Have your roses and drink them too

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I was talking to my mother as I weighed the sugar to add to the rose sherbet. We will be visiting her in NY in a month, so there always seems to be plenty to talk about.
“Okay,” I said, “the sugar is weighed and I can add it with the water.”
“Are you going to taste it??”
“Oh wait a second, mom, I can’t find the camera. Maybe I left it in the truck…”
I got Kaya and went out to the truck, but no camera.
“Aren’t you going to taste it now? Oh, we’ll have to serve it in tulip-shaped tea glasses.”
“Sorry, can’t do it now. I have to take pictures.”
(The camera appears to have been left behind in the garden, but I did manage to find the iPod.)
After week one, with the rose petals steeping in lemon juice, I ended up with about two cups of ruby juice, redolently rosy. I strained it into a ceramic pot and added half a kilo of sugar. Then it sat for another week.
It was a bit warm here, so I put the liquid in the fridge once in a while. Probably nothing would have happened if I hadn’t, though.
So now it was time to add yet more sugar:

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A liter of water also went in, and after much stirring I managed to get it all to dissolve. Then, the moment my mother had been waiting for. Mixed with cold water, the sherbet became pale pink. Its flavor was sweet of course, but the lemon juice gave it a pleasant acidity. I think the proportion of syrup to water is quite important- too much syrup, and it would be too sweet.
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The rose flavor literally bloomed in my mouth as I drank it. Have you ever smelled a rose and wished you could put it in your mouth so the smell could fill your head? Well, get out your glass jars and dig out the lemon squeezer; this is a way to smell your roses long after the last bloom has faded.

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May flowers

While the rose petal elixir is maturing, here’s a peek at a few other things happening in the garden.
The climbing rose next to the greenhouse is starting to bloom. It’s a relatively recent arrival, so it is not the spectacle that the red rose is, but I love the flowers- they look like petticoats.

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That hand is Kaya’s. He emerged from the shadows and attempted to devour the roses (due to their inviting scent?)

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The roses were promptly whisked away.
Kaya had his first taste of wild strawberries over the weekend. Wild in the sense of being small and fragrant, but not literally wild; we started them from seed a few years back, and they’re doing well. Kaya was very enthusiastic, which drew Baki’s attention, and he made sure we didn’t leave any behind.

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Another pleasant surprise was the sweet peas. Sweet peas are a sentimental favorite of mine, because it was my nickname as a baby. Still, despite my mother’s and later my own enthusiasm for them, I was for a long time quite unaware of the lovely scent of some of the older varieties.
My mother and I found ourselves in Kew Gardens in June of 2004 and caught wind of a beguiling scent as we strolled beneath wooden pergolas. Following our noses, we were bowled over when they led us to sweet peas. I’ve grown them every year since, and I’m always careful to choose scented varieties.

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These ones self-seeded, so they were unexpected. At this time of year, the garden is just one surprise after another.

Roses you can drink

The roses growing on the side of the house are the most fragrant ones we could find (Etoile de Hollande is the name of the variety) and let me tell you, they are real floozies. They flop open and let out a scent that could hypnotize you. They smell good enough to eat, but when I thought of bottling that smell this year, I wanted roses that I could drink – rose sherbet, or gül şerbeti (ş=sh). Sherbets are like cordials- sweet syrups flavored with fruit, spices or flowers that are mixed with water and can be served cold or hot.
Sherbets were once quite important social lubricants here in Turkey. If social convention frowns upon alcohol, you can ply your guests with the next best thing- sugar. From the palace to the street corner, sherbet kept conversations cordial. It is still among us, though today it is more common on special occasions; I have fond memories of lahosa şerbeti, the sweet spiced drink served to new mothers, as well as to any well wishers.
Rose sherbet is not to he confused with rose water. Rose water is a by-product of the production of rose oil and is made from the pink Damascus rose. Rose sherbet is made from scented red roses and the process, unlike that of rose oil production, is quite simple.

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You will need:
200 grams (7 oz.) rose petals
1 kg (2.2 lb) sugar
1 liter (4 cups) water
400 ml (1 2/3 cups) lemon juice

1. Gather your roses. This is probably best done early in the morning or on a cloudy day so the flowers will be at their best. (I did neither of these.)It took about 30 roses for me to get enough petals.
2. Remove the petals. You will want to shake your roses out as you do so, to evict any critters. I dislodged a number of small spiders from mine, as well as some very tiny mite-like insects.
3. The petals of the rose are tasty, except for the yellow bit that attaches it to the flower. This should be removed, making this step the fiddly part of the recipe. Get out your scissors and pretend you are a palace kitchen lackey.

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4. Wash the petals under cool running water. It will bring to mind laundering silk hankies.
5. Stuff the petals into a jar.

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6. Squeeze the lemons juice and pour it over the petals. Mix it around a bit with your hand to cover them all, then cover the mouth of the jar with a cheese cloth and tie it tightly. Leave it in a shady spot (or in a cupboard) for a week. During this time, the scent and color of the petals will be transferred to the lemon juice.
7. Take out the rose petals and add half of the sugar. Let this mixture sit for another week.
8. Now add the remaining sugar and the water and mix well. Strain the liquid and bottle it.
To drink, pour a finger or two of syrup into a glass, top with water and add ice. The syrup should keep a good long while in the fridge.
(Recipe adapted from the booklet, Osmanlı şerbetleri, published and distributed by Konyalı restaurant, Istanbul)

I have to admit that I am only halfway through this process myself, so I can’t attest to how well this recipe works (but my cupboard smells marvelous). My jar, after four days, looks like this:

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Updates will follow…

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.

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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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!

Sowing the seeds

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10 years ago, I was a fledgling English teacher, and Ali was a tour guide and translator. One of the highlights of our year was the Istanbul Film Festival (which is going on now) because we worked on subtitles and got passes that let us in to any movie.
I still remember the thrill of slipping into a side door to a showing of the Chinese film noir, Blind Shaft just as the lights went out and finding two empty seats that seemed to have been waiting for us. And there was also a memorable translation that I still laugh about from a Turkish film that I was editing the English subtitles for: “Cut the crab!”
When I think back on those days, we seem like different people now. We’ve got two kids and a two acre garden. We’re more likely to fill sacks of manure together than go out to a movie or duck into a restaurant.
However, we were always headed here. Because there is one thing that we have done together without fail every year and that is sow seeds together. In February and March every year (with a few weeks on either side added in for good measure) we spend hours making paper pots and filling them, dropping seeds into little holes and writing labels. We’ve planted our seedlings in other people’s gardens, on our terrace, at my parents’ house, and now here, in our very own garden, which is literally our dream come true.
So although we never go out to do much of anything on our own anymore, I know we’ll have that time side by side with the seed packets when Spring approaches again, just as we have every year for the past decade.