Friday, February 26, 2010

Random tidbits you'll want to read

My friends and acquaintances in real life who know I am going through the master gardener program have this look as they ask me about my class. It's a sort of - yeah, this is kinda cool, but really geeky at the same time look. And this is when I stand a little taller, relay how fun it is to geek out with others who have a passion for gardening, and fully believe it as sit for hours, enthralled by the lectures on asexual plant propagation, dangerous fungi, and the horrific habits of parasitoids.

Today I rebel against structure, organization, and flow. Today I will pass along totally random tidbits of information I've learned and have been reminded of in the past couple of weeks. Hope you enjoy!

  • Insects have been around for 350 million years and share 80% of our genes.
  • If bees get sick, they won't go back to the colony (isn't this moving?).
  • Certain wasps are an example of parasitoids. They will lay an egg in an insect. The larva will feed on the host essentially making a mummy out of it. Here's what you do in the garden. If you see tons of aphids for example, look for the mummies. If you see 10% mummies, check back in a week. If you see 20% mummies, just leave it alone. The beneficial parasitoids are taking care of the problem for you.
  • Beneficials are good...they're insect pest predators in the immature stage and pollinators in the adult stage. Lure them to your garden!
  • Lacewings are wacky but beneficial creatures. They'll gather tiny pieces of bark and lichen on top of themselves and hide under it, waiting for aphids to approach. But the ant, a friend of the aphids (aphids give them honeydew), will go right over and knock the disguise off of the lacewing.
  • Be a detective in the garden. If you have pest problems, look for evidence of beneficials. Look at the damage. Do you see chewing damage (like random holes, bites, shoot dieback) or sucking damage (yellowing leaves, distorted leaves, branches, etc.)? This will help you determine what do to about it. Chewing insects can be controlled by applying a substance to the leaf. Sucking insects can be controlled by something systemic that will be taken up by the plant and deter or poison bugs.
  • Reminder: as the snow defrosts, and it starts to warm up, do not start digging around while the soil is wet (I do this every spring when I'm overly eager to get outside). You'll compact the soil and literally turn it to bricks. It's possible to ruin years and years of good built up soil in 5 minutes by pulling stunts like this. Anyone else guilty of this? This is one habit I really don't plan on doing anymore.
  • Don't use cat or dog poop in your compost. We've all heard this, but here's one very good reason why: dogs and cats have intestinal parasites that like people. They get in the soil, and get into our food. It's a very big human health risk. Yuck.
  • Fun fact: it's not cow farts, but cow burps that give off the methane gas we blame cows (among other things) for.
  • Plant viruses are big time. Really really big time. I thought I would have nightmares about insects after my entomology class. nuh-uh. I'm still afraid to close my eyes after the plant pathology class. All I can say is this...I am going to seriously consider cleaning my pruners with alcohol after each cut just like we always read about. I'm surprised fungi haven't taken over the world. Do you gardeners clean your pruners after each cut? I'm going to be OCD about this now.
  • Finally, I will just ask this: why does there always have to be that one person in every class who thinks it's a personal class just for him/her? You know the one - who blurts out questions while others have their hands raised? Who will piggyback off of someone else's question, turning it into his/her question before the instructor even gets to answer the original question? The one who has so much to add to the class you wonder why he/she is even taking the class if he/she thinks he/she is so smart? It's making it hard for me to fully geek out when I'm spending increasing amounts of time annoyed by this...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking daylily

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The cheerful daylily is a cornerstone in many perennial gardens. Its virtual summer to frost profusion of blooms, bright color, and ease of care are attractive to any gardener. What many gardeners don't know, is that hemerocallis fulva, known as "gum jum fa" (golden needle flower) is a delicacy enjoyed in Chinese dishes. The unopened buds have a sweet taste, a crisp "song" (best understood as al dente) texture, and a versatility enjoyed in salads, stir-fries, soups, and noodle dishes.

Growing Daylilies

If you're not already growing daylilies, you probably know someone who is. Because the plants naturalize freely, your friend or neighbor would likely not mind dividing and sharing with you. If you need to buy your own, choose the common daylily or the tiger lily. They are always available from garden catalogs or garden centers. Daylilies have fleshy tuberous roots that should be set at the same level they were growing (if transplanted) with the crown just below the soil level. Daylilies are not only easy to move, but easy to care for. Compost dug into the planting hole is appreciated by any plant, but beyond that, daylilies are not fussy. After planting, water in well. They'll quickly become accustomed to just about any soil and are hardy in most of the United States.

Harvesting and Preparing Daylilies

Daylilies are aptly named because although the flowers are thick, appear hearty, and seem to last for weeks, each flower lasts for only one day. It is simply the sheer number of blooms that gives the impression they are so long-lasting. For eating, the buds are picked when plump on the morning just before they open. Because daylilies bloom from summer to frost, buds will be available for picking whenever the cook needs them. They can also be harvested and air dried for use after the flowering period. To prepare daylily buds for eating, gently squeeze open the tip of the bud and carefully pinch off the pollen covered anthers. Before cooking, soak/rinse carefully to remove any hidden insects or debris.

Buying Daylilies for Eating

If the ease of a carefree and gorgeous flower multiplying quietly in the corner of your garden does not appeal to you, or if you simply do not have room for another plant, daylilies for cooking can be purchased at Asian supermarkets. The "gum jum fa" can sometimes be found fresh, but is often sold dried in a bag or brick. Dried daylilies simply need to be rehydrated by soaking in cool water for about half an hour. Sometimes, cooks will rehydrate dried flower buds and tie a knot in the middle to add body and bulk that is somewhat lost during the drying process.


Daylilies have a sweet flavor and appealing texture, making it easy for the first-timer to enjoy. The biggest (and probably only) hurdle is to get over the fact that you're eating flowers! Then again, think of all the other flowers and flower buds you typically eat - broccoli, asparagus, artichoke, or perhaps even nasturtium or other flower petals... Though daylilies are versatile in the kitchen, I have enjoyed them in a white noodle soup with black mushrooms and sliced pork, and Chinese leeks. The recipe below uses daylily buds in a typical Chinese stir fry.

Daylily, Chicken, and Vegetable Stir Fry
  • 1 cup freshly harvested and prepared (see above) daylily buds
  • 4 stalks celery cut into chunks on a diagonal
  • 1 carrot sliced on diagonal
  • 7-8 pieces of wood ear (rehydrated and left in large pieces, with hard stem snipped off)
  • 4 cloves garlic, smashed with side of cleaver
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into small pieces
  • splash soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • dash white pepper
  • 1/2 cup water mixed with about 1 Tbsp cornstarch
  • cilantro for garnish, cut in large pieces
  1. Marinate chicken in soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, sesame oil, and white pepper.
  2. Just before cooking, add a drizzle oil to chicken and stir. This will keep chicken pieces from sticking to each other. Add oil to wok. Quickly cook chicken over high heat, then remove and set aside.
  3. Cook carrots and celery. After a few minutes, add garlic. Cook until vegetables are soft.
  4. Add cooked chicken, wood ear, and flowers. Continue to stir fry for a few minutes until heated through and buds soften and wilt. When done, the buds will be wilted, soft with a pleasing texture, but not mushy.
  5. Add water/cornstarch mixture. Continue to heat until sauce thickens. Add more salt or soy sauce to taste, if desired.
  6. Add cilantro, stir to incorporate and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking Napa Cabbage ( with dumpling recipe)

Crab, ground pork, and cabbage dumplings

Napa cabbage is a versatile Asian green used in salads, soups, stir-fries, and is even pickled (think: a spicy Korean kimchi). The napa variety is one of two main types of what is commonly known as Chinese cabbage. Chinese cabbages are heading cabbages with a mild flavor. The Michihili type is a tall cabbage, about 12 inches tall, and shaped similarly to romaine lettuce. The napa variety is shorter and chunkier. Both types are enjoyed by cooks from virtually all Asian countries because of its delicate flavor and high water content. Though the outer leaves are sturdier and similar to a regular cabbage, most of the inner leaves are better compared to a heading lettuce. Here's a photo from Wikipedia...I didn't copy it here because although the napa cabbage looks good, I think the quality of the photo is poor.

Growing Your Own Napa Cabbage...

Napa cabbage is a cool-weather crop and grows best in temperatures about 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold snaps or long hot days can cause the plant to bolt. To plant in the spring, start seeds indoors 4-5 weeks before your last frost date. To prevent bolting, be sure there is no chance of frost before transplanting. Set plants about 18 inches apart. To plant in the fall, direct sow seeds about three months before your first frost date. Plant seeds about 1/2 inch deep. When seedlings have four true leaves and are few inches high, thin to about 18 inches. The thinnings can be used in a salad or stir fry. Be sure to keep the cabbages well-watered. Napa cabbage can be harvested when it reaches any desired usable size. When mature, fall planted cabbage can tolerate some cold weather. Though it will slow or stop growing, the fall planted napa cabbage can wait for you in the garden until ready for use. Harvested napa cabbage can be stored in a cold shed, garage or basement for up to two or three months. This versatile leafy green can also be frozen.

