For my second whirl with the Vatinet baking book, I wanted to try something a little more flavorful but not complicated (I wasn’t quite ready for the Kalamata or Beaujolais recipes just yet). I also wanted to try out my new couche, so I decided on a whole wheat recipe flavored with just a touch of honey, shaped into baguettes. This involved a certain amount of flipping back and forth between the recipe and the baguette-forming instructions, as well as some adjustments on my end to make up for my less than industrial kitchen. For example, Vatinet wants you to bake the baguettes on a big stone, but a big stone I hava no. What I did have was a brand spankin’ new Chicago Metallic baguette pan, so that was going to make its debut as my baking vessel of choice (I also have CM’s French bread pan – damn those Amazon “frequently bought together” deals).
The dough creation process was more or less the same as in making the boule. The big difference was the addition of whole wheat flour and that little touch of honey. My honey had crystalized, so it needed a brief nuke in the microwave and then time to cool before it could be used, so I reviewed recipe, kneading technique and proper baguette formation and assembled the ol’ mise en place while I waited.
Because of the whole wheat flour, the dough was a good bit stiffer and took a little longer to work this time, especially using Vatinet’s pinch-and-pull kneading method. The results were still very pleasing – this dough smells good. I popped it into its floured bowl and left it to rest. Once again, it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should (this could be because John and I keep our house on the cool side), but after an hour it had doubled, just barely, so I forged ahead.
Forming the baguettes was fun. First you form the dough into a rectangle (and Vatinet is very specific about how you do this, just as he is specific about every step in the baking process), then you use your fingers to create a kind of dog-bone shape, and then both hands come into play as you roll the dough longer, into the traditional baguette shape. I wished for a larger working surface, such as a big table, but I was NOT going to prep bread on the Stickley. The longest counter top in my little galley kitchen had to suffice. Then I put the two baguettes on the couche, lifting a couple of folds between the loaves. The couche was big enough to then cover both baguettes for the second rising.
(A note. Every time I try to type couche in this blog, I type douche instead. I don’t know what that says about me or my typing skills, but it’s making me giggle.)
The baguettes didn’t rise a whole lot, but then, they’re baguettes and compared to the boule recipe, use very little yeast. They looked adorable – so adorable that I spent time admiring them instead of taking their photo, once they had been panned and slashed with the trust razor blade. A photo of the brand spankin’ new baguette pan will have to suffice. Pretty, no? I wish you could have seen those baguettes cuddling in it, side by side. Adorable.
Since I didn’t want the baguettes to over-bake, I used my instant-read thermometer to test them for doneness. They baked very quickly and smelled spectacular when I took them out of the oven to cool. Well, in theory they were supposed to cool, but when I showed them to John he demanded hot bread, then and there. Vatinet does NOT want you to eat hot bread. He wants you to let it cool completely before you eat it. Well, in our house Vatinet was swiftly outvoted and John and I ate one entire baguette, hot, and it was DELICIOUS AND WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN. We had half of the second one with our dinner, cool, and it was delicious as well but not DELICIOUS.
So I highly recommend A Passion for Bread to both the novice and experienced baker. I did find some of Vatinet’s methods a little too persnickety for a casual (and often irreverent) baker like me – I did not bother with a dough log, weighing the ingredients or tasting the dough for salt, for example – but I found his kneading method effective and will probably use it again. The banneton, couche (yep, did it again), Chicago Metallic pans and even the humble razor blade did their jobs well, so they were worth the not-much I paid for them and have been added to the plethora of specialized cooking implements in my already stuffed-to-the-rafters kitchen. I’m looking forward to trying more involved recipes, just as soon as that confluence of time, ingredients and inclination hits again.
I’ve been baking bread for more years than I care to count, usually with the help of my trusty edition of James Beard’s Beard on Bread. I was introduced to the book by my older sister Julie, who used it to create such delicacies as Monkey Bread, Sally Lunn Bread, Swedish Limpa and just plain ol’ homestyle. The book, with its delicate line drawings by Karl Stuecklen, has an intimate, “I’m-sharing-this-with-you-alone” tone that I’ve always enjoyed, and my copy bears the stains of a tried and true cookbook.
