Saturday, October 11, 2014

Garden variety

"No, you're the one that doesn't understand!" The man walking near me at the Union Square Greenmarket was shouting into his phone. "I know I'm supposed to get an eggplant. But what kind? They have like 4 kinds! And 5 kinds of tomatoes! And 3 kinds of onions! What kind am I supposed to get?"

He had a point. This time of year even the bounty has bounty. And the variety within the items of produce is anything but garden-variety.






Winter squash!











Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Cult of the Sour Cherry

They're elusive. They're delicate. Their growing season is short. They make a brief appearance in select markets - I counted only a few sightings at the Union Square Greenmarket - and none at all at most gourmet stores. Consequently, their fans, an "almost cultlike following," in the words of the New York Times, have been known to head to farms to pick their own. My sister planned her her backyard garden with them in mind, and has reorganized and replanted repeatedly, hoping for some success.

Just what is about sour cherries that warrants such devotion?

"They are perfect," my sister said when I posed this question to her."Their shape and size are very pleasing. Their flavor is perfectly sweet and sour. Their texture is nice and light, not as dense as sweet cherries, although I like sweet cherries too. If only they weren't so hard to come by."

Sadly, my sister's sour cherry tree looks more like her fig tree than this lush beauty.

So it's off to the market.

For those who blinked and missed the Greenmarket's crop of sour cherries, a pilgrimage must be made to Brighton Beach. Forget hipster Brooklyn enclaves like Gowanus  and Red Hook that are making the "Brooklyn" brand an international shorthand for coolness. For produce lovers, this Russian area is Brooklyn's best neighborhood. This rule applies doubly for enthusiasts of produce that is popular with Eastern Europeans.

In case you're wondering if sour cherries fall into this category, take a look at this UN Food and Agricultural Organization chart (courtesy of Wikipedia) or a rival chart about sour cherry production embedded in this Power Point presentation.

RankCountrySour cherry production in Metric Tonnes

(For those Russians who can't cope with sour cherries' short season, there's always компот (compote). 

Sour cherries fall into two categories: the dark red morello, which have red flesh, and rosy red amarelle, which have pale flesh. (Compare the picture at the top of this blog post with the picture below.)  Montmorency cherries, an amarelle variety, are the most widely sold in the US.  

But how do sour cherries stack up against  "regular" Bing cherries? I bought some of each to find out.

As you can see from the pictures, sour cherries (on the left) are smaller and rounder and a little lighter in color. Their flesh is less dense than the Bing cherries' and their taste is - no surprise here - tangy and and a bit pucker-worthy, less uncomplicatedly sweet than the Bings' taste. Both kinds of cherries were very pleasing. In the interest of being thorough in my research, I ate all of both kinds.

Sour cherries have a different nutritional profile than sweet cherries. They have a little less sugar and fewer calories. Their tart taste is also associated with their high concentration of antioxidants. 

According to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, sour cherries have "the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food." A roundup of the health benefits of sour cherries by the National College of Natural Medicine is impressive: tumor reduction in parts of the gut; improved quality and duration of sleep (because of sour cherries' melatonin; decreased post-exercise muscle soreness and inflammation; and greater strength following exerciseChoose Cherries, the website of a trade group that promotes sour cherries, lists studies that link sour cherries to reduced risk of heart disease; reduced risk of stroke; reductions in the inflammation associated with arthritis and gout; and reductions in blood cholesterol and triglycerides. The American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry suggested that sour cherries might be helpful in lowering diabetic people's blood sugar levels and increasing insulin production, prompting the author of its announcement to write, "Perhaps George Washington wouldn't have chopped down his father's cherry tree if he knew what chemists now know."  

Of course, before there were chemists analyzing sour cherries' health benefits, there were chefs creating sour cherry delicacies: sour cherry soup (fondly recalled as a summertime treat by my Viennese neighbor Rose), kriek lambic beer, Persian sour cherry-saffron rice, Turkish nectars and syrups, and my husband's favorite dessert, cherry strudel. (He, like other Upper East Siders of a certain vintage, still mourns the loss of the great Mrs. Herbst but gains comfort in the existence of Andre's Cafe and European Bakery.)

