Monday, April 28, 2014

Morning in the Garden

I took these pictures almost a week ago, on a cool, dewy morning.  I’ve been so busy that I’m only now getting around to sharing them.

Chilly looking chives…

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…dramatic garlic…

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…wispy fennel fronds…

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…sturdy little pea plants…

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…elegant broccoli…

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…and colorful lettuce.

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I don’t know what variety of lettuce this is.  Miss Chef was the one who bought it, in a mixed pack of seedlings labeled something like “Lettuce Mixed Variety.”  I stopped growing lettuce a couple of years ago, because it gets bitter when the temperature rises, unless you water it constantly.  This year, however, I’m not fighting Miss Chef’s urges to put stuff in the ground that she’ll ignore after planting time, because I know it won’t go to waste.

For example, just as this was getting big enough to harvest from, Miss Chef went a bit crazy at the farmers’ market, buying way more lettuce than two people can eat.  So, after watching our own crop trying to bolt (sending up flower stalks, which also makes the leaves bitter), I followed through on my threats to Miss Chef.  This morning I picked as much lettuce as I could, then dropped off my first donation at Friendship Gardens.


Just inside the door of the center, there is a soft drink-style cooler and a table with a computer and a scale on it.  You weigh your produce, enter the type, weight and garden it came from, then stash it in the cooler.  My lettuce weighed a half pound, which was more than I expected.  The little bag is some curly kale still hanging on in a pot by the back door.  I thought I might as well bring that in too, even though it didn’t even register on the scale.

As long as I was out in the garden (who am I kidding, I’m out there every day!), I thought I’d snap some pictures to show off how it’s doing.  These was the last picture I posted, from the beginning of April.


Every time I look at it, it looks the same as the day before, so it’s always a surprise when I finally compare two pictures taken three weeks apart!


You can barely see little blotches of green in the first picture, but here you can clearly see some of my broccoli plants, and the peas starting to climb the trellises in the back.  It will probably be another month or two before the garlic along the edge is ready for harvest, but I’m planning on donating some of that to Friendship Gardens, too.  In the nearest corner, the fennel plant that was just peeping over the border before is now standing quite tall.

Here are some close-ups, starting with a little radish that’s about ready to eat.


Those little maple seeds are everywhere in the backyard right now.  They’re kind of a pain, but they do offer a bit of scale here, at least.

In this picture, that’s broccoli to the right, with onions and carrot seedlings in the background.


If you’ve been reading along, you’ll remember that I was all jazzed up after attending a workshop on companion planting at the library.  Here you can see how I’ve rearranged my garden plan by interplanting those two root crops.  The short plant next to the broccoli is another radish; I’ve planted them all over the garden as pest chasers.  Later, their flowers will attract pollinators.

Here are the lettuces, pre-harvest, and the peas.  I wish the peas would get a move-on, as the temperatures are already climbing into the 80s, and they will not produce very well in hot, humid North Carolina summer weather.



Hard to believe it’s barely a week since we had our last freeze!  In my brief experience gardening in Charlotte, I’ve noticed that our last freeze tends to be right around Easter.  So, in spite of all kinds of cautions about waiting until the first of May, I went ahead and put in my first tomato plant.


This is a popular heirloom variety called a mortgage lifter.  It’s got an interesting history, harking back to a mechanic in the Great Depression called Radiator Charlie, who developed his own way of hybridizing four different varieties until he found one he liked.  You can read the story here, and listen to a radio story with a clip of an interview with that mechanic here

I also started some summer seeds, including green beans and squash. 


Some have just come up…and some I’ve had to re-plant.  Having my varieties spread out, instead of grouped together in rows or sections, has highlighted some interesting micro-climates in my garden.  Two beans on one side of the path popped right up, the other two I dug up after another week to find rotted.  I have no idea what difference there is between the two spots, other than about three or four feet.

So I’m still watching things grow, and keeping my fingers crossed for good weather (we’re scheduled to receive some heavy storms this week, with potential for hail, so I’m a bit nervous).  In the meantime, Miss Chef and I have started a Very Exciting Project.  We ran out of daylight to finish it, so I’m going to wait for a big reveal when it’s all done.  I’ll just tease you with this:


I’ll bet you can figure out what it is already, can’t you?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Farmers’ Markets Are In Season

I just got my National Geographic magazine yesterday, and was naturally excited to see the cover.


They are starting a series investigating the way food is grown and the challenges of feeding a growing global population.  I was particularly interested in an infographic about famers’ markets, and found that North Carolina is one of only twelve states in this country that account for half of all local markets.  I knew we were special!  (Click here for a video presentation of that infographic, and click here for the main National Geographic Future of Food site.)

