Archive for May 2009

Rhubarb sorbet

May 26, 2009

It’s pretty difficult to be creative in the kitchen—much less remember to take notes and pictures—on a big planting weekend. And in Otsego County, Memorial Day weekend is it: late enough that hard frosts are unlikely to get your tender young tomatoes, early enough to give slower-maturing crops enough time before the ice returns.

Gardening is hard, hungry work, especially when you’re on a tight schedule. I kept myself and my gardening buddy fed mostly by relying on old standbys—bread and cheese, a chard frittata, a soup made of dried cranberry beans and other remnants of last year’s harvest.

By yesterday, it was all over but the mulching, so it seemed OK to pause, scrape the dirt out from under my nails, and briefly turn my attention to a sweet experiment. I made simple syrup by finishing off a bag of sugar, adding an equal amount of water, and boiling to dissolve. I used some of this to fill the hummingbird feeder, then put the rest back on the stove. I threw in a pile of chopped rhubarb and simmered just until the rhubarb fell apart. Then I added a splash of  dry rosé, plus some fresh mint, thyme and lavender, before dumping it in an ice-cream maker.

The results were definitely worth repeating and refining. As it was, the sorbet was delicious—tasting of rhubarb and herbs, of course, but also surprisingly apple-y. And what had looked beige-ish in the pot could be described as blush-colored by the finish. I would estimate I ended up with about a cup of syrup and four cups of rhubarb; I think I could do with even less sugar (and more herb). Next time.


May 26, 2009

From a plant’s point of view, I have pretty good dirt—neither heavy clay nor dry sand, and welcoming to worms. However, it comes with a lot of rocks. This is not an insurmountable problem for the gardener, but it does add interest—and unpredictability—to the digging of each new hole.


To get an obstacle out of your way, you have to start by finding its edges. You have to put away the long-handled tools that keep it at arms’ length. You have to stick your fingers in the dirt and start feeling around. The process is intimate and undignified, but it is the only way to accomplish anything.


In the case of a really big rock, it can take quite a bit of concentration and clumsy effort before it fully reveals its size and shape. However, once you’ve done the hard work of clarifying the borders between stone and soil, the object usually lifts out pretty easily. And here’s the thing: if you’re willing to get down on the ground and grapple with such a significant obstacle, it will reward you by leaving a breathtakingly large space behind.


and the verticals of trees

May 20, 2009

000_0652When I finally closed on my house, my first thought was of fruit trees. I figured I would spend the first fall/winter doing research, plant the next spring, and enjoy the fruits of my labors…. about now.

That didn’t happen. In fact, until this year’s asparagus, my only permanent plantings have been pretty un-noteworthy—a few bunches of sorrel, a couple of clumps of lavender. 

How I got stuck: I started my apple research at the farmers’ market in DC (where I mostly lived at the time). I found a few varieties I liked. Then I started reading, and quickly learned that none of my favorite cultivars would survive Otsego County winters. I also started to read about garden design. And light and soil requirements. And pruning. And disease. To top it all off, my lovely large yard is on the side of my house, so not only were my orcharding efforts going to be fraught with peril, any failures were going to be very public.

But this spring I was determined to plunge in my shovel and make a mark. I lost someone very close to me a year ago, and a few of my friends got me a gift certificate to a local nursery “to get something lovely for the garden.” I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than with a tree—something that would live on, perhaps even longer than me, while at the same time illustrating life’s glorious and heartbreaking cycle with the turning of the seasons, year after year.

As it happened, the days leading to the tree-planting adventure brought more sad news. And while my sweet brother was foremost in my heart as I worked on Tuesday, I also thought about two others who had touched my life in very different ways. One I had never met in person, but his teachings (as master of Ashtanga yoga) have had a profound effect on me, particularly in this year. Another was a musician I didn’t know very well, but who had been a regular part of my landscape for the past 16 summers; it is hard to believe we will no longer exchange hellos on the hill behind the wardrobe house.

You never plant a single apple tree, nor do you plant your property with a single cultivar. In order for any one apple tree to bear fruit, it needs to be around other apple trees, and it needs to be around other kinds of apple trees. And here’s a cool thing: every apple seed will grow up (if it can) to be completely unique. The idea is that, of the thousands of varieties thrown off by the hundreds of apples that fall from any one tree in any one season, a few just might have the right qualities to thrive where they land. (For more on this, see Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.)  And if two or more different trees grow up near enough each other, they will likely bear fruit, beginning the wildly creative cycle again.000_0645

Unfortunately, survival is no predictor of palatability. So when we humans discover that one-in-billion tree that produces an apple that tastes good to us, we clone it. Every MacIntosh is descended from a single tree, as is every Winesap, every Gala, every Newton Pippin.

