Archives for posts with tag: holidays

Another installment in the Food as Art series…

There gets to be a point when it is just weird to still have vegetables growing in the garden.

I mean, it’s November already. My thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving—only a few weeks away—and its menu of turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers seem completely out of place.

And, of course, there is the weather. It was warm much later than usual this year but it has finally turned cold and frost will be here soon. It’s time to clear things out.

Thanks to the late fall and the crazy growth that came with it (see October 17, 2014), we have many green tomatoes. There are probably as many green cherry tomatoes now as there were red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the entire season up till now. I’m not exaggerating.

And I’m not complaining, either.

Two of this year’s late additions to the garden—Tricolor Pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers—have been racing to catch up to their cousins. The latecomers were planted at the beginning of the month (see May 9, 2014) while the Cavili zucchini, Supersett Yellow Crookneck squash, Alibi Pickling cornichons, and Tanja slicing cucumber seeds were sowed two months earlier. That’s a lot of time to make up.

However, it looks like they are up to the task. Most of the seedlings are already four inches in height; one the of the pattypan squash plants is twice as high. I potted them up as I was sure that their roots had run out of space in the compartments of the seed tray.

When transplanting the pattypans, I carefully labeled each seedling’s plastic pot with the color of the seed that produced it. Eventually, I will determine which seed—red, green or buff—produced yellow, white or green squashes.

The only stragglers now are the Yellow Belle peppers. They have yet to unfurl their first pairs of true leaves and remain somewhat dainty, in contrast to the brash squash and the more decorous but still exuberant cucumbers. They are not ready to be potted up. In fact, they do not appear to be in any rush to do anything.

Meanwhile, all of the other seedlings have been enjoying their daily trips to the back porch where they absorb a moderate dose of solar energy and respire the fresh air (I would say breath, but a plant’s process is the opposite of ours). I’m glad, too, that they are going indoors at night. Even though it is Memorial Day—the traditional start of the summer season—lows remain in the 40s. We’ll not be setting the seedlings out anytime soon.

As Churchy LaFemme (of Pogo fame) might exclaim, “Gyack! St. Patrick’s Day falls on April Thirteenth this year!”

That’s because we sowed the peas today, an activity more traditionally undertaken on March Seventeenth. We’re a month late, but I’m not worried. It rarely (if ever) made a difference for Churchy on which day of the week Friday the Thirteenth actually fell and I doubt it will make a difference to us on which day of the spring we plant. Given the weather, it is possible that the peas would be no farther along by now had we planted them earlier anyway.

In addition to the peas, we also sowed seeds for a variety of root vegetables. Carrots and radishes will share a row while beets and turnips share another. At Rachel’s suggestion (a good one), we’ll do more beets than turnips this year: two-thirds of a row to one-third as opposed to half and half previously. The carrots and radishes will remain at parity.

As long-time followers of this blog will attest, I am a big believer in sowing closely seeds for vegetables such as peas, radishes, beets and turnips and then thinning the seedlings as they sprout. Doing so protects against low germination rates and the excess greens can be eaten. They are delicious and can be used raw in a salad or sautéed with onions (or other aromatics) as a side dish.

However, last year we were a bit heavy-handed in the sowing and too lenient in the culling. As a result, the roots were crowded and many did not enlarge fully. This year, we took a more surgical approach and carefully placed the seeds at a spacing of about one inch. With the smaller seeds—carrot seeds are particularly tiny—we used tweezers.

We’ll still have more seedlings than we can grow to maturity but it will be easier to thin the ranks to a spacing of two (radishes and carrots) to four (peas, beets and turnips) inches. I’m actually looking forward to it.

Apparently, retailers follow a slightly different schedule from gardeners.

For instance, according to my seed sowing calendar, I should have started seeds for thyme and other herbs a week or more ago.  I had planned to do this and even though I could not make it happen last weekend, I did head down to the basement yesterday to start the process.

Now, I had thought that half a package of seed starting mix remained from last year.  However, to my surprise (and mild annoyance), even though there are several half-used bags of this or that soil amendment, none of them was seed starting mix.  I guess we used it all when we potted up the seedlings in May.  As is often the case, a trip to the store would be necessary before we could begin.

But which store?  First, we called the Home Depot, which is the closest to us and where we purchased the seed starting mix last year.  The brand we used is called Jiffy and is as simple and inexpensive as the muffin mixes which share its name and concept (“just add water”).

Unfortunately, although there were pallets of the mix somewhere in the store, they had no plan to set them out on the selling floor until next month.  On the Home Depot’s calendar, starting seeds is a February event.  Their timing is not too far-fetched, I suppose, but is counter to the usual practice in retailing (which, for example, resulted in Valentine’s Day candy being displayed in grocery stores starting on December 26).