Now, you know that I’m a big proponent of farmers’ markets and eating seasonally, and I have long celebrated the fact that we have at least three year-round markets in our area.  (There are even more markets than that in Charlotte, but I don’t know if they all operate year-round.)  I know that many Americans are not so lucky; even if they do have great local markets, their climate may be less than conducive to year-round sales.

Still, as the rest of the country finally starts to thaw out, it is time for everyone to pull out their trusty tote bags and reconnect with the bounty of their local soil.  In this day of ubiquitous internet access, it’s easier than ever to find a farmers’ market near you.  Local Harvest is one well-known site, and there are plenty of other websites and apps out there.  No, finding a market isn’t hard.  Sometimes the challenge is simply changing your routine, maybe getting up early on a Saturday, and going to an unfamiliar place filled with strange people and customs.  So, to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, I am re-posting my earlier helpful hints about how to make the most of your local farmers’ market.

Now, today Miss Chef and I may be regulars, totally at ease at our markets, but we didn’t start out that way.  You are not the only one to feel a bit hesitant about stepping up to look at the offerings, self-conscious about bringing your own shopping bags, unsure about the prices and whether it’s even acceptable to ask.  And how do you know what to buy?  There will be no familiar labeled packages of Bunny-Luv carrots or Dole Pre-Washed Spinach on the tables.

Never fear, Market Enthusiast.  Go ahead and set your tote bags by the front door Friday night and load up the address of your closest market into your maps app.  Below you will find 6 easy steps to feeling right at home with the vendors, and figuring out what to buy.  Most of all, take it easy on yourself.  Miss Chef and I still make regular trips to the grocery store, so don’t expect to be feeding your family exclusively on local and seasonal foods.  Buy what looks good, be a little adventurous, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself.

Alison’s Market How-To

1. Make a list, but make it vague  In high summer and early fall, you can probably get most of what you want, but in the off seasons, local eaters will have to adjust their menus.  So rather than “spinach,” write down “greens.”  You might end up with kale or collards, but you should still be able to make something along the same lines.  When it comes to local meat, prices are pretty high, so consider different cuts than you’re used to.  I almost always get chicken leg quarters rather than breasts, because they’re a dollar a pound cheaper.  Even better, get a whole chicken and learn to break it down…or just roast it, and adjust your recipe to add the chicken at the end.  What’s important is to be flexible…and see #5 below.  That can help a lot.

2. Bring cash and shopping bags  This is less important than it used to be, but it’s still a good idea.  More and more vendors have those nifty little card readers they can pop into their smartphones to run your debit card, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss the first blueberries of the season because they’re from a smaller farm without all the gadgetry?  Also, pretty much every vendor will have plastic bags, but it’s so much easier to carry one bigger bag with wide handles than a pack of smaller, thin ones that bite into your hands.  Remember, you don’t have a cart to plop the stuff in, and pork chops and tomatoes are heavy! 

3. Go early  The definition of “early” depends on the market, and sometimes the time of year.  In the summer, if you don’t get to the Matthews market before 10:00, you might as well stay home.  If you don’t get there by 8:30, you will probably have a hard time finding the blackberries that just came into season, or the freshly-butchered chickens that Sammy brings occasionally.  On the other hand, the bigger Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market is usually fully stocked until 11:00 or 12:00—although after 10:00 the crowds can be frustrating.  Plan to get to your market within the first hour of opening, until you become more familiar with the crowds.

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4. Be patient  This isn’t a grocery store, and it’s not really made for convenience.  Every individual item you buy will involve a face-to-face interaction, often with the person who planted, grew, harvested and transported it.  Many customers will want to take the time to say hello, ask about the business or family, and swap recipe ideas.  Also, many folks like you will want to stop in front of a stand to see what’s on offer, what the prices are, or how these carrots compare to the ones two doors down.  So don’t expect to go zipping down the aisles; you will have to sidestep and wait for kids to get out of your way.  Slow down, look around and enjoy being part of the human family.

