Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow

When you cook your own food, you are creating. You're contributing to a story that is uniquely YOU. And perhaps, the loved ones who enjoy the meal with you. Sure, going to Chipotle has a story (a delicious one), and that's nice and all (they use local, ethically raised/grown ingredients, btw), but I'm not really in that story, except as a consumer. And I don't want to just consume, I want to create, to contribute. (That's kind of the point of this blog, after all.)

So I'm trying to take it one step further, by growing my own food. Last summer I got into gardening, and it was pretty much the best thing ever. It was my therapy. Every afternoon I would come home from work, put my bag down, and go straight outside for a half an hour. I watered my plants, stared at them, smelling the herbs, pinching off dead leaves, and honestly just loving those plants. Oh and occasionally I would harvest a modest yield of tomatoes, bell peppers, mint, parsley, cilantro, and basil. I don't actually get much sun (7 hours in the sunniest spot), but growing tomatoes was still surprisingly rewarding.

My living situation right now means that there is not much space that belongs to just me, and these plants were MINE. I got to decide what to do with them, where to put them, how to care for them. I was responsible for their survival. I felt pride, and a sense of mastery, when I brought a few leaves of mint inside to add to a berry smoothie.

One big lesson from last year was: start earlier. About two weeks ago I realized it might be time to begin thinking about what I want to grow. So exciting. A crazy idea came to me that I should try growing from seed. This method has a few advantages: it's cheaper, you can get a wider variety of "breeds", ie random purple heirloom tomatos, yellow carrots, whatever. And also, you know, you can say, "See? See this huge plant, laden with fruit/vegetables/deliciousness/nutrition? I planted the seed."

I'm getting all goosebumpy just typing that.

I can't quite figure out how to write what it is about starting from scratch that grabs me so. I could get up on my farm-to-table foodie soapbox, and talk about getting closer to the source of our food, understanding and respecting it, and participating in the process. I could talk about local (check) and organic (check check) and fresh!, and nutrition (checkity check check). And it would all be true. So at the heart of what I believe, and what I want for myself and my potential children.

But there's something more. It has to do with fresh air. The smell of turned earth. The joy of seeing a slowly unfurling, bright green new leaf. The blush of red on a green tomato that is just beginning to ripen.

Maybe I'm just a nature kind of girl. Because it's REAL. More real than much of things in our modern world. More real than TV, or someone else's vacation photos on Facebook, or all those thoughts of what you imagine your life will be when you finally make it, whatever that means. Gardening gives you a chance to live fully in the present moment, telling the murky past and the uncertain future to quit tapping you on the shoulder, saying, "pay attention to me!" Go away now, I say, I'm tending my plants.

All that said, last week I seeded tomatoes, basil, lettuce, parsley, and cilantro.

I read about it online, got briefly overwhelmed, and managed to cover every south facing window sill with pots, all covered in plastic wrap to keep my little babies warm and the soil evenly moist. It would be a long wait - 14-21 days til germination for some! Sometimes my desire for instant gratification is a little hard to ignore. Plus I let myself get seized by the panicky thought that, what.if.nothing.grows? What if I used the wrong soil? What if I watered it too much/too little? What if there wasn't enough sun? So I raced out like a crazy woman and bought seedlings, so that just in case life did not find a way, I wouldn't have wasted 3 weeks of the growing season.

Well, someone really should have told me about garden centers. You know, candy stores for adults? That place you go, and like shopping when you're hungry, leave with so much more than you planned on buying. Arugula (seeds and seedlings), lettuce (all those mesclun varieties are so tempting), radish seeds, rosemary, and a freaking strawberry plant... You guys, it's a really good thing I had a gift certificate.

And then the next day I went to another garden store to get more potting soil, and came home with carrot, spring onion, and Carnival Mix bell pepper seeds.

I need help.

But then. THEN! Something happened. Something to justify all my manic-overdoing-biting-off-more-than-I-can-chew-my-home-looks-like-a-hothouse nutty behavior. I came home, pulled away the plastic wrap, and there they were. Tomato sprouts/seedlings/whatever you call thems! About 1 inch tall (how did they grow that fast, I swear there was nothing yesterday?)

I literally squealed, sang my way to the the other windows, and discovered basil! Dozens of little basil babies, poking their heads up with two of the most adorable leaves you ever saw.

There is so much pesto in my future.

The very next day, a tiny dot of green in the lettuce pot. The mint and chives are coming back from last year (very hardy), and rain all week has meant happy little plants crowding the deck. Happiness is being a gardener.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Just Add Sugar

My friend Angela says that I should blog about food and cooking on here, since it is creative. And, I'm inclined to agree! Food writing is really fun. And, in that food involves trial and error, reaching out of your comfort zone, and creating beauty, it definitely qualifies.

