Saturday, March 17, 2012

Got Collards?

The weather has been unbelievably warm for more days than not over the past two weeks – I felt like planting tomatoes! As it is, my collards wintered over and one plant is producing enough leaves that I’ll probably harvest a bunch shortly to simmer with ham and potatoes.

Each year a leave a few things in the ground over the winter for the rabbits, whom I spy from time to time in the depths of night nibbling in the beds after a trek over our snow-covered yard. This year, I left the Swiss chard and some collards. The chard has been composted. The collards remain. And the rabbits have moved on to tender spring shoots and leaves elsewhere.

I am dying to start planting my garden beds anew. However, I needed to amend the soil. I turned to an old mine and struck gold: rich, organic matter that I call Black Gold. I top-dressed my beds this week with steaming black humus from the town.

Every year, my town makes available composted leaves to its residents. All you have to do is pick it up at the Department of Public Works. I wait for it all winter, and once it’s in come Spring, I hit the road to pick-up a trunk load or two of it. But this year, I’m shoveling humus into bags and bins like there’s no tomorrow. And it never ceases to disappoint.

The humus was actually steaming. It was very warm to the touch, alive in fact. I love this stuff! So do the plants. And not just the crops. For example, top dress around the trunks or bases of your evergreens, in a circle at least the width of the plant in spring and fall. It’s free, natural and healthy “food” for them.

The overhead shot of the long, oval beds shows two of the three for summer production. They are, for now, just top dressed with about six inches of the composted leaves. With the DPW yard’s limited hours, my main goal over the past week of 70-degree weather was simply to back into the dirt bay, fill the bins and bags in the trunk of my car, unload, spread, and head back for more before the yard closes at 3:00 p.m. and I need to pick up my daughter from school. The yard doesn’t have weekend hours until mid-May, and that’s just too late in the season for me. And anyway, it feels great to get down and dirty again!

I’d already applied a layer of dehydrated, composted manure; the humus is icing on the cake. In the coming weeks, wielding a pitchfork, I’ll turn all of the soil over and integrate the amendments
thoroughly. It’s an old-fashioned but tried and true way of doing things, but the aches and pains are well worth it: the soil will be aerated, crumbly, well amended and ready to accommodate and nourish tender seedling roots.

Two types of kale, cabbage seeds, lettuces and cippolini onion seed will be in the ground within two weeks – I can’t wait!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

I haven’t hosted a dinner in quite a while, so I suddenly felt the need to do so, especially with a break in the cold and the advent of Spring being just around the corner. I aimed to gather people together on Saturday night. What to serve? An Ides of March Dinner. Togas were optional.

Julius Caesar was assassinated 2056 years ago on March 15, the ides, in 44 BC. Every month has an ides, but March’s is notorious. Ides are also marked in May, July and October, but they generally go by with nary a thought.

But for dinner, I really had to think about a menu. I decorated the table with laurel branches entwined around low candles, and this is what I served:

Bagna Cauda
Caesar Salad
Whole Branzino stuffed with fennel and lemon
The Pope’s Risotto

The bubbling bowl of Bagna Cauda stood for the seething Gaius Cassius Longinus, co-conspirator with Brutus. Cassius was a warrior, leader, and political. However, after many battles, Caesar made Cassius a legate, then employed him in the Alexandrian War, where he refused to fight. Cassius spent the next two years without office. His junior, Brutus, was promoted. It deeply offended him.

I love a bagna cauda, hot, lusty and salty with garlic and anchovies, served with vegetables and bread for dipping. That was on the table during hors d’ouvres with the olives, grapes and three Italian cheeses: Taleggio (strong and runny), Sottocenere (a favorite – so truffly that you’d think a sow dug it up) and Bel Paese (mild and neutral).

The Caesar Salad, well, how could I not make one? That night, however, it was christened The Gaius Julius Caesar Salad. As a politician, Caesar made use of populist tactics. But after assuming control of government, he began extensive reforms of Roman society and government and was eventually proclaimed "dictator in perpetuity." The salad was somewhat powerful, in that I made it a bit more lemony than most for that extra bite. But in the end, like Caesar, it simply went down.

The Branzino was for Marcus Junius Brutus, who, after killing Caesar, set his ambitious eyes upon defeating Mark Anthony and Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian, only two years later. After Brutus was defeated in the second engagement of the Battle at Philippi, he fled to the hills and committed suicide [i.e., he sleeps with the fishes].

