Saturday, April 4, 2009

Operation Salad: Take 1

I have a keen recollection of a conversation that transpired on a houseboat shanty on the Thames that my friend Laura was living on. Her friend Somerset was raving about the salads she was growing in pots in her garden. Fresh lettuce, she enthused, was the most glorious thing on a hot summer's day. When I moved to an apartment with a roof deck last fall, this salad concept remained at the back of my mind.

And now that winter seems to have finally thawed, and the neighborhood is bright with forsythias and clusters of daffodils, I decided to take action. Despite a limited amount of gardening experience, I was nevertheless eager to start my little urban garden from seed. So I traipsed along to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and bought some organic dirt and a few Seeds of Change packets -- chives, basil, red ridinghood lettuce (which is supposed to tolerate sunny rooftop climes) and beetberry (whose leaves are supposedly tasty.) On Thursday, however, I was slightly disheartened to read in the NY Times Home & Garden section that this is the biggest conglomerate of organic seed sellers in the country. So much for mom and pop seeds. But then I happened to pop by the co-op later that day and discovered that they sell Fedco seeds which were not only produced on a smaller scale but are also designed to be planted in Maine's hardy northern climes. The more rugged the seeds, the better, I figure. And they cost only 98 cents per packet, about a quarter of the price of Seeds of Change. So I scored some "Pink Lettucy Mustard" Greens, and some Sweet Pea flowers, which are now happily installed in a pot of soil on my fire escape.

I had been saving a few empty egg cartons to start my seedlings in, but was dismayed to realize that the 12 slots per carton would only technically accommodate about 24 seeds. Apparently, you are only supposed to plant a couple of seeds per little soil nodule. Since each seed packet holds about 50 seeds, I began to panic. We would have to eat a lot of eggs -- and fast -- in order to free up the kind of space required by my recent seed purchases. I quickly came to my senses and dashed out to the hardware store to buy a tray of 60 starter cells made of cardboard-y stuff that supposedly disintegrates when planted in dirt. I also decided that given my inexperience, I would seed each cell with say, 4 or 5 seeds, just in case. I hope that I do not come to regret this unorthodox decision. Apparently, the thing to do is wait until the seeds begin to sprout and then cut back all but the strongest seedling so that if can flourish fully in its cell before being transferred to the garden, ahem, terra cotta pot on the roof.

At the hardware store, I checked out the inventory of said pots. The pickings were slim, but the lady in charge assured me that she would be getting in a new shipment in a week or so. I inquired about a couple of quirky looking pots in the corner -- one blue and white glazed, with minor crack down the side, the other quite shallow and attractively polka-dotted green. The lady explained that they were just left-overs from last year and offered them to me for free. Score. Since they did not have holes in the bottom for drainage, however, she suggested that I fill the bottoms with pebbles. I then bought a $5 bag of rocks, which felt rather odd, but never mind. I have a feeling that that foraging for rocks in Prospect Park is more challenging and/or illicit than it sounds.I began by filling an egg carton with dirt and then poking a few (ok, several) chive seeds into each cell. I then watered the carton profusely, as the chive packet suggested that "consistent, even moisture" is essential in the sprouting phase. The dirt seemed to repel the water, however, and I wound up having to kind of stir each pot to distribute the water with the end of a fork. Concerned that the seeds were buried deeper than the recommended 1/4 inch, I decided to revise my tactic and pre-water the soil going forward. I dumped a bunch of soil into a Ziploc baggie and watered it, squeezing it like dough. I then proceeded to pack it into each cell and rather gingerly add the seed. Although a slightly worrying amount of dirt that washed down my kitchen sink, I reckon that this method was superior.

So now my seeds are all set up on windowsills around my apartment. Nothing much seems to have happened yet. I spritz them daily and hope that something green transpires shortly. In the meanwhile, I am considering composting.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How To Cut Up A Pig

Yesterday, I saw a half a pig cut up before my very eyes.

At a Slow Food event at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), master butcher Rudi Weid broke down a small Berkshire pig that had lived a good life up at Tamarack Hollow Farm in Vermont. Proceeds from the event benefitted Slow Food Harvest Time education programs in East Harlem and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Butcher Weid not only wielded the knife masterfully (as well as a handsaw and cleaver, both passed down to him from his father, from whom he learned his craft), but also proffered a unique perspective.

Although the somewhat self-selected crowd - those eager to watch pig butchery on a sunny Sunday afternoon - was probably already passionate about sustainable food production, Weid talked a lot about the differences between industrial pork and the heritage, happy pork we were about to enjoy. He mostly talked in concrete butcher's terms about the difference in the color and feel of different qualities of meat, though, which kept it interesting. He recalled butchering a pig for a North Carolina demonstration, for example, where the pork was flecked with little exploded red synapses (correct terminology?) as it had been severely stressed when it was butchered. He noted that the beef of cows who had suffered in death was typically extremely dark.

He didn't dwell on the injustice of cruelty to animals, as one might have expected, but simply got on with it. When someone from the audience asked him how one becomes a butcher today, and how long one typically apprenticed, he paused and, ever stoic, held up a box cutter. "This is what you need to become a butcher today," he said. "It's all pre-cut. Just open the box." He seemed highly dubious that the art of butchery would be revived by the legions of slow food enthusiasts any time soon.

