Thursday, July 26, 2012

Out, out, vile spot!

"It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour."*

Ever notice how after working with tomato plants your hands are stained brown for days? I looked like a veteran cigar roller after my stint in the Windsor Crossing hoop house tying up and pruning tomato plants for 3 hours on Tuesday afternoon. (Well, maybe an avid smoker with a habit of tromping through swamps: I think I may now have a seasoned pair of garden/farm-only work pants and shoes.) My hands were still stained this morning, as if I'd meticulously tattooed every crack and crevice with henna. Don't even get me started on the ground-in dirt under my nails....

Today, I found myself plucking yellowed and browning leaves on some of the tomato plants I am watching over at the North Columbia Heights Green over the summer months. Brown hands again. (I swear I wash them. Repeatedly.) Luckily, I hang out with lots of farmers, who are familiar with such cosmetic discoloration, and are thus unperturbed. But I think it alarms my friends with desk jobs.

I recall cousin Caroline saying something about stained hands and tomatoes awhile back. I believe it was when we were pruning a row of heirloom nightshades last autumn. My hands were brown for nearly a week that time! Had I only known before tonight that this "tomato tar" damage is preventable: just rub your hands with something acidic before you start pruning -- vinegar, say, or a green tomato -- and you should be able to avoid sepia toned extremities. Beware: there does not appear to be a way to remove the stains from hands or clothes once they're there.

Another bit of trivia for you: tomatoes are related to tobacco plants.

Yep. I first learned this in my master gardening class this past winter -- both are susceptible to the insidious tomato mosaic virus, which is often spread by folks handling tomato plants after a smoke break. (One would think that the very idea of virus-laden cigarettes would induce people to quit, but apparently folks don't often know they're infecting other plants and the virus does not appear to affect humans. Still: gross!)

So, friends who don't want diseased tomato plants, I'd suggest not feeding your nicotine habit while pruning the nightshades in your vegetable patch. And for those who want to avoid being known as Ibti Brownhands, maybe rub a little bit of vinegar between your fingers before you head out to stake your tomatoes. (I wonder if simply reaching into the pickle jar for a pre-gardening snack will do the trick....)

*Five points to those to correctly identified the line from Macbeth! (Once an English teacher, always an English teacher.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Underwater bicycling

Sounds like an elective a Philosophy major might've taken in college, no?

It was just a 1-mile ride home from my afternoon meeting at Busboys & Poets, but it took me nearly 15 minutes: straight uphill in gale force headwinds and flooded gutters, with a veritable caravan of metrobuses swerving into the bike lane (well, that last part is standard). That would be the storm mentioned during the weather report this morning, just before I stepped outside into the scaldingly sunny 100-degree day and scoffed, "Rainstorm? Ha!"

Ha, indeed.

Refreshing though the pounding rain was, stinging my arms and soaking me to the bone in less than 5 seconds, I am glad to be out of it. I just am finally dried out enough to venture near electronic devices; Ollie's still dripping over by the door.

I hope this little break in the rain holds long enough for us to get to Gail's place for dinner. I think I'll wear my scuba socks just in case....

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In the pink

Warning: if you do not want me to feed you chilled beet soup, do not stop by my apartment for the next week.

About this time last week, I found myself with a bunch of rather large beets (following my first trip of the season to the small but nice Foggy Bottom farmers' market). When we stopped to chat on my way home from the market, I happened to mention to my friend Robin that I was looking to do something other than pickling or grating or roasting beets for a change. "Oh, I have the best recipe for a chilled pink borscht," she assured me.

If you know Robin, as I do, you know to trust her recipes. This one did not disappoint. Here, with some modifications, is one adapted from a cookbook written by the former chef at Chez Panisse. (I shouldn't be surprised: the food there is AMAZING.) I've almost polished off the large pot of soup I made the other night. And, oh, look, my friend Robert gave me another two bunches of beets from his farm. Round two gave me a chance to actually write down what I did to make this divine summery soup:

Chilled Pink Borscht

  • Olive oil
  • ½ tsp coriander seed
  • small pinch of ground cloves
  • a few pinches of red pepper flakes
  • 1 bunch of beets, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 4-6 cups vegetable broth*
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 large shallot or onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup whole milk yogurt (I used some from Keswick Creamery – a little lumpy but delicious!)
*Note: Traditionally, the borscht is made with beef. Not this one. It's pure veggies and spices. Simple. Inexpensive. Tasty. And nice and cool during this heatwave. If you plan ahead, you can make veggie broth with the beet tops and peels + the scraps from the garlic and shallot.


