woods and thought it might be fun to reconnect. Of course, it was fun -- it was fabulous! We didn’t even hit the brakes, just fell right back to the sense of one-another that can perhaps only exist with people who were teenagers together.

We found so many similar interests -- gardens, food, writing, health – and if we had more time to hang out together, I expect we would have found many, many more.

She had read this blog, and gave me the very best insight. She wanted to see “the big picture” of the garden. To get a sense of the place as a whole, not just as photos of this plant and that plant.

Hallelujah! What an edit! Spectacular. Brilliant. I was so grateful.

Next day: OMG How to provide that larger picture? Do a drawing? Take a ton of photos? A short video? It sent me into a tizzy.

standing in the vegetable patch, looking toward the boxwood garden

Then, I went outside and saw the most beautiful light and all this verdant green. It was a spectacular day and the garden was looking happy and new and pretty. So here it is, Annie - see how my little farm is shoehorned into the corner of the perennial garden? It's a spot I’ve watched for ten years, measuring the hours of sunlight.

The backyard is shaped like a triangle, coming to a point about fifty feet back from the breakfast room windows, the entire garden at it's most wide is only about sixty feet across. The back corner is so shaded by enormous oak trees, that no water or light ever reaches the ground. It's a wasteland where potted up Christmas amaryllis spend the summer. About two-thirds of the way back from the house, three kousa dogwoods form an understory canopy under the oaks. Over to one side is a shade garden and a little sitting area under a roof extension. On the other side is a patio, surrounded by stone walls (check it out in the photo of Dylan). It is here, above the stone wall, near the patio, that I've located the vegetable garden - the *farm.*

As for plants - there are a handful of shrubs, some hospital-case shrubs rescued from jobsites, some others I've grown from wee 3" starts, some were transplanted from other places around the house (usually after deer munched them) -- hydrangeas, witch hazel, camellias, daphne, rhodies, roses, junipers - and a ribbon of English boxwood in the very shadiest part. My crazy collections of hosta, epimedium, lilies and hellebore make this space very green, especially now, after all the rain we've had.

So, you know how it works - the day you have a haircut scheduled is the day your hair will look better than it’s looked in weeks. Well, the day the garden looked so beautiful was the same day we put an offer on a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It’s a project: we've long dreamt of creating a sustainable, small home, full of character and detail. And we adore the little town with all its charm and quirkiness.

I am full of anticipation and nerves. It seems inevitable, we are moving from one life to another, and this time as designer of the whole, not just renovator of the parts. I hope to carry forward this sense of place I have in the garden– the feeling of being home.

Dylan posing on the patio guarding the seedling tray behind him.
The vegetable patch starts just above the stone wall and extends up to the fence.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I Scream. You Scream. Ice Cream.

It’s been several days since I posted anything. Each day, I would think to myself – “this would make a good blog entry,” snap a couple of photos and then be unable to complete the task.

In short order, here are some highlights, including my negative thinking….:

Returning to my boarding school 35 years later for a small, but satisfying, reunion with dear friends. (really, who wants to hear about that – and what does it have to do with your garden?)

My sputtering artichoke plant and how it’s risen like Lazarus. (there is nothing more to say)

Amazing pizza with baby arugula from the garden. (OMG it was so delicious and I seem to have finally learned how to get the pizza from peel to stone – gotta love parchment paper – but the recipe is the same as focaccia, so nothing new to add)

Our search for, and possible location of, Our Dream House. The placing of an offer, the interminable wait to hear if the offer is accepted. (way too soon to post – no real information yet.)

Now, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and finally I have something to write about. Ice Cream.

For the last few days, friends from Florida have been staying with us while visiting their son, who has taken up residence in the Capitol City. These are the perfect houseguests. They are able to find their way around the kitchen should they need a glass of water; they are fearless about public transportation; have plans to visit, experience, and explore without the need for us to go with them (not that we don’t often enjoy the touring with guests, but our life is a little busy right now, so this worked out perfectly); and, finally, they love to cook and eat!

For their last evening in town, we planned an Indian feast. While I knew I could count on help with the cooking, I wanted to plan a dessert that would be memorable and appropriate - and entirely made in advance.

What else? Ice Cream!

The farmer’s markets are full of perfumed, intoxicating, ripe strawberries, so I knew one flavor had to be strawberry. And as I have a particular weakness for coffee ice cream, that was to be the second flavor.

