Wednesday, May 28, 2008

False Indigo, take three

I'm on a quest to grow false indigo in my garden, and I'm not doing a very good job of it.

The first time I heard of false indigo was 8 or 9 years ago, when an unfamiliar plant appeared in my plot at the community garden. It was one of those plants that was not obviously a weed but not obviously a perennial either. My neighbor, Frances, who knew quite a bit about perennials, said it looked like it might be false indigo, and maybe I should let it go and see. And so I did. It had light green leaves like false indigo and, later, a bluish flower, but eventually, it became apparent that it wasn't false indigo, and it had very long taproots to boot. So, before it got too big and unwieldy, I dug it all out. (I think perhaps it was some kind of wild pea, but I'm not sure.)

But when I moved to my house, I remembered false indigo and decided to plant some. I bought a pot of it at a garden center and then let it sit for months while I figured out where I wanted to put it. Meanwhile, I realized that, in fact, there was false indigo already growing in the bed outside my back door.

Except that there's lots of other stuff also planted in that bed, and the false indigo, which you can just see in the middle of the back row of plants, was a bit crowded and just not flourishing. Meanwhile, the new plant I'd bought died in its pot because I'd taken so long to decide where to put it. Yes, I am a negligent plant killer. At least sometimes.

So, I decided to try again. I bought another plant, and, at the same time, I decided to move some of the old plant along with the new one to a new bed, one where there would be more room for it to spread out. This time, I planted it in the bed beneath the stone wall that separates the part of the property where my house is from the part above where the cottage is. This bed was a bit shadier, but for awhile, it seemed like it was working. There were no flowers yet, but I knew that false indigo can take a few years to settle in. Last June, when I was visiting Abby in Burlington, we were lamenting the lack of blooming false indigo in our gardens. We saw some growing in front of houses in her neighborhood, and it was just gorgeous. Here's what it looks like when it's in bloom.

So, I was hoping that if I was patient and gave the plants time to settle in, I'd eventually have those lovely blue-purple flowers in my garden. Except that in the middle of the summer last year, something came and ate the false indigo. I have no idea what it was. I just know that one day, I went outside and found the plant chewed in half. The stalks were lying there, and something had chomped them, maybe thinking they were a tasty garden treat. I wondered if, perhaps, I was being punished for having let that false indigo plant die a few years earlier.

Anyway, I decided to try one more time. Last week, I went back to the garden center and purchased a type of false indigo called "purple smoke." And over the weekend, I planted it in the main part of the garden, where there is lots of sun. This is actually the spot I'd been thinking about for it originally. But I was waiting for the dead birch tree to come down (which Alex facilitated last summer, though you can't really tell from this picture--I'd still like to take the stump down another foot or so), and then I was waiting to get rid of the wild blackberries that were taking lots of space but not giving me any berries. It's just one stalk now, but I'm hoping that the third time will be the charm. If it doesn't work, I may have to resign myself to the fact that false indigo just doesn't want to grow in my garden, as much as I want it to grow there. I hope that won't happen. I don't want to feel spurned by a plant, if I can help it.

The other thing I keep realizing is that someone who owned this house before me really, really liked ferns. Last year I cleared out some of the ferns to make room for more plants, but when I was looking at the garden over the weekend, it was apparent that the ferns were starting to take over again. They're not nearly as bad as the mint, so I'm not going to whine about them, but I did think that if I'm vigilant with fern removal, then I could put some more perennials in here.

Monday, May 26, 2008

In praise of good pajamas

Was it my beloved Laurie Colwin who noted that we spend the most time in our beds and in our shoes, so it's worth spending money on good shoes and good sheets? She went on to say that since she spent so much time in the kitchen, it was worth it to have good kitchen things as well. (Now I'm wondering if it really was Laurie who said this. When I went back to see if I could find this quote in one of the volumes of Home Cooking, I did find her saying that she thought most kitchen things should be purchased at tag sales, so maybe I'm wrong in remembering that.)

But whoever said it, I think of it often when I want to buy shoes or sheets or stuff for the kitchen (or, in my case, plants for the garden). But I'm thinking of it now because of my pajamas.

For many years (I'm not sure how many--at least 8 and perhaps 10 or more), I've been sleeping in men's kurta pajamas from India. And not actually the kurta, just the pajamas, with a t-shirt on top. They're as simple as can be--thin white cotton with a drawstring. When I was just googling kurta pajama, I found many fancy versions where, if you buy the kurta, they throw in the pajamas for free. Nobody thinks much about men's cotton pajamas. They're just there.

When I lived in Jaipur in 1999-2000, my friend Bill came to visit me. He wanted to buy a kurta pajama set, and one day when we were on MI Road, one of Jaipur's main drags, we found a tiny shop that sold them. Bill found some for himself, and for the hell of it, I bought a couple of pairs of pajama bottoms. Immediately, they became the pajama bottoms of my dreams. They fit perfectly--not too voluminous in the waist, not too long. And the cotton got softer and softer with each wearing. I wore them to shreds.

A few years later, when I was back in Jaipur, I bought a few more pairs. The man in the store remembered me--I suspect he didn't have many white, female, Hindi-speaking customers--and we had a nice chat.

Then, I made my fatal error--the last time I was in Jaipur, in 2006, I didn't buy any pajamas. Now, I can't remember why. I was only there for a few days, it's true, and I didn't have any means of transportation, and I wasn't staying near MI Road. Now, of course, I wonder why I didn't just get into a rickshaw and go to MI Road and find the pajama-wallah, but at the time, it must have seemed that I had enough pairs to last for awhile.

By the time I went back to India this past January, the pair I was wearing were starting to tear, and there was one more precious pair in the bottom drawer of my dresser. Surely, I thought, I could re-stock my supply. I didn't go to Jaipur on this trip, but Sunil and his friend Mandy went, and I figured I'd send one of them to buy me some pajamas. But even though I knew I had a card with the name and address of the shop, I hadn't brought it with me. (It was then, as it is now, sitting on my desk.) I tried to describe where the shop was, but I knew that I would only be able to find it by feel. MI Road is long and crowded and busy, and without a landmark or an address, I couldn't really expect them to go search them out. (Now, I wonder why I didn't email my housesitter to see if he could dig up the card on my desk, but, of course, hindsight is 20-20 and all that.) So, no Jaipur pajamas.

All was not lost, I told myself. Kurta pajama shops are not rare, after all. I couldn't bring myself to buy my pajamas from Fabindia, where I spent gobs of money otherwise, because they felt too thick and stiff, not the fine pliant cotton I was used to. Finally, on my very last afternoon in Delhi, I went to Bengali Market, where years ago someone I knew mentioned having bought kurta pajamas. The shop was still there, right next to Bee Kay Dyers and Dry Cleaners, and I ran in. When I asked for pajamas, the clerk attempted to show me something in the sweat pant line, and I said, no, no, men's pajamas. He took out several pairs of white pajamas, and I picked the ones that felt softest and bought two pairs. Then I ran across the street to the Bengali Sweet House and took the opportunity to eat one more batch of the chickpeas I love so much and make a special trip to eat whenever I'm in Delhi.

And I thought that was the end of my pajama saga. I would be stocked up with pajamas at least til my next trip to India, and all would be well.

Except that the new pajamas weren't quite right. They were too voluminous at the waist, and the drawstring wasn't long enough, and they were too long and dragged on the floor unless I cuffed them up. I replaced the drawstring with the one from my now tattered Jaipur pajamas, and that was a bit better, but they still weren't right. And as many times as I washed them, they didn't seem to be getting softer, and there was a bit of pilling that made me think that maybe they weren't all cotton after all. (I've never heard of such a thing--I thought all men's white pajama bottoms were automatically cotton.)

I did laundry late last night, and everything was still in the dryer when I wanted to go to bed, including the pajama bottoms. So, throwing caution to the wind (along with my need to preserve this last pair of precious pajamas), I went to the bottom drawer of the dresser and pulled out the last pair from Jaipur and put them on. Perfection. They remain the pajamas of my dreams. They fit perfectly, and the cotton is soft and fine. I never want to take them off.