I chose Macoun, Cortlandt and Honeycrisp. I moved them around the yard for awhile in their heavy pots until I found a configuration that felt right. I gave them luxurious holes, plenty of manure, a good soaking, thick rings of mulch. And now they’re settled into what I think of as their permanent spots. Nothing is permanent, of course, but it is nice to imagine some of our labors will bear fruit even after we’re gone.

I have a little list

May 17, 2009

I LOVE Mark Bittman, I do. I get a lot of good ideas from reading his articles and cookbooks, and if I ever find myself needing to follow an actual recipe, his are unfailingly clear, reliable and—more important—delicious. In the kitchen according the Bittman, the axiom “good, fast, cheap: pick two” does not seem to apply.

In short, I am a a believer. So I was happy to give up my e-mail address to Mark says that  in signing on, you are not just agreeing to receive e-mail messages from him, you are making “a commitment to yourself to reduce your consumption of meat, dairy, over-processed carbohydrates, and junk food.” OK, whatever. I signed on and was immediately rewarded with “Bittman’s Seven-Day Meal Plan.”

Sign up yourself and you’ll see… looks pretty tasty, right? But there’s one problem.

Even leaving out the staples, the spices, the fridge-door standbys (soy sauce, honey, worcestershire, etc.), all the “optional” ingredients, even after making a few substitutions (who needs cilantro when I got parsley?), I came up with a shopping list of 80 ingredients for a week’s worth of meals. 

000_0638This is my NYC kitchen. All of it. There is no off-camera cupboard; what you see is what you get. I’m not complaining. I’ve always managed just fine, but after contemplating the list I finally get why some New Yorkers just throw up their hands, keep takeout menus where the cutlery should be, and use the oven for shoe storage.  Even if I had a walk-in closet to convert to a pantry, I can’t imagine shopping for all this stuff and lugging it home! And don’t suggest FreshDirect; besides the fact that I like to personally sniff my melons and feel up my tomatoes, I don’t imagine that pointing and clicking my way to 80 different items would be very good for my wrists.

So what gives? Does the steak-with-roquefort-butter set really need to be dazzled by a panoply of ingredients to give up their unsustainable ways? Or is it possible to have it all—delicious, nutritious, sustainable, convenient, inexpensive—with a more realistic, or shall I say minimalist, shopping list? I think it can be done, and without becoming repetitive. I mean, if I can do this and this and this and this  and this with nothing more than potatoes, eggs and some weeds, surely I can feed myself interestingly for a week without a ridiculous shopping list. But first, I need to finish the big batch of lentils I made yesterday…. stay tuned.

Back to basics

May 15, 2009

A surfeit of any one ingredient is a good test of ingenuity, or endurance, or both. It wasn’t until I faced the end of this latest greens heap that it occurred to me to reach back and approximate a familiar taste from my past: Plain greens, in all their vegetalmineral glory, cooked down with a hunk of pork into a sinewy-soft mass.

A side of greens is pretty standard fare in south Louisiana, where I grew up. I ate turnip greens and mustard greens from three generations of gardening ancestors, though I can’t remember having a very strong opinion of them, for good or ill. They were just there.

For a time, my family frequented a restaurant called ‘Round the Bend, which offered a bottomless pot of greens, served family style, to precede the meal. The greens were pretty good, especially when doused with pepper vinegar, though probably not good enough to explain my enthusiastic consumption of bowl after bowl. (That pre-adolescent appetite was more an appetite for attention than for the greens themselves. In the end I got both.)

Dandelion greens are hardly delicate, but they don’t stand up to the same kind of treatment as the muscular greens of my childhood. There is another Louisiana tradition—one which I’ve read about but which is not part of my culinary heritage—called gumbo zhebes (or z’herbes). It traditionally calls for seven different greens, though of course more is better. Beyond that—controversy abounds. Some begin with roux, some do not…. and it goes on from there. 000_0631

I was not interested in achieving authenticity. I was just interested in borrowing the “more is better” idea, using what I had on hand. My version had bacon, dandelion greens, ramps, chard, thyme, sorrel, cooked for around five minutes. The taste was surprisingly reminiscent of the greens at ‘Round the Bend—dark green and tangy and ever so slightly porky. I was sorry my pot was not bottomless.

Wild and wilder

May 12, 2009

Now that I have my own garden, the Saturday trip to the Cooperstown Farmer’s Market is more about being sociable than anything else, especially this time of year. Later in the season, there will be berries, which are not yet part of my scheme. And the guy with the greenhouse will have tomatoes earlier—and later—than I do. But on the first market day of the season, it’s pretty much all about leafy greens and kitschy crafts, neither of which I need.

A few people had ramps, a wild early onion I’d read about but never cooked with.000_0629

Not exactly the kind of thing to gentle a bountiful harvest of weedy greens…. but baked together in a pie they turned out to be pretty darn good.000_0625

Full of greens

May 9, 2009

After a day-long battle with weeds—and their long roots, too—I was hungry. Plus, I had a LOT of greens.  But at a certain point, the idea of greens as main dish loses its appeal. And I was there.  Abundance had become overwhelming.000_0618

Looking for new ideas, I turned to my John Thorne, who in Serious Pig offered not so much inspiration as sympathy:

“It would be a different matter if I simply disliked greens, but I don’t … it’s just that in eating them, I walk a tightrope between pleasure and actual physical revulsion. It’s like the edginess I get eating blood sausage or tripe gumbo—there’s something here that cuts a little too close to the bone.”000_0620

Oh, John, I know just how you feel. But greens were what I had, the corner store was closed for the evening, and a round-trip to the next-nearest grocery store would have cost me almost an hour. So, I made focaccia with cheese, onions and thyme. And did my best to civilize a side dish of greens with some raisins, pine nuts, and a bit of vinegar. 000_0621And it was good.


May 9, 2009

Sacrifice now, celebrate later: this is what people mean when they say, “It’s a great investment.”

Planting asparagus is a very particular kind of investment. When I got my apartment in New York, I invested pretty much all my savings. And I invested weeks putting together a 120-page “board packet” that included all kinds of information that one would ordinarily consider private. But within a couple of months, I was living in my new home.

Planting asparagus is not like that. It is more like the beginning piano student practicing scales in the hopes that someday she will toss off  the Hammerklavier sonata, or the beginning yogi suffering through navasana in the hopes that someday he will fly. Gratification is a long way off, and the preparation—the “investment”—is no fun at all. In fact, it can be downright painful.

Planting asparagus requires digging a very large trench. Ordinarily, one might dig a large trench with a large shovel. But asparagus are perennial, so it is important to completely rid the soil of weeds. Although a large shovel would efficiently remove large loads of dirt, it would chop up taproots in the process, resulting in more weeds rather than less. So one achieves the trench by means of hands and a fork.000_0612

It took me the better part of the day to dig my trench. It is about 15 feet long, two feet wide, one foot deep. I got some old black horseshit from a neighbor, made 10 little piles, and then draped an asparagus crown over each hill. 000_0615Then I shoveled all the dirt back into the trench (more work than you’d think, even using a large shovel) and mulched.

This was, by far, the most labor-intensive row of vegetables I’ve ever put in. Invested in. And assuming as I stay on top of things—keep em weeded, watered, mulched—I will enjoy the fruits of my labors in three to five years.

Maybe I’ll start practicing scales again while I wait for my asparagus.

aggressive sensitive tart

May 9, 2009

Sorrel is both delicate and unstoppable. Another perennial green, it comes into its own early—and with pretty much no help from me. During the summer, it grows so fast that I find myself plucking leaves daily and, despairing of ever eating them quickly enough, using them as a mulch.000_0607

But sever this lemony-tasting green from the ground, and in less than a day it will be limp and bedraggled. (That’s why you seldom see it in stores.) Cook it and it turns sludgy and brownish. And don’t even think about freezing it. The main use for sorrel is in salads, and many people are judicious even there because of its tartness; it’s customary to cut it with a milder lettuce.

I like a nice bowlful of sorrel, but you do have to attend to the astringency. I make a simple vinaigrette with vermouth instead of vinegar, and top it with a couple of eggs, both for nutritional heft and a bit or richness. 000_0608

First Lunch

May 9, 2009

000_0617The chard is progressing, but not as quickly as its yellow-headed companion. So for my first lunch of the long weekend, I turned (again) to dandelion greens. A recipe for greens and potatoes had recently caught my eye, so I picked a bowlful of greens and set some potatoes (chunked) to boil.

Meanwhile, I tried to recollect the recipe. (Couldn’t look it up because high-speed Internet has yet to come to my stretch of the valley.) Pretty sure it was just mashed potatoes with greens… why had it sounded so appealing?

Oh, of course.

It was topped with buttered bread crumbs. What isn’t good with buttered bread crumbs?

Didn’t have any of these, so I extrapolated. Crispy, greasy, salty….

OK. The potatoes were about tender by that point, so I drained them. Meanwhile, covered the bottom of a heavy pot with olive oil. Threw the potatoes back in to fry on one side. So far, so good. But it had been a long drive. I needed to be sure of an excellent lunch. So I threw in some chunks of feta to fry alongside the potatoes.

I served the crispy, greasy, salty mess over some quickly sautéed greens; slightly bitter and chewy, they were the perfect foil for all that starchy indulgence. Someday I’ll try the dish that inspired this one; I bet it’s pretty darn good, too.