But Weid seemed very happy with the quality of our pig's meat. It was a good deal darker and firmer than supermarket "meat," he noted. He pulled out the kidney and the internal fat (leaf lard) then cut off the head, indicating that it would make a mighty fine head cheese. He then cut off the hind leg (ham) and delicately deboned it. He moved up to the front quarters, where he removed the shoulder (aka Boston butt) and front leg (picnic ham). He proceeded in a most sculptor-like fashion to the center cut, which is apparently the only section of the pig typically sold in supermarkets these days. Weid gracefully pulled off the spare ribs, carved off thick strips of back and belly fat, and finally extracted the loin with babyback ribs still attached. This large rib roast is where you find the - you guessed it - pork chops, should you choose to cut it into pieces.

After the lengthly demonstration, we were served lovely bits of the other half of the pig that had already been prepared: the ham (which bore no resemblance to the ham of my childhood Chistmas dinners, rosy and smooth but was rather turkey-like, white and somewhat dry.) Also, the shoulder, and super fatty belly, and the insane crackling, which was like chicken skin squared. At the same time, Rogue Ales conducted a little tasting. We tried the Juniper Pale Ale, which was my favorite - refreshing and herbal, the American Amber Ale, which was sort of round and coffee-like, and the Satin Rogue Red, which I thought tasted like horses (and not necessarily in a good way) and the which Rogue lady described as resin-y. Dry hops are added to it after it been brewed, so it has this extremely hoppy thing going on. Finally, we tried the Chocolate Stout, which was so chocolately and kind of creamy. I liked it a lot but thought it would have paired better with chocolate cake than with pork.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


There is something about the sudden shift towards fall -- the slight nip in the air, the rustle of drying leaves overhead, drained somewhat of their bright green color -- that makes me feel a little frantic to preserve what's left of summer. Summer's bounty, that is.

So I recently got with the times and started making all manners of jam. Thus far I have made shiro plum-vanilla, apricot-brown sugar and cherry tomato-cinnamon. I finally acquired a fantastic book on jam that everyone raves about, Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber, who lives in Alsace and is pretty much the world's authority on jam, and who has proved quite the inspiration. There are so many recipes in the book that I am eager to try. I had better get with it, too, because locally grown fruit (with the obvious exception of apples and pears) is quickly beginning to vanish from my local co-op. Blackberries and blue, which were for a moment so plentiful, are nowhere to be seen. One recipe that I am particularly keen to try is apple-celery-mountain honey, which sounds intriguingly alpine.

Blue Apron Fine Foods in Park Slope has started carrying my cherry tomato jam. I'll be conducting a tasting there on October 4th -- do come by!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

zucchini blossoms

snagged these lovely blossoms at the farmers' market this morning...

neighborhood fruit

I spied this laden peach tree while walking down 4th Avenue the other day (corner of Bergen St.? - must verify). It appeared to be part of a community garden and was quite ripe for the picking! Was proud to see that New York has plenty of fallen fruit, too! Admittedly, my sources tell me that Los Angeles is positively dripping with it.
And is organized to the extent that Fallen Fruit has compiled incredibly detailed maps indicating where the loquats lurk. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

vertical farm

This story in today's NY Times about buildings as vertical farms is so great. Sky scrapers would rely solely on renewable energy like solar and wind, and could provide sustenance for thousands of people. Wall-e would be heartened, I'm sure, to imagine a city built of edible plants, instead of garbage. Take that, New Museum 'After Nature' exhibition. This seems like the ultimate manifestation of urban gardening - imagine reaching out the window of your office cubicle and plucking a fresh cucumber for lunch.

On a similar note, I'm looking forward to heading over to PS 1 to check out
PF 1 (public farm 1), an urban farm concept, complete with a chicken coop, that evokes the look of "a flying carpet landing in the PS 1 courtyard." PF 1 was the Young Architect Project's winning project this year, and is the design concept of husband and wife team WORK architecture

Friday, July 11, 2008

tomato love

Spent yesterday morning tending the garden my little brother and I planted at my dad's house
. The little tomato seedlings have grown dramatically in just a few weeks, and many of the lower branches are already beaded with small green tomatoes. It seems as though the tomatoes like to lay relatively low. We planted a good spread of heirlooms and hybrid varietals -- Sweet 100, Black Russian, Early Girl, Better Boy, the requisite Beefsteak. Although this is the third summer we have planted this garden, we are still decidedly amateur: as might seem obvious from these pictures, space limitations and gardening zeal resulted in the unfortunate (yet familiar) effect of overcrowding. The crooked, leafy arms of the plants had grown thoroughly entangled, and many slouched low to the ground, unable to support their own weight. The web of green emits an incredibly heady scent of tomato-y goodness, smelling more intensely like tomatoes than the fruit themselves. That said, it was a bit of a job to gingerly pry them apart and steady them upright with stakes and those neat metal basket contraptions. A few limbs were accidentally snapped and had to be unceremoniously cast aside. I nipped the rampant clover-like weed's from the bed, showered the freshly-secured plants with the watering can and finally secured them with fairly high security chicken-wire-esque fencing, necessary to ward off the wily local suburban rabbit population. A shadier bed across the way boasts thriving cucumber and melon plants, bountiful basil, parsley and chives, and some shriveled dill, which I can't quite figure out if it requires more water or sun...