For Christmas, however, I received a new bread book: A Passion for Bread by Lionel Vatinet, an artisanal Master Baker based out of North Carolina. It’s an autographed copy obtained for me by my sister Margaret, who is President of the Board of Directors of Yates Mill Associates, which operates a fully-restored 18th century gristmill in Raleigh, NC. The connection? The mill provides cornmeal for Mr. Vatinet’s La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC.
Mr. Vatinet’s book is a beauty – a hefty tome lavishly illustrated with full-color photos. It made for mouth-watering holiday reading and I couldn’t wait to try some of the recipes, although I knew it would be some weeks before my schedule would allow me the leisure time to experiment. The delay gave me an excuse to buy some new bread-making gear as part of my foray into artisanal baking. Rubbing my hands with greedy glee, I went to Amazon and purchased a banneton, a couche and a couple of baking pans. (I stopped short of buying a special lame, contenting myself with a simple razor blade for scoring the dough.)
It was almost March before a confluence of time, inclination and ingredients found me in the kitchen with Vatinet’s book before me and my mise en place…well, in place. I opted to try Vatinet’s Country French Bread recipe first, which makes a single boule. I had my yeast and my flour and my salt and my big mixing bowl and my measuring implements and my digital-instant-read thermometer ready because by gum Mr. Vatinet’s instructions are mighty specific. I had already rebelled against one requirement – the creation of a dough log to mark down all measurements and times and temperatures involved with the baking process – but otherwise I was trying hard to stick with his methods, which are a lot more technical than Mr. Beard’s.
The biggest difference was in the mixing and kneading. Bread is mostly yeast, flour, salt and water. Vatinet cautions you against letting the yeast and salt even touch each other before the mixing process starts, whereas Beard couldn’t care less about such familiarity. Vatinet wants you to use your exquisitely cleaned hands for the mixing process (unless you’re using an electric mixer) whereas Beard advocates a wooden spoon. Following Vatinet’s instructions, I kept my salt and yeast strictly segregated until I plunged one hand into the mix while with the other, slowly added the warm water (82-84 degrees, thankyouverymuch). Vatinet wants you to turn the bowl steadily while mixing and pouring, and I wished very much for an instructional video on how to do this as it seems to require a third hand. Beard doesn’t seem to give a flip how you incorporate the ingredients.
Once the ingredients are incorporated, you turn the sticky mass out onto your work surface and start the kneading. This is where things get tricky. Beard advocates flour on the work surface and adding more flour as you knead, using the traditional fold-press-quarter-turn-and-repeat method. Vatinet wants you to use as little additional flour as possible, and his kneading method involves jabbing your index fingers and thumbs into the mix, pinching them together to form an OK sign, and then pressing the pinched dough up and into the middle of the dough mass. It was very sticky business at first. I was working on a plastic work surface which kept lifting up every time I worked the dough, so I had to holler for John to come take it away while I continued kneading on the kitchen counter (which, fortunately, I had scrupulously cleaned beforehand). I confess to some doubt about this method, but after several minutes of hard work (and it IS a lot harder than the old-fashioned kneading method), the dough began to come together in a very pleasing fashion.
I formed the dough into a ball, popped it into a lightly floured bowl (as opposed to the buttered bowl Beard likes, but then Beard is a big butter fan) and covered it loosely with plastic for an hour-long rise in a warm, draft-free spot. It didn’t rise a great deal – it barely doubled in bulk – but I moved on to part two: shaping the dough into a boule. This was actually kind of fun. Placing my hands in a v-shape, I rolled the ball toward me on the counter, putting pressure first on one side and then on the other. The dough smelled good and was nice to work with, and the method almost as therapeutic as old-fashioned kneading. Beard doesn’t do anything special with his boule formation – heck, he doesn’t even call it a boule.