Ice cream is an easy recipe. It’s milk, cream and some egg yolks. And then add in whatever flavors you like. The fun is in the riff. Butterscotch with smoky single malt. Thyme with lemon and pistachio. Rocky road with homemade marshmallow. The possibilities are endless and only limited by imagination.

I steeped the hot milk and cream with crushed coffee beans and a scraped vanilla bean, strained it, whipped it into egg yolks with a little sugar. Put it back on the flame and cooked it slowly until I had a nice thick custard. I stirred in a dark caramel I had going in another pot, then chilled the mix for a day before I froze it. I think the flavor intensifies if you allow it to sit for at least a few hours, if not a day or two, before freezing.

For the strawberries, I decided mint would be a nice counterpoint – I wanted that cool, crisp mint as an accent – something that would taste like good hard candy. (Unfortunately, I had only a big bunch of spearmint from the market. Peppermint would have been much better.) So, again, I steeped the milk and cream with mint, then stirred in a pureed jar of strawberry/mint jam I had made in February.

I really wanted a ribbon of caramel. Or a ribbon of strawberry. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet – more experimentation is definitely in order.

The following day I froze both custards in my ice cream maker, then popped them in the freezer to await the unveiling. We had “make-your-own-sundae” bar with maraschino cherries and bittersweet chocolate sauce. There were some bananas and some cream that could be whipped up, but we were all so stuffed from biryani and tikka masala and grilled flatbreads with nigella seed, I limited the ice cream bar offerings. The cherries really were a silly addition, but almost everyone took part. Next time, I’ll open the jar of brandied sour cherries made last summer as that would have been even more amazing.

In fact, those sour cherries might be a really nice addition to almond ice cream. And how about caramel ice cream with salted peanuts and a ribbon of fudge? Or peaches in cinnamon ice cream?

I took photos of the steeping milk/cream/coffee mix, the caramel, and (at the top) my set up ready to make the custard. I expect we'll be screaming for ice cream all summer.

Basic Ice Cream Base

1.5 c whole milk
1.5 c heavy cream
4-5 egg yolks
3/4-1.5 c sugar (depending on what you are adding - when I added jam, I cut way back on the sugar)

Flavor milk and cream: For coffee, I crushed 1/4 c of coffee beans. For the mint, I added about six stalks of mint. Heat the milk & cream to just below boiling point. Cover and steep for about an hour. Strain.

Beat egg yolks with sugar until lightened. Dribble milk mixture slowly into eggs while whisking to combine well.

Put back in a saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon while gently heating to 170•, or until the custard coats the back of the spoon and a line drawn through the custard on the spoon remains.

Remove from the flame, stir in any other additions (this is when I added the caramel, and when I added the pureed jam). Let this mixture develop in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

Freeze per the instructions on your ice cream maker.

Happy Summer!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Further Transformations

May is such a provocative month – it’s steamy hot, then cool, then rainy. I’ve been dodging raindrops for days now. The past three have been cool and breezy and things dried up enough to have a particularly productive day with the once-a-month garden helpers.

The farm has been expanded. I stared at the sun patterns, and the grade and all the challenges all over and the idea came to me in a flash – remove the ground cover, and uncover ground in which to plant vegetables.

Goodness, how utterly simple. The area between three big, rangy mature oakleaf hydrangeas and the stone wall at the patio was thick with vinca – it was taking over and choking out all the roses, junipers and whatnot perennials I had popped in there in past years.

The ground was moist and easy to work after all the rain, and out came that vinca exposing what looks to me like miles of sunny garden. Tomorrow, there will be tomatoes, cucumbers and butternut squash finding life in that bed.

I also had the crew remove some daylilies. Not nearly enough daylilies as far as I’m concerned. I have my eye on some additional clumps that could disappear without even being missed. I’m just hating them. And I crave more sunny space for my crops.

--- Posting two days later ---

I removed more daylilies. Couldn't help myself. It's like realizing you really don't look good in pink, and eradicating pink from your wardrobe and lipsticks. My garden doesn't look good in daylilies. There are still at least a dozen clumps, but until I have a better idea for that part of the garden, I'm going to stop digging them out.

(Once I had collected a big muck bucket-full of daylilies, I posted their availability on our neighborhood listserv. Within 30 minutes, every single lily had a new home. Love that!)