If You're Buying...

If you're buying, you shouldn't have a very difficult time locating this vegetable. It is grown in many parts of the United States during the spring and fall, and is also available shipped from California and Hawaii, where it is grown year round. Many farmer's markets and most Asian supermarkets will carry napa cabbage. Select as you would select any heading cabbage. Look for crisp, green leaves. A mature napa cabbage will be about 8 inches thick and a bit taller than it is wide.


Chinese families will use napa cabbage year round in dozens of recipes. My father makes dumplings throughout the year, usually taking requests for the different filling combinations, both traditional and of his own creation. My favorite is his crab and ground pork dumplings. My cousins love his fish variation. My husband loves the flavor of leek and chopped pork, especially when they're hot. My sister, a vegetarian, loves the dumplings made specifically for her with chopped beanthread noodles, wood ear, firm tofu and the familiar fragrance of sesame oil. Last weekend, my parents made another popular variety in celebration of Chinese New Year. Dumplings are often served among other symbolic dishes on Chinese New Year. Their resemblance to filled purses promises to bring wealth and success for the upcoming year. Often, my father will hide a (well-washed!) coin to the filling in one of the dumplings - bringing extra luck to the person fortunate enough to find it among the hundreds of identical dumplings.

Like most cooks who make dumplings by hand, the recipe for the dumpling wrapper is not written, but guided by the texture of the dough and the years of experience. In the photos below, my father has separated the dough into little round pieces, flattened them, and rolled them out. Dumpling wrappers can also be purchased in Asian supermarkets. The recipe shown below is for my father's often-requested...Crab, Pork, and Napa Cabbage Dumplings. Because the napa cabbage is so mild in taste, it is hard to even detect its presence. It is likely that the high water content of the cabbage contributes to the juiciness of the dumpling that everyone raves about.

The process is skilled and speedy - one hand rolls while the other turns the wrapper around and around until the wrapper is of consistent thinness and ready to stuff.

Crab, Pork, and Napa Cabbage Dumplings

  • 1 bunch Chinese cilantro, chopped fine
  • 2 pounds napa cabbage, chopped very fine with excess water drained and squeezed out
  • 6 spring onions chopped very fine
  • 1/2 ounce ginger, minced
  • 1/2 pound crabmeat, picked through and chopped
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground pork, minced
  • 4 sea cucumbers, chopped (sea cucumbers are dried and need to be rehydrated overnight)
  • 1 Tbsp brandy
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup corn oil
  • 1/2 cup sesame oil
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp "Sweet Bean Sauce" (available canned in the Asian supermarket)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp white pepper

To make the filling, mix all ingredients together and stir vigorously for several minutes. Fill all dumplings. In a wok or pan, heat water to a rapid boil. Drop dumplings in and immediately stir gently to prevent dumplings from sticking to the sides or each other. Boil in one layer, working with one batch at a time. Typically, the dumplings will be finished a couple of minutes after they float to the top. To check for doneness, you will have to be a true Chinese cook. Take out a burning hot dumpling and taste. The filling should be very juicy but cooked through and hot (I will give you the hint that it should take about 5-8 minutes or so).

In these photos above and below, the dumplings are being filled and one end is brought up to meet the other end, creating a filled purse. Notice the utensil my father is using. He made several of these little spoons from the split and sanded bamboo from his property.
In these photos above and below, he is tucking little pleats and then firmly pressing the ends together, taking care not to rip the delicate dumpling wrapper.

My father uses a piece of countertop designated for dumpling-making as his work surface. The flour is a special very fine Chinese white flour. The kids are around the table, no doubt waiting for a piece of "Play-doh" to play with as they wait for their dinner to be made. I am setting the table with small plates and dishes of dark vinegar (or balsamic vinegar) to dip the dumplings in. We all stay busy in anticipation of a delicious meal upcoming...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How do you spell bug?

... h-e-m-i-p-t-e-r-a, h-e-t-e-r-o-p-t-e-r-a. Insects in this order of the class insecta are commonly know as bugs. So you see, a bug is an insect, but an insect is not necessarily a bug.

In college, my husband had a friend who was studying entomology. At a party, his wife was telling me about their wonderful honeymoon in the tropics. She got to lay on the beach and watch their stuff while he went into the woods to catch bugs. I love entomologists. What other profession attracts people who are so smart and so reverent towards some of Mother Nature's most grotesque creations?

Tonight's topic in my Master Gardener program was Entomology. We were enlightened by another passionate and engaging speaker who has again changed the way I see the world. I took copious notes and intended to pass some information along to you, but I don't think I would be able to explain these facts in as interesting a way as an entomologist could directly.