Next came the dough’s second rise, in the fancy new banneton (to your right, over there). Isn’t that the prettiest thing? You have to dust the banneton with flour before you use it, making sure you get flour into all the crannies so the dough doesn’t stick. I dusted the dough’s exposed bottom with a little more flour, covered it lightly with plastic wrap, and then moved it back to its warm, draft-free spot to await its second rising. The really beautiful part of the banneton use comes after the second rising, when you turn the dough out onto a cornmeal-dusted surface (and yes, I used Yates Mill cornmeal because I Have A Connection). The top of the risen boule will be imprinted with the concentric rings of the banneton, which gives it that lovely artisanal look. Using your razor blade (or your lame, if you’re fancier than me), you can score the dough following those rings, or be more decorative and score across them. Vatinet says you should develop your own special scoring pattern, but I wasn’t feeling that arty yet.
The dough went into the oven on a preheated baking stone (I actually owned one of these already, from the days when I used to make pizza at home), and following Vatinet’s instructions, I popped a large metal bowl over stone and boule for the first ten minutes of baking (this has to do with creating a steamy environment for the first part of the bake). Vatinet recommended 25-30 additional minutes; in retrospect, my boule probably could have come out a little earlier, but I was trying to stick with the recipe. Here’s the finished product:
When the boule had cooled, John and I had a slice. I thought it was a bit on the chewy side, with the flavor just a trifle bland. Nevertheless, we devoured half the loaf with some good olive oil for dinner. Next time I will score it a bit more deeply, reduce the baking time a hair, and perhaps add some flavorings (I’m dying to try Vatinet’s recipes for Kalamata Olive bread and Beaujolais bread).
Next up: the Baguette!
It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged anything of substance, and for that I apologize and offer the usual excuse that I’ve Been Busy. I’ve already mentioned the industrial work that took me right up to a flurry of workshops, cabarets and one-night events, not to mention the start of rehearsals for Gypsy at Signature Theatre; what I haven’t mentioned is that on November 1st, I started writing a new book.
See, there’s this thing called NaNoWriMo which happens every November. Essentially, you pledge that you’ll write 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during the 30 days of November. They don’t have to be polished words – in fact, you could be writing utter crap – but the idea is to just get yourself to put words on paper on deadline.
Now, you would think for someone with a journalism background that putting words on paper on deadline would be dead easy, but it ain’t so. I am a persnickety author with a very strong Internal Editor so my M.O. when writing is to write a few sentences, edit them, polish them, and then move on. It works for me (after all, I’ve already got two completed novels under my belt) but sometimes you’d like the Editor to back off a bit so you can just let the words flow. I thought trying NaNo this year would help me achieve that goal, and I’d made tentative plans to write a light romantic comedy for the competition.
Problem was, I was so busy in the weeks leading up to November 1st that I wasn’t able to do the necessary planning for the rom/com novel. Hadn’t anything but the roughest idea of a plot, hadn’t decided who the main character would be – in other words, all I had was a title (it’s a great title, though, which I will share once I write the darn thing). So I was a little panicked by mid-October.
I was already about 30,000 words into the third book in my fantasy series and was running into a series of hiccups with it, mostly centered around motive and personality for my lead protagonist and antagonist. Just as an exercise, I’d written some material about both characters’ childhoods and upbringing, and I was growing more and more interested in exploring that further. Why not write that book for NaNo? I asked myself, and myself, feeling exceedingly harried and irritable at the time, responded “YES YES DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”
So on November 1st, in the midst of an extraordinarily busy week, I started writing a new novel. It was helpful that I had a good clear idea of where I wanted to go with the story, but it was hard making myself just spew the words rather than stop and polish. And I did need to spew. In order to write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write at least 1,666 words per day. That’s a lot of words, particularly when you don’t have a lot of focused time. So I squeezed in the writing whenever I could, sometimes getting up a few hours early, sometimes writing while I ate, sometimes grabbing a spare 20 minutes between rehearsals, just to get the words down. There were days when I couldn’t write at all and had to make it up the next day; there were days when what I wrote was so heinous that the Internal Editor leaped in before I could stop her; there was a particularly awful morning when I discovered that I had somehow neglected to save my work properly the day before and had lost some 1300 words that I then had to recreate in addition to that day’s quota.
In spite of all this drama, what I was writing wasn’t half bad. In fact, it was pretty good. Maybe all these years of writing means that the ratio of Junk Spew to Decent Spew has tipped in favor of useable material. Once I got past the first couple of weeks, it started to come easier. Part of that may have been that when Gypsy rehearsals began, I wasn’t called all that often so I had more time. Part of it may also have been that I’d disciplined myself to grab those precious free minutes to write, rather than cruise the Internet or sit in front of the TV (or sleep). I actually ended up crossing the 50,000 mark a few days shy of the deadline and was able to call myself a NaNoWriMo Winner. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to log in my word count on the NaNo website that day and see this screen pop up on my computer.
Of course, that didn’t mean the book was finished, not by a long shot. I continued writing through December, difficult as that was what with the holidays and all, but since I had a great deal of downtime in Gypsy, I was able to write in the dressing room and log in several hours a week that way (witness the photo at the beginning of this blog). I continued the pattern in January, with a helpful push from like-minded writers at Absolute Write. I made myself a new, easier goal – to write 500 words a day – and a few days ago I was able to write THE END on my NaNo novel. I did a quick editing pass on it and put it aside, intending to give it a week to percolate, but impatience got the better of me and I rewrote the beginning, made another editing pass, formatted it into chapters and fired off an email to my faithful beta readers to see if they’d be willing to give this new book a go. It’s shorter than my other tomes – a mere 71,000 words – but I’m pleased with it.
The question yet to be answered is if this book is going to be right for the series. In other words, will I need to position it as the first book in the series and try to get it published that way, or should I view it as an interesting exercise and put it aside? Only time will tell. In any case, as Grand Experiments go, I’m calling my NaNo experience a success, and I’m already making plans to participate in the 2014 event. I still have that rom/com to write, you know.
It’s getting to be that time again: when you’ve been rushing around, busy with your little everyday busies, and you suddenly realize that it’s nearly November and it’s gotten abruptly colder and Halloween is nearly on us and the rumbling wheels of Thanksgiving are right behind that and beyond that looms the madness of the holidays…
For the past week, I’ve been busy shooting an industrial. For those not versed in ActorSpeak, that means a film used for instructional purposes, frequently sponsored or funded by a corporate or government entity – in other words, not for consumption by the general public. In my case, the industrial involves ethics in research, and I’m playing a character who has a lot of long speeches containing much industry jargon and client buzzwords (which explains why this paragraph is so wordy).
In any case, filming this industrial has meant some very early mornings and some long drives to location shoots, sometimes before the sun has risen. It’s interesting work, but it’s a completely different discipline from the stage work I usually do – virtually no rehearsal, filming scenes out of order, filming scenes over and over again, from different angles – as well as trying to memorize all the aforementioned jargon-y speeches alone, in what amounts to an artistic vacuum. All this is a long way of saying that when the “Freeze Warning” from WeatherBug popped up on my cell phone today, it took me by surprise.
I’d already begun to get a bit panicky the day before, when I finally got around to buying my Halloween pumpkins and realized I was probably going to have to carve them ahead of time due to my schedule. I hate carving my Jack O’ Lanterns ahead of time because my neighborhood is rife with squirrels and chipmunks. What begins as a beguiling array of perfectly carved Jacks rapidly turns into a rodent smorgasbord – and what the squirrels and chippies don’t get, the ants will, and then there’s the potential for frost and mold and by the time the trick-or-treaters arrive your Jacks are gnawed beyond recognition, or gross with bugs, or turning rotten. I figured if I HAd to carve in advance, there had to be ways to thwart my Jacks’ early demise. I did a little online research and found some articles claiming that a couple of common household items can help extend the life of your Jacks. I thought I’d give the methods a whirl, and bought a small, extra pumpkin to experiment with.
Ingredient #1: bleach. Carve your pumpkin, then fill a bucket with enough water to submerge the pumpkin and add some bleach (two teaspoons for every gallon of water seems to be the formula). Let the Jack soak for eight hours, or overnight, then pat dry. In theory, the bleach will both preserve the pumpkin and discourage mold. I gutted my pumpkin and gave it a quick, simple carving, then plunged it into the bleach bath and left it, not just overnight, but well into the following day, as I was called to a shoot location in Baltimore and that ate up the morning and the better part of the afternoon.