The Pope’s Risotto is a dish from Lidia Bastianich. I realize that the first Pope, Clement I, was not installed until 92 AD, 136 years after the murder of Caesar. But we’re talking about Rome here, the seat of Roman Catholicism, my religion. I had to make at least a nod to The Pope. Plus the risotto is delicious: full of early peas, asparagus, favas and other fresh flavors of spring, then topped with a swirl of ramp pesto.

The Tiramisu was in honor of Calpurnia, wife of Julius Caesar. Tirami su literally means "pick me up" or "pull me up." And what does a wife do? Calpurnia had a premonition of her husband's murder and tried to warn him in vain. She never remarried after the death of Ceasar.

Entry into the house was gained only after drinking a shot of Grappa. As for wines, we started with Prosecco, moved onto a Verdicchio, notable for its ancient amphora-shaped bottle, then opened a Pinot Grigio brought by a guest. Strega, Faretti Biscotti Liqueur (you MUST try this if you can find it) and amaretto rounded out dessert.

It wasn’t the full debauchery of Ancient Rome, but I’d say a good time was had by all. And hell, anybody can do Mardi Gras.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stray Not, Thy Wandering Heart: This Year’s Seed Order

Last year, I purchased some yellow wax pole bean seeds and other vegetable seeds from another catalog. I felt somewhat guilty betraying John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, since they were the first and best source when my more serious ventures in suburban agriculture started a few years ago. Midway through last season, I asked myself, “Why did I ever stray?”

The company is based in Connecticut, a neighboring state, so I can keep my dollars somewhat local. The catalog never fails to satisfy in both its charm and information. But, more importantly, the seeds are flat-out great. Some three-year-old Scheepers seeds I used last year had better germination rates and heavier vegetable production than the new ones I purchased from the other source. Suffice it to say, save some collard greens from the 4/$1 seed stand at my grocery store, just about everything going in the ground this year will be from Scheepers.

And (drum roll please…) the new purchases are:

Winter Red Russian Kale
Purple Dragon Carrots
Lemon Cucumbers
Zucchetta Trombolina Zucchini
Purple Podded Pole Beans (a perennial favorite)
Both red and yellow “jellybean” grape tomatoes
Sungold cherry tomatoes
Lyn’s Mahogany Garnet tomatoes
Persimmon tomatoes
Australian Butter Squash (for winter storage)

I’m especially excited about the new squash. Winter squashes have done quite well in my yard in years past and (I pray I’m not jinxing it here) I hope this new variety will do just as well and pleasantly surprise with its flavor and storage potential. The Australian Butter Squash is described as a “pumpkin-shaped heirloom, prolific, tasty and versatile with a pale, buff-orange hard shell and sweet, dense orange flesh with a small seed cavity…Weighing in at 12-15 pounds, list long-keeper may be stored and used throughout the winter.”

The areas for my cool-weather crops are turned over and ready, so the following will be planted shortly: the new red kale, Tuscan Lacinato Kale (older seeds, still viable), collard greens, and various lettuces. In a few weeks, the carrots and some parsnip seeds (not yet purchased) should make their way into sweet Mother Earth.

So, with seeds about to go in the ground, I may as well start the Eco-Nomics of it all for the 2011 growing season:

Scheepers Order: $37.15
Collards, w/tax $ 0.27
Total: $37.42

I have peat pellets left over from last year, along with their reusable growing trays and some seed starting mix. My daughter and I will start our tomato seeds shortly. Most everything else will be directly sown. We’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Something is different this Spring.

You all know that at this time of year, I’m always itching to wriggle my hands into warm, wet Mother Earth, plant some early, cool-weather crops and wait patiently for the first sprout to emerge from her rich soil.

But this year, I’m experiencing an all-consuming sense of urgency to it all. The tension is palpable. Mother Earth’s promise of spring seems to hold more potential and possibility this year. I want to smear her mud across my cheeks like an Indian warrior. I want to keep her fertile soil and heady scent under my fingernails so that I know she is with me at all times. I want to bend, twist, turn, shovel, haul and work so hard that my body throbs in delicious pain and I gratifyingly limp for days afterward.

Perhaps it is the long, dark winter, deeper with snow than in any year past that I can remember. Perhaps I have had the expectancy bottled up and inside for too long. Perhaps I am fantasizing about a rebirth and new beginning like none I’ve ever experienced before. I already feel it is underway – that is how palpable my restless heart’s anticipation has become.

My seed order has been delivered.
My beds have been top-dressed.
My turning fork has been cleaned, its screws tightened, and is ready to work the earth.
All is in place. I need only wait for planting day.

And I am longing for release.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine Bouquet of Cheer

I’m up to my old tricks.

I volunteered to bake cookies for my daughter’s first grade class Valentine’s Day party and, well, you know me. I couldn’t just make cookies.

“Let’s do hearts and flowers!” my daughter said excitedly.

“No, let’s do a whole bouquet of hearts and flowers!” I responded. I don’t know why I egg her on. It always means more work for me.

We hadn’t done a large batch of lollipop cookies on sticks since her pre-school Easter basket. The cookies simply are cut-out shapes, but the skewers add another level of labor and a hefty opportunity for breakage. I felt rusty. And worried.

My daughter and I always work side-by-side when it comes to almost any sort of baking, and her little hands get into every element at every step. This time was no different. But the results were: She was very adept and surprisingly smooth with the dough, the icings, the sugars, the chocolate dipping and the final assembly. She was careful and precise with little guidance. What a difference from age 4 ½ to 6!

We made smooth-edged hearts and what I called “doily hearts” – which were lacey and charming. All we did was prick the edges of the dough with a toothpick before baking and Voila! It was a good idea that was super-easy and worked out very well. We iced and coated the hearts in red, violet and pink sparkling sugars and non-pariels, using décor left over from her party last week. We also made a separate “XOX” cookie for her teacher.

Did we stop there? Not on your life. We rolled out the remaining dough scraps and cut out small one- or two-bite hearts to be dipped in chocolate (her idea) and topped with a conversation heart (my idea). They were really cute, too!

We assembled the “bouquet” of hearts in a pink tub with red paper “grass”, laid the chocolate-covered hearts amidst the forest of sticks, then wrapped the entire confection in clear cellophane tied with a mass of curling ribbon in three shades of pink.

My daughter proudly carried it in to class on Monday morning, and rightly so.

She did a great job.

Elements, recipes, tips and techniques used can be found in a past entry, “Queen of Royal Icing.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Will You Be My Valentine?

A tornado of nine giggling, squealing first grade girls descended upon the house after school on Thursday, leaving a chaos of cupcake crumbs, sanding sugars, non-pariels, frosting, stickers, jewels, balloons, streamers and scattered conversation hearts in its wake.

My daughter and I threw a Valentine’s Day party for her friends.

I love Valentine’s Day, sentimental fool that I am. We came up with the idea in the icy, dark depths of January, when we were constantly snowed in and barely able to dig out at times. A blizzard of pink cheer was definitely in order. We decided on card making and cupcake decorating as activities. She and I started by making the invitations out of construction paper cut into hearts and glued onto pink poster board cut to fit some funky lined envelopes I had on hand. She decorated the invitations with foam hearts of all colors and ruby-red stick-on heart jewels for added bling. I addressed them in super-loopy curlicue script and sent them using “Love” stamps from the Post Office.

I should have known at that early point that we’d end up going overboard.

I transformed the dining room into an explosion of pink streamers, dangling hearts and red heart-shaped balloons, then set the table with pink plates and matching heart napkins and cups upon a pink disposable tablecloth. I framed the entryway with a glittery heart garland draped like a giant, metallic feather boa.

My daughter and I made chocolate-covered strawberries, mainly for the mothers to eat when dropping off and picking up their daughters. But they were devoured by all. I also put out some chilled Prosecco (Champagne entails just too many expectations) and foil-covered Swiss chocolate hearts and squares from Rohr for the adults.

With all that melting chocolate laying around, I got a little more ambitious: We used molds to make solid hearts and two-tone roses in both white chocolate dyed pink and dark chocolate. Selections of each were put into heart-covered cellophane gift bags, tied with a frizz of curling ribbon and placed into the larger pink paper goodie bags. I also tossed in a valentine’s candy necklace in each. My daughter begged and pleaded at Michael’s Craft Store to please, please, please buy the glitter heart wands because they were “covered in real fairy dust.” I did, and one went into each girl’s bag as well.

But honestly, the girls did all of the work and filled the bags with their efforts. The cards were a blank canvas, with a pink background and doily edge, and they turned out very well: the girls mainly made them for mainly for their parents or teachers and included lots of hearts, X and O kisses and hugs, and wrote loving sentiments. The girls worked very intensely and quite nicely together, cooperating, politely helping each other when asked, and sharing stickers and jewels. It was really quite sweet to watch.

Then all hell broke loose though after a break, during which the girls raided the princess dress-up chest while I set out the cupcakes and accoutrements. But what a riot!
My daughter and I pre-baked both chocolate and golden-butter cupcakes and turned – seriously - a half gallon of store-bought tubs of vanilla frosting into different colors. The girls got to decorate one cupcake of each flavor. Some had never used a pastry bag before, so there was a learning process and a lot of laughs involved. Cupcake décor included Sweet Tart conversation hearts, pink and lavender M & Ms, Jelly Belly jellybeans in all shades of solid and speckled pink, large heart-shaped Wilton sprinkles, edible pink pearls, a pink red and white non-pariel blend, electric pink, violet and red sanding sugars, Williams Sonoma gold and silver shimmering sugars over from Christmas and – how could I resist? – Maraschino cherries for those who wanted them on top. All were set out in bowls that criss-crossed the table, were shared, spilled, mixed together and eaten out of directly (that was the candy …)

The girls’ super-frosted delectables went into fuchsia and white boxes shaped like Chinese-food containers (thank goodness for the dollar store!), to maintain the integrity of the cupcakes. I suggested that the girls all take one to school the next day as a lunchtime dessert, to be part of “The Valentine’s Cupcake Club.” Within a split second, one girl said, "Um, no" without even looking up, and I was shot down. The others pretty much agreed with the "no." Forty years after I was their age, and Mommy is still a dork.

In the end, surprisingly few of the girls were in sugar-shock, and none of them wanted to leave. That was fine, since some of the mothers lingered over a glass of Prosecco. Thankfully, the mother of one of my daughter’s best friends came over to help with the insanity, and we both needed a glass by the end of the party!

I sent the girls off with their goody bags and their choice of balloons from the house, fed my daughter dinner, cleaned up and nearly collapsed.

But amazingly during her evening bath, my daughter and I started planning her next event.

We can’t wait!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Half-Way Day

To all of you who think mismatched socks are a creative way to celebrate the school’s “Half Way Day,” I present you with this: a bouncy, flouncy full circle skirt in two fabrics and color schemes, complete with a crinoline for added pouf.

My daughter and I made it Sunday night.

Half Way Day marks the 90th day of school in our 180-day school year. It’s the kids’ day to “mix it up,” as the flyer sent home last week stated. Some kids wore two different shoes. One wore a pajama top and regular pants.

I think the skirt is both witty and literal. Its literality is obvious: one half of the skirt is a deep navy, black and forest green Christmas plaid silk taffeta, the other a starched pink and grass green cotton plaid. I think the mix of dark winter plaid and cheerful spring and summer colors introduces wit into the equation. Wit, or irony in the least. Considering the winter we’ve had so far, with snow totals nearing five feet, who doesn’t need a blooming burst of spring? The day was originally scheduled in January, but due to snow days, it was pushed into February.

I do have my issues with Half Way Day. It makes me think of a group of broken and bedraggled 1st graders in prison stripes scratching tally marks into the school’s cinder block walls, counting down their days in the clink, plinking their tin cups against cell bars ‘til they’re sprung from the joint.

I have a bit of a reputation amongst the mothers (and teachers) for a certain level of intensity, and when it comes to academics, that is true. I believe that the school year should be as close to 24/7/365 as the law would allow. I can come across as pretty serious. But once people get to know me, I often hear something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re a normal person.” I think the fun and silliness displayed in this creation should absolve me of at least some of that rep in the schoolyard. See? I do have a sense of humor.

But, would just a skirt be enough? As you all know from cooking and baking entries of the past, neither my daughter nor I can leave well enough alone. We had to take things one step further. So we cut apart two pairs of tights and sewed them back together at the center front and back seams. She had one pink leg and one ivory, and wore one pink Naturino shoe on one foot and one black patent leather Mary Jane on the other. The mismatched pink and white ponytail ribbons in her hair were simply icing on the cake.

We had almost as much fun making all of this as she had wearing it to school.