I do know that there must be other perfect pajamas in India. But it may be that these Jaipur pajamas are the most perfect of all. I may not be back in India til next winter or the one after, but I trust that this pair will last awhile, and I'm already starting to plot how to re-up my supply. After 8 years of perfect pajamas, it's hard to settle for less.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rhubarb Season

Yesterday, I cut my first stalks of rhubarb from the garden. It wasn't actually because I wanted rhubarb just then. The rhubarb plant--a gift from my neighbor Pat at the community garden the summer after I moved and before I knew there actually was some rhubarb already planted --is quite massive now, and as it's grown, it's been shading the tiny lettuce plants growing near it. That might be good later on, when it's hotter, but now, with this spring of variable weather, I thought the little lettuces could use some sun. I was also putting in a row of red onions and one of shallots, and cutting some rhubarb cleared a bit more space for them. So, now I have a pound or two of rhubarb stalks in the fridge, waiting for me to turn it into something.

I'm not always that adventurous when it comes to rhubarb, though I did see an enticing photo of rhubarb ice cream over at the Kittalog the other day that looked very tempting. (If only I had a functional ice cream maker--if I didn't have to get a new lawn mower and a new dehumidifier, maybe I'd get a new ice cream maker.) The only strawberries we can get at the moment are from California, so I'm less inclined to make strawberry-rhubarb things until the strawberries are local. Or, you know, at least from the east coast. (While I have lovely strawberries in my garden, they're not all that plentiful. For the past few summers, the June ritual has been that in the morning, I wander out into the garden in my pajamas with a teacup or a medium sized ramekin and pick just enough strawberries for my breakfast. Last summer, I left for Ragdale in the midst of strawberry season, and I reluctantly told my housesitter to eat what strawberries remained because I knew they wouldn't still be around when I came back. That's the thing with truly seasonal produce--it forces you to be generous with your bounty. There is a limited window of time in which to be greedy about it, and if you have to miss the window, you might as well offer it to someone else.)

Anyway, what I'm almost certain I'll make, at least with this first batch of rhubarb, is my ritual rhubarb dish, the one I tasted once and then spent many years attempting to recreate -- rhubarb-ginger jam.

In the interests of full disclosure (and perhaps self-promotion), I should say that I wrote an essay about this rhubarb dish, and it was published in The Washington Post almost exactly a year ago. The essay, with recipe, is linked here.

I'd sent my boss the link to the essay, and she'd given it to her husband to read, and apparently, he'd said, "Yes, of course, the essay is beautifully written, but now I really want some of the jam." And so I gave her a little container of it to give to him, and he was just delighted. I saw them at a gathering for a retiring colleague, and the husband rushed over to me and began to rhapsodize. He kept saying,"It's so subtle, that slight tang of the ginger, and they're both such strong flavors, but they balance each other out so perfectly" and on and on. Although he is a professor of English and Russian, he was not particularly articulate about the jam, but I knew exactly what he meant. I feel the same way about it.

Rhubarb-Ginger Jam

Makes about 3 cups

This can be prepared in 45 minutes or less. It can be eaten warm as a compote or chilled as a jam. The recipe appeared in the July 1997 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

From Rita Newell, innkeeper at Reading House in Watkins Glen, N.Y.


2pounds rhubarb, washed, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
2to 2 1/2 cups sugar, according to taste
cup coarsely chopped crystallized ginger

zest of 1 lemon


Combine the ingredients in medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium and cook at least 20 minutes (it may take as long as 40 minutes), stirring often, until the mixture thickens and mounds on a spoon.

Monday, May 19, 2008

I Hate Mint

So, I spent awhile in the community garden today, pulling out mint.

When I inherited this plot from friends in the summer of 1996, there were some nice things in it--a lovely white peony, some orange (non day-lily) lilies, a thatch of very tall striped grass in one corner. Still, at some point every summer, I hate those friends because the summer before they gave up the garden, they planted mint. It's not that the mint was already there and they couldn't quite get it all out. No, they put it in. On purpose. And here I am, 12 years later, still pulling it out.

For the first summer or two, one end of the plot was taken over nearly entirely by mint and johnny jump-ups. But as I learned more about gardening and had more things I wanted to put in, I didn't want to lose the space, and so I began a campaign against the mint, which by then I was calling "the mint that wants to rule the world."

And then for a bunch of summers, I was able to keep the mint somewhat contained--there was still a patch at one end, where it had originally been. And then there was a little patch in the middle of the garden that I pulled out when I remembered to. But there was no sense of invasion, no sense that the mint was winning.

Except now it is. When I planted the peas, a month or so ago, I dug out a bunch of mint that had crawled underneath the pea fence and was attempting to colonize the other half of my plot, the one that's basically empty and where the utilitarian rows of vegetables grow. (Since the original half of my plot is a bit over-stuffed--you know, because I can't bear to pull out any of the corn poppies or larkspur that have self-seeded all over the place, not to mention the fact that for years I took any perennial anyone offered me--I try to keep the second half fairly clear, so there's actually room to put some vegetables in. )

In an interruption of my mint rant, I'll post some photos of my bipolar garden, all taken last summer.

The original half.

The newer half.

And here they are both together, with the pea fence in the middle:

I've been slightly neglectful of the community garden of late--it's the torn between two gardens thing partly, but also the weird weather pattern, where the sunniest days are Weds. and Thurs., and weekends are cool and cloudy. (Then there's the fact that I had obligations on two sunny Saturdays that kept me away from both gardens.) I can't blame the weather entirely--maybe I've just become a lazy gardener. But I know that the longer I let the weeds go, the worse it will be to tackle them. And so, I spent a chunk of time over there this afternoon (wearing a wool sweater AND fleece!). I tried to clear some of the weeds on the empty side. I pulled out some nasty witch grass. But mostly, I pulled out mint. There was mint mixed in with the artemisia, mint overrunning the creeping thyme (which is itself overrunning the grass path next to the plot), mint settling itself into the bed with the garlic and the one where leeks and lettuce grew last summer. I dug and pulled and pulled and dug and followed the snaking vines as far as I could, but I couldn't get all of it.

After an hour and a half or so, I had to leave to get ready to go to a dinner thing. To show for my time, there was a big pile of mint and witch grass to be composted, and my hands were filthy, dirt under my nails. My hands did, admittedly, smell pleasingly minty after all that--the only nice thing I will ever say about the mint. But the mint is still winning, and meanwhile, all I can do is keep pulling it out and keep cursing my friends. I wonder, after 12 years, if there's some statute of limitations on the willful planting of mint. Because really, what I'd like is for them to have to pull it out, as a lesson. It seems like it might even be fair for me to sneak over to their house and stick some mint in, but I'm not that vengeful (I don't think). Goddamn mint.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Green Garlic Redux

Clearly, green garlic is the "it" vegetable of the season (which begs the question--is garlic actually a vegetable? It doesn't really feel like it to me, but if it's not a vegetable, then what is it?). In today's New York Times Magazine, the Food: The Way We Eat column featured green garlic. The recipes were for a green garlic vinaigrette, a dip for artichokes and a pasta dish (linguine with green garlic clam sauce), which all sound tasty. My spinach and green garlic soup from last week is long gone, and I didn't see any green garlic at the farmers' market yesterday--maybe that will be my prompt to get some garlic cloves in the ground now and see what happens.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cat Mint and Green Garlic

In the late spring last year, I went up to Burlington to visit my friend Abby. Her garden was gorgeous (she's done a much better job of timing things so that lots of things are blooming at once), and I noticed a mound-like plant with light green leaves and light purple flowers. I asked her what it was, and she seemed surprised that I didn't know. It was cat mint, she told me (not to be confused with cat nip, though cats apparently love it). She said it didn't spread excessively (like regular mint) and bloomed much of the summer. What was there not to like?

The funny thing was that after that, I saw cat mint everywhere. Even though I've been looking at gardens and flowers for years, somehow, I'd missed it, and once I'd been alerted to it, suddenly I could focus, and there it was wherever I looked. When I went to Ragdale a few weeks later, I noticed immediately that the gardens were full of cat mint.

Of course, I had to get some for my own garden. I now have one plant in the bed next to the back door and one in the main part of my garden. The plants are still relatively small, but I'm looking forward to it being a garden staple.

This year's cat mint, I've realized, is green garlic. I've been planting garlic for years. Every fall, I stock up on bulbs from the farmer's market, and at some point in October or even November, I plant the bulbs and cover them with mulch. (Occasionally, I've gotten them in in the nick of time, the last possible moment before the ground has frozen for the winter.) Every spring, I'm delighted to see the green shoots of the garlic coming up, but I've never pulled any up then. I always wait til later in the summer to dig up the whole bulb.

A few weeks ago, I was reading my new favorite food blog, Orangette, and I was intrigued by a recipe for spinach and green garlic soup. As it happened, I realized that I actually had green garlic in my garden. I wasn't willing to sacrifice the garlic I'd planted last summer, but in my garden at home, there was some garlic I hadn't pulled up last summer that was re-sprouting, and I figured that counted as green garlic. So, I dug it all up, washed it off and made this soup, which was very easy to make and delicious to boot.

Then, this past weekend at the farmers' market, I noticed that three different stands had green garlic in various sizes. (This may happen every spring, but somehow, I'd never noticed it before.) Of course, I felt compelled to buy some from everyone, hence the big, bigger, biggest display. One of the stands had a recipe sheet also, and on it was another recipe for green garlic soup. That recipe consisted mostly of potatoes, green garlic and stock (whereas the first one consists mostly of spinach, green garlic, and stock), and for the hell of it, I added a potato to the spinach soup when I made it on Monday. (It was just as good as, if not better than, the first batch.)

So, now I'm committed to having some green garlic in my garden. (I have to admit it was a pricey pot of soup, given the $5 worth of green garlic, the bag of baby spinach from the grocery store and the stock from a box.) When I plant garlic in the fall, I'm going to plant it extra thickly (usually there are 6 inches between bulbs) and harvest some in the spring as green garlic. But I also got a tip from another green garlic blog post that I'm going to try now--her suggestion is to plant individual garlic cloves in the spring and just pick it as baby garlic. It certainly seems worth a shot, and if it works, that means that the green garlic season can extend into early summer, and I can eat more of that lovely soup.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One reason I'm glad I don't work on Mondays

I'd like to call this some kind of still life, but I'm not sure what. "Still Life with Bread and Lilac"? "Still Life with Hummus and Green Garlic Soup"? Somehow, it's hard to imagine a still life with hummus in the title. If I were really going to paint it (if I could paint, which I can't), I'd have decanted everything into lovely bowls and arranged it more decoratively, but mostly I wanted to record the moment in a simpler way.

I'm reminded of a painting I saw a couple of years ago at an exhibit at the Clark Institute of Art in Williamstown. I liked the title almost more than I liked the painting, but I liked the painting pretty well too.

It's Cezanne's Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants. It's usually at the Met, but it was on loan at the Clark for a special exhibit. We were there on a Tuesday afternoon, so the museum wasn't crowded, and it was quite magical to be nearly alone in the room with Cezanne.

Anyway, part of my Monday was spent cooking, as it often is, and I was very happy to start the week with a new loaf of peasant bread, a fresh batch of hummus, and a big pot (now, alas, mostly depleted) of green garlic soup. More about the green garlic tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Little Boxes

When I was in India in January, I had a little adventure. I don't mean to sound blase about it. I know that just going to India at all sounds like a big adventure, and in some ways, it is. But I've been going to India since 1989, so it's become a different thing, a less adventurous, more comfortable and familiar thing, especially since I was with friends for much of the time.

This time, I went to Sri Lanka as well, which, again, could be seen as an adventure in and of itself (and given the state of civil war, it kind of was), except that most of the time I spent either lolling at the beach (lovely but not particularly adventurous) or hanging out and gabbing madly with my friend Sonia in her lovely flat in Colombo. Sonia and I have been friends for going on 16 years, and over those years, we've gabbed madly in apartments in Eugene, Seattle (multiple apartments), Oakland, Northampton, and Delhi, so adding Colombo to the list felt pretty natural.

