Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A New Garden Emerges

A new garden is emergingOne of the heartbreaking tasks we faced when moving from Vashon Island was what to do with the extensive gardens we had made there.

It was obvious that we would leave the majority of the plants in place, either because it wasn't practical to move them, or the plants were common enough that we knew we could find them again.

Some things, however, were unusual or beloved enough that we made the effort to dig them, pot them up, and move them to the new house. We ended up taking 71 different plants, and took multiples of some of them. The plants filled a 20-foot truck.

Once at the new house, we arranged all of the plants in the shade of a tulip magnolia. After a couple of weeks, we moved the sun-lovers out from under the tree canopy and soon realized that some things needed to be planted—soon.

We intend to extensively remake the yard and existing flower beds, and didn't want to just plant things wherever there was room without a plan. However, the needs of the plants soon won out, and we decided to start the gardening sooner than we had planned.

We started by planting some of the sun lovers, including Helianthus 'Lemon Queen,' Angelica gigas, Heliopsis 'Lorraine Sunshine,' and Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' in sunny positions around the front yard. We will have to move these again once remake the front garden, but they are all much happier in the ground. The dahlia is blooming, and will soon be joined by the sunflower.

In the back yard, we build a raised berm that is half in sun for much of the day and half in shade, at least until late afternoon. We planted this with Hacquetia, Hellebores, Amsonia, Pittosporum, Actea, Brunnera, Philadelphus, Mahonia, Carex, Dichroa, Cardiocrinum giganteum, Chrinodendron, Billiardiera longifolia, Himalayan maidenhair fern, and Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Under the shade of a flowering pear, we will plant giant red trilliums and a Royal fern.

The previous owners operated a day care center at this house, and much of the back area was set up as a play area, with a large wooden platform and lots and lots of play chips. We took the platform and arranged it in front of our new bed, then arranged some of the large pots we brought with us and filled them with more of the plants we moved: Paeonea 'Kopper Kettle,' Ozmanthus davidii, Eupatorium 'Chocolate,' Romneya coulteri, Phormium 'Apricot Queen,' another Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff,' and Penstemon 'Garnet.'

Because many of our plants were already larger than typical nursery stock, the beds and pots have an instant impact. Nice!

We still have a collection of shade-lovers under the magnolia tree. We're not sure where they're going to end up, as we don't have much shade in this yard. They might end up planted under the tree that is now sheltering them.

Meanwhile, we've taken extensive measurements of the yard and are working on a master drawing that we can use to plan the rest of the gardens. More to come!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On Leaving a Place We Love

Sunset with Blake Island and the Olympic MountainsAfter four and a half years of living on Vashon Island, we have disembarked.

Once we found ourselves in a position to buy a house, it no longer made sense to live so far from work. We bought a nice place with lots of light, lots of room, and a great yard that we will remake into gardens over the coming year.

Departing was both exciting and terribly sad. We both loved many things about living on Vashon. It's very inaccessibility meant that it was less developed, more wild. The bird life there was fantastic—we encountered many species of birds that neither of us had experienced before after decades of living in the Seattle area. I used to love watching the Spotted Towhees, Black-Eyed Juncos, Varied Thrushes, Banded Doves, Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-Banded Flickers, Steller's Jays, Cedar Waxwings, and a wide assortment of wrens, finches, swallows, and song sparrows. Bald Eagles were a common site along the bluff across the road from our house, soaring on the thermals and emitting their ethereal cries.

So far, we've seen Flickers, Hummingbirds, Finches, and Wrens at the new house, as well as the ubiquitous urban residents American Robins, European Starlings, and Crows. Because there are mature trees and large shrubs, we are hopeful of attracting more species. Once we start work on the gardens, we will, as before, take creation of attractive habitat into consideration when designing and selecting plants.

One of the great things about living in a small community (or, it could be a not great thing if you feel differently about people) was having so many folks know us by name, at the grocery store, the coffee roasterie, the nurseries, the farmers' market. We were always running into people we know when running errands. Now we live in a densely populated suburban area, which is oddly impersonal. It's possible that places I frequent will come to know me, but I think the feeling of being part of a community will be more elusive.