And now, where once there were daylilies, there are drills of lettuce 'little gem', lettuce 'all the year round', and lovely red traditional beets that I will pull when they are very small. And now, there are trellises set up and seeds of yellow beans planted and cucumber starts touching leaves to the structure, eager to run.

Today everyone got a fish fertilizer bath.

The garden looks very happy. The transplants are especially delighted. Even the mignonette strawberries. If those plants actually produce, I will be amazed. And I will make the most delicious jammy jam with mint. Or balsamic and black pepper.

More radishes today - with sweet butter and crunchy smoked salt and Cotes de Rhone. It's a lovely late Spring evening in the garden and the barred owl is calling to the owlets. Birders say their call sounds like Who-Cooks-For-You? Mother Nature, that's who.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Farm Report

Farm Report – mid-May

All the little plants have come out to the patio. Shaded by the maples, they are growing happily. Spent hours Saturday and Sunday tickling apart tomato, eggplant and celeriac seedlings and repotting into cellpacks.

Above are three photos of the process. In the first photo, I've put some soil in the bottom of the cellpack. The peat pot the tomatoes germinated in is on the right. I pulled (gently) the little plants apart - photo two - and put them in the cellpacks. The third photo shows the 27 tomato plants I now have. What the heck am I going to do with 27 tomato plants?

I’m continuing to harvest radishes only as big as a pebble. Sweet and sharp and delicious with smoked salt and sweet butter as a snack with wine at the end of the day. Tastes of the garden and the earth - can I actually have a terroir in my garden? Ha!

The arugula is the perfect tiny tender size for my favorite sandwich – the BAT – bacon, arugula and tomato on white toast. Mayo, of course. Ahhhhh.

I’ll be putting in seeds for yellow beans tomorrow. They are called dwarf teepee beans, bush-type. Also some Italian green beans, the kind with the lovely flat shape and big white beans inside. I think they are climbers. They are so hard to find; it will be so yummy to have them in the garden.

I’ll start a “drill” of beets – just a few as I’m the only one who likes them in this house. Roasted and tossed with goat cheese and toasted pecans.

And a row of new lettuce – maybe the little gem. And a row of swiss chard.

Then, I will feed the whole garden with good fish fertilizer – organic seaweed compost mixed in the hose end sprayer.

And then I will wait for the sun to make it all happen.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Baking: What To Do When Not Gardening

No gardening again today - it's wet and mushy in the garden beds and gardening would just compact the soil. And I really don't want to disrupt my beautiful poppy seedlings. They are looking so promising. I've lost great patches of self-seeding annual poppies every year due to enthusiastic weeding, or stepping in the beds when the seedlings were teeny. Not this year.

With no gardening to occupy me, I busied myself in the kitchen making biscotti for a gift basket I'll need tomorrow. This little bag of biscotti, a jar of jam, a box of tea. Seems perfect when it's cool and wet and rainy.

Everyone loves these biscotti. They satisfy the need for sweet and for crunch. They are great for dunking. And they have no butter (but lots of eggs.) These are thin biscotti, not big cakey things. Easy to make, easy even to double the recipe. Play with the citrus/nut combos - orange-pistachio is our favorite, but lemon-almond is great. Adding chopped dried cranberries or sour cherries is delicious.

Lately, I've been thinking about candied ginger and lemon. I might miss the crunch of the nut, but I am craving a serious ginger flavor. Dried apple and caramel maybe with peanut or cashew? Dried mango and coconut? Endless possibilities.

Orange Pistachio Biscotti
2 c all purpose flour
1 c sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs + 1 egg yolk (save the white in a separate bowl)
1-2 tsp vanilla
zest from two oranges
1.5 c pistachios, raw and unsalted

Place dry ingredients in bowl of electric mixer with paddle attachment.
Whisk together egg, vanilla, zest.
With mixer running on medium speed, pour 1/2 egg mixture in, then add nuts, then finish with remaining wet ingredients. Run mixer until dough comes together well and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Form two 12" logs. The dough is sticky.
Brush with remaining egg white and place side by side on a baking sheet.
Bake on parchment lined sheet at 350 for 20 min.

Remove from oven and cool on racks for 15-20 min.

Lower oven heat to 325

Slice biscotti on an angle, about 1/4" thick and place on baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake for 5-6 min. per side, turning once.

Cool on a rack. Store in closed jar, will stay fresh for a week, if they last that long.

More baking....

On Saturday, I made focaccia for a party. This is just the easiest recipe and now it's such a staple, that I start the bread in the morning when serving soup for dinner. It makes that soup dinner seem so much more special when warm bread is served, too.

