Friday, August 31, 2012

Local class on raised bed gardening

Note from Claire: I am NOT involved in this class and don't know the teacher, but since a number of folks have asked for advice on getting started with raised bed gardening, I thought I'd pass the information along.  

See the original posting in the Ecology Center's calendar:

Saturday, September 29, 2012
How to Build a Raised Bed to Grow Your Own Food and Flowers

This event is part of "Reclaim, Rebuild, Reskill: a Series on Growing Your Resiliency".

Come learn how to build raised beds from designer and carpenter Matthew Wolpe. We'll be building a bed from reused redwood for the food pantry garden at People's Victory Garden. The class will cover raised bed design basics, building techniques, and tool safety. Participants will leave with information on a variety of materials and methods to build your own raised beds. Resources for getting started with growing will be on hand as well. Space is limited. Pre-registration ensures a spot.

Time: 1pm - 4pm.

Location: People's Victory Garden - Telegraph Ministry Center, 5316 Telegraph, Oakland.

Cost: $20 general, $15 EC members, no one turned away for lack of funds.

Info: 510-548-2220 x239,,


Today, I harvested the last of our potato crop. The proprietor of Seattle's wonderful Portage Bay Grange told me that as long as you get 6 hours of sunlight a day, you can survive with nothing but a potato patch and a goat. Potatoes have carbs and Vitamin C, and goat milk has fat and protein. Plus, goats can eat potatoes. I like a little more variety, and El Cerrito's rules on backyard livestock don't yet allow full-time dairy goats, but I have to say, I'm sold on growing my own potatoes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to salvage mealy peaches...

Mealy, bland peaches are disappointing. Peaches that are organic, in season, grown by a well-respected regional grower, locally purchased, beautiful and delicious-smelling, which then turn out to be mealy and bland, are just wrong. Particularly when you bought a half-dozen of them at the premium organic fancy regional grower price.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Evil tomatoes, part 2

Remember the evil tomatoes? For months, people have been asking, "Are those black tomatoes?" and "What do they taste like?" and I've been answering, "Yes," and "I don't know, they're not ripe yet." We've been eagerly discussing whether they'll taste just like other tomatoes, or if they'll have some complex flavor befitting their dramatic appearance.

Well, friends, the Indigo Rose tomatoes are finally showing signs of ripening. And they still taste lousy.

Either it's still too early, or I'm doing something very, very wrong with my watering, or the folks at Oregon State still have a lot of work to do. These last ones are better than the even less ripe ones I tried earlier, but there's no intense tomato flavor, no sweetness, no acidity — they're just bland and a little mealy.

I'm really hoping they'll improve over the next weeks. If not, I may follow a friend's suggestion and use them while they're still unripe, sautéed in olive oil. I hear you can also make green tomatoes into chutney, pies, pickles, and cakes. While the cake concept seems a little questionable, I may have to try the chutney and pickles just because they'll look so damn beautiful.

Anyone got a good green tomato chutney recipe?

Friday, August 24, 2012

First pepper

Look! It's our very first pepper! I know, most of you have probably been harvesting giant shiny beautiful peppers for months. Not me. I planted pepper seeds that I got for free at the seed swap, and none of them came up. So I bought pepper seeds from the nursery and planted those. A few came up, then they died. By the time I gave up and just bought seedlings, it was very late in the season.

I may have left it on the plant a bit too long. I was hoping it would grow more. It's only about an inch long, and the tag said 3 to 5 inches. Of course, the tag also said "very sweet" and "wonderful flavor," neither of which are true of this sad little specimen.

There are still a bunch of green peppers still on the plant, though. We'll wait and see how they turn out before passing judgment on the variety.


Variety: "Gypsy Wonder"
Grower: Sweetwater Nursery

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

FAQ: Purple peas

What's that plant? and other frequently asked questions

As mentioned before, I'm a sucker for vegetables in unusual colors. So once I finished harvesting my first pea crop (the wonderful Laxton's Progress #9), I planted a row of these purple-podded peas.

They're good, but not spectacular. The per-pod yield was excellent, but they didn't produce a lot of pods — which means I probably won't plant them again, since I like to be able to grab a handful of pea pods to snack on every time I walk past the garden. Not sure if the light harvest is typical for the variety or just because the sunflowers ended up shading the pea trellis.


What's that plant?

Sugar Magnolia Purple Pea
Pisum sativum

Is it purple all the way through?

No, only the outside of the pods are purple. The peas are bright green. The purple color fades to green if you cook it more than a minute or so. 

What does it taste like? Can you eat the pods?

You can eat the whole thing, pod and all. The flavor is pretty good — sweet and juicy, though not as sweet as the Progress #9 peas.  

Where did it come from?

The seeds came from Redwood Seeds, an organic seed farm here in northern California.

Is it GMO?

Nope. All of Redwood Seeds' seeds are open-pollinated, non-hybrid, non-GMO.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our animal friends: Praying Mantis

I just saw a praying mantis in the back yard. This is by far the coolest critter to visit our garden so far.

This is exciting for several reasons. First, I've never seen a praying mantis "in the wild." That is, not in a terrarium or a garden center refrigerator, next to plastic cups full of ladybugs. Second, praying mantises are just generally badass, what with the spiky hands and the super vision and the postcoital cannibalism. Third, they're voracious predators. And I'm a big fan of anything that eats the bugs that eat my garden.

I was watering the strawberry bed and then there she was, climbing out of the plants. I ran for the camera and came back to find her in no particular hurry. She made her way over to the edge of the garden bed, climbed onto some nearby grass, and hung out, licking her paws. Or whatever you call the spikey things at the end of her arms.

Tarsus. Thanks, Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone else seen praying mantises in their gardens?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Buckwheat pancakes with ricotta and balsamic cherries

While buckwheat crepes are traditionally served with savory toppings, these buckwheat pancakes went perfectly with the creamy ricotta cheese and the sweet/tart balsamic cherry preserves I made last week. It's worth using the good, fresh ricotta cheese. I've come to the decision that the low-fat stuff isn't worth buying – the texture is terrible, and the actual difference in calories is almost nil.

Buckwheat (not actually a kind of wheat) is a favorite ingredient of mine — it has a nice hearty texture and a more earthy flavor than wheat. It's gluten-free, which is a plus when I'm cooking for my GF friends. Although most recipes call for buckwheat flour to be mixed with wheat flour, I've had good success using buckwheat flour alone in pancakes and quick breads.

I don't really use a recipe for my pancakes. It's rare that I even use measuring cups or spoons. I eyeball proportions, shaking flour straight from the sack into the bowl and grabbing handfuls of sugar. I use all different kinds of flours and milk-like liquids (soy milk, almond milk, kefir...), substituting according to whim or availability. I stir, then add more liquid if it seems necessary. None of these are recommended techniques.

If I were more scientific about my substitutions, I would pay attention and figure out the right compensations to make. Things like what adjustments to make for heavier or gluten-free flours. Or how I should change the of baking powder or baking soda if I'm replacing a pH-neutral milk or nondairy milk with an acidic kefir, buttermilk, or yogurt. Things like that.

I don't do the science when I'm cooking, which means that my results vary quite a bit. Sometimes my pancakes are thick and fluffy. Other times they're nearly as thin as crepes. Both of these are good. Occasionally I estimate wrong and the batter is too heavy (or the leavening too weak) to form the bubbles that give pancakes their lightness. The pancakes are thick and heavy, and the insides never quite cook properly. When this happens I serve them with really juicy toppings, which soak into the pancakes and make the gooeyness less obvious. If anyone complains, I invite them to make their own damn pancakes. 

For this batch, I separated the eggs and whisked the whites before folding them into the batter, which probably helped make the pancakes lighter but is more trouble than I'm generally willing to go through before I've had my coffee. For the liquid, I used half kefir and half soy milk, but you could almost certainly get away with just using milk.

Claire's Buckwheat Pancakes

Mix in a bowl:

1 cup buckwheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp sugar

Mix in another bowl:

1 cup milk or similar liquid (I used 1/2 cup kefir + 1/2 cup soy milk)
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsp melted butter

In a third bowl:

Beat two egg whites until stiff


Mix the liquids (milk, eggs, butter) into the dry ingredients. It's okay if it's lumpy.
Gently fold the egg whites.
Cook on a hot griddle.

Buckwheat flour

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Balsamic cherries

A huge bag of cherries for 49 cents seemed a potentially unwise purchase, but I figured the worst case was they'd all go in the compost. About a quarter were mush, but plenty of them were fine. After eating all the perfect ones and tossing the mushy ones I still had 2 quarts of sweet, slightly overripe cherries left.

Pie came to mind, but a quick browse through the internet turned up and an intriguing recipe for balsamic-preserved cherries. I'm generally not much for vinegar-based preserves, but I do enjoy balsamic vinegar reduction, so this concept had potential. Also, Emily's photos looked very tasty. 

My fancy cherry pitter and a stockpot full of pitted cherries.

Unusually for me, I actually followed the recipe pretty closely. It didn't seem quite thick enough, so after the cherries had cooked for 20 minutes I strained out the fruit and set it aside, and reduced the liquid by about 1/3, then put the fruit back in. If I were doing it again, I think I'd reduce the liquid further, or maybe add a tiny little bit of pectin. If you want to bring me a giant bag of cherries, I'll try it and let you know. 

You can find the original recipe here:  

2 quarts of cherries gave me almost six half-pint jars of preserves.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Marked-down mushrooms

While I normally steer clear of marked-down produce, this bag of mushrooms appealed to me. They were bruised and broken, the bits left at the bottom of the bins in Monterey Market's mushroom aisle, cleared out to make way for fresher specimens.

This mix had cremini, porcini, shiitake, and portobello mushrooms, which I use semi-regularly, plus the strange and lovely varieties I don't usually get because they're pricey and I'm not sure what to do with them: lobsters, chanterelles, oysters, shimejis, and others I can't identify.

At home, I rinsed them off (I know many people say not to, but they were dirty and I knew I'd be cooking them down), photographed them, and then debated what to make with them.

Initially I planned to saute them in a little butter, slowly cook them down, and toss them with a whole-grain pasta. While I think that would have been delicious, I've also been wanting to try and come up with a vegetarian stock with more umami and less sweetness than most of the root vegetable-based ones I've tried.

Consulted a half-dozen recipes, averaged them, and dumped the mushrooms into the stockpot with a little butter, salt, and a few cups of water. Simmered a while, realized I should have chopped them more finely, and used the immersion blender to remedy that. Re-consulted the internet and realized that the woody shiitake mushroom stems shouldn't really be eaten, but were now too finely blended with the other bits to really pick out. Simmered some more and strained, saving the liquid for soup and putting the squeezed-out solids into a bowl with the idea that I might make duxelles.

Mushroom duxelles

Mince up a bunch of mushroom bits, stems, etc.
Saute in butter with some chopped-up shallots or onions
Mix in a little cream, if you like
It should have a thick, spreadable consistency
Stuff into ravioli, spread it on toast, eat it with a spoon... you get the idea

Sunday, August 12, 2012


For instant gratification, there's nothing like nursery six-packs of lettuce seedlings. Of course, they're very tiny, and the nursery will have a number of exciting varieties, so you'll probably bring home several six-packs. You will plant them, water them, pick a handful of little leaves and post pictures of your first tiny home-grown salad on Facebook.

Lettuce seedlings from the nursery, because I'm into instant gratification. 
This is what I do every spring. Soon, I have more lettuce than I really want. I encourage guests to take bags of lettuce home, bring salads to parties, and start giving bags of lettuce to family, friends, and any passers-by who express an interest. 

At this point, instead of picking a couple of outer leaves from each plant, I'm chopping entire heads of lettuce off at the base. (If you leave an inch or two of stalk, clusters of fresh new leaves will grow back. It never occurs to me that, faced with too much lettuce, I have the option of killing off a few plants.) 

Just about to flower. The beginner guide to seed saving from the seed lending library says, "Let lettuce bolt. When half the flowers have turned white and fluffy, cut off the stalk and put upside down in a brown paper bag to dry. Remove chaff." 
This lasts a few more weeks before the lettuce starts to bolt. I step up my harvesting, trying to keep ahead of nature. Grilled lettuce and lettuce soup start sounding like reasonable ideas. Then the whole lettuce patch goes to seed.

I am finally coming to terms with the fact that lettuce is not one of those plants you can stick in the ground in spring and harvest continuously until winter. It has a finite lifespan. No matter how well I water it, how diligently I harvest it, it will eventually get all tall and spindly and bitter. 

The sensible thing to do here would be to start planting a half-dozen lettuces every month or so, ensuring a constant supply of tender young greens, and letting me feel okay about ripping up and composting any plants that start to go to seed. Instead I've planted a dense, 10-foot by 18-inch strip of greens (mâche, assorted lettuce, assorted braising greens, spinach, and miner's lettuce), plus a mixed-variety six-pack of seedlings I picked up at the nursery.

I hear lettuce soup is really quite tasty.

New baby lettuces, planted from seed about two weeks ago. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

FAQ: Yacón

What's that plant? and other frequently asked questions

After the wild success of the potato experiment, I rushed to the nursery to see if I could get a second crop in. This late in the season, they had no more seed potatoes, but told me I could probably do fine with supermarket potatoes, as long as they weren't treated.

As long as I was there, I wandered around to see if there was anything else I might want to grow, and found Yacón: a relative of the sunflower, grown for its edible tubers. Not quite a potato, but definitely worth trying.

What's that plant?

Yacón, also known as "Peruvian ground apple."

Yacón, a.k.a. Peruvian Ground Apple

What part do you eat?

Edible tubers grow underground, like potatoes. They taste kind of like apples, or jicama. You can eat them raw or cooked.

What kind of plant is it?

Yacón is related to the sunflower. No word on whether its flowers produce edible seeds, though one web site said it had been cultivated by dividing the root cluster for so many generations that it no longer produces viable pollen or seeds.

Left: Yacón  Right: Sunflowers.

Where does it come from?

Yacón is native to South America.
I bought these plants as seedlings from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

FAQ: Evil tomatoes

What's that plant? and other frequently asked questions

Is that a black tomato?

Yes. The variety is called "Indigo Rose."

Why is it black? 

It gets its color from anthocyanins, the same antioxidants that make blueberries blue.

How do you know when it’s ripe?

If you look carefully, some of the tomatoes have green patches where they were shaded from the sun. When the tomato is ripe, those green patches will turn red, and the rest of the skin will change from the dark black to a slightly brighter purple color.

What does it taste like?

I don't know – this is the first time I've grown this variety.

Is it a real tomato? Is it GMO? Is it a hybrid?

It is a real tomato, and it's not GMO or hybrid. In fact, it's open-pollinated. (That means that if you let the plant pollinate itself and then plant the seeds, the plant that grows will be the same as the parent. You can't do that with GMO or hybrids – you have to buy new seeds every year.

Where does it come from?

Indigo Rose was developed by vegetable breeders at Oregon State University using traditional methods. Many kinds of tomatoes contain small amounts of natural anthocyanins in their leaves and stems. Some wild tomatoes from Chile and the Galapagos Islands had small amounts of the purple pigment in their fruit, too. The OSU breeders took tomatoes from these lines, cross-pollinated them, and chose the purplest of the offspring to be the parents of the next generation.

I bought these plants as seedlings from Berkeley Horticultural Nursery.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sweet potato

I believe this is a japanese sweet potato from El Cerrito Natural Grocery but I can't be certain, as it's been languishing in the corner of our kitchen for many weeks. Since it managed all this growth in such an inhospitable environment, I expect great things now that I have tucked it into a nice section of the garden bed. 

As I was planting this, a neighbor walked by and remarked, "Sweet." Yes indeed. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bitter greens

My go-to solution for unknown or problematic greens is to sauté them with bacon. This works for absolutely everything. Alas, we were out of bacon the other day, when I discovered (in the middle of making dinner) that our "perpetual spinach" had gotten bitter.

"Perpetual spinach" is actually a variety of chard that's supposed to taste like spinach but doesn't. Other than that, it's a pretty good green for the summer months.  The flavor and texture are milder than most chards, but it holds its color and body nicely in a quick sauté or on a pizza. You can eat it raw, though when doing so I like to rip it into small pieces, toss it in some oil and acid, and let it wilt for twenty minutes before serving. It handles warm weather without bolting or going bitter. Until now. 

Lacking bacon, I turned to Mark Bittman's "Leafy Greens," a cookbook I found at our local independent bookstore (Pegasus on Solano) just as I was complaining that all the "Recipes from your Garden" cookbooks were full of recipes that called for a tablespoon of chopped herbs, or a few tomatoes. Where, I asked, are the cookbooks full of ways to use up all the goddamn kale? 

"Leafy Greens" is that book. It's full of ways to make big bunches of greens taste really, really good. Not by hiding them in spaghetti sauce, but by knowing what techniques and flavors work best with each kind of green. Even the bitter ones and the spicy ones that I usually avoid. 

Since Bittman didn't actually have a category for "Chard that didn't get enough water and turned bitter because you're a bad, bad gardener," I skimmed through the recipes for other bitter greens and went with "Broccoli Raab with Sausage and Grapes." Kind of.

   chard instead of broccoli raab
   lamb-pork-arugula sausages instead of "fresh, garlicky sausages"
   peaches (cut up) instead of grapes

I ignored his cooking directions, and just sautéed the sausages until they were close to done, tossed in the washed, raw greens, stirred them around, put a lid  on the pan and let them steam a few minutes until they were tender, then tossed in the peaches, gave everything a quick stir, and sprinkled some pine nuts on top. 

It was really, really good.