How Does My Garden Grow – Season Two

Just like the surprise return of a critically-acclaimed but unpopular television series, my attempts at urban gardening are back for another season. The story of a green-thumbed underdog trying to coax vegetables to grow in a balcony planter under the hot and humid Thailand sun had a well-documented first season. This season’s theme is “hot and humid tomatoes”. The soil is more fertile and the vines better supported, but will the plants yield any fruit? Tune in to find out!

I ended last season (which, because of my south-facing balcony, is roughly November through April) realizing that my soil had too much clay in it and that I was growing tomato varieties ill-suited to the heat and humidity of Thailand. Tomatoes like hot weather but most varieties require relatively cooler nighttime temperatures so the fertilized blossoms set. 

To address the first issue, I ended last season by creating two compost bins, filling them with the remaining soil from the first season’s plants, and adding kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells every week. The earthworms bred like rabbits and by December, I had a much better quality of soil. 

To remove the clods, stones, and other debris, though, I needed a dirt sifter. Dragging my personal assistant to the port-side wood working district, we arranged for a local carpenter to build a sifter using some chicken wire I purchased at the hardware store and some scrap wood from a packing crate. The sifter worked perfectly and over the course of a few mornings, I removed the larger objects from the soil while amending it with ground coconut husks (perfect for aerating the water and helping to retain moisture) and steer manure.

To address the second issue, tomato blossoms not setting, I ordered the “Tropical Hot and Humid” seed collection from TomatoFest.com. Among the varieties I received are, from left, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter, the Hawaiian Currant, and the Arkansas Marvel. They are all heirloom varieties and all are supposed to do well under tropical conditions.

Season two is well underway with the first blossoms starting to appear on a variety called Anahu, left, and the Hawaiian Currant, right. Last weekend I transplanted seedlings for the Mortgage Lifter and Arkansas Marvel, and planted seeds for another three varieties including the delicious sounding Chocolate Stripes.

We will see what happens and whether the improved soil and more carefully selected varieties will be sufficient to make my garden a productive one this season. Otherwise, I may just have to give up and be content with herbs. 

Italian Sunday Gravy

Not the first time I’ve written about Italian Sunday Gravy, the seminal slow-cooked tomato sauce filled with various cuts of meat. Shortly before leaving for the US, we visited a Swedish-Thai couple we know and prepared Italian Sunday Gravy for them and several other friends.

P1210130

A plate full of meats – sausages, ribs, and loin – are seared to get some color into the pot. Then onions are sauteed, tomato sauce is caramelized, canned tomatoes are added, and then the meat is placed back in the sauce and the whole thing bakes in the oven for three hours.

P1210136

Meanwhile, I made some homemade pasta using Thomas Keller’s French Laundry pasta dough recipe. Since we were at friends’ house and I didn’t want to carry my KitchenAid mixer (which has a pasta rolling attachment) I just used a cutting board and rolling pin. A little more rustic, but it still turned out okay.

P1210139

Letting the sheets of pasta dry for a few minutes before cutting them. This way, the individual pieces of pasta cut more easily.

P1210143

The hand-cut pasta – I didn’t have a ruler or straight edge handy so these are cut with all sorts of varying width. Very rustic, indeed! My technique (or lack thereof) would shame Italian grandmothers.

P1210150

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water just as the sauce is finished. Fresh pasta cooks much more quickly than dried pasta so one needs to pay close attention.

P1210153

Once the meat is tender, you pull it out of the sauce and serve it on a platter.

P1210154

The remaining sauce is served directly from the pan and spooned over your pasta. Lots and lots of flavor in there!

P1210148

A side dish of cabbage, fennel and radish cole slaw with a sesame dressing. Makes a nice accompaniment to the heavy Sunday gravy.

P1210158

For dessert, one of our hosts cooked raspberry almond bars. These were fantastic. All in all, not only did we have a very fun time visiting with our friends, but the cooking was fun, too.

 

Hanging on for Dear Life

While last month I did say that my gardening season had come to an end, I actually still have three cherry tomato plants growing and one of them is managing to produce a dozen or so fruit. Of course, I failed to label the containers so I’m not sure which variety is doing relatively well!

P1210160

What I found fascinating and beautiful was the way this one leaf had grown around a support wire, as if grabbing onto it. Normally, the branches of the tomato plant just rest on the support cage. This one seemed to be more vine-like, wrapping around.

