garden pe(s)ts

Seasons are changing and wild animals are on the move. Our proximity to wild life can be charming. On any given day on my way to or from work I see possums, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, wild turkeys, hawks, geese, and probably too many deer. All within the city limits.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that all these creatures and probably some others wander in and out of my yard.

Last year when bunnies were eating my green beans, I decided to get a humane cage-trap. Lately I haven’t noticed any rabbits in the garden, but I was leaving some fruit in the cage, just in case. When you have two 4-year-old daughters, half-eaten random pieces of fruit are readily available and are a great bait.

For a while the same raccoon would get in the cage, eat the fruit and have to wait for me to get back from work to let her out. I have never noticed any raccoon damage, so I would just release her. I open the cage, she walks out slowly, and looks back at me as if to say, “Get some more juicy fruit in there, and I’ll see you later.” I haven’t been leaving fruit in the cage, so it’s been a while since last time I saw my raccoon pet.

But, without fruit or anything else, last week I came home to find a possum in the cage. I let it out and off it went into the bushes. I really want to know what made it go inside the trap. A week later there it was again! No fruit either. All I can figure is that this poor possum had heard the stories from the raccoon about the cage with the tasty fruit…

An opossum in my garden varmint cage

Last time I let the possum out it was so sleepy that it took a few steps out of the cage and went to sleep until dark.

green coriander

One of my most vivid memories of Iran is the incredibly fresh and fragrant spice markets. Most of those spices can now be found in good spice markets all over the world. Green coriander is not one of them. These seeds are hard to find in the western world, unless you grow your own cilantro. Coriander seeds are a vibrant green before they turn into the coriander seeds we all know. As the cilantro plants start to go to seed–right after tiny beautiful white flowers appear–seemingly thousands of these seeds will start to appear at the top of the plants.

green coriander

As the plant goes to seed is hard to find good cilantro leaves for my salsa. But a handful of green coriander is a great substitute.

Often when I’m around the cilantro, I’ll pick a few of these seeds, pop them in my mouth and chew on them as I garden. Their flavor is a combination of mild cilantro and “orangy-citrusy” coriander. Much bigger range of flavor than what you would get from dried coriander. I love them! I always keep some in my freezer. They stay green this way. Definitely worth trying!

roasted chicken seasoned with green coriander and lime

Green coriander and lime are a great addition to roasted chicken.

July garden update

Tiny garden--big crop!

It’s just a small backyard garden, but at times it produces so much that it’s hard to keep up with it! Especially since I don’t have much free time to spend gardening.

We are into July and I have been keeping track of everything that we have harvested from our little garden, as promised.

The beginning of the growing season seemed slower than usual. And some plants had a harder time than others. My pepper plants are even now not doing as well as usual, but on the other hand the collard greens had a great start. But for the most part we are getting lots of tasty veggies.

We also have enjoyed a good amount of salad greens, asparagus, radishes, rhubarb, rappini, beets and beet greens, and blueberries. This week we started getting carrots, zucchini, patty pans and a few green beans. Fresh mint, basil, cilantro, oregano, marjoram, chives, bay leaf and “baby” leeks, as well as nasturtiums and pansies, have also been adding lots of flavor and color to our meals. Tomatoes have yet a few weeks, but are looking good. And the cucumber and butternut squash vines are taking over!

Amazes me to see all this produce come out of our little garden every year. I can’t wait for the first tomatoes.

cherry gleaning

picking cherries in the neighborhood

Who is that handsome devil picking cherries?

Since I was a child, picking cherries has been a favorite activity of mine. As a kid we used to climb the large cherry trees on my uncle’s farm, perch on a branch and eat cherries. Spitting the pits was part of the fun. We imagined multiple kinds of weaponry as my brother and I tried to hit each other with the pits. If you’re going to try this, make sure you are always higher up then your opponent!

I don’t practice my cherry pit machine gun technique anymore, or…maybe if no one is watching. :-)

The cherry trees in our neighborhood are ready for picking, so an afternoon of gleaning with the kids was in order. First we picked our favorite, sour cherries. Makes the perfect filling for Sunday morning clafoutis. Then sweet cherries, many of these are enjoyed onsite. It’s hard to walk away from all the other cherries left on the tree, but we had a great time.

At home the girls and Laura pitted the cherries. Many were consumed as payment for this task. And then Laura froze the remaining cherries IQF (“IQF” is kitchen lingo, meaning “individually quick frozen”) for future use. Now, that’s true love!

Buen Provecho!

pitting cherries

This is a good cherry pitter, but these little wild sweet cherries were not much bigger than their own pits. It made pitting them a real challenge. Fun fact: in Spanish, we say “deshuesador de cerezas,” which in English would be “deboning” the cherry.

backyard blueberry harvest

This is shaping up to be a strange growing season–great rain for the garden, but maybe out of balance with the amount of sun. The plants are growing, but not as well as I would like.

At least the blueberries are doing well so far. I first planted them a couple of years ago. Last year a chipmunk stole all the fruit. This year, my girls were able to pick their first blueberries!

backyard blueberry harvesting with my daughters

I had some enthusiastic helpers, but none of the berries made it back to the kitchen!

gundruk in the Burgh

gundruk suruwa

Gundruk suruwa is a soup made with fermented greens typical of Bhutanese cuisine

Over the past few months I’ve been getting to know a little bit about Pittsburgh’s refugee community, particularly the Bhutanese refugees who have been coming to Pittsburgh over the past several years.  But I always say, you don’t really know somebody until they cook for you. Food is a good way to get close to an unfamiliar culture, so… let’s eat!

