Roses and a recipe

Spring is wonderful because it is full of flowers that are brave enough to push up and bare their faces to the chilly days. They dare us to forget the dark winter months, and how could we not in the company of daffodils? Some flowers, though, wait until the season is well underway, even turning slightly sultry. When I see roses, I know that things have finally started to heat up and Summer is on its way.Image

Then I begin to panic at the number of seedlings still in the greenhouse, and I wonder how much longer I can grow lettuce without it wanting to bolt immediately.

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We have a more or less year-round gardening season, because our winters are quite mild. The summers, however, are relentlessly hot and dry, so they are the real challenge. There are many plants that will just grind to a halt when it gets much over 90 F, and lettuce won’t even germinate once the soil gets too warm.

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Now that we have daytime temperatures in the 80s, it feels like the clock is ticking. In a couple of months, we’ll be hoping for anything under 100! These days are a bit of a scramble.
When we’re very busy in the garden, I like to make food I don’t have to think much about. Curried Beef and Tomato Noodles is a great favorite of Baki and Ali’s, and it’s a great way to stretch a small amount of meat (as I discovered when it turned out I had one small steak to feed three people). My mom used to make it all the time, and I’m pretty sure this is more or less how she taught me to do it.
You need:
Noodles- wheat flour noodles, egg or not. (if you’re in the Pacific NW, you can get my family’s all-time favorite, Rose Brand noodles)
Neutral tasting oil for frying
Soy sauce
A steak
A bunch of green onions
1 cup chopped tomatoes (I used canned because tomatoes are meaningless at this time of year)
1 to 2 T curry powder (I like Sun Brand)

Here’s what you do:
1. Put the steak in the freezer.
2. Cook the noodles. If you can do this in advance, it helps- a few hours us fine, and overnight works too. Rice and noodles fry better when they’re not all hot and starchy.
3. Stir fry the noodles in batches in a big hot wok. To do this, get the wok hot and add about 2 T oil. Put in a third of the noodles and stir to coat in the oil. Let the noodles sit a while, so they get a bit browned. Stir them up again and then let them sit. Repeat a few times, then add about 1T soy sauce and stir it in for color. Put the noodles in a big bowl as you finish cooking them.
4. Get your steak out of the freezer and slice it really thinly- freezing it first makes this easy. Then toss it with the curry powder.
5. Chop the green onion into 1/2 in slices, greens and whites. Chop up your tomatoes too.
6. You are about ten minutes from done now. Get that wok hot again and add 1T oil. Stir fry the onions and add them to the noodles.
7. Put 1/3 of the seasoned meat in the wok and cook. Don’t forget to let it sit a little to brown it. Add to the bowl and repeat with the rest of the meat, adding oil as necessary.
8. By now the wok is probably a bit crusty. So tip in the tomatoes and stir them around to get all the bits off the wok. Let the tomatoes cook until they are saucy, then tip the whole big bowl of noodles and meat and onions and all back into the wok. Stir it all up and you’re ready to eat.

These instructions may be a bit verbose, but it’s easy and it goes fast (frying the noodles is the longest bit).

Kaya made a lunge for one of my noodles at the table, so I gave it to him and he frantically opened and closed his hands when he had finished. Baki took more than he could eat, so I let Kaya have his bowl. When he was done meticulously picking every noodle out, he stuck his whole face in.

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Another noodle fan in the family.

From our bookshelf

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We have a lot to learn still, and we tend to learn things the hard way (i.e. through failure and crushing disappointment), but there are a lot of books that have helped us along the way. I thought I’d write about a few if them once in a while.
Gardening When it Counts is a book by Steve Solomon, the founder of Territorial Seeds (he sold the business ages ago). What I love about it is that he is all about how simple good gardening can be.
Gardening organically may feel like a harder path to choose, particularly when there are folks nearby who have lush jungles in their veg patches thanks to what around here is called “sugar fertilizer” (because it’s granular). So for me it’s really important to know why I’m doing it. Yes, I want to feed my family healthy stuff and I have a gut reaction against chemical concoctions. But what it’s really about for me is soil. A governing concern of mine that I return to when I make decisions about the garden is, “Will it build our soil?” We aim to leave the garden better than we found it, so we’re doing it from the ground up, so to speak. Chemical fertilizers might be a shot in the arm for plants, but they do nothing for the soil. That’s why I don’t use them.
However, fertilizer is indisputably useful. I believe that I’d you want a lot out of your soil, you should probably be giving something back. We use manure and compost, but we also Solomon’s COF- complete organic fertilizer. Actually, the formula is available in this article from Mother Earth News. You can make it at home, and the stuff you need us easy to find. I think it works.
Basically, this book is about shooting down your excuses. You don’t have tools? Solomon says all you need is a hoe, a shovel, and a rake. Your summers are dry? Space your plants farther apart. Everyone says to do it this way? Don’t listen.
He also has an interesting section in which he lists vegetables to grow in order of difficulty, and it’s illustrated with diagrams of their roots. Plus, the book is written in a slightly “grumpy grandpa” tone that is fun to read
Now, we have stony soil so we dig holes with a pick, and sometimes I am too greedy to follow Solomon’s advice about plant spacing. Still, I count this book as one of my favorites and turn to it often.

Four day weekend

We had a four day weekend that is ending today. April 23 is National Children’s Day, and rather than have a tiresome assembly with dancing and elbowing other parents out of the way to take a photo, Baki’s school sensibly gave the kids the day off. After all, how do kids celebrate? Not with school assemblies.
It was lovely to have four days in the garden. I did a lot of running back and forth last week because Ali went up to Istanbul last Thursday (he came back Sunday). By the time the boys and I got to the garden in Friday night, I barely knew whether I was coming or going.
Saturday morning, I weeded and watered and transplanted to my heart’s desire. These things are not as thrilling to Baki, though, and as it was “his” weekend, I thought I’d better show him a bit of a good time. We headed down to the seaside that afternoon for a few hours in the sun and the sand (although none of us braved the sea).
I felt a bit sorry for myself when I saw how Kaya loved the sandbox in Istanbul, thinking how it was just too bad that we didn’t have a similar place near us. Silly me; the biggest sandbox around is just 20 minutes away by car.

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Kaya ate handfuls of sand, which appeared in his diaper the following day. That can’t have been comfortable, but he didn’t show any signs of anything amiss. Maybe it was good roughage (I thought, hopefully).
The open horizon ahead of me, with the sound of waves and the (possibly negligent) lack of worry during that afternoon left me feeling relaxed, and it completely erased the mad coming and going of the previous week. However, I did also notice something that I’d never thought about.
Ali often complains about being alone in the garden while we are in the city during the week. It’s a bit better lately, since Kaya and I go out two days a week while Baki is in school, but the fact is, I never took Ali’s complaint all that seriously. After all, he gets to stay in the garden, and I am left to the lusterless city.
While I was working in the garden alone, though, I noticed that although I was happy to be doing the work, I was acutely aware that Ali wasn’t there. That’s to be expected, no doubt, but what caught me by surprise was how his absence seemed to dull any creative spark in me. I could imagine keeping things going, but i had no vision for the future. I think that I have finally understood just how much of a partnership this garden has become for us. We work together and we work as one.
My father was a journalist, a war correspondent, and he was passionate about his work. Not that he took himself all that seriously (it was one of his great strengths that he was always able to keep things firmly in proportion), but he adored the work. His work was who he was. When he retired, he drifted for a good long time, unable to redefine himself. To his credit, he began to write poetry in his 70s and rediscovered the poet that in fact he had always been, which just goes to show you that it’s really never too late.
All of that struggle left me wary of identifying too heavily with this or that, though, and I thought that I had escaped it by not being passionately in love with any profession that I took up (and there were a few). Then I looked up from a freshly weeded vegetable bed and had to admit that not only had I become fully entrenched in being a mother and a gardener, I had also managed to constitute only half of the equation.

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Spinach from top to bottom

Our summers are relentlessly hot and dry, so I adore spring. We still have enough rain not to do much watering at all, and the temperature is mild enough for all the plants to be quite relaxed and cheery. It’s the season that makes me feel like gardener of the year because everything just won’t stop growing. (Then it all grinds to a halt in the dead of summer and I feel like plant kryptonite.)
After some good showers last week, there was a growth spurt in the garden and the spinach in particular seemed to have ballooned. Thus, I ended up with a bucket of spinach.
The leaves I cooked in the water left on the leaves after washing, in a big pot. I squeezed the water out and made them into balls because my mother taught me that you can never go amiss by having cooked spinach at hand.

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That left the bottoms. This is a part of the plant that Turkish cuisine treats quite lovingly. It is part of the great category of dishes known as olive oil dishes. I am always hesitant to wander into this territory, as I have a very capable cook as a mother in law, and an unreservedly critical audience in my husband, but with the help of both of them and a good friend, I was able to brave it.
So for anyone out there with spinach to consume, here’s something you can do with all those tail ends once you’ve dispensed with the leafy bits.

Wash them well because all the dirt hangs out in these regions:

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Then comes a crucial step. You’ve got to dry them really well. You can put them in a salad spinner or shake them out, or even towel dry them, but get the water off those ends! My mother in law even recommended squeezing them out.

Put a goodly amount of olive oil in a pot or pan with a lid (no less than 3 T, I’d say) and in it, gently cook a chopped onion until it is soft but not browned. (I happened to have pulled up a carrot, so I added that too.)

Add the spinach ends and stir. Cover it to let it steam a bit in its own moisture, but keep lifting the lid to give it a stir once in a while. Stems are sturdy things, so it will take about ten minutes for them to cook properly.

My friend Meltem gave me this sterling piece of advice:
“The spinach should glisten with the olive oil.”
This, I think, illustrates perfectly how dry everything ought to be kept, and also that it won’t do to be stingy with the oil. (Which can also be added after cooking, and some would say it must be.)

My husband’s (curtly delivered) advice, “lemon juice,” is equally instructive: squeeze a bit of lemon over the top before serving, for a sparkly flavor.

The result is a lovely, simple dish that tastes like the very essence of the vegetable, which, I suppose, it is.

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Color theory

I’m sure that Gertrude Jekyll has something far more illuminating to say on the topic, but here’s my take on colors in the garden:

One is nice:

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(Red flax and our liquidambar tree)

Two is dandy:

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(lavender and queen Ann’s lace under the apricot tree)

But things really get cooking when you have three:

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(California poppies, red and blue flax by an olive tree)

A cathedral in my garden

Or at least that’s what it felt like when Ali and I finished the trellis we put up in the pea bed.
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I had seen a photo of a similar trellises in an email from Kinsman garden supplies about twine and it got me all excited. Loads of time went by and the trellis was a perennial to-do list resident, but yesterday we finally did it. Ali pounded our giant rusty nail deep into the ground and pulled it out, leaving a perfect sized hole for me to drive in the stakes. Then I got busy with the twine, and all told in about an hour victory was ours.
And I do feel utterly victorious. This is because I set the bar very low, and I’ll tell you something, I think that’s the secret to my personal happiness. The less I expect, the more gratified I am.
So when I crossed “pea trellis” off the list, it was with tremendous satisfaction.
Which brings me to the list itself. I always write lists for absolutely everything, but gardening has made me consider very carefully how I phrase my list items. “Water” or “weed” for example, are terrible candidates because they are never-ending jobs. “Dig corn bed,” on the other hand, is a tidy, achievable little task (that I crossed off the list over the weekend). Again, aiming low.
So this is how I am sailing through Spring, celebrating every tiny achievement and setting new, low hurdles for the days to come.
Here’s a closer view of my grand architectural achievement, with it’s neat rows of peas (very sorry pea roots, we won’t be so late next time) and a random scattering of spinach and carrots (the chickens got in and kicked things up a bit). I’ll put some cucumbers in the bed later in the season.

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May your day be full of little victories!

A cola bottle that only a mother could love

Whenever I hang out with my mother, she makes me feel as if I am the funniest person in the world because she laughs like crazy at all of my jokes. (I learned long ago not to expect this type of response from anyone else in the world.) When I was little, I asked her who the best artist in the whole world was, and she told me I was. Little megalomaniac that I was, I believed her.
My mom is a fount of unreserved enthusiasm for my every pursuit. She is the one that people are talking about when they say only a mother could love something/someone. So it came as no surprise that my mom flipped over my oil bottles.

Yes, it’s our old friend the cola bottles. This is my solution to the drippy bottle of oil problem. I buy oil in big 5 litre cans, and they are unwieldy to say the least, so I decant them into cola bottles and then poke a hole into the cap. I use a screw for this, or a hot skewer, depending on how I feel about fumes that day. The cola bottles are nice and squishy, so it is really easy to just squirt oil into a pan and there is no dripping — they just suck back in when you let go of them. Perfect oil dispensers. Now, I won’t be upset if you are not as excited about this as my mom was, you understand. Here’s a blurry look at that hole:

One of the best things about my mom, though, is that I can talk to her about anything. When I say anything, I mean I can call her to tell her about a fried egg that I just ate. That is one of the things that makes people really special, I think — the things that you can share with them. I miss my dad every time I read a book and I wish I could just sit and talk to him about it. And of course, the boys are so remarkable, I wish I could share them with him, too. I think that it is what is so lonely-making after someone dies — you have to try and hold up both ends of the conversation by yourself.
Still, it is best not to let people turn into flawless saints once they are gone. So, on the topic of cola bottles again, let me state for the record that my father taught Baki to say “Coca Cola.” I was adamant that Baki not have any sugar for as long as possible, and was able to fend off both sides of the family for exactly two years, and my father was quite open about how joyless he found the whole enterprise. It didn’t do much good in the long run, I have to say — Baki is an absolute maniac for sugar (then again, so am I). Anyway, shortly after he turned two, we were at the dinner table at my parents’ house in Istanbul and my father turned to Baki and pointed to his glass of cola and said to him, “this is Coca Cola. Can you say that? Coca. Cola.” I can’t remember if he gave Baki some or not, but he did it just to get me riled. I recall that he was very pleased with himself, and I was massively put out. It makes me smile to think of it now, though.