Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Backyard Gardening for Amateurs

I always feel sad for the poor, unsuspecting plants that find their way into our home, as their days are most certainly numbered. There are few people more adept at killing plants than Chef Matt and myself. We have driven hardy house plants to early deaths and easily destroyed a whole row of hostas, that Green Beret of yard plants.

The exception has been our little backyard garden. Most of the work is left to the whims of weather; the responsibility of regular (or even occasional) watering and correct lighting is not in our hands, which is likely the reason our herbs and vegetables survive past June. We plant in May, and then glance at our little fenced plot on our way to the garage all summer, hoping that something will eventually produce edibles. Our cucumbers were quickly gobbled up by some industrious neighborhood animal, but otherwise, Mother Nature has prevailed, in spite of our ineptitude.

Our horticultural limitations certainly curb the types of foods we can grow. Not for us anything delicate or temperamental. We prefer plants like thyme, which can be buried under snow for several months and sprout fresh in the spring without any pruning or replanting or fertilizer. Cherry tomatoes require a little more love, but simply ensuring that the stalks are tied to the tomato cage guarantees a plant heavy with clusters of fruit.

We don't plant a backyard garden with any sort of ambition. Our garden will never be one of those glorious quarter-acres of sunshiny vegetables peeking out from beneath leafy greens, carefully organized for maximum capacity. We are always a little surprised when things actually grow. For us, the great pleasure of our garden is just nearness. It is highly satisfying to step out our backdoor, pluck a few leaves of fresh basil, inhale the sharp, clean scent, and sprinkle the product of our wee sprout on tomatoes and a lovely mozzarella.

Despite our general inability to make things grow, we'll always try to keep something that resembles a garden for the sheer enjoyment of brushing the dirt off chives before we stir them into a cream sauce. Someday, we may try to plant more than a twelve-foot-square space, as long as the sun and rain continue to keep our garden alive so we don't have to.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Early-Twenties Empty Refrigerator

Last week, my brother, 23 and in his first apartment, invited us over for dinner. My brother's repetoire includes approximately four meals, most of which originate in a box labeled "Kraft" or a can labeled "Chef Boyardee," so I was pleasantly surprised when he presented us with a Stouffer's lasagna, garlic bread and a dessert.

While waiting to eat, I peeked in his refrigerator and was appalled at the emptiness. The shelves were bare, save for a few grapes, a package of sliced cheese, and three beers. I found bread and chips and donuts elsewhere in his kitchen, and to a casual observer it appeared that he either orders pizza five days a week or subsists on snacks and cheese sandwiches.

The gaping whiteness reminded me of my own early-twenties refrigerator. I recalled the near-desperation of my post-college years, stretching loaves of bread and gallons of milk, living without the luxuries of salt or pepper or napkins, using paper towels as coffee filters, and staring longingly at fresh produce I could not afford.

When I was 23, my grocery budget was $25 a week, and there were weeks when I ate ramen noodles for lunch and tortillas with butter for dinner. On my 24th birthday, I was snowed into my home with cereal and a beer. It is jarring when you spend 20 years with readily available food and are suddenly standing alone, staring at a deserted icebox, wondering if it would be at all appetizing to mix rice, peas and barbecue sauce.

That year, my brother sent me a "Rations Box," filled with non-perishables. I never opened it. Instead, I kept it on the counter in case of an emergency, carried it with me to each new home, and eventually stored it in a kitchen cabinet as a reminder of my food-poor days. I still have it, and whenever I see it, I am grateful that there is no ramen in my cupboards.

What began as a joke, however, transformed into a lesson in determination and appreciation. I stared down that Rations Box when times were tough, intent on saving it for a time of great need. I keep it now so I will not forget the popcorn dinners and will always appreciate the rush of relief when I open my full refrigerator.

Perhaps it is time for me to return the favor and make my brother a box of his own.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Testimony of a Wine Lover

Chef Matt and I are not big drinkers. On the rare occasion that we open a bottle of wine, it will sit on the counter and further ferment, almost full, for two months before it finally comes to rest at the bottom of our garbage disposal.

During our epic Napa vacation, however, I woke each day feeling like I'd been marinating in a cask of wine. We Ping-Ponged up and down Highway 29 in Napa Valley, armed with a tourist brochure highlighting all the vineyards offering free tastings, and sampled dozens of reds and whites, and a few champagnes. The exotic thrill of a mid-morning haze lured us down canopied driveways, into stone buildings or wide porches with a view of the valley, where the ancient spell of wine swirled about us like wind and neatly carried us away.

My wine education began, as many others' have, in college with a box of something pink and ridiculously sweet. It wasn't until I spent a summer in Germany, drinking red Argentinian wine late into the evenings, that I understood how wine should be acknowledged as its own course, alongside appetizer and dessert. When I drink a glass of good wine with a good meal, it seems to seep into the miniscule crevices between food-flavors and complete by way of complementing.

The allure of wine is much the same as the allure of food: enjoyment tempered with education. I can enjoy food without feeling compelled to learn, but when I understand how to parfait flavors or appreciate textures, eating is less an act of sustinence and more an act of gratification. Wine becomes more complex as the secrets behind aromas and tastes and pairings are revealed, and I am tempted to savor its complexity with greater care, just as one would sip a fine whiskey or take tiny bites of a dense chocolate fudge.

Neither Matt nor I have sophisticated wine palates -- although I must admit I was duly impressed with his ability to isolate flavors in every wine we tasted -- but we both love the aura that accompanies wine-drinking. I feel more companionable with a glass of wine in hand, more aware of fermented grapes' place at a wedding in Cana and centuries of Tuscan dinner tables and homemade presses in 1920s cellars.

We left Napa with a rather embarassing number of bottles, especially for two people who drink more Coke than wine. But we couldn't help ourselves. We simply could not leave to memory wines tasted in a replica Italian castle, in a migrant-owned vineyard, or on a sunny patio where I was reacquainted with Chardonnay, so we filled our wine rack with images of Napa, suspended for a time in divine gold and scarlet liquids.