Monday, May 25, 2015

Garden Journal: Now we’re growing!

Through late April and most of May, I was disappointed in how my garden looked.

Garden 05 (4)

Oh, it was growing, and mostly weedless, but it sure didn’t look lush. My peas in particular weren’t making the progress I wished for.

Well, maybe it’s time, or that great downpour we had last week, but finally things are starting to pop out there.

Garden 05 (9)

Three weeks’ difference has made me happy. I had one rogue radish pop up, and let it bloom there in the front. I was happy to see tiny little native bees on it last week. I recently read that those overlooked species do more pollinating that all the honeybees who get all the press. So I’ve been looking with pride at the clover in my unmowed lawn and thrilling at the constant swarm of miniature visitors to the parsley flowers growing wildly between our patio pavers.

And I doubt that’s the only reason, but surely it helps explain the great luck I’ve had with pollination this year?

Garden 05 (13)

Last year at this time, only one tomato plant had put on two tiny green fruits, but this year all 3 of my plants have bunches of fast-plumping tomatoes hanging on them. I’m only hoping they don’t all come ripe when we’re in San Francisco!

The peas, while behind last year’s schedule by about a week, are finally looking plentiful.

Garden 05 (10)

 

And while last year’s beans were already flowering by this point, these guys look pretty happy…besides, they’re a different variety.

Garden 05 (19)

Usually I grow bush beans because I don’t want to be bothered with poles. This year I wanted to try a pseudo-three sisters approach, with poles instead of corn (modern varieties take lots of space & water). Sadly, my squash plant didn’t germinate here, so it’s just beans and poles.  Oh well.

Luckily, my other two squash plants did germinate, finally.

Garden 05 (7)

They are in our fabulous raised bed built last year—the hoops and covering were supposed to help me get a jump-start on spring gardening this year, but I dithered so much about what I wanted to put in here that it’s now a total summer bed. There’s a lonely onion and a cilantro plant in the back. I took this photo right after Miss Chef harvested about 1/3 of the cilantro, so it’s doing better than it looks from here. In fact, I think it’s planning on bolting (flowering) soon. Fortunately, I’ve got a few other cilantro seedlings scattered around other beds, so we’ll be able to enjoy it a bit longer. The seeds are coriander, which is an easy spice to harvest, and fun to use. I should plant cilantro more often.

Part of the reason my garden doesn’t look quite so jungly as last year was my surrender on the broccoli front. I had about seven plants come up from seeds, half a dozen that survived transplanting into the bed, but only 3 that made it through a last, brutal freeze in March (or was it April?) I could have bought plants, but they take up a lot of space, so I thought I’d be reasonable and just grow what I have.

And now it’s time for examples of “right plant, right place”…and its opposite.

This is my biggest one.

Garden 05 (17)

Handsome fella, isn’t he? Now here’s the one on the opposite corner:

Garden 05 (14)

I’m not sure what the difference is here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the garlic, either the shading or anti-companion status. Lots of things don’t like to grow near garlic. Also notice it’s more bug-eaten than the other, which I think is more effect than cause here. Healthy plants can resist pests and disease better, which is one of the benefits of using natural methods like companion planting, feeding the soil through compost, and mulching for water retention. Part of the end result is less need for pesticides.

That’s enough Gardening 101. There are more interesting things to look at. Like flowers!

Flowers 05 (2)

Well, this looked more impressive a few days ago, when there were fewer dead ones and more new ones. But I’ve got a nice self-propogating mix of galliardia, coreopsis and brown-eyed susans established in my front bed now. I should dead-head the spent blooms to encourage more flowering, but it’s hot out here in the afternoons!

At the bottom of the driveway, Miss Chef’s asiatic lilies are giving their annual show right now, too.

Flowers 05 (3)  

 

Flowers 05 (5)

 

And walking back to the house, I noticed one of our Mystery Trees has started bearing fruit. Wish I knew what it was!

Flowers 05 (7)

 

Also, this oddball popped up next to our neglected herb bed.

McKenna 05

I think I’ll keep this one.

McKenna 05 (13)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

First tomato!

IMG_20150509_185816_313

It’s tiny. It’s green. Apparently, it’s a little fuzzy…but it’s the first of the season!

Also, some of the seeds I had decided would never come up, came up. One day bare soil, the next…beans!

IMG_20150509_193200_036

Dunno what happened to those leaves, but I planted two at each stake, so we’re gonna play survival of the fittest. Gardening can be brutal, didn’t you know?

Wow, this picture came out fuzzy.

IMG_20150509_193250_020

The garden seems less green than usual this year. Still, the peas are finally getting the idea and climbing the trellises, though I had to help a few of them out. And the tomatoes have grown enough that I needed to loop some string around the stakes (thus the discovery of their firstborn). It’s been pretty warm here, getting into the low 80s (27-ish C), and I’d love some rain. Sadly, none is forecast anytime soon and I’m getting nervous this may turn into another drought summer. I really prefer when Mother Nature takes care of watering for me.

In other news, my favoritest pastry chef in Charlotte recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, and I stopped in today to check it out. Here’s a little something to make you hungry.

IMG_20150509_141335_078

IMG_20150509_141358_973b

 

The chef is French—oh so French—and makes the best pain au chocolat I’ve had stateside. Time to work my network and get this man some press!

That’s about all the excitement I’ve fit in this week, between delivering bread and scooping up spices. That’s ok, even my quiet weeks keep me occupied. It’s good to be busy again!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Food, flowers and Big Trip 2!

I was chatting the other day with my “boss” about my various paying gigs (she’s been a sort of acquaintance/friend for years, so it doesn’t feel like a typical boss-employee relationship), when she concluded, “It sounds to me like you’ve got four jobs.”

I try not to think of it that way. But I have been pretty busy.

On April 19th, my writing gigs got me a free pass as a media judge for one of the Competition Dining events being held in Charlotte. (Here’s one of the stories I wrote about it; in brief it’s a single-elimination bracket pitting a series of local chefs in secret ingredient matchups; the diners get to vote on each course without knowing which chef cooked what.) A couple weeks after I got my tickets, Miss Chef was invited to be a Pro judge for the same night—so we got to go together! And one of the organizers knew us, so we were seated together, even though we went via different organizations and had different contacts at the event.  Cool, huh?

There were six courses, but I won’t include all my photos. Here’s one of the apps:

IMG_20150419_191853_426

It’s a tortellini made with purple sweet potato, wrapped around rock shrimp and accompanied by a bit of lobster tail. Poor me, right?

Actually, it was a challenge to keep up the flow of tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook updates while still tasting and entering my scores for each course. I normally wouldn’t blast out every single course of a dinner like this, but I figured I was there as a media person, so I was going to earn my dinner.

Here’s one of the desserts:

IMG_20150419_204022_426

It’s an empanada, a cheesecake bite and toasted marshmallow, all made with different kinds of sweet potatoes. Oh, in case you hadn’t figured it out, the secret ingredient was five types of sweet potatoes, from five local farms. Both these dishes were by the winning chef, who defeated one of our good friends. I hated to see Chef Coleman go down, but it was a just victory, as he had some execution issues on a couple of his dishes. Besides, the winner was from last year’s state champion team, so it wasn’t exactly an easy battle.

As April wound down, I made a point of backing off on pitching stories, as I’d piled up too many deadlines before starting my two regular jobs and was about to have a nervous breakdown. So while I do still have some busy, busy days, I’ve finally started to have some free blocks of time. Of course, what else was I going to do with that during the lovely days of spring, but tend to my garden?

IMG_20150429_103852_163

Although some of my herbs didn’t do well this winter, the spring garden is finally gaining way, and I’ve just put in my summer plants. You can see the squash and cucumber seed packets in front! On the left of the pathway, inside the stately row of tall garlic plants, the tomatoes have taken up residence. On the right side, you can see the peas finally making a break for the trellis, and the faintest of green smudges that are my tiny carrots and onions.

See?

IMG_20150429_104756_891

I didn’t do a great job of reviewing my companion planting information from last year’s workshop, but I do remember that onions chase away lots of pests, and they don’t need much room. So I’m happy to grow as many as I can get!

Here’s a view from the other end.

IMG_20150429_104734_298

On the left are three tall stakes I’m using in a partial adaptation of the three sisters planting—no corn, but there are bean seeds at the bottom of each stake, and a squash seed in the center. Every year is an experiment in my garden. Now, I could also point out the two little bell pepper plants on the right side, but I doubt you can really see them, so you’ll just have to believe me. That thing you might want to think is a pepper plant is one of my three remaining broccoli plants. I don’t hold out much hope for a good harvest, as they’re still really small for this late in the spring. Still, I grew them from seed, so they’re gonna get a chance to prove themselves.

This past week I actually had an entire day off, with no writing deadlines, so I even had time to play with nonedible plants. These are some of the dozen or so marigold volunteers that came up in the garden. I potted some up to give away, because I couldn’t stand to toss them all in the compost pile.

IMG_20150429_103903_582

A couple of Facebook friends queried whether I was sure they weren’t ragweed! After researching images, I can see why they’d be worried, but I’ve never had ragweed on my property, while I have had lots of prolific marigolds. I ended up planting one in a front bed, and look forward to teasingly posting photos of my “ragweed” flowers later this summer.

I also treated myself to some begonias and a decorative sweet potato vine for my big pot on the front stoop.

IMG_20150430_141249_302

I love the white begonia flowers with the darker bronze leaves, but they can be really hard to find. I hit up a local nursery and got mostly white flowers. Close enough.

So, what’s this about Big Trip 2? If you were along for the ride four years ago, you’ll certainly remember our Big Trip to London and Paris. This one’s not quite that big, but this summer we’re finally heading off for another long flight—this time to San Francisco!

I’ve got family out there, including a 20-something cousin I’ve never met(!), and a Thai aunt who is all about some serious home cooking. Once again we are totally overplanning, but this time it’s Miss Chef scheduling everything. She’s already made two big reservations for us: at Coi, a hot new restaurant all about local food, and (drumroll) at the French Laundry, arguably the most influential restaurant in America in the past 20 years. It’s incredibly difficult to get reservations, and I never thought I’d get the chance to eat there. But Miss Chef was determined, and after an hour spent dialing and redialing and sitting on hold, she finally got us seats--at 9:15 pm. Better late than never, right?

I’d probably better stop eating tomorrow.

Anyway, we’re also hoping to do a day trip to Napa valley, and another to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, another bucket list item for both of us. I’m sure I’ll need another vacation to recover from this one, but life’s all about making memories, in my book.

Right now, though, I’ve got to make some clothes clean. So much for my glamorous lifestyle.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I wasn’t hibernating

In the past, I’ve put up posts around this time of year sort of apologizing for a recent lack of activity here on the blog. This year I’ve had a longer absence than usual, but for once it wasn’t from a lack of energy. No, rather than hibernating, I’d say I’ve been pupating.

It doesn’t sound very attractive, but I’m imagining a butterfly’s chrysalis. Wrapped up out of sight, the intriguing caterpillar within seems to be sleeping, but actually all kinds of interesting changes are happening inside. While I’ve been off this page, my three-dimensional life has been, well…interesting.

What has been going on since my last post in January? I have to turn to my photos to recall…thus the risk of letting my blog go unattended.

In February we had one of the area’s infamous ice storms.

Storm 02 (2)

Not having a regular job to head to, it didn’t inconvenience me much. In fact, since Miss Chef’s classes were cancelled for a day or two, we had a lovely little mini-vacation together. Although, to be honest, Miss Chef was itching for some alone time. Having an under-employed family member is hard on everyone.

I say underemployed instead of unemployed, because I’m carrying on with my freelance writing gig. February also saw me visiting a farm I know well, for a lengthy interview. My two-week trial as a delivery girl for Tega Hills’ lettuces turned into an article about the behind-the-scenes action that gets local food from farm to table.

Tega Hills 02 (1)

Tega Hills 02 (9)

I’ve had several other stories going out recently: a personal favorite about a chef who hits three local farmers markets every Saturday morning, promotional pieces about a couple of chef-owned restaurants, a farmer profile, and some coverage of a dining event that will become relevant a couple paragraphs down.

While writing kept me from sinking permanently into a pile of fragrant pajamas and potato chip crumbs, March was the big climax of my pupation, when everything seemed to coalesce at once. A former colleague from my old banking job recommended me for a temp-to-perm position through a staffing agency, doing the exact kind of work I’d been doing before. For 9 years. While everyone in my life told me I needed to do something more meaningful with my talents. Still, my savings were dwindling, and the prospect of a good, regular paycheck floated in my imagination like a desert island in a sea of impending bills. So I grabbed on—did two interviews in one day, got the job and signed on the dotted line.

At the same time, I was invited to a press event for the beginning of an annual chef competition here in Charlotte. This was a remarkable, eye-opening experience for me. First, I was invited—I didn’t have to hunt this story down, it came to me! Second, I’d never been to an official press anything, so it was interesting to see how these things roll. It was a little surreal seeing some chefs I consider good friends put on their PR faces for the cameras.

IMG_20150305_120248_555

Third, people knew me. One of the other well-known food writers in town—who I wasn’t sure even knew who I was—greeted me as a colleague and complimented my writing. Two or three chefs I knew via Facebook or reputation approached ME just to say hello and shake hands. It certainly gave my spirits a lift, and I drove home giggling, “I’m famous! People know me!”

Don’t worry, I won’t let it go to my  head.

Still, this event highlighted for me how important my mini writing career has become to me, and that I’m actually starting to play a role in Charlotte’s local food scene. It was going to be tough arranging interviews and menu tastings around an 8 to 5 job, but I was determined to keep a toe in, and keep that creative bug alive.

Then things got interesting. A position I’d been hearing about at a local farmers market was finally posted for applications. The local spice shop where I’d inquired in December about part-time work suddenly had an opening. It was temporary, maybe 6 months, but it created a possibility I hadn’t had before. I’d been very occasionally delivering bread for a baker I’d done my first print story on almost a year ago. If I could get him to promise me a steady number of hours, maybe I could pay the bills with two part time jobs, or hold on to see if the market manager job came calling, and still keep a flexible schedule for writing.

I’ll spare you the drama—and it was a ridiculously dramatic week—and tell you that’s just what I did. I opted for 13 hours a week doing deliveries, 16 to 20 hours at the spice shop, with random interviews and deadlines in between. All paid well under the hourly rate I’d have gotten sitting on my ass in front of a computer. (The farmers market job is still up in the air for now.) For the third time in my life, I made a decision based on my heart rather than my head. The other two had made me happy, so I was hopeful this would too.

Then we Gathered.

Guests (3)

Yes, it was time for our next quarterly underground dinner, and I was fully in charge of “Front of House” again. Miss Chef was concerned with some execution problems we’d all had at the previous dinner, so she limited this one’s ticket sales to 16 guests. That made things easier for me, plus she had a former student come along to help out wherever we needed her.

The dinner went very smoothly, and I was pretty happy with my side of service. The tables were set before our first guests arrived (a big change from our fall event), and I was more or less ready to handle any hiccups along the way. I even had time to cut some daffodils and greenery from our front bed to make the tables elegantly festive. Or festively elegant.

Flowers

I don’t want to fill this post with all the food pictures from the evening, but I have to share the inspired dessert table that Miss Chef and Chef Lynn came up with. The venue has a huge work table in the middle of the room, so they covered it and created edible art with the flavor profile of chocolate, orange and ginger.

6 food art (5)

There were smears of chocolate, dustings of cocoa, dribbles of caramel, oozings of toasted marshmallow, pillows of nougat, pillars of gingerbread, and smashings of orange cremeux. We handed our guests dessert spoons and glasses of port, and watched as an otherwise genteel dinner turned into a party full of laughter and lingering conversation.

I’d call that a success.

Then I took advantage of my last week of unscheduled freedom and bugged out for a visit my parents on Jekyll Island. I only had 3 days or so there, but it’s always good to check in. Besides, they needed some dog time, and Rosie can always use some beach time.

IMG_20150317_122955_134-1

 

I worked remotely a bit too, pitching stories, finalizing edits and managing the donation station I run at a farmers market (another little side job that nets me about $50 a month). But once I came home, I hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since. I’m adapting to having a schedule again, after nearly a year of controlling my own time. I’m getting used to standing for eight hours at a stretch, learning new roads around the outskirts of Charlotte, memorizing 170 spice blends (and where the over 400 pure spices are arranged on the shelves and in the storage room), and trying to figure out how many half-days I need to write a story.

Somewhere in there, I got the spring garden started.

