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

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Nesting Instinct

It is officially Fall. Despite my attempts to be in summer mode, I’ve begun the retreat – preparing the nest for cold, short days and long nights ahead. As though in response to a primeval instinct, it happens naturally.

It began with a huge harvest of arugula. Adding the leaves in salads alone wouldn’t be the best use so I decided to make pesto. Lacking in pine nuts, I used cashews and it turned out that they tempered the bitterness of the arugula just perfectly. Goes well with pasta, sandwiches, soups and anything that needs a little oomph. I made enough to freeze a couple of jars for the winter.

This week, I’m harvesting all the basil. So there will be plenty of basil pesto to freeze as well.

Unable to resist the peaches from a farm stand, I bought a whole bushel. Several disappeared on the drive home. A couple of pies got made and consumed with impressive alacrity. At present, a few jars of freshly made preserves sit twinkling like jewels. Flavored with Pinot Noir and cinnamon, they are a notch above the usual jam I make. Sounds rather posh and grown-up right? I’m already looking forward to Sunday breakfasts of toast slathered with butter and this preserve with strong hot coffee while I gaze at the winter landscape outside.

In a couple of weeks, I’m anticipating making and canning sauce with the last of the tomatoes. This comes in handy for so many meals. Knowing the fruit and herbs come from the garden always gets me planning for the next growing season.

I stopped at my favorite local nursery last Saturday because I’d got word that the shipment of fall pumpkins and gourds had just arrived. What a display greeted the customers! I had such fun making my selections.

I also picked up a whole bunch of hyacinth bulbs for cooling – they will be ready for forcing just ahead of the new year. In another couple of weeks, I intend to get some more to keep the show of indoor hyacinths going through the bleak days of February. That month always needs serious brightening and I want to be ready.

A box of paperwhites sat looking pretty right by the cashier so, I picked up some of those as well. They will soon be in bloom to herald the retreat to the indoors. The chill in the morning says those days are not too far off.

Over the weekend, I brought in a huge amount of hydrangea flowers from the garden. Just turning a rosy blush, they sit resplendent in an urn where I can enjoy them as they dry.

And then, last Sunday, in the shadow of the sculpture ‘Wavehenge’ that marks the solstices and equinoxes, I participated in an event to celebrate the Autumnal Equinox at Riverside Park in New York City. I was one of three poets invited to read poems associated with the season. A definitive acknowledgement of summer’s end.

Yes, fall has arrived and I am embracing it. But, just like the bees and butterflies still working in the garden, I’m not totally done with summer. I’m just content knowing my nest awaits in readiness.

Note: I hope you’ve bought your tickets to the Untermyer Symposium’ Restoring Gardens’. I’d love to see you there.

The ‘Walk In Our Shoes’ art show is on till September 30. Do stop by and see!

“Wavehenge” at Riverside Park North at 145th, NYC
Reading my poem
Pumpkins and gourds galore at Rosedale Nurseries in Thornwood, NY
My selection
My haul of hyacinths for forcing
Paperwhites in place
Monarch butterfly gracing the asters
Hydrangea heaven
Peach preserves

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sunday In The Garden

Last Sunday was a gift to this impatient gardener. Bright and sunny, temperatures in the mid-60s and a garden just waiting for a do-over. No bugs trying to feed on me, no place else to be. This was heaven.

With the scillas, hellebores, early crocuses and Abeliophyllum distichum ( white forsythia) in bloom, it felt as though I had a cheering squad. The air was gently scented by the Abeliophyllum – a bonus!

So many chores got done. The front lawn was scratched up, reseeded and layered over with compost. Lets hope no destructive rains occur till the grass comes up. A daily sprinkle for about an hour would be mightily appreciated.

A trip ( the first of the season! ) to my favorite nursery resulted in a host of plant purchases. A few perennials like Jacob’s Ladder, lungwort, unusual looking ajuga, dianthus and sweet woodruff, annuals such as pansies, nemesias and lobelias, potager must-haves – beets, Swiss chard, arugula, kale, lettuce. I helped myself to herbs as well – lavender, hyssop, lovage, bronze fennel, sage, thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro and one that I plan to use extensively through the spring and summer – Mojito mint. Yes, that is exactly what it is called.

The spring window-boxes were put up – daffodils, tete-a-tete and pansies. Urns and planters in various locations in the garden now sport similar plants to tie in the whole look.

The new ajuga accompany two young Japanese maples (also picked up at the nursery) in a large, copper container by the front door. The plan is for it to look elegantly understated through the seasons. I also stuck in some muscari to give it an early pop of color. Nothing flashy though – the window-boxes above take care of that. The urn nearby, also on the front porch, will echo both with its mix of the pansies and muscari.

The vegetables are esconsed in their bed looking fetching in diagonal rows in hues of deep plum, bronze and greens. The herbs are in terracotta pots that will go on the ‘herb wall’ but for now, until the weather truly warms up, they sit in the greenhouse biding their time.

My cherished Anduze pots with boxwood balls were brought out of the greenhouse and placed in their appropriate sites. Should a frost be imminent, they will be easy enough to protect with fleece and burlap. Other plants in the greenhouse will be brought out in a couple of weeks.

