April Garden Tour

The main garden Greetings from Boston!  The beginning of spring on the East Coast is truly lovely.  All over the place trees are covered in fat buds and the first wave of bulbs are starting to flower.  It is in stark contrast to my garden at home where the tomato plants are over a foot tall and a first wave of corn is already planted.  While the garden may look a bit bare, it’s because the summer plants are still quite small or only just sprouting.  As shown above, I’ve started some pole beans outside the main garden fence, as well as a wall of garlic around what will be the cucumber patch.  The milk jugs are keeping the second set of tomato plants and some parsley sprouts warm.

The new gardenIn the new garden (above), the potato plants are taking up lots of space.  The pile of straw is a sheet mulching experiment that should provide a very fertile bed for summer squash (the sprouts are still too short to see in the photo).  There are also leek sprouts, purple bush beans, arugula, and a patch of corn.

The other garden

I finally finished the right-hand bed in the other garden.  Part of it is a doubly-enclosed space for lettuces and other delicate greens, while the other half has mostly been sheet mulched (to kill the weeds) except where I planted a rhubarb start that was looking for a home.  The left-hand bed now sports swiss chard, lacinato kale, purple bush beans, and some heirloom lettuce plants that magically appeared.

Overall, the garden is coming along nicely!  There will be a lot more fruit plants this year (mostly raspberries and strawberries), and I finally have enough space elsewhere (in the other garden) to fill the entire main garden with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and melon.  Happy gardening!

Far Too Much of a (Mostly) Good Thing: H. P. Lovecraft

I recently finished the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft, titled “Tales“. As a collection it is quite good; a compact volume covering a wide range of his career, with helpful notes to the texts as well. (Did you know that Cthulhu is intended to be pronounced “Khlûl’hloo”? Here I was going “Kah-too-loo” the whole time!) As for the texts themselves, well, let’s just say that Lovecraft was nothing if not thorough. And repetitive. And repetitive.

Cthulhu

Here, have a picture of the guy.

The man loved his adjectives. Hardly a tome wasn’t dreaded, a secret not eldritch, an odor not noxious, a city not Cyclopean, or a moon not fungoid (!!). He also loved repeating his adjectives. And his descriptions of people, places, and events. I think part of it may have been that many of his stories were published serially, and thus the repetition served to remind readers of the previous chapters. Reading an entire story sequentially, though, became a bit tiring. Especially because it was virtually guaranteed to end with a revelation that had already been telegraphed to the reader, but was in italics nonetheless!

An Elder Thing

Aren’t Elder Things just so cute?

That’s not to say that the stories weren’t good. Many of them were great. His imagination and descriptive skill are fantastic. He also had a great ability to tie together his fictional entities across stories, introducing a new creature or race in a place seemingly consistent with his other creations in some barely-remembered way. (Uh oh, that last phrase sounds like something Lovecraft would have written. He’s getting to me.)

The Great Race of Yith

Somehow, when I was reading about them, I pictured the Great Race of Yith as being somewhat… greater.

Everyone should definitely read some Lovecraft at some point in their lives. Since I’ve gone to the trouble of reading a whole collection, I’ll just list for you the highlights, so you can skip the rest. In descending order of quality:

  • At the Mountains of Madness (the canonical example)
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
  • The Music of Erich Zann (short and sweet)
  • The Whisperer in Darkness
  • The Shadow Out of Time
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth

That should about cover it; to see the ones you should skip, look at the contents of this collection in the link I provided earlier, and subtract the list I just gave.

One more warning: H. P. Lovecraft was one racist motherfucker. Just so you know.

A Shoggoth

I couldn’t let you leave without a shoggoth, now could I?

The Lemon Tree Returns to Life

The lemon tree

Looking back at early photos of my dwarf lemon tree, I’m not sure how I let it get so bad.  Part of the problem is that I am terrible at container gardening.  I forget that potted plants dry out more quickly, and that their nutrients eventually run out, requiring doses of compost or a full re-pot.  This is why I don’t start tomatoes, peppers, or any other seeds in pots, preferring to brave the unpredictable outdoors to my responsibility with a watering can.  Is it any wonder then, that I waited until the lemon tree had lost most of its leaves before I lobbied our garden coordinator to let me plant it in the ground?  I could have chosen a better spot, it’s true, but at the time I was desperate to get the lemon tree in the ground.  Not only had it lost most of its leaves, but the lemons were inedible, ripening to hard pellets the size of cherries.

