Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Here, in a large swath of the Northeast, we are still shaking our heads in disbelief over the blizzard that befell us on Saturday, October 29th 2011 . Winter is still officially six weeks away, but this storm left the appearance of mid-January across the landscape, dumping seven inches of heavy white snow. Far from their peak of Fall color, the leaves of many trees are still green and still on their branches, which allowed the snow to pile up on them quickly. The result is widespread damage, with many broken limbs and downed power lines. Few of us were prepared for such a dramatic change in the weather. We barely had time to bring in our tender potted plants, and I have yet to bring the, pomegranate or fig tree inside. I can only hope these haven’t sustained any permanent damage. In the potager, parsnips, carrots, (aptly named) snow peas, beets and collard greens are nestled in beneath this premature precipitation.
One positive outcome of the sudden drop in temperature is the conversion of the starch in these vegetables into sugar, (glucose), effectively sweetening them up. Growing up in urban Trenton, New Jersey, the appearance of Collards in the market was always a clear indication of the change to a colder season. A welcomed sight, their arrival was accompanied by vigorous discussions about their preparation. For an African-American family with roots in the South, greens - Collards, Mustard or Turnip – are an essential part of any menu, anticipated with great relish. Yet, from family to family, there exist subtle variations on the “proper” method of cooking greens.
One step that is universally agreed on is that one must begin by washing one’s greens, repeatedly! My good friend, the dancer and actor Vanoy Aikens, who learned to cook greens from his friend, the late, great Eartha Kitt, swears that Collards must be thoroughly washed, no fewer than “THREE TIMES!!!” That entails soaking them in a sink of cold water, carefully rinsing each leaf; emptying, rinsing and filling the sink and washing off each leaf again, then doing this step one more time, perhaps using running water this third time. The reason for this, being that there is nothing so unpleasant as chomping into fine grit or any soil residue that a less thorough washing might miss. A cooks’ reputation can hang or fall on so crucial a step!
Beyond this, is the question of whether to chop or tear the leaves? There are some cooks who swear by folding, then chopping one’s greens into manageable “ribbons.” Others are committed to tearing the tender leaf from the stalk, peeling it away from the ribs by grasping at the top of the leaf and pulling down toward the base of the stalk. Some cooks seek to eliminate the ribs and stalks, while others enjoy their somewhat meatier texture when cooked. A Brazilian friend, Carlos, has even been known to use a grater to create a “chiffonade” of his greens, sautéing them in olive oil, but in my experience, this is a radical departure from Southern tradition.
While all of this washing and dividing of leaves is going on, one should prepare in a separate pot, a stock with which to cook the greens. It has always been my understanding that greens, especially Collards, contain a lot of water, and therefore only need enough additional moisture to keep them from sticking to the pot. That stock, a prime component of any “pot likker,” is crucial, though not difficult, to prepare. Ms. Edna Lewis, the doyenne of Southern cooking, recommended simmering two pounds of pork shoulder in a gallon of water for two hours. One then strains and discards the shoulder, using the remaining stock as a base for cooking greens, root vegetables, beans, etc. For cooking smaller portions, a similar stock can be made by simmering a ham hock and reducing the amount of water proportionately. Those who object to pork may achieve a tasty variation by substituting smoked turkey wings or legs for the pork, and simmering them down. Remove the bones and leave in the bits of meat to flavor the stock and greens.
Bear in mind that greens wilt down, so that while it may appear that one has an excess of greens to begin with, once they have softened and wilted, there will only be a fraction of their original volume.
Thus, for cooking Collard Greens:
Prepare a stock, using Pork Shoulder, Ham Hock or Smoked Turkey. Start with two pounds of meat in a gallon of water and boil for two hours. Strain. For smaller quantities, adjust meat and water proportionately.
Wash thoroughly and prepare greens.
Into a covered pot, place greens with just enough stock to cover them. (Avoid “watery” greens.) Bring to a simmer. Cook until tender, with a silky, glistening texture, 40 minutes to one hour. Add additional stock to pot as needed to prevent greens sticking to pot. For additional flavor, add one or two cloves minced garlic, chopped onion or green pepper and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Add salt and pepper as needed. Serve with scallions, or the Peppers of ones choice on the side, or with a sprinkling of pepper vinegar.
Corn bread is an ideal compliment for greens.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
July 7, 2011
When last I wrote to you, my fellow gardener’s, the 2011 gardening season was just getting under way. Since then, in the ongoing tug-of-war between actual, “hands-in-the-dirt” gardening and “writing’ about gardening, the “actual” has taken precedence over the descriptive. As evidence, there are at least four dozen Hefty Cinch Sacks worth of weeds atop the compost pile to show for our efforts.
So far this year, Nature has blessed us with a sufficiency of sunshine and rain, to facilitate a bountiful harvest of flowers and vegetables. May it always be so! That said, the Spring Peas (Progress # 9), our first crop of the season, planted back in March, is finished now, replaced by garlic bulbs for Fall harvesting. Bush Beans (Blue Lake), and Snow Peas (Oregon Giant), are beginning to come in, and Zucchini and Tomatoes are ripening by the day.
Meanwhile, we accepted the challenge (once again), of participating in the Bucks’ Beautiful Summer Garden Competition, the judging for which is scheduled to take place on Saturday, July 9th. With this in mind, we devoted a portion of almost everyday for the last month to preparing the garden for the judge’s assessment. HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and her ‘swellegant’ friends are not the only ones for whom hats and gloves (of the gardening variety) have become indispensable accessories to nearly every costume! As luck would have it, the judges came a day earlier than originally scheduled, on July 8th, (we were informed of this change of plans), however, we are optimistic that they enjoyed what they saw.
In May, the nascent gardening season shifted into high gear when John and I, accompanied by his brother Merrell and his wife Anne, who were visiting from Minnesota, went to see the extraordinary moss and wildflower garden of local horticulturalist Dave Benner. Now in its 49th year, there is no better example of a rare and native plant and shrub garden to be found, attracting appreciative visitors from far and wide. The most distinctive feature of a garden filled with distinctive features, may be the total absence of grass in preference of a variety of mosses that have naturalized the hillside landscape. Thus, we have dubbed Dave the Moss King, for his use of moss in his own garden, as well as selling it through the company Moss Acres. The unexpected outcome of this visit is a 67 minute film (shot in one “take”), The Patient Dream, in which Mr. Benner, occasionally aided by his wife Sue, takes us on a tour of the garden and it’s many highlights. Stay tuned for more on this “must see” film.
June brought the fulfillment of a longtime desire, to visit friends and gardens in California. Highlights of that trip included a stay at the Los Angeles home of my dear friend Vanoy Aikens, the longtime partner of dance legend Katherine Dunham, in the heart of old LA. Not surprisingly, Van’s terrace overlooking the city is the most lushly planted of any in his building, and a wonderful example of the vegetation that thrives in LA’s weather. I retrieved a twig of a succulent, that broke off while being watered, and have since rooted it, (in a pot), here in our Buck’s County garden. I can only hope that it will grow here as well as it does there. Another bonus of that visit was a snippet of Cyperus alternifolius (Umbrella plant), found on a nearby street corner in Los Angeles, now rooted in water on our back porch. One mans’ weed is another man’s desirable exotic, what can I say? Following Los Angeles, I was the lucky guest of friends’ Malcolm and Kiki B-R, and their family, Campbell and Xia (two legged) and Boudreaux and Lucille (four legged), in Oakland, California. It was a restorative experience to be in their company. While there, I got to fulfill a long held wish, to visit the Richmond, California home of Annie’s Annuals, which I and thousands of others know through their extensive online plant offerings. As good as the website is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the bricks and mortar, or, in this case, chain link and open air, display of an extensive variety of beautiful plants. Despite the challenges of traveling with fragile plants, (airport security checks were particularly daunting,) it was impossible to come away without a few of their plants. That said, I scooped up pots of Salpiglossis (Chocolate Royale), Calendula, Nicotiana (Only the Lonely), Linum (Flax), Geranium “Bill Wallis,” and Artichoke “Violetto and Zucchini Costata Romanesca. All made it home safely and have brought new color, shape, texture, fragrance and flavor to the garden.
I know that on the Chinese lunar calendar, this is the year of the rabbit. Still, does that really explain why our garden is overrun with bunnies this year? From the herb garden to the potager, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter are proliferating and taking unfair advantage of this old softie, who hasn’t the heart to play farmer MacGregor, chasing them with a hoe. Fortunately, so far, there is enough Kale and Swiss Chard for us all, but if the rabbits continue their onslaught, tougher measures may be called for.
Monday, March 21, 2011
After a tortuous winter of snowstorms that obscured the landscape for months at a stretch, today, March 20th at 7:02PM, we pass the Vernal Equinox, officially entering Spring. As if to celebrate the occasion, the first of our Artichoke seeds (Imperial Star, sown in pots indoors,) broke ground today. The sense of hope that lay dormant beneath the snows, stirs again. Visions of fresh lettuces dance in ones head. The Galanthus is approaching full blossom and Crocuses decorate the ground like splotches of spilled, pastel paint.
After weeks when one could not have gardened if one wanted to, shortly, it will take all one can do to keep up with the gardens demands. I admit, I didn’t do all I should have to put the garden to bed last fall. There were competing concerns. Now, one hastens to remove the stalks of last years crops, leaf matter needs to be worked into the soil, and compost laid on, to nurture the coming seasons crops. I do have an excuse, not that that one is necessary. On January 31st, of this year, we lost our beloved Irish Terrier, Jasper, after thirteen years. The months preceding his demise we devoted to securing his comfort. Now, he will no longer supervise our weeding from the shade of the Japanese maple. No more will he patrol the garden to chase away bird-killing cats. It is a wonder that the sun remains in the sky!
Still, Spring is all about renewal, for the landscape outside, and for us, inside. With that in mind, now is the time to cut back ones Buddleia, almost to the ground. Likewise, fruit trees should be cut back and shaped to allow for light and good air circulation. Ones reward for these efforts will be new growth, more flowers and bigger fruit than ever. In the potager, last week I made the first of what will be several sowings of Spring Peas (Progress # 9), by St. Patricks Day, for luck. This will be followed shortly by Spinach, another cool weather loving crop.
In the woodland garden also, signs of Spring are everywhere. Despite the snows and the nibbling of deer and ground hogs, the Hellebores (Lenten Roses) have spread and are sprouting blossoms. Likewise, the Hamamelis, (Witch Hazel) one of the earliest trees to blossom, is more floriferous this year than ever. Here in zone six, keep an eye out for Spring Ephemerals like Sanguinaria Canadensis (Blood Root), Erythronium americanum (Trout Lily) and Tussilago farfara (Colts Foot).
2010 marked the fifth year of the potager at Penrose Bungalow. In honor of the occasion, I am preparing a book, The Potager at Penrose Bungalow, An American Garden, A World of Ideas, that is (mostly) a photographic record of the first five years of our experiences establishing this garden. I have written an introduction that puts this undertaking into context, and John Peters contributed a foreword that illuminates the sources of inspiration that guided his choices in the garden. Look for word of its publication in the coming weeks.
If you haven’t started your garden, well, what are you waiting for?! If you have, tell me what you plan to grow this year, and why. What are your taste buds yearning for?