When I took the little Jack out of his bleach bath, I noticed something odd and kind of wonderful right away. The cut surfaces and interior flesh of the Jack had gone from a rich yellow-orange to dead white. It made a bright contrast to the orange rind. Once Jack was dry, I moved on to Step 2: petroleum jelly. Smear a thin film of petroleum jelly on the cut surfaces of your Jack as well as the rind. The theory here is that the petroleum jelly will discourage nibbling creatures, as they don’t like the taste. I would think the bleach alone would do the trick (the Jack does have a distinct public-swimming-pool scent), but regardless, the jelly does make Jack look as if he’s been buffed to a high gloss. That, and his startlingly white flesh, gives him a rather debonair air. I put him out for a brief while late this afternoon, and when I brought him in this evening (as I doubted either bleach or jelly will prevent him from freezing), he was, as yet, untouched. I’ll report back on his condition as Halloween approaches.
My mind then went to my baby trees, planted back in the early summer. I figure the cherry trees will do okay – they’re pretty hardy – but I was worried about my little fig, which has weathered both Japanese beetles and marauding deer with aplomb. A little more internet research led me to set one of my large rectangular tomato cages around the tree (which is about thigh-high), then wrap the cage in burlap, then cover tree, cage and burlap with plastic trash bags. I pinned everything down with clothes pins, so it’ll be easy to cover and uncover as the weather does its usual seasonal flip-flop from warm to cold and back again. Once the leaves have fallen from the trees I’ll take off the plastic, fill the empty spaces between burlap and fig tree with dead leaves, and then wrap everything back up in the plastic and seal it in for the balance of the winter. We’ll see what’s happened to the fig once spring rolls around again.
For the big Fruit Experiment, I decided to start easy, with apples and bananas. I did more reading on the topic and realized I’d need some kind of anti-browning agent for the apples. I knew I could use lemon juice, and some recipes called for dipping the apple slices into a combination of honey and water, but I decided to use a powdered ascorbic acid mixture, which, I was assured by my online research, was readily available in supermarkets. Off I went to the local mega-grocery, only to discover that canning supplies, so plentiful two weeks ago, had been shunted aside to make way for Halloween candy and were nowhere to be found. I finally asked at the desk; a clerk was dispatched and turned up a few minutes later with what he assured me was the one and only jar of ascorbic acid mixture left in the store. With it, two bright yellow bananas and a pair of lovely organic Gala apples, I went back home and started the second experiment.
I read over the section on fruit dehydrating in my Nesco manual and then set to work. First order of business was to make the ascorbic acid dip for the apples; there was nothing in the manual about the proportion of water to acid mix in the manual, and indeed, nothing on the acid container itself, but I found the info online and wrote it on the jar so I’d always have it.
I made my anti-browning bath and set it aside, then peeled the apples. According to the Nesco’s manual, the optimum width for apple slices is 3/8 of an inch, hence the ruler. (Lest you think I am so anal that I measured each and every slice, let me assure you that the ruler was only to check the width of that first cut.) I sliced up the apples and tossed them into their little bath. While they had a little soak (about 5 minutes), I peeled and sliced the bananas. Two large bananas filled two racks; two large apples filled three racks, so the Nesco was at full capacity when I started it up.
The apples were done in roughly five hours; the bananas took an hour or two more. Because the pieces were so uniform, it was a little less painstaking than drying the tomatoes, which can vary widely in moisture content and shape. The dried fruit makes a fairly dull snack, though. All I did was dry them – I didn’t add any sweetening or seasoning or oil or anything – and while they were tasty enough, there’s a certain lingering chewiness to the dried fruit that is okay in small doses, but not conducive to cries of delight. I haven’t tried rehydrating them yet; I want to do more research into other drying recipes.
Next up was kale. I like kale chips (but for their tendency to leave tiny green bits clinging to one’s teeth, they’d be a perfect snack) and I’ve made them in the oven, so I was eager to try them out. I found a recipe that called for mixing a bunch of washed, dried and torn kale with two tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of sea salt and a quarter teaspoon of smoked paprika. It didn’t seem like a lot of seasoning for so much kale. The kale was done in about four hours and I was glad I’d resisted the urge to add more seasoning; some leaves were overly salty. I wasn’t really happy with the results of that recipe – the dried kale has a sort of dull, metallic tang and after storage, it lost some of its crispness. I used red kale for the recipe and am wondering if curly kale might be a better choice. I’m not ready to give up on kale in the dehydrator, but I’m definitely going to look for other recipes.
Yesterday I dehydrated a second batch of tomatoes, this time using only a little kosher salt, oregano and basil. The results were really nice: beautiful color and a nice, bright flavor. John is lobbying for me to try making jerky next, but I’m feeling a little less bold about that, as I know there are more steps involved and a greater possibility of food poisoning. There are still other fruits and vegetables to dry, as well as herbs; I planted a eucalyptus this summer and the plant is nearly five feet tall, so I may try drying that as well. I’ll keep you posted!
It’s been a banner year for tomatoes in my vegetable garden this year. I’ve made tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato chutney and tomato soup, and still the tomatoes keep on coming. Even the squirrels and chipmunks seem to have reached the point of satiety and are no longer robbing me of my crop. At this writing (early October 2013) my remaining plants are producing about a half-dozen tomatoes a week.
Since I only have a small freezer, and since it’s just my husband and me to eat all this bounty (and he really only likes tomatoes as sauce), I was running out of ideas to use up and/or preserve so much goodness. As an experiment, I made a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, but while they tasted good, they turned somewhat brown and unattractive and I didn’t like running my oven all day long, either. I started to wonder about dehydrators.
I spent several days researching recipes and looking up reviews on various models, and eventually ordered a Nesco 600-watt dehydrator. According to Amazon, it would ship within a week, so I began to stow away tomatoes like a squirrel hoarding nuts. For some reason shipping occurred later than anticipated, so by the time the Nesco arrived, on a Friday afternoon, I had a refrigerator bin full of lovely ‘maters ready to go.
I tore into the box, eager to get going. Amused, John cautioned me to test the equipment first and retired to his basement workshop to tinker. I read the instructions carefully (pretty simple), assembled the dehydrator (even simpler) and set to work cutting up tomatoes. I had mostly Beefmasters, Lemon Boys and one or two Old Germans (an heirloom that produces lovely yellow and orange- striped beauties), and I quickly filled two of the dehydrator’s five racks with tomato slices about a quarter-inch thick. I gave each a shot of vegetable spray and a scattering of Penzey’s Sandwich Sprinkle, then stacked the racks into the unit and plugged it in.
The dehydrator let out a racheting whine that sounded like someone running a power saw. John hollered up from the basement: “Is that the dehydrator?” “Yes,” I yelled back. “Is something stuck in it?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Unplug it and bring it here.”
So I trotted the top of the unit (that’s where the heating coils and the fan live) down to the workshop. John examined it, and I guess he could tell from my expression how disappointed I was. “Some of the reviews said it was noisy, but that seems really excessive,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to send it back.” John said nothing, but he got out a screwdriver and began to take the top of the Nesco apart. “Something is rubbing in here,” he said, but the innards of the machine revealed only a little plastic fan and the heating coils. After examining everything, he determined that a piece of metal shielding the wiring was slightly bent, throwing everything out of true. “Bring down the rest of it,” he said, bending the metal back into place, and I brought down the base, the three empty racks and the two full ones. John eyeballed the prepped racks and shook his head. “I thought you were going to test it first,” he said. “This IS a test,” I answered. “Yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes.” (I really am a bit of a dullard at times.)
We reassembled the stack and turned the dehydrator on. It whirred breathily, like a box fan – a rather pleasant sound. I took everything back upstairs, filled the other three racks, set the temperature on the unit for 135 degrees and plugged it in. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and went off to do something else. When the timer buzzed, I reversed the order of the racks in the unit, set the timer for an hour and left the Nesco to do its thing.
I knew it was going to take anywhere from 6-12 hours to dehydrate the tomatoes completely. Every hour or so I’d unplug the Nesco and rearrange the racks, so they all got a turn being nearest the fan and heat. By bedtime, the tomatoes smelled wonderful, but most of them were still moist to the touch – which meant they still had a ways to go. A few of the smaller slices were nearly dry, though, and I sacrificed them to the God of Testing – delicious. I’m not comfortable running appliances through the night, so I turned the Nesco off and put the racks in the refrigerator for the night.
John had to leave quite early the next morning and was gone by the time I rolled out of bed, but when I went into the kitchen to make my morning tea I discovered that he’d gotten the racks out of the refrigerator and started the Nesco for me. Within two hours about half of the tomatoes were dry; I took those out, set them aside and continued the dehydration process with the remainder. One or two of the newly dried tomatoes had moist patches, so I ate them. Did I mention that they were delicious? Dried tomatoes have a wonderful tang, and the little bit of seasoning made them even more delightful. Every time I checked on the dehydrator, I’d have myself a little taste. It’s a wonder any of them made it into storage, but eventually I had a sandwich-sized baggie full of yummy treats. They were really pretty, too – none of the browning I’d experienced with the oven-dried version.
I still had plenty of tomatoes, so I decided to slice up another batch. By the time John came home, they were nearly done, and I was quite smug about my accomplishment and was already planning Phase Two of the Great Dehydrator Experiment: fruit.
I’m between gigs and have been spending most of my time digging in the dirt.
John tilled my veggie patch about two weeks ago; he did a fine job of it, too. Last year, due to my schedule, the garden went in too late, and the day John tilled it the soil was waterlogged after several weeks of rainy weather. It was a heavy, muddy mess that resisted raking and dried into great clods – not the most welcoming environment for tender seedlings. This year we got to it earlier; we hadn’t had rain for a week and the soil turned beautifully. I emptied the contents of my compost bin into it and John tilled that in as well, then raked everything smooth. The soil looked like crumbled chocolate cake, lovely and rich.
Most years I don’t get the vegetable garden in until May, but the earlier prep gave me the opportunity to put in cooler-weather crops: lettuce, spinach and peas. In a burst of optimism, and encouraged by the wide variety of seedlings available at local garden centers, I also decided to try my hand at celery, carrots and radishes. These prefer an earlier start as well.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a lazy gardener, but what I really mean is that I hate weeding. So every year, once the soil is tilled and prepped, I cover the entire plot with water-permeable weed block. The stuff I use is a very thin plastic; determined weeds will eventually bore through it, but it’s a hard go for them. To plant seedlings, I cut an X into the fabric and dig the seedlings into the exposed earth; if I’m going to grow directly from seed, I’ll slash the fabric open and sow the seeds, then pin back the slash with pegs so the area gets sunlight. This is what I did with my radishes and peas. You can see this method in the photo at right. I’ve planted French Breakfast Radishes, which are more elongated that the typical round ones you see in grocery stores. I confess to being intrigued by the name.
So – here is a photo of my first plantings, done about two weeks ago. From back to front, in the first section, there’s three each of Romaine lettuce, Buttercrunch lettuce, Imperial Giant spinach and Bistro Salad blend. Second section is Tendersweet carrots at the rear, and celery ranging toward the front. When I took this photo, I hadn’t planted the radishes yet.
And, for contrast, here is a photo I took today, just so you can see how the garden is doing thus far. We’ve only had one major rain and the weather went from oddly warm to more seasonal, so my worries about the tender greens bolting to seed have been allayed. The radishes have sprouted, been thinned and are coming along nicely. In the upper right-hand corner you can just see the end of my row of Super Snappy peas. They are also sprouting vigorously, and probably just need a few more days of sunshine before they really take off.
As soon as I think I have enough lettuce for a good salad (without stripping the plants bare), I will start harvesting them. I confess to snacking on the odd leaf while working in the garden. Lettuce that’s just been harvested is so tender and its flavor so delicate that you don’t even need dressing. I think as a nation we do salad all wrong: serving it stone-cold and drowned in dressing. I’ll accept cold iceberg (it’s almost flavorless anyway, so it’s all about the crunch), but I prefer my salads at room temperature, and I keep the dressing to a minimum so it complements the greens instead of overwhelming them. Greens still warm from the garden are a special treat.
