Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Here's why I've been quiet - I'VE WRITTEN A BOOK!

Poor, poor neglected blog... Here's the thing, when gardening and writing are 2 of your favorite pastimes (my blog friends know what I'm talking about), the urge to blog doesn't easily disappear, but often it takes the place of something else - usually a life change - in my case, the writing of a book!  If you've been following this blog, you know that I love writing about the less mainstream vegetables my family and I grow, including all the Chinese vegetables I grew up picking from the garden.  You also know I love cooking and food.

I have been so lucky and thrilled to be able to put together these things to create a beautiful book I am so incredibly proud of! Though I got to include about 20 of my own photos, most of the photography is done by Sarah Culver, a magnificent artist whose eye is close to my own. Where I had the aesthetic but not the creativity or technical skill to produce the photos I wanted, Sarah was able to translate what was in my head to real life.  If you love beautiful photos of the garden, you will not be disappointed when you flip through this gorgeous book!

I've also created a website and a blog there that will focus strictly on growing and cooking Asian vegetables.  If you're interested, please check it out and "like" The Chinese Kitchen Garden's page on Facebook to get notifications when there are new posts (or add to your blogroll if that's easier!).

The Chinese Kitchen Garden will be published by Timber Press in February 2017, but is available for pre-order now at your favorite bookseller like Amazon.  I'm so pleased to say that it's not even out but is already doing well!  Of course for me, the main goal is not to sell books (you probably know I have a day job that pays the bills), but to share some of my family and cultural experiences with the world, to highlight some amazing vegetables you may not have tried yet, and to show off some of my mom's best authentic Chinese recipes I grew up with. I've worked really hard to make this a really rich book. Please visit my website here and learn more about this book.  I know you'll love it!

Friday, July 15, 2016

How to keep animals from digging up newly sown seeds (bloodmeal!)

This squirrel sure seems to be enjoying the few raspberries I'm growing!

I'm pretty sure this gorgeous, sleek, fat squirrel is partially responsible for my garden failures early this season.  While my friends are posting photos of baskets full of green beans, tonight, I sauteed up a pan containing exactly 12 beans.  My family gathered around the dinner table where a plate of the 12 long beans lay straight as the tines on a fine-toothed comb.  Or maybe more like a wide-toothed hairpick. Each member of my family ate his/her 3 beans - not too fast! - lest he/she be accused of taking more than his/her fair share.  

What's the problem? Birds, squirrels, maybe a chipmunk...I'm not sure.  When I sow a row of beans, inevitably 70% of the seeds don't come up.  Sometimes it's because I'm a seed hoarder and put my faith in seeds that should have been tossed years ago.  But most of the time, I go into the garden and find a frustrating little hole where I planted a seed the day before.  Just a few plants make it and thus we end up with 12 beans for dinner.  

However, recently, my husband went to the hardware store and came back with a bag of bloodmeal as a "surprise" for me.  Whyever would you buy that, I asked??? For no other reason than, "Because it sounded like something you'd like".  

I have never used bloodmeal but turns out it supplies a good deal of nitrogen and has a side benefit of repelling small animal pests.  When half of my cucumbers did not come up (with the typical holes the next day where the seeds were just carefully placed), I started again with more seed and sprinkled some of the bloodmeal over the area.  No digging and seeds promptly germinated! 

So while we guardedly eyed each other tonight over the plate of 12 green beans, there is a bumper crop of cucumbers coming up. There will be peace once again in the Spray household and it's due to bloodmeal, a fertilizer with a name that people think gardeners would like.  Well, peace again until my addictive sweet/hot pickles are made - then they'll be eye-balling each other again!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens

Tucked behind the big red barn in Derwood, Maryland is the Montgomery County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden.  I like to choose a quiet afternoon to visit this favorite spot of mine and I leave with lots of great ideas.  The Master Gardeners who maintain all the well-loved bits and pieces of this demo garden are always trying new things and planting different kinds of vegetables. It's an excellent place for gardeners of all levels of experience to visit.  My last visit was on the day of their bustling open house when I gave a talk on growing and cooking Asian vegetables.  Good thing the speaker before me was running late because I got to take a quick tour led by my friend Erica who blogs at Rogue Eggplant and also on the Grow It Eat It blog.  Check out all there is to learn:

In this African Keyhole Garden, made with the free compost bins our county provides, a central tower is continuously fed with kitchen scraps.  The compost that is created provides nutrients for the plants growing around it.  

Below: a lush headstart on spring vegetables using hoops and row covers.

The cute Children's Garden below is filled with plants with animal names.  

Straw bales, pallets, and plants growing inside!

Above: a lovely little pond.  Below: a theme I somehow missed, but it sure is well-marked, isn't it?!

A beautiful, colorful salad table!

Below: one of several beds maintained by special groups.

