Garden victory

Posted by Cameron on 05.23.09 8:55 PM

(c) 2009 AEC all rights reservedA couple of weeks ago, I ended up talking to a reporter for the SF Chronicle for a story on urban gardening, and had a grand time bending her ear about my recent adventures. But after I rang off, my lovely and talented wife gently reminded me that our own home-grown publication hadn’t seen any garden news in… er… months.

Let’s see… where were we? In mid-January, everything in our newly built beds looked very promising: The radishes had sprouted, the onion sets were sporting little green mohawks, and the peas were “ready to wrestle a very tiny trellis into submission.”

But by mid-February, though the peas were still rocking and rolling, everything else had stopped growing. It was a completely pathetic sight: Rows of tiny green leaves surrounded by what looked like miles of grey-brown wasteland. By mid-March, the peas really did need some kind of trellis, but everything else was basically unchanged. I started to wonder if cold weather and frost had nuked my seedlings. Ridiculous, sure, but what did I know?

That was the start of a spring spent learning how to turn raw dirt and compost into a place where plants actually want to grow. I reconfigured the drip irrigation system three times, then watered by hand. I added more compost, cocoa bean mulch, fish emulsion, greensand, and finally a general purpose organic fertilizer. Basically, I followed the same approach as new parents confronted with a crying baby — “Is it thirsty? Is it hungry?” — except I was getting a lot more sleep.

I replanted the radishes and beets in what I hoped were more hospitable digs (ha!). But my thrill at the quick flush of new growth turned to fury as I realized that the new seedlings were being eaten down to the stem almost as soon as they emerged. As if that weren’t enough, I found that by filling raised beds with soft compost and soil, I had inadvertently opened a five-star refreshment facility for the neighborhood cats.

Imagine the thousand scenes where Clint Eastwood’s eyes narrow to a hard, weatherbeaten squint behind a loaded sixgun, and you’ve got a picture of my state of mind. The words “critter” and “varmint” entered my vocabulary. I closed the kitty spa by installing a low fence around the beds, but that didn’t stop whatever was chewing on the delicate sprouts. I embarked on nightly expeditions armed with a flashlight to try and catch insectile marauders in the act. That was the worst part: I couldn’t find any evidence of what was doing the damage. At last, I spotted a lone earwig scurrying across the beds late one night. Skeptical but desperate, I put out small tins full of beer as traps; after a couple of days, I was happy man. Those little prehistoric-looking summbitches loves them some suds, but they sure can’t swim a lick.

By this point it was April and though the peas were swarming up the second trellis I’d built (they didn’t like the first one — who knew that peas could be divas?), the rest of the plants looked like they’d survived a war. So I did the sensible thing: I planted more stuff that I’d never successfully grown before. Pickling cucumbers and cornichons took up residence in the beds. On the edges of the yard — in the sunniest, warmest spot along our northern fence — I put in St. Pierre and New Girl tomato plants, along with a brace of Kentucky pole beans around the corner. I adapted a yard composter to serve as a potato tower, populating it with seed potatoes that had returned with us from London. And although several of the cucumber plants didn’t thrive, everything else seems reasonably happy and healthy.

Back in November, when I first contemplated pulling up the slate tiles of our beautiful (though completely unused) patio and dropping a bunch of cash on wood, dirt, and compost, I slowed my racing heart by remembering that I had a lot to learn, that the first year of the garden would be a pure lark. Even so, I had no idea how difficult and how rewarding this project would be. On top of finding out basic stuff about what makes plants happy, I’m getting to know our back forty (feet) and its little ecosystem: Where the sun shines and where it doesn’t, what’s in the soil and what isn’t, and what sort of critters and varmints (good and bad) are crawling around.

One of the more amusing revelations that I’ve had along the way is that when it comes to our patch, nobody knows much more than I do. Last week, I decided that I wanted to put asparagus along the eastern fence line, but I was worried that it was too late in the season to plant the crowns. I fired off an e-mail to an expert source and got a response that boiled down to, “Sounds like a great idea! It might work…but then again it might not. Give it a try!” They say that in politics that if you want a friend, you should get a dog. In gardening, if you want certainty, get FedEx or get religion.

But the lack of guarantees may be what makes the harvest so special and satisfying. I still can’t quite believe it when I see the (very small) piles of radishes on the counter that went from seed to salad not thirty feet from the kitchen sink. I’ve got a long way to go, but the path ahead is one of the most inviting that I’ve ever seen. Every single peapod I munch tastes like victory.

(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved(c) 2009 AEC all rights reserved



Monkey business

Posted by Anita on 05.14.09 6:26 AM

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Despite our enduring love for our nieces and pint-sized friends, this blog will never feature the sort of recipes that usually pass for kid-friendly meals. With high-octane cocktails, labor-intensive recipes, and frequent bouts of profanity, no sane reader would ever mistake me for a mommy blogger. And yet, one of the best food books I’ve read in quite some time — one I actually forked over cash to buy — is Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father’s Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater. A title that’s shelved not with the cookbooks, but in the heretofore unexplored Baby & Toddler section of my local bookstore.

I doubt Hungry Monkey would have found its way to our house if we weren’t already friends with the book’s author, Matthew Amster-Burton, and his daughter Iris. But that surely would have been my loss, because once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop reading. Or laughing. Matthew’s a pretty funny guy, something you may already know if you read his blog, Roots & Grubs, or his witty writings on Culinate,, or pretty much anywhere else you go for clever, thoughtful food writing these days. And even if you couldn’t give a fig for the intricacies of raising a little fresser, you can’t help but be drawn in by Matthew’s no-nonsense ideas about food.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I think it’s only fair to admit that I’m friends not only with Matthew, his wife Laurie, and little Iris, but also with grandma Judy, and many of the other characters in the book — Tea, Shauna, Molly, and the gang — so reading a chapter is like old home week for me. Some of my favorite memories from our Seattle days involve the dinner parties we used to throw. Every New Year’s Day, we’d make an enormous pot of cassoulet and invite our friends to polish it off; the Amster-Burtons were among the 50 or so food-obsessed friends who came to the second-annual fête.

I don’t remember much else from that day, but I do remember Iris — who had just turned one — sitting on our kitchen floor and calmly polishing off an adult-sized plate of braised pork, beans, and duck confit. Reading the book, I was tickled that Matthew remembered, too: The cassoulet-gobbling tale is but one of dozens of spot-on anecdotes he uses to illustrate his theories. (In this case, the point is: “Stew is the ultimate in baby food. It’s easy to make. It’s easy to eat: you don’t even need teeth.”)

But aside from personal affection, Matthew’s stories of cooking for Iris are universal, whether you’re a parent, a proud aunt, or even kid-agnostic. In a way, my feelings about Hungry Monkey are similar to Matthew’s own enthusiasm for his daughter’s culinary education:

“I was gung-ho about sharing our food with Iris for the same reason people share food with each other everywhere: it’s fun. It was the first opportunity for Iris and me to share an experience and enjoy it for the same reasons. I mean, I liked playing peek-a-boo (I called it “peekytoe”) because it made Iris laugh, but it’s not like it’s something Laurie and I played before Iris was born — or, at least, I wouldn’t admit to it. But I like enchiladas. Iris likes enchiladas. We can agree on enchiladas.”

On the surface, I may not have a lot in common with a stay-at-home dad. But our mutual love of food — and a fondness for belly laughs — makes Hungry Monkey worth a read, even if you have no experience with the tribulations of breastfeeding, or coaxing a toddler to the dinner table. With the exception of a couple of purees, there’s hardly a recipe in the book that looks or tastes like kid chow. Last winter, Cameron and I tested a dozen or so of the recipes during the book’s development, and we’ll personally vouch for Matthew’s stacked enchiladas, Cornish pasties, and bibimbap, not to mention a recipe for carnitas that’s so quick and simple we didn’t believe it would work. (It did, deliciously.)

If you need further convincing, plan to pop by one of Matthew’s readings in the Bay Area the week of May 24 (check the schedule here). Photographic evidence indicates that Hungry Monkey is even more hilarious when read aloud by its author.

If you can’t get to one of Matthew’s book-signings, there’s still a chance to have your own brush with fame: I’ve got an extra copy of the book — there is some payoff for being a recipe-tester! — and it just so happens that Matthew will be visiting us on his swing through town. So, if you’d like to win an autographed copy of Hungry Monkey, leave a comment below telling us about your favorite food when you were little. Next weekend, I’ll pick a comment at random and get in touch with the lucky winner to ask how they’d like the book inscribed.

In the meantime, here’s a little proof that not all kid-friendly food has to look like stewed prunes and taste like mush.

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Hungry Monkey(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*

Beer-Braised Short Ribs with Wheat Berries
- from Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton, reprinted with permission

3 to 4 pounds beef short ribs (flanken or English-style)
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 cup wheat berries (see note)
2 bottles (2-1/4 cups) porter-style beer
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, not drained
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons minced parsley

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Season the ribs liberally with salt and pepper and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet (bone-side down if you’re using English style ribs). Roast 45 minutes or until they’re nicely browned and have rendered plenty of fat. Reduce oven temperature to 275°F.

While the ribs are roasting, heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery. Cook until vegetables are limp but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the wheat berries, beer, tomatoes, and chicken stock, and stir to mix. Add the browned ribs, raise the heat to medium-high, and cover. When the pot is boiling, transfer it to the oven (you did remember to turn it down to 275°F, right?). Braise for 2-1/2 to 3 hours, or until meat is very tender. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

If serving immediately, remove the meat and strain the sauce, then skim off the fat with a spoon or gravy separator. Otherwise, cool to room temperature and refrigerate everything together, skimming off the solidified fat before reheating. Give each person one or two ribs (remove the bones before serving if you like), a ladleful of wheat berries and sauce, and a sprinkling of parsley.

Note: Wheat berries are available in the bulk section at any health food store. Mine has sometimes managed to run out, so I’ve substituted pearl barley to good effect. Hard or soft wheat berries will work. For another variation, substitute French green lentils for the wheat berries.

cookbooks, meat, other blogs, recipes


A cruel reality

Posted by Anita on 05.12.09 5:34 PM

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Bill Andronico
Andronico’s Markets Inc.
1109 Washington Avenue
Albany, CA 94706

Dear Mr. Andronico:

I have been a long-time shopper at your Irving Street store in San Francisco. Although I no longer purchase meat at the supermarket — preferring to buy my meat and eggs directly from farmers who make a point of their humane and ethical practices — I have always been very impressed by the knowledge and skill of your butchers in the past. Which is why I am stunned to read about your ill-informed, reactive policy regarding foie gras sales.

I don’t generally eat foie gras myself — I don’t care for its richness, nor its cost — but from rather extensive reading on the subject, I think it’s quite plausible that the “cruelty” of its production is overrated. On the other hand, I fully believe that standard, everyday conditions for commercial hens, pigs, cows, and other factory-farmed animals are grossly inhumane by any realistic measure.

If you and your company truly cared about animal welfare, you would stop selling battery-hen eggs and feedlot pork. Intensive factory farming is far more cruel — and thousands of times more pervasive — than the process of “force feeding” geese and ducks.

I suggest you do some additional homework about the realities of what goes into the meat, eggs, and dairy you sell before zeroing in on such an easy knee-jerk target. (The movie Food, Inc., which opens next month, might be a good starting point.) Otherwise, you run the risk of looking like a publicity-hungry hypocrite.

Bay Area, meat, shopping


Countdown to Tales

Posted by Anita on 05.11.09 7:18 PM

(c)2008 AEC **all rights reserved**It’s hard to believe that in just two months — July 8 through 12 — we’ll be back in New Orleans for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Cameron and I are both participating in this year’s TalesBlog group, and {gulp} I’m moderating a Saturday-morning seminar called “Secrets of Cocktail Photography“.

TalesBlog is already up and running with previews of many of the interesting sessions, tasting rooms, events, and meals that make Tales the must-do event for anyone who loves cocktails. The contributor list is pretty much a Who’s Who of top cocktail bloggers, so it’s worth adding to your feed-reader even if you’re not planning to attend.

In other Tales-related news, host venue Hotel Monteleone is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Carousel Bar, and they’re celebrating with a contest open to all bloggers. Here’s the gist: From 1949 until sometime in the late 60s or 70s there was a drink on the Carousel Bar’s menu called the Monteleone Cocktail. Unfortunately, the hotel folks have no idea what the exact recipe or ingredients were.

Here’s where you come in: Submit a recipe for your best idea for the new official Monteleone Cocktail. Entries will be judged by VIPs at the Carousel anniversary celebration on May 21. There are no requirements on types of liquor or style of drink, but all entries must be posted on your blog and emailed to the sponsors no later than May 18. (Send your drink recipe, along with your name, address, and phone number, to

The winning entry will become the new official Monteleone Cocktail, and the winner will receive four free nights at Hotel Monteleone during Tales of the Cocktail 2009.

bar culture, drinks, New Orleans, Tales of the Cocktail, travel


Encore jam session

Posted by Anita on 05.01.09 8:14 AM

(c)2009 AEC *all rights reserved*Thanks to Sandy Gluck from Martha Stewart Living Radio‘s Everyday Food. She gave her listeners a shout-out to our Tomato-Bourbon Jam. We use it as a homemade replacement for ketchup, or as the secret ingredient in wintertime BLTs.

It’s still a little early for tomatoes, but if you’ve got hothouse tomatoes at your farmers market, as we do, this is one place where they do pretty well.

preserving & infusing