Monday, October 12, 2009

Lost and Found

The earth is the ultimate repository of all things lost and discarded (except for far-flung items of space junk, I suppose). Our place has was settled by German-Americans in the late 1700s and the soil reveals all sort of small treasures. One of the previous owners was a potter, and we keep finding objects like those I've painted here-- simple spheres that we guess served as bottle tops; the bottom of of tea cup; and a boldly patterned piece of Pennsylvania German slipware. So far, we haven't come across an entire object, only shards. But we hold out hope of discovering a piece we can put to use and restore to is place in the old stone farmhouse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Monster from the Woodlot

This remarkable little fellow crawled out of our woods to find a sheltered place to pupate, and I brought it inside to pose. We identified it as the larvae of the Spicebush Swallowtail, a species known for its mimickry. As an adult, the butterfly benefits from its evolved (we can presume) similarity to a nasty-tasting species. The larvae starts out looking very much like a fresh bird dropping and therefore unappetizing to would-be predators. In its final form, the worm uses a completely different strategy, emerging with huge fake eyes and mouth to resemble (if vaguely, and on a small scale) a predatory snake. The eyes even have white highlights to suggest that they're round and glistening. After the photo session, I released the worm in the vicinity of a spicebush thicket and wished it a productive pupation.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fall Watercolor

I've been gathering items from around the yard (and a few from the refrigerator) as models for the border of this wedding certificate, painted for a client. It felt good to slow down and focus on the plants; fall might otherwise have breezed past without my paying it much attention.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chickpeas: Grow Your Own Protein

As a household of four vegetarians, we go through plenty of chickpeas (or garbanzos), using them in pilaus, stirfries, and Italian sauces, as well as to make hummus. The canned item is fine, but I've wondered if a garden-grown chickpea would taste superior, fresh or dried. With that in mind, I ordered a packet of an East Indian variety, red channa, from a Seed Savers Exchange member and allowed them a few square feet of the garden. The feathery leaves are pretty, and so are the pale purple flowers. The cute little pods each hold two rather small peas, some already dried and others still bright green. Less impressive is the yield-- my dozen plants yielded about a handful of shelled garbanzos, much of the crop having already been harvested and shelled by some sort of animal. If this sample seems special, we'll alot a long row to chickpeas next summer. And if there's a bumper crop, I may try to make the yellow tofu-like chickpea squares that are served fried in Burma as an important source of protein.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Uthappam, the Vegetable Pancake with a Kick

One of our favorite ways to start a day is with a spicy, ever-so-slightly sour uthappam, the savory pancake of southern India. All sorts of garden vegetables can be tossed on the cooking batter, before flipping the cake over to lightly brown the other side: tomatoes, onions or scallions, and pepper (as hot as you please), all chopped finely so that they'll cook quickly; fresh cilantro; and cumin powder and salt.

Although you can get by with a standard pancake mix, try the traditional method, starting the day before with a batter made of rice and urad dal (otherwise known as black gram). You have a couple of options:

-- Presoak the grains and beans for at least 6 hours, then finely grind them in a processor.
-- More simply, use rice and urad dal flours.

The night before, prepare the batter with 2 cups water to 2 cups ground, presoaked rice (or rice flour) and 1/2 cup ground, presoaked urad dal (or urad dal flour). I usually add a 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast to help initiate fermentation, but if the room temperature is comfortably warm, naturally occurring yeasts should be sufficient.

The next morning, stir the cumin power and 1/2 teaspoon salt into the batter. Prepare the other ingredients and have them close at hand. For each pancake, pour about 1/2 cup of batter onto a large oiled pan over medium heat and spread it evenly with the back of a large spoon. Immediatley sprinkle the prepared vegetables over the top. When the bottom has turned golden brown in places, carefully flip the cake and continue to cook until it too is golden brown. Serve hot off the pan with yogurt.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Picking a Picket

