Friday, February 12, 2010

Oderatus, sinuata

Why am I awake and typing madly at 7am? Who knows? But the coffee and toast are made and I'm cozy in bed listening to the cold rain, glad that it's watering the sweet-pea and bachelor's-button seeds planted yesterday up in the garden. Oh, sweet peas! How I love them. They smell so incredibly sweet, especially the old-fashioned ones, which were specifically bred & cultivated for their scent. Their Latin name is "Lathyrus odoratus"--as you might expect, anything with "odoratus" in the name is a good thing.

Most really sweet-scented flowers use their perfume just like you do--for sex! Since they can't hit the bars, they have to get the hotties to come to them, by sending out a waft of tasty, tasty scent to attract the creepy-crawly pollinating bugs who'll climb in for nectar. Presumably, flying past a rose is like walking past a doughnut shop for a bee--irresistible.

On their way down to the nectar bar, they get powdered in pollen, which is full of the plant's genetic material. Then they head off to flower #2 (because each flower only offers a tiny siplet of nectar, so everyone can get a little lovin') and track the previous flower's pollen all over the floor. Which makes the plant babies (fruits with seeds, to grow more plants) happen.

Not surprisingly, many flowers are only perfumey before they're pollinated. Once they get knocked up, as it were, they don't bother. Sweatpants and dirty hair after that! The flower itself often drops its petals and dies off shortly after pollination, so the plant can put its energy into fruit & seed production. If you're growing flowers for cutting, it's important to be able to visually identify your flowers' status pre- and post-pollination, because a flower that hasn't been pollinated will last a lot longer in a bouquet than one that has.

Sweet peas, though, just spread their gorgeousness around for the sake of it, since they self-pollinate before the flowers even open. Thank you, sweet peas! Since I've always had such limited gardening space, I've always felt strongly that any plant had to pull its weight and be either edible, a useful companion plant (like alyssum or marigolds, which repel aphids from other plants), or a banquet for the pollinators (bees love anything blue, hence the bachelor's buttons). But now I'm mellowing and making space for that which is simply shamelessly pretty, too.

My latest favorite is Salpiglossis (also called Stained Glass Flower or Painted Tongue), which I fell in love with out at the farm at UCSC. I had one last year, bought at the fabulous Flora Grubb, called Chocolate Royale, which produced a big ball of really beautiful deep, deep maroon-brown velvety flowers, all summer long. Plus, I love that its Latin name is Salpiglossis sinuata--so belly-dancer-ish!

And in your gardening news: stop by new gardening/groovy stuff shop Succulence on Sat, Feb. 13, for their grand opening party. I met co-owner Amy Shelf at the Underground Farmers Market last month, and she's just as nice as can be (she and her husband run 4-Star Video on Cortland Ave; Succulence is out back). Plus, she'll have some of her groovy preserves and pickles on hand. I'm going to go and remind her about her offer of a lemon-marmalade-making date...

And Pam Peirce, doyenne of gardening in the Bay Area's kooky microclimates, has recently revised and updated her classic reference book, Golden Gate Gardening. She'll be talking at Flora Grubb at 1pm on Sat., Feb. 28th.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

lemon tart

Living in SF on and off for 15 years, there's a certain built-in sense of place you get after a while. You know automatically which way to turn to get the train outbound or inbound, which way is the ocean and which way is Oakland. You fall asleep on BART coming from Rockridge, look out the window and know immediately, with a sinking heart, that you've missed 24th St and are headed somewhere past Daly City. The train pulls up in Colma and you realize you've gone 4 stops past where you wanted to be, and that you're going to have to sit on the cold concrete bench and wait for the next Bay Point-bound train to take you back to where you meant to go in the first place. Then again, at least you woke up in Colma, which is more than most people do.*

Back to 24th St, 14 Mission bus to Cortland, 24 Divis up the hill, finally home again, home again, jiggity jig. And unlike your umbrella last week, you didn't leave your french tart pan on the train, a good thing.

As usual, I was coming home after a transbay baked-goods run, not wanting to face rush hour and then late-night driving in the Green Bean, aka the PQ's nifty '95 beetle-green Taurus. The destination? Leslie's family-and-friends b-day party, a soupfest of fun, with cheese, bread and two fab soups, lentil and chicken and rice. Yes, Chicken Soup with Rice, just like the Maurice Sendak poem.

Leslie asked for a sweet, and since I still had the last few lemons from D's Oakland tree in the fridge, I made a lemon tart. What a hit! I used the recipe from the Bouchon cookbook as posted on Epicurious, and at first I was wary, since it was more of a creamy/fluffy filling rather than the typical jelly-ish french-bakery style. But it was tart and super-lemony and just lovely. Partly because I made one tart for what turned out to be 15 or so people (plus kids), everyone only got a little sliver, which was maybe why they all raved and wished for more. But regardless, I think that Mr. Keller might be onto something. Here's my version:

Birthday Lemon Tart

I made this with Meyer lemons, which are sweeter and more fragrant than your usual Eureka/Lisbon lemons. You can increase the sugar a little if you can't get Meyers.

Tart crust:
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
7 tbsp butter, very cold, chopped into chunks
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp cold water

Mix flour, salt, and sugar, then cut in butter until it forms little nickel-sized bits. Whisk egg yolk, vanilla, and water together; add and toss together until dough comes together when squeezed. Don't worry if it seems crumbly; it will get moister as it rests. Put in a zip-lock bag, seal, and chill for at least 1-2 hours. Roll out into a round on a lightly floured surface (if it's too sticky to roll, just press into pan as evenly as you can). Tuck into a 9-inch fluted metal tart pan with removable bottom. Bake for 20 min at 350F, rotating as necessary for even browning, until golden brown. Let cool.

2 egg yolks
2 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
grated rind of 1 lemon (use a microplane!)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
4 tbsp butter

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, beat yolks, eggs, and sugar together. Whisk until mixture is foamy and beginning to thicken. Add 1/3 of lemon juice and keep whisking. After a minute or two, add another 1/3 of juice. Repeat. Keep whisking until mixture gets thick and opaque, and mounts up a little as you whisk (whisk should leave trails). It should take about 10-12 minutes. Turn off heat. Beat in butter, 1 tbsp at a time. Remove top of double boiler from water, and let cool. It will thicken and get fluffy as it cools.

Spoon filling into crust. If desired, brown lightly under the broiler (watch carefully, as it will only take a minute or two). Serve chilled or at room temp.

Leslie's dad wanted me to be his Big Love second wife after tasting this; her mom fully agreed and said I could come for dinner at their house anytime, as long as I brought them a tart.

* Colma is the Bay Area's necropolis, with more graveyards than neighborhoods. Sure, some people do live here, but the vast majority? Very quiet.