Grind the coriander seed, pepper flakes, and pinch of cloves together with a mortar and pestle (or a coffee grinder that you use for spices). Dump ground spices into a large pot, then add a splash of olive oil, beets, garlic, shallot, bay leaf, sugar, vinegar.  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Cook over medium heat until the beets are coated with spices, and the kitchen gets ridiculously fragrant. Add broth. Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce the heat and simmer 20-30 minutes or until the beets are tender when pierced with a fork.

Remove soup from the heat and cool slightly.  Puree in batches, using a blender or food processor, until very smooth.  Refrigerate until cold, 2-3 hours. Just before serving, whisk in yoghurt. Top with any garnish you like: a dollop of yoghurt, freshly snipped chives, basil, etc. Good alongside a simple green salad and a slab of fresh sourdough bread. You can simply scale up the ingredients for a double or triple batch if you find yourself with a bevy of beets.

Yes, my crusade to turn the country into a nation of beet lovers continues....

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's hot enough to make a sinner repent

No, dad, I haven't started going to church again. I've been hanging out with spiritual folks lately as part of my outreach for area farmers markets, trying to figure out how to help feed the bodies of those whose souls the city's religious leaders are nourishing. In the course of my work, every so often I come across a line like this one -- uttered by one of the pastors at last week's Ecumenical Council meeting -- and I can't help but giggle. Damn straight.

Seriously, though. I sure hope next weekend isn't as hot as the past few have been. I thought I was going to melt right into the pavement while I was volunteering at The Bike House stand at the Bloomingdale farmers' market yesterday. I burned my hand at least twice reaching for a metal bike tool that had accidentally been left in the sun for a few minutes, and in spite of downing an entire water bottle I almost fainted during the unshaded ride home.

Now, bike repair has been my Sunday ritual for awhile now, and I tend to pride myself on my relative comfort in hot climes. But if the weather next weekend turns out to be like yesterday's I might have to forego the bike co-op in favor of church... purely for the air-conditioning.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What do all of the important people in my life have in common?

Why, they love food, of course!

Should you be surprised that I talked my way past no less than five security personnel to get out of the airport during the 5-hour layover on my way back from Italy so that I could meet up with my best friend and snack my way around the outdoor market in downtown Montreal?

They also try to feed me at any opportunity.

Should I be surprised that Becky sent me off with a stash of her famous homemade chocolate chip cookies and a couple of peaches for the plane ride home? (Sorry, Mr. Customs Officer, but is it my fault that they made me fill out the customs form before I left the airport?)

I love good food. I can't help it. And the people I love do, too.

To my dear friends scattered about the country -- and in some cases, the globe -- I'm sorry to say that I'm going to have to eat your share of tonight's braised baby artichokes, chilled pink borscht, and sourdough bread. Wish you were here to share it with me. I miss you!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cinderella complex

Well, wouldn't you know it: my volunteer pumpkin appears to be ready for harvest. Only... it's JULY! How is this possible?

Pumpkins aren't even supposed to be close to ready for another two months! But try telling that to the tenacious seeds sprouting out of my compost these days.

[Granted, timing has never been my forte. Heck, I met the love of my life a decade earlier than I should have, when I was too dumb to realize it, and broke his heart irreparably. These days my most loyal companion is a bicycle. I don't want to make that mistake again. If I get another chance.]

Anyway, I don't want to mess up this first pumpkin I've ever grown, so I think I need to pick it pretty soon. And that brings me to: what does one do with a giant pumpkin in the middle of summer? Make out-of-season pumpkin bread? Pumpkin muffins? Pumpkin soup? Pumpkin butter?? (I tried to include a brick in the picture to show the scale of the orange giant, but it doesn't do justice to the sheer mass of the thing: that pumpkin is not what one would call "small." I can see how one of these might've inspired Cinderella's carriage.) I'd better invite a few friends over soon for pumpkin... everything. I can't eat this mother pumpkin all by my lonesome.

Agh! Enough with this Cinderella Complex! Maybe it's time for me to finally stop wringing my hands and start brewing that pumpkin beer I've been daydreaming about for the better part of the past 10 years....

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nobody leaves without pickin' the blues

I spent most of this past week at my cousin Caroline's place in Pennsylvania. Hey, with temps over 100 in the District, I was glad for the reprieve in the slightly cooler Poconos climate. We did a fair bit of work pulling and cleaning garlic, but mostly I did some writing and enjoyed the company of the fun folks with whom I found myself as we laughed and swam and cooked -- I was there for the 4th of July, after all, and it's practically illegal not to have a barbecue that afternoon. (Less illegal, apparently, than buying PA fireworks as a PA resident. Still trying to figure that one out. But I digress.)

We did take a break from garlic cleaning and swimming on the final morning of my visit, before I was to head to my friend Mitch's wedding in Philadelphia, to go blueberry picking. Caroline had mentioned it during our (garlicky) dinner the night before, and I couldn't shake my sudden desire to eat my body weight in the season's first tart berries. I stuffed my formal wear in the back seat of the car, packed us a picnic, and we were off for the blueberry fields at the crack of... 11am. It was rather steamy by the time we got there, but the berry harvesting gang was not to be deterred.

Soon after we arrived, the foreboding stormclouds rolled in. But I couldn't leave without pickin' the blues! (I can't help but think of that famous scene in Adventures in Babysitting. You know the one: an adorable Elizabeth Shue shuffles across the stage with her young charges at the underground blues club in Chicago in an effort to escape the villains, only to be stopped by a large, stern black man who insists, "Nobody leaves without singin' the blues." So she does.) Well, much cooler pickin' when it's overcast....

Okay, I was the first to dive under cover when it really started raining. Actually, it was under the cover of the hatchback of Caroline's station wagon, where I had fully laid out and taste-tested the picnic by the time the rest of the blueberry crew joined me. Even with my comparatively shortened picking stint, I made off with a solid 4 1/2 pounds of delicious, organically grown berries.

Yum. I think I'll be making some blueberry shortcake tonight.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Why am I not Italian?

It's been almost two whole years since Ollie and I returned from our cross-country Odyssey. And perhaps mom and dad are wise to worry that I might get a little stir crazy being in one place for too long. Well, luckily, I love my work. And I do take little trips from time to time. And every so often, a bigger trip: miracle of miracles, I managed to take a break from all of my jobs (I think I'm up to 6 now) at the same time for a trip to my friend Jen's wedding in Tuscany. Time to take a break from local food work, right? Nope. Research. Of the eating and drinking variety. Unofficially.

Up in the hills outside of Florence, I spent a week scarfing and sipping and swimming and dancing and toasting and pausing at every gelateria within a 20km radius for a piccolo cone of the local specialty. Pasta, pizza, wine, bruschetta, my new favorite Pappa al Pomodoro... all local and delicious. I couldn't help myself. Good thing my bridesmaid's dress was a size too big to begin with.

After much celebration (and a little hangover nursing), it was off to visit another dear friend in Viterbo, before I was to catch my flight home out of Rome. Though we'd been culinary and salsa dancing buddies since our days living in Mexico, I hadn't seen Alessandra since I stayed with her on my bike ride through Des Moines. Just as importantly, we were long overdue for a cooking session at her family's home in Italy -- I'd been hearing about her parents and beautiful hometown for years and both sounded impossibly perfect. And wouldn't you know it, I happened to be in town in between two of the regional cooking tours she was leading this summer. Perfect.

Ale picked me and my limoncello-laden suitcase up at the tiny local train station and we zipped off to her parents' house just in time for a tour of her dad's vineyard and hazelnut and olive groves before we joined a small group of visiting friends to make biscotti with her mom. (Lots of pantomiming ensued, as I speak only slightly more Italian than her parents speak English, but with good food and wine and people much of the talk was about the food and wine, which conveniently comprises the bulk of my Italian vocabulary.) Then we all sat down to play some crazy Italian card game and sip on her dad's homemade white wine while our dinner of zucchini flower foccacia, roast chicken, onion blossoms, and  summer squash cooked in the hand-built outdoor oven just off camera.

Seriously, mom and dad, am I secretly Italian? You can tell me.

After a few more days of indulging in stellar Italian food, and even catching a EuroCup soccer match (though the British goalie was cuter, I felt compelled to root for Italy as we devoured homemade sausage and mozzerella and wine with Alessandra's parents the night before I left), it was time for me to head home. But something tells me I'm going to be breaking my pasta maker back out soon....