Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The snow, the garden, the seeds, the life

Our snow blanket from late last week. It is melting, now, slowly, but while it lasted it was evenly beautiful.

Taken from our neighbors (two floors up). 

Last year's arugula crop is very happy in the snow, preferring it to dry, icy blasts. I posted these two pictures to Instagram (@66squarefeet), which is where you can find me every day, when I am not here. With a new book on the horizon I will have less time than ever for blogging, unfortunately, but Instagram serves as a mini blog and a very positive space, compared with Facebook's comparative whininess. And you can get a sneak peak a some of the recipes I am testing for Forage and Harvest.

The garlic! Last October I planted two rows of bone fide seed garlic from Botanical Interests, two rows of organic bulbs as well as elephant garlic from Whole Foods, and two rows from the local farmers market. Last year's garlic crop was very rewarding, despite the relative shade,* so I got a little carried away.

* Shade recap: Full shade from fall through April. Right now, at 10am, the first sliver of sun is touching a small space at the very back fence. Daily, as the sun rises higher in the sky, it creeps bigger. So the crops that need the most sun are planted from the back, forwards, towards the house. And, as I learned last year, right up against the house in 100% shade, I can grow ginger (and Thai basil). This year they will be joined by turmeric.

Boxes of seed have been arriving and soon the fun will begin. First in will be fava beans and peas. Then there is some crazy stuff. Like annual artichokes. And celtuce. A new 'Wasabi' arugula. Pink-spotted chicory. I'm going to try spy beans. And 'Magenta Spreen' lambs quarters. And a few other things, too.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Forage and Harvest Book

The end of 2016 brought some happy negotiations with a publishing company I have long admired. When a senior editor there asked me over the phone, Vermont to Cape Town, "Why Chelsea Green?" my answer was simple: "Integrity."

Because it matters more than ever. 

Chelsea Green has a reputation for producing books on subjects ahead of the curve, and are firmly on the appropriate side of important environmental and political issues.

Back home in Brooklyn recently, a contract arrived. I celebrated by sprinkling it with agathosma* salt and dried mugwort. For luck, of course. 

* Agathosma from my mom's Cape Town garden - very aromatic.

Forage and Harvest is a book for cooks, gardeners, and foragers. It represents years of research: foraging, reading, cooking, eating. And gardening. It will cover over 40 wild foods and contain over 400 recipes. There will be techniques for making simple essentials and kitchen basics like field garlic oil (above).

Wild salad recipes will contain feral and domestic ingredients. In some cases I will make horticultural arguments (with cultivation tips) for taming wild ingredients: they are excellent vegetables and fruits, and sometimes borderline in terms of sustainability. And not everyone can get out and forage. We should be growing them, both for our own consumption, and for market.

There will be many one-pot wonders, it's how I often cook at home, like this pokeweed ribolitta, above. There will also be soups and side dishes and stews, risottos and roasts, and lots of ideas for breakfast. I like breakfast.

Breads and syrups and jams and muffins will march through the pages, like this spicebush bread with black cherry syrup.

There will be cake. With foraged mahlab, from black cherries.

There will be meaty and hearty main courses, like these bayberry meatballs with sumac.

There will be fire.

And there will be esoteric and fragrant vinegars and ferments made with highly seasonal edible flowers, like black locust.

...and the ever popular and wildly fizzy elderflower cordial.

With just a few weeks before spring arrives, I am furiously transcribing recipes from a small mountain of Moleskine notebooks so that I can be ready to gather, photograph and test when foraging season begins. Friends have offered help from their own tracts of wild land, while many of my edible weeds will be sourced locally from community farms and forgotten wild places.

Forage and Harvest will be published in spring of 2018.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Cake days

It may be February but it is not too early to begin testing recipes for Forage and Harvest. With more than 400 on the cards, it's going to be interesting! And I need to rally neighborhood friends as potential guinea pigs. We will not be able to eat everything.

It has been the week of coughs, here at Chez Possum (yes, the possums are still around). First I went down with Trump Flu, then the poor Frenchman was felled, despite all precautions taken. In all the time I have known him he has never taken a sick day from work. Now he has taken two. Even as he coughs and sweats he works. Yes, I tried. Nothing I can do except drown him in thyme tea.

Above, a spicebush and apple cake, dense, moist, good food for cold days. And we have been promised some snow! At last.