 

Sunday Brunch

Sunday morning we hosted brunch for a group of friends, all of whom work (or used to work) in the aviation industry.  Needless to say, the topic of conversation frequently turned back to shared work experiences.  Despite this, we still had time to enjoy a relaxed meal of salad, sandwiches, and dessert.

P1200303

A ripe, juicy watermelon from a roadside stall in Korat province provided the inspiration for a cool, refreshing summer salad.  Trying to scoop melon balls while avoiding seeds was a challenge, though!

P1200305

Based loosely on a recipe by the New York Times’ Mark Bittman, this salad features just four ingredients: watermelon, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, and fresh mint.  I didn’t dress the salad with a red wine vinaigrette as Mr. Bittman suggests, because when I tasted the combination I found the flavors already beautifully balanced.

P1200309

To make the main course, I first baked a batch of focaccia bread, the light, airy, rosemary infused Italian style bread.  This batch was based on a recipe in the Los Angeles Times by La Brea Bakery owner Nancy Silverton.  The problem is, the recipe is missing the last step: how long to cook the bread and at what temperature!  Critical information, methinks.  Referencing another recipe, 450 F for 15-20 minutes was sufficient.

P1200313

Despite the absence of time and temperature information, the loaf turned out nicely and when paired with some herb smoked ham from Soulfood Mahanakorn, provolone cheese, and a roasted red bell pepper and onion relish I made, we had some beautiful paninis.

P1200301

For dessert, I made one of Tawn’s favorites: banoffee pie.  This British import features a layer of rich toffee on a cookie crumb crust, covered with freshly sliced bananas, whipped cream, a drizzle of coffee flavored syrup, and chocolate shavings.  Instead of making a cheat version of the toffee, I made it the old fashioned way: boiling tins of sweetened condensed milk in a water bath for three hours until the contents caramelize.  Care must be taken to keep the tins fully submerged, otherwise they will explode and spray your kitchen with boiling hot caramel.

P1200316

The end result – my first ever attempt at this dish – had its ups and downs.  The crust hadn’t been made with enough butter so it didn’t hold up well, collapsing under the weight of the filling.  The toffee, which was insanely tasty, was too much – one can would have been plenty.  I didn’t whip the cream quite enough so it didn’t hold its shape and instead spilled through the collapsing crust.

But, despite all that, it was really tasty.  I’ll try again one of these days and refine the recipe.

 

Tomatoes

I found a few pictures of one of my Chianti tomatoes.  Went ahead and added it to the previous entry about the balcony garden but didn’t want to time-stamp it.

P1200157

This tomato was pretty small, although really nice and ripe.  Shown here with some Italian basil and Italian parsley I’m also growing.

P1200159

Turning the tomato over, though, you can see the result of the blossom rot.  Thankfully, this was only superficial damage.  I sliced this section off and the rest of the fruit was good to eat.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt 4: First Harvest

With the US Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away, it seems fully appropriate that I was able to recently celebrate my first harvest from my balcony garden.  It was a limited harvest – one beet, one radish, and two cherry tomatoes – but at least it is a start, right?  For those of you who have missed my videos, I filmed and edited a new one to mark this momentous occasion.

P1180254

The harvest was a small one, but I was excited with it nonetheless.  On the left is a golden beet, on the right is a type of heirloom radish called a watermelon radish.  It is supposed to have a light green skin with a pink interior.  The skin was kind of a pinkish white instead.  Behind the two roots are my carrots which are slowly growing.

P1170384

Raindrops on the leaves of my third tomato plant.  Once we hit the start of October – the end of rainy season – the weather rapidly changed.  We’ve had significant rainfall only two or three times since then and my south-facing balcony has been bathed in direct sunlight for about 7 hours a day.  The plants have definitely enjoyed the sun, although I’ve had to be diligent about watering.

P1170330

One curious thing is that my tomato plants – both cherry and beefsteak – have had a problem with pollination.  So far only two fruits have grown.  I’ve not seen any bees around my plants but according to my online research, tomato plants are self-pollinating.  One technique recommended in some videos is to give the plants a good shake to encourage the pollinating.  So far that hasn’t seemed to help.  Plenty of blossoms come and go, but few ever become fruit.