The secret to success with this focaccia, and really with all breads, was taught in a cooking class with the incomparable Christine Ilich at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland. Christine in the most amazing baker. I've attended three or four of her classes and have learned things each time that completely changed the way I baked. The biscotti recipe is hers, as is this focaccia.

Christine's big secret is "Step Away From The Dough." When you first stir flour into water or whatever liquid you're using, step back for 10-15 min. When you return to the dough, the flour will have magically absorbed the moisture and the dough just comes together. By doing this, you will add significantly less flour to your recipe, making for a lighter, airier dough, and breads requires hardly any kneading.

Basic Focaccia

1.5 tsp dry yeast
1 C warm water
3 T olive oil
1 T kosher salt (if you want salt on the top for crunch, omit about 1/2 tsp. from this measurement)
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
3 T chopped sundried tomato
2 - 2.5 c all purpose flour (can sub 1.5 AP flour & .5 whole wheat or oat)

Put yeast and water in bowl and stir to dissolve. Let sit for 5 minutes.
Stir in oil, salt and 1 c flour and let stand for 10-20 min.
Split dough into two portions. Add rosemary to one half and tomato to the other half. Add 1/2 c flour to each half and mix to a rough shaggy mass.
Rest dough for 10-15 min.
Return to dough and knead lightly. The dough is very sticky and elastic when complete.
Place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic and place in the refrigerator for at least four hours and up to a two days. It gets bigger holes and a more sour flavor with longer cool rising.
Take doughs out of fridge and plop onto two well oiled, parchment covered, baking sheets for about an hour.
Gently press the focaccia out to finished size (about 14"x14") and then dimple the surface lightly with your fingertips..
Preheat oven to 450
Let focaccias rest for 15 min., then brush with oil* and sprinkle with very coarse, very tasty salt.
Bake 20 min. or until golden brown or to an internal temp of 190.
Cool on a rack.

*I used sundried tomato oil for the one with tomato, and meyer lemon oil for the rosemary version, but a good EVOO is just great.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Farm Report

It's early May. It's been gray and overcast and cool for four days and the perennial gardens are suddenly lush and green.

In the newly dubbed "farm", I'm thinning arugula and Pandero lettuce and having tiny salads with a drop of pistachio oil, and two grains of salt. I add the thinned radishes - perfectly round and cherry red.

Dill is on the left in the photo above. I've never thought to grow dill before - but did after I put up the green cherry tomato pickles last summer. Plus, the Swallowtails and Monarchs feed on it. Further to the left is some parsley for the butterflies, too. I just sprinkled some seed on the surface of the soil and waited a few days. I have to admit, I just love starting things from seed. Especially when it works.

The soil still seems very cool. I haven't put tomatoes or eggplant or squashes in, even though they are all available at the nurseries and plant sales. It's so seductive - those huge healthy plants ready to set fruit.

Most exciting of all are the peas - when temperatures soared into the 90s last week, they shot out of the ground - you could almost watch them grow. I know many people grow snap peas, and while I appreciate the sugar snap, I really adore shelling peas. Especially fresh from the garden, still warm from the sun. There is nothing like that flavor.

I have been making bigger plans in my head for this garden. I'll have to see how the sun works out ... but those hideous daylilies left by the previous owner (okay, they have been there for 10 years) are looking like big weeds to me. There's space for a tomato plant wherever there is a clump of daylilies. Hm.

Is it possible to plant so many tomatoes the squirrels and racoons will get their fill and leave some for me? Do fox eat tomatoes? What about chipmunks? Someone told me deer don't eat them, but that's just not true.

Down in the basement, all the seedling plant-lets are quite small and thin, but I am determined. They may just be late to produce. I'll be canning tomato sauce in October.

I transplanted the chard and killed it. Will just plant some seeds outside tomorrow and see what happens. The transplanted kale, on the other hand is doing well. I think it's ready to go in the garden soon. Squash plants (five!) are looking so robust, I'm concerned about having a structure sturdy enough to hold butternut squash .... been trolling the garden stuff on ebay to see what contraptions are available.

Willow tuteurs? Too fussy? stakes, string, wire? too ugly? Victorian iron tripods? (just found two of those - only $30!), what about straw mulch between the rows? Too too farm-ish?

Tomorrow it may rain. Good for the garden. Good for the gardener.