Friday, February 3, 2017

And a happy Rooster to you, too

Lunar New Year in Chinatown. We joined the throng, even though we were really on a mission for tropical fruit to take to dinner that night. It was incredible to stand in that friendly crowd and to think about Donald Trump's lunatic proclamations. This epitome of an immigrant's celebration made the airport detentions and immigrant bans all the more absurd.

Stone faced NYPD escorted every dragon dancing troop. 

Children perched high. 

As we moved from the main processions' heart the streets thinned a little. We considered dumplings at our favourite Dim Sum Go Go but did not feel like waiting and moved on to shop under the Manhattan Bridge, where I bought longans and rambutans and dragon fruit.

Everywhere confetti and ribbons popped and showered.

Supper was with good friends, one who entered the United States as a refugee, only one American-born, most US citizens, some green card holders. Harvard (the former refugee) and Cambridge in the house (and me, of course, to tone things down).

In South Africa there are many refugees and immigrants, too, many from war torn and failing states. There is also xenophobia. Immigrants are resilient. They are determined. They have endured physical and psychological deprivation. They have left everything behind. They have survived. You want them in your gene pool. Because they are strong. And perhaps that is the problem. Do not fear strength. Embrace it. Make it part of you.

Yes, there is a lot of sweeping up after the Chinatown celebration. Click on this Ram Year post from 2015 to see.

This year of the Rooster is a challenge to us all. May we rescue something good from the flames.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grow Journey - gardeners in arms

Waiting for me when I stepped through the winter-dark Brooklyn doorway recently, fresh from the South African sunshine, was a packet of Grow Journey seeds. It has been a year since I received my first seeds from them, and I have come a long way in terms of how I garden.

While the 'Little Bells' heirloom peppers in the December package seem like a dream in late January, their backstory on my Grow Journey dashboard when I log on, is cheering. I don't think of my garden as pepper country because it receives full sun only in the midsummer days, but, says their story, these "cute, delicious miniatures need less sun and nutrients than bigger peppers do to develop their sugars...and if you have an exceptionally short season, cut the entire dwarf, densely fruiting plant at the base & hang to ripen the last peppers indoors." Huh!

November 2015 soil test

Grow Journey co-founder Aaron von Frank got in touch with me at a time when  I was very despondent about my edible gardening prospects in our new garden. To recap: I discovered, via a late 2015 soil test (above) that our soil had high lead levels and a low pH. It took a few hours of bug-eyed reading for me to appreciate the significance of that relationship. I learned that if I raised the pH of the soil, the lead would not be available for absorption by plants. I also learned that - with exceptions - little lead is absorbed, anyway; the real issue is lead dust sticking to leaves, or hands and feet, then being ingested. But I was still verskrik, as we say in Afrikaans, and preferred to be as safe as possible. Mission Raise pH was launched in late December of that year. And my first Grow Journey seeds arrived in the mail.

While the Cornell lab that tested the soil provided instructive guidelines for correcting problems, I learned specifically about egg and oyster shells for sweetening soil (raising pH) from Steve Masley's website Grow it Organically (garden lime was no good because it also contains magnesium and my levels were borderline high). He was generous with his time in emails (his Instagram is @growitorganically).

 From late December 2015 through early summer 2016 I applied 12 lbs of powdered oyster shells (Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply, in California) in two 6 lb batches, and about 3 lbs of egg shells, digging the powder in about 5" deep. And I planted seeds.

Fava beans, cover crop, nitrogen fixers, green manure

There were other issues with the soil in this central plot (I did not test or amend the soil on the garden's edges at all): our Phosphorus was too high, the Aggregate Stability was very low. So I planted cover crops and green manure (plants dug back into the soil), mulched with crop thinnings and leaves, and did not fertilize at all. What I think of as Grow Journey's onboard flight navigation system (for the garden pilot) taught me many of these healthy growing and management techniques. As a member of Grow Journey's seeds of the month club, you are not just paying for monthly seeds; you have digital access to all the wealth of information that accompanies your physical seed packets. Well researched and referenced techniques for improving your soil organically and using concepts such as polyculture plant guilds are Grow Journey mainstays.

December 2016 soil test

And, as my dad would say (if he could remember), results count.

Recently my second soil test results were sent to me by Cornell. The pH has risen from 5.4 to 6.6. From acidic to optimum, and near-neutral. This is pretty dramatic. My overall soil quality score went from 54 and Low to a score of 75 and Excellent. It seemed like the best news of the year. And I felt like I'd aced my exams after a dodgy start.

But this garden turnaround was not my own - I had help, from people who see the bigger environmental picture, and who use time-tested, science-supported methods. And that is my lesson for 2017. If we are going to survive under a crazed president, or in any of our personal troubles to come, we all need the right kind of help. Choose your community wisely, accept help, and be there for them when they need you.

January garlic

This winter has been disconcertingly mild, so far, and some of the crops in the vegetable plot are still green and growing. It is a temptation to sow cold hardy seed, like the pretty purple Indian mustard that was also in my December package. But things will change.

You can access Grow Journey's behind-the-scenes support and info with a free 30-day trial (you pay a $3.99 shipping and handling fee). I recommend it highly.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Pop up mushrooms

My friends Karen Bekker (a caterer who whips up delicacies for private cocktail parties) and mushroom forager Justin Williams met at that Tweede Nuwe Jaar lunch under the tree, although perhaps they had known each other peripherally on Instagram, I can't remember. So when Karen's Interesting Mushrooms popped up again in her pin oak leaf pile, she set up the G and T station in her garden and invited us over. 

Justin leads mushroom walks in Cape Town, and forages for local restaurants. The foraging scene in Cape Town has woken up. Mushrooms were one of the first wild foods I foraged there, sticking to easily identifiable pine rings (known in the States as milk caps  - Lactarius deliciosus) - they were a breeze to find, then, but now you have to wake up really early to beat the pack. Justin is delighted by fungi and along with his fiancĂ©e Beverley Klein, has launched a food start up called First Light Foods, producing forage-inspired treats like porcini powder and pickled waterblommetjies. They sell these at the popular and trend-setting OZCF market every week, and at other venues.

Justin and Bev had already met and identified these mushrooms the previous day and were back for the second flush. The edible Agaricus augustus, known as the prince, had eluded the mushroom hunter until now, and he was delighted to make its acquaintance. .

Karen and Justin

Justin vibrates when he talks about mushrooms. And, very kindly, he donated this prize edible to me. This is a big thing. Mushroom people don't let go of their loot easily at all. Very acquisitive. But the man's nature is very generous. He and Bev described its almondy and "sweet" flavor, and after the requisite, "no, I couldn't possibly," and, "yes, but you must," we drank up our delicious Six Dogs gin and parted.

At home the next day, the mushroom's gills had already darkened from blond to pale brown, and I cut the big cap into cubes. I cooked it simply, sauteing the pieces in some avocado oil, without seasoning, then tasted. Mushroom. Then I added a dash of dark soy sauce, which I thought would complement the sweet flavour I had expected.

The result was very interesting. While the thinner pieces of mushroom still tasted like mushrooms (it's amazing how many mushrooms do!), the larger, more succulent chunks were juicily almondy. Quite like marzipan without its actual sweetness.

New year, new mushroom.

What new flavour would you like to experience in 2017?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden. Over 1 million visitors were logged here in 2014, but I can't find current figures. I do not imagine they have dropped. That puts this garden on a par with the botanic gardens of much more populous New York City. Plus, unlike at the NYBG and BBG, you may picnic anywhere on the grounds (this should be a democratic right). There are no trash cans, and I have never seen any trash.

Having the most beautiful garden in Africa on your Cape Town doorstep is not something I could ever take for granted.

I renewed my Botanical Society membership a few weeks ago and purchased a late Christmas present membership for Tipsy (plus guest, for a little more - and it also grants additional free access to a scholar between the ages of 6 and 18), when we visited last week. Membership fees gain you entrance to this garden - its stunning grounds, displays and exhibitions; give you access to all national botanic gardens across South Africa; and - most importantly - support the mission and work of the Botanical Society of South Africa, including projects like CREW

At the nursery we also bought some Artemisia afra and Mentha longifolia for Tipsy's garden in Langa. Both plants are well known herbal remedies and if they survive the sandy soil and water restrictions, will be useful in her backyard medicine chest.

An hour at Kirstenbosch - watching birds, lying on the lawn, walking up the steep slopes, counting ericas, paddling in spring water, is an hour you do not need to spend on a therapist's couch. It may save some doctors' bills, too.

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