Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Action in the Squash Patch

For members of my household who love pumpkin pie and butternut stew, 2009 was a disappointing year. Total number of winter squash: 2. I gleaned one Buttercup and another Spaghetti squash from six large plants. It was a lot of green square footage producing a whole lot of nothing.

After some sleuthing and input from my squash-crazy sister-in-law, we’ve deducted a pollination problem. In 2009, I had plenty of flowers and the fruit would look like it was growing then instead yellow and die.

This year, I have taken matters into my own hands and started playing ‘Birds and Bees’. The first thing to surprise me was the sheer number of available male flowers and the woeful number of willing female compatriots. The ladies are more inclined to draw their virginal petals up demurely around their centre and remain like this most of the day. In my patch, fruit-making action happens exclusively in the mornings.

So if you share my problem, or skipped the Bio class where they taught this stuff, here’s how you can increase the conception rates in your squash patch:

1. First, figure out who’s female and male. The female flowers blooms from what appears to be a miniature squash. They look like they’re growing from a new fruit while the male flower buds burst from a long, narrow stem.
Male flower easily distinguished by its continuously narrow stem.

Female flower blooms from a miniature squash.

2. Once you’ve got the sexes figured out and you chance upon both types blooming (as previously noted, this is most likely in the morning), pick the male flower. If you’re low on guys, one flower should pollinate 2-3 females.  Then, I couldn’t think of a way to write this better, so I quote from an ehow.com article:

3. “Gently pull away the petals of a male flower to expose the stamens and insert the male flower in the female flower to add pollen. Be very gentle!” http://www.ehow.com/how_5036967_hand-zucchini-winter-squash-pumpkins.html

4. If your hand gets tired, or you don’t want to bruise any male flowers' petals, try my sister-in-law’s advice: a vibrating toothbrush is the squash patch’s equivilant of Don Juan.

5. Now, sit back and watch the squash grow, though don’t get lazy with the watering. 

And, perhaps you shouldn’t let those male flowers go to seed. Start eating them, they are the rage in Italy. Even in Canada, male flowers can cost you a bundle at a farmer’s market. In this week’s Taste Section in Maclean’s Magazine, Jacob Richler reported buying eight squash flowers for $6.99 in an uptown Toronto greengrocer. He suggests you stuff them with ricotta and herbs, then dredge in flour and soda batter, next fry and serve over tomato sauce. "Nature's ravioli!" he writes.

For my first experience eating a squash flower, I kept it simple and used a recipe that my Italian neighbour passed on. A suspect idea that was the ultimate breakfast- almost better than waffles with fresh raspberries and cream.

 Squash Flowers ‘a la French Toast’

1.     Pick the male flowers when they are fully open (best in the morning).
2.     Wash. You can keep the centre stamens in, or pop out the centre. There are slight prickly spines on the outside of the flower that you can leave or remove (they aren’t hard to remove, though you run the risk of ripping the leaf- which I did).
3.     Cover flower with flour.
4.     Swirl floured flower in egg.
5.     Fry in hot oil, adding salt, pepper and spice of your choice.

Daughter Lily's first encounter with battered squash flower.
We're heading camping, but next month I report on cooking and consuming squash leaves. As well as, we'll see if I actually get my DIY solar cooker up to 200 degrees F. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Faithful, Long Suffering Aprons

Ten years ago I opened a gift at my wedding shower, inside was a denim apron complete with little pleats around the waist and elastic tensioned pockets.  It was a masterful bit of sewing that took me years to appreciate.

Unlike the mother on 'Leave it to Beaver' reruns, my mom rarely put on an apron in the kitchen, garden, or garage. Though I don't recall putting one on there were aprons in the house, lost in the abyss that was our linen cupboard.  

Aprons (despite growing popularity as a chic fashion accessory) are attached, in our collective consciousness, to home economics of the 50s, when perfect moms wore fancy aprons overtop equally fancy dresses and accessorized by heels and large clip-on earrings. 

