Gardener of the minute

The weather has improved, so I’ve been spending more time in the garden. Every time I am there, I am caught somewhere between panic at how much work there is to be done and excitement that the new growing season is beginning. Everything seems to be waking up. I had planted a lot of brassicas in the fall, imagining that we might eat some over winter. We did eat some bok choy and kale, but the heading and flowering folks mostly just overwintered in a stately but not very exciting fashion. Now that the weather is warmer, though, things are picking up, particularly among the cauliflowers.

While I was in NY last summer, I picked up a packet of cauliflower seeds promising green, white and purple cauliflowers. I have a fascination with purple vegetables (I am eagerly watching my purple artichoke plants, which have also made it through winter intact), so you will understand my excitement when, in two weeks, my one and only purple cauliflower to date went from this:
before cauli
to this:
after cauli

Now, this is the season in our garden when you feel like the gardener of the year, because it rains a lot and everything grows. So I feel that, to be honest, I should show you what the majority of my cauliflower plants do. They look like this:

leafy cauli

All leaf. They grow enormous, but it’s all show. In that thicket of cauliflower, there is just one little tennis ball of a flower. I don’t know what it is — I am lousy at growing them. But the purple one is turning out nicely, and there are a few green ones coming in another bed. If I were a more diligent gardener, who wrote everything down, I could probably figure out what I accidentally did right to those few plants, but I haven’t a clue.

Of course, with the weather warming up, the wildlife is back, most notably the cabbage whites and their progeny:


My fingers were bright green with caterpillar gore by the time I got through inspecting all of the cabbages and their ilk. And you can’t help but notice that the caterpillar remains smell cabbagey, which is kind of sad.

Meanwhile, in the apartment, the first brave seedling popped up:


A Roma tomato is born. Welcome to the family!

In My Kitchen February 2013

Celia at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial hosts the In My Kitchen series, and it’s a lot of fun to read, so head over there and check it out!

This month I have been blogging in slow motion because I haven’t got the Internet at my new apartment, strictly speaking. So this month’s IMK has some things that were in my kitchen last week but aren’t there any more…

In my kitchen there is:


This beautiful and very effective ginger grater that my cousin Elaine sent me. I love how deep it is, and I have to concur with her opinion that it is the best one she has been able to find. Isn’t it nice to have good looking things in the kitchen!

In my kitchen there is:


This photo of my grandparents. I always hang this picture up in my kitchen, no matter where I am. I never met them; they died before I was born. But they have loomed large in my upbringing, like mythological figures. My mother has always told me stories about them, and one of my favorite things about when we would have family get-togethers was to hear my mom and my aunt and uncles talking about when they were all growing up together. I think of them a lot at this time of year because of the next thing in my kitchen this month:


Every year at Chinese new year, my kitchen becomes host to a little swamp of dried ingredients in bowls of water. Lily buds, tree moss, “tree ear” fungus, mushrooms, doufu sticks, lotus seed, peanuts — these are some of the building blocks of Jai, a Buddhist (hence vegetarian) dish made to celebrate the new year. Making this dish is an act that makes me feel the narrative thread between my life and the life of my grandparents in the most tangible and enjoyable way. The first time I made it, I was 22 and living in a tenement apartment in New York, on Allen St. I had a board balanced on the bathtub in the kitchen to host the swamp, I remember. Making Jai is just a “little bit of this and a little bit of that” process — you cook everything together and add fermented red doufu and slab sugar until you reach a balance that is pleasing to you. The fermented doufu has a very particular smell and a pungent and salty flavor. My kitchen was filled with familiar smells and as I looked up at that same photo of my grandparents, I knew I was smelling and tasting something very similar to something they had enjoyed themselves, long before I was around.

Making Jai is also something that joins the people in my family who are still around. My cousin Elaine sent me the ingredients to make Jai this year (by prevailing upon my long-suffering friend Meltem who was visiting NYC to take them back to Turkey and send them to me. Thanks Meltem!). And I can’t make Jai now without remembering the year that Elaine and I made it together at her house and she spaced out while we were gossiping and cooking and put a whole jar of fermented doufu into the Jai instead of one cake of it. We washed it out and started again (I kept the jar and use it to hold my chopsticks in the garden kitchen).

Happy year of the Snake, everyone!

There’s a reason that Chinese new year is also known as Spring Festival; in my kitchen there is:


a makeshift potting station that comes out after the boys go to sleep (you don’t want to know what happens when they get their hands on potting soil). I have been starting nightshade family veg (well, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, anyway) in black bags at the apartment; I thought the bags would be good since they are bigger than paper pots, so I can just let the seedlings grow in them until they are big enough to be planted out. I have paper pots in the greenhouse in the garden with some greens, and will start direct sowing a few things under cola bottle cloches. It is nice to have a bit of garden life in the apartment. I don’t keep houseplants here because I tend to kill them — I don’t know why it is, but I can’t look after indoor plants at all. I always thought I had black thumbs and was like plant kryptonite, but it turns out all I needed was a little bit of earth to plant my feet in and put my plants in and I could look after them just fine.

When in doubt, cheat.

