Herbs are interesting. No really, they are.  Let me tell you: They produce extremely quickly, and in my experience, in large amounts. They spread a lot, too (see blog entry on chocolate mint).

This was my first summer with herbs, so in the beginning of June, I was extremely gentle with our basil plant, only picking a few leaves at a time. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t over-harvest the plant or kill it or anything; I would make super-authentic-Italian-things with these four or five leaves, like grilled cheese sandwiches with basil or baby-tortilla-pizzas with basil and mozzarella. Then I realized that it didn’t really matter how much basil I picked, the plant would someone manage to fill itself up again in a week’s time. If you don’t keep up with picking the basil, it will “go to seed” (like most things in the garden). So, I started picking a lot.  On more than one occasion, I’ve left it bald…really, bald…and the next week the plant is full again. When the fridge was full of basil and I started getting worried that my roommate would be annoyed (first the pickles and now the basil!), I realized I had to actually do something with the basil…I couldn’t just collect it.

My first project was drying basil. This is about as easy as it sounds: pick basil, poke holes in a paper bag (finding a paper bag might be the most difficult part), hang bag with basil upside down and wait two weeks: dried basil.

Next, I made caprese salad (see Moving and Tomatoes.)

The end of communal gardening time is by far the most exiting. We lay all the produce out and pick what we want; mid-summer this generally resulted in us pushing tomatoes at one another and Danielle promising to make everyone pickles.  About a month ago, the basil in the communal garden started producing. And then we planted even more basil and it started producing too. Basil quickly became the new thing we had too much of.  Every week basil would lay on the table and every week everyone would say “I’ve already got a lot of basil”  until someone would volunteer to take it. But, because it would go to seed (and therefore stop producing), we had to keep picking it. I still haven’t figured out why we needed something to keep producing if everyone was tired of it, but here I am, a few weeks later, still fretting about picking the basil. I do not claim to understand everything.

One week the group convinced me that making homemade pesto was really easy, so I volunteered to take some basil. After doing a little internet research, I learned that pesto was really easy…if you have a food processor. I, someone who enjoys doing things the “real” way and appreciates the value in dicing an onion on my own, thank you very much, do not own a food processor. I am also in grad school and do not have money (or space) for such newfangled luxuries.

I feared that my pesto-making adventure had ended before it began until I found a website that explained that in Italy, they don’t use food processors to make pesto, but that they chop the ingredients by hand. If I knew an Italian expression for “A-ha!” or “Success!” or “Huzzah,” I would insert it here.

First, I chopped two garlic cloves and sauteed them in olive oil. Then I started chopping basil. I chopped basil for about 30 minutes. At this point, Katie declared that heaven will smell like nut-free pesto (nut-free because Katie will have a severe allergic reaction if I put nuts in the pesto). Then I chopped for awhile longer, but I won’t tell you how much longer because it’s embarrassing. It looked very pretty once it was all chopped and put together. Then I added olive oil. The woman whose blog I was using (the one who had claimed that real Italians chop their own ingredients by hand) said that most people add 1/3 a cup of olive oil but that she adds 1/2 a cup; because I liked this woman’s authenticity,  I followed her lead.  Finally, I added the Parmesan. You probably noticed the repeated use of different forms of the same verb in this paragraph: chop, chopped, chopping. Making pesto=chopping.  And chopping. And chopping.

I was having friends over for dinner that night and decided to use the pesto instead of red sauce for pizza.  After all my chopping, I had hoped to have a little left over, but I ended up using it all. It turned out pretty well, but I regretted trusting the olive oil suggestion; the baked pizza ended up being super olive oily (delicious, but a little crunchy). When questioned, my friends would not say there was too much olive oil, but I knew.

A few weeks later, after I’d forgotten about the chopping and the garlic/basil smell my fingers retained for three days, I decided to make pesto again. It did go a little bit faster this time. Katie and I decided to just eat it on pasta. I had a little left over, which I found to be a really tasty addition to generally anything I sauteed in a skillet. Apparently an ice cube sized amount of pesto is enough for one serving, so I froze a few servings in an ice cube tray (before adding the Parmesan cheese), too. I forgot to take these out and put them in tupperware, though, and later when a friend was looking for ice at a party, he only found pesto. Actually, I think they’re still there right now, un-tupperwared.

The basil keeps growing. I haven’t picked any for two weeks. I’m trying to talk myself into making pesto again. A friend said I could borrow her food processor. This poses a moral dilemma.

Lawrence is crowded now, and red and blue. Students are back; KU busses are everywhere.  I’ve picked out and color coded my notebooks and folders. This can mean only one thing: I must go back. I want to go and I don’t want to go; it’s the same feeling I’ve had since…well…kindergarten.

Tuesday afternoon Amelia and I planted lettuce and cilantro.

Yesterday I went to the garden and piddled around, weeding and harvesting, mostly things that were overflowing: rainbow chard (still!), tomatoes (always), what I’ve termed “jungle spinach” (just think spinach, add some purple vines, and use your imaginations). I also picked some zinnias; flowers want to be picked. Later in the afternoon, I met with a few gardening friends. One of them is moving to Boston, so we had goodbyes to say and a few gifts to exchange. One of those gifts was canned pickles…you know what canned food means…In the most obvious attempt to cling to summer, bestie Mark and I went downtown and sat outside last night. I accept the futility in this.

In 3 and 1/2 hours, I have my first class. Then another right after it.  I know what book we’re starting with in the seminar I’m taking this semester, but it hasn’t “officially” been assigned (and won’t be until 4 pm this afternoon). I could also work on lesson plans (I teach tomorrow) or print off my student roster. I think I’ll just blog a little bit longer, though.  Maybe I can even go to the garden (Okay, I actually just did. We’re now down to 3 hours until class today). I accept the futility in this as well.

I’m currently reading “Second Nature” by Michael Pollan. Have I mentioned that he’s my hero? Right now I’m working on the section of the book dedicated to fall.  He expresses feelings of greed/guilt by asking the garden to produce even more. The garden wants to be finished, shows signs of being finished, but we push for just a little bit more. He also discusses the complete uncertainty that comes with any (but especially fall) gardening, at one point mentioning that frost could come in a month, or it could come tomorrow; I’m going to try to remind myself of this and start preparing myself for the potential destruction-by-frost of our fall crop.

What’s stuck with me the most from this section thus far, though, is his admittance that a small part of him is ready for it to go, knows that the garden can’t last; it has to end, has to start over. I get this. I am reminded of our tomato plants that are falling over; I want a chance to plant new, straight tomato plants, and I’ll get that chance next year. It’s the same thing with the end of summer/beginning of school.

There is one thing that I can’t let go of right now, though: I heard of a recent graduate who just moved to Italy to learn about sustainable gardening. I think I could learn a thing or two from the Italians.

Moving and Tomatoes.

August 14, 2010

My move to Lawrence a year ago (almost to the day) marked a transition for me in about every way possible. A big one was that I was on my own financially for the first time. My parents weren’t going to pay for groceries anymore. They weren’t going to pay my rent or my other bills (although they were still going to help me keep my insurance and my cell phone (hence the reason I am the only person my age without texting (I am secretly really proud of this))).  This actually wasn’t that bad…except for one day last September when I broke into tears about the outrageous cost of my eye exam and contact lenses ($149!); my parents said that I had to tell them if I wasn’t going to be able to eat. It never got that bad.

I like this independence. I like being an adult.

I do not, however, like the idea of packing all my things into my car and driving them to my new house and then packing more of my things into my car and driving them to my new house and then doing that over and over again for an entire afternoon. I don’t like the idea of learning to drive a stick shift just so I can borrow a friend’s truck to haul my bed, dresser, bookshelf, and desk.

When I made my big transition to being an adult in Lawrence (because I apparently wasn’t one during undergrad?), I’m almost positive that I promised to never ask my parents to move me again.  I should probably just not say that; it’s a promise I can’t make. Sometimes your family are the only people you can “force” to do these things.

I wasn’t going to ask. But when they offered all on their own volition…

Really, moving is crappy. You have to carry stuff and it’s hot and you get sweaty and you always end up pulling a muscle in your back or disassembling a table at the last minute to get it through a door or moving your bed to three different spots in the room before you’re happy with where it is (okay, maybe the last one was just me). So, I wanted to say “thank you.” I also wanted to show off my gardening and cooking skills. I know some people who are into “skill sharing.” I always avoided these invitations to “skill share” because I didn’t think I had any; I think I’ve developed a few this summer, though.

I decided to make my family a meal with three items featuring garden (or farmer’s market) produce. I’d made the main dish before (Roasted Vegetable Lasagna: http://italiandish.squarespace.com/imported-20090913150324/2008/11/8/roasted-vegetable-lasagna.html), so I was pretty confident it would be successful. One of the items was salad with rainbow chard; I don’t think it’s possible to mess this up.

