Monday, March 31, 2008

The last of March

Not much potting on the terrace. Sorry. Container-gardening joke. Then again, it depends on how closely you care to look. The boxwoods are forming long, tight buds which, come warmer weather, will turn into brilliant green ruffles all over their trimmed forms.

I clipped the boxwood below late last season, irritating it into producing new growth as cold weather hit. That'll do it, I muttered to myself, too late; I've killed this runty boxwood I've been nursing for three years. But the the new foliage is still there, unburned by bitter cold, and will itself produce new leaves this spring. "Eentersteen' ", as Don Estorbo would say.

Narcissus very wet and looking contrite after today's showers.

And look what survived winter! The fig! Old hands will not be surprised at this but it was my first experiment with a fig, potted, in this climate. I wrapped it in gorgeous black garbage bags and hid it under the massive copper bowl of my barbecue/braaivleis/firepit. Anyway, it was protected. If it makes fruit, there will be a party.

The mizuna seedlings are coming along nicely. They made me nostalgic for my childhood (for radishes, not mizuna...), and I could feel a soapbox dragging itself nearer, scrape, scrape:

Children NEED to GARDEN!

It's good for them, and it's good for their parents. It makes them nicer human beings. It's the best and most accessible therapy I can think of. You don't need a therapist, or a pill, you need a garden. Even if it's just in a pot, like my zinc bath/mizuna field. And so many Americans have serious space. New York teaches you how luxurious the smallest of backyards is. That's like a football field to us. To dig and turn the soil, to plant seed, to wait, to water, to watch, to imagine, to see, to touch, to transplant and thin, to wait and water, and feed...and later, much later, to pick, to eat. Children need to garden. Having an outdoor space and no child in it with a child's garden, modest or ambitious, is a waste: sad, an opportunity squandered. Gardening teaches them about themselves, about what they can do, of how good it feels to look after something, to look forward to something. worth. waiting. for.

I shall produce this picture again, triumphantly (I hope) in May, when this David Austen hybrid blooms. Abraham Derby. Clunky name, beautifully-shaped blooms, transporting fragrance. The pot comes from GRDN.

It had a lot of die-back but what was left after a no-holds-barred pruning seems healthy.

The greener leaves belong to the climbing Iceberg, now in its ...good grief: 5th year in residence. It arrived in a narrow box from the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas, and taught me the hard way that you should not prune climbers hardly at all (well, it was from Texas. At least its growth was not nu-cuclear...).

And the rampant New Dawn. Another Before the After pic. I can't wait for May. Lots of champagne!

Nepeta catarrica. Catnip to y'all. Not only tantalizing to cats but very pretty in bloom.

And that's it. The last day of March. Tomorrow it's spring and no excuses.

Wednesday will find me at Union Square and in Brooklyn Heights taping a spring planting segment for Open House New York. That will be April 2nd, my parents' wedding anniversary. 53 years.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Food bites

Early last week I left the office late feeling angry. It had been a rough day but my mood was fine until a fold-up bicycle-riding tenant who lives in the apartments above our studio flung the door open just as I was leaving and started yelling at me and being bloody rude. The perceived fault was not ours and I was the only person available so he vented at me. I tried to investigate the problem and when he responded by being more rude I lost my rag and so later found myself on the subway, steaming. One thing, one human thing and one's balance is thrown and a day blasted by anger, and an evening to come scowled at.

Walking home, I stopped at Sahadi to buy a little feta and some almonds. I had planned to make a Persian cucumber (some people call them Israeli cucumbers but the word Persian is so much more evocative), radish and feta salad, to accompany a roast baby chicken. I took a number and was greeted smilingly by the crew. I was given some almonds to chew and a fresh block of French feta was unwrapped and sliced. I was asked about dinner and what I would do with my cheese. I remembered to buy more Baleine salt. Next door at The Green Pea the Mexican fruit packer and I smiled shyly at each other as we always do. His is beatific. I bought my radishes and some red onions. By the time I had reached Henry Street I suddenly realized that I was not mad anymore, or resentful; and I can hold a grudge like nobody's business.

I think it took about 6 smiles, and some small, polite, kind words, the benefactors of which could have had no idea what effect they were having on one in whose breast a storm was raging (I've been reading Patrick O'Brian)...

