Thursday, August 30, 2012

fruity miserablism

all the latest news about emotional container gardening 

I've been reading The Château de Résenlieu by Lord Berners on the train this week, having picked it up on impulse at the Cabinet magazine book sale, and in it Berners describes the proprietress of an unusual garden he encountered one summer  in Normandy:

Madame O'Kerrins did not have much intercourse with the inhabitants of Gacé. There was one old lady who visited the Château fairly frequently. Her name was Madame Bonnet and she lived in a large, ugly house near the church. In her garden there grew the largest begonias I had ever seen. Madame Bonnet told me that their size and their beauty were due to their being manured by the corpses of cats. In the bedding out season she used to offer a small reward to anyone who brought her a dead cat and when a sufficient number had been collected they were used as a foundation for the begonia beds. It seemed to me a rather macabre idea and I thought that at night the garden must be haunted by the ghosts of cats miaowing and caterwauling. These flowers were in a way symbolical of Madame Bonnet herself.

I'm not likely to take Madame Bonnet's gardening methods as instructive, but on an intuitive level it makes perfect sense to me that all gardens reflect something of the character of their gardener. My container garden just now is wallowing in indolence. My Alpine strawberry plants stopped producing fruit not long after my last update, and with them a great deal of heart went out of my gardening. (It should be fairly obvious that when I characterized myself as "a highly emotional gardener but not a sentimental one," I was making a perverse little joke. Look up "sentimental" in the wonderful iPad dictionary and there's probably a link to this blog, along with an embarrassingly accurate illustrated cross-section of my innards, sliced into translucent ribbons by sentiment.) My pepper plants have been exiled but continue to torment me with their incomprehensible refusal to set fruit — more about this below — and my pineapple sage dropped dead for no apparent reason, after ailing for just a few confusing days. Unless it was an act of performance art, in which case its death was an effective commentary on the dark moods that have discomposed much of my summer. It may indeed have been; in conducting my postmortem I discovered, somewhat disturbingly, "[o]ne superstition was that the plant would thrive or wither according to its owner’s fortune." I prefer to think a nutriment deficiency was to blame, but doom seems to have no shame in being heavy-handed when it comes to call.

My Sorrento lemon tree seedlings, at least, are thriving. All of them, which is a lot! I re-potted them with an abundance of caution and expected to lose at least a few, but not one has died, drooped, or taken on a sickly color. Perhaps they've been buoyed by their early fame — my photos of them in their infancy will appear in a video about citrus produced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, like these.

I have six pots of baby Sorrento lemon trees at present, scattered all over my apartment, of which the one below is representative. When I re-potted them I was reluctant to try separating the embryonic seedlings from the apomictic ones — I explained a bit about those here — and now that they need re-potting again, I find myself once again skittish about interfering with the mysterious relationships they have amongst themselves. I'm going to keep them together, since they appear to be getting along nicely, while presuming that at some point in their adolescence a dominant tree will take over each pot. If you're in the NYC area and would like to adopt a pot, email me; I wouldn't mind giving one or two away to a good home (i.e., to someone who doesn't look like a plant-murderer). They currently live on south-facing windowsills and don't seem to require any special care beyond the good light they're getting. I'm going to give them bigger pots this weekend, and probably some citrus fertilizer. They've done fine without it so far, but after seeing how my pepper plants responded to feeding I don't feel good about starving the others.

Sorrento lemon tree seedlings
Baby Sorrento lemon trees started from seed, approximately three months old. 

lemon suit lolo
I wear my garden on my sleeve: my favorite swimsuit this summer.

Additional good news: I finally got my pineapple act together and my pineapple plant looks happy. I've written about my desire to grow a pineapple several times (here, for example), but I kept leaving the requisite pineapple parts on top of my refrigerator too long, intending to let them dry out for a couple days but forgetting to plant them before dessication set in. The instructions are very simple; basically you trim the crown and put it in a pot. Voilà, in a couple years or so, a home-grown pineapple. Bob Flowerdew of Gardeners' Question Time promises this:

I guarantee if you keep it warm and misted daily in summer and dry as a bone from autumn through to late spring, you will be rewarded with a spectacular flower and then a sweet, sparkling fruit. If you do a good job, you will get a fruit as big as a baby; if you do a bad job, you'll only have enough for a pineapple chunk or two. But that's gardening for you . . .

My apartment gets ridiculously dry in the winter months and I have high hopes that my pineapple will be the size of a very chubby baby. I've been bad about misting it, but writing these updates tends to get my gardening back on track, and in the meantime it doesn't appear to have suffered from my laziness. The instructions I linked to above say it's normal for the original leaves from the crown to die off, and the new growth in the center of my plant looks healthy. I started with an organic pineapple, by the  way, and I think you should too. Conventionally-grown pineapples are drenched in creepy pesticides.

my pineapple plant
My pineapple plant. It's supposed to have brown bits round the edges;
that's the old crown dying off. Good riddance!

In related long-range container gardening news, my avocado tree got re-potted and looks happier than ever, though a bit droopy on the morning I photographed it. A good watering enlivens it. I started it from seed approximately three years ago, from a particularly delicious Haas avocado. Very clever of it to have decided to get bushier rather than taller after having reached the top of the window, don't you think? I don't happen to have any photos of it when it was younger, but it used to be just a single, spindly trunk. The smaller, second trunk appeared this spring, I think, and after I gave it a badly-needed new pot the whole plant became fluffier with new horizontal growth.

the top half of my avocado tree
the lower half of my avocado tree
my avocado tree

As for my chile pepper plants, they have indeed been given the heave-ho, as I was contemplating in my last container gardening update, though I still see them regularly and will probably repossess them at some point. Rather than putting them out on the sidewalk I gave them to a close friend who had a bare windowsill and didn't mind filling it with non-productive greenery. They were already pissing me off, those plants, and soon after I last blogged about them things took a turn for the worse. (There was also a matter of needing to make room for an air conditioner in one window, but I could've chosen other plants to get rid of; my extremely boring Sansevierias had previously been at the top of my shit list). I gave my sulking pepper plants bigger pots and worm castings — nutritious turds, reportedly beloved by all plants — and still nothing. What the hell else did they want from me? It finally occurred to me that the reason they weren't setting fruit was that they just weren't getting pollinated. In my mind putting them on the fire escape had taken responsibility for this out of my hands, but a bit of research revealed that rocotos in particular are often unattractive to insects:

PLANTS MAKE FLOWERS BUT NO FRUIT? Most hot peppers and some sweet peppers require insect pollination to form fruit. If the proper insect is absent, or if the local insects are not attracted to your pepper flowers, you may see the plants flower, drop off and never set fruit. This is especially true for the blue-flowered Capsicum pubescens, the Manzanos or Rocotos, or hot peppers grown in a greenhouse.
Pollen is produced on the stamens by the anthers, and usually ripens between noon and 3 PM every day.
To hand pollinate, take a moistened water-color paint brush, and pick up some pollen on your brush and transfer it to the other flower centers. You can get close to 100% fruit set with hand pollination.
- Pepper growing tips from Redwood City Seed Co.

I'd read about hand pollination before, but there was never any mention of moistening the brush. A dazzling eye-opener for the novice gardener who was doing it all wrong! I diligently diddled their flowers every day. After about a week of this, during which time the plants were indoors on my windowsill rather than languishing on the fire escape, where none of the sexy insects passing by would give them the time of day, the ungrateful little bastards not only didn't fruit, they stopped flowering too. 

I considered adding some companion plants to their pots before giving them to my friend. When I planted the borage on my fire escape I inadvertently learned a bit about this because borage is said to be good for everything it grows near. I looked at a list of companion plants but it was of little use; it indicates that tomatoes are good for peppers because their height helps to keep the humidity level high, but NYC this summer has already been plenty humid. And do you know what plants peppers help? Themselves, and marjoram. Themselves! For fuck's sake. It was then that I really started to wonder whether my particular pepper plants don't simply have a neurotic need for a certain kind of attention. Their reluctance to set fruit or even produce flowers despite appearing healthy and being well-cared for made me wonder if they weren't the plant equivalents of One Of Those Guys. You know, one of those guys who has mostly women friends and as a result seems cool with being equals? Then you get to know him better and a pattern emerges whereby it becomes apparent that they're all flattering him or making him feel important in some grossly retrograde manner reminiscent of a Victorian novel? I'd started to feel that that's what my plants wanted, endless bullshit flattery. "Oh you poor dears, let me get my little brush, just like I did yesterday, and the day before that!" Etc. It wasn't something I felt willing or even able to do, and that is why they're no longer living on my windowsill.

An important clue emerged shortly after they went to go live on my friend's windowsill, however, and I think I maybe had them figured wrong. I also cautiously think they might finally be on the mend. (A thought I've had before, but this time feels more for-real). What happened was that they started dropping leaves. Naturally my friend thought they'd taken an instant disliking to him, but I was grateful to see them finally articulate a little something about their health. Apart from their reluctance to set fruit, it was the first clear sign that they were not in fact as healthy as I thought they looked. And it told me enough to  fix them up with what they needed, I hope: dropping leaves was a big hint that they weren't getting enough nitrogen. Tomato fertilizer is particularly high in this, so I went to my friend's place to mix up some organic (but pink!) tomato stuff in his kitchen. The plants showed immediate improvement. Their maddeningly aloof habit of appearing healthy while not doing  any of the things I want them to do has historically brought out the very worst in me as a gardener, but here, finally, was something I could notice and respond to and, gratifyingly, see results from. Not only did they not drop any more leaves, they started growing lots and lots of new ones the very next day. One more day and they were flowering again. My friend — who has only ever kept cacti, which do just fine with neglect — was mystified by their responsiveness and has come to regard the pink water as having magical properties, and the plants as "a mysterious bunch." He reports that he is diddling the resulting flowers with great enthusiasm (being a watercolor painter, he's got plenty of brushes for this), and once a week or so I go downtown and diddle them myself. I don't believe any have set fruit yet, but surely at least one will finally cooperate? At this point one pepper would mean a lot to me. 

rocoto pepper plant flowers
lots of new flowers and new leaves, and
maybe a nascent pepper forming in the center-right?

The cover of Sunset magazine, Sept. 1904, featured a woman drying her
pepper harvest. I doubt I'll have as many. Image from the NYPL digital gallery.

My borage plants did everything they were supposed to do but have nonetheless been a disappointment to me. The leaves have a fishy taste! I think it's got to be coming from the  modest amount of fertilizer I buried in their planter before sowing the seeds. Fish meal is a common ingredient in organic fertilizers (and possibly even in the organic soil I used?), and fishiness apparently ruins the delicate, cucumber-y taste of borage. I had so many plans for my borage leaves: muddling them in drinks, pickling them with golden beets, flavoring an ice cream studded with bits of diced, candied cucumber. Hmph. I probably ought to at least use them to wrap some salmon while it's curing, rather than letting them grow monstrous out there on the fire escape. I've got lovage in the same planter but it's not really ready to use yet, and I've held off on tasting it for fear it's fishy too. I'm hopeful that when mature it will have sufficiently strong flavor to knock out the fishiness. Lovage is a heavyweight and this seems reasonable to me.

borage flowers on my fire escape
borage flowers on my fire escape

Notwithstanding all the problems I've run into, I have a lot of hope about carrying on with  my emotional gardening next summer. I'm planning to take a community garden plot to increase my Alpine strawberry holdings, and there are some encouraging signs that I'm not the only emotional gardener in the neighborhood. Far from it — there's a guy on West 105th St. who is sticking it to his landlord with a very impressive "mother garden," and at our nearest garden center there are people dancing the tango.  

Previous posts about my container gardening are here, here and here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Eating and Drinking: An Anthology for Epicures

Eating and Drinking jacket

I recently picked up a copy of Eating and Drinking: An Anthology for Epicures (Ebury Press, 1961) for just a few dollars and have been thoroughly enjoying it. It was edited by Peter Hunt (presumably this same editor and critic, though I'm not certain), and consists of quotes, excerpts, poetry and illustrations about food and drink, cheerfully stuffed into a busy pink binding. Here, I'll let it tell you about itself:

Eating and Drinking - jacket flap

Eating and Drinking back cover binding Eating and Drinking spine Eating and Drinking front cover binding

The illustration on the binding is Dickie Doyle's The Wedding Breakfast, 1849;
the painting on the jacket is May Day Picnic by Pál Szinyei Merse, 1873.

A good number of passages in the Anthology have been familiar to me (e.g., the clam chowder from Moby Dick) but these are gratifyingly interspersed among those from obscure, unexpected, and out-of-print sources. There is, for example, a reminiscence of a meal with Ronald Firbank — who was apparently in a hurry, expecting local WW1-era military authorities to sweep him up like a butterfly in a net should they discover him lingering over lunch —  from Grant Richards's Author Hunting.

I'd love to compile a contemporary anthology of similarly choice bits for a willing publisher. I suspect I am housing at least a third of said anthology in my mental attic and would very much like to clear it out to make room for new belongings.

Some of my favorite parts thus far:

Eating and Drinking - the ideal cuisine

This sound and concisely-put opinion marks the second time this week that Norman Douglas has appeared on my radar; he also popped up in my current subway reading (Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise), where he sounds very much worth reading.

A game involving a chicken's wishbone for you to try when you next encounter one:

Eating and Drinking - merrythought wishbone game

Of special interest to Anglophilic eaters, a poem about Melton Mowbray pork pie:

Eating and Drinking - A Melton Mowbray Pork-pie
Some of the most memorable passages in the book, like some of the most memorable meals in life, concern unpleasantries encountered while traveling. Here's one about an unsatisfactory vegetable.

Eating and Drinking - An Unsatisfactory Vegetable part 1
Eating and Drinking - An Unsatisfactory Vegetable part 2

Ways in which breakfast is like love:

Eating and Drinking - breakfast is like love

I'm less sure about this next one:

Eating and Drinking - soup and fish

I'm sure we can all agree, however, that many times wine causeth head-melancholy:

Eating and Drinking - wine a cause of melancholy

There are illustrations throughout the book, and a handful of color plates.

Eating and Drinking - Searle illustration
St Trinian's girls gathering mushrooms by Ronald Searle

Eating and Drinking - The Oyster Luncheon

The Oyster Luncheon by Jean François de Troy

In closing, a poem about halibut that may inspire us all to look at dinner more thoughtfully:

Eating and Drinking - halibut 1
Eating and Drinking - halibut 2

Friday, August 10, 2012

slow dessert: sour cherry + caraway fritters

Two years is a damnably long time to wait for dessert, but sometimes these things happen. I don't know whether they happen to other people, but personally I have had experience. The summer before last, during the brief season for one of my favorite fruits, I had an idea about a dessert burrow deep into the dessert area of my mind: clumpy little fritters of sour cherry and caraway. I don't recall what inspired me to try pairing the two. I generally love caraway but rarely encounter it outside of rye bread; I generally love anything and everything frittered.

I also got it into my head that these particular fritters could be great with a sauce of more sour cherries, simmered in red wine and a vaguely medieval combination of spices, the inspiration for which is now apparent in my emails from around that time: a friend was going to a christening and we'd wondered whether the baby might be wearing one of those very long, vaguely medieval-looking gowns. I discovered this while rummaging Gmail to see whether I'd told anyone about the sauce in detail such that I might be able to reconstruct it this summer. Regrettably I can't tell you the proportions, but I see that I simmered the cherries in a syrup of rosé and sugar flavored with cinnamon and white pepper, a delicious combination ideal for spooning over ice cream. I had to content myself with eating it that way because I didn't manage to make any fritters that summer at all — I made the sauce without delay, but when I went back to the farmers' market for fritter supplies there were no more sour cherries to be found. Fritter-free summer No. 1 down the tubes.

Last summer came and went and I missed sour cherry season entirely, probably because I was busy screwing around. I wasn't going to let it happen again this year and I finally made the fritters. It's possible I'm biased but I think they were worth the wait. If you're a U.S. reader you probably won't find sour cherries in the market now, but if you're a long-range dessert-planner like me, bookmark this recipe and make yourself a lovely dessert in summer 2014 or so. Or try it now with regular cherries, which are more likely to still be available. I'm sure they'd be nearly as tasty.

sour cherry-caraway fritters caraway ice cream
Fritter innards with backdrop of rapidly melting
caraway ice cream. More on that below.

While there are any number of fritter recipes in my collection I could've used as a starting point for these, I began by Googling "sour cherry fritters" to see what was out there. One of the more appealing recipes was from Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, which is curiously undated but looks 1940s or 50s-ish to me. Looking at it more closely, I noticed that the ingredients and proportions are nearly identical to a Thomas Keller recipe for apple fritters I had bookmarked, and I decided to more or less merge the two. (A third recipe from somebody's French grannie looked promising, but it calls for soaking the cherries in brandy overnight first and I didn't want any other strong flavors competing with the caraway I wanted to use). The Keller one relies mostly on baking powder to puff the fritters while the Pennsylvania Dutch recipe uses a two-pronged puff plan: baking powder, plus separating the eggs and beating the whites until stiff. I liked this idea better so I separated my eggs and used the lesser amount of baking powder. I stuck with the Keller recipe's use of milk instead of water, however, because all the other fritter recipes in my collection call for milk or buttermilk. I suppose I also stuck with Keller's recipe on the proportion of fruit to batter because I used two cups of pitted cherries rather than the stingy-sounding one the PD recipe calls for.

I departed from both recipes on frying instructions. Both call for deep-frying, which didn't seem necessary to me, and neither calls for lard, which I wanted to use. Yes, lardy old lard. Health-wise it's not as diabolical as it's made out to be, and in baking and frying it performs beautifully. Here, go read this if you're not convinced. I'd baked with it a couple times but somehow hadn't gotten around to frying anything in it yet, and my sour cherry fritters that were two years in the making seemed like as good an occasion as any to try it. There are great big tubs of lard for sale in East Harlem supermarkets ("manteca de cerdo" en Español) but they look pretty industrial, and I wanted to be sure of getting leaf lard (the highest grade) from not-industrial pigs, so I bought mine from Dickson's Farmstand Meats. Harlem Shambles is nearer to me and probably has nice lard too — it looks like they're using it in their pasties — but I frequently have doctor appointments round the corner from Chelsea Market so Dickson's it is. NYC readers can also find leaf lard at Union Square greenmarket, among other places, but I'm not certain it's rendered. Anyhow, the lard was magical for frying fritters. I almost never fry at home because it tends to stink up the place and, probably because I almost never do it, I seem to have a hard time keeping the temperature under control. I used maybe 1/2" of lard in a medium-sized copper pan  and it gave me no trouble whatsoever. The fritters were excitingly crisp around the edges, cooked evenly all the way through, and didn't taste porcine. (I'm not sure if would have lessened them if they had; I'm just saying).

sour cherry-caraway fritters
freshly fried fritters, minus a few sampled for quality control purposes

The other important ingredient here is, of course, the sour cherries. I buy them whenever I see them but they're seldom labeled as to what variety they are. In previous years the sour cherries I've found in the NYC area seem to have been either of two varieties, one very bright red, one darker. The latter look more like regular cherries but both types of sours have a translucent quality when held up to the light. A 2008 Gourmet article says that "Montmorencies and Morellos are the two types of sour cherries you’re most likely to find for sale. Montmorencies are bright red, slightly translucent, with clear juice; Morellos are purple with shirt-staining juice." The author describes the former as being more "complex, flavorful" than the more sour Morellos, but to me Montmorencies are less complex, sometimes to the point that they taste uncannily like cherry pie filling. (I nonetheless never pass them by; I like sour cherries, period). The sour cherries I found at the farmers' markets this summer were unlabeled and the probably-Montmorencies pictured below were less bright in color and less translucent than the ones I've encountered in the past, but I couldn't tell you whether that's because of the weather patterns we've had this year or because they're a different variety. My fritters were made with the darker, probably-Morello cherries below.

sour cherries sour cherries
The brighter ones were destined for sorbet but somehow got eaten instead.

I considered trying to repeat my delicious, vaguely-medieval sour cherry and wine sauce from two summers ago to go with the fritters, but I'm still in the honeymoon stage of getting to know my ice cream machine and opted to make a caraway ice cream instead. I was willing to try my hand at improvising a recipe but I found one from a BBC show here and simply halved it. It was delicious, both with the fritters and, later on in the week, with fresh peaches for breakfast. Pairing these fruits with caraway brought out the woody qualities in each, in a good way. I used a heaping teaspoon of ground caraway seeds in my half-batch, and I toasted them before grinding to bring out more of their flavor. I used the same amount in the fritters, which had a more subtle caraway flavor, and I intentionally didn't grind them too finely, preferring to encounter a whole seed every now and then. If you'll be making the fritters without the ice cream I recommend increasing the amount to 1 1/2 or maybe even 2 teaspoons, depending on your love of caraway.

sour cherry-caraway fritters caraway ice cream
Fritters are just the sort of lumpy, homely-looking dessert improved by
a dusting of cocaine, for added glamour. Or confectioners' sugar.

sour cherry and caraway fritters

Adapted from Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking and Thomas Keller's apple fritters, as described above. 

Yield: approximately 15 fritters

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 heaping teaspoon ground caraway seeds, preferably toasted before grinding
2 eggs, separated
1/4 cup or so milk (buttermilk would probably be great if you have some, or beer)
2 cups pitted sour cherries
leaf lard for frying, or a neutral-tasting oil if you're not into lard
confectioners' sugar for serving (optional)

Thoroughly combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk together the egg yolks and the milk in a smaller bowl. In a third bowl — sorry! — beat the egg whites until stiff. Stir the milk and yolks into the dry ingredients and, when blended, fold in the egg whites. Then add the cherries, stirring gently just until they're integrated. If the batter looks dry, add a splash more milk. Drop spoonfuls of the batter into hot fat and fry for approximately two to three minutes on each side, or until they're nicely browned. Let the fritters rest on paper towels for a few moments before serving, with another layer of toweling on top to absorb some of the grease. Dust with confectioners' sugar if you like.

The fritters are best when fresh but can be refrigerated and reheated in a 350°F oven for ten minutes or so.