On Sunday night, it was the eve of the lunar new year, so I got busy and made us a new year meal. While I was in China, I learned to eat boiled dumplings for new year (and at any other opportunity that I could find). There was a great restaurant that Ali and I used to go to in Harbin called Eastern Dumpling King that had a whole menu of dumplings, with some dishes on offer to go on the side. It was 40 minutes away by bus from the remote agricultural university where I taught, but we happily sat on the clanking bus and dreamed of the fat dumplings that awaited us. The place was always packed and very noisy, with waiters wandering around carrying kettles of dumpling water for anyone who fancied it.

These boiled dumplings are not something I grew up with, either as a daily meal or as holiday food. We had other dishes that we made for new year, and with some luck I will be making those later in the week (one thing I love about Chinese new year is that you get to celebrate the heck out of it). But I did grow to really really like boiled dumplings, so I thought I would take a stab at making them.

I used lamb since we can’t really get pork here (not in Antalya, anyway, though we do get the odd wild boar)n and I don’t like using chicken instead of pork — it feels too much like a compromise to me.

I had planted some loose leaf Chinese (napa) cabbages using seeds from Kitazawa Seed Co. that I was very excited to find — heading Chinese cabbages always bolt on me before they form decent heads, so I am eager to see if I will have better luck with these. I needed to thin them out, so I thought I would use the ones I pulled in the dumplings, along with a few daikon from the root vegetable bed.

ImageI was being guided in this enterprise by Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe for boiled dumplings, and she advised salting the veg and squeezing out the water, which I did and was glad of it — lots of water came out! I made the filling using ground lamb, hua tiao wine, a bit of sesame oil, some salt, ginger and some stock. And I followed the instructions about wrapping in the book to the letter, making a plain flour and water dough and then rolling it into logs, cutting bits of dough and rolling them individually before filling and pleating. This was all familiar from when I had made dumplings with friends. The only problem was, I was horrible at it. My dumpling wrappers were huge and malformed so that when it came to filling and folding, they turned out really wonky. The resulting dumplings didn’t taste that bad, they just looked horrible. And I thought that the filling had turned out a little on the bland side.

All was not lost, though. I only made it through about half of the filling on Sunday night because we had fish and veg and steamed egg cakes to eat as well. So I decided that tonight was time for take two.

First, I added a little Tianjin cabbage to the filling. This stuff is mighty — salt, cabbage and garlic. Stinky, salty heaven. ImageThen, I took a cue from my good friend Maia. She is an insanely good cook who makes these amazing Georgian dumplings. Everybody goes insane for the,  so much so that she makes them to sell. This is a woman who can make a thousand dumplings in a night, and does she roll each disc out individually? No! She gets a drinking glass out and cuts them out.

Image(That’s a toy rolling pin, by the way — for some reason I have never gotten around to getting my own, so I steal the boys’.) I know that there are “advantages” to rolling them out the right way, the way that Chinese women have been rolling them out for thousands of years. But I never once stopped while eating a plate of Maia’s Georgian dumplings and thought, “The edges of these dumpling wrappers are not thinner than the middles.” So I decided that if the drinking glass was good enough for Maia, it was definitely good enough for me.

After that, it all fell in to place. Just remember, I told myself, don’t be greedy with the filling. Just a little bit.

ImageThen pinch,

Imageand pleat.

ImageWhen I went to my friend Yang Ya Li’s house in Harbin to learn how to make dumplings, I remember her saying conversationally, “… and if your dumplings don’t stand up, it means you are lazy.” I hastily tried to prop up my swooning specimens alongside her upstanding examples. Blush. I was gratified to see that this batch passed muster:


All I had to do was cheat!

p.s. — I wanted to show you what they looked like cooked, but the camera battery died on me. I ate them with black vinegar, soy and lots of chili oil. They were dreamy.

Still here…

ImageI haven’t been writing much lately, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then after a recent, very quick trip to the garden I noticed that I felt different. I felt lighter, more relaxed, as though something had come untangled inside me. I think I have not been writing as much lately because I haven’t been in the garden as much lately. It might not be what I write about all the time, but the garden is the place where my ideas take root. I narrate these posts as I weed, haul manure, feed chickens and sow seeds. And then with any luck I get around to actually typing them.

Anyway, soon I will be back in the garden with my hands in the dirt where they belong. Ali is laying down drip irrigation hose in the vegetable beds to replace the sprinklers that we used last summer — those we will use under our new fruit trees in the new orchard. The sprinklers dripped rather than sprinkled, but we thought that it might be more effective in the veg beds to have the water dispersed better. It’s very exciting. We are even fantasizing about laying down some rotting manure and trying to direct sow tomatoes under cloches. We’ll see.

And I am very excited to celebrate the lunar new year this Sunday. Happy year of the snake, everyone! I am planning a few meals that will feature not only the dishes that I grew up celebrating the new year with, but also a few things that I learned to love during my years in China. My next post (notice that I do not say when I will write it — no more false promises!) will feature a recipe that my mom found, written in her elder sister’s handwriting, while looking for another recipe (7 layer pudding — she’ll be making it at my cousin’s house this weekend). Those recipes are, like old photos, some of our greatest family treasures.

It’s raining hard outside, and so windy that the rain is practically sideways. It makes me wonder what state our road is in up in the mountains, and whether the river has swallowed it. And I hope that all you folks on the East coast weather your storm alright.

More from me soon.