Friday, May 20, 2011

From Backyard to Table: The Rewards of Urban Gardening

This spring has been the coldest one I have ever experienced. Just when I thought I wouldn't be able to take another cloudy day that wouldn't even break sixty, the weather finally started to warm up.

Saag with homemade tomato chutney and mango chutney. 

When the weather warms up, my favorite place to be is my backyard. Most people wouldn't consider it anything special. It's not sprawling, and there are areas that some would consider an eyesore. When the grass is mowed, I hardly notice the weeds. The concrete sitting area— once the site of a garage long ago removed— is desperately in need of TLC. Still, it's my sanctuary amidst the urban chaos.

This is a totally random picture of the crumbling concrete in our sitting area, but I like it and thought I'd share.

The thing I love most about my backyard is my vegetable garden. It's small— only three planter boxes totaling less than 50 square feet— but it will supply us with fresh produce till the first frost. Currently we're harvesting lettuce, kale, and various Asian mustard greens. Soon (but not soon enough!) the sugar snap peas will be ready. By the time August rolls around, the first of the tomatoes will show up, followed closely by zucchini, cucumbers, chili peppers. Let's not forget the herb garden: Thai basil, Italian basil, cilantro, thyme, oregano and mint. Amazing how much can be produced in such a limited space.

Staggering plantings allows us to have lettuce available all season. 

Once you go mesclun, you never go back. Isn't that what they say? No? Well, they should! 

Asian mustard and sugar snap peas. Okay, maybe I did plant them a little too close together, but they seem to be doing just fine.

When we were in Las Vegas this past Christmas, Mom gave me a bag of Asian mustard seeds she collected from her garden. She said to just spread them around, and they pretty much should take of themselves. She did not exaggerate. It took me all of 5 minutes to sprinkle them out, throw a thin layer of soil on top and walk away. That was mid-March, and despite the miserable weather, these bad boys still grew like gangbusters. The warmer weather is causing them to go to seed, but that's okay. I'll just collect the seeds and plant them next year.

Last fall, my neighbor gave me a pack of kale starts. I planted them and basically forgot about them. They didn't seem to do much over the winter— not thriving, but not dying either. Then about a month ago, they just took off, much to my kid's chagrin.

This week, I found myself with a ton of mustard greens and kale. There are a million and one things I could have made, but I decided it was time to revisit an old favorite. Saag. The best Indian dish. Ever.

I've blogged about saag before and received a lot of good feedback on it, so if you're looking for a good recipe or guidelines,  check out that post. The one thing I did differently here was use my pressure cooker, which did a magnificent job of breaking down the greens in a fraction of the time. By the old method, I'd have to braise the greens for a while to get them tender and evaporate most of the liquid.   And normally, I let my saag sit overnight for the flavors to meld together.  Don't have to when I use the pressure cooker because it does such a good job of extracting the flavors from the spices.

Shallots, garlic, ginger, cloves, cardamom, fenugreek, cumin seed and cinnamon—wonderfully aromatic. 

See those tough stems? They are no match for the pressure cooker. 

I had enough greens to fill the cooker two times over. As you can see, they wilted down quite a bit.

At this point, all that's left to do is blend and enjoy! Easy peasy!

So tell me, what are you growing?

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