Bonkers for Borlotti. Monday, April 27, 2020

Between seasons. Some of the summer veg are planted: first out the stable door were the tomatoes purchased at Tomatomania in mid March, I rushed to plant them out so that they would be in the ground when people started arriving for the birthday celebrations. As it turned out, all that arrived was the pandemic. And that visit to Tomatomania was one of my last excursions into the world beyond this yard and garden. But the tomatoes are oblivious to coronavirus though always susceptible to other viruses. Which is why I rotate the beds each year, though really it should be at least two years. Now growing strongly are: Paul Robeson, Better Boy, Lucky Tiger, Flamme, Jetsetter, all chosen hastily but according to some tenuous logic. Paul Robeson in my experience – perhaps this simply means in my garden, its soil, the microclimate – is the best black tomato ever. Rich and seductive like the singer’s voice. Have had good experience too with the hybrid Jetsetter, excellent disease resistance, and produces very early (just as well because I missed out on my usual preferences for early tomatoes: Early Girl and Stupice). 

 Already it has a cluster of three largish green tomatoes. 

And also Flamme (aka Jaune Flamme), a French heirloom that is a gorgeous persimmon color, very productive and super tasty. The old stand-by Better Boy, productive and good disease resistance. On Eleanor’s recommendation I got Lucky Tiger, a cherry tomato new to me, but grown last year by her son-in-law, David. It is often difficult to tell when green-type tomatoes are ripe, but apparently as these ripen the dark green exterior turns yellow with red stripes. I got Juliet (now against the back fence) because I remember Becky growing it a few years ago – very delectable clusters of large grape jewels or jujubes (and disease resistant). Good, I figure, for semi-drying and preserving in olive oil.

More recently one other has been added to the main bed: Dad’s Sunseta smallish golden hybrid. Eleanor gave me a number of seedlings, which to my shame I did not look after very well, leaving them outside to fend for themselves in the cold and rain. I planted one out a while ago, but it was too small and weak and soon got gobbled up. So I started nurturing one of the other plants, brought the pot in to the kitchen and moved it around to catch the sun, only transferring it to the outside when it was fairly robust. And then, when it had re-accommodated to the traumatic outer world I planted it out on the edge of the bed where it is jostled by arugula in full flowering mode and a brilliantly orange calendula. It seems happy and is growing well, loves being liberated from the pot.

What a relief – was dreading having to tell Eleanor that I killed all her plantlets.

And another has been added to the back fence – a yellow grape, brought by Craig, because it’s almost a permanent fixture in the garden – but I realize I have now a preponderance of grape tomatoes. It is planted on the southern end of the back fence, and I had to pull up some of Steve’s Phoenix nasturtiums to make way. But I left a couple of plants because they are so gorgeous climbing up the fence. Eventually the tomato will probably crowd the flower out, though you can never anticipate the law of the garden, the mores to which plants adhere, frequently indifferent to human intervention. 

Oh well, I love that you never really know how it will play out, how the different tomatoes might go together, in the garden and in a salad, say, what will work well for sauces, grilling, dehydrating … And even though I say that certain varieties have always worked well for me, in fact that’s no guarantee… the stars of yesteryear might well turn out to be failures this year. 

Beans too have been planted. First, in the long bed that runs along in front of the fig tree to the back fence bush borlottis, sometimes called cranberry beans. I love them. The pods are so appealing, the palest green segueing into cream, streaked erratically in tones ranging from vermilion to a hint of blush. The beans too. Though all of this is anticipation, at the moment they are small green plants, six inches high with thick green heart shaped leaves, planted along with the beets and carrots. 

When we were in Bologna I would buy great piles of them, bring them back to our Airbnb, pod and cook them in a base of olive oil with some chopped onion, garlic, carrot and celery, then simmer in stock till creamy and delectable. Now that we have duck fat my thoughts turn to borlottis creamed and ducky… I haven’t grown bush beans for years because they take up more space than pole beans which can be grown vertically. BUT I found last year that my pumpkins and tromboncini grown vertically in front of the espaliered fig, on the structure that Peggy and I so carefully erected, were blocking the fig from sunlight during a crucial part of the day

before the fig was planted, oh gardens, so impermanent and unpredictable, always turning the table on one

and the climbing cucumbers were blocking the espaliered apples. So this year it’s bush beans all round. A mix of colors from Renee’s Garden Seeds have been planted in front of the fig, shishito peppers in front of the apple.

and where the pole beans usually grew (and the favas now are, coming to an end alas)

I plan on growing vertically an experimental variety of tromboncini from Row 7, developed by the chef, breeder and seedsman combo of Dan Barber, Michael Mazourek and Matthew Goldfarb. I’m a big fan of Dan Barber’s book, The Third Plate: Notes on the Future of Food. The cucumbers I plan to grow on tepee-type-structures in the bed I’m working on today.

A few other tiny summer plants are in the ground: a striped Italian variety of zucchini from steve, called cocozelle, and three ichiban eggplant, from Craig (all in the most westerly middle bed, shared with an habanero chile, two extant  Alpine  strawberries, jostling up against an exuberant azure blue lobelia, two kale plants, a few chard, some blue flowering borage around the edges).

and here’s a close up

I will try again growing a few squash, pumpkin and melon in the front garden in among the flowers. Hasn’t worked before, but I have an idea why and so will try again.

Made a soupy stew in the afternoon after soaking great northern beans overnight. A little bacon to start it all off but mostly beans and veg – chard, kale, a good handful of oregano and fresh carrots from the garden joined bought onions, leek, celery and garlic. What really gave it an edge was the home made vegetable stock, browning the tomato paste, and adding the bag of cheese heels that have accumulated in the fridge.

I set the soup out on trays for a Classic Hollywood dinner. With crusty bread baked in the morning, and a glass of wine. 

First we watched Better Things  – a particularly good episode (Batceanera) of this show which Jeffrey and I both love (and so does Adrian Martin). Pam Adlon is a genius. And then, our spoons laid to rest and hunger sated and all eyes free to focus on the telly, we prepared to be enthralled by each detail of the mise en scene, every camera move and cut, and the knock-out performance of Rita Hayworth in Gilda. This was one of the first films that galvanized me into writing – in a series of notes that somehow circulated in the small film community in Melbourne back in, I think, 1976. I was recently asked to submit the ‘Notes on Gilda’ for a publication but they had disappeared along with all memory of what was in them. Though I did find a letter I received in response from Doug Ling – it was about six pages of tiny handwritten outrage at the feminist distortion I’d inflicted on a great classic. His letter was, in my view then and now, bonkers, but it was written with real passion and engagement and reminded me of a time when there was so much excitement in the air around film studies, fueled by much righteous declaiming and denouncing and endless announcing of new paradigms. I’m sure there is still excitement in the air for young people, but now I’m more interested in writing about the garden and the environment than cinema. Still, though, watching those classic Hollywood movies sets the goosebumps rippling over my skin. If you’ve never seen it drop all the distractions you’ve concocted for getting through the isolation of the pandemic and Watch Gilda!

The Duck and I. Sunday April 26th, 2020.

Up early and out the back to make a start on prepping the last of the big beds in the veg garden. Racing against time as usual since the plantlets that Steve has started for me are growing like crazy, outpacing their pots. 

The heat is here. Which means getting up early to work and then working again before sunset. Once was a time when I loved to race out of bed and into the garden as the sun came up. Not now. I would much rather lie abed with a pot of tea, reading. At the moment it’s Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (recommended by Chandra), and revisiting Dickens – Hard Times. And seeing as it’s Sunday, the New York Times – the only day we still get a print copy so it feels like a luxury, to be acknowledged as such and indulged. When I, a younger wilder ‘I’, lived for a while in the East Village I would pick up a copy of the Sunday paper on the way home in the early hours of the morning, and after sleeping make bacon and eggs and lie around reading and eating and drinking coffee. There is no real reason now to keep paying some exorbitant fee to get a big batch of paper milled from many trees delivered in a blue plastic bag and hurled into a rose bush where you get scratched to bloody shreds trying to retrieve it. Yet I persist, it seems illogically, but perhaps it’s a way of preserving the sensation of being younger and wilder and less suburban. 

Moreover, as the CLL creeps along its wicked way fatigue is growing and lack of stamina inhibits and frustrates. So it takes time to recover, sometimes am done in for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, once in the garden all sensations of lassitude disperse, all pandemic anxieties fizzle. Talking of fizzling the two quarts of kimchi made last night are fizzing furiously, though furious doesn’t quite capture the air of defiant joyousness, as the jars bubble and overflow their containers. 

The savoy cabbage is not alas from the garden as I have very poor luck growing them, it came in an on-line order along with other Asian culinary goodies (three weeks after ordering, but a great surprise when it arrived and I’m very lucky to have access to this produce), including a daikon.