The last item was something new: caprese salad. Obviously caprese salad isn’t that interesting or new, but it was new to me, so I was interested.  I had this for the first time about 4 years ago, and for some reason, I thought it had it would be really difficult to make. It wasn’t; its only ingredients are tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, olive oil, and salt & pepper. Since the garden was pretty much overflowing with tomatoes (and has been ever since) and basil, I decided to give it a shot. After completing my salad, I remembered a tiny detail: I’m the only one in my family who actually likes tomatoes. Oops.

Our finished meal was nice. Before I let them eat, I told them where each part of dinner came from (salad: rainbow chard (community garden), peppers (my parents’ garden in Missouri); lasagna: zucchini (Lawrence Farmer’s Market), carrots (Omaha Farmer’s Market), basil (my garden), pasta, cheese, ingredients in homemade sauce (Checkers…I did not roll my own noodles); caprese salad: tomatoes (community garden), basil (my garden), mozzarella cheese (Checkers).) I spouted that off in about 25 seconds…and I still remember (two weeks later). If you ever get to eat a meal I make during garden season, get excited! 

We ate it sitting in the living room floor of my old apartment.

After dinner, we went to the garden…obviously. 

Last week we had to tear out the two rows of sweet corn. Although the stalks were drying out and turning really cool reds and browns, they weren’t really useful anymore.  All told, we harvested about 35 ears of corn. Some of them were pretty, some of them were hour-glass shaped, and some of them were what I started calling “nubbins.” Urban Dictionary.com says that “nubbins” means “broke” or “no money.” It also lists another definition.

Surprisingly, destroying what I loved wasn’t that difficult. It was kind of like end of Frankenstein, except my corn didn’t seek companionship or wreak havoc and the corn and I didn’t have a face-off at the North Pole. I’m not bedridden and dying. When we read Frankenstein in high school, my AP teacher’s favorite student used the phrase “spontaneous generation of love” during class discussion. I will not use that phrase to describe my corn or the garden.

I must admit now that this isn’t chronological. Pulling out the corn was actually one of the last things we did. I just wrote about it first because it was the most traumatic. I’m using that whole “hook your readers” thing against you. Now…on to how things really happened:

I’d thought about planting fall crops, but probably wouldn’t have acted unless Amelia asked if I was interested. Garden-mates are great for giving much needed nudges. Right now fall gardening mostly sounds nice because it means we’ll be working in the garden when it’s cool and not 102 degrees. We consulted this calendar to decide when to plant things: http://www.savvygardener.com/Features/veg_garden_calendar.html.

First we dug up the green bean plants to plant sweet potatoes, yukon gold potatoes, and carrots. The green beans were looking really gross anyway:

When we planted the potatoes, we didn’t plant them from seeds. Amelia already had one sweet potato started (from a seed, I think) so we planted it with the green leafs sticking out of the ground. We planted the other potatoes from what I think are called seed potatoes (pieces of potatoes whose eyes had started to sprout). We weren’t sure if the sprouts should be sticking down into the ground or up out of the ground. Our best guess was that the sprouts should go down into the ground (b/c they are roots?) but since the sweet potato had leaves at the top, we weren’t entirely sure. Our solution: plant half with the sprout going up, half with the sprout going down.

About a week later (while I was packing, moving, cleaning, unpacking, and attending weddings), Amelia planted green onions and carrots. I’ve tried growing carrots once before. Grandma Pat wrapped a few of them in Saran Wrap and mailed them to me when they were “ready.” They were about 2 inches long, sort of an orange-opaque color. I still have them. I know this is weird.

(insert corn)

After pulling up the corn, we planted a row of spinach, three mini rows of leeks, and a shorter row of kale. The kale seeds were pretty cool looking…worth taking a photo of. Also, note how gigantic the marigolds are. They are super resilient.

Like most things I’ve done in the garden, I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s been so dry, that I’m a worried about these seeds actually doing anything; I’ve never planted anything in dust. We’ve been trying to water every day, but the ground just seems to suck it all up. I also feel a little guilty/selfish about expecting the garden to do more. I’ve gotten so much free produce this summer (well…if  working a lot still counts as “free”…somehow I forget to factor in time). I also fear that I may be a better student than gardener…or blogger…so if things fall apart, it might actually be my fault and not the rabbits’ or sun’s or bugs’.

Compared to other years, this summer has been extremely successful, so really (like you’ve probably already read 10 times before), if this doesn’t work, it will be okay…just remind me that I said that when I’m crying about not having any spinach.  I do love how the garden is an entirely different place now. It almost always is. It looks more like a beginning of April garden than a middle (dare I say “end of”  and admit that it’s pretty much over? The fireworks at the kickball game last night say “no.”) of the summer garden.

Grandma’s Wiseman’s encyclopedia collection was  wealth of knowledge. I used to read Paul Revere’s encyclopedia entry aloud. Often. My family pretty much hated me, especially my younger sister. Sometimes she’s more mature than I am.

Even though I now know that Paul Revere wasn’t the only one who rode to warn the colonists of the British, you can imagine how excited I was to see this in the New York Times yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02gardens.html.

If they take away the garden, expect to see this.


August 2, 2010

I’ve never really liked pickles.  I only like dill pickles; that is it. For whatever reason, it took me an inordinate amount of time to learn the names of the different varieties. Apparently remembering “dill pickle” is really hard, because I constantly find myself accidentally eating a sweet pickle or bread & butter pickle and subsequently gagging. I’ve pretty much swore off anything pickled.

So, when my friend Danielle brought homemade pickles to  community gardening time a few weeks ago, I was stuck. I wanted to try them because I wanted to be supportive. I also wanted to ensure that I didn’t make a face of complete disgust in front of her. I prefaced my taste test: “I’ve never really liked pickles, so if I don’t like these, it’s probably not because your pickles are gross.”

Amazingly, I liked them. They were dill pickles, so my main fear was assuaged. They were spicy, too, so they were special. They were also pretty.

The garden (like most American gardens, I’m sure) is currently overflowing with cucumbers. We have quite a few pickling cucumbers (I just learned that there was a difference between pickling cucumbers and cucumbers for eating…who knew?), so I decided to take some and try to make them. Part of my motivation for this was that my new roommate loves pickles. Seriously. Sometimes she eats entire jars. Making these pickles would: 1) get rid of some cucumbers 2) Give me a chance to try something new 3) Make Katie happy.

As the recipe shows (http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Spicy-Refrigerator-Dill-Pickles/Detail.aspx?prop31=2), these pickles aren’t really canned. They’re refrigerator pickles, which means they need to be stored in glass jars with lids in the fridge for 10 days. Then, they have to be eaten with a month. I didn’t actually need jars that could seal for this.

I have a seemingly endless supply of glass Mason jars from all the canned green beans Grandma Pat provides me with, but I didn’t have any lids for them, so I couldn’t use them. I could have bought jars from the store, but that seemed wasteful since I didn’t specifically need canning jars.  So, always frugal, I sent out a few emails to ask some friends if they had any old glass jars laying around. The deal: lend me a jar, and I’ll give it back to you with pickles.

Friends responded quickly; apparently people love pickles. After mixing together all the ingredients, I had to let the cucumber slices soak for 2 hours. Near the end of the 2 hour mark, I got a call asking if I wanted to go see the movie Inception. I responded with something like “No, I’m sorry. I’ve really got to get these pickles in their jars tonight.” How I still have friends is beyond me.

As always happens when trying something new, I had a few concerns about the pickles. First, I didn’t have pickling spice and I didn’t really want to go to the store to get any. Instead, I just looked up what was in pickling spice online and added the spices that I had in the cabinet. One of them was cinnamon…weird.  Second, even though I did the proportions the recipe called for, I ran out of liquid to fill the jars with. So, a few jars into the process, I started adding vinegar and water and a few spices. I thought this might water down the pickles’ flavor. Finally, I thought the pickles might have a hint of peanut butter or spaghetti sauce or whatever the jars had had in them previously.

The pickles 10-day wait time fell right in the middle of the move, but they survived. They were ready on Thursday, the day my mom was helping me clean the old apartment. After cleaning, my mom and I went to my new house for a quick lunch. After we finished lunch and my dad came to pick my mom up (and to give me a ride up the hill to work), we tried them. My dad likes pickles and spicy things, so theoretically, he would like these. He’s also a little…umm…how to say this nicely…picky about his food sometimes, though. And since I hadn’t tried them first, I was kind of nervous.  I liked them, though. He also said he liked them and took a jar home. We’ll see if he still likes them after I call him picky in the blog-o-sphere.

Later that night, we went to the Burger Stand for dinner. They serve a spear pickle with their burgers. My pickles were way better. I know they specialize in burgers (and can definitely make a better burger than I ever will) and not in homemade pickles, but still…I felt accomplished.