And you needn't be from Eastern Europe or Western Asia to appreciate the culinary possibilities: the US has its own ode to sour cherries: cherry pie.

But when you're torn between fried cherry pie pockets and medicinal "superfood" tart cherry powder - a divide that nicely epitomizes our oftentimes crazy approach to food in this country - remember, there's a lovely fruit in there. 

And you don't have to be a cultist to enjoy it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Grow Your Own, Part 2

I don't have a backyard like my sister does, so my balcony garden is a strictly containers-only arrangement. In the past I've grown - I mean attempted to grow - interesting and ambitious stuff such as cantaloupes and raspberries. The raspberries did fine on their own, but the cantaloupes required pollination. This work is normally falls under the job description of a bee, but our balcony is on the 16th floor, where the flying insects are typically mosquitoes. The one and only time I saw a bee, it was interested only in the tiny flowers of a basil plant. "The cantaloupe flowers, you stupid bee! Go to the cantaloupe! What's your problem?" I shouted, jabbing my finger at the showy blossoms of our cantaloupe plant. Amazingly, the insults and crazed pointing didn't work. The bee ignored me and continued its engagement with the miniature basil buds. My husband ended up pollinating the cantaloupe blossoms with a paintbrush. The plant yielded netted one cantaloupe the size of a softball, thoroughly inedible.

This year I grew some sensible and very good stuff: very sweet cherry tomatoes, flavorful hot peppers and a range of herbs.

I've been pretty delighted with this year's garden. The basil in particular has been bountiful enough to share - the true pride of the summer gardener.

But there's no sense in getting cocky. There in the corner, is the fig tree, faithfully watered in its doomed container with odd bits of failed seed growth and an expired dill plant. 

That's okay. I grew up in a Mets fan family, a cult in which irrational optimism is given voice in the cheer: There's Always Next Year.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Sister's Garden

Over the weekend I paid a visit to my sister's garden. The fig trees look about the same. To use a euphemism, they look "dormant," though if it's any consolation, their dire situation is part of trend so widespread it prompted a New York Times article, "A Fig Tree Dies in Brooklyn, and Other Boroughs."

But my sister's other plantings look great.









Of course, even a successful gardener is entitled to a little envy. 

Despite my sister's best efforts, her sour cherry tree - planted in in homage to our grandmother's sour cherry tree in Far Rockaway, Queens - and because she really, really likes sour cherries - isn't doing so well. But unlike fig trees, cherry trees don't seem to be suffering from general blight this year. Check out this beauty, thriving on East 19th Street in Manhattan, that prompted a pang or two:

Evidently we're not alone in our admiration of this tree - its lowest branches were suspiciously free of fruit. (My grandmother's tree was popular with humans, birds and squirrels alike, though the humans were the most aggressive grazers, causing a disproportionate denuding of the lowest branches.) In case you're wondering, I'm innocent - at least of this particular crime.

What's growing in your garden?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Shroomin' in Tokyo (Guest blog post from Japan)

Location: New York City (Brooklyn and the Bronx, to be exact). Some heavy rains have resulted in a bumper crop of my favorite fungus.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo my friend Hiroko was also thinking about mushrooms - albeit more productively.

Here's her guest blog post: 

As an apartment dweller in Tokyo, words like "farming" and "harvesting" don't typically come very close to me. So when I found a pile of plastic wrapped logs labeled "Shiitake Log" at the fresh produce section of my local super market, I was really skeptical. They were sold 399 yen (around $4) a piece. Seriously? Hey, a pack of Shiitake Mushroom costs about $2.99! So why not giving it a try? Even if it fails, we have nothing to lose!