A couple of weeks ago I made a special “climb” to Everest Restaurant (map) to sample some Bhutanese cuisine. The restaurant is right next to the Nepali market on Saw Mill Run Boulevard. The menu included many Indian (Punjabi) standards we’re all used to, but one of the dishes we tried was a very typical Bhutanese dish: a soup made with gundruk, which I had never had before. And like any chef, when you serve me something I’ve never seen or heard of before, YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION!

Gundruk is a combination of multiple fermented leafy greens traditional in Nepal, Bhutan, and even India. This vegetables are then used as an appetizer, a side dish, or in soups. Like many foods pickled and preserved in traditional cuisine, Gundruk is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals during the long winter months.

The restaurant owner, Rup Timsina, tells me that they are currently working on the menu to have broader appeal since right now they basically only cater to their community. I say don’t change it too much.

The soup, gundruk suruwa, is incredibly delicious! It’s full of flavor, different textures you wouldn’t think of having with just vegetables, almost like dried mushrooms and seaweed, nothing but umami. A spoonfull of gundruk suruwa and I was transported to a different world. I couldn’t get enough of it!

grow and measure

Chef Daniel in the kitchen with Asturian kale grown in his home garden

Last August, my garden produced a good crop of Asturian kale. This year, I’m going to measure everything my garden produces.

I’ve been gardening for many years, and often wonder how much food my garden actually produces. Years ago, my summer garden covered a whole field. Now that I have kids, I only have time for a small plot — 112 square feet. Pretty small and manageable for a busy guy like me, right?

I garden for the love of it, and of course it provides organic food for my family. But how much food comes from this small garden?

This year I decided to find out.

At harvest time, I’m going to try to count and maybe even weigh every vegetable and fruit (yes, we even have fruit: young blueberry bushes, a fig tree, a sour cherry tree and two plum trees) that we harvest from our yard. Besides the main garden, I also have two secondary plots that measure 9′x3′ and 24′x3′. That’s a total of 211 square feet under cultivation.

I’ll probably wish I had never started this project by the time the zucchini comes in, but maybe this way I’ll be able to see if gardening is more than a hobby that is good for my soul :-)

Happy gardening!

rhubarb shoots in my backyard on April 18

The garden is already showing a few signs of life, like these little rhubarb shoots.

garlic mustard

garlic mustard

I love to find edible “weeds” like this one: garlic mustard! I served it in a salad this weekend, and it was a big hit.

If you are like me, you notice different plants–trees, weeds, flowers–during the day and you wonder what they are. Have you every seen a plant like this? Clumps of it have been appearing my yard this spring. It kind of reminds me of wasabi. The roots smell like garlic. Could it be edible?

Here’s the verdict from Tom Patterson at Wild Purveyors:

Garlic mustard, eat it! They are best eaten at this stage of growth before flowering. It can be eaten fresh, but I prefer it cooked and treated like spinach. Makes a good pesto.

Enough said! I served it fresh with tender greens like red vein sorrel, green oak, and green mustard frill, with a simple dressing of balsamic, olive oil, and mustard.

A little more research reveals that garlic mustard–Alliaria petiolata–is an invasive species. Uh oh. Not another one! (The Plant Conservation Alliance calls it an “Ecological Threat” to native plants like spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and trillium, saying “garlic mustard outcompetes native plants by aggressively monopolizing light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space.”) Everyone in North America must do their part to eat it all up!

If you don’t have any garlic mustard in your yard, check with Wild Purveyors. Buen provecho!

Garlic mustard with friseé and other mixed greens, served as a salad with simple balsamic dressing

Garlic mustard with fresh mixed greens, served as a salad with simple balsamic dressing

baker’s problem, chef’s solution

Sundays are my bread baking day. Well–the bread making begins the night before, on Saturday evening, but Sunday is when I put the bread in the oven. This is my one day off, and you might think baking bread is too much like work, but I have it down to a system. Let the dough rise during a leisurely breakfast. The oven is already hot from crisping the breakfast bacon, so crank up the heat and it’s ready for bread.

The bread has gotten better with each week. With the advice of some friends who are expert bakers, I developed my sourdough starter and learned how to “read” it and make good dough from it. Lately I have been working with a very wet dough that gives me a great finished loaf: even distribution of bubbles, elastic but tender texture, and a crisp, chewy crust. But then I ran into an unexpected problem.

I have been making baguettes in my nice USA Pans baguette pan. Like all USA Pans, it’s coated in silicone to be nonstick, but it’s perforated to help you get a good crust. When I lay the raw dough on the pan, it is so wet that it seeps through the perforated surface and keeps on expanding out the bottom of these holes as it bakes. Imagine the bottom of this pan with a 5 o’clock shadow made of bread whiskers. The only way to remove the bread from the pan was to scrape off the bread beard, leaving a hundred little bread dots everywhere. It had become a sort of little tradition for my girls to ask me about all the little bumps on the bottom of the bread, which is cute. But cute or not, I was sick of the “whiskers.” I tried a number of approaches, including over-spraying the pan with cooking spray, but didn’t find a good solution.

Finally, I thought of my training behind the line. What would I do to prevent food from sticking to a sauté pan? I would heat up the pan for a fast sear. So last weekend I tried it: I heated up the pan in the oven before putting the dough on it. And it worked like a charm. No little bread dots, no sticking, no problem. And the girls didn’t seem to miss the whiskers when they were eating a hundred pieces of bread… I wish I had thought of this sooner.

I wonder if commercial bakeries handle this problem the same way, or whether they encounter this problem at all. I’ll probably find out one day, but in the meantime I’ll try to use my experiences behind the line to help me become a better baker.

Happy baking, and buen provecho!

bread dough for baguette loaf doesn't stick to pre-heated pan

This is one of the baguettes that I made in the pre-heated pan. The bread was not stuck to the pan at all–you can see the surface is perfectly clean. It’s too bad I don’ t have a photo that shows the bread “whiskers”–especially now that they are HISTORY!