And so came about one of the nicest little solo picnics I have ever enjoyed. My small chicken roasted to a turn with an onion inside it, salt and pepper, the juice of a lemon and nothing else but a splash of water to keep the pan juices going: one hour at 440'F. Hot, yes. My cucumber, radish, feta and olive salad, and a salad of bitter radicchio with a sherry vinaigrette. And Kir.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Above: yesterday's prequel to today's dinner party at friends Eric and Mimi's apartment (why? big kitchen! long table!) involving crabs, green papayas, pomelos. Wholefoods, where I went in search of kiwi berries (none) asks $4 for one. Chinatown says $2.50 please! I got two, and a huge prickly durian, possibly incurring friends' ire, five beautiful mangoes, baby bananas, couldn't find a dragonfruit, but did find longans (small lychees). This for a tropical (how did you guess) fruit salad to accompany an experimental sago dessert. And two small, heavy green papayas for one of the world's best salads.

Today's hunt involves the bad boys: big crabs. So back to Chinatown, with my basket holding Things We'll Need, like crab crackersandpicks, fermentedblackbeanstamarindpastejaggery(palm sugar)sago...a sieve (mental note - what to get the nArchitects for Christmas).

Also to gather: yardlong beans, cilantro, limes, 7 crabs, scallions, ginger, garlic, roast peanuts...and a partridge in a pear tree. My arms are going to get a work out. Yesterday I sent the fruit in a milk crate, and two bottle of unfiltered sake over to them.

More is the new less.

A Beef with Pork

Earlier this week I resolved to visit Stinky Brooklyn to buy some more delicious Broadbent Kentucky ham. Our first experience with it had been transporting, so my expectations were high.

I called to make sure they were still open at 6.30pm. Did they take credit cards, yes, just not Amex (I had lost my ATM card). Fifteen minutes later I was in front of the charcuterie counter, asking for half a pound and waiting while it was sliced. Got it home, unwrapped and Looked different. Difference being that it was sliced with the grain of the meat, not against. So that the muscle fibres (sorry, vegetarians) were exposed along their lengths, not at their ends. I ate a piece. Hm. No. Chewy, slidy, not soft. Kind of plasticky. I am sure that's all it was, the slicing. So my question to Stinky is....was this just someone who didn't know how to slice ham? Please do a test. Slice two ways, taste two ways. You'll see.

It was a sad day. So much disapointed anticipation. I was not transported, just ground to a halt. This is serious stuff. And no way to treat a pig.

Friday, March 28, 2008

New York Spring: up and down

This blossom has stalked me for three days consecutively. First I saw it on Rob Jett's blog, then I saw it in person, so to speak, on Fifth Avenue and 10th Streets , east side of the street, two trees in a co-op's garden; then this morning, on an Upper West Side terrace overlooking Central Park...all lonesome in a whiskey barrel. If I do redesign that garden gone-to-ruin, we will certainly save it. Its petals are distinctive...I still don't know what it is, apart from an early-blooming cherry. Prunus whatis???

Every year I notice a flower that seems new. And it is everywhere. One year it was tilia, or linden, whose perfume lingers in the evening streets in mid summer; last year it was Koelreuteria, or Golden raintree, great, yellow balls of summer flowers. This is it for 2008 - the mystery cherry. It's obviously been there all the time, but sometimes we suddenly see something.

Below, the southern side of Sarah D. Roosevelt Park between Christie and Forsyth Streets, facing Delancey. The daffodils at the northern end are still tight buds.

Seeds Up!

Above, Saturday March 15th.

And this morning...I have baby mizunas.

Spring on the terrace

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New York Spring: on the street

A community garden in the West Village, on 6th Avenue. This is spring in the ground, at this time of year. I took the picture to illustrate the difference between the froth of the farmers' market forced bulbs, and what is actually happening by nature's clock (speaking of which, you see that bats have now been added to list of The Missing?).

Riding in a cab (whose driver actually stopped the meter when it seemed to him that he had taken one too many twisty turns in the convoluted West Village - very nice of him) to a consultation in the far West Village, I saw these little irises planted around street trees on 11th Street at 5th Avenue. Simple, restrained, delicate. I resolved to walk back to the ofifce, to see what people have planted on the street.

No restraint: exuberance! Possibly planted by someone who is colour blind. But I couldn't hate them - they're just so...uncalculated, happy. This is 10th Street at 5th Avenue.

I hit the jackpot on 10th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Is the flower spirit alive on its sidewalks infectious? Does one house catch it from the other? Just earlier I was saying to a producer who is organizing a spring shoot for NBC's Open House, that I believe in waging war on the street with flowers (thinking of our trashed pot on Forsyth Street, and the new ones that have taken its place). The West Village isn't exactly the ghetto, but I believe in the principle of blatant beauty.

All of the following pictures are a few doors away from each other.

More Village, but I forget which street. I was wending ...

Below: this is outside a restaurant on West 11th and...? Close to the West Side Highway. Steps away from my appointment at this apparently controversial building, conceived by Julian Schnabel. I like it, a lot.

These plantings have Rebecca Cole written all over them (the glory of the salvaged object). Not quite my thing, but very appealing, and there's just so much

Finally, behind the Citibank near a community garden below Washington Square Park, these cold frames. Say aaaaaaaaaah. Seeds taking the air.

They are dreaming of summer, of the tomatoes and peppers and squash and aubergines and runner beans and cucumbers they will become. Of the rataouilles, gumbos, caponatas and sliced salads they will inspire.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New York Spring: at the Union Square Farmers' Market

Muscari (grape hyacinths) at the farmers' market.

After a cancelled appointment this morning I took myself to Union Square where I met up with Chris to buy some new spring flowers for the pots outside our Holly, Wood and Vine office on Forsyth Street. The previous clay pot was wacked, trashed, stomped on, in short, decimated, and I had sworn to replant.

Spring has kicked in at the farmers' market, which is slightly confusing. All this plant material has been forced in green houses, so bulbs planted in the ground last fall are way behind these guys. On the street and in parks and gardens, daffodils are only now peeking out, as the crocuses are finishing up. Tulips are nowhere near blooming. But here everything is a riot, and perfect for instant spring bling - it smells good too.

Below, fat, fragrant hyacinths; little tete-a-tetes, the small daffodils; tulips beyond,

Of course, having burned the candle at both ends, their lives will be short. About three weeks, and it will be time to move on to annuals for colour. But they are fun; a pleasure after dull months.

So, we'll see how long the spring pots last this time. In a few weeks I'll turn them into early summer pots - the locust trees will leaf out soon, making our sidewalk deeply shady, and much of the colour in the pots will come from interesting foliage.

Bottom left are thin spiky crocus; white hyacinths beside them; middle left, parrot tulips; tete-a -tetes on their right, and daffodils behind. Primrose far right. I tried to find flowers still in bud, rather than open, giving us as long a bloom-time as possible.

New York Spring: on the 7th floor

I still garden on one terrace - a garden I designed in 2000 when I was still new to rooftop gardening, and where I made some valuable (for me, not for the lovely owners of this terrace) mistakes: selling for instance, the teak planters in the picture - the Manhattan nursery I worked for then stocked them, so that's what I sold. Big mistake. Four years later they started to pop at the seams. Now, clients sometimes stumble upon these planters online and ask why we don't use them (they are quite cheap), and I explain that they are poorly constructed and won't make it long term; money saved now will be spent two-fold replacing them and replanting an entire container garden. Not a cheap prospect in this city. Instead, we often have planters custom-made, in workshops in LIC or New Jersey, from cedar and ipe, or metal, and they might outlive us. Anyway - we replace this lot up here one by one as they give up the ghost.

But Spring: on this 7th floor, Upper East Side terrace facing West, it arrives late. It is one of the windiest (hence most wind-chilled) terraces I know (the others all being on the Hudson), and on this particular day I was fairly unhinged after two hours of being buffeted by the reported 40mph gusts of wind. The Jamaican nanny watched in fascination and safety from inside the apartment as I bulldozed at a 45' angle up the terrace, and then shot back down again, holding boxes that turned into sails and pots that threatened to become mini scud missiles. One winter, on a layer of proverbially thin ice, I blew from one end to the other without moving my feet.

So it was an instant spring. At ground level crab apples are beginning to leaf out, prior to their buds opening. But up here they are firmly shut. Looking at the long bare climbing rose canes that I tied up or pinned (pegged) to encourage more blooms, it is very hard to believe that, come June, they will be billowing in pink petals. The old English roses were pruned back hard and soon I will feed them. There is no sign of the strawberry-pink and cream lilies buried deep beneath the catnip's small grey-blue leaves: one of the first perennials to break dormancy.

But that's the wonderful thing about seasons; each one a miracle of survival and beauty, their constant renewal an echo of our own.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Inoteca LES

Comme il faut...

The world lay heavy on our shoulders this Tuesday morn so Bob, Chris and I went to 'inoteca to cool off. That's a mixed metaphor, isn't it? OK: we went there to shed some load. Like Con Ed, and ESKOM. Except we gained some weight? Oh, it's complicated.

Prosecco, and the bubbles made us feel better.

...then this. The egg in a nest of bread, cheese, truffle oil, and a layer of asparagus underneath. There is no way to improve this. It is beyond reproach. Impeccable. As it should be.

At $8 for this egg-perfection, it's one of the best lunches in New York, and therefore, the world.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The rule of potato that You can never have too many potatoes.

There are gratins and gratins. When I was waitressing at Buitenverwaching as a student, I ate too much creamy potato gratin and gained 2kgs. Back to the gym I went.

This gratin is a bit of a cheat, because there's no cream, but I wanted something shallow and crisp, and that's all I had, with a glass of red wine and a salad.

So, A Meal for Me:

4 small to medium potatoes (I used Yukon Gold, a pale yellow fleshed variety), sliced as thinly as you can manage
Enough milk to reach the layer of potatoes just under the last wafer-thin-like covering, about a cup
1 fat garlic clove cut into very thin slices
Butter to grease the pan lightly and dot on top
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 400'F/200'C. Butter an oven-proof pan or dish (I used an All Clad omelette pan); the more surface area, the thinner your layer of potatoes, and the crispier they'll be. Deep narrow dish = deep narrow gratin, not enough crispy stuff. Lay your potato slices in overlapping circles starting from the outside in. Season each layer with garlic, salt and pepper. Don't put garlic on the top layer - it will burn and taste horrible. Then pour in your milk from the side (so you don't wash off all the seasoning). Put a few dots of butter over the surface and tuck a bayleaf in. Pop into hot oven and leave for about 3/4's of an hour, or until the top is seriously golden brown and the bottom layer tender.

Or consult Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking for real gratins with real cream. They are very good.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter bunnies

I had just bitten the head off a marzipan Easter Bunny when this arrived in my Inbox from Vancouver.

Returning to the carbon footprint

Kiwi berries, at Wholefoods last week. $5 for a little punnet, but I had to. Tiny, smooth-skinned, ripe, sweet, gobbled them up in under two minutes. New Zealand, of course.

I wish I knew what variety of Actinidia they are. Kiwi vines are hardy in New York and I have them planted on terraces: Actinidia kolomikta. They, too, are supposed to fruit, providing there are males and females, but so far no. Possibly not mature enough. More research needed.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Losing track...of the number of places David Chang is opening. My favourite was the first, the small, long Momofuku bar (#1) . Now Las Vegas and Berlin rumours? Ko (#4) will open soon, back to the bar setting, and we'll see.

Friday, lunchtime, and Momofuku's Noodle Bar (#2) was packed. So Chris and I walked another four freezing blocks - me wondering just when frostbite in fingers sets in - and sat ourselves at the bar at Ssam (#3), with an umlaut on the a. The waitress later said, when I asked, that "someone" had told her it meant bib lettuce. There are several meat-laced dishes under the Ssam heading on the menu. Lettuce accompanies them, for wrapping. My Vietnamese friend Mimi says that it, the word, sounds like ethnic light. Anyhoo - we ordered the pork buns, same as the ones at Momofuku. They were as delicious, though the pork was frighteningly blonde, anaemic, even. At the noodle bar it tends to have a caramelized crust. The number of calories they pack? Lie back and think of England.

Then we both ordered a plate of ham. Mine was the Kentucky ham that Vince and I found on Smith Street at Stinky Brooklyn on a brisk December morning. Prosciutto-like in its velvety-ness and smoothness, and more. Total rival for the real thing. It is its own real thing. It is delicious; similar to Otto and Inoteca's this-is-it presentations, with the added incentive of a hunk of Sullivan Street baguette, which is still my favourite, and a dish of clever black-eyed pea "gravy" mayonnaise. Distinct coffee taste. I appreciated the deferential nod to the south, to coffee being added to the pan gravy...the bare bonesness of the plate. And I liked picking the ham up with chopsticks to lay on my baguette. I had assumed that Ssam is David's take on Vietnam: the ham, the Bahn mi, the rice bowl, the lettuce leaves...Maybe someone can enlighten me. [Ed. 5 minutes later: Huh, always check the restaurant's website...]

Hm, hm, hmmmmmmmmmmm...

To drink - a Nigori (unfiltered) sake, carbonated for Chris, since they had run out of the plain, and the last glass of plain for me. The bubbly one is like sake-pop. Pleasant. The name has escaped me...ran screaming from the room. I'll probably find it somewhere soon, tonight, shivering under a chair.