Whenever a seasonal food is about to go out of season, all of a sudden I am obsessed. I need to make 5 thousand dishes with this one food, before it is GONE. FOREVER! Or, until next year, which still seems like a really long time. Clementines won't be in the stores for much longer, and I love love love love LOVE them. Last year I discovered a recipe for clementine cake. I don't think I need to tell you that this dessert was a revelation, and was made, let's just say, more than once, that winter. I also made orange clementine self-saucing pudding. And I tried making marmalade (my love of this condiment knows no bounds) with some kumquats I bought on impulse. Unfortunately, it didn't set. (Not that this setback stopped me from pouring the oozy concoction over pancakes a few weekends in a row, awesometown).

The marmalade is for a future post, since I'm still getting up the courage to try it again. I might have to ask my expert-marmalade-maker nana for advice. But this week, I checked something else off my never-did-this-must-must-must-do-it list: candied citrus peel. The first night, I started with clementines (Did I mention that I LOVE them?), and became ambitious the second night, making orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime peel. I'm crazy, right?

Turns out? It's not at all hard. Basically, you:

1. Cut off the ends of the fruit, if needed. Score the peel in quarters, peel off, cut into little strips.

2. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, drain. Repeat twice. This is to get the bitterness out.
3. Mix together enough water to cover the peel, and equal parts sugar. Melt sugar, bring to a boil, and simmer for an hour or so.
4. Drain, let dry on baking racks.
5. You can coat them with sugar, or dip in chocolate. I didn't do the chocolate, mostly because I was lazy, but also because they were just so damn good on their own.

It all went fairly smoothly. I decided that coating the peel with sugar wasn't really necessary, and didn't do it after the clementine batch. Number one, it kind of dried in clumps. I might try pulsing some sugar in a food processor to make it superfine next time, but honestly (and this is number two): it's already sweet enough. I love the strident citrus flavor with a background of sweet.

There's a little rule in cooking that I am always relearning: a recipe is not the gospel - use common sense. The recipe I used for the clementines called for 4 cups of water and 4 cups of sugar. For 6 clementines. 4 cups of sugar? OMFG. But I followed the instructions blindly, learning my lesson later. The leftover citrus-y syrup is pretty delicious, so no big deal. I've put it in the freezer until I can think of something to use it for. And sugar is definitely on the shopping list.

Nectar of the gods?
For the orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime peel, I looked at a lot of other recipes, to get a consensus. Which was: use just enough water to cover the peel, and equal parts sugar.

The limes were lovely and tart, and dried nice and firm. Although they lost their vibrant green color once they hit the boiling water.

I used two grapefruits, one of which was more pink in color, the other more yellow, so there was a striking variation. (You can see this particularly in the drying rack photo, bottom.)

The prettiest.
Some recipes stridently instructed me to resist the temptation to stir the peel, because sugar crystals might form on the edge. Sugar crystals, gasp! Oh no, we can have that!

You know what? I stirred it a few times. Horrors! And no one died. Also, no sugar crystals. Wonders never cease.

Lemons, nice and strong and sweet.
At some point I ran out of drying racks. This, people, is why you don't try to make 4 different kinds of candied citrus peel all in one weekday evening. (This is also why you count how many drying racks you have. Math is hard.) I stayed up pretty late doing this, probably fueled by all the citrus-y sugar water that I drank in spoonfuls licked off the wooden spoon once or twice because my middle name is Restraint.

Oranges were the only fruit where I trimmed the pith - there was just so much of it. I could have done that with the grapefruit too, but I'm glad I didn't -  the pith has great texture. So next time, I'm throwing caution to the wind and leaving it all on. Living life on the wild side, right here!

Now, what do I do with all this peeled fruit?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Puzzle Ball, Part 2

I've made a lot of progress on my puzzle ball since the last time I wrote about it. Actually, since starting this post a few days ago, I finished it! This will be mostly pictures because I'm struggling to come up with something interesting to say. I guess sometimes all you need is: hey, look at this thing I made, tada! I tend to over think things. Just a tad.

I ironed the seam allowances outwards so that when I sewed each segment shut, it would be a nice straight seam.
Turned inside out.
Shameless Macbook plug!

I stuffed each segment with polyfill, and used a blind stich to close it up. (Why are my pictures right in front of my laptop? Multitasking: sew for a bit, do something on the internet, go back to sewing, repeat. I have a great attention span actually, why do you ask?)

I've discovered that with polyfill, you really have to work hard to get a nice full, evenly stuffed shape. You need to stuff the corners and seams first, THEN the middle. Otherwise they won't have anything in them, or it will be lumpy. Unlike water, polyfill does not spread out and take on the shape of its container. I use a narrow stick to push small tufts into each little space, and continue stuffing it as I sew it up. It's a relaxing process, and satisfying when it comes out right.

I wasn't totally thrilled with how the corners came out. They weren't as sharp and crisp as the first puzzle ball I made. Aren't we supposed to get better with practice?

All 12 segments in a pile.
Part 3 to come in a day or two.