The hardest part of leaving was moving away from the reasons we moved there in the first place: our friends and our godson. More effort will need to be made to stay in touch, and we will simply not be seeing them as often as before. In the end, having an extra 3+ hours a day not spent commuting in heavy traffic diminishes the sorrow of this, but it was the hardest part of our decision.

Now we're in a house of our own, where we hope to stay for many years, and we will make it as welcoming and warm as we know how. We will make return visits to Vashon, to see friends, say hello to people we know, buy eggs from our favorite farm.

Our godson, when told we were moving off the island, declared emphatically: "We go to Seattle all the time. It is not going to be a problem."

Kids are so smart.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Vashon Panorama

Panoramic photo of Puget Sound taken from Vashon Island, Washington stateThis panorama is actually three photos stitched together. It was taken from the bluff across the road from our Vashon house and looks north-east over Puget Sound.

Downtown Seattle is lurking in the haze above the dark strip of land that is West Seattle. Nearby Blake Island is to the left of the Douglas Fir trunk. Puget Sound's iconic car ferries can be seen leaving Vashon Island for Fauntleroy (right) and Southworth, on the Kitsap Peninsula (left).

It is quite windy today, and the water is a little choppier than usual. I didn't spot a single pleasure craft. During the summer months, this scene would be dotted with dozens of sailboats and cabin cruisers and fishing boats.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cooking: Green Papaya Salad with Mango

Green Papaya SaladGreen papaya salad is a mainstay of Thai cuisine; in fact, some say it is the single most popular dish among Thai women. It's refreshing and assertively spicy.

Traditionally made with long beans or green beans, this salad is made in large mortars in Thailand, where the papaya and beans are pounded to soften them until they are wilted. Few American cooks will have a large mortar on hand, so this recipe uses a rolling pin instead.

I didn't have any beans, so I left them out. I added some mango in their place and substituted almonds for the more traditional peanuts. To make a nice lunch, I cooked some sweet short-grain brown rice with half water and half coconut milk. The rice made a nice, rich, counterpart to the spicy salad.

Look for green papayas in Asian markets. We found ours in Seattle at Uwajimaya.

Green Papaya Salad with Mango
serves 4

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped green chili, such as serrano or jalapeño
1 green papaya, peeled
1 ripe mango, peeled and cut into sticks
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
2 teaspoons rapadura or turbinado sugar (use any unrefined or raw sugar)
10 grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons chopped, toasted almonds
fresh cilantro

Combine the garlic and chilies in a mortar and pound to a paste; if you don't have a mortar and pestle, mince them very finely together. Set aside

Grate the peeled papaya with a box grater until you can see the immature, white seeds inside. Remove any seeds that get into your grated papaya. Spread the grated papaya on a large cutting board and use a heavy rolling pin to crush it, going over it repeatedly until the papaya shreds are softened and wilted. Have some fun with it.

Combine the wilted papaya and the garlic-chili paste in a bowl and mix well. You can use your hands to squeeze them together, working the seasonings in well. Add the fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar and mix well. Stir in the mango sticks and grape tomatoes.

Serve topped with toasted almonds and fresh cilantro leaves.

Excellent the next day, too.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cooking: Dairy-Free, Sugar-Free Chocolate Custards

Chocolate Egg CustardMy love affair with baked egg custard goes back a lo-o-ong way, to my childhood. My paternal grandmother, the one who lived on a farm her entire life, used to keep some in the refrigerator, which was the first place I'd head when we visited.

There's something so comforting in this easily-digested treat, made at its simplest with just eggs, milk, and sugar.

Now that I'm all grown up, I find myself still craving this childhood treat, but wondered if I could adapt it to be free of dairy and sugar. This led to some internet research, where I learned that egg custard can be made with coconut milk. I am fortunate to have inherited my grandmother's custard cups, and mixed the custard in my mother-in-law's old Pyrex glass mixing bowl (the kind that came in four colors in graduated sizes), which added a note of nostalgic satisfaction to the process.

For the first batch I made, last summer, I steeped crushed lemongrass in some warmed coconut milk, strained it out, then proceeded to add eggs, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. While not as creamy as a traditional custard, it was pretty tasty, especially paired with fresh berries.

I had been experimenting with combining unsweetened cocoa powder and mashed banana in things like muffins, and that became the base of this latest experiment. The addition of some extra-spicy Vietnamese cinnamon added a lot of flavor.

