Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Heirloom Tomato That Keeps on Giving, With Love

Guest Blogger, Barbara Schwartz

My husband has been telling me for years that in order to be a culinary success, I must cook with love.  It has taken a long time to fully buy into this theory, but alas, he is right.  Use great ingredients and cook from scratch.  That is why there is a large pot on the stove at this moment softly bubbling with precious ingredients of spaghetti sauce, the cooking base of which started from seed.  Literally.  Learning to grow a garden with love occurred long before learning to cook with love.

A year ago I discovered heirloom tomatoes may be grown from seed as the tomatoes grow true, reproducing the exact same fruit, unlike a hybrid variety.  I learned this from watching an employee at Trader Joe's saving tomato seeds on a paper towel as a worker chopped up an heirloom at their cooking station.  So saving seeds from my favorite jumbo red and yellow-red I simply threw them in the garden, wet, fresh out of the tomatoes.  And they grew.  All of them.  Perhaps 50 plants.  Amazing!  I put them in large planter pots away from the garden, where the squirrels would hopefully not discover them.  Tomatoes are autogamous plants.  This means pollination of a flower is by its own pollen and cross-pollination is not needed for fruit production.  No bees required!  A gentle shake of the stem will spur pollination.  It turned out to be a good thing having so many plants, as heirlooms have a low yield as well as a long maturation period.

At the end of last summer's growing season I again saved seeds from the fruit, but this time dried them on paper towels and planted them this past spring, thus arriving at today's pot on the stove of some 50-plus heirloom tomatoes stewing away with all of the ingredients of Italian spaghetti sauce.  Tomorrow will be pasta-making day, a lesson learned from good friends Sylvia and John who showed my husband and me the wonders of fabulous homemade pasta.  And I shall make Italian bread.  Nothing compares to fresh bread, straight out of the oven.  The sauce will mellow overnight and be better in 24 hours' time.

Oh, one more note about the heirloom tomato plants.  Having given my sister approximately 25 of the thrown-in-the-garden tomato plants in spring of 2010, she re-potted them into an enormous planter pot and then never rid herself of the remaining plants when the fruit season concluded.  As a result my sister had tomatoes in mid-spring this year, having started the growing season with mature plants.  She was basking in tomatoes as I was still watching my second-season-from-seed plants mature, months away from bearing fruit.  Lesson learned.  I can save the plants!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Confessions of a Bread-aholic

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.  -James Beard

I wholeheartedly agree!!

I must confess, I have a love affair with bread.  When the low carb diet came along, I tried to break up with the object of my desire.  A daily struggle, its power over me was much too strong.  Lulled with a glass of red wine, I would resume my relationship.  Giving up on the idea of total exclusion, the experience did leave me more discerning.  Today, I can exercise will power around only so/so bread.  Show me a freshly baked loaf with it's intoxicating fragrance, I must and will give in.  I'm okay with that.
I came into music just because I wanted the bread.  It's true.  I looked around and this seemed like the only way I was go to get the kind of bread I wanted.  -Mick Jagger
Whether it is metaphorical or not, Mick implies really good bread can be expensive.  If you have ever witnessed me singing, you know I would be unsuccessful singing for my bread!  Because my desire is so insistent and potentially costly, my least expensive option is to make it myself.  Therein lies my problem.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.  -Henry Ford
Many years back when I first got married, I attempted to make my first loaf.  How hard could it be?  I had witnessed many a successful roll-making sessions with my grandmother.  I pulled all the ingredients together, kneaded and kneaded.  Then I waited for the rise.  It never happened.  What a flop.  Any number of things could have happened like expired yeast, too cold a room, not enough kneading, who knows....  Several more tries and I became discouraged.

Then, one Christmas, a bread maker arrived! 

Oh, what wonderful breads it could make!  Except it churned out tall, box-like loaves looking like an anvil dropped to the ocean floor.  Not what you would call visually appealing.  How to overcome the visual?  I know!  Make the dough in the bread maker where my skill set was definitely lacking and then turn the prepped dough into a loaf shape of my liking and bake in the oven.  That worked for me...for awhile.  It still does if I'm short on time.
Success consists of going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.  -Winston Churchill
In the last year or so, my desire to make bread on my very own was sparked after reading one of my very favorite authors book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver.  She and her family deliberately set out for one year to feed themselves with food they raised or grew themselves.  Short of that, they'd buy ingredients locally.  This meant nothing processed, including their bread.  Every chapter would illustrate another luscious loaf of bread being made along side whatever meal prep was in progress.  The beauty of this was she saved a bunch of money, was confident she wasn't eating preservatives and the bread was tasty.

So inspired, I immediately stopped buying bread in the store.  If I am going to have bread I vowed, I am going to make it myself.  Since that vow which I took in September 2010, I have experimented with many recipes.  Some turned out okay.  Others not so much; think hockey puck.  But I wasn't about to give up.  When I wasn't making bread, I'd read and learn from other people's experiences.  Jeffery Steingarten probably has the funniest account of his pursuit for making the perfect sourdough loaf in his book, The Man Who Ate Everything

Thank goodness my husband supports my passions.  He's really hung in there.  And with that support he was finally rewarded with the best loaf I've ever made.  The magic happened when I came across the NY Times recipe for "No Knead Bread" adapted from Jim Lahey/Sullivan Street Bakery.  His approach uses a sparse amount of yeast, many hours dedicated to fermentation and a pre-warmed cast iron dutch oven (I used my Le Creuset). 

The starter doesn't look like much
18 hours later out of the bowl, not kneaded
Going in the oven, pot has been pre-heated

Right out of the oven
Looks and smells promising

If you too, are in pursuit of a successful bread recipe, I recommend this one, but you do need about 20 hours from beginning to pulling it out of the oven.  The loaf has just the right crispness to the crust with a wonderful softness and airiness on the inside.  Whip out the butter and have yourself a meal!  Oh my...I just made myself hungry.
Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.  -Truman Capote

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Designing a Kitchen Garden, An Alternative Way of Thinking

Welcome to my newly designed blog.  What gave me inspiration to change it up?  A class I attended at the LA Arboretum.

My normal weekend companion (my husband) had an unusually heavy travel schedule for work this summer.  Taking advantage of my new free time I ended up taking weekend cooking classes.  Many, many cooking classes.  I think I overdosed on cooking classes!  I needed something different; I needed a new twist. 

On a whim and suggestion from an acquaintance a couple of months back, I looked up horticultural classes since gardening is also a passion of mine.  Our local arboretum offered an introductory class on Permaculture.  I had never heard the term before.  The outline described learning how to create a sustainable food forest in my own backyard, identifying why growing my own vegetables can be so difficult, and learning how to work with nature, not against it.  Class cost:  $25.  Sold!

I have written before about preconceived notions.  Here I go down the rabbit hole again!  The class I walked into was not a "how to" gardening course.  It was something completely different and absolutely fascinating.  In fact, it wasn't really about gardening at all but rather a study in connecting with your house, community and natural areas as it relates to designing a perennial food garden.

So what is the definition of Permaculture?  According to Bill Mollison, a researcher, scientist, teacher, naturalist and father/co-developer of Permaculture:
Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all of their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system. 
If you think about it, fruits and vegetables don't naturally grow in neat rows.  Think of a forest or jungle!

Diagram courtesy: Graham Burnett

The design approach Bill and his partner David Homgren developed in the mid 1970's was an outcome of analyzing the growing dependence on industrial-agriculture methods resulting in the poisoning of land and water while removing topsoil from previously fertile land due to the reduction of biodiversity.  Their solution was published in their book "Permaculture One" in 1978.  Since then, the concept broadened from agricultural design to designing sustainable human habits.  There are even Permaculture Design Courses (PDC).

Design starts with examining one's normal, everyday patterns.  When you go home, do you pull into the driveway and walk straight to the front door?  Or do you daily linger through all parts of the front yard?  My guess is it's likely you make a bee-line to the front door.  Does that mean you hardly ever visit the far reaches of your backyard where most people plant their vegetable gardens?  How likely is it you'll care for your vegetable patch if it isn't under your nose?  Why not plant an herb garden in the flower beds along the walk way instead?  You'll smell them every time you brush by.  This is just one example of rethinking where you plant your annual vegies.  And why does it need to be in neat rows?  Get creative!

Courtesy: Lyons, CO Permaculture Design Course

To take the concept further, there is an emphasis in perennial edibles (trees, bushes, vines, etc.), native to the area while analyzing where the perennial should be placed for maximum benefit and synergy.  By going native, there is less labor involved.  I love that idea!

Being a complete newbie to this idea, I encourage you to Google "permaculture" for further understanding.  In the meantime, what has this meant to me?

Tangerine Tree
I look at my existing yard and realize I am already lucky in that we inherited a lovely, heavy producing tangerine tree when we bought our house.  With our abundance, we can barter our fruit with our neighbor who has an over producing lemon tree.  And now, when I think about what else I can grow for ourselves, I aim for a perennial such as the starter Blackberry bushes I purchased last weekend.  Come May, we should have enough to cover us through July.

Young Blackberry Bush
 Conceptually, this has caused me to reexamine other things in my life that may need redesigning.  This blog was one of them.  The template I had been using was okay, but wasn't necessarily me or user friendly.  This one I designed from the ground up.  I hope you find it a nice place to visit as much as I enjoy playing in it.

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