P1180257

And there they are, my two cherry tomatoes.  Organic, homegrown, and mighty tasty.  Now if I could just get a few more of them off my plant, which is nearly three meters tall!

P1180269

Inside of the watermelon radish.  It had a nice flavor, less sharp than the conventional red radishes you see at the market.

P1180268

Golden beet.  I have only seen red beets sold in Thailand so was very excited to have golden beets.  What I’ve decided, though, is that root vegetables are a poor use of limited container space.  I need to focus on vertical plants – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc. – where I can get more yield per square meter of soil.  Of course, I guess the tomato plants haven’t really panned out yet, have they?

Here’s the video of the autumn 2011 harvest.

P1180279

The healthy salad I made from mostly store-bought vegetables and my few container garden vegetables.  The shredded golden beet is on top, some sauteed beet greens, and the radish.  Success!  Stay tuned for more gardening developments.

Previous entries on this subject:

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity 
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 3: Back to Seedlings

Saturday Cooking Part 2

Whereas Saturday morning was spent at the Seagull Cooking Cafe helping break in their new cooking school, Saturday evening was spent at the house of Khun Nat, co-editor of the website catandnat.com where some of my entries are cross-posted.  After he started editing my pieces and discovered our common interest of food, he suggested we cook together.  Our first venture: Hearty Italian Sunday Gravy based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated.

This over-the-top tomato sauce usually calls for six cuts of meat and half a day by the stove.  Thankfully, the CI recipe cuts that down to just three cuts (ribs, sausages, and meatballs) and just a few hours, most of which is in the oven.  In addition to preparing the sauce, spaghetti and a salad, Nat prepared an angel food cake.  Not wanting to waste the egg yolks, we also prepared two batches of ice cream: one banana and the other raspberry.

I did not go to the trouble of shooting everything, simply because I was being put to work.  But here is a video showing the highlights of the afternoon and evening.  If you cannot view the video embedded in this entry, the link for it is here.

P1100133

Raised in New York City, Nat moved here in his mid-twenties and has been here ever since.  He is one of those fortunate souls who got to design his kitchen from scratch and it is perfectly laid out to have lots of people involved in the cooking.  Off to the left is a seating area where guests can relax and talk with the chef.  Very useful arrangement, if only I had another few dozen square meters in my condo!

P1100138

Iron Chef New York prepares the tomato sauce after browning in the meats in a skillet.  The secret behind the rich flavor is that you sautee the onions until they start to brown and then add tomato paste and cook it until nearly burned.  While this may seem too far at first, it concentrates the flavors and nicely caramelizes the sugars in the paste, and it ends up adding an incredible richness to the sauce.

After adding crushed canned tomatoes and cooking for a while, you add the ribs and sausages to the sauce and let them bake, covered, in the oven for two hours.

P1100144

Starting ingredients for the meatballs: Italian parsley, egg yolk, bread crumbs, buttermilk, chili flakes, salt, and spices.

P1100154

Nicely shaped (golf ball sized) meatballs.

P1100159

Nat has a half-dozen or more beagles, all of which are very cute.  They must have been tortured by the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen!

P1100186

Fry the meatballs until browned.

P1100187

Busy kitchen as Tawn and Cha handle the wine, Nat keeps an eye on the meatballs, and the angel food cake rests upside down on the concrete countertop.

P1100190

The finished meatballs with nice browned bits on the outside, ready to add succulent flavor to the Sunday Gravy.

P1100198

After the first round of cooking the ribs and sausages in the sauce, we agreed that it needed more liquid so added some water.  Then added the meatballs and let them finish cooking.

P1100215

Beautiful angel food cake.  I really should make these more often.  They are fat-free and very showy and satisfying desserts, especially with some fresh berries spooned on top.  We went for homemade ice cream, but berries would have been nice, too.

P1100224

Keeping with the Italian theme, a nice mixed salad with cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, salami, feta cheese, and olives.

P1100228

The meat piled on a platter, ready to serve.  Too bad Xanga doesn’t have a smell-o-blog feature.

P1100241

The final product: whole wheat spaghetti served with rich sauce and three types of meat.  Oh, this was good.  I hate to rub it in, but you really missed out!

P1100246

A slice of heaven.  Didn’t photograph the two types of ice cream, but you can trust me that they were tasty, too.  Is there room in my kitchen for an ice cream machine?