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.