Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hollyhock Lore

The hollyhocks along the fence are finally coming into their own. These are the second growth stalks that came up after I cut down the towering (ten or twelve feet) spring flagpoles that were not blooming and had acquired a layer of rust, due to the relentlessly cool weather.

This is a popular gathering spot for all manner of bees. Once, I saw a hummingbird inserting its tiny beak along the base of a partially opened blossom -- not inside the flower but outside. It reminded me of the deft skill of my favorite dental hygienist probing my gums. Not the most poetic image, but it does capture the expert precision of the hummingbird at work. Perhaps there are pockets of nectar hidden in the showy blooms even before they open wide?

Here's a wide open blossom, a stunning pink banner unfurled to the sun. Rose pink is thought to be the original color of these ancient medicinal plants. The botanical name, Althaea rosea, comes from the Greek "althos" for "healing."

In medieval Europe, a related plant was used to treat horses. Ailing hocks, the part right above the hoof, were wrapped in the leaves. When crusaders came back from the Holy Land, bearing the botanical cousin of this hock plant, the new arrival came to be known as the "holy hock."

The dramatic knob in the center of the blossom contains both stamen and pistils and the plant is self-pollinating. Bees love the abundant pollen so cross-pollination occurs. I have often watched the giddy buzzing things burying themselves in one blossom after another.

Maybe cross pollination accounts for the range of colors that have evolved from the original seeds from plants with dark red blooms given by a friend from the south Bay. They grew in our yard as dark pink at first, then diversified into a range of dark pink to pale pink to white.

Pale pink and white blooms showed up this year for the first time -- the third season since the original planting.

Supposedly the "holy hock" brings good fortune and abundance to homes where it is planted nearby. Planting some certainly brings an abundance of hollyhocks, since they grow back from the base and also produce myriad seeds. In our yard, the row along the fence is well established and seedlings are popping up here and there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Feasts of the Season

A feast for the eye; food as art. This is the best example of Eggplant Expressionism I've ever seen: the dynamic, almost careless composition, subtle range of color, and energetic play of light across the textured surface make it a real museum piece. Too bad about that. Roasted Hansel Eggplant and Sun Gold Cherry Tomatoes lasted less than a half-hour.

Tomato Sauce with Fairy Tale Eggplant and Basil, even more colorful and dynamic, was just as short-lived.

Our dining room table has become an art gallery of seasonal creations, fleeting but delicious, showcasing garden-fresh feasts for the eye and the palate almost every night.

There is hardly room on the table to display the artistic creation du jour because the clutter of work-in-progress material hogs the space: bowls of produce, jars of seeds, lables and pens.

But we persevere.

Middle Eastern Still Life. Eggplant caviar (roasted eggplant and peppers with chopped olives), lemon cucumbers with yogurt, humus and pita bread.

Tomato Puff with French Beans. The puff is one of B.s inventions: a kind of Yorkshire pudding creation of eggs, cottage cheese, and cheddar cheese with a little flour. I'll take credit for the Haricot beans. The variety is Nickel and they are a breeze to grow.

Composition in Brown and Beige. There was nothing from the garden in this loaf of rye bread with corriander seeds, but it's worth sharing for sheer artistic merit. (Recipe from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Farmer's Market Applesauce

Confession: we hardly ever go to the farmer's market even though it's only eight blocks away and happens every Saturday, May through October. Our own backyard yields so much bounty there never seems to be a compelling reason to go and look at other people's produce.

Nonetheless, there we were on a beautiful, sun-drenched Labor Day weekend, wandering the length of the one-block row of pickup trucks backed in along one edge of the main downtown park. (At least that's what I was doing. B. was scouting out the shadiest bench he could find, avoiding the sun out of medical necessity.) In front of each truck were tents shading the tables heaped high with peak-of-the-harvest abundance.

I stopped at a popular table covered with numerous small piles of apples labeled with poetic and unfamiliar names: Honeycrisp, Ginger Gold, Jona Gold. After a brief discussion with the lady in charge about my desire to make some applesauce, I was suddenly the proud owner of a $10 bushel basket filled to the brim with a 30-pound mix of all the organic heirloom apples she was offering -- the rejects she didn't think would sell for the standard $2.50 a pound.

That works out to about 33 cents a pound! An unexpected windfall of apples. We had thought we might be bereft of applesauce this year because we missed the chance to get a box of our favorite Pomo Tierra Gravensteins.

B. and I slowly made our way through the park, carrying the heavy basket between us. When the wire handles started digging into our hands too painfully, we simply put our burden down for a bit and admired the festive scene of vegetables and fruits, bread and cheese, herbs and flowers, sweets and savories ready-to-eat, handicrafts and kids, music and . . .oh, hello! . . people we know.

I couldn't help thinking of one of my favorite lines from Dylan Thomas:

"Oh, I was prince of the apple towns and time let me run, golden in the heyday of his eyes."

At least that's the way I've always remembered it. Here's what it really is:

"Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes.
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns."
(From Fern Hill)

A wagon would have been nice.

With the apples at hand, the prosaic business of making applesauce was simple. I washed them thoroughly, ignoring the blemishes, bruises, and sun scald while admiring how firm and fresh they felt (and only 33 cents a pound!).

Then they were chopped into quarters and all the damaged parts removed. As it turned out, only a very small proportion of the whole biomass had to be removed. There was no need to remove the peels as they would be strained out.

Next, they were cooked gently until soft in a very little bit of water -- as little as possible -- along with a whole cinnamon stick.

Then all the softened apples were run through the mighty Squeezo (aka Vittorio Strainer).

A bushel of apples almost filled this big pot. The task took me about two hours up to this point. The next-to-last step was to wrestle the pot into the refrigerator and let everything cool down for a day or so.

The last step was to spoon it all out into freezer containers and tuck most of it away in the freezer for future feasting, saving some for immediate gratification.

I hardly ever eat sweets, so fresh applesauce with yogurt seems like apple pie a la mode. Mmmmmmm. This farmer's market blend has a lovely mellow flavor, and throughout the year, whenever we enjoy it, it will evoke this golden week-end.

Did I mention the apples were only 33 cents a pound?