These custards have more the texture of a panna cotta than a traditional, gelatinous baked egg custard, but they satisfied my craving just fine.

Baked Chocolate Egg Custard
makes 6

5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup well-mashed very ripe banana
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I used strong Vietnamese cinnamon)
1 cup coconut milk

Preheat oven to 325° F, with a rack in the center of the oven.

Combine banana, cocoa and cinnamon and mix well to blend. Set aside.

Beat eggs, vanilla, and a pinch of salt until slightly frothy. Whisk in the banana-cocoa mixture and mix well.

Divide custard between 6 custard cups or individual ramekins. Place in larger pan, then pour hot water into the larger pan until it is halfway up sides of custard cups.

Bake 30-45 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Be careful not to overbake. Remove custard cups from water bath; let cool 10 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Cooking: Yukon Gold Gnocchi with Roasted Beets

Gnocchi with Roasted BeetsMost days, I aim to keep cooking simple. Once in a while, though, it's fun to try something more elaborate. This dish, Yukon Gold Gnocchi with Roasted Beets and Beet-Merlot Reduction, is certainly that.

Adapted from a recipe in The Artful Vegan, a cookbook from San Franciscso's Millennium Restaurant, this is one of those dishes that demands some prep, starting the day before with the making of a dark roasted vegetable stock, rich with red onions, mushrooms, herbs, and wine, carefully reduced and strained. It's the kind of thing that happens daily in restaurant kitchens, rarely in home ones, where what seems like an enormous amount of vegetables are converted to a couple of quarts of intensely flavored stock. When people ask me what one thing they can do to improve their home cooking, I often suggest making their own stocks. This is usually met with silence and stares, but unless you've done it, you don't know what depth of flavor you've been missing.

Chioggia beetsThe day of serving started with baking Yukon Gold potatoes for the gnocchi and roasting red and Chioggia beets. Chioggia beets are perhaps the most beautiful of all the root vegetables, striped internally in red and white.

The recipe called for peeling the beets, which I suppose is de rigueur if you're a high-end restaurant, but at home I don't peel most vegetables. I simply want the vitamins that lay just beneath them, as well as the fiber. The beets got tossed with some vegetable stock, a tiny bit of oil, salt, allspice and cloves, then were roasted at 400°F until just tender, about one hour. They got set aside, and were re-warmed prior to plating the dish.

Yukon Gold gnocchiOn to the gnocchi. The potatoes, baked at 400°F until just done, then cooled to room temperature, were peeled (the skin comes off with just a little help from a paring knife), then mashed. Flour and a little salt was added to make a soft dough. In hindsight, I could have added more flour, as my gnocchi teetered on the edge of falling apart when cooked, but they were very tender.

The dough was rolled into a rope about one inch in diameter, then sliced into 1/2 inch slices. They got pinched in the middle to make little bone shapes, then went onto a flour-dusted sheet and stuck in the freezer for at least an hour.

On to the reduction. This starts with lightly caramelizing halved shallots in some olive oil, then adding a quartered red beet, some rosemary, some thyme, and some dried porcini mushrooms. After a brief sauté, a couple cups each of the dark roasted vegetable stock and a good Merlot are added. After reducing by half, this mixture is strained, dried cherries are added, and the sauce reduced by another third. The smell was intoxicating.

Another of the garnishes suggested by the book is tarragon oil. This is made by blanching fresh tarragon, shocking it in ice water, drying it, then blending the leaves with oil. So green!

To finish the dish, the roasted beets were re-warmed in the oven and the gnocchi went into a large pot of boiling, salted water. When they floated to the surface, they got transferred to a plate with a little olive oil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, more olive oil was heated with some minced garlic. The gnocchi went into the skillet to sizzle a while, until they just started to brown, then chopped parsley was added.

To plate, mound up some gnocchi in a soup plate. Arrange some roasted beets around it, then add 1/4 cup of the reduction sauce. Garnish with a few chopped walnuts, drizzle with some of the tarragon oil, and a final dusting of parsley.

This dish has an amazing depth of flavor, intense and rich, while containing very little oil or salt, and no black pepper or other strong seasonings. Not something I'll be making regularly, but good to have in the repertoire for special meals.

Plus, there is enough of everything left to have it for dinner again tonight. Happy New Year, indeed!