The annual spring open house is a wonderful event with plant sales, casual tours of the demo garden, experts on call to help with plant issues, workshops, crafts and activities for kids and tons of giveaways like seeds and this adorable popsicle stick pre-labeled and stuck with seeds below - ready to just push into the ground and grow!

Friday, January 8, 2016

How to make Chinese scallion pancakes

My sister and I grew up on these scallion pancakes - dense enough to carry us through those hungry hours between after school and dinnertime, yet intricate enough to be devoured crisp outer portion first with the tender and chewy layers slowly savored.

The key to making these pancakes is not the recipe, but the method used for rolling them out. Search the web for a standard dough recipe (keep in mind this is not the Korean pajeon, which often contains different and more fillings and is not made with this type of dough). My father's savory scallion filling includes: chopped scallions, chopped cilantro, sesame oil, and vegetable oil. Keep the salt handy and don't be afraid to be generous with it. The photos below show how my father rolls these delicious pancakes. Follow these instructions to make Chinese scallion pancakes how they are traditionally done - with thin layer upon thin layer of dough and the flavorful oniony mixture throughout.

Roll out a softball-sized hunk of dough.

This fragrant mixture contains: scallions, cilantro, sesame oil and vegetable oil.

Sprinkle the pancake with salt and cover it with a small amount of filling. Roll it up.

Break into four pieces.

Flatten each piece.

Roll out one of the small balls of dough into a round pancake.

Sprinkle pancake with a generous amount of salt. Add a portion of the scallion mixture.

Roll it up.

Begin to make a coil.

Coil the pancake onto itself. It will look a bit like soft serve ice cream.

Flatten this coiled ball into a round pancake, pressing with your hand and rolling it out with a rolling pin as needed.

Roll the other three the same way.

The first four pancakes are done! Now the next hunk of dough can be made into the next four pancakes.

To cook these pancakes, add a tablespoon of oil to a pan over medium-low heat. When hot, add a pancake and fry on both sides until golden. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hainanese chicken - exclusive secret!

As you may know, I have a book coming out by Timber Press around December 2016. I can't wait for this book about growing and cooking Chinese vegetables to come out! Inside are all kinds of family stories, secrets, and even some of my favorite recipes - including a recipe for Hainanese chicken and rice.  If you've had it, you know how incredible this delicious chicken is over rice, especially with a spoonful of the savory and fragrant ginger and onion oil on top. You'll have to wait for the official recipe to come out, but I will share a secret with you in advance that won't be printed in the book...

My mom's Hainanese chicken is rubbed with salt and sits in the fridge for a couple of days. Since we have to do all that waiting, she tends to prepare 2 or even 3 of these chickens at a time.

This chicken is cooked low and slow by simmering and then steeping in a pot of water. The result is a whole chicken with the most ridiculously tender texture you've ever had.

Here's a secret: after steeping the chicken, my mom actually saves the broth for cooking another chicken. And then sometimes, she saves the broth for cooking yet another chicken! As you can imagine, this broth gets better and better over time and each chicken ends up being more and more flavorful.

Today, I was doing a final test on this recipe before it's submitted to my editor and I cooked 4 chickens in this pot!  Now I'm just trying to figure out how I might savor this super concentrated broth. I may use some to cook the rice that will be served alongside my chicken. I may treat it as a base for my favorite chicken and dumplings recipe. I may freeze in small amounts to use as recipe starters. Or I may just keep the whole pot safe in the freezer for those unavoidable winter colds. No doubt it will make a really powerful chicken soup cure.

While this secret will not be included in my book, the book will be chock full of many other interesting tips and tricks, and I can't wait to share it with you!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe (and Bonus Bloody Mary Mix Recipe!)

Roasted tomato sauce, ready when I need it. A great use for all those summer tomatoes!

Like other backyard gardeners, I wait long weeks through most of the summer for those first ripe, sun-warmed tomatoes. But truth be told, there are only so many fresh tomato tastings, BLT sandwiches, and caprese salads a moderate tomato liker such as myself can handle.

On my first post-vacation harvest, I came in with a shirtload of our favorite heirlooms, the Cherokee purple. Far too many for BLTs...however, just the right amount for a batch of roasted tomato sauce!

Within an hour, these just ripe tomatoes, gently unloaded from the bottom half of my shirt were transformed into a couple of generous portions of sauce that I froze and will certainly thank myself for on some future busy weeknight.

And an instant gratification bonus for my smart planning and thoughtful food preservation? A homemade bloody Mary unlike any bloody Mary you've had.  Keep reading...

Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe

8 med-large tomatoes
6 or more cloves of garlic
a pinch of salt
a tiny pinch of pepper
a tiny pinch of sugar
a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
optional: fresh or dried herbs such as basil or oregano (I generally leave the herbs out so I can customize later on according to what I'm using my sauce for).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle olive oil in a large baking pan. I usually end up using a couple of pans to contain all the tomatoes. Evenly sprinkle salt, sugar, and pepper in the pan. Cut tomatoes in half (I don't like too many seeds in my sauce, so I squeeze the seeds out into a strainer set over a bowl.  The juice that strains through becomes the base for my bloody Mary. If you don't mind seeds and have no interest in the excuse-to-drink-early-in-the-day cocktail, you can skip this step). Place tomatoes cut side down in the pans. Throw the garlic cloves in with the tomatoes.

Halved Cherokee Purple tomatoes ready to go in the oven.

Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Pull off skins and break up tomato chunks with a fork or potato masher. Reheat if using, or pack, label, and store in the freezer.

*** Often, the tomatoes will release a lot of juice while cooking, making the sauce too thin for my liking.  I will either pour off some of the liquid (which I could use for another purpose like as a soup base), or I'll mash the tomatoes as usual and then cook the sauce down a bit to thicken it up.

Fork-crushed and ready to go! Puree with a stick blender if you prefer a more even texture.


Brie's Bodacious Bloody Mary Recipe

No part of this process goes to waste!  With the tomato juice that I've strained into my bowl, I end up with one perfect portion of the base for one of my favorite cocktails (I just add a few ounces of vodka). While I just make a single serving of my friend Brie's bloody Mary mix, she is a huge tomato grower and mixes up zillions of mason jars full of the stuff - chilled on ice and ready to add merriment to an annual summer bash she throws. She knows her bloody Marys. Here's Brie's recipe below for a big invite-your-friends sized batch of the mix. Haven't tried her spicy tomato juice yet. I'm saving that one for after this weekend's pepper harvest!

I squeezed the seeds out of my tomato halves and ended up with this jar of juice. It's ready to use in the freshest, lightest-yet-most-flavorful bloody Mary I've had! Thanks for the recipe Brie!

Monday, June 1, 2015

A fateful string of events

About 10 years ago my father brought home a few white geese. A short while after that he drove hours to southern Virginia to pick up a pair of Chinese geese.These geese live a peaceful, good life with a safe shelter to rest in at night, and eight acres to roam during the day. A little while later my father began raising ducks and after that came the chickens. My father is not a dog or cat guy but apparently he does keep pets. As a pet caretaker this means spending a small fortune on food and many hours weekly improving their habitat (like collecting pine needles for their shelter, building and cleaning a large chicken coop, and feeding the ducks special leafy green treats from the garden). Many evening hours were also spent taking care of predators in a way people in the country need to take care of predators.

After about a decade of keeping these animals, and with it, the intense care and work it requires, he's decided to give it up. Perhaps it was this past harsh winter of endless below 0° days and having to trudge through snow and ice to feed the animals daily that helped him reach this decision. Perhaps it was turning 70 and realizing there are still more than enough chores on his property to keep him busy enough, without the animal care. Either way, he decided that by the end of this year he would give up all the ducks, geese and chickens. 

The next question was, where would they go? He had just started talking to some friends and acquaintances and found some places to bring them, but he suspected that his beloved pets would not be taken to new homes to live the kind of life they had at my father's house. They would be "taken care of" in a different kind of way. My father has had the older generation of geese for a decade. As you can imagine, the thought of this made his heart ache. 

One of the white geese and one of the Chinese geese in the foreground

The other day, a neighbor my parents had never met before came to their house. She told my father she had a four acre farm just a few blocks away with horses, chickens, and a small pond, and that she had a pair of geese for 11 years. The goose pictured below, one of her favorite animals, had recently lost his mate. She'd noticed a change in his behavior and she was concerned that he was lonely. With a heavy heart herself, she explained that she'd remembered driving by in the past and seeing my father's geese happily roaming the yard. She'd come to ask if her goose could live at my father's place and hopefully find some company. He told her of course he would take the goose.

The neighbor's 11 year old goose who recently lost his mate

Neighbor's goose in the water, ducks along the edge

After a day or two my dad saw that the new goose was not eating so he called the neighbor who came over to visit again. He told her he was concerned the goose was not going to do well if he was refusing to eat. They decided that it was a possibility the goose was not transitioning well and might need to be back at his own home. My dad then told her he actually had a plan to get rid of all of his animals by the end of the year. He asked her if she wanted any of them. She was thrilled about the opportunity to adopt ALL of them! This way she would keep her goose and my father's entire flock would move to their new home with him. In about two weeks, they will make the exchange of animals. Before this time, she'll be cutting out a bigger pond and getting ready to increase her animals by about 10 geese, 15 chickens, and about 20 ducks. 

As the neighbor left that day, she said goodbye to my parents, quacked at the ducks and honked at the geese. With that, my dad knew there would be a happy ending to the story!

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