Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Pear Tree is Blooming!

The plum blossoms are gone now and the plum trees are leafing out. But the second wave of bloom is making a dramatic display: our pear tree (see above), an old apple tree down the block, in neighbors yards tulips like huge Easter eggs on sticks, the cruel lilacs, mingling memory and desire, and the dramatic wisteria draped across entryways and fences. Some people, such as Michele Anna Jordan, regard wisteria as a favorite harbinger of spring, but I'm sticking with January's fields of golden mustard and February's plum blossoms. To me, spring is well along into chapter two.

Monday, March 29, 2010

2010 Eat-the-Chard Challenge

It's peak time for the chard, which is being harvested by the armfuls: as much as we can carry and give away and, of course, eat. I made another big batch of green soup. It was mostly chard, supplemented by kale and broccoli.

This time the soup actually made it to the dinner table for a quick feast. What it lacked in general crowd appeal (except to fanatics like myself) it made up for in ease of preparation, i.e. it was already made and just needed heating up. A sprinkling of parmesan cheese helped a lot. The ubiquitous garden salad rounded out the occasion.

We have been keeping up with the self-imposed 2010 Eat the Yard Challenge of eating something from the garden every day, even if only a sprig of parsley. So far we've only missed two days. Once we had a late medical appointment in San Francisco and decided to wait out the traffic in Sausalito, watching rainbows over the Golden Gate and dining with an old friend. The other time was a wedding. So we have good excuses.

The rest of the time it has been the usual round of salad almost every night, lettuce on tacos or veggie burgers, and greens in the soup. There was one instance of emergency parsley added to a tomato sauce at the last minute.

I find the Challenge very motivating in making sure that the abundance in the yard makes it onto the table.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mr. Potato Head

Finally! Some potatoes went into the ground today. The smiley faced Mr. Potato Head is a basket of Russian Banana Fingerling potatoes.

Planting in containers is the only way I've found to foil the gophers who are capable of taking most of a crop. I think that is what must of happened to the Gro-Bed full of All Blue potatoes in 2008. Last year's crop consisted of the volunteer remnants which came up on their own, an unexpected treat, and provided enough to accessorize a couple of meals.

Usually we try to plant potatoes on or near St. Patrick's Day -- an old Irish custom so I'm told. In past years, when we planted by St. Patrick's Day we had ingredients for Fourth of July potato salad. Since our potato endeavors are strictly a boutique operation, usually there's enough for a good-sized salad but not much more.

My brother back in Virginia, who is a farmer at heart although he too has only his yard, sent me some photos of his potato patch last year: a long lush row of perfectly hilled plants, complete with tiny granddaughter and friend digging out the treasure trove.

So far this year we have the basket of Russians and a container of Yukon Golds. They came from David Baldwin at Natural Gardening, who is always a pleasure to buy from and is about as local as you can get -- although it's a national mail-order company. (I always feel pleased when I plan ahead enough to actually order something on time.)

And potatoes are so much fun to grow. I like every stage of the process. Burying the seed potatoes like secret treasure, waiting for the first sturdy shoots, covering the stems with successive layers of compost and straw, enjoying the flowers, and at last the payoff: groping around in the dark, rich soil for the satisfyingly solid, rounded spuds.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Homage to Cruciferae

There are striking similarities among the broccoli, kale, and arugula plants, all flourishing right now in our backyard. The sibling resemblances should not come as any surprise since they are in the same family, the Cruciferae, also known as Brassicaceae (that is how it's spelled -- I checked). Personally, I think of them as Cruciferae. For one thing, it's easier to pronouce.

They are also in the same sub-group or genus within this huge family. The genus is known as the brassicas. It contains more important agricultural and horticultural plants than any other genus. (Isn't Wikipedia wonderful?) There are your cabbages, your turnips, your brussels sprouts, your kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, mustards, on and on, and that's just the vegetables. A farmer's market of cousins.

Above is Purple Sprouting Broccoli, doing its thing. From this plant we eat the buds.

Here is Dinosaur Kale, also putting out buds and looking a lot like sprouting broccoli. But in this case the appearance of these sprouts means the plant is past its prime (from our perspective) and going to seed. The prized leaves will lose flavor as the plant puts its energy into budding, flowering and seeding.

Here is the lovely blossom of the Dinosaur Kale. The name Cruciferae comes from the four-petaled flowers in the shape of a cross that are a stable characteristic across the entire family of hundreds of sub-groups.

And here are arugula blossoms, also cruciferous. This plant has a nice bud stalk. Would it be good to eat, like broccoli? And what about the Dinosaur Kale buds?

We are very conventional and eat only the customary parts of each of these plants. There is more than enough as it is. But it's nice to know the family tree all the same.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fava Bean Envy

While driving through town, I noticed a front yard vegetable garden with fava beans about five feet tall, complete with blossoms. And in the community garden that abuts the nature area where C. and I take our weekly rambles, there are some almost as tall. Back home, the seeds I planted on February 28 are just starting to come up, only a few inches high so far.

