Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

It was an important week. My daughter graduated college – a virtual ceremony. No pomp nor circumstance but to be fair, given present state of affairs, it was as good as it could get. One can feel bad about what the fresh graduates have missed but lets face it – this is a historic time and they now have stories to relate that will outmatch previous generations!

Then, there was not only the summer solstice but a total solar eclipse to go with it. While we don’t ourselves have anything to do with the phenomenon, it just feels like the earth and it’s principle star have been busy. Quietly.

In all honesty, I’ve really appreciated the quiet that has resulted in the lockdown. The lack of vehicular traffic heightened our awareness of the sounds of nature. The birds didn’t get louder, they could be heard better. Likewise the peepers, the bees, even the breeze rustling through the leaves. With less outside distractions, I’ve observed the sounds, activities, colors and smells in the garden. It’s been nurturing, inspiring, healing and grounding. A gift.

At this time of year, another sort of quiet creeps into the garden. A lull of sorts. The spring hoopla slows down and the summer soirée is yet to begin. The garden right now is mostly shades of green punctuated with the hues of minor players like cranesbill geraniums, evening primrose, yarrow, borage, woodland anemone and such. One could see this as poor planning on my part. I should think about adding more late June flowering plants. On the other hand, I’m happy giving attention to these less flashy members of the garden. They are so valuable in serving the pollinators. Plus, as an artist, I’m able to admire their forms more closely. They’re easy to overlook when the roses and peonies dominate.

The summer asks for none of the frenzied work that spring demands. From now on, it’s all maintenance – deadheading, weeding, feeding and watering. On each day of the week, one of those tasks is tackled – Weeding Wednesday, Feeding Friday, Trimming Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Mowing Monday. You get the idea. The days settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s time to simply enjoy the garden because doing the daily tasks regularly means I’m not spending long hours doing them. After all, Summer is for Sitting Back. Am I right?

Meanwhile, the first peas have been consumed right off the plants. Two batches of basil pesto made last week sit in the freezer in anticipation of winter meals. A third batch has already contributed to a delightful pasta dinner. The Mojito mint has been called into service and I’m thoroughly enjoying fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano sparking up our meals. The lettuce and Swiss chard are also being harvested regularly. All of which contributes to a sense of quiet satisfaction.

No doubt about it. There’s a kind of hush. All over my world.

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Land

Last Sunday, June 14 was Flag Day. I decided to get in the spirit. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision – I’d had red, white and blue on my mind for some days. Remember when I mentioned that I’d harvested all the spent alliums? It was done primarily to give the bulbs the opportunity to fatten up for next year but the allium stems and their spherical umbels have a sculptural presence even in senescence. So, re-purposing them seemed a natural thing to do. Simply by themselves they look rather good in a vase but to me, they resemble sparklers and star bursts. Given the pandemic restrictions and the desire to have something fun to do, I got the family involved in ‘painting’ a good number of allium heads red, white and blue. When the paint had dried, they got topped with a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint.

The allium sculpture now placed in the front walkway in plain view of passersby and from inside the house is cause to smile and be reminded that it is summer – Fourth of July, picnics and fireworks. At nightfall, they do glow! FYI – I bring it indoors if rain is expected.

This whimsical project has pleased me more than you’d think.

The remaining half of the alliums will be coated gold for the holidays in December. Yes, I’m planning well ahead. Why ever not! Gardeners are nothing if not optimists.

While the big show in the garden is dominated by peonies and roses right now, I’m more enchanted with the native plants that are starting to make their presence felt. The native wisteria comes into bloom in mid-June – not as splashy or fragrant as its Asian counterparts, it blooms after leafing out. I appreciate the timing as there’s something so lovely about the green and purple display scrambling over the pergola. It’s also generally warm enough by this time for al fresco meals – can you imagine a prettier setting? The native wisteria will put out a second flush of blooms later in summer as though rewarding the gardener for taking a chance and giving it a home.

In the meadow, the allium have passed the baton to the native plants. The columbines, geums and zizia kept the alliums company but now, the geranium, woodland anemone and ornamental raspberry are taking over. It’s all less dramatic than the the bulbs but there’s a quiet comfort in observing nature in action in the meadow. The swallowtail and silver spotted skipper butterflies have been dancing madly all over the plants. The bees have gone into high gear – the hum can be loud! I watch numerous birds picking up meals for their young all day long – it must be far more exhausting to be an avian parent than a human one.

I’ve occasionally seen a garden snake in the meadow. While it is harmless, I’m always a bit skittish when Severus slithers along. Still, I wish him well – eat all the rodents please!

Its hugely exciting to see the oakleaf hydrangea covered in emerging inflorescences. Likewise, the turtleheads, cardinal flowers, Echinacea, Monarda, milkweed and other summer bloomers. With them will come more butterflies and activity. This is not only exciting, it’s also gratifying. These are all flora and fauna that belong here. This land belongs to them. I am merely the privileged steward.

Note: I am thrilled to share two things – first, each weekk, the Garden Conservancy is including news from my garden in their In My Garden – a visual diary series. If you are a GC member, it’ll be showing up in your email  in-box each week. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you remedy that! Until such time, you can see it here.

The other news is that this is the Garden Conservancy’s 25th anniversary of the their Open Days Program. Accompanying their Annual Report, is a companion book #OpenDays25 in which, I am one of the 25 featured gardeners. I am truly honored to be in some very illustrious company! The book is full of wonderful images by the super-talented Christine Ashburn, @christine_ashburn_photography. I hope you will check out her work as well as the book when it comes out very soon this month. I’m presenting my ‘profile’ below.