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5. Talk to the vendors  This was, for me, the most difficult step to take, but is by far the most rewarding.  Frankly, if you’re not taking advantage of the grower’s presence, you might as well go back to the “Locally Grown” section of your grocery store.  Yes, there’s the stereotype of the taciturn farmer who’d rather be shoveling cow manure onto his fields than chatting up an Eddie Bauer-clad suburbanite, but those are generally not the folks who sell at these markets.  Trust me, you will be pleasantly surprised at how eager the vendors are to talk to you about the lettuce on the table.  This is, after all, what they do!  If you’re shy, try a few ice-breaker questions—where the farm is, when the food was harvested, what breed or variety of animal or plant you’re holding.  Even better, ask a question about how to prepare it—can you eat it raw, how would you cook it, is it good in a salad, can you freeze it?  I’ve been surprised more than once by the eagerness with which a farmer has told me of a simple, delicious way they’ve discovered to whip up a meal.  After all, they probably have kids too, along with a business to run; you really could learn something from them.

This will eventually pay off, because one day a farmer just might throw a couple of extra potatoes or pound of sausage in your bag and wave it away…or they’ll get into the habit of rounding your bill down to the nearest dollar.  I once got a pint of fresh figs handed to me, simply because they were a little overripe, but the farmer knew Miss Chef had a thing for them.  Also, I guarantee the day will come when you ask, “Are you going to have strawberries next week?” and they will say, “Not many, but do you want me to hold some for you?”  Score!  For once, you won’t have to get there at 7:30 to be sure you have what you need for dessert at your dinner party.

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6. Be flexible in your diet  This is kind of a re-hash of #1, but I think it is part of what keeps farmers’ markets from being America’s primary way to get food.  If you are eating locally and seasonally, you should not be buying strawberries in February or kale in July.  Going to the farmers’ market regularly—or visiting the market’s website if they have one—will help you learn what’s available in your area.  You will still find yourself needing items that you just can’t get locally, but if you plan your meals around your groceries, instead of the other way around, you can still make choices to maximize the quality of your food. For example, even if you have to buy oranges from a thousand miles away, be aware that citrus fruits are a winter crop.  You can spare yourself a lot of bland disappointment if you eat other fruits in summer, and wait until November before breaking out that recipe for orange-flavored pound cake.


That’s it!  I hope you found some useful information in there, and will make at least one visit to your local market.  Eventually you too may begin celebrating your seasons differently: Strawberry Season, Corn Season, Tomato Season…living in tune with the seasons can be fun and delicious.

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!

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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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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Garden Update: Two Weeks In

Spring seemed ready to cede way to summer this week, with highs in the mid-80s.  I was probably the only one wishing the temperature would drop, so my lettuce and broccoli would be happy.  Then I was wishing the pollen would go away, as I was hit with yet another ridiculous round of allergies that sidelined me for two days.

Otherwise, spring is going through its dependable routine.  Our little bed by the mailbox looks particularly spectacular this year.


I just went out to take this picture, and for the second time in as many days, a neighbor strolling by asked me about what’s in here.  The phlox in back and dianthus in front (which will bloom after the phlox is done) were both put in by the previous owners, so I can’t take much credit for them!  Around here, pansies go into the ground in the fall, to winter over and create a carefree spring display.  The green bunch pushing up through the phlox is an asiatic lily that Miss Chef put in, and it creates its own conversation-starting display in late spring.

The veggie garden doesn’t look nearly so spectacular…in fact, I doubt it looks much different at all from when I first put it all in two weeks ago.  Perhaps the garlic and onions are a bit taller.


How do you like our guard cat?



Since she realized that birds are a thing, McKenna’s become much more insistent about joining us outside.  I told her to keep the robins out of the garden bed, as I’m very protective of my worms.  Don’t worry, the jingle of the runner on the line works just like a bell to warn them when she pounces!

Anyway, there’s not much to see in here, unless you take a closer look…


You can see the two rows of pea sprouts on either side of the two trellises.  Unlike last year, we haven’t been blessed with regular, soaking rains, so I may be lugging a lot of water to keep them and the lettuces happy.

I didn’t bother to try to get a picture, but the carrots are coming up too, and soon it will be time to thin them.  I pulled a few yesterday (along with some radishes), and realized that what I actually had in my hand were microgreens!  I took them inside to rinse and enjoy them.  The radish leaves are a bit bitter, and their stems are already super spicy, but the carrots are just fresh and zingy.


Miss Chef’s next underground dinner is next week and I decided to hold off on thinning the rest of the carrots, so she can use them as a special garnish.  This just might be the earliest production my garden bed has ever seen.

Finally, in the interest of fairness and balance, I tried to get a picture of Rosie to include here.  Being all black, she is much harder to get a good picture of.  Also, she hates having her picture taken.


“Oh, look at these fascinating weeds right here.”



“Is that a velociraptor!?”



“I give up.  Will you pleeease stop following me around with that?”


I finally got a semi-decent one.


And then this one, which looks…oddly familiar!


Yes Rosie, I’m done now.