For years, our main vegetable garden has been surrounded (and somewhat protected) by a traditional white picket fence. Then, as the wood deteriorated, woodchucks discovered they no longer had to tunnel under the fence or vault over it; they could chew their way through. I'm now faced with the task of sinking new posts and cutting some 250 pointy pickets. Just as difficult is deciding on a new color. I bought three gallons of a clear, straightforward blue-- just a few shots of pigment in a white base. But asample picket (shown in the center) struck as too perky. I tried adding a tad of the chartreuese left over from our exterior doors (the picket on the right), but it looked too tamely Colonial. In contrast, the original picket now struck us as attractively cool and crisp. To bump up that side of its personality, I stirred in a little red acrylic paint, arriving at the picket on the left. That's the one we've decided to go with, adding a border of blue plantings this fall--hydrangeas, Mertensia, iris, sage, ageratum. Curiously, when a cloud passes over the sun, the three pickets look nearly identical, making this chromatic fussing seem silly.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Trellis for Runaway Hops

I understand that hops grow as a vine and rely on something vertical on which to reach for the sun. But I put in five varieties favored for brewing IPAs and-- a year later-- have yet to supply them with a trellis. So it is that the five are crawling across the lawn.

The trellis in my mind's eye looks like an arbor, with enough bracing to allow lowering it to the ground when harvesting the fragrant little cones. Here's the plan, needing only cedar and a bit of energy to realize it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Your Garden as Color Consultant

The natural world usually does it right with color combinations. Seldom is seen a garish note, excepting for certain uber-exuberant blossoms engineered by humans. When choosing paint colors for our home, we tend to stick to white for the walls and comfy, nonchallenging Colonial hues for trim. But I recall liking the chartreuse doors on the stone railway stations along Scotland's west coast, and we decided to give that tooth-etching hue a try for our fieldstone house. We were guided by the foliage of a lime-mound spirea, its peculiar green tamed by a hint of warmth. After several trips back to our obliging paint store for just a tad more red pigment, we had it-- a color that attracts attention and occasional compliments. Since then, I've tried recording other happy color duos from the landscape; a few samples are shown here.

Cardoon, the Other Edible Thistle

We were in an Italian hilltown, ordering lunch in a small restaurant. It was a slow day, and the owners brought out odds and ends from the kitchen for us to sample. The noodles with brown sugar were novel. But more curious was a plate of what they called gobbi-- plant stems that had been dipped in batter and breadcrumbs, then fried in butter. The taste was like artichoke, with a slightly astringent edge. It wasn't until we were back in the States that we learned the plant is known here as cardoon, an artichoke relative grown for its fleshy stems rather than the flower bud. The term used by the restaurant means "hunchback" and refers to the practice of bending the stems to the ground and hilling soil over them. Another method is to wrap the lower 24 inches or so of the bundled stems with cardboard, binding this covering with twine. Blanched stems will have less of the plant's characteristic bitterness, used to good advantage in the artichoke-based Campari and Cinar aperitifs. Wrapping up these man-tall plants is a challenge, even with gloves and a longsleeve denim shirt, because of the spines and the cardoon's sprawling nature. And they garden takes on a ramshackle appearance once the cardboard is in place, as you can see from the right-hand view, above.

Still, cardoon looks stunning in the garden, its spikey silver-grey leaves dominating the surrounding plants. It grows enthusiastically for us here in Pennsylvania, and this year we've had good luck with an heirloom, 'Argente de Geneve,' obtained from a member of Seed Savers Exchange.

Boy Scout Champagne

Also known as Elderblow Fizz and Elderflower Cordial, this lightly fermented summer drink has all but been forgotten. I find the slightly floral taste to be refreshing, if not quite adictive.

3 quarts water
2 cups sugar
juice and zest of 2 lemons
8 elderblow clusters

Harvest the clusters of elderberry flowers at their most fragrant, and shake out any nectar-loving insects. Over low heat in a soup pot, stir the sugar in the water until dissolved. Allow the liquid to cool, then add the lemon juice, zest, and blossoms. Put a cover on the pot and allow it to sit in the sun for a day or two. This should encourage naturally occurring yeasts to begin the fermentation. Strain through a colander lined with cheesecloth, then fill sturdy glass or plastic soda bottles through a funnel. Insert cotton balls into the tops to allow carbon dioxide to escape as the contents bubble vigorously. When the fermentation slows, seal tightly for a day or so to carbonate the drink and refrigerate. But don't wait long. The contents are best enjoyed fresh. Unlike a full-bodied Barolo, the vintage of Boy Scout champagne should be given in days, not years.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kimchi on the Mild Side

Storebought kimchi tends to be unrepentantly hot and funkily fishy. Blame it on my Pennsylvania address, but I prefer a tamer, landlocked version. Because I like to keep a steady supply in the refrigerator, I splurged on a five-gallon Harsch kraut crock made in Germany, shown here with Weck canning jars of kimchi (left) and pickled Asian mustard greens. This vessel has a couple of advantages over a simple crock: two ceramic inserts sit atop the vegetables, keeping them below the brine so that they are less vulnerable to spoilage; and a water seal around the lid further excludes unwanted bacteria, while allowing the contents to bubble away merrily.

It seems there is little agreement on how salty the brine should be, other than it is saltier than customarily used to make sauerkraut. (Also, I've skipped the usual step of pre-soaking the napa cabbage in brine-- it means more bother and more salt in the septic field, without a significant effect. ) This recipe has worked dependably for me.

1 head Napa cabbage, chopped roughly
1 large daikon radish, cut into thin rounds, then quartered
3 carrots, peeled and julienned
2 red bell peppers, julienned (for color and crunch, not heat)
4 spring onions, cut into rounds
4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 pieces of ginger the size of wine corks, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons hot sauce, or to taste
6 cups water
6 tablespoons salt

Choose a fermenting container. A standard straight-sided crock will do. To keep the vegetables submerged, use a plate of just less than the crock's interior diameter and plan on weighing it with a clean stone or brick.

Prepare the vegetables. Place the water in a pot over medium heat, and stir in the salt until dissolved. Arrange the vegetables in the container and pour the cooled brine over them. If you are using a standard crock, place the dish and weight over the ingredients and snuggly cover the crock with plastic wrap. The next day, check to see if the brine has brought liquid out of the vegetables, raising the level of liquid so that it covers the ingredients. If not, prepare more brine as needed, as above, using 1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water, and top off the crock.

The fermentation ideally should take place at between 41 and 57 degrees F., according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. In hot weather, that will mean carrying out the process in the refrigerator-- in spite of any protestations from the household. To help contain the sulfurous scent, you can wrap the container in a plastic bag and seal it well. And in cooler weather, if the process is too stinky for your living quarters, consider moving the container to the garage, an outbuilding, or an unheated basement. Within a couple of weeks, the fermentation should have slowed. Pack the kimchi in smaller, sealable containers and refrigerate.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bi-Colored Borscht

Bored with beets? In this recipe, thick purees of red and golden beets (freshly yanked specimens are shown here) are swirled together in a cool, visually stunning soup. For a third color, I like to also puree the greens. Serves six to eight.


About 6 young beets
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped basil
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Yogurt or sour cream, for serving (optional)


4 cups beet greens and other greens, such as chard
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, cut into strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil

For both the red and golden borschts, cut the beet tops from the roots and set aside. Peel the roots if the skins are tough. Halve the smaller ones and quarter the larger ones to ensure even cooking. Steam the roots until tender, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper, and the cucumber, parsley, basil, cilantro, cumin, lemon juice, and salt. Puree until smooth. Pour into separate bowls and refrigerate.

For the optional green puree, rinse the leaves well, discarding any that are yellowed or damaged, and supplement with other greens if necessary to make 4 packed cups. Sauté the onion, pepper strips, and garlic in oil. Transfer to the blender or food processor, and puree until smooth. Pour into a second bowl, and refrigerate.

The borscht is ready to assemble when chilled. Carefully spoon the colored portions into each soup bowl, keeping a clear edge between them using a flexible scraper as you pour. Straight edges between the two or three colors are easiest. You might also try a yin yang pattern. Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream in the center of each bowl if you wish.

Five-Minute Bread

When my wife Ali and I were traveling in Ladakh, in Himalayan India, last fall, we stayed with a family that made fresh bread nearly every morning. That sounds like a lot of trouble and a major mess, but these no-knead traditional flat breads are a snap to make. Once you have a supply of dough in the refrigerator, you can have hot bread in less than five minutes-- if you have a gas range. This recipe is a simplified version; see a note on the original version, below.

Begin by making a simple dough the night before. In a bread bowl, add 1 teaspoon of dry yeast to 1 1/3 cups of water and 1 cup of unbleached white flour (or up to one-third whole wheat) and stir well. Allow the yeast to proof for an hour or so, then add another 3 cups of flour. Stir vigorously for 2 or 3 minutes, or until the dough is well mixed. Cover the bowl and set aside overnight.

To make the breads, tear off pieces of dough and shape them into balls that are slightly larger than golfballs. Allow the balls to rest for a minute to heal any seams. Meanwhile, heat a flat skillet over a medium flame. Flatten the balls into disks of about 1/2 inch thickness, using your hands and then rolling. Place a disk on the hot pan-- no oil is needed-- and heat both sides about a half-minute to develop a dry skin. Then set the skillet aside and, using tongs, place the disk directly on a burner. Move it about to heat it evenly, allowing a bit of charring. As the moisture within turns to steam, the little loaf should begin to puff up. Flip it over and cook the other side, again moving the loaf to avoid burning. If you see steam escaping through a hole so that the bread won't puff up, try pinching that spot with the tongs. Continue making the breads one at a time. You can refrigerate leftover dough for up to five days. In Ladakh, the practice is to slice the loaves around the perimeter to make two breads; they're typically served with butter and apricot jam.

In the Ladakhi version, you make two disks rather than one, rolling them thinner. Spread a bit of butter in the center of both, and join the the two with buttered sides meeting. Pinch around the perimeter to seal well, and proceed with baking as above.
Autumn Tagine

A tagine is a Moroccan dish akin to a stew but a lot better looking. That's because the ingredients are arranged with care into a teepee shape, and cooked slowly in a distinctively shaped tagine pot. The moisture rising from the humble ingredients is condensed by the dunce-cap lid and then percolates down through them, yielding a darkly mysterious flavor. The pots are available through the Internet, but don't expect to be able to place them on a stove. I've cracked two bases over a low gas flame and now simply place the cone-shaped top on top of a large skillet.
This recipe is based on a tagine we enjoyed in Taffroute, Morroco. It takes advantage of late-season root crops, which can be a challenge to preparte imaginatively. The procedure is time consuming, both in preparation and on the stove, making this a good dish for a special dinner party. Serves six.

2 large onions, chopped
6 parsnips, quartered lengthwise
2 zucchini, quartered lengthwise
2 carrots, quartered lengthwise
6 medium potatoes, cubed
2 turnips, cubed
1 rutabaga, cubed
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground star anise
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
12 cherry tomatoes
12 pitted prunes
12 kalamata olives
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 lime, halved
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup almonds, toasted

Prepare the vegetables. In a bowl, combine the ginger, the 8 spices listed after it, and the salt. Set aside. Coat the bottom of the skillet with the olive oil. Make a layer of the potatoes. To prevent the onions from blackening, mound them on top of the potatoes. Symmetrically assemble the prepared vegetables in a pyramid, sprinklin the dry spices over the them as you go. Evenly distribute the cherry tomatoes, prunes, and olives over the pyramid.

Pour 1/4 cup water over the top, followed by the vinegar, lemon juice, and juice of half a lime. Distribute pats of butter here and there. Perch the remaining lime half on top like the cherry on a sundae. Cover, and cook over very low heat for 4 to 6 hours, or until the root vegetables are entirely tender when poked with a fork. Look under the lid from time to time and add another 1/4 cup water if the pot seems dry at the bottom. Toast the almonds and distribute them over the top of the tagine just before serving. And broth in the bottom of the pot can be spooned over the tagine. Serve hot with couscous or rice and yogurt.