Sunday, April 13, 2014

Garden & Gather

Oh, what a busy, busy Saturday I had!  I expect this post is going to be a long one.  Never fear, there are plenty of pictures and you are sure to finish up hungry.  That’s my specialty!

Miss Chef was up and out of the house early, to a couple of farmers’ markets to gather ingredients for the second dinner for her underground series.  I stayed home to gather a few ingredients of my own….some call it “thinning carrot seedlings”…

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(before and after)

…I called it “harvesting microgreens!”

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Between greediness and the trauma of ripping out plants that I seeded myself, I normally hate thinning.  But being able to tell myself that these were being harvested made it vastly easier.

It was a lovely, clear day to potter about in the garden.  The peas had jumped up after a good soaking rain last weekend, and the lettuces are filling in to make a pretty corner in the garden. 

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This weekend I’m also planting beans and squash, though I’m a bit pessimistic about my chances with the squash.  I’ve only got one bed available for it now, since the main bed is “contaminated” by squash vine borers.  But I’m hoping for an overflow of beans this year, because I’ve finally found an outlet to donate extra harvest!

FGbee logo

click photo for website

Friendship Gardens is a program started about five years ago by Charlotte’s version of Meals on Wheels, which is called Friendship Trays.  The idea is to raise sustainable produce locally with a goal of supplying Friendship Trays with ingredients for over 700 delivered meals a day.  Obviously, that amount of produce is going to require more than just one garden!  One segment of the program installs gardens with groups such as schools and churches, and establishes a garden leader to oversee each one.  In return, the groups donate a percentage of their  harvest back to Friendship Trays.

I’ve signed on as a Backyard Friendship Gardener, which simply means I will bring in and donate any extra harvest from my own backyard garden.  So I’ve planted twice the number of bean plants, sowed a generous amount of carrot seeds, and am trying to find places to plant extra tomatoes.  I enjoy harvesting from my bed at least as much as I enjoy eating it, so being able to share my harvest should only increase my pleasure.

Now, the program does have a couple of gardens of its own.  The original one is tucked behind the Friendship Trays building, in an older neighborhood of small warehouses.  A new, much larger space was recently made available at a local high school, in an area previously designated for a now-defunct agricultural science program.  Both of these gardens host regular work days where volunteers can just show up with workgloves and do whatever needs done.

All of which is to say, I only had a limited bit of pottering time in my own garden, as I was headed out for the bi-monthly workday at the new, large garden.

As I drove in, signs for Hands On Charlotte pointed the way…turns out this was coincidentally a collaborative work day between that volunteer organization and Friendship Gardens.  So there were already over 50 people hard at work when I strolled in half an hour late!

I had already met Henry, the program’s director, at an orientation meeting a few weeks before, and so I hunted him down to see what I could put my hands to work on.  He was still busy delegating tasks to some of the other volunteers, so while I waited for him, I snapped a few pictures…in the enormous, 100-foot long greenhouse!

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Yes, the potential here is mind-boggling.  Those white-covered tables are a hyrodponic setup, already seeded with lettuce and tomatoes.  I didn’t get a picture of the enormous fish tanks which are intended to become a part of the whole system.  I don’t know all the details, but I think the fish waste may be incorporated into feeding the plants, and vice versa.

Eventually Henry gave me a rapid-fire list of tasks, from dismantling a simple shelf to planting some marigolds at the entrance.  I suppose between being late and waiting for my assignment, I only worked an hour, but the time really flew by.  I was glad we hadn’t hit the mid-90s of summer yet, because I’d forgotten how hot it gets inside a greenhouse!

All the volunteers were called together for a group photo before they dispersed.  I stayed back to talk to Henry about the Backyard Gardening project, and it was only as I was leaving that I remembered to get some photos of the rest of the site—so you miss the impressive view of dozens of volunteers planting and mulching this huge field.

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Can you see the scarecrow in the middle?  A cute touch.  I think that’s a harvesting table on the left, where produce can be rinsed and sorted. 

On a little rise behind where I stood to take this picture, there are some nice raised beds that I wouldn’t mind having in my own backyard.

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Aside from volunteering my time and donating produce, I’m hoping that networking with other gardeners will help me learn even more about how to raise food more effectively.  Also, it would just be nice to be able to talk to other people about how the weather is affecting their beans, or commiserate about those damn squash vine borers!

As rewarding as this work was, I had to hop in my car and zoom home, to get ready for that night’s big dinner.  We were very excited about this second one, because we’d just about doubled the number of paying guests, including some folks who knew Miss Chef from her previous restaurant, and some friends from the Matthews Farmers’ Market.

While Miss Chef and her helpers finished packing up to head to the site, I prepared the printed menus, then cleaned up, fed the animals and headed out the door.  Only to turn the car around a mile down the road when I realized I’d forgotten my wine!  (It’s a BYOB event.)

For the second time that day I showed up late, but it was really fun to walk into a house full of friends, acquaintances I hadn’t seen in months, and a few people I knew mostly by sight and name.  One of the other culinary instructors had offered her home as the venue—as part of the “underground” aspect, Miss Chef had sent out an email only 24 hours beforehand to announce where the location was.  Remember, though, the menu is kept a secret until after all the dishes have hit the table.

The hostess had set up two separate tables, since our group was so large (13, I think).

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As the guests arrived, the hostess handed everyone a glass of rosé champagne, and we had a few minutes to mingle and chat.

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Just this past week Miss Chef officially “hired” me as Marketing Director…or maybe Director of Communications…or Media Director…or something.  Basically, in addition to writing up the menus, I’m now in charge of invitations, emails, social media and the like.  Which meant I felt a responsibility to document as much as I could with my crappy little camera phone!

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Some action shots of the team at work in the kitchen…below, that’s Chef Dry straining something, while Chef Bevins works on the meat course.

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Soon enough, Miss Chef was tapping a spoon on a glass to announce that they were ready to start service, and we eagerly moved to the tables.  I passed through the kitchen on my way and caught a sneak peek.

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We started with a crispy fried wonton filled with duck and ramps (a garlicky green that was foraged in the NC mountains).  The sauce is a sesame orange curd.  I don’t know about you, but those are some of my favorite flavors all mixed up together.

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Next up was the salad course, which Miss Chef labels Beet Carpaccio—slices of roasted beets topped with Bosky Acres goat cheese and dressed with arugula and bites of golden beets.

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The soup course that followed received a lot of praise from the guests—a spring pea soup with a seared scallop.  Remember all those edible flowers we had at McCrady’s a couple of weeks ago?  Uh huh…

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That’s radish slaw and grilled spring onion decorating the soup.  I have to say, these scallops may have been the equal of the mind-blowing ones we had three years ago at the Artichoke, during our London trip.  Yeah, they were that good.

Next up was an intermezzo course, a really inspired and fun dish that Miss Chef labeled “A Study in Carrots.”

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The pecan-raisin crouton in front is the only element not made of carrots.  The shot glass holds a carrot consommé, on the left is a salad of raw carrots, on the right is a fan of sweet pickled carrots, and hiding in the back are some glazed carrots.  Oh, but we’re not done!  The orange sauce is a carrot reduction, the dust is carrot powder, and do you see those tiny little leaves on the pickled carrots?? 

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Yeah, those are my micro carrots I thinned harvested that morning.  Open-mouthed smile So proud…

Anyway, we now were primed for the main course.

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That’s a roulade of rabbit, sitting on asparagus and spring vegetable risotto and topped with a leek confit.  This was a very rich dish, and I was glad I had remembered to go home and get the pinot noir I’d bought to share.

The last course was, of course, a dessert.  Miss Chef has little patience for the intricacies of pastry, so she lets Chef Dry in charge of desserts.  This is a chocolate and strawberry mousse cake with strawberry gelée on top, and a strawberry and cream parfait on the side.

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Now that I think of it, maybe we should have called this “A Study in Strawberries!”

Aside from the effusive compliments heaped on the chefs, another sign that the evening was a success was that the guests lingered for an hour or two afterwards.  Some bourbon came out, cheeks were kissed, jokes were shared, and I think it’s safe to say, a good time was had by all.

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  1. BOY am I inspired! I loved the "harvesting" of thinned carrots and ALL the garden pics! The Friendship Gardens are an awesome idea. I had raised beds like those pictured but they were difficult to keep up so just pulled them apart and hope to be able to use a small tiller this year. Wish I had ANY cooking skills. Miss Chef makes me hungry but the food is almost too pretty to eat! Loved seeing Rosie and your "guard cat" too!
    Happy Spring!

    1. I appreciate knowing that raised garden beds have their own issues, so maybe I'll be a little less jealous! Let us know if you happen to be in Charlotte end of June/beginning of July, maybe we could find you some room at the next Gather table. ;)

  2. When I gardened, contrary to Leslie above, I appreciated the three raised beds I had. I found that they would defrost earlier than the rest of the garden around and that I could sit down while I worked in them. From time to time, I would have to replace one of the 6"x6" but since my son has a portable saw mill, I had asked him to prepare me some in advance for when I would need them. Buy the way, I read this post while "savoring" my egg sandwich...How nice of you to go give your time to the community gardens; time is so precious and you are lucky to have the energy to do this after doing your own work. Bravo!

    1. Oh, well now I want raised beds again, lol. The marigolds I planted at the volunteer site were in raised beds, and it was nice to work at hip height, rather than squatting or bending over. The early thaw is a little less important around here, of course. :)

  3. Dang it, Alison, I just got my keyboard dried out from the last time you posted about such luscious food! lol

    Yes, a very good idea, those Friendship Gardens. I was intrigued to see the lips built on the raised beds - addresses one of the problems with them, I'd think.

    1. This may just be the year I put my big girl pants on and make the investment in raised beds.

  4. Replies
    1. Meh, it beats getting torn up by a coyote, I'd think.


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