I will just pass along an interesting tidbit and pose one question to you - as we students pondered in class today. You've heard that the female praying mantis will bite off the head of the male praying mantis, right? WHY do you think this is? I mean, evolutionarily-thinking, biologically-thinking, why? I would love to hear your guesses and I will reveal the answer in the body of this post on Friday.

Photo courtesy of Adamantios, Wikipedia

In the meantime, check out this website created by the speaker I heard tonight - Michael Raupp. Bug of the Week highlights a bug you'll encounter somewhere in your part of the world. Each week there are photos, often times videos, and stories about the insect. There is also a very complete archive to search through.

Now, off to think pleasant thoughts before bed...

Edited to add: fortunately, there have been no insect nightmares. Apparently there are several theories as to why the female praying mantis will cannibalize the male. What often happens is that the female will bite off and eat the male's head DURING sex. In Mike Raupp's lab, one female went straight in for the kill, biting the male right in half through the middle. Another male had several successful conquests and kept his head. I'm not sure anyone really knows the real answer to my question posted earlier this week, but here's the theory I learned Tuesday night: After sex, the praying mantis turns her attention to laying eggs, requiring great amounts of protein. The largest source of protein? The head. You'd think that anything with brains would learn to stay away from something that will probably bite your head off during sex. Well, if you had a little brain in your head, a little brain in your mid-section, and a little brain in your sex appendage, you'd keep going back for more (I guess I could insert a Tiger Woods joke here, but the man's apologized - perhaps I'll leave him alone for now).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy gbbd, v-day, and Cny

Did you get them all? Garden Blogger's Bloom Day, Valentine's Day, and Chinese New Year!

Nothing blooming outside - we're still under cover here in Maryland. Lots of winter berries strikingly illuminated with the white backdrop of snow though. Today I stopped by my favorite garden center in search of something to bring to my parents' house for Chinese New Year. Since the holiday coincides with Valentine's Day this year, I had a wide selection to choose from. I was looking specifically for something red - which is generally an auspicious, symbolic color for Chinese New Year. My parents loved the red peace lily I picked up. Phew, since it seems everything is either a symbol of good luck or a symbol of bad luck!

Though I have not had much success with orchids, I have been inspired by friends in tropical climes and their gorgeous photos recently, and could not resist these totally adorable orchids! I decided to buy myself one. To put it in perspective, this is my 5 year old's little hands holding the orchid.

Finally, these lovely bulbs are in bloom today. Notice the container. This antique is over 100 years old and was specifically made for forcing bulbs to coincide with the day or so before Chinese New Year. You may know the red envelope is filled with money and is typically given by elders to their unmarried juniors (for example, uncle to niece, mom to son, grandmother to granddaughter, etc). If you're lucky, your elders won't pay too much attention to the married piece and give you a red envelope anyway (I'm lucky).

I'm a day early for GBBD this month, so starting tomorrow, check out May Dreams Gardens to see what's blooming in the rest of the world.

Autumn Belle has written several posts about how she has been preparing for and celebrating Chinese New Year. Check out this post - as well as the posts around it to learn more!

Have a romantic Valentine's day (or have fun rebelling against it if this is more your style), and gung hay fot choy if you're celebrating the lunar new year!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking Bitter Melon

The aptly named bitter melon tastes...well...bitter. The bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd, bitter squash or momordica, and pronounced "foo gua" in Chinese, is not for wimps. Fans of this member of the squash family recognize it by it's bright green bumpy skin, and enjoy it for its health benefits and distinct taste. Now mind you, I'm not talking about a dark chocolate sort of bitter, or an unripe grapefruit kind of bitter, or even a shot glass of vodka kind of bitter. I'm talking serious face-puckering bitter. When I was a child and didn't like the vegetable in the dish my mother made for dinner, I would usually just top my rice with some of the meat picked out, spoon a bit of sauce from the dish and muddle on through as any finicky child would. A dinner of bitter melon though, usually meant I'd go hungry since the bitterness would be incorporated in the accompanying meat, other vegetables, AND sauce. However, experienced bitter melon eaters would urge you to try the squash by describing the bitter tang or the refreshingly cooling quality of the bitterness. It's a taste not precisely describable and a vegetable you must try yourself at least once. If it helps, know that bitter squash is believed to lower blood glucose and lipid levels. It has even been found to have anti-viral and anti-oxidant properties.

Photo courtesy of J. Stander, Wikipedia

Grow Your Own Bitter Melon...

Growing bitter melon requires some attention at the outset, but once the vine gets going, it is fairly trouble-free. It takes at least 60 days to reach maturity AFTER planting out, and the melon also has a long germination period of up to 30 days. It is possible to directly seed in the garden, but the soil must be warm or the seed may rot before a cotelydon ever sees the light of day. For most gardeners without a very long season, it may make most sense to start bitter melon from seed indoors about 4-6 weeks before the last frost. To help the germination process along, consider soaking and/or nicking the thick seed coat. After soaking for about two hours in lukewarm water, spread seeds in a single layer between moist paper towels. Put the moist paper towels in a plastic bag and store in a warm place. Many people use either a waterproof seedling heat mat or simply the top of the refrigerator for this purpose. I have a special "seed germination corner" (which doubles as the cat's napping corner) that remains consistently warm throughout the early spring. I always use this warm spot to start seeds. Check the bag daily for germination and to be sure the paper towels are moist. Even with this method, it may take two weeks to germinate. Alternatively, consider nicking the thick seed coat carefully with a sharp knife, or breaking the seed coat with pliers (similar to how you would crack a sunflower seed). Be very careful that the endosperm is not damaged (and that your fingers are not damaged either!). After seeds germinate, they can be potted in a soilless medium.

While tending to seedlings, be sure there is room in the sunniest spot in the garden for the bitter melon to grow. This vine needs a structure to climb up and over in order to produce a good harvest. Before planting in the garden, harden the seedlings off by gradually exposing them to the outdoor elements for an increasing number of hours a day over a period of several days. Once they're in the garden, mulch well and water twice a week if there is no rain.

It is time to harvest approximately 60 days after planting out. Look for a smoothing out of the bumpy ridges on the melons to let you know they're ripe. Pick them while they're still green. Do not wait for them to become yellow - telling you they're too mature.

One of the most interesting sights for the gardener is a ripened bitter melon. To save seed, allow the melons to yellow on the vine. At a later stage, the melons will split open on their own, delighting garden visitors with the changes Mother Nature determined for them. Each seed will be covered in a bright red, goopy mucilage. At this point, the seeds can be collected and carefully washed off, or they can be left on the plant or even allowed to drop to the ground. Ants and other insects will carry the mucilage off and you'll be able to collect your seeds the next day. It's a most fascinating process!

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

If You're Buying...

If you're not ready to grow your own, many farmer's markets are beginning to carry bitter melon. Alternatively, your local Asian grocer may carry them - the freshest melons will be available from about April to September. Choose firm, green melons about 6-12 inches in length. Bitter melon can also be found dried and canned (though I suggest if you're going to try this for the first time, do it the right way - purchase a fresh bitter melon).

Cooking With Bitter Melon...

Bitter melon is most often cooked in stir-fries or soups. One way of taming the bitterness is by blanching the bitter melon for a few minutes. Totally hardcore connoisseurs may opt out of this step. Bitter melon is often cooked with hot red peppers, as the spiciness tends to balance the bitterness. To use bitter melon in a stir fry, slice the melon in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds, then cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch segments. You'll be left with attractive little C-shaped segments to use in your favorite stir-fry (black bean sauce is a favorite companion).


The recipe I will share with you today requires an only slightly more detailed preparation, and results in a delicious meal with a very unique presentation. This is a Stuffed Bitter Melon with Black Bean Sauce.

  • 2 large bitter melons
  • 1/2 lb minced pork
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tsp cornstarch

Combine all the ingredients above to make the filling. Next, stuff the bitter melon. There are two ways this dish is traditionally served. The first way is to cut the melon into 1 inches slices and then cut out the seeds and pulp with a paring knife. The centers are then stuffed with the pork mixture. My family prefers to split the melon lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp, and stuff the melons horizontally. Either way you choose to do it, arrange the stuffed pieces on a heatsafe plate and set over a steaming rack in a wok. Add enough water to come within an inch of the plate. Cover and steam for approximately 20 minutes.

While the bitter melon is steaming, prepare the Black Bean Sauce.