On the vertical garden, some ferns we had overwintered in the vegetable plot under a cover of burlap were put back on the wall. Fingers crossed this experiment will prove successful. If so, it’ll be a good development in our quest to preserve the ferns through the winter.

By days end, I felt so exhilarated. Good progress under very work-friendly circumstances renders a most delicious sense of satisfaction. At the same time, my muscles were tired and the back was sore. A hot shower followed by a tall mojito ( with eponymous mint ) in the embrace of a comfortable, plush chair was well deserved. I sincerely hope that said mint can keep up with all the drink orders to come.

Note: My Open Garden Day is May 18.

The reception to the New Horizons exhibit is this Sunday, April 14.

 

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having My Flowers And Eating Them Too

As a child, I’d spend endless hours in the garden. Amidst playing and puttering, I made discoveries and learned so much about plants and bugs. One of my most pleasant pastimes was to find the tasty treats that the garden served. Beyond the usual berries, fruits and vegetables.

I was familiar with the common herbs like mint, holy basil and cilantro. Nibbling on them I’d imagine I was in the forest hiding from wicked witches or, I was Mowgli from the Jungle Book savvy in the ways of jungle living. It felt more special to eat the flowers of the herbs than their leaves.

I’d pick roses and savor the petals one at a time. I learned to eat only the young flowers as the older ones tasted a tad bitter. On the other hand, hibiscus petals provided a tangy flavor. Nasturtiums were peppery but the leaves were not so tasty to my young palate.

I knew to suck the long tubular ends of certain flowers and savor the sweet nectar.

In my curiosity, I recall taste testing other flowers and leaves – some were terribly bitter. It never occurred to me that I could get sick from such experimentation. It was fortunate I didn’t come to any harm. Since I never really discussed my doings in the garden, nobody knew to stop this line of risky inquiry.

Fast forward to present day. It is now quite common to include plants with edible flowers in the garden. Adding to the roster of the aforementioned rose, hibiscus and nasturtiums, are pansies, calendula, borage, zucchini blossoms, purple tops of chives, white flowers of garlic, yellow dill heads, lavender, elderflower and more. It does one good to have these plants in your garden. Beautiful and edible – a winning combination. Of course, make sure the flowers come from organically grown plants. Pesticide and chemical free.

Note – A bonus to picking flowers is that it encourages most plants to produce more. I always leave some flowers so the plants continue to look good and allowed to set seed.

Now that we’re in the season of eating light and fresh, using flowers in our recipes adds an extra pizazz to the presentation. Flowers make everything a celebration.

So, I’m sharing with you a few simple recipes to get you started on a season of celebrations.

1. Summer = cold drinks. Add flowers to your ice-trays and right away you have elevated your drinks to a higher level. Violas and borage suspended in ice are my favorites.

2. Top salads with freshly picked nasturtiums, calendula and sunflower petals, pansies, borage or chive flowers. They make the salad look pretty and add subtle flavor to it. Nasturtiums have a peppery punch that I love. Borage has a mild cucumber flavor and pansies taste like lettuce.

3. Add pea or bean flowers to rice or couscous for a delicate flavor. Caution – Leave plenty of flowers on the plant or you won’t get any beans or peas!

4. Decorate a simple olive oil cake with whole fresh roses and you’ve now got an Instagram worthy dessert.

5. Stick a sprig of lavender in a sugar bowl. Next time you sweeten your tea or lemonade, there will be a hint of lavender to bring a smile to your lips.

6. Crystallized petals of roses and whole pansies look sensational on cakes. Here’s a link on how to crystallize.

7. Cool off with a watermelon and rose granita – scoop the de-seeded flesh of half a large watermelon ( about 2 and ½ Lbs of flesh) and put in blender with 4 oz sugar, juice of 1 large lemon and ½ teaspoon rose water. Blend till smooth and strain. Pour liquid into shallow, wide container and freeze for 30 minutes. Break up crystals with a fork and return to freezer. Repeat this process two more times till granita has formed ice crystals and there is no slush. Takes about 3 hours in total. Serve in chilled glasses. Top with a rose bud or a thin spiral of lemon peel. Fancy.

For Homemade Rosewater:

  1. Remove petals from about 7 large roses and run them under luke-warm water to remove any residue.
  2. Add petals to a large pot and top with enough distilled water ( about a quart and a half) to just cover (no more or you’ll dilute your rosewater).
  3. Over medium-low heat bring the water to a simmer and cover.
  4. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes or until petals have lost their color and are pale.
  5. Strain the mixture to separate the petals from the water.
  6. Discard petals and place water in a glass jar to store.The rosewater can be kept in a well-sealed bottle in the refrigerator all season. It can also flavor lemonade, ice-cream and other desserts.

Get started and have yourself a healthy, celebratory summer!

Note: Do peruse shop to get your gifts for all occasions. 100% of the profits goes to support the education of children with HIV/AIDS.

Enjoy the photos of edible flowers in the garden:

Nasturtium

Pansies in pots

Violas

Zucchini blossoms

Sunflowers

Serving up zucchini flowers!

Merry marigolds!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar