Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye I Say Hello: 2010

Too cold, too wet, too hot. Goldilocks would have been right at home on our roof gardens in 2009.

As the year turns, we spend more time in the kitchen. Yesterday we cooked some pheasant breasts hunted by a friend, with onions, olives, capers, and preserved lemon.

Bruce made this eggnog. Art found the Myer's Rum.

Needless to say, slurp.

Here's to a bountiful 2010. May all your SIPs bear mightily.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Growing Organic Greens Indoors: Winter Solstice Update

It's not as though we wouldn't love a hoophouse on a nice sunny lot, filled with cool-weather greens for the tossing.

Challenge is, we live in the city and don't have the space. So we re-use the same SIPs we grow in during the summer, planting them in autumn before bringing inside to sit in a cool-to-cold, south-facing window.

These greens, along with those growing in six other SIPs upstairs,
provide a small salad every other day for two.

Remember when we planted this garbage-picked Olive Garden take-out bowl?

It's bearing greens again.

Chicago's dark, northern hemisphere winter days don't offer a huge amount of sun.

This year these collards and kale will get a boost
from two fluorescent shop lights Bruce is loaning us.
Even on the darkest day of the year, indoor-grown Chicago greens can be harvested and enjoyed with summer rooftop tomatoes. I confess to my twisted plot: let the last of our tomatoes ripen on the counter and eat them as close to year's end as possible.

These tomatoes still taste like summer.

Are you planning to try SIPs next summer? We've got lots of links in the right-hand column and the web is rife with resources. If you have questions, just ask.

It's the winter solstice, and that means the light is returning.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Eating a Pig's Head: Testa

There are plenty of reasons not to cook a pig's head; I don't eat much meat anymore, and with so many other disembodied parts of the animal available, it's easy to avoid.

Most of us don't want to be reminded that meat comes from animals. Grocery chains don't display animal heads in their meat cases, judging that sales would drop after they made explicit the connection between pork chop and pig snout. How to square this with the fact that people have been eating heads as long as we've been eating meat?

Before I walk you through this, a Public Service ad: If you're eating the pork chop I think you should eat the head. Though I've eaten pork my whole life, I've only cooked one head; I'm glad I did. So now, with all the zeal of the recently converted, I hope that after reading this post you'll do the same.

[I'd like to note that there are no graphic slaughter pictures in this post. There is a picture of a cooked pigs head further down the page. At the very end there is an embedded slide show that contains 4 pictures of the head as it came to me from the slaughterhouse.]


After watching a pig butchering demo given by Rob at Mado Restaurant in Chicago, I decided to make testa/headcheese. Mado's supplier, Slagel Family Farms, sells ethically raised and slaughtered pork. Better still they'll deliver it "free" to Mado, only a quarter mile from my house. You can find like-minded farmers near you by searching EatWild.

I've never cooked a pig's head before. Once I decided to butcher and use every part of the pig, figuring out how to use the head was the next big step.

Cookbooks and websites cover it in some detail, though none of them prepared me for the shock of opening the cardboard box I picked up at Mado. There's nothing I can say, or show you, that could get the rawness across. It's one of those things you'll have to experience yourself.

Here are a couple of ideas on how to prepare the head:
A careful deboning of the head prior to cooking gives you a single sheet of meat that you can roll up in cheesecloth and braise. Once it's finished cooking, re-wrap it in fresh cheesecloth and hang in the fridge overnight to firm up.

From there you have a couple of options:

One is to slice very thin cross sections and arrange them on a plate to serve as an appetizer, as you would prosciutto or other cured meat.

Another is to cut the roll in 1" slices, moisten with dijon mustard, coat in bread crumbs and then sauté in oil until crispy.

Chris Consentino has six short youtube videos showing what else you can do with a pig's head. Knowing that it's possible to eat poached and then sautéd brains with scrambled eggs is enough for me right now. I don't need to try it. Maybe down the road.
Mike Gebert made a terrific video featuring Mado's testa. You can pick up some useful hints from it; even if you have no intention of making testa its worth watching.

Sky Full of Bacon 04: A Head's Tale from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.


With all this in mind, I came up with a plan. I combined the recipes of Paul Bertolli, Michael Ruhlman and Rob Levitt of Mado. (Someone thinking along the same lines posted his recipe here.) After simmering the head with a couple of trotters, aromatics, herbs and spices for 3 hours, the meat falls off the bone and the poaching liquid has absorbed not only the gelatin from the pig parts, but all of the flavor as well.

You shred the meat and dice the cooked tongue, yielding about 2 pounds of meat. These morsels are drizzled with reduced stock and then chilled overnight in terrine pans or improvised molds.

Below are the two slightly different types of testa I made, ready to be served. In order to form a compact roll, I had to squeeze the air out, that in turn forced out almost all the stock out as well. The stock was poured on top of the meat in the smaller rectangular terrines, filling the voids nicely.

It is very rich, and packed with flavor. The word "headcheese" has all sorts of horrible connotations. What I made has no negatives: No unpalatable textures or tastes. It is delicious.
The pig's head and two trotters cost $20. From that I was able to make testa (serving about 15 appetizer portions), a half pound of cracklings from the skin, 7 quarts of intensely flavored gelatinous stock, and a half pound of rendered pork fat.
Click through this slide show to see the entire process. Photos #3-6 show what the pig's head looks like straight from the slaughterhouse. I hope after the initial discomfort of viewing the pictures wears off you'll go back and look at them again. I know I have.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Homemade Crackers Go With Everything

Crackers make life worth living, if you ask me. I've always wanted to try making my own. Plus, someone needs to offset the sugar tsunami of the holidays, so when I stumbled on this recipe at Culinate for Lora Brody's Multi-Seed Crackerbread, I thought: OK then, yum, the time is right.

It's true what they say at the link about crackers being fun and easy. I kept wishing my pal Heather were here as I rolled them out (using a bottle of wine because I was too lazy to walk upstairs to search for the seldom-used rolling pin).

My favorite line from the recipe:
"the goal is to get the dough as thin as possible
and impregnated with seeds"

The picture above shows the set-up after you mix the flours, cornmeal, water, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Worth noting: I didn't have rye flour but I never let that stop me from riffing on a recipe. I subbed organic brown rice flour I got from the bins at Whole Foods.

So you mix, knead quickly, and divide the dough into 8 little balls. Stir the seeds and herbs in a bowl. They offer ideas, but I say go with the flavors you love and have on hand. Our custom blend included fennel and sesame seeds + dried basil and rosemary + pink salt and freshly ground pepper.

I liked spooning out a tablespoon of the seed/herb mixture onto the board and then smashing one of the dough balls into it, as recommended. A lightly floured board and wine bottle work well for rolling, with the seeds acting as a sort of ball-bearing mat to keep the dough from sticking too much to anything.

When you can roll no more, slide two of the large cracker ovals onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 7 to 10 minutes while you roll out another set.

Mmm. I knew I would love this cracker.

If you want yours to look like these, flip them over halfway through baking so the other side browns. I'm drawn to the visual and flavor of brown, and if you've diligently rolled your crackers thin enough, you'll get some nice crispy edges. Note the anemic-looking cracker in the upper right corner of the photo above. That's what happens if you don't flip 'em halfway through.

You won't believe how often you'll reach for one of these. They're a fine accompaniment to soup, fruit, cheese, or testa (more on that from Bruce soon).

Or even a SIP-grown rooftop salad.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

From Guy Debord to Butchering a Pig

I'm an unlikely pig butcher.

When I was 11, each student in my class was given a pig fetus to dissect. It made me queasy, for a long while I felt a twinge of nausea every time pork was on my plate. Skip ahead a few decades--for the past couple of years I haven't eaten much meat for some fairly common reasons.
Believe it or not, this is loosely connected to our rooftop vegetable project. Skeptics can skip ahead to the end of this post for the link.
[Also, I'd like to note there are no graphic slaughter pictures anywhere in this post. That was done beforehand, at the processing plant owned by the farmer. However, if you click through on the embedded slide show--it's innocuous cover photo is of a sunflower--you'll see pictures of an already dead half pig being cut up. Nothing bloody, but they can be a little startling.]

There are more than a few people who celebrate the joys of nose-to-tail eating by reading about it, travel the world in search of the latest taste sensation, or who fetishize a peasant cooking technique in their expensively renovated kitchens. In response to a world where the "social relationships between people are mediated by images", I've done some of those things--and more--looking for a way out.

One of the reasons I stopped eating meat was because I felt something was missing. On display in the meat case of my local market are the disembodied pieces of a gruesome process. Unsaid, ultimately only hinted at, is the (probable) suffering and death of an animal. My decision to use every part of a conscientiously raised and slaughtered pig that I butcher is, in part, a reaction to that.


Like I said, I don't eat much meat. In spite of that this is a useful skill, one that I hope will be taken up by other amateurs like myself.

Here are a series of photos I took of a recent pig butchering demo given by Rob Levitt of Chicago's Mado Restaurant. They are offering charcuterie classes early next year and I'd urge anyone with the slightest interest to get on their email list. They'll fill up fast.

It's important to know something about basic pig anatomy before beginning. Helpful skeletal charts can be found here. Because that site is run by a Canadian butcher, the individual cuts of meat are different than those usually found in American markets.

A few good books for the amateur butcher are Jane Grigson's Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie, Stéphan Reynaud's Pork and Sons, and Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand.


Knowing all this, now what? One option is to buy a pig from Mado's supplier, Slagel Family Farms, and butcher it ourselves. We're thinking of hosting a couple of informal meals for 25 people using the whole animal and featuring some lesser known, though delicious, pork dishes--among them testa and porchetta--early next year.

Before breaking the pig into parts, you should know how you want to use them. From half of a 180 pound York-Duroc crossbred pig, my amateur butcher's eye estimates the yield would be:
20-22 servings of porchetta made from the saddle, which is basically the deboned middle third of the pig. You take the loin (not the tenderloin!)--think of the center of a pork chop, now extend that circle into a 24 inch long cylinder--wrapped in the attached belly (same as uncured bacon) like a jelly roll. Inside the roll are garlic, herbs, and spices. Truss the whole thing up and roast. Cut in 1 inch slices to serve.

Pork terrine - Maybe use the tenderloin as an inlay. Makes 24 half-inch thick appetizer slices.

Testa - or fromage de tete de porc/headcheese (ugh, what a name). Sounds hideous, tastes great. Uses the feet, head, tongue.

1 ham, weighing approx 14 lbs. Two ways of prepping. One is to brine it for a week and then roast it. Or you can make a salt cured prosciutto/dried country ham. That takes at least 4 months and a lot of know how. Either way it'll serve 12-15 people.

~ 3 pounds coppa. A dried pork product similar to prosciutto but made with the top of the shoulder.

~ 7 lbs shoulder. Includes the hock. What's left after the coppa is removed. Can slow roast the rest, or make sausage.

~ 3 lbs ribs. Make bbq ribs or freeze to use later. Once thawed, a possibility is to slow roast them in a stock made from the backbone, to which you add tomatoes, herbs, and wine. Pull the meat bones off when tender and add back to the rich liquid to make pasta sauce for 12-15 people.

~ 1 lb tenderloin.

~ 3 lbs "flank steak". Make fajitas, pate, or sausage.

~ 2 lbs fatback. Add to rillettes, terrines, or sausage.

~ 1 lb leaf lard. Add to rillette, terrines, or sausage

~ 3 lbs misc. scraps. Slow roast them with some of the backbone stock. When tender, shred them with paddle mixer, top with rendered fatback. You have rillettes--great on bread.

~ 2 lbs pork sirloin roast

~ 15 by 20 inch piece of pig skin, good for cracklings, cotechino, or to flavor cassoulet
That's a lot of pork.

This isn't being done to make money, We're trying to figure out how to cover our out of pocket costs while learning, sharing, and having a good time. The first thought was to serve the porchetta and testa at our dinner. The cured pork products might feature in later gatherings, while the frozen parts could be shared with the group.

We've been talking to a woman (Hi Anna!) who puts on (informal, low cost, ambitious) supper club dinners, trying to figure out the details. We like the idea, though some of the press makes them sound like people I don't want to be around.

[Updated 12.02.09, It's On. For two consecutive Sundays (January 24th 31st and Feb 7th.) in early 2010, we'll get together with 20 relative strangers and serve an entire (half) pig. Anna came up with a great menu based on some of the ideas in this blog post. We're butchering the pig on Wed, Jan 20th Thursday, Jan 28th in front of a small group. Email Anna at Turning Fork Supper Club for more details and to rsvp.]

If you're looking for local producers of humanely raised meat, EatWild is a good resource. Finding one, like Slagel Farms, that does the slaughtering/processing on site was important to me. Here's another fascinating story of a family pig farmer slaughtering and butchering his own animals.

To cut down on delivery fees contact a local restaurant who uses a farmer you want to support and try to combine orders. In our case, because Slagel Farms delivers to Mado Restaurant weekly, we can get "free" delivery.

So how is this connected to growing vegetables on rooftops, the subject of this blog?

It's another way to make meaningful connections while sharing skills and eating well.

p.s. some more food for thought.

Updated 12.10.09 - I made testa, using the pig's head. Read about it here.

Updated 1.28.10 - Here's the slide show of the Hog Butchering Demonstration

Updated 1.31.10 - The slideshow of the first Sunday Hog Dinner

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What If: A Garden Dream

I walk past this lot in our neighborhood at least a dozen times a week. It's been vacant for at least 20 years. It's a mystery why the thought never seeded itself before.
This would be perfect for an in-ground food garden. What if the owner would let us turn it into a cooperative growing space?
With full southern exposure and positioned roughly mid-way between Bruce's and our house, we could create a place that would feed more than a few people.

Click photo to see the fenced-in potential garden
and planted parkway.

Some time ago, I met a man planting and caring for the parkway--the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street--and I stopped to talk. He's the owner of the fenced triangular lot (catch a bird's-eye view here) and was making an extraordinary effort to create a textured, partly-native-plant parkway where before there'd been only grass and the minimum city-planted trees.

I told how happy we were that the lot remained undeveloped (I'm not sure how he feels about it) and that we appreciated his parkway work. Now I'd like to get my shovel into the soil inside that fence.

The lot itself has a few quirks that make it less than perfect for a building, even in the best of economic times. It's virtually impossible to get a building permit for plans that don't include a provision for off-street parking, like a garage or parking pad. Since this property doesn't have access to the alley and permission from the city to add a new driveway/curb cut is very hard to get, odds are the lot is going to stay vacant for a some time.
Starting with the Google Maps satellite view and knowing that Chicago lots are 25 feet wide, you can estimate the triangle is about 85 ft long on each of its two legs. That makes its area 85 x 85 x 1/2 = 3612 square feet. More or less.
We could grow a lot of food in there
The owner might appreciate the opportunity to share his underutilized resource with a few neighbors in exchange for our work. Urban sharecroppers if you will. Given how much effort he put into the parkways, it's clear that he's interested in plants. Maybe we can persuade him.

Partly, I'm trying to avoid this, which in theory sounds all green and happy but is definitely not for the impatient gardener (I should have a t-shirt). Bruce can tell that story better than I, since he's been in the middle of the process to create a community garden on city land for, let's see, a couple long years maybe, with nothing planted yet.

He was a nice guy, the owner. I hope I run into him again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What Are You Eating? Crustless Zucchini Pie

Summer squash. What can I say? I go weak in the knees for the beauty of these plants.

We've tried for three summers to grow them on our roof and each time I'm thrilled by a transcendent blossom like delight is crushed by the dastardly powdery mildew, which takes hold and steadily decimates the plants.

See the mildew already in this 4th of July photo, on the leaves at left and right?

Every single year this happens. Usually I spray some benign and ineffectual substance (like milk) that obscures the beauty of the plant's colors and sheen while I watch it die.

And still I plant.

Out of season here, happily there's a truckful of inexpensive summer squash at our local produce place, and it's organic to boot (meaning no pesticides, elucidated here in language stark enough to prompt you to run right out and start making plans to expand your garden next year).

We searched the ethers for a way to use the squash, and stumbled on this recipe for crustless zucchini pie. Using a full two pounds of grated zucchini or yellow squash, it's an easy and accommodating treat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or appetizer.

As a bonus, the recipe called for mint, still flourishing in our in-ground garden.

The prep falls into what I call the One Big Bowl category. Mix everything and then pour onto a piece of lightly oiled parchment on a roasting pan. The "crust" is built in, in the form of eggs and a wee bit of cornmeal to bind. There's also feta cheese for tart creaminess and onion.

I snagged a few true end-of-season tomatoes from the roof to slice and partially top our pie. Here's the mixture spread out. We prefer a thinner presentation, but you might not. Just ensure it's an even thickness.

When this baby came out of the oven, I had to exercise real restraint not to dive in before it cooled. We slid it off the baking sheet and onto a rack (parchment intact). Once cut, it didn't last long and our local recipe testers nodded positive feedback with full mouths.

The second time we made it, a few adjustments:
  • the 1/3 cup olive oil seemed extreme and I thought made it soggy. We cut back to a scant 1/4 cup and increased the eggs from two to three.
  • we boosted the 1/4 cup packed mint leaves to a half cup+, plus I liberally added dried oregano and basil and fresh parsley.
  • for breadcrumbs, panko are the crunchiest in the land.
And here it is, fresh from the oven.

You can play around a lot with what goes into this pie. I envision future versions with diced red sweet pepper and scallions, or even sliced hot peppers. Whatever's fresh from the garden or winter produce store.

What are you eating?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Using Sub-Irrigated Planters (SIPs) to Grow Food Indoors in Winter

Regular readers will remember a year ago when we tried the indoor-growing experiment with cool-weather greens. We followed up on it here.

It worked beautifully. Thanks to the southern sun--albeit low in the winter sky--fresh greens grew from November through March in our unheated second floor, where temps during a Chicago winter hover between 38 and 50 degrees. Even taking into account periods of cloudiness, the greens grew, not flourishing as they do outside in March and April, but doing just fine with no auxiliary light or fan.

We were certainly going to do it again.

So in early October I set up six fresh SIPs and seeded them with leftover seeds from our GRG 2009 nursery: collards Champion, two kinds of kale, cress, mustard, and a nice greens mix.

I'd saved the dried seed heads to plant from the mustard (Wild Garden Pungent Mix), a much-loved green from Gathering Together Farm:

Once all the seeds sprouted--we domed them up with plastic cloches until they did--and got their first set of true leaves I set them all outside.

Here they are right now. These are cool-weather greens whose very sweetness relies on exposure to cold temps. We won't bring them indoors until the first frost threatens.

I picked our first salad last week (about a month after planting) and added a few of the year's final tomatoes off the withered vines.

You can't beat sub-irrigation for indoor food growing. The 5-gal bucket SIPs won't drink as much inside as they do when they're lounging in the direct sun of spring and early summer, so we keep the water reservoir just half full.

We're also using the pop-bottle planters we made last year for mini-salad gardens. If you have a nice south-facing window in a cool spot, check out these easy steps to creating your own indoor salad bar.

Over at Slow Coast, on the beautiful British Columbia Sunshine Coast, they're asking: "Eventually, we need to answer the question, “How self-sufficient can this region be in terms of food?”

Self sufficiency in the form of winter microgreens is a fine first step.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From the Department of Absurd Priorities: Paying Extra Taxes for Leaf Blowing

The ear-splitting whine is unforgettable. When I heard it outside my front door, I knew immediately what it was. A leaf blower, being (mis)used by a crew of landscapers who, as you'll see, are the tip of a much larger problem.

Guy in back blowing leaves out of the square under the tree
and loading them into that truck.
(click on pix to enlarge)

We've seen a lot of gentrification in 20 years, and much of it ain't pretty. Recently I saw Wicker Park, our neighborhood, referred to as Liquor Park, a nod to the predictable sports bars that seem to have cropped up everywhere. Along with new business came new ways of dealing with problems.

A couple years ago, the powers that be established in our neighborhood an SSA, a special service area that runs along commercial avenues and levies an extra tax on residents/commercial businesses on the street. According to the city:

SSA funded projects could include but are not limited to: security services, area marketing and advertising assistance, promotional activities such as parades and festivals, or any variety of small scale capital improvements which could be supported through a modest property tax levy.

We went to the first community meetings where the SSA was being pitched. I wasn't happy with the notion of paying extra for services we'd always performed ourselves--shoveling snow, picking up litter, planting--but there was talk that our SSA would focus on boosting the number of bike racks and resolving knotty parking issues, things that cities should do.

Once the SSA was approved, we grudgingly accepted we'd have to go along, though I could recall just a few years back when I'd still see shopkeepers and homeowners sweeping and shoveling their own sidewalks and picking up trash, a time when neighbors on our commercial street stayed connected via the daily tasks we did out of a sense of pride or simply to make our street a nicer place.

I could even remember when I scolded the gangbangers who once populated our streets about not carving their gang signs into trees because it hurt the green we needed so much. That one cost me: they spray painted HONKY BITCH on our front door. I laughed and painted over it. But my (now obvious) point is that there was no SSA to manage these interactions 19 years ago.

Now that it's up and running, it's clear the raison d'etre for this SSA is to make it easier for folks to come here and spend money. Not building bike racks and resolving parking issues. (Bet you didn't see that coming.)

Taxing for leaf blowing is an absurd waste, and frustrating for someone keen to hold onto the last scraps of horticultural sensibility and, well, street life. I gave up this spring trying to get these same guys to stop cutting back the two clematis I'd planted under our tree and woven carefully through the wrought iron. Apparently they looked weedy.

Trying to order my thoughts on all this got a little easier when I started reading Life Inc: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, by Douglas Rushkoff (thanks for the refer, Erik). There's enough in the first few chapters to sharpen the focus:

Unquestionably but seemingly inexplicably, we have come to operate in a world where the market and its logic have insinuated themselves into every area of our lives. From erection to conception, school admission to finding a spouse, there are products and professionals to fill in where family and community have failed us. Commercials entreat us to think and care for ourselves, but to do so by choosing a corporation through which to exercise all this autonomy. Sometimes it feels as if there's just not enough air in the room--as if there were a corporate agenda guiding all human activity.

Back to the street scene: I raced out to stop them from blasting out and ferrying off the leaf cover I'd started building, leaves carried from back to front to mulch our tree, the biggest on the block but without much open soil relative to its size. It needs all the help it can get.

I was referred up the line to a supervisor and asked him to not remove the leaves, for all the obvious reasons. He wanted to argue, poking the ground beneath the tree (which at the surface is dense with roots) and saying there was plenty of mulch. There isn't.

Looking longingly at my leaves, but walking on by.
I said no thanks to the very people I'm being taxed extra to pay and who should know better. Most likely, they're following orders from the SSA committee. But in the end, instead of having a friendly street conversation with neighbors, I'm trying to educate some guy who's not interested, in part because his next job is (wait for it)...mulching under the trees.

Finally, just to be snarky and ensure the leaves stayed in place, I emptied all my herb-loaded, done-for-the-season window boxes on top of the leaf base.

See the basil and sorrel still growing?
I think you'll agree that's a beautiful sight that can't be bought
with even the fattest SSA fund.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lemons: Preserved and Candied

What's the connection, if any, between rooftop gardening, my political droppings, and cooking? I'm guessing they feed off of each other in ways that don't need to be talked about here. Ultimately I find a kind of elegant beauty, a magic that isn't for sale, in cooking and growing food. I'm trying to apply that mojo to some of this world, so far with limited success.

When organic lemons went on sale at our local market, I decided to take on a couple of classic recipes: preserved lemons and candied lemon peel.

Making preserved lemons involves covering them with lemon juice--at least one lemon is juiced for every one that's preserved--so you're going to have a lot of leftover peel. This means it's a good idea to both preserve and candy around the same time. Rather than waste the rinds, just cut them off before you squeeze the juicing lemons, setting the pieces of rind aside to candy after you finish prepping the jar of preserved lemons. (You don't have to make candied peel. You can also zest--and freeze the result--the lemons before juicing.)

For the budget-minded, this is one of those things worth doing yourself. It'll cost you less than $2, and a little time and effort, to produce a preserved lemon. They sell for $7 apiece, plus shipping. The candied peel is $4/lb, in this case it's almost free.

What's all the fuss about? To use the copy from Zingerman's -
I’ve always liked the idea of preserved lemons. But I get stumped at the same place you probably do: what do you do with them? You can research recipes and get an idea but I wasn’t truly inspired until I ran into a friend who lived in North Africa.
“Oh! Preserved lemons! Can I have your jar? I love them in everything!”
Everything? Simple enough place to start.
I started trying what she suggested, adding them everywhere. Simply cut off a slice or two (return the rest of the lemon to the brine), dice and mix into your favorite sauces. Toss with salads. Garnish grilled meat. Add a slice to a martini. This is fun.

Preserved Lemons

I combined a couple of recipes: Mark Bittman's and 101 Cookbooks (she in turn copies Paula Wolfert).

The idea is to cover cut lemons with a mixture of salt, lemon juice, and spices and let this cure for at least 2 weeks. You end up with a salty, sour, and slightly sweet garnish that works with a wide variety of grains, vegetables, and stews. It's also great as a pizza topping.

After covering the lemons with juice, cover and shake the jar. Leave it out on the counter for 7 days, shaking once a day. Then put it in the refrigerator for at least 7 more days. Some recipes say shake it in the fridge, some not. It doesn't seem to make a difference.

This is a traditional North African process, and through trial and error became a way to store lemons long before refrigeration. I've read that the acidity in the lemons available to us could be different than those in traditional lemons, so there's a chance that mold might develop unless the finished product is refrigerated. Because of that, most recipes I've seen say to store the jar in the refrigerator.

Candied Lemon Peel

There are plenty of recipes online. This one isn't bad. Though it's for oranges, not lemons, the idea is the same. Keep a couple of things in mind.

It's a two step process.

First you boil the julienned peels in several changes of water.
The idea is to get rid of the bitterness, so taste after the third change and keep changing/boiling until it's gone. There shouldn't be any off flavors; it should just taste like bitter lemon. To get an idea of what you don't want, taste one after the first boil.
The second is to braise the mellowed peels in simple syrup:
I use 2 parts sugar and 1 part water in my simple syrup. I make enough to just cover the boiled peels, and cook at a low boil for 20 min or so in a sauce pot. The lemon rinds will become slightly translucent, absorbing the sugar (?), and then they're done. Drain them in sieve and let cool a bit. If you put the final dusting of dry sugar on when they're too hot, you'll just have a gooey mess. Lay them out on parchment to dry as per the recipe.

H2--thanks for all these great pics, btw--found out that candied lemon rinds are even tastier frozen. Curiosity has it's rewards!

More lemon preserving/candying pictures -

For more on cooking, check out my posts on my food blog, Kitchen Exercises.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

From Salad Bowl to Bowl of Salad: SIPs from Garbage-Picked Olive Garden Plastics

Remember the garbage-picked cloche we used on the sub-irrigated planter (SIP) from Menard's? Found that 15.5-inch beauty on the way out of a graduation party where Olive Garden salad had been served in the #1 plastic bowl. The cloche is doing a fine job, by the way, with seeds already sprouting.

Well that wasn't the only one we got. Art also grabbed a bunch of smaller 12-inch bowls, and these came with lids. So with the smaller version we're going to literally punch things up and make the salad bowl into a salad grower.

You'll see below I cut down the lid to (sort of) fit into the bowl to create a platform for the potting mix. It doesn't have to be perfect--just make sure there's enough room underneath for the water reservoir. How much water you need depends on how quickly your plants will take it up. I'm putting this planter inside upstairs where it will get mondo sunlight but the temps will be cool, around 40 degrees. So it won't be drinking heavily.

Now cut a hole to size in the lid for a trimmed-down liter bottle bottom to act as wicking chamber.
Then use a hot nail, soldering iron, or woodburner to make holes in the lid and wicking chamber.
For this experiment I'm going to try a side-watering approach, so I melted a larger hole and inserted a bit of plastic tubing into the reservoir. Now I can water directly into it via a funnel. I'll trim and tape it up later. In addition, I melted a couple of overflow holes, which also let air in to circulate.

To set up your salad planter, proceed as for any SIP: pack the wicking chamber with wet potting mix, position it in the platform, and add damp potting mix on top. Though we use a ring of fertilizer on our two-bucket SIPs, for these smaller versions I just blend a little organic fertilizer into the potting mix a couple inches below the surface. Then top it up with plain potting mix. I like to water the top before planting seeds.

We're using up leftover seeds, and surprisingly I still have a few of my favorites: Renee's Garden Pan Pacific Greens. In the dead of winter, clipping fresh leaves upstairs and bringing them down to toss for a salad is my idea of heaven.
If if you've got another Olive Garden 12-incher, cloche it up and wait for the magic.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Are You Eating? Green, Orange, Blue

Nah--we didn't grow these. They're organic acorn squash and pie pumpkin from our local Chicago produce store Stanley's, a lifesaver in the Chicago winter months despite the fact that much on offer is shipped in from California. At 69 cents a pound, we loaded up.

I coat the cut edges with olive oil, sprinkle cinnamon in the cavity, and roast face-down at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, which allows for a little carmelization.

We like to top them with steamed collard ribbons tossed in olive oil + white balsamic and scatter a few blueberries from our blueberry picking this summer on top. A little more cinnamon and a few raisins too.

Green collards, orange squash, and blueberries: this delectable antioxidant melange keeps me energized for hours.

What are you eating?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mass-produced sub-irrigated planter (SIP)

Our friend Bob Hyland at Inside Urban Green does a fine job tracking mass-produced sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) and also the DIY varieties. But when Art came home with this one from Menard's (a midwest big-box hardware store) it looked new to me.

Called the EEZY-GRO, these SIPs are made in Ontario by Apollo Plastics. Art got this one for about $6. The wick shown below draws water sitting in the lower chamber up to the plant roots as needed.
I don't love the look, but that didn't stop me from getting it set up with potting mix and seeding the top with collards from Wild Garden Seed along with some mystery seeds harvested from this year's rooftop crops (I think they're arugula and cress, but will be happily surprised).

By the way, the cloche I'm using here to keep the temperature warm while the seeds sprout was garbage picked at a friend's house as we left a graduation party for her daughter. The cloche was a take-out salad bowl from Olive Garden and it's a beautiful piece of plastic for re-use.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Baking Bread with Peter Reinhart

Cooking, like growing plants, is such a tactile thing. How well either of them are truly dealt with in the online world is an open question.

All by way of saying I found this wide ranging talk given by the bread maker Peter Reinhart to be worth watching. He knows how to tell a story and his enthusiasm for baking bread is contagious.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Grand Opening of Growing Home's Wood Street Farm

I'm proud to live in a place that's accomplished this:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More On Potatoes

It's still a mystery why my potato box experiment was a failure. Fellow blogger H2 came over with her new flipcam on the day I took the box apart--in search of my advertised 100 lbs of tubers--to shoot this short video.

As the clip ends, we're heading to the roof to see how my SIPs planted with sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes, did. A preview of what we found can be seen in this picture.

I'll post that clip next.

[Updated 11,04.09. I'm not the only one who can't get them to grow in boxes. Rob, at One Straw, had the same poor results.]

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Man Humbled By Potato

Without giving it much thought, this spring I decided to try growing potatoes in a box after reading a story in the Seattle Times.

It didn't work. From an initial planting of three pounds of seed potatoes I harvested one and a half pounds of potatoes. That's right, I went backwards. A far cry from the 100 lbs(!) or more mentioned in the article.

After swallowing my pride and setting aside the feeling that I was a fool for wanting to Believe, I came up with a few thoughts on why it didn't work.

The first might be that I planted the wrong variety, i.e. not late season, of potato. Inca Gold are a mid season potato; I've read that you should avoid early season varieties because they only set up one bunch of potatoes. While excavating the potato box, that seems to be what happened in my case. All the vines grew 12-16 inches, set up one cluster of potatoes, then no more. That's still only a partial explanation. I should have a lot more than 1.5 lbs from one "set" of potatoes.

One clue that things weren't going well was a dearth of flowers on the tops of the finished vines. Flowers are a sign that the tubers are setting up, I only remember seeing a couple in mid-August.

It was very cold this summer in Chicago this year, though I don't think that's the answer. I found a couple of slugs inside the potato box, but the potatoes, and vines, didn't look gnawed on. The plants looked healthy, suggesting they had enough water and fertilizer. I've grown tomatoes successfully on the same spot--in the ground, not in a vertical tower--in the past, so I think it gets enough sun. With so many variables, it's hard to know what went wrong.

Honestly, I'm at a loss. I was hoping to at least be able to figure out what happened. Maybe some of our readers will have a clue.

I plan on reusing the soil, a mixture of coir, peat, and vermiculite, in my several of my rooftop SIPs next year.

I'm not sure if I'll try growing potatoes in a box again. I'd like to try something more conventional, like growing them in containers.