Now the tree was planted safely in the ground.  It couldn’t dry out as easily and I even remembered to fertilize it on occasion.  You’re expecting things to get better, right?  WRONG!  Just when the lemon tree seemed to be recovering from its shocking transplant we had a series of very cold nights that essentially froze all the new leaves.  Oh the devastation.  Then the tree got scale, so I took soapy water to its leaf-less branches, scrubbing off every last bug.  Finally, it became apparent once I started planting other things around the lemon tree in what has become my flower and cilantro garden that the soil in that area is absolutely terrible.  Seriously, it turned the leaves of my cilantro plants yellow and purple (cilantro leaves, like most plants, are supposed to be green).

Finally, my shame over the pathetic flower garden and lemon tree reached a terrible peak, and I completely reorganized it, adding paths, mulching everything to start improving the soil, planting fava beans everywhere to fix nitrogen, and adding copious amounts of natural fertilizer to the lemon tree.  It’s been over a month now, and things are finally looking better, to the point where I can post some pictures without turning a shade of deepest crimson.  The lemon tree has dozens of new bright green leaves (and we’ve passed our last frost date, whoopeeee) and even a tiny pink bud or two.  True, it doesn’t look as good as when it first came to me in its pot with a small tomato companion, but we’re getting there.

The cilantro forest at the base of the lemon tree... plus a sneaky artichoke plant that I only recently identified.

Lemon leaves and poppies

The narrow flower garden and lemon tree, including a small compost container, nasturtiums, kale plants, fava beans, and lots of cilantro.

 

 

Peas and Potatoes

Peas and chives

A few months ago I noticed some neglected potatoes starting to sprout in the cupboard.  They were a mix of slender whites, round reds, and brilliant purples from the farmer’s market.  After I got over the disappointment of not being able to eat them, I realized with glee that instead I could try planting them in the garden.  Unfortunately I failed to research the issue in its entirety, missing the pertinent detail that potato plants are not frost-tolerant, and promptly planted my sprouting potatoes in late fall.  Sure enough, every single one of them sprouted, only to die back from a few killer frosts in December and then again in January.  How the plants managed to support so many rounds of greenery is beyond me, especially since a few of the plants are only now starting to peek above the soil again.  This had me wondering whether they would have any energy left for potato making, which was, after all, the whole point (although I do read that potato flowers are a sight to behold).

Finally this weekend I could no longer contain my curiosity and I gingerly brushed away some of the dirt around the more well-endowed potato plants.  Sure enough the potato plants have been getting busy, and I was able to unearth a small handful of my very first homegrown potatoes.  The rest will have to wait until the plants flower and die back, but for now I am satisfied imagining all the potatoes that are certainly lurking beneath the surface.  To celebrate success in the face of ineptitude, I cooked the potatoes with what felt like a luxurious abundance of peas (only because I had to shell them by hand), a hefty slab of butter, and some chives from the other garden.

In the frying pan

Peas and Potatoes
(serves one)
Handful of small new potatoes, sliced into quarter-thick pieces
Small handful of shelling peas, shelled
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons minced chives
Salt to taste

1. Steam the potatoes until soft, but not falling apart.

2. Heat the butter in a skillet (a seasoned cast-iron skillet works well here) and when the butter is hot, add the potatoes and shelled peas.  Cook the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown on the outside and the peas are cooked through.

3. In the last few minutes of cooking add the chives and some salt.  Eat the peas and potatoes while hot, with more salt as desired.

Peas and potatoes

Meat Loaf

Meat loaf

I’ve had several different kinds of meat loaf and I like them all (no comment on the musical variety). I think it is one of those fundamentally simple dishes that can take a lot of punishment–which is why I can make it. The recipe I use, adapted from The Commonsense Kitchen, is long on flavor and short on structural integrity (following the actual recipe more closely would probably help). The secret ingredient is the glaze, which also happens to be the only part of the dish you can taste before you bake it. (The other secret ingredient, I think, is the high quality (but expensive) grass-fed cruelty-free hipster-glasses-wearing swaddled-and-coddled ground beef.)

Meat Loaf
1 lb ground beef
1 small-to-medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 egg
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1-2 Tbsp glaze
Bread crumbs or oats, if available, pulverized in blender, about 1/2 cup
Salt, pepper, rosemary, oregano, thyme

Glaze (use as many as you have)
Ketchup
Hot sauce
Mustard
Hoisin sauce
Apple cider vinegar
Brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

To make the glaze, combine all the ingredients to taste.  The final volume should be about a quarter cup.

To make the meat loaf, pulverize the oats/bread, and pulverize or chop very finely the onion and garlic. Combine with all the other ingredients except the meat and mix together. You can alter the proportions of the glaze that goes into the bulk if you like–usually I just put some hot sauce and/or mustard in there to give it some kick, and leave the more subtle balancing-of-flavors glaze mixture for the topping. Then mix in the meat, just so as to evenly distribute the ingredients while working the meat as little as possible.

Put the meat loaf in a greased loaf pan and then pour the rest of the glaze over the top. Bake for 40-50 minutes, then turn up the heat to 450 for 10 minutes more to brown the glaze.

More meat loaf

Postscript: There is an argument to be made, when in possession of delicious and expensive ground meat, for just eating the meat directly, in hamburger form, so as to get the most of the delicious meaty flavor, and leaving meat loaf for the job of improving the less-desirable meats. Frequently, we do just that (eat hamburgers, I mean), but I think it is also worth remembering what meat loaf was invented for (I think): in olden days, when times were tough and people were poor, the goal was to stretch what meat you could afford over as many meals as possible. Meat loaf does this admirably–and as there is no question that meatiness is the dominant essence of this dish, the ground beef is certainly not being wasted. I put it to you, therefore, that because of the very fact that this beef is delicious and expensive, that meat loaf is its ideal use.

Tomato Sauce From A Can

Tomato sauce and pasta

The best pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted was served with ricotta ravioli in a small restaurant somewhere in Florence.  I can’t tell you the name of the restaurant or even its approximate location, because Peter and I wandered around the city for hours.  Every once and a while we would catch a glimpse of the Duomo through a narrow street or over some especially short buildings, a sign that we weren’t entirely lost.  I remember choosing the restaurant because the entrance was surrounded by potted herbs and flowers, and because we were hot and famished.  We ordered a bowl of minestrone and the ricotta ravioli with what was translated on the menu as carriage driver sauce.  I’d never tasted anything like it, and I spent the rest of our time in Italy ordering pasta dishes with tomato sauces that might rival it, all to no avail.  After we returned from Italy I was determined to recreate the carriage driver tomato sauce on my own, but all I could remember of the flavor was that it included cherry tomatoes.  The following is my basic recipe for tomato sauce from a can of crushed tomatoes.  In the summertime, try adding cherry tomatoes that have been broiled until they froth and break apart.  It makes the sauce truly sublime.

Tomato Sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 a medium onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more, if you like it spicy)
Salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium pot, add the onion, and cook until the onion is soft and golden.  Add the garlic and cook a minute more.  Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt.  Bring the sauce to a slow boil and then turn the heat down so the sauce simmers.  I usually get the rest of the crushed tomatoes out of the jar by running some water in it, so I cook the sauce with the lid ajar to let some of the water evaporate, but if you don’t add any extra water you can simmer the sauce with the lid on (unless you like your sauce extra thick, in which case cook it uncovered, but keep an eye on it).  The sauce can be cooked for a short or long time, as long as you keep an eye on how thick it gets.  I usually cook it for 10-30 minutes, depending on how long the rest of dinner takes.  Simple as that.

With Parmesan

The Other Garden

Chives!  My nemesis... I have tried to grow chives from seed for the last year, and it always fails...

At the risk of sounding like I don’t already have a full-time job, this week I officially annexed another garden plot from the community gardens.  This brings my garden count up to three and a half (the half being the area between two of my plots large enough for a lemon tree plus plenty of flowers).  The new plot is quite a score, with two long beds edged with bricks and a variety of plants already thriving after the brief winter rains: culinary sage, chives, rampant arugula, raspberries, strawberries, nasturtiums, red-veined sorrel, and a purple-leafed kale plant.  I’ve already weeded one of the beds and amended the soil with compost, trimmed the raspberry bushes, planted a few baby kale plants, and weeded and mulched the pathways (with extensive help from Peter).  There’s plenty more work to be done, but at least I can walk around all the beds without falling into a gopher hole or tripping over trash.  Seriously, I don’t know what went down in the garden under its previous care-taker’s watch; I found tupperware, a spoon, a beer bottle, random pipes, a rusted trowel head, a hat, a skein of yarn, two gloves that don’t match, and a rather rusty pair of pruners.

Here is the garden after the trash was taken out and some of the weeds were pulled:

Before

Before (left bed)

And here is the garden today, after being mulched and otherwise pampered:

After

After (left bed)

While this garden is my newest, Peter and I determined that it would be too confusing to rename the new garden (that I adopted last fall) to something else and this most recent acquisition to the new garden.  So this garden is henceforth the “other” garden.  Hopefully its unexciting name will help me keep some emotional distance, since the other garden could be taken away from me at any time by the garden coordinator if enough people decide they want to start gardening… I just hope it’s after raspberry season!

Red-veined sorrel adds a delicious lemony flavor to salads