Monday, February 28, 2011

Daffodils and a drink

Over at Small but Charming, Ms Jane is hosting a flowerathon. So here, to make up for moaning and self indulgent whingeing about noise, are some daffodils. I love daffodils. The drink actually helps a lot, too. No name for it yet. Bourbon, Grand Marnier, lemon juice. Kind of a Sidecar with a wheel loose. Like me.

Got noise?

Construction at 120 Amity Street

Because we have extra if, like, you need any.


The Horror

Well, it happened. Construction has begun on the vacant lot across the road. 120 Amity Street has been sold and is currently nothing. By sometime next year it will be a townhouse.

The Lamm Insitute, next door at 110 Amity Street,  used to bother me. Children were wheeled in and out in wheelchairs with disabilities ranging from severe to very severe. The place was hollow and dirty and the huge grounds deserted, empty, neglected. All very Victorian and hard to swallow in 2010. I had grand plans of designing a real garden for the wheeled children. Then it was shuttered and put on the market.

A local homeless man used to sleep in the sheltered doorway until plywood doors barred it and gave him the boot late last fall, just when it turned cold.

Locally, Curbed tells us, it is known as The Amity Street Horror, though that was news to me. It was fairly horrific, though the architecture itself never bothered me. I like it. It was more the utter neglect characteristic of many of the LICH-owned buildings that surround us. And the Dickension children...

The real horror now, is noise. Heavy equipment is roaring in the cold drizzle, and it will be a long year. With double glazing buffering some of it in cold weather, spring will be interesting, with the usually-wide-open door to the tiny terrace admitting the roaring and the dust. I imagine myself sitting here and trying to write. Help.


New York bed bugs Red Hook.

Picnic in winter

If it is above freezing, picnics are possible. Above, the neat, staged picnic in Lynden Miller's Pier 44 Waterfront Garden. Hard light for barren garden pictures...

Below, after the barbarians have ravaged it. The pickles are half last year's bread and butter pickles, made accidentally with actual sherry, rather than sherry vinegar last year (explanation here), and employing my rooftop cucumbers, and half  'Roland' brand cornichons to which I am addicted. Both were good: soft 'n sweet versus crisp and sour. It actually makes me want to grow cucumbers again this year. Go figure. That's what winter will do to you.

So. If the sun is shining, pack a picnic and go forth, my friends. Food tastes better outdoors. It just does.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Root pruning

 The fig tree last July

The rain held its breath and I decided to get the root pruning of the fig over with. Once I have an idea in my head it's hard to think of anything else.

How did I know I should prune the roots? First, a very, very compact feel to the soil in the pot. No loose soil. Second, when it is watered the water runs straight through, like a sieve. This necessitates multiple waterings to make sure the roots have time to absorb anything. Not a problem now, but it will be in summer. Third, moss. My pots always pack on the moss when the roots are compacted. I think it likes the firm structure and rapidly draining, frequent watering. Another obvious clue, and I was unable to see this before I pruned, if you can pull the plant from the pot and see its roots visibly wrapping round and round, it needs pruning.

The plant should be dormant, so late winter/early spring is a good time to root prune or else fall. Pick a day when the temperature is well above freezing.

To give you an idea of where a tree's roots will extend naturally in the earth, look at the spread of its branches. As far as the branches spread above ground, the roots will spread below. So a tree in a small pot is fighting its natural instinct. Intervention is required if the tree is to stay well fed and well watered.

Now, I have never taken a bonsai class. And I am sure that a bonsai master/mistress would be appalled by my methods, which are not delicate. All I can say is that they work, or have so far. I have green fingers, so whatever instinct that implies or describes, must help. I kind of think, wordlessly, What would I want if I was this plant?


Perhaps some things are better left unexplained.

You need: a sharp saw with teeth, or very good bread  knife. The saw is a better bet, but the knife will do if the roots are not big and the plant is small.  The better the saw, the easier the job will be. I use Felcos.

If you cannot pull the rootball from the pot (and my fibreglass pot has a lip which prevents this, which is annoying), operate in the pot: pretend your roots are a cake in a deep dish, and cut around the edges of the dish, or pot, as far down as you can go. Small, fast sawing motions are better than big, slow ones. How much you remove depends on the size of the pot. I took off about one inch.

Once you have cut all the way around, it is easiest to lay the pot on its side, and pull the newly revealed root ball out by holding the trunk and wiggling back and forth. You may need a friend to hold the pot while you pull.

My new root ball came out pretty easily, the flap of cuts roots still attached at the bottom.

The lower part still needed a lot of pruning as the pot tapers narrowly towards the bottom and my saw had missed them. I trimmed individual roots with my pruners. Felcos, of course.

I also shaved off an inch from the very bottom. Then I teased loose as many roots as I could near the edges, to show them the way into their nice, new soil. New root hairs will absorb nutrients.

I poured some good potting back into the pot and lifted my lighter fig tree in with a clearance of an inch all around.

Added some more soil around the edges, and watered.

Now we must wait and see.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Work to be done

There are 33 pots on the tiny terrace and its edge. Not counting the empty ones that will be filled with basil and parsley come warmer weather.

There is a big job to do: repotting. Not everything, but a lot. The agastache, the Japanese forest grass, the hosta, which did not bloom last year at all - either because it is scrunched in the pot or because the heat from the nearby braai made it think abortive thoughts; the fig, again, whose roots are close-packed but which grew a lot last year. I never repot roses but perhaps, after years, I should think about it. They have been pruned.

I'm thinking about the thyme and calamintha. In their natural state they will grow in cracks, so isn't being squashed in a pot similar to squeezing your roots into a thin crevice? I may also get rid of two chive plants and an extra thyme. I had enough chives to eat last year, without touching one potful (which I grew partly for the flowers). This may seem like minutiae but on a small terrace every inch counts and I have two problems: I always want to try something new, so need available pots, and if I keep growing the same things I have to write about the same things, year in, year out. Boring for everybody.

The new things last year were strawberries and blueberries, and were very successful. The strawberries made at least a dozen new plants, and eventually I became exasperated with their constant need to reproduce (a bit like living in Cobble Hill itself where the double-wide stroller is a constant feature on the sidewalks below the terrace) that eventually I moved many plants to the roof. I am curious about what they will do, fruit-wise, once fertilized...And of course the pots they are currently occupying are destined for vegetables.

Today was going to be root pruning and repotting day, but with a constant drizzle it must be postponed.

East 1st Street

East 1st between 2nd Avenue and the Bowery

Bitter lemon and gin at Prune, where I met Ellen for lunch.

Trout roe on radish matchsticks, with brown butter.

Gabrielle Hamilton's book is called Blood, Bones and Butter*. Excellent title. I've read a short story of hers in The New Yorker, and chances are the book is well written. I hadn't been here forever and the menu had changed! At last! Some of our lunch choices were a bit hit or miss.

A very good bib lettuce salad, with the lettuce in wedges. The manti (not praying mantis as I'd thought they might be, given La Hamilton's reputation for in-your-face ingredients) but tiny stuffed pasta pockets in a good broth were very solid little pellets, and then what was described as veal paillard, but which was a schnitzel, and strong on the egg. Paillard is not breaded.

And for dessert, the Pets de nonne, translated by the waitress as nuns' habits, but it rang a bell, and I asked, Do you mean Nuns' farts? Er, yes, she said, but habits are more polite. 

Still, I prefer the older, sweeter joke. The pets were very good. No matter which end of the nun they graced.

* Read the review for Blood, Bones and Butter in the New York Times.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

That which is revealed

...when the sun starts to dip below the New Jersey post Panamax cranes gathered on the western shore of New York Harbor: snow flowers - pure white hellebores on the Brooklyn Promenade.

A snow bird.

Crimson witch hazels between the ink berries at Pier One, beside the Brooklyn Bridge and the barge straining on its ribs at extreme low tide.

From the DUMBO park between the bridges a tree melts in the sunset.

And the amelanchiers wait for the ground to be sufficiently thawed to bloom for early spring funerals, when the earth can be dug, earning their common name of service berries. I have not yet seen these particular trees in flower, but will watch them, this spring.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fig in winter

I bought the fig in 2007, from a stall at the Union Square Farmer's Market. The fig had no name. I repotted it that July from its little plastic container into this fiberglass pot made by Capital Garden Products, and I must root prune it again, as I did last year, if I want it to remain in its current residence.

I, too, must be root pruned if I am to remain in my  current residence. It is not big, and one's ideas keep growing.

The fig overwintered on the barbecue. Or braai. The thing in which fire is made.

Last night, walking in DUMBO, beside the silent East River at low tide, we saw the space station pass overhead, crossing high above the Manhattan Bridge, north-northeast like a fat, unwinking star. The last time we saw it, pursued by the shuttle, was in the Eastern Free State, above our green grass camp site and rugged red cliffs. Both times it seemed miraculous and beautiful.

And I think, We have no business being on this planet.

In an exasperated mood (phone calls can do that), I needed to walk in the cold, sub-freezing evening, out from the apartment, towards the Promenade, the park at Pier One, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, which is being repaired to the tune of 5 million dollars, to the park between the bridges, where I pick June berries in summer, then into DUMBO, the massive feet of the Manhattan Bridge dominating the cobble stones, the yellow lights of night reiterating that I love this city in the dark, and on towards Vinegar Hill, where my nose was leading me, for a drink and then supper: canneloni stuffed with lamb, fennel and currants, bitching waitresses back of house, a silky chicken liver mousse, my husband opposite me, smiling as he did in dreams.

Funny life.

Summer will come, with figs, and abundance, and humidity and inevitabilities. Perhaps it is the point before change, that is the most testing.

On the walk back to Cobble Hill, a mardi gras band played in the black street, icicles hanging from doorways, the musicians in coats and mittens, the music raucous underneath the roar of the overhead subway, passing into Manhattan on the tracks high above DUMBO.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Apple soup

So I thought about the apple soup, and then I made it. It is one of those wonderful things: utterly surprising, and entirely delicious. I am very happy.

The recipe is next door at (the Food).

Monday, February 21, 2011

White all around

This morning after the snow. Trees like fairy tales.

Grand Army Plaza

It is apples apples apples at the farmers' markets. I wouldn't mind laying eyes on a New Mexican market at the moment, or one in Florida.

Oh, for an Airstream.

Then again, how does apple soup sound? As in cold, for dessert? We had  a very good German wine last night, a Sylvaner from Schloss Mühlenhoff, that was just barely fizzy on the tip of the tongue. Apples, wine. I must think the soup thing through. I think Bocuse has a recipe for it somewhere...

There's still some of the wine in the fridge.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Snow flowers

I am doomed to repeat myself at this time of year, as I am compelled to photograph witch hazels, the heavy hitters of the February flower scene. As delicate as they appear they bloom through hard freezes, their bright spidery streamers suspended, if you are lucky, above snow. These are all in the rockery at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The one above is "Jelena", perhaps my favourite, with a hot amber heart that bleeds into warm yellow.

"James Wells" is easily recognized  - fall trenchcoats of leaves remain furled beside the bight yellow flowers.

I think the red is Diane, though I could not find the label.

Pussy willow, always reminding me of the driver named Carmine whose ears turned bright red as my friend Molly and I sat in the back seat discussing her pussy willow. He was not thinking trees.

The Edgworthia papyrifera is in bud opposite the lotus ponds, and will probably bloom in a week to ten days. It has a scent worth visiting. If I had a bit more space, a witch hazel and the edgeworthia would be instant additions. Although witch hazel is a good little tree for small gardens, its beautiful horizontal spread is not suited to 66 Square Feet!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Winter before spring

The Cranford Rose Garden, today.

After a balmy day the weather turned wintery again. A phone call from Betty Scholtz, who turns 90 this year, turned my thoughts to witch hazels (next post). So off we went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We managed to get there, despite the subway's usual weekend eccentricities. Leaving was not as easy. The MTA has not improved in our absence.

There was still a lot of cleanish snow on the ground, in sweet contrast to what is left on sidewalks - a black-dusted sort of Halloween confection.

The rose garden was resting.

The Cranford Rose Garden, 10 June 2010.

To see how the border above developed last summer click here.

Cherry Esplanade, today.

Cherry Esplanade, 15 April 2010.

The wisteria steps, today.

The wisteria steps, 6 May 2009.

 The bluebell woods today.

The bluebell woods, 5 May 2010.

I like this part. All about waiting.

The winter honeysuckle was not in bloom yet. So it does not explain the intoxicating scent I smelled last night near Norah Jones' house, in the hood. Was it her perfume, wafting through the windows? Unlikely. There is a walled garden next door, hidden behind old brick.

Something was in bloom there, but what?


For when you don't want to cook but want to feel as though you have:

Splash of olive oil
2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
1 can San Marzano tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Pinch of salt

Gently cook garlic without browning, for 2 minutes. Add tomato puree, salt and sugar. Stir. Cook gently 10 minutes. Grate a cloud of Grana Padano (budget-friendly) cheese. Cook thin spaghetti till just done. Toss into sauce. Serve in bowls, sprinkle with cheese, top with cracked black pepper. Slurp.

This should be next door in (the Food)  but I think there's a version of this there already.

It is a high blue sky day with wind slicing through the sunlight. We will go somewhere and look at things.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lost property JFK

Here follows a tale.

It wasn't the happiest of arrivals. After a promising beginning with a friendly immigrations officer who told us that Puerto Rican pork ribs are the best food in the world, but after 23 hours in the air (9 from Cape Town-Dubai, 14 from Dubai-JFK, on the excellent Emirates), and 42 without sleep, we unpacked our yellow cab on Atlantic Avenue to check into our hotel for the night. But something was missing. My shoulder bag containing laptop, both my passports, my South African ID, and thousands of dollars in cash. I had closed a bank account and had placed the real, new, paper money in a slim inside pocket in the bag.

Alongside a packet of lamb's lettuce seeds.

Gone. My heart belly flopped.

It was clearly still at JFK, in the luggage cart. I thought Vince had offloaded it. He thought I had.

Freak. Out.

We asked the cab to wait and hauled our luggage to the NU Hotel at 85 Smith, where we would spend the night while Dinah, cat sitter deluxe, got her last night of rest in our apartment, before flying home to Queensland in the morning. Then Vince headed straight back to the airport to the dispatch area where we'd probably left the bag. I hopped up and down in the lobby waiting to sign in and charge my dead phone.

Who do you start calling when your life seems to have been lost at one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world?

In New York, 311.

Not that that helped much. I got a generic number for JFK, and then that gave me the number for lost property. All you can do is leave a message describing what was lost, and where. If it is found, they will call you.

If you're interested, it is 718-244-4225.

I thought, I've got to do better. I need the number for the dispatch guy at the cab stand. He must have found the bag. But first I had to call Melanie and Dinah, to cancel our dinner in 20 minutes at Al di La, where I had wanted to thank them for their kindness and help with le chat noir while we had been gone. I found Melanie in bed in the Bronx with a virus. I found Dinah on Union Street heading for the restaurant. She did an about-face and headed for the hotel.

I said an emergency prayer. 

Vince called. The police at JFK had just called him, en route in the cab. They had a computer bag. They found his number as next of kin in a passport. He and the taxi turned around to fetch my driver's license (thankfully in my wallet, separate from the rest) so that he could claim it. They would not say how much money was in the bag. He returned, headed out again, this time on the A train, to save, well, money. The taxi driver had refused a tip on his second run to the airport.

Before Vince left again he reminded me to check the bed for bed bugs. I burst into tears.

(New York has been besieged by bed bugs - found even at the Waldorf Astoria - and we booked into NU after I'd found a bed bug alert for another hotel.)

Three hours later Vince returned for the second time, but empty handed. The lost property could not be accessed after hours, despite the website stating that it was open 24 hours a day. The bag had been checked in by the police and would be waiting.

In the meantime Dinah had arrived bearing cold prosecco. We had never met in person, and she must have been non-plussed at the sight of this jet lagged, stressed out, sleep-deprived person. I downed my first glass of bubbly. She stayed till Vince returned, and put up with my yawns and pink rabbit eyes. Not exactly the thank you I had intended. She is quite a lady.

In the morning, we walked our luggage back to the spotless apartment, slimmed down cat and vase of fresh tulips (I swear if I'd found that kid in the apartment on this day I would've ripped his actual head off), and headed straight back out to JFK. The A train, then the Air Train which was a free shuttle just that day, due to some maintenance work on the tracks, saving us $20, and yet another shuttle, and were dropped at building #269 on a service road. Walked in, showed my driver's license to Officer Velasquez, signed his book, and was handed my bag. Laptop, two passports, SA ID, and all the cash, which had been counted.

I learned that Marsha Dertan, a supervisor at taxi dispatch, had handed it in. I do not know who gave it to her. I took her number and left a message for her earlier today with a colleague who asked, You got everything? suspiciously. Yes, I said. Everything.

I hope that she will call, so that I can thank her properly, as well as the person who found it in the first place.

There were so many steps along this way, so many times this bag changed hands, that anyone could have pocketed the cash without being caught. No one took the bait.

We are back in the big, bad city. Welcome to New York.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chicken of the woods

Our last full day in Cape Town. We will be back in Brooklyn by mid week. And what better note to leave on than one that spells m.u.s.h.r.o.o.m.s?

It's a nice story, especially as we seem to have lived to tell the tale. Vincent and my mom discovered these delicious things while they were on a chameleon hunt this morning. Two local mushrooms books, much Googling, many emails to Ellen later, and we were pretty sure that we had Laetiporous cinncinnatus or L. sulphureus growing near to home. No poisonous lookalikes. Here Vince poses with shy Ted, when they took me back to see the wonderful fungus. The rest of the story must wait.

This is the last post from Cape Town for a while. We are inbound.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Place setting

The tree's green leaves are reflected in the silver. We had a good lunch. The last guests just left. It is 5.30 in the pm.

I have packed a small picnic to take to Clifton so that Vince and I can say goodbye. My heart is sore.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Summer menu

The Last Lunch menu takes shape.

I wanted to make simple, uncluttered things that taste of summer, and after shopping yesterday, knew what the menu would be:

Ajo blanco ('white gazpacho') with muscat grapes

Because it is my husband's favourite soup.

I have not found my beloved hanepoot (Muscat d' Alexandrie) in Cape Town yet. They are a late season grape and are farther along in the Overberg, where we bought some near Stanford a week ago. But at Woolworths I found grapes described as Belle Helene, with a hanepootish blush and indeed they are muscatty, though on the super-sweet side. With their seeds pricked out with the tip of a knife, these will lie beneath the white soup and its floating ice cubes...

Quail and wild grape terrine with fresh, peeled figs topped with sunflower sprouts in a dressing of walnut oil and sherry vinegar.

I flaked the meat from the slow-roasted little quails, made stock from the bones, with verjus, grapes and shallots, reduced it, returned the meat to the pot along with some duck fat, and later poured the cool mixture into a terrine mold. We shall see. I may make a relish of muscat grapes along with something acidic, as a foil. The reduction was quite sweet.

The figs are perfect at the moment, grown in Prince Albert in the Little Karoo - purple skinned and red inside. The emerald green, juicy sprouts are sold at Franck Dangereaux's Food Barn in Noordhoek, which also sells excellent cold roast chickens, bread and a lot of other tempting edible things.

Ginger ale ham with fluffy mustard sauce
Broad beans a la Grecque
Tomato salad, somehow, maybe

Good old ginger ale ham. About to go into its pot now with bay and juniper, and this evening I'll take it out, skin, score, spike with cloves, sprinkle with mustard and brown sugar, and bake. The broad beans will cook with lemon and olive oil and mint and be served cool. Thinking about the tomatoes.

White peach sorbet with Graham Beck rose

At Bizerka last week we tasted an incredibly delicious apple sorbet with Calvados, and so I thought about peaches, apples being so autumnal, and Vince suggested pouring some champagne over the sorbet, a la our peaches with prosecco, last eaten in Brooklyn in the New York summer. We will use the very good local bubbly by Graham Beck. It is smooth and creamy, no hint of yeast, which I dislike, and the finest bubbles.

Nigel Slater's peach, almond and blueberry cake

Cake for dessert. I know. Plain wrong.  But also plain desirable. Yellow peaches and blueberries are all over the place at the moment. Must eat.

 Alan Nelson Semillon Noble Late Harvest 2008

Alan Nelson is a colleague of my father's and we rode his horses weeks ago, in his vineyards between Wellington and Paarl. His daughter Lisha Nelson is the estate's winemaker, and this Noble Late Harvest is perfect. Sweet with that nice tart botrytis flavour rising through every mouthful. Perfect for the light, fruity cake.


Friday, February 11, 2011

A new world

First Tunisia
...and Egypt

While I plan menus for lunches under trees, the world is turning.

Quails and wild grapes

Thinking about a menu for a lunch under the tree on Sunday, before we return to New York.

Inspiration strikes in various forms, though always at the last minute. My mom has been asking me for days what we will be eating and I have not been much help, apart from threatening her with quail. We have about two dozen, bought in a fit at Joostenberg weeks ago, and lurking in the freezer ever since.  People are skittish about quail. Small. Bird. Cute. Also bones.

Then we drove past the wild grapes growing on a fence up the road. I thought homemade verjus thoughts. Then I opened a long-forgotten Nico Ladenis book and saw a recipe for a terrine of confit of guinea fowl.


Wild grapes. Quail. Confit. An idea.

Just meat in a terrine. No bones, no recognizable quail parts to upset people.

Yesterday afternoon we picked a basketful of the little sour purple grapes and some leaves. I added some muscat grapes to the idea, too. At home, I covered the quail in thyme and bay leaves, and pureed the grapes, straining the juice over the birds. Into the fridge.

Needed fat, though.

Googled Cape Town and duck fat and found John and Lynn Ford who run the best mini market you don't know about. More about them, later. This morning we found them in the darkly obscure Triangle Square, which is a passage,  near an entrance to the Cavendish Square  Woolworths on the lowest floor (home wares entrance, near the WW parking...). They are there on Fridays, and at the Biscuit Factory on Saturdays.

The quails are roasting deliciously now, bathed in duck fat, herbs, grapes, shallots and garlic, and later today I will have the fun task of removing all the meat from their bones.

Hold thumbs.