I do admire those tall beautiful fava bean plants in other people's gardens. Although, if envy is in order, I am most envious of my own plants from last year. In the fall of 2008, I happened to see some seedlings at a local nursery and bought them as a cover crop, having read somewhere that that's how they are used. The label said they were "Windsors."

By spring they were eight feet tall and thriving. The photo is from March 21, 2009, a year ago precisely. The tall plants at the back are the favas. Rather than dig them in I let them keep growing to see what they would do. It was the first time I'd grown favas so I was curious.

It was quite a show. They put forth an abundance of astonishing white blossoms, pale lavender at the base with black polka dots on the main petals. The flowers were swarmed by fat bumblebees. Maybe the dots are supposed to look like bumblebees and create the appearance of a crowd, just as a restaurant likes to look crowded to attract more patrons.

The blossoms gave way to enormous green pods filled with large shapely seeds. Eventually, when the beds were needed for summer plantings, I uprooted everything and put it on the brush heap. There was way too much biomass for the compost bin.

We'll see what happens this year with a spring planting. The seeds are also Windsors, which, as it turns out, is an eating variety. If these plants make it to the harvesting stage, we can try eating the beans; if not, more biomass. The seed packet says they can be planted in early spring "when the crocus emerge" and that's what I did, so hopes are high.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Eatin' o' the Greens

As long as we are in St. Patrick's Day mode, it's worth saying a word or two about the spring tonic version of green soup, which is very very green. The summer version is mostly zucchini, a light concoction with fairly good crowd appeal. The spring version is for true believers only -- mostly kale and chard with whatever broccoli shoots can be gleaned.

I made some recently and have been enjoying the results for lunch. This never gets served at dinner because the Army surplus color of the soup is a little off-putting for some.

Above is an array of kales: Siberian, Redbor, and Lacinato (also known as Tuscan, Black Tuscan, or Dinosaur kale -- for obvious scaly reasons), and also a few shoots of Purple Sprouting and Romanesco broccoli. For connoisseurs of green, this is a delight for the eye. For connoisseurs of green soup, a delight for the palate.

In the last couple of weeks of warmer weather, the chard has been sizing up. There is more than enough anytime we need it. I can't keep track of the varieties any more because it comes up as it pleases and I move the seedlings around wherever a good spot opens up. The palest leaves are most likely Bionda de Lyon. But once it's harvested and headed for the soup pot it's all just yard chard.

There is one bed of Rainbow Lights chard planted from nursery starts that contributed to this batch. The photo captures only part of the spectrum which ranges farther into shades of red and orange.

The soup-making process is the same as for the summer version (see "Zucchini Factory," June 30, 2009, for description of process). But it's not the same soup -- the spring tonic version is so muscular I felt like the pot might get down off the stove and start doing one-handled push-ups.

Here's the final mixture, after blending. Intimidating for some, thrilling for others.

Anything extra goes in the freezer. There is still some summer soup left in there and now there will be plenty more until the zucchini starts coming in in a few months. The eatin' o' the greens goes on all year.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In honor of the green, here are the shamrocks by the kitchen door. We had some in salad tonight -- our minor observance of the day. This is actually just some wild oxalis, sour grass, that opportunistically took over this pot and the little plot it sits in. Actually, no-one really knows what the true shamrock might be, according to an article I read in a doctor's waiting room, in an glossy Irish horticultural magazine. Too bad I had to leave it behind before finishing the article.

But here's the gist of it: researchers sent out requests all over Ireland for people to mail in samples of the real and true shamrock. They got a variety of different plants, all having the tri-partite leaves that St. Patrick legendarily used to explain the Trinty. Many of the plants were in the oxalis family, so I rest my case. The true shamrock is the one growing right outside your door.

Another green tribute -- the velveteen hills of Sonoma County, dotted with live oaks. This vista is in walking distance of our house. The new grass has that dizzying green-gold light of early spring.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More Backyard Blooms

The plum blossoms are at their peak, spilling over the yard like a breaking wave. I read once somewhere that Native American peoples named months -- called "moons" in their lunar-based calendar -- after the most important natural feature of the season. I always think of March as the Moon of Plum Blossom Rain. The neighborhood sidewalks are covered with the litter of petals, pink and white, and the backyard is decorated with white confetti floating through the air and landing everywhere.

They float over the garden paths, thick with blooming forget-me-nots.

They drift past the surprise crocus. (Several years ago I planted some in the two clay herb bowls that R. gave me. They never bloomed after the first year. H. showed me how to do close-ups with my camera but the batteries ran out and I wasn't able to capture the open blossom with its yellow center, welcoming the day. Nice close-up though!)

Many plum petals land on the arugula and have to be picked off during salad making. The arugula blossoms, which look like jeweled Celtic crosses, don't fall off but stay where they are, perhaps to stay as beautiful as possible for as long as possible.