IMG_20150408_111238_407

It’s a bit sparse looking, but you can just see my peas coming up under the trellis. There are also about 50 onion bulbs scattered around (not to mention the bajillion marigold volunteers and hundreds of ‘mater volunteers sprouting too). The greenish clumps in the pots are my herbs that wintered over, and the fringe of green around the edges is my beloved garlic crop I planted in the fall. You can see one of my broccoli plants on the bottom left corner, too. I’m hoping I have enough space for tomatoes, beans, peppers and squash when it comes time for the summer garden to go in, which will be soon.

Between digging in plants, lifting crates of bread and standing for hours at a time, my feet hurt, my back is sore and the rest of my muscles are stiff. I spend my days trying not to forget emails, phone calls, meetings and deadlines I mustn’t miss. Mornings usually find me waking early and lying in bed worrying about how to craft a lede or whether the Piri-Piri spice is in Exotics or Curry.

And I couldn’t be happier. I was really worried about whether I’d regret the stability of that desk job—and I still don’t know if I’ll meet May’s mortgage payment—but I’m thrilled to be working with like-minded people again. I may be earning a pittance, but my employers respect me and I finally feel like my professional life matches my personal life. I guess I feel whole again.

And now this newly-emerged butterfly has to flit off to another interview. Who knows when I’ll be back here? I hope it will be soon, if for no other reason than to keep track of the garden’s progress for my own future reference. I’ve got to have some consistency in my life, after all.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January Garden

I’m not so sure how I feel about this year-round gardening thing. Sure, it’s great to pull some fresh veggies out of your backyard in the middle of winter, but I kind of miss the winter break. Not that I’ve been working too hard out there!

So, to recap, for the first time I tried a fall “garden.” In August I planted broccoli, a few brussels sprouts seedlings, and tried to start some onions from seed. In theory, the brassicas enjoy the cooling weather of fall, giving harvests between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The onions sprout and, like the garlic, winter over for a summertime harvest.

As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t work that way.

The brussels sprouts hunkered down and did nothing. One of them disappeared without a trace by September. Three attempts at seeding onions resulted in a half-dozen feeble seedlings which all got buried under the great Poop Drop in November (they were too small to work around). The broccoli did slightly better, but they were not about to adhere to my mental time schedule.

It wasn’t until the beginning of November that the broccoli started acting like broccoli.

Garden 11

 

Barely. I have been deeply grateful that I have real row cover material this year (thanks Mom & Dad), so I was able to leave it over the plants without worrying about them overheating, or being blocked from sunlight and rainfall. When we had a week or so of nights above freezing, I could easily enough uncover them for a little sunbathing.

IMG_20150107_161619_465

The flower pot is to protect the cover from the pointy-ish end of the support stick. I took this picture the first week of January, so you can see it took nearly two months for this crop to get anywhere near harvest size. Or five months from planting, which was probably another month or two after seeding.

These are some well-aged broccoli.

There was a little bonus under there, too. Over summer I let some of my springtime lettuce go to seed, and these guys came up close enough to the broccoli to include them under the cover. So I had a little fresh January greenery on my sandwiches for a week or so.

IMG_20150107_162136_408

Another week after these photos we were hit by a serious deep freeze, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills around zero. (Yes, it does get cold in North Carolina, just not for long.) So I harvested everything I could…four decent-sized heads.

IMG_20150107_171515

They’re smaller than the ones the farmers grow, but they are beautifully compact with a lovely dark color. I assume that means more vitamins.

I immediately blanched and froze them, filling a quart bag and a little bit more. I was surprised to find this hitchhiker during the process.

IMG_20150107_171858

I then checked all the other heads and didn’t find a single other worm! That’s amazing, and a big benefit to “fall” gardening.

I wasn’t sure if broccoli could survive a deep freeze under cover (I actually have two layers over most of it), so as an experiment I left behind the smallest main head, along with the decapitated plants. If they do survive, I should get a fair number of secondary heads, bumping up my harvest a bit. At the moment, the results are surprisingly indefinite. Some of the plants look completely dead, others have some dead leaves and some healthy ones, and most of the small heads are looking ok for now. I think the one main head I left is a loss. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about “fall” gardening, it’s that things happen at a much slower pace than in spring and summer, so I’ll let this experiment play to its end.

A week after my pre-freeze harvest, it was time to do this.

IMG_20150118_111056

Yup, I just started seeds for spring! And while the old generation gives its last gasp outside, the next one is just getting started inside.

IMG_20150121_131120

To quote my favorite author, “So it goes.”