Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"So Romantic"

Here is one of my two American Persimmons, persisting in its romantic vision of someday bearing fruit. With a little help from deer netting, that is.

A friend of mine said something seemingly innocuous to me that I have been mulling over, off and on, for two years. I had been saying to him that I thought it was great that so many people are keeping chickens and bees, growing their own vegetables, and so on. He said, "I guess a lot of people find that to be a romantic idea in this economy."

Romantic? I was stung. A chill wind emanated from him. I was stung and chilled. But I also found a grain of truth in what he said. Damn those grains of truth.The vision of a garden, blooming and verdant, and happy chickens clucking away, bees humming lazily by the hive, is a romantic one. The Secret Garden, anyone? We want to reclaim either the lost Edens of our childhood, or of North America before Europeans discovered it, or of Eden itself. Life was purer, simpler, and more wholesome back in (fill in era) in (fill in location).

How sad, though, that this vision of health and life is so far removed from our daily world that it could even be considered "romantic." But that's how far away from nature we are. Think about it. We buy dirt. At the store. We are dimly aware that there is already dirt in the yard, but we don't know how to amend it (with kitchen scraps to make compost) so we just buy it from Home Depot because we trust them more than we trust ourselves. People on the East Coast buy apples that come from Washington State or even China, while our yards might be just right for an apple tree or two. But how would we know? Generation by generation, we are losing our knowledge of the earth and its own regenerating power.

And that's why this particular back-to-the-land movement is real, and practical, and why it matters. Because we needed this. When we lost knowledge, we lost power, to paraphrase Jefferson. Then we unknowingly gave this power to the corporations, who sell the food to us that we could have grown, or bought locally, without packaging or using fuel. To say nothing of all the middlemen who take a cut: the supermarket, the food distibutor, the truck drivers, and more.

Over the 20th century and into the 21st, corporations have taken control of our kitchens, appetites, and yards while we weren't looking. The global oil industry, more powerful than the U.S government, is perfectly happy that we eat apples from thousands of miles away. Drill, baby, drill. And, by the way, there are lots of other fruits out there besides apples, bananas, and those big tart grapes. What about pawpaws, persimmons, or ground cherries? All are American native fruits that have vanished from the marketplace, replaced by the easily shipped, often bland-tasting fruits from across the world.

You, dear reader, should be mad as hell and not going to take this any more. Take back your lawn from the gas-guzzling mower and take back your diet from the corporations. Here's a "mere sound byte" for you: Get a shovel. Dig a hole. Plant a fruit tree. Repeat. It's one of the most romantic, practical things you'll ever do.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Fall Planting

Butterfly Bush
Each time we plant in the fall, we practice the gift of waiting. We believe the promise that somehow, these shrubs, or maybe bulbs, dormant through the winter darkness and frozen soil, will come to life in the spring. It's easy to plant when you're delirious with spring fever. In the fall, you're aware of the bittersweetness of the garden. The leaves are changing and you know you can't enjoy the blooms, fruit, or foliage for long. You're planting now for a later time. And, if you're extra spiritually mature, you'll note that nurseries have great sales on shrubs! So get 'em while they last!

My friend Maria and I moseyed over to Mostardi's Nursery the week that school started. This butterfly bush was 50% off. Butterfly bushes aren't native, but I'm not a stickler for that. Everything I plant, though, must either attract birds or bees, or be edible for humans, or be on sale. Mr. Forkenspader (as I'm cleverly calling him) and I planted it by the fence. It has some room to grow, and also I want vines of some sort on the fence, and I don't want the butterfly bush to interfere. I'm investigating hardy kiwi (certainly not native).

And while you're looking at this photo, see that clothesline? My father in law made the poles out of cedar a few years ago. Unfortunately it's planted under a black walnut tree (that big old tree you see there). What that means is every August brown stuff drips off the tree. For a few weeks I either don't use the clothesline or I turn the clothes inside out. My plan is to move the clothesline to a sunnier, more central-ish location and to prettify it with vines. At least the poles are not in concrete.

That same day, I bought a Giant Lemon Daddy Hydrangea, also, you guessed it, 50% off. Here it is, with Zane posing nicely and hoping I'll play with him. This is back under the infamous and lovely black walnut. The shrub seemed huge when I bought it, but not so big in the picture. I wanted to brighten this area back here and give the back woodland edge some diversity. The shrub by Zane is a viburnum I planted in the spring. Before that it was all pachysandra and pachysandra and pachysandra, and old tennis balls.

Big Daddy Lemon Hydrangea and Hopeful Dog
That wasn't enough fall planting, so I went back and bought two native American Beautyberry shrubs to disguise or to distract from the pile of branches and homemade leaf mulch piles in process in the back. The nursery guy wanted me to buy some kind of cherry laurel for this purpose because it's evergreen. But the cherry laurels, with their mononotonous dark green glossy leaves, seemed funereal. I wanted something a little wild and bright and crazy, with berries for the birds. Here is one of the American Beautyberries, below. Speaking of the gift of waiting, Zane has that, in spades. We're going out to play.

American Beautyberry

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Tomato Pies of Late Summer

Slow-roasted tomato and pork pizza with mozzarella, provolone,  garlic, and fresh basil

Tomato pie. Say it. "Tomato pie." If you accentuated "pie" and said a long "o" on "tomato" you may not know about tom-AY-ta pie. Tom-AY-ta pie is an Italian-American specialty only found in Philadelphia, New York, Trenton, Providence and maybe a couple of other places. Tomato sauce slathers a thick Sicilian-type crust, with a little Romano or Parmesan cheese grated over the top, and it's usually eaten at room temperature. It's a rectangular pie. If you live near me and want to try it, they make the real deal at Romano's. It's near the airport in Essington. The reason I've not gotten the tom-AY-ta pie there is that Romano's invented stromboli. And the stromboli is truly good--I get the original with sweet peppers. 

This looks like a 1970s cookbook photo. It's from a "pie fest" we went to on Labor Day.

Anyway. Tomato pie, as as opposed to tom-AY-ta pie, encompasses many dough-tomato variations, always a good thing with so many plum tomatoes these days. I like to slow-roast the tomatoes first.  They're still juicy but not watery, and the flavor is sweet and concentrated and amazing.As for storage, they last several days in the fridge with a little olive oil. 
Slow-Roasted Tomatoes

Plum tomatoes
Olive oil
Sea salt
Sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 300. Wash and dry the tomatoes. Cut each one in half. Find the right size pan for how many tomatoes you have. I like to use a rimmed cookie sheet or a sheet cake pan lined with parchment paper. Place the tomatoes in the pan and brush with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste, and you can sprinkle a little sugar over them if you want. Roast until tomatoes are a little shriveled, 30 to 40 minutes.

Yesterday I roasted some tomatoes along with two "Holy Mole" peppers from the garden. They were tossed with whole wheat pasta. I didn't have that many tomatoes or peppers, so on the other side of the pan, with a good wide berth of a couple of inches, I roasted some beets, cubed into bite-size pieces. The tomatoes needed 40 minutes and the beets needed 60. I hate to waste oven heat, and it's always a great idea to throw in as much as you can. Just test the vegetables every once in a while. The bigger the pieces, the longer they take, and the more dense the vegetable the longer as well. Beets should be segregated from other colors unless you want everything to be pinkish red. By the way, the beets were served in a salad.

That picture up there, of all the pies, is from a "pie fest" some friends hosted. The pies were all wonderful, and tomatoes were a big theme, of course. Mine is the one just to the left of the "savory" sign, a roasted tomato and eggplant pie, with smoked mozzarella and ricotta cheese, and a Trader Joe's crust. I didn't use a recipe; I just layered the roasted vegetables alternately with the ricotta mixture (with egg and parmesan cheese mixed in with the ricotta), and with shredded smoked mozzarella. I think I was in some kind of perverse anti-show-off mode because I could have made a real crust, but didn't. I show off when I don't have to, and don't show off when I should. Maybe it was all the getting-ready-for-school deadlines, but the siren call of the Trader Joe's crust was just too appealing.

And as for the pizza up there in the top picture, that's from our weekly Friday pizza night. Yet another kind of tomato pie. Please have or make some tom-AY-ta pie, or some tomato pie, this week, before summer completely escapes you. I insist.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lemon Verbena, Queen of the Side Garden

Lemon Verbena
You might say that this lemon verbena needs a little taming. But I cherish its success too much to prune it. Last year when I planted it, I thought lemon verbena was an annual. But no! It's technically a "tender perennial." I planted two of them, and one didn't make it through the winter, but this one? When I went to clear out the garden in April I clearly saw the"I ain't dead yet" look in its stalks. I cut one with my pruners and, yep, a green center. I'd call this particular plant a "tough-as-nails" perennial, since this is the north-facing wall of the house.

Tough as nails this shrub may be, but the leaves have a lemony fragrance and taste that is gentle, not at all harsh or grassy. You can make lemon verbena ice cream or simple syrup, you can put the leaves in salad or flavor vinegar with them. I like to make lemon verbena iced tea, adding a sprig of mint for depth of flavor.

Lemon Verbena Mint Iced Tea

Put water on to boil. Pick leaves off the plant, using about four leaves per cup of water. Pick a sprig of mint if you have some. Wash the leaves and chop them. When the water boils, take it off the heat and add the mint and lemon verbena. Let it steep ten minutes. Pour through a strainer into another vessel, like a pitcher. Pour over ice. Hold it up to the sun and admire its light yellow-green color. Drink.

This particular lemon verbena? It's one of those plants whose success I had nothing to do with. Gardening is like that. You can fuss over something for ages and it dies or, worse, it stays alive but never grows, and generally looks wan and spindly for months, giving you the evil eye. Or you can ignore a plant and it flourishes like this riotous lemon verbena. In July I found a gloriously healthy butternut squash plant growing in my compost, with a big old flower. It was growing sort of upside down-ish and all contorted, so I transplanted it to what I thought of as "a better place," the vegetable garden, where it dramatically wilted and died within three days.

I tell you, plants these days!