What the fig?!

This past weekend, we had a friend visiting from overseas, a regular high-tech guy with heretofore no noticeable quirks. And then he revealed his desire to buy a farm! He was serious; he even went and got a certificate in Farming 101 or something similar since laws in his country limit ownership of agricultural land to farmers only.

So of course he was genuinely interested in the goings-on in my backyard since he is still wondering what to grow, exactly, in the farmland he intends to purchase. While giving him the “tour” we glanced inside the greenhouse and there was this single, huge, luscious-looking fig on my LSU Purple fig tree!

Nearly ripe LSU Purple Fig  on a potted tree in the greenhouse
Nearly ripe LSU Purple Fig on a potted tree in the greenhouse

Now, I have been single-handedly hauling those potted fruit trees, each easily weighing 50 lbs., into and out of the greenhouse to give them clear sunshine and let the inside of the greenhouse dry out a bit. Not once during these most likely unnecessary and backbreaking exercises did I notice a figlet (yes, that’s a word) on this particular tree, which is practically leafless at this point. So that was a really nice surprise! Can’t wait to taste it.

In the meanwhile, the alpine strawberry seeds have germinated. Some varieties have had better germination rates than others. I keep the tray on our dining room table facing a sunny window and all of them are growing at an angle towards the sun. I thinned out some cells which had as many as nine seedlings in them.

Newly sprouted Alpine Strawberry seedlings
Newly sprouted Alpine Strawberry seedlings

And of all the papaya seeds I planted, 12 of them, only 2 germinated, both Hawaiian Solo Sunrise. I’m hoping the others will pop up sooner or later.

Hawaiian Solo Sunrise seedlings indoors on a heating mat
Hawaiian Solo Sunrise seedlings indoors on a heating mat

In the spirit of doing more with our garden produce a la Nigel Slater, I’ve been making things where at least one key ingredient is from the garden. The recipes are from different sources, though I’ve tweaked them to my liking. Here they are:

Vanilla custard topped with roasted blueberries in case just the custard is too vanilla, the spreading deep blue of the blueberries with a hint of tartness from the lemon juice really elevates this humble dessert. Recipe from here.

Vanilla custard with roasted blueberries Image and Recipe Source: The Smitten Kitchen
Vanilla custard with roasted blueberries
Image and Recipe Source: Smitten Kitchen

Sangria made from the Spanish wine, rioja, allowed to blend overnight with fresh squeezed clementine juice (still a bit tart but great in this drink), orange liqueur and cognac. Thin rounds of citrus fruit, chopped strawberries, lots of ice and 7 Up added just before serving. This was a great hit. The recipe is from the book 101 Sangrias and Pitcher Drinks by Kim Haasarud. I’ve only tried this one so far and in a cute pot belly pitcher it looks just beautiful.

Guacamole, where the only thing from the garden at this time are the lemons (used instead of limes). The idea is to have the tomatoes, chilies and cilantro also from the garden in the warmer months.

Mojitos, as much fun to make as to drink. I have always grown mint in pots, having heard the stories of them conquering backyards. For somebody just starting a little garden, a pot of mint is very encouraging. I just stick a few leftover twigs in a pot and voila, a lush, fragrant herb garden in no time! I like to garnish salads with mint leaves, and mint chutney sandwiches served English tea style are perfect for a summer picnic. Can you tell I can hardly wait for warmer weather?

Crema Catalana, reminiscent of Crème Brulee, but lighter and infused with spices and citrus zests instead of or in addition to vanilla. The cinnamon stick and lemon and clementine zests steeping in warm milk filled the whole house with a warm and inviting fragrance. I came across an interesting twist on this recipe with caramelised figs; I think my lovely Violette de Bordeaux figs might be destined for that one!

Ripe – An Inspiration

The book recommendation algorithm at our library is surprisingly good; recognizing my interest in edible gardening, in particular fruit, it suggested “Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard” by Nigel Slater. If I were to ever write a book that combines my three loves of gardening, cooking + baking and photography, this is the kind of book I hope it would be. The prose is as delicious as the recipes, the photography rustic yet elegant.

Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater. Image Courtesy:  eatthelove.com
Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard by Nigel Slater Image Source: Eat the Love

Apples “… their skins a tapestry of moss green, sage and amber, their flesh crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character.”

and “The trees will be loved too, for their lichen-encrusted branches, tissue-frail blossom, and quiet benevolence.”

Side note: I have ordered my hardcover copy, this is a book to be lovingly held and lingered over.