I have a couple of Grand Experiments in the vegetable patch this year. The first is with garden beans. I usually plant green beans and yellow wax beans, but I’ve never found the best way to support the growing plants. They’re not twiners, and staking them is fussy work. I’ve planted them against fencing and they do okay, but inevitably they get knocked down by the weather or pulled down by the weight of the beans themselves. Ideally, each plant would be supported all the way around as it grows. I pulled out all the various plant supports I’ve used in the past and gave serious thought to how I’d like the beans to grow. I had a piece of metal grid from a cucumber trellis, and I laid that flat on the ground and thought about it. What if I used the grid as a template, and planted one bean in each square of the grid? What if I was able to raise the grid as the plants grew so they’d be supported? After a consultation with my husband, who sketched out a plan for support legs, I pinned the grid into the veggie patch with yard staples, snipped a one-inch slash into the weedblock beneath each square, and then poked the seed beans down into the earth. Here’s a picture of the results:
I planted six rows of Tenderbush green beans (to the rear) and six rows of Goldrush yellow beans (to the fore). I did this about a week ago; it’s a little too soon for the beans to be germinating but I do check them every day to see if I have any sprout action. I’m feeling rather hopeful about this experiment.
The upright grid behind the Bean Experiment is the support system for the Super Snappy peas. I also repurposed a cucumber trellis for this, so what, you may ask, am I using to support my cukes this year? The answer is: “A tomato cage, what else?” This is Grand Experiment #2. I usually have pretty good luck with my cukes, to the point of them nearly running rampant. The slanted cucumber trellises I’ve used in the past have worked fine, but they take up a lot of space. I wondered if a cuke might twine just as happily up a vertical support as it does up a support at a 45 degree (or more) angle. So I’m giving that a whirl this year. I argued with myself that the weight of the fruit might be too much for the vining plant and pull it down, but the cuke vines I’ve dealt with in the past have been pretty strong. So we’ll see.
The final Grand Experiment is with a vegetable I’ve never grown before: the artichoke. I was visiting DePaul’s Urban Farm last week and darned if they didn’t have artichoke seedlings. I didn’t know anything about growing artichokes, but I quickly Googled the topic on my smart phone and found out that one can, indeed, grow them in USDA Hardiness Zone 6B (where I live). So I bought two Imperial Star plants and put them in the very end of the garden. Apparently if the plants do well they spread a good bit, so that will give them room to do their thing – and if they don’t thrive, I can pull them out without leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the patch.
I plant tomatoes every year, but I like to try different varieties. This year I planted a Beefmaster, a Lemon Boy, a Brandywine, a Sweet 100 and something called an Old Johnson, in addition to my usual three Romas (to make tomato sauce). I put in three kinds of pepper: Jalapeno, Orange Blaze and something called Sweet Heat. I also planted a single Limelight zucchini. John won’t eat peppers or squash, so knowing that I will have full responsibility for eating them makes me curb my natural urge to overdo it (I’m still eating pickled okra from the year I put in too many of those plants – John doesn’t like okra, either). The remaining space in the veggie patch went to basil and Italian parsley.
I indulged myself in a few strawberry plants and potted them up, as well as three varieties of mint. I won’t put them in the ground because they’ll take over. They’re living on the Bunny Bench on my deck, along with a Sweet Annie. This is a plant that I bought simply because it smells so nice. My herb garden was neglected last year (along with my ornamental garden, which will be the subject of my next post). My big rosemary bush died and only my chives, tarragon and sage wintered over, so I pulled the rosemary out (a fragrant job) and put in a couple of new plants. I also planted dill, cilantro, marjoram, eucalyptus and stevia (!). Yes, you can now grow your own no-calorie sweetener. All I lack now is a lemon verbena, but I haven’t found any in the garden shops yet.
So that’s the edible part of my spring gardening, and I’m glad that I was able to get everything finished early. I start work on a week-long gig at the Kennedy Center tomorrow, which will limit my gardening time. I have a week between that gig and my next one, and that free week will happily coincide with the delivery of an early birthday gift from my mother: plants for my flower garden. That bed was such a disaster that John and I pulled almost everything out of it and will be starting afresh. I am eagerly awaiting my gift of hollyhocks, coneflowers, Shasta daisies, red Penstamon, balloon flowers and Snow Queen hydrangea, and am looking forward to creating a beautiful new garden out of two years of neglect.