Anyway, every once in a while, on my non-adventurous trip, I'd have a little adventure. And one of those days was the day I left Colombo to return to Delhi. Even as it was happening, I knew it would make a good essay, and it's an essay I've been trying to write (and I'm not going to write it here), but until I write the essay, I thought I'd at least write about one part of the adventure.

The brief background is that I had a 6 hour layover in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), and I was determined not to spend it in the airport. I've been to Chennai a bunch of times, but the last time was probably in 1995, so I had no clear memory of it. So, that was part of the adventure--figuring out where to go and how to get there in this little window of time I had.

What I wanted was lunch, and after consulting with the ticket-wallah at the local train station (conveniently located near the airport, inconveniently located across a highway construction zone), I got on a local train for 7 or 8 stops and got off at a station called Mambalam, where I then went off in search of lunch. My whole little mini-adventure--finding the train station, riding in the ladies compartment on the train, navigating the crazily crowded pedestrian zone at Mambalam, my satisfying lunch at Saravana Bhavan--was fun as it was happening and is fun to think about now, but what I wanted to write about was the stainless steel.

There's lots of stainless steel in India, and it's not something I've ever thought about much. Over the years, I've accumulated some stainless steel cups and mugs, and after my long stay in Delhi, I came home with a stainless steel milk cannister that I used to take to the Mother Dairy milk stall to get my milk for the day. Now, I keep rice in the cannister, but I do like remembering myself standing in line for milk with my cannister, often the only person in line who was not a small child or a servant.

But that afternoon in Chennai, in that crazily crowded pedestrian zone filled with sari shops and gold shops and lots and lots of people, what beckoned to me was the stainless steel. There were two stainless steel emporia just a few doors away from each other, and even though I'd had no plans to go stainless steel shopping, I couldn't resist.

The reality of the matter was that I couldn't buy anything big, even if I'd wanted to. I was flying on a discount airline back to Delhi with one small suitcase that was already full. So, no enormous vessels for me, alas.

Still, stainless steel comes in all sizes, so I thought I could get a few little things--some cups, maybe, a tea strainer, some little boxes. But for a little while, it looked like I might not be able to buy anything since the clerk who ended up helping me turned out to be profoundly unhelpful. I was looking at some spice boxes, and I pointed to one on the shelf. He took it off, looked at it, put it back on the shelf, and told me it was defective. I asked to look at another one. That one, apparently, was defective too. After that, I was mostly curious to see what he would do, and sure enough, everything I pointed to was defective and thus I couldn't look at it. I found it hard to believe that an entire section of the store, the one I happened to be looking at, was full of defective stainless steel, but I couldn't really argue with him. I was tempted to move around the store and see if he followed me, telling me that everything in the entire store was defective, but I didn't. If I'd been in northern India, I could have spoken to him in Hindi, and that would have helped. But this was Chennai, where they speak Tamil, and there I was, a white girl in western clothes with a clunky daypack on my back. It probably felt like more trouble for him to deal with me than to tell me everything was defective. His shining moment was when I asked if they had any tea strainers, and he said "No, not available, madam," and I turned around, and there was an older gentleman unloading an enormous box of tea strainers and putting price tags on them. The older gentleman handed me a tea strainer with the unhelpful clerk looking on.

Eventually, I found a basket on the counter full of little stainless steel spice boxes. I started looking at them before the unhelpful clerk could tell me they were defective also. In the end, I bought two sets of three little round nesting boxes that fit inside each other along with the tea strainer. All together, it cost 92 rupees, about $2.30, at the exchange rate then.

I haven't put spices in my boxes yet. But I've taken to carrying the 2 smallest ones around with me. (They're the 26 gram size, the label says.) I put little handfuls of nuts and raisins in them and keep them in my bag in case I need a snack (a frequent occurrence). I like their portability, and I like it that when I look at them, I have a vision of myself, halfway around the world, reflected in a shimmering stainless steel nirvana.