There are no pictures in the book of shapely, perfectly colored apples tumbling out of artfully arranged baskets. Instead they suggest that the author just stepped into his garden and lovingly captured images of his harvest, endearingly ugly in a jumble of colors and sizes. For me this is especially heartening. You see, I have a 3 year old Garden Delicious (yes Garden, not Golden) apple tree. This is a genetic dwarf, developed by Zaiger’s Genetics of Modesto, California. The tree has only produced a grand total of 8 apples in the two years we have had it. The apples have been rather unattractive – small, green and yellow striped, with just a touch of red and somewhat lopsided. The flesh however was surprisingly good, “crisp, acid-sweet, and full of character”. I used to worry about how the fruit looked, being so used to the waxed perfection of grocery store apples. However, after reading about apples described with so much love, and all the delights you can make with them, I am happy to brush aside such concerns.

Cherries “bring with them a certain frivolity, a carefree joy like hearing the far-off laughter of a child at play.”

And when reading of a cherry pie “with soft sugar-dusted pastry and a river of unpasteurized cream running slowly over its warm crust” who can help being impatient for cherry season to arrive so you can bake such wonders.

Figs, blueberries, pears et al have been treated with the same love, respect and awe. The meat and fruit recipes, to be honest, I will probably not attempt, particularly the ones calling for pheasant, guinea fowl or rabbit. The dessert recipes are all tempting and simple.

In the meanwhile, the clementines in my backyard are ripening nicely. Every day their color seems to be a shade more orange. Last year, I started picking and eating the clementines in early January when they looked perfectly ripe and tempting. However, they all tasted bitter. After some frantic Internet research, I learned two things – one, don’t have citrus fruit immediately after brushing your teeth, a mouth freshly rinsed of toothpaste and citrus juices don’t combine well. Two, even when appearing to be perfectly ripe and coming off the tree easily, citrus fruit continue to increase in sugar content over time. So a few weeks later, the fruit had ripened properly to the sweetness and wonderful flavor I associate with our backyard clementines.

Ripening Clementines
Ripening Clementines

My potted Violette de Bordeaux fig, which I bought as a tiny twig last year with a couple of leaves, outgrew the pot it was in and now has 10 or more figs on it. It has been in my plastic greenhouse most of the fall and I intend to keep it there through the winter. Also, I got carried away and now have 5 more figs in pots or scheduled to arrive in the spring – Petit Negri, Celeste, LSU Purple, Peter’s Honey and Mary Lane. All of them I chose for a diversity of flavor and texture e.g. Mary Lane is also called Jelly fig, because it is seedless, Peter’s Honey figs are supposed to be as sweet as honey, and so on.

Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Figs on my potted Violette de Bordeaux fig tree
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse
Young potted Petit Negri fig tree inside the greenhouse

Among the flowers, Clematis Niobe has produced a huge off-season bloom. Winter-blooming jasmine is starting to form tiny buds. We have it growing around one of the supporting posts of our patio, and for a far too brief period in late winter, it perfumes the entire patio with its delicate fragrance. Hyacinth shoots are just beginning to poke their heads out of the ground.

Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Clematis Niobe in bloom in winter
Winter blooming Jasmine Jasminum Polyanthum in bloom last year
Winter blooming jasmine Jasminum polyanthum in bloom last year

The brisk air and mellow sunlight of winter is lovely, but I am impatient for longer days and for the garden to be bursting into life again.

Bookish

I am about halfway through Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which is currently on the New York Times Bestseller List ranked #13 in the Nonfiction Hardcover category. (Isn’t having separate lists for hardcover and paperback, literally, judging books by their covers?) She makes a compelling case for women to value and pursue their careers with usable advice on navigating the corporate “jungle gym” when you’re a woman. I’m slowly warming up to the book, although for me, the possibility of leaving the corporate craziness is increasingly attractive. I’d much rather garden.

My idea of a fulfilling life is to live in harmony with the earth, grow as much as possible of my own food, raise animals, and respect and enjoy the beauty and bounty of nature. I try to create a microcosm of my ideal life by growing a few vegetables and practicing organic gardening techniques. I’m still making a case for having a couple chickens and a rooster in the backyard, which the city allows. However, this proposal was met with violent opposition from the rest of the family. So, no fresh eggs in the mornings. For now.

Self-sowed seedling of African daisy
Self-sowed seedling of African daisy

I strongly recommend gardening, obviously. A seed sprouting, the botanical equivalent of a baby being born is magical, more so if you consider the science of it all. In his fascinating book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, physicist Richard Feynman argues how knowing the science behind a beautiful thing such as a flower does not detract from it’s beauty; it makes it more beautiful and awe-inspiring. The detailed quote is below:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

So, when I’m out in the garden, mentally designing fabulous borders and focal points in my mind while digging a hole to plant my latest acquisition, I’ll sometimes pause, look around and let myself be astounded by the magic happening all around me. I highly recommend it.