Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gardener versus cook, or why I should have weeded the beets.

Let’s start off with the facts. I don’t cook. Well I do, but although I have a huge collection of cookbooks, I find it more satisfying to read them then I do to create from them. I’m actually a baker, but since baking is fattening, my mixer doesn’t come out that often. Besides, being as I’m a bit compulsive, I can’t just make one bundt cake, I feel compelled to make three. They’ll all be from different recipes and interesting to compare, and then of course, hard to resist and as I said, very, very fattening. 

Luckily, I married a cook and my husband is fantastic in the kitchen. Hand him a couple of ingredients, and he can invent something truly inspirational. Unlike me, with my reams of recipes, my tear sheets from Gourmet, Saveur, Vegetarian Times and Cooks Illustrated and my scales and measuring cups, Dereyk is improvisational. As long as I keep the refrigerator stocked, he’ll make dinner every night and all I have to do are the dishes. It’s a great deal, and of course, as I’m a gardener, I felt compelled to plant him a vegetable garden so that he could have everything he needed just a few steps away from the kitchen.

Doesn’t that sound perfect?

Okay, so the reality doesn’t really work as well as I hoped it would. So yes Dereyk made an amazing Roasted Beets with Hazelnut Vinaigrette and Burrata salad from a recipe he skimmed the other night in my Bon Appetit, but did he use my beets from the garden? No as they were deemed, “pathetic.” An apt description for the tiny little guys I’ve been harvesting from among the crabgrass that’s overrun them, oh yes and I was bad about thinning them too. So instead of using my fabulous crop of wee, baby beets, which Dereyk tells me will take significantly more work to roast and clean he just picked up big beautiful ones up from the farm stand on the way home and made little baby beet size bites by quartering them after roasting.

I just keep thinking that maybe this year it’ll be different. It isn’t, of course, so this might be the final hurrah of the vegetable garden at the Patterson house. Especially since the chef in residence, didn’t even want me to do basil this year. “If I need basil I can just pick it up on the way home,” he tells me. Painful right?

In fact after two years, Dereyk has laid down some rules for next year’s garden. I am allowed to grow as much garlic as I like (he now considers his pesto made from the garlic scapes to be one of our personal kitchen basics, and the man is a freak about garlic cloves) but no more peas, carrots or beets. No more cilantro too, as ours has always just bolted right when he needs a handful, no more lemon grass, no more oregano or summer savory or lemon verbena. He’s right that the tarragon is pathetic, but I missed out on the big ones when they came in, so maybe I can squeak that by next year.

He’s even trying to ban basil. In fact when he made his massive pesto batch, my basil was deemed too small, so he got his from Citterella instead. I’m allowed the variegated variety since it doesn’t go to seed, but he hasn’t ever used it so I might give it up. No more lettuce, of course since it bolts. Nor am not allowed to bring home any more enormous rosemary plants. A small one is fine. No more arugula – thank you flea beetles. There’s enough thyme for the rest of our lives and the same with sage. I know it sounds strange about a cook not wanting his own home grown basil, but I sort of get it. Now that garlic scape time is past, what’s Dereyk meant to do with 12 basil plants all getting ready to flower and demanding to be harvested, when we already have a freezer filled with pre-portioned pesto?

He’s also torn over the tomatoes. The heartache of losing them each year to blight is discouraging for both of us. Plus I think the fact that I have only plum tomatoes and yellow cherry tomatoes this year might put him over the edge, but they are meant to be blight resistant so we’ll see.

On the plus side, I can grow as many beans, peppers and cucumbers as I want. Also allowed are chives and as much dill (he’s going to have to battle it out with the swallowtail butterflies, but I’ll grow it for him) and nasturtiums as I can handle. I can have eggplants and he’ll grill them as long as he doesn’t have to eat them, and I can knock myself out with wax and hot peppers, but no habanaros. And no more tomatillos, which I agree with, we’re still weeding out volunteers from last year’s single plant gone rogue. I don’t even think he’s realized that we have ground cherries (He thinks they're tomatillos so we’ll have to wait until harvest. to get his ruling.) And I’m allowed artichokes, but they need to be worked into my flowerbeds if I’m not going to remember to harvest the buds.

And finally, only one summer squash or one zucchini plant allowed. I brought home two of each and they are galloping away from us. There’s a pile on the kitchen table that’s growing out of control, and I feel bad about giving them to the chickens. So tonight I gave the chef a break and made us zucchini fritters with a dill and yogurt topping from one of my torn out recipes (and Dereyk did the dishes woo hoo!) Tomorrow I’m threatening to do a comparison Chocolate Zucchini Cake test.

Version 1 found on the blog Mama’s Minutia adapted from Julie of Dinner with Julie

½ cup butter, ¼ cup canola oil, 1 ¾ cups sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 2 ¼ cups whole wheat or white flour, ¾ cup cocoa, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon baking soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 cup sour cream, ¾ cup mini chocolate chips, 2 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream the fats and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture alternately with the sour cream. Fold in the chocolate chips and zucchini. Pour the cake batter into a greased angel food cake (or bundt) pan.

Bake for an hour or until a cake tester comes out clean (though the chips will leave some chocolate smears) and the top of the cake is cracked and boingy to the touch. While the cake is still slightly warm, invert onto a cooling rack.

Version 2 adapted from Martha Stewart Online

½ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled, 1 cup sugar, 1 large egg, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup finely grated zucchini, ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch if available), ½ cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or chocolate chips, 3 tablespoons non fat yogurt (Martha says sour cream), 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, ½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract, nonstick cooking spray.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together butter, sugar, salt, and egg until combined. Add vanilla, zucchini, and yogurt and stir until incorporated. Sift flour and cocoa powder into bowl and stir until combined. Stir in chocolate.

Spray two mini muffin pans with cooking spray. Fill each cup with 2 tablespoons batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of a muffin comes out clean, 15 to 17 minutes. Let muffins cool slightly in pans on wire racks before serving.

Version 3 is the King Arthur Flour version, improved by the repressed baker on her site.

½ cup butter, 
1/2 cup vegetable oil, 
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar, 
1 teaspoon vanilla, 
1 teaspoon baking soda, 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 
1/2 teaspoon salt, 
2 large eggs, 
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt, 
2 ½ cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
3/4 cup, Dutch-process cocoa, 
2 teaspoons espresso powder, 
2 cups shredded zucchini, 1/2 cup chocolate chips.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly coat a 9″ x 13″ pan with baking spray.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, oil, sugar, vanilla, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Beat in the eggs. Stir in the sour cream or yogurt alternately with the flour. Then add the cocoa and espresso powder, mixing till smooth. Finally, fold in the zucchini and ½ cup chocolate chips. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. 

Bake the cake for 35 – 40 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and cool on a rack. 

Test Away!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Crying uncle in the back 40

Okay, so the rabbits ate the peas again this year, all the cilantro bolted in the heat and the Genovese basil is going to flower already! Plus can we talk about the weeds? The beets are losing the battle to the crabgrass that’ just exploded in the last week or so and it’s hot out there. Who wants to weed? The kitchen garden is one of those things I feel compelled to do every year, and every year at about this time, I want to rip it all up and plant dahlias instead.

Let’s be serious, we live in a place where you can’t go 50 feet without tripping over a farm stand or farmers market and all those folks do it light years better then I do. And although just recently I stood at a farm stand and watched an employee empty plastic containers of Driscoll raspberries and blueberries into little green cardboard boxes, there are still a lot of good straightforward folk, with honest, homegrown produce out there. Besides, my raspberries were demolished by the deer that got into my garden just as their first crop was all ripening, so I have to buy Driscoll raspberries anyway. Oh and have I mentioned that my potatoes are all collapsing into liquid puddles of nastiness? And that there’s already way too much squash?

Now granted, there’s isn’t anything as good as picking, steaming and eating your own artichokes, and adventure I experienced for the first time this year thanks to local starts that come to flower faster than the traditional varieties being available. And my blackberry bush is just loaded with berries, so all is not lost, but I confess I’m not a bad veggie grower.

I think it’s the maintenance that’s required. I’m not a big weeder. I believe if there’s an empty hole you can fill it with a plant, or spread a little mulch, a theory that doesn’t really work when you’re trying to grow carrots. Ha, what carrots? I tried a fabulous new arugula called Wasabi from Renee’s Seeds that really tasted like the Japanese horseradish, but it bolted very early thanks to the ridiculous heat this spring. The thirty leaves we ate were amazing, but really? Thirty leaves? Not such a good return on my time and energy.

The one crop I excel at turns out to be garlic, which is good since my husband, the cook in this home, adores the bulb. I put in ten pounds of garlic and presently have hundreds of heads curing in the garage as we speak. And this year I planted a late blight resistant strain of yellow cherry tomatoes that are going gangbusters already. But the spinach was just okay, not fabulous, sort of tough and not so tasty, and why grow kale if you don’t really do a great job cooking it?

So I’m here to tell you it’s okay to NOT have a veggie garden. When I first started out gardening out here, just doing it on weekends, I started with a vegetable garden and after the first year said, “This is for the birds.” I dug it all up (except for the foxgloves that had reseeded – loved them) and turned the whole patch into a flower garden. This realization not only led to my being employed in the gardening trade now, years later, but it was also much more rewarding to cut armfuls of flowers to bring back to my loft in the city each Sunday then to drive back in with piles and piles of zucchini no one really wanted.

I tried an heirloom zucchini this year, but I don’t love it so now what do I do? Feed them to the chickens? They’re not that keen on them either. I love strawberries, but I know myself well enough to know I will never maintain a strawberry patch perfectly, and why should I when the farm stand on Wainscot Main Street has such excellent berries right when they’re truly ready. And did anyone else enjoy the incredible asparagus they had this spring? It put my poor little pathetic patch to shame. I already gave up on lettuce, as all I have to do is look at the stuff for it to bolt, and again there’s that daily weeding issue. Perhaps if I’d put down straw as mulch as I’d been told to do by Ashley at Marders (who has an organic farm stand on Butter Lane with the best lettuce) I would have stayed ahead of them, but that wasn’t the vision of a vegetable garden I had. Of course neither is my critter chewed, weed infested, bolting veggie patch.

Yes, nothing tastes as good as a freshly picked, warm from the sun, cherry tomato, but do you know how many tomatillo seedlings I have invading the place from last year? And can I tell you that although the eggplant are doing okay, I really only got a handful of beans and the edamame were also enjoyed in leaf form by the rabbits right at the same time that something ravenous caterpillar destroyed every single frond of dill. So I’m not going to beat myself up about it anymore. I’m a bad veggie gardener and that’s okay. And although I might be disappointing Alice Waters, I imagine if she saw the pathetic radishes I raised this year she’d forgive me for giving up. Especially if I handed her a huge bouquet of dahlias instead.

Paige Patterson chickens have laid a total of one egg so far this year, so she’s also failing as a livestock keeper.