Not a bad style for the privileged time, but oh how the perfect fall. That fantasy of the perfect mother has been slashed and scorned, her bra has been burned.

Surely the mothers of the time knew of the illusion and that it couldn't last, but its an unfortunate thing we threw out the apron with whatever Mrs. Cleaver sold us. Since my apron-less childhood, I've learned to embrace the garmet (though it more literally embraces me). How can one not love such a useful piece of material? It has no prejudice for gender or profession. Butchers, gardeners, cooks, secretaries and craftsmen, even school-children, have donned the lowly apron for its finer qualities. Namely, it stops blood, guts, bugs, dirt, and sludge- in fact spray of every kind- with surprising faithfulness. 

An apron also gives its wearer a certain aura, one of productivity, committed-ness, and skill. In fact, I think that a dirty apron can actually increase people's respect for the wearer. For example, imagine neighbour Jane at your front door in her dirty garden apron. "Dirty" isn't the first word that pops into your mind. Instead, you probably would describe a hard-working gardener who is serious about her craft. 

There's another lovely thing about aprons: they breathe authority. Enter a kitchen to inquire about helping, who do you ask? The woman at the stove or the man wearing an apron at the sink?  Okay, that may be a hard one. How about if it was a woman with an apron at the sink? The lady with the apron gets the question from me every time. Unfortunately, the male head cook with the apron will, nine times out of ten, be mistaken for the BBQer.

Men have quite a ways to go in reclaiming their pride in donning an apron. From my experience, men probably could benefit from aprons more than women. My father-in-law, a renovator by trade, gets about four wears out of a new shirt before it becomes a 'work shirt' (or a rag). Sure at Home Depot the male staff seem unapologetic about their orange canvas, fully bibbed uniforms with their name Sharpied over their heart. Perhaps this is evidence of a great step ahead in the relationship of men and aprons, however a quick review of books on the subject reveals that they still appeal mostly to women. And unfortunately the apron's merit as laundry-savers and personal hand towels tend to be overlooked in favour of their merit as a fashion accessory. I'm all into accessorizing, but accessorizing with caked on chocolate chip cookie dough and my child's sneeze remains? 

So here's an introduction to a few of my well-used aprons. They are accessories, but of a different kind than Anthropologies' $44 (and oh so enviable) feature. They have saved my many black outfits from flour and my jeans from dirt. They act as immediately accessible hand towels, mops for the fast spreading milk spill, and kleenex for those moments I emotionally disintegrate over a minor mess. They have been trusted partners in finding joy in the daily grind. 
The first apron I owned which, at one time (before aprons were chic again) I might have called frumpy but now I could call it "sweet". 

I bought this apron from ebay; the sweeping shoulder straps form pockets at the hip. I love the look and feel of the wide back strap.  

My favorite apron, this was part of a multi layered hemp skirt from my sister-in-law. It is looking strangely discoloured because, for the photo shoot, I pulled it off the clothes line in a rain storm. I wash it once a week and it saves me at least a load of clothes over that time. 
This half apron I made out of reclaimed material from the ReUse Centre (orange top) and a hemp skirt (brown bottom) that was too short for me. The key to frequently using my aprons is easy access. This hook is in my line of vision so that I'm never tempted to start cooking without it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Aroooogala lalala

This summer I have discovered the perfect compliment to summer heat- that leafy Italian green ‘arugula'. It’s the first year I’ve grown it in the garden and I’m hooked- the flavour, the texture, its versatility.

Arugula is an extremely spicy green, without hint of bitterness. The young leaves have the texture of soft cheese and like spinach, you can eat it fresh or steamed.

Across our alley, an Italian family has lived for the past 40 years. The Mrs. is a wealth of information on the Italian culinary arts. She has  maintained a large garden up until this year when she decided it was time to  let it go to seed.  Odd looking weeds took root. When I asked her about these she said, “It is Aroooogala.” Apparently