Sunday, August 31, 2008

Plectranthus "Mona Lavender"

I associate plectranthus with the coolth of my mom's Constantia garden, where it grows, in various forms - shrub, ground cover, sprawler - in shady places. It is a South Africa native and I find it comforting to have on my Brooklyn terrace. It seems to like this late season and is preparing to put out a lot of flowers. Naturally it is an annual in this climate, and very worthwhile because of its late season bloom.

It was developed at Kirstenbosch, South Africa's National Botanical Garden (and one of the best places to have a picnic!).

End of August

This morning's impeccably clear sky. September starts tomorrow. And this is a September blue. I confess to feeling some terrace fatigue, hence not too many plant pictures from the 66 square feet. June is the month of delirium when everything is opening and richly coloured. August is more tedious, and by now one wants something a bit different.

...thy going out and thy coming in*

I took these pictures last week going out to, and coming back from, the nurseries on Long Island where we bought trees for an eventful hoisting operation last Wednesday. More about that here.

One sees this city from a swept-clean perspective from the bridges that span its wide floods. The Williamsburg Bridge in both cases afforded the top view, south, down the East River towards the Brooklyn Bridge; and, on our return, north over Manhattan, with the parks and playing fields newly fixed-up on the Lower East Side.

This picture is taken from the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, heading back to the city, and is the view across the Calvary Cemetery - the first Catholic cemetery in New York - that you would see if your cab from JFK did not take Atlantic Avenue back to city (the latter route shaving about $15 from your bill).

* Psalm 121
Unrelated note. Time to read the bible again. It is a good book! Sorry. I went to church until I was about ...20? - so I had plenty of scriptural exposure before I saw the light. So to speak. Problem is - reading it on the subway (useful place to read) would give quite the wrong impression. Of vengeful right wingedness and holy wars. Should one care? No. There is so much that is so well- and beautifully written. So maybe I will.

It's heavy though; does it come in bits?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Chicken Curry

To cleanse dark thoughts.

I wanted to recreate a very delicious curry made at The Elephant, a Thai/French/Vietnamese hybrid on 1st Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. They were open for lunch for a couple of years but no one came, it seemed, and soon they stopped trying. Pity, because lunch cost a fraction of dinner: exactly the same dishes, too. One of them was this chicken curry (at $6.50, quite ludicrously cheap), though clearly my version will not be their's as I never could quite pry the recipe out of the suspicious Latino cooks in the kitchen.

Part of its charm lay - and presumably still lies, at dinner time - in its presentation: A deep china bowl of the curry, swimming in an amber soup with islands of chicken, carrot and potato breaking the surface, sprinkled with shredded mint. And a dinner plate, with a rice "house" upturned, a small banana, one side of it neatly cubed, some small pieces of mango, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts and half a lime, sliced not across, but from top to bottom.

It is a curry with intimations of fish sauce, fresh lime, heat and a sweetness. And a lot of coconut milk.

A word about curry. I just tried to find the reference, I swear it is Charmaine Solomon's, but can't find it now in The Complete Asian Cookbook, though it must lurk...

Curry. It is not a powder. So many people still think it is. Blame or thank the British Raj for that, depending on your point of view...It is not even a specific combination of spices. Curry comes from the Tamil word kari, and means sauce. So curry can be almost anything. It takes its melody from the base notes, always the first combination of spices or flavourings to go in the pot:


My anything went like this, and bear in mind I have a well-stocked, though small, pantry and fridge, because I like such things. This would be for two people:

4 cloves of garlic, squashed and chopped
1 finger of ginger, peeled, and finely chopped
1 Tbsp red chile flakes (this is not proper), or a couple of bird eye chiles
1/2 a large onion, chopped fine
1 Tbsp shrimp paste (subst. 2 anchovies?)
1 Tbsp palm sugar or brown sugar
1 Tbsp tamarind
2 Tbsp tomato paste
3 Tbsp Fish sauce (I like Squid brand)
1 can coconut milk, with as few nasty additives as possible
2 chicken thighs and drumsticks, each hacked into two pieces with a BIG KNIFE
2 medium potatoes, in large quarters
2 big carrots, in large pieces
mint or cilantro or both
fresh lime

[Ed: 8/31/08 - and much improved by, I would think, a lime leaf or two, if you have fresh leaves available; or lemon grass. I substitute two slices of lime, peel and all, for that vaguely bitter, citrus-y taste. Add when you put the chicken in.]

I used grape seed oil as it was the most neutral I had. Saute the garlic, ginger and onion over medium heat till the onion is translucent. Add the sugar, shrimp paste, tamarind, tomato paste and chile, stir and cook some more until the onion is soft and the flavours have made friends. Pour the coconut milk in and cook to reduce slightly. What I didn't do, but will next time, is unorthodox. Put in a blender and puree. I wanted very smooth sauce. But I was lazy and hungry and didn't feel like washing the blender. Now add the hacked chicken pieces and the vegetables. The sauce should just cover them. Add the fish sauce. Cook until the chicken is just tender. Taste: I had the advantage of knowing the Elephant's curry so knew what taste I was aiming for: slightly sweet, a little tart, hot, full. You can add some more fish sauce or lime juice if you like.

Serve on steamed rice, with chopped banana, sprinkle of chopped roasted peanuts and freshly shredded mint or cilantro. More lime is good, squeezed over just before eating. This goes well with beer, or with a fruitier and very cold white wine, such as Chenin blanc.

Below: this is the sauce. Don't know why I used a stock pot.

After the chicken and vegetables are added.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Warren Street

I walked up a different street yesterday, on my way back home from the subway. It was two streets south of my usual route and so perhaps it felt foreign. It was only Warren Street.

Something happened very quickly as I walked down the sidewalk, pointing west, towards the sun still far from setting but a particular, late golden colour, with light streaming toward me at a slant through the trees. The trees were big. It was very quiet. It felt like the enchanted forest in a book like CS Lewis' The Magician's Nephew. The place between two worlds. Cars lined both sides of the street. There was no one else. The trees felt high and old, and seemed to expand and empty from themselves. But the bluestone beneath my feet made it obvious, to me, anyway that I was in Brooklyn. The natural progression of seeing where my feet were was the unconsciously uttered conclusion: Then I must be at home?

I then expected a reluctantly reassuring, answer: Yes, I am: I am safe; no one is going to mug me, jump me, attack me; I can walk these bluestone sidewalks at any hour; I have lived here for nearly a decade and I love this place (don't I?) and know it and this street is two blocks from my terrace and I am home.

But that's not what happened.

At home?

There was no answer. Just a big space and the late afternoon light. Not yes, not no. Just the empty street.

Grab the right ring and jump.*

Last night in bed, for a few seconds, I panicked. My parents are going to die. I will be left one-sided with nothing to know the other half and nowhere to put half of me. And then we will die. And it will end. And it is brutal.

I understand that some people have children in order to be less terrified. And so it is perpetuated.

* "Now the truth was that Uncle Andrew, who knew nothing about the Wood Between the Worlds, had quite the wrong idea about the rings. The yellow ones weren't "outward" rings and the green ones weren't "homeward" rings; at least not the way he thought. The stuff of which both were made had come from the wood. The stuff in the yellow rings had the power of drawing you into the wood; it was stuff that wanted to get back to its own place; the in-between place. But the stuff in the green rings is stuff that is trying to get out of its own place; so that a green ring would take you out of the wood into a world."

The Magican's Nephew, CS Lewis

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Beyond debate what this is, because it is perfect. Strong coffee, Danish Supremo blend, poured into (the sequence matters) hot milk. Some brown sugar, stirred.

This is not what I will have for breakfast tomorrow. Because I forgot that I ran out of coffee this morning. Panic-inspiring.

A lot happened today but it is the stuff of a rant and would be most undiplomatic. So I am sticking to what is beyond doubt. And that's good coffee.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Something for shade

Panicum virgatum "Shenandoah". A North American prairie grass, and this variety one of my favourites for its red leaves and seeds heads. I wasn't buying, just showing David Bayne, a recent addition to HWandV, the nursery ropes. We were out there to buy trees for a big crane-lifting operation in SoHo tomorrow...gulp.

This lovely gypsophila in full bloom in the rockery at Atlantic Nursery.

And tricyrtis, or toad lily, belying its name. The flowers are small, upturned, and breathtakingly beautiful when given due consideration. They like dappled shade. Who doesn't?

And then it was down to business, and rather nail-biting. Buying trees, good trees, at short notice is not my favourite thing. It helps to have a bobcat, though, to push them around.

The friendly guys at my favourite tree nursery were very obliging. We picked up four Bloodgood maples (Acer palmatum atropurpureum"Bloodgood"...phew). Quite overused in this city but very popular.

And then. At the last minute, having resigned myself to smaller Kwanzan cherries, we found some giants at a nursery I'd never visited.

They were loaded.

And then our truck said, Thththththththpffffffffffffffffffffff. Or something to that effect.

Too heavy. Out they came. So they will be picked up at sparrow tomorrow morning while we head out to the job site with the other six trees (also a magnolia and a big lilac) with some strong men and some virtual rabbits' feet to keep us all safe.

Heading home over the Williamsburg Bridge and East River, looking north.

Recognize this town?

Gazpacho. With bread.

From a recent admonishing email from my Learned Friend in the Shadow of the Galata Tower:

"I must take issue with your gazpacho: the ingredients well and good BUT the essential ingredient in gazpacho, hence the name, is BREAD. As with....(a senior moment) that paste made of anchovies, olives, garlic and capers: the essential is the last named hence the name which for the moment escapes me."

The gazpacho to which I am used (...) does not have bread in it. But some research told me that yes, leftover bits of bread are important. So I moistened some leftover bits of bread with olive oil and in they went.

1 clove garlic
1 giant heirloom tomato, peeled (dip in boiling water for a minute having made an x-shaped incision in the skin at the top, then peel easily)
1 Kirby cucumber, or...a short, fat cucumber, peeled
1/3 of an onion (I like onion)
Some bits of olive oil-soaked white bread
Salt, pepper, a dash of good vinegar ( I used sherry), some sugar

Whizz. Eat. Good.

Just had a cupful with my gin and tonic post Interesting Day Involving Very Big Trees and a Not-Big Enough Truck. Gazpacho is, how shall I put it? Healthy. It's good for you, and a tonic. A very good pick me up.

It's different every time I make it. This is what I had, so this is how I made it. Red peppers help. The vinegar and garlic are, to me, essential.

Excuse me while I put some organic baby back ribs under the broiler. I'm basting them with gazpacho perked up with soy sauce, chile and the obligatory ketchup NOT sweetened with corn. syrup.

I finish with the tail-end of the admonishing (and welcome) email:

"We have two varieties of peach here that I have not encountered anywhere else: a small pale greenery-yellery one, the size of an apricot, that tastes like cyanide (delicious!) and a flat one called inexplicably in Turkish "Tomato peaches". They are so flat you can stack them one on top of the other and they taste like those white peaches one used to get that the skin slipped off whole and the juice ran down your neck and stained your shirt.

Ah! tapenade!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Borough Hall Farmers' Market

My Saturday morning farmers' market...the most deliciously ripe yellow peaches, above. A sea of blackberries below.






Sunday, August 24, 2008


This was inspired by a post at A Dash of Bitters...I had a lot of juice swimming around in a bowl of freshly chopped tomatoes, and it was around 6pm, that sainted hour.

So, equal quantities of fresh tomato juice, strained, and vodka (Grey Goose), in this case, not gin; a dash of pickled onion juice, shaken with ice. Garnished with a pickled onion. The scent was very strongly of tomatoes, and of summer, in a very unexpected way.

Plum jam, sort of...

Because I have been cooking since I was a teenager (the legend goes: my mom caught chicken pox from me, when I was thirteen, and dictated recipes from her sickbed. The first thing I cooked was short ribs braised in red wine with bayleaves and juniper berries; the second, roast chicken - bird-bread is another story and belongs to my childhood: it involved bent beaks and derisive laughter from my brothers) and because my mother was a wonderful teacher - very much inspired by Elizabeth David - example and mentor, along with Señor Christie, written about in these posts; because I read copiously the introductions to many recipe books by Michelin-starred chefs (Troisgros, Vergé, Raymond Blanc, Georges Blanc, brothers Roux) brought back by my parents from their travels - always the best parts of the books because they spoke of childhood and philosophy and principle - and then worked my way right through the books; and because I was privileged enough to have eaten (a handful of times) at seriously serious, Michelin-starred restaurants and had a good taste memory...; and because my reading and eating expanded beyond the French influence, later, and Marcella Hazan, Ruth Grey and Rose Rogers (Italian), Dianna Kennedy, Rick Bayless (South O' the Border), Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden (Middle East and North Africa), Charmaine Solomon, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Southern Asia) were significant early influences and teachers, from their pages and in some cases, restaurants...(phew): there is not that much that I have not cooked.

I mean, that's relative. Of course. But generally, mousses, soufflés, terrines and pâtés and torchons of foie gras (well, once), daubes, stews, casseroles, moles (the dish not the animal), roasts, confits, cassoulets, consommés, sauces, crusts and bread, jellies and syllabubs, ice creams, tartes tatins, and crême brulée, are to me as intimidating as breathing (although more concentration is required...), and a lot better tasting.

But jam. This year has taught me about jam. I have made jam before, but for the first time I started early in the season and have been jam making solidly as the next fruits ripen. So I now know what I had forgotten: that the best teacher is repetition. Don't fret if your first and second and third roast chickens are not quite right. The next one may be. You will learn every time you make one, what works, what doesn't, what it looks like, smells like, sounds like. Cooking is as much about listening as it is about watching and tasting. And shopping, and choosing.

Today I made plum jam, my first, and it is very pretty. I haven't tasted it yet, but I will for breakfast tomorrow. But this, the fifth batch of jam this summer, is really the first time I felt quite comfortable with the process, and not overly anxious. I recognized signs and waited and relaxed, but not too much, and knew when it sounded right, beyond the hallowed two drips that must form on the side of a spoon before it is ready.

Plums rinsing...

Sugar syrup after fruit is covered overnight with organic sugar...

What I now call First Foam and Second be skimmed.

Sticky spoons.

Almost an empty pot...

Jam lined up and tomatoes in the background for gazpacho, and, as it turned out, a tomatini.

Satellite sunset

Corn syrup and credit card debt

One night, two documentaries:

King Corn: takeaway - no more corn-fed beef for me, thank you. No matter how marbled. I'm not really a corn syrup consumer, since most of what I eat I make from scratch. But, if you eat, watch the movie. I want to visit Iowa. They do not even explore the fertilizer, pesticide aspect, which is huge. I think I'm done being blase about "conventionally" grown fruit and vegetables. After seeing with what and how they sprayed that corn...

If you're wondering what I had for dinner, it was bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes, whipped with organic butter and organic half and half and into which I snipped terrace-chives. Followed by peaches.

Maxed Out: takeaway? Must. Leave. Country. Must. Get. Off. Grid. Citibank, JP Morgan, Chase Manhattan....Very. Creepy.

As scary as these films about America are, my third takeaway is this: they were made by Americans. At least there's that.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Get stuffed

[Yes, I do have some suppressed rage.]

This was the other day's tomato, still at Union Square. I bought it. It became my tomato. Last night I sliced its top off and scooped out its insides, which tasted very good. I reserved most of them, and lots of juice for gazpacho. [Click here for another tomato-juice application]

I bought a punnet of chanterelles from an uncommunicative dude in black leather and shiny sunglasses who had an icechest full of them.

When I tipped them out of their brown paper bag, at home, this walked out of their accompanying pine needles:

Spiders for supper. My favourite.


After I'd calmed down I chopped some scallions/green onions, parsley, and some cubes of slab bacon I had baked last weekend, Hussar-style (long story), and sauteed that lot along with about a quarter of the tomato's insides. In went the sliced chanterelles. Then added some basmati rice cooked in chicken stock with a squeeze of lemon and tiny bit of brown sugar. And stuffed all that, with chopped terrace parsley, into the empty tomato. Baked for about 3/4's of an hour at 350'F adding a little water now and then.

Roof gardens

[Click pictures to enlarge]

I spent most of the day trotting about various rooftops. The schematic above shows what I hope the finished garden will look like, on a rooftop in Chelsea. The project consists of two terraces and a balcony and they are an absolutely blank canvas right now. This morning the upper deck was being delivered: it is a six flight walk-up. Phew. The finished deck will be made of removable pallets made of ipe, a fire-retardant wood. There will be slatted fences on both sides on the main terrace, with interior lightboxes which will provide stripes of light at night. And plants. There will be lots of plants.

The roof, even in this mild, unseasonal weather, is absolutely baking. The old deck was ripped out weeks ago, the waterproof membrane restored and painted with sealant, and then we were good to go. I can't do a reveal yet, so all you're allowed to see are my toes, poised on the edge.

One of the things I love about visiting rooftops in the city is that I see all sorts of tucked away green places that are normally hidden. These are some of the neighbours' gardens. Ours will be a little more...comprehensive, but I find these little ones lovely, like little beacons of hope and happiness.