Where next?  Our local garden center, a family-run business where we like to buy supplies whenever possible, is closed for the winter.  They will re-open on the second of March.  That leaves plenty of time before most outdoor planting (in early May around here) but not for indoor seed sowing and hardy outdoor vegetables such as peas and radishes.  There is a small segment of the market (the early-season growers) that they are failing to capture.

Some people would turn to the internet at this point and find an e-tailer (Amazon.com, most likely) who would ship a case of seed starting mix to them by overnight delivery.  That would certainly be efficacious—and almost instantaneously gratifying—but it does not seem consistent with the “think globally; act locally” nature of gardening.  Frankly, it just feels wrong.  (In Amazon’s vision of the near future, a delivery drone, bearing a pre-paid sack of mix, would be hovering outside my front door promptly on January 2.)

Then I remembered a branch of Adams Fairacre Farms that opened near us a few years ago.  They have a garden center within the store (which is primarily a supermarket) that operates year ‘round.  And when I phoned, they were able to confirm that seed starting mix is in stock and on the shelves.

It was nice to find a retailer who is on the same (calendar) page as we are.

Do you believe in Christmas miracles?

About a week ago, it seemed that we had a lock on a white Christmas.  Two snowstorms each dropped about six inches of snow on the ground.  Our world was robed in a one-foot-thick blanket of pristine white powder, softer than the fluffiest fleece.  By day, we were bathed in the light and warmth of the reflected rays of the sun and by night, we basked in the cool, silvery phosphorescence of amplified moonlight (or would have basked had we ventured outside).

Then, rudely, we were subjected to 24 hours of steady rain accompanied by temperatures reaching into the mid 60s.  The warm shower rinsed away the snow and by yesterday morning, almost all of it had disappeared.  Any clumps that remained—mostly spots where plowed or shoveled snow had piled up—were icy and grimy, dirtied by the splashing of passing cars and covered by windblown debris.  With no snow in the forecast, our hopes for a white Christmas had vanished.

But then, just before sunset last evening, we noticed a slight sparkle in the air just as the last rays of light were streaming through gaps in the clouds.  We did not give it much thought until later, after our Christmas Eve feast, when we spied scattered glints of reflected light coming in through the dining room windows.  We switched on the floodlights that illuminate our back yard and there before us was an expanse of sparkling white.

Unbeknownst to us as we were eating our celebratory meal, just enough snow had fallen to coat every surface with a thin layer, only a fraction of an inch thick, of icy white crystals.  There was not enough of it that I needed to shovel, or even sweep (thank goodness!), but it was more than enough to ensure that Christmas morning would dawn thoroughly and unquestionably white.

The mini-snowstorm might not have been a miracle—the National Weather Service has missed forecasts before and will undoubtedly do so again—but it certainly seemed miraculous, appearing as it did without warning and in just the nick of time (the St. Nick of time?).   The sight of it lifted our moods immeasurably as we headed off to bed to dream of the presents and stockings that would be waiting for us this morning.

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

Greetings from the future.

What’s that, you say?  Today is January 6, 2014 so how can this post be from the future?

Well, it may be January 6, 2014 in the real world but in my blog’s timeline, the date is currently October 24, 2013 (my most recent post).  In fact, the garden engineer calendar has been stuck in October for quite some time now.  This is mainly because in the last two months, there have been many things to which to chose to say “yes” or “no” to.  With the garden fully dormant (spoiler alert:  the growing season has ended!), I elected to say “no” to it and its blog and “yes” to some of those other things.

But now that the holiday season has passed (another spoiler alert:  Thanksgiving and Christmas have already occurred and were the best ever!), I have time to loop back and fill in some of the missing posts from the end of 2013.  My brother made the excellent suggestion that I simply do a single, catch-up summary but I’m afraid that I am much too literal- and serial-minded to be able to do that.  Besides, some of the posts were already (mostly) written.

Instead, over the next week or two I will continue the chronology that garden engineer has been following from the start, including only those posts that pertain to actual events during year’s end.  For topics that are less temporally fixed, e.g., season recap, soil testing results, planning for this—I mean next—maybe I do mean this—year (time travel is difficult), I will wait until after I have caught back up to the present day.  With luck, that will be soon.

For those readers who feel that 2013 ended too quickly, this might be a welcome extension of the fall and holiday seasons.  Others may wish to skip ahead.

So Happy New Year (when you get here).  Until then (to paraphrase Doc Brown), “Back to the Past!”

I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.