  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fermented black beans (found in a jar in the Asian market)
  • 1 Tbsp Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • pinch salt
  • solution of 1/2 tsp cornstarch mixed with a splash of cold chicken broth
  • 2 Tbsp oil

In a wok or pan, heat oil. Add garlic and fermented black beans. Stir for a minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add wine, chicken stock, and salt. Bring to a boil, then thicken with cornstarch/cold broth solution. Heat until sauce thickens. Stir in sesame oil and serve over steamed, stuffed bitter melon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking Bok Choy

Tonight I will begin a new series of posts on Asian vegetables. My intention is to share growing information with my vegetable gardening friends, buying information for those not yet ready to grow the particular vegetable I will be featuring, and passing along a recipe for those who need a step in the right direction. I'm sure there are numerous cookbooks on "how to cook a stir-fry in 20 minutes or less", I don't guarantee my recipes will be quick. I don't guarantee you'll find all the ingredients at your local supermarket. I do guarantee my recipes will be the real deal - the comfort food that Chinese people really eat for dinner - The delicacies on the "secret" menu shared exclusively with Chinese customers at Chinese restaurants (this is not just a myth!). If you have experience with the vegetable I'm featuring (grown/cooked/eaten), I'm also interested in your feedback!


For the first in the series, we shall start with the most obvious of Chinese greens - bok choy, known as pak choi if you're the type that likes to spell things uniquely, brassica chinensis if you're the scientific type, Chinese cabbage if you're the informal sort, or "white vegetable" if you want to be literal about it. Bok choy can be eaten uncooked, but most Chinese families enjoy their bok choy either stir-fried or braised. Bok choy can grow to the size of celery when mature, but many people prefer the more tender baby bok choy. The leaves can be peppery in taste, but when cooked, a lot of the bite disappears. Despite it's "obvious-ness" in the great realm of Asian vegetables, this cabbage is really a staple in Chinese diets. One reason may be because it packs a healthful punch. It has no fat or cholesterol and like several other dark leafy greens, contains Vitamins A and C, fiber, protein, folate, calcium, and iron. Another factor in it's popularity might be the ease with which it grows.

Plant Your Own Bok Choy...

If this sounds like your kind of green, grab your handful of seeds now and get ready to plant. Bok choy is a cold-weathered crop and can be grown in the spring and/or fall. Its short harvest time means you'll enjoy your first crop in about 30-50 days. In the spring, start transplants 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. After last frost, transplant about 6-12 inches apart in rows 18-30 inches apart. The smaller varieties can be spaced closer together. If you choose to directly sow seeds, wait until after your last frost date. Though bok choy can withstand cold temperatures, if young plants are exposed to frost, they can bolt. On the flipside, just like lettuce, if you're sowing seeds directly, a little shade will protect them from going to seed if it gets too hot. To directly sow, plant seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep about 1 inch apart in wide rows. Seeds will germinate in about 7 days. Thin to 6-12 inches when plants are a few inches tall. Enjoy the thinnings in salads or soups. Keep bok choy consistently watered.

If you're buying your bok choy, shop as you would for any lettuce or cabbage. Look for firm stems and abundant green leaves.


Bok choy can be eaten uncooked in a variety of salads, is great in soups, and found in stir-fries, hot pots, noodle dishes, and just about most dishes. This recipe below is a "family recipe". Though I'm sure you've seen some Chinese dishes with all the fanfare, this is an every day, simple, wholesome, and delicious recipe that a typical family might enjoy any night of the week. This is my mom's Bok Choy with Ground Pork. She chose to use ground pork (you'll notice a very small amount) only because she had it available, but it's possible to mix it up with sliced beef, pork, or chicken. Alternatively, consider adding a vegetarian protein in lieu of meat, or leave the protein out altogether and cook a side dish. Bok choy offers great versatility.

Bok Choy Stir Fry

  • 1/4 pound of ground pork
  • 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 pound bok choy
  • ground pepper and salt to taste
  • about 5 cloves of minced garlic
  • cooking oil
  1. Split bok choy lengthwise, rinse thoroughly, and drain. Be careful to remove all dirt.

  2. Marinate ground pork with soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch.

  3. Lightly stir fry meat in oil until just cooked. Remove and set aside.

  4. Add more oil to pan if necessary to measure about 4 tablespoons. When hot, add bok choy and stir for a minute. Add minced garlic to the top of the bok choy (this simple trick prevents burning the garlic and producing a bitter stir-fry). Cover and cook for a few minutes, turning occasionally. The bok choy is ready when just tender. You'll know because the color will change to a bright, bold green.

  5. Add cooked pork, stir till heated through.
  6. Add salt and ground pepper to taste. Chinese cooks will also add a sprinkle of sugar to taste. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More snow pros and cons

Pro: luckily, our city is good with snow removal. We don't usually see these backhoes, but actually picking up the snow and moving it elsewhere is necessary when you get this much. Below is our usual snowplow/salt/sander.

Con: as the snow on the roof melts, it drips onto the front porch. Each morning, there is literally a 2 inch thick layer of ice. At this point, it is nearly impossible to find ice melting salt or sand anywhere, even if we wanted to use some. Although we do have 4 distinct seasons in Maryland and get a dose of snow every year, people around here still go crazy and raid the stores of bread, milk, eggs, etc. It's really unnecessary. In addition, people don't know how to drive on the roads, either driving dangerously fast or dangerously slow. Though our city limits is good with plowing, the main roads and highways are not always plowed logically - 3 lanes will suddenly need to merge into 1 as a wall of snow will halt traffic in lanes. The big pro of living in Rhode Island (we lived in RI for 4 years) is that they really know how to deal with snow. Roads are salted and plowed promptly and properly. I guess the big con is that the potholes in RI are notorious and something serious to contend with after the winter season!

Below, you get a sense of how it's necessary to literally dig your car out.

Though shoveling on a calm, brisk, afternoon can be exhilarating, a cold wind that blows snow/ice into your face doesn't feel so good. After finishing the front, we moved onto the next task - shoveling the perimeter of the house. Why? Because (con), one year there were a few warm days after a big snow that caused the snow around the house to quickly melt and flood our basement!

Other thoughts:
Pro: being in pajamas for a week straight now.
Con: being a kid and having to cancel a sleepover.
Pro: being a kid who doesn't have school for the next several days and being able to reschedule for tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day, or the next day...
Pro: actually paying attention to the needs INSIDE the house (as opposed to neglecting the house for the garden). How come I hadn't realized our wall hangings were outdated? Or that we could really use a new couch? Or that the storage space is at a minimum in this house? Or that the kids' broken dresser really needs to be fixed or replaced?
Con: being out of my gym/work routine, and being stuck in the house means I'm eating just because I'm bored and have probably gained 5 pounds this week. I think I ate 100 cream puffs this week (just went to Costco and was going to bring these to preschool for my little one's birthday).
Con: CABIN FEVER. If you've ever been snowed in, you know what I mean. Family is great and all, but...
And the biggest CON: my sister, BIL, and almost 1 year old niece who has JUST learned to walk were supposed to fly in from North Carolina today. This is too sad to leave you with so I'll think of a final pro...
Pro: I got to hit Blockbuster before this second storm. It was funny because as expected, it was busy, but every customer had about 5 or 6 movies, bracing for another snow-in. Though I rarely have time to watch movies, not working means I don't have to get up at 5am, and that means I get to stay up really late (I am a night owl). I've had a Grey's Anatomy (DVR'd) marathon, watched Truman Show and Remember the Titans, watched The Wrestler last night (still can't get that out of my head), going to watch Julie and Julia tonight, and The Lady in the Water tomorrow night.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pros and cons of a big snowfall

We're not necessarily "paralyzed" as the news reports claim, but the D.C. area certainly does not need an additional 10 to 20 inches of snow as predicted in the next 24 hours. Below is what we awakened to a couple of days ago - lots of beautiful, fluffy, snow! There are many pros and cons involved with a heavy snowfall. I thought my tropical blogger friends might appreciate some of the realities of living in this clime (more Northern friends know what I'm talking about all too well!). First pro/con reality: no school!!! And for those of us who work in schools, no work!!! This is the hugest YAY! a big snowfall can bring. Some cancellations are not so happily received - my master gardener class has been cancelled and I'm pretty sure Starbucks is closed too. Here's a con - and just a con for me since as I get older, I'm getting crankier - sledding. Having a younger child means I actually have to get out there and sled as well. Though the sledding is fun, taking off my glove every five seconds to wipe a little one's runny nose, isn't so fun. Carrying a little one back from the hill b/c she's sooooo tired is not so fun.

Pro: some of the most gorgeous scenery. Even the old creek we take for granted looks cool and refreshing.

Another beautiful pro: icicles! Does it get more idyllic than that? Con: now look at it another way - sharp daggers waiting to fall on some one's unsuspecting head! We'd been watching that big one get longer and longer, then decided to smash them all down. We suspected that the weight of the icicles on the gutters was an expensive spring repair waiting to happen.

Con: fines are doled out if residents do not shovel their sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time. Pro: each year it snows, I look forward to getting out there and shoveling. It really is fun to be out among neighbors, working on the sidewalk, but the work gets quickly tedious, especially if (con) there is a layer of ice below the 2 feet of snow.

Con: when there is this much snow, it's difficult to figure out where to even dump the snow! Here you can see the snow piled up on the corner of the driveway. My husband's car is actually on the street behind the snow.

Con: most of the smaller streets were not plowed until late in the day (our city is usually really good with this). With a snow like this, an unplowed road means you cannot travel through. One road which leads to our house was closed due to a fallen power line. Another was closed due to a fallen tree, and the other, I can navigate with my SUV, but most sedans cannot safely navigate due to the ice and the incline of the road. A neighbor's friend in another town over lost power for about 2 days when she asked me to go rescue her and her baby. Having no power means no heat, no ability to cook. Since people had ransacked the stores, and since the street for this friend had not been plowed, meant a very uncomfortable situation. Though I thought it would be an easy feat to drive my car out, when I got out there, I realized the best bet was to drive my husband's car in the photo below. Pro: we live on a larger street, so we'd been plowed when many secondary streets had not. Con: the drawback of plowing means all the cars on the street become blocked in with a thick and tall layer of plowed icy snow. It required a 4-person 30 minute dig out before we could go pick up the friend in need.

Con: after this magnolia below has survived ice storms, Brood-X cicadas, torrential rainfalls, and my cable tie tourniquet, alas it has been split in two sections. I don't see a pro here at all. :(

Pro: I think with a big snow storm like this, as long as one accepts the reality of some of these cons like I've mentioned, it can ultimately be kind of fun. You don't see photos of my older kid because she's been pretty much gone for the past few days - at the hill, at a friend's house, at a friend's hill, here. As long as there's a a dryer running to get wet clothes ready for the next sledding excursion, a continuous supply of hot cocoa and snacks, the older ones are content. Of course my younger one below, has also been having a grand time.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My botanical blunder

It comes from a place of love, of nurturing, of hope. My sister bought us a gift certificate for a tree as a house warming present 8 years ago. The Southern magnolia we carefully chose and planted was a symbol of finally setting down roots. We staked the tree because god forbid a strong wind, or heavy storm, or other force of nature should knock down the tree. When the tree outgrew it's original tie, I grabbed my favorite tool - the plastic cable tie - and once again tied it up because...well...I loved this tree and wanted to protect it. In tonight's first master gardener lesson, we learned about botany from a most engaging speaker. There is too much to pass along and it's all fantastically interesting. I would just suggest everyone take a class in botany. There was only one moment I wanted to jet from the class - when we learned about the vascular system of plants. See the cable tie in the photo above? Well, though I had no interest or experience in gardening when I planted the tree, I did have an inkling that when a cable tie indents the tree, it's time to cut it off. Don't know why I didn't. Laziness. Busyness. A subconscious fear that the tree would fall over (silly when one can compare the thickness of the tree to the thickness of that anemic wooden stake). Here's why I DO need to cut it off: The cambium layer (xylem and phloem) of the tree is a very thin ring of conductive living tissue just behind the bark. The xylem's job is to transport water from the roots, upward into all parts of the tree. It's the continuous piping throughout the tree. The phloem's job is to transport sugars and carbohydrates from the leaves downward into all parts of the tree. This is the tree's vascular tissue. So that plastic cable tie could possibly be (gulp) cutting into the very layer that is essential to the life of the tree. In addition, I don't want to damage the cambium layer because disease can get into the tree, rot the (dead) wood in the center, and cause a slow death. Let's hope this class did not come too late...
On a lighter's another tidbit you may not have known about lilies (referencing this post on lily bulb and tremella soup) It does not have petals. You know how roses have petals and the green sepals just under the petals? Well, no sepals, no petals. Lilies have tepals. Remember this, there will be a quiz at the end of March - with a prize that has not yet been determined. For real. Just decided this now.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On being a masterish gardener

I spent the evening in a room full of people with widely diverse backgrounds. There was a woman born on a farm, a green agency worker, nutritionists, lawyers, an architect, a magazine publisher, young professionals from Capital Hill, a high school culinary arts teacher who won a grant to create a vegetable garden at school, lots of volunteers for different organizations, and many others. What other event could bring this motley crew together on a snowy Tuesday evening? The first day of master gardener class, of course.

Not to belabor the -ish theme, but I would prefer to consider myself a "master-ish gardener" because I'm sure that even after the two month course and 50 hours of volunteer work, there will be much to learn. I am excited to know that in order to maintain certification, master gardeners need to fulfill additional hours of volunteer work and continuing education every year. With lots of exciting projects going on in DC, I know I won't need to attach the -ish forever.

It's been an interesting day. I reach my bedtime full of excitement at this opportunity to learn and meet new people who all share a passion for gardening and concern for environment; full of maternal love as the baby of the family turns 5 after a day of birthday wishes and princessly attention (where did that pink and princess gene come from?); full of confusion after a really entertaining season premiere of LOST; and full of hope that tonight will bring lots more snow and a school (and thus work) closure tomorrow. I should go to bed reflecting on how cool it all is...but may read my assigned chapter on botany first...
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