The idea of farming Shiitake was an instant hit with my 8 years old son. No pets are allowed in this building, but a pet Mushroom Log? YES! With enthusiasm, we opened the plastic wrapping, but we didn't find any instruction,  just a piece of hand-written memo that said, "Remove the wrap. Spray water. In a few days, Shiitake comes." Oh thank you very much!

My son did some research and said: "My fungus needs a high moisture level." He started to spritz water on the log, twice a day, as if it was an honorable job. And really, in two days.....voila! MUSHROOMS!

Whoa! Almost too much!

Tokyo is currently in its rainy season, which is called "Tsuyu" ("Plum Rain," the annual rainy season when plums are ripening), so along with my son's diligent spritzing, the Shiitake Log is getting plenty of moisture on our balcony. Did you know 90% of a Shiitake is water? 

The Shitakes are thriving, happily popping up. Harvesting has become my son's daily routine!

Harvesting mushrooms for dinner.

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grow Your Own

The determination some folks have to grow a lawn, despite challenging conditions - arid land, tiny plots - is so strong that it requires psychological insight. One compelling theory suggest that human beings possess a deep impulse to recreate the African savanna, the cradle of human existence, by cultivating a lawn.

Are my sister and I similarly driven by powerful forces in our pursuit of the Rockaways gardens or our youth?

Growing up, we lived in a house with a backyard. Our home was 9 blocks from the ocean, barely within the New York City limits. Our backyard had toads, roses, honeysuckle and best of all, a fig tree, courtesy of our next-door neighbors who had planted a tree right up against the lot line. Every summer would bring a bumper crop, with zero effort on our part. Our generous neighbors were happy to share the bounty - a very good thing, considering that most jurisdictions accept the legal theory that whoever's lot houses the tree trunk owns all the fruit as well. Thank you, Stern family!

Of course, I fantasized about having a similar agricultural experience on my Manhattan balcony. Last year I bought a small fig tree at the Union Square Greenmarket. It developed lush foliage but no fruit. I wrapped it like a mummy to withstand the winter's frost, and have been tending it it carefully since springtime. Here's how it's going so far: 

Sigh. The weed in the corner is obviously doing a lot better than the fig tree is. 

I'd blame the container the fig tree is in, but my sister's two fig plants - one from the Union Square Greenmarket and the other from a botanical center - aren't doing much better, and hers are in the ground in her garden.

A gardening guru told her not to worry; dead-looking fig trees were capable of rebounding in early summer and even bearing abundant fruit by summer's end.

In a an ode to Brooklyn's fig trees, the food writer Melissa Clark attested to this phenomenon, writing,

[I was told that] fig trees are forgiving; if they die in winter, they can come back from the roots and bear fruit. I can vouch for this. That first winter, I wrapped my fig tree in old blankets, giving it a bucket for a hat. In spring, I unwrapped the tree. Everything else in the garden flourished. The mint and lemon balm grew tall and fragrant. The roses budded. But the poor fig tree remained adamantly brown, and I was scared I had killed it. Finally, in June, I gave up hope and lopped off the branches to stake my tomatoes. Then in July, I noticed my tomato stakes were pushing out leaves, and the stump in the barrel had started to grow. Suddenly, instead of one fig tree, I had six. I kept the hardiest of the lot and gave the others away. Now, my tree is laden with darkening fruit, branches bending under the weight. Every year the yield increases. First I got 2 figs, then 5, then 20. Now it's too many to count.

So we keep watering and keep harboring hope. 

Meanwhile, the farmers in Union Square have gone into floral overdrive, taunting me a bit with their lush greenery.

One plant in particular continues to catch my eye.

So far I'm holding strong and just tending to the fig tree I have rather than buying a new one. Really, I have no reason to think a replacement plant would necessarily fare any better. 

Besides, if I want a hardy plant, I know what to grow - a plant chock full of Vitamin C and calcium and more beta-carotene than carrots

And on a 16th story balcony, feral cat pee shouldn't be much of an issue.