The carrots, green onions and garlic chives are from the garden. I’m used to doing kimchi in a certain rather haphazard way, but to refresh my memory I looked again at two terrific videos, one from the Fermenters Club: 

and the other from Maangchi –

We are in between seasons, some of the winter and spring veg are still producing – the chard that has a most luminous magenta stem and fleshy brightly veined leaves

the kale is beginning to bolt but still frilly and tasty enough if cooked. Most of the lettuces are beginning to wilt or to form great towers, bursting into bloom.

We are pulling carrots as needed and the beets are still small, so far I’m just stealing, judiciously, a few leaves for salads. Am much more considerate of the leaves now that I have read in Lab Girl about how every leaf counts for the well being of every plant (and beets are not a leafy salad green, they need their leaves to feed their roots growing red and bulbously below the ground, serenely ignorant of the Borscht destination that awaits them). Just as I let some of the veg and herbs—arugula and lettuce, say—go to seed, so I let some of the green onions form big fluffy white orbs cos they look so gorgeous, pompommed out. The strawberry bed, so neglected (last year some creature ate every single strawberry), has mysteriously burgeoned forth this year, the first big crop is over, but the plants, clambering out of their bed and into pathways, are covered in small white flowers which will turn into small white berries which will grow and absorb the sun and turn fat and scarlet and mushy.

Then, everyday it’s a challenge: to pick too soon in order to get it before the creatures? Or to wait another half day or even over night and see if you can outwit the critters (grandiose term, really its luck not wit, like so much of gardening)?

The magic of the air in those early hours when the plants are moist, glistening, still covered in dew. 

So my task today: to clear the bed of mulch, sprinkle the soil with all purpose fertilizer and the gorgeous compost made by Jeffrey, rake it in to the surface, mark out the spots where the drip irrigation outlets are (for planting), water well, and then remulch with straw. The compost is wonderful (Jeffrey is the compost king), but I plant densely and throughout the year so the plants also need vital trace minerals and micro and macro nutrients, provided by the all-purpose organic fertilizer. Each little plant then (or seed) is watered in with a dilute mixture of seaweed and fish oil to give it a good start. I set myself the task of doing just half the bed this morning, will do the other half this evening after the sun goes down. A few days ago I pulled out the broccoli plants which kept giving side shoots in the form of broccoli florets. Everyday for the last few weeks, collecting strawberries and favas I would be amazed out how many new florets there were and would tell Jeffrey, this is probably the last of them, and then then the next day there would be more. Sometimes we would simply steam them lightly and have as side, or in pasta tossed with anchovies, onion, lemon zest, or as a salad tossed with canned tuna and white cannelloni beans, olive oil and lemon juice.

Today I pulled a few bolting lettuces, prized some oxalis out of their grip in the earth, thinned most of the fennel, just leaving a few growing plumply

I worked around the golden violas spreading  over the bed (though how long will they survive the heat?) and the almost-black truly shrinking violet which came into view when the broccoli was taken out

and the patches of perennials: oregano along one edge, lemon balm along another and a cluster of sorrel, though I stripped back the leaves which will grow again soon – some we’ll give to Heike and the rest J used to make a marvelous omelet with left-over potatoes for breakfast. The lemony tang of the sorrel is so at odds with the sludgy green color it turns when cooked. Then remulched, partly with old straw and some new. The mulch will serve to retain moisture, suppress the weeds, and as it breaks down over the season so it feeds the soil. 

For lunch today the noble duck provided us with a third meal. Our farm supplier has had organic ducks at a super reasonable price. We have had two so far, spaced several weeks apart. The first time I followed RB’s (Revered Bittman) recipe but the timing didn’t work so well for the duck and I. So I made a few changes and tweaks and additions and oh mama mia! (am happy to share if anyone interested). Here is the magnificent duck, somewhat shrunken and crisped, carved and surrounded by the vegetables very wickedly and deliciously roasted in duck fat. Carrots and fennel from the garden. Other veg ordered or purchased by our dear friends Elana and Bahram, or Heike, who have generously folded us into their shopping sprees.  

The next night Jeffrey used the bones and carcass to make stock and produced a magnifico duck ramen. And today I quick fried the liver and kidney and had it on toast with this salad – sorrel, phoenix nasturtium flowers, violas, fava beans – all from the garden, water cress from our farm delivery, and making the most of a rather feeble cucumber from another on-line order.