Allium fireworks!

Silver spotted skippers visiting native wisteria

Geum

Woodland anemone

Ornamental raspberry

Cranesbill geranium

Intersectional peony whose name eludes me

R.leda

David Austin R. ‘Boscobel’

David Austin R. ‘ Strawberry Hills’

Bonica rose

R. New Dawn

An oakleaf hydrangea in bud

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

Masterclass

Growth is a process. Every gardener understands this. Yet, applying that to life outside the garden is not always easy. We know it takes not only time to grow from seed to plant to flower to fruit but there is need of the right conditions – temperature, light, nutrients, pollinators, good health, space. Nothing happens all by itself. A network of ‘helpers’ make growth possible.

When I say that the garden offers me an escape, a place of solace, it isn’t that it becomes somewhere to pretend that all is well. Instead, it is where I go to get away from the noise that drowns out the music. As I go about tending to my plants, I observe, I think, I listen, I learn. The garden is full of lessons and ideas.

Right off, an examination of a garden reveals that diversity is key. Shapes, colors, textures and, fragrances from diverse sources come together to create beauty. Every plant has a part to play. There are no insignificant roles. While some players might have loud/large visibility, they could not shine without the less obvious ones propping them up.

The sweet-peas have put out their first flowers. I’m looking forward to harvest time already! Their delicate tendrils stretching and reaching along the string tell me that we all need support to make progress, reach our goals.

The native wisteria over the pergola is in bloom. It flowers later than its Asian counterparts and the racemes are much shorter. I appreciate the timing because I’m invariably so overwhelmed by May’s full on blast of blooms that I’m not duly appreciative of the individual beauty of each type of flower. Besides, there’s also a lot of garden work to do at that time. The shorter racemes may not be as dramatic as the longer ones but they are still lovely and, they show up twice. So there. Being different is just fine. An asset even.

Watching the birds, butterflies and bees is better than anything on television. That by itself is an astounding feat. However, they make a couple of important points. First, all of life is interdependent. Across species and genus. We need each other.

Second, no matter who or what one is, our goals are universal – survival and providing for family and community. We have more in common than we think.

It’s fundamental. By striving to be my best self, I am able to connect with the world with empathy, understanding and purpose. But, just as I know from gardening, the garden is never done. There is always plenty of work to do. Growth. It’s a process.

David Austin’s R. boscobel

Native wisteria

Brugamansia

Baby robins

Native wisteria

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Justly June

My heart is heavy. The pain, sadness, frustration and anger within feels constant. I’m trying my best to only focus on love and peace. In thoughts, words and action.

This past week, the garden took on even greater importance – it was the only place where I could get totally immersed in the chores, the beauty and horticultural goings on. A productive, satisfying escape. True, as all escapes go, this too doesn’t solve any current problem. It does however, keep me sane, physically active, breathing in fresh air, catching some sunshine and, gives me the satisfaction of getting required work done. I get to process thoughts, relieve pent up frustrations ( yanking out weeds!) and create some order in what feels like a completely chaotic world.

The few days of muggy, warm weather put paid to the tulips. I was sorry to see them go. However, the irises have begun dancing gracefully through the beds. Soon, the baptisia will spray blue spikes to vie with the starry amsonia that seem to have got a bit of a head start. Peonies and roses are just beginning to open and the anticipation to see their frilly fullness is keeping me in a good place.

Regular deadheading, weeding and watering have become the norm for the rest of the growing season. It’s comforting to be in that rhythm. The summer window-boxes are filling out out nicely lending charm and cheer. We’ve been harvesting micro-greens, other leafy vegetables and herbs for our meals – is it just my imagination or does the food taste better when its cooked with homegrown produce?!

The topiaries and boxwood balls got a proper haircut over the weekend. Given the present state of my own hair, they have given me a serious case of jealousy. The next time the plants receive a trimming will be just before they are returned to the greenhouse for the winter. By which time, I too ( hopefully) should be looking well groomed.

I’m loving the progressive greening of the vertical garden. Ferns unfurling their fronds, heuchera getting husky and mosses mapping out the green background. It’s like watching art in progress.

The big task that got done over the weekend was at the far back of the garden. If you recall, it’s an area that borders the west-northwest end of the meadow, right next to the woods. A couple of weeks ago, as much of the ancient pachysandra that could be pulled out was and the stubborn rest smothered with cardboard and landscape fabric. On Sunday, plugs of Chrysogonum virginianum were planted in for groundcover. Their yellow flowers should brighten up this semi-shady area. Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs were added to the existing oakleaf hydrangea and native dogwoods. A couple more oakleafs as well as a few Ceanothos americanus will round out the plantings. This project would never have taken off if it were not for the fact that we are in a state of Pause. There was simply no excuse to put it off. This time next year, when the area is brightened in yellow from the ground and the white Fothergilla flowers are wafting their fragrance, I shall remind myself to be thankful for this time.

I cannot wave a wand and make our present troubles disappear. But, I can certainly do my part in restoring some native beauty to our natural landscape, spread some optimism and possibly, just possibly emerge a stronger, better person myself.

After tackling the pachysandra and before new plantings

Another before

After the plantings. Few more shrubs yet to come!

New groundcover of golden star. The silver maple near by has shed tons of seeds. We’re letting the squirrels have their fill before we clear it all up!

The meadow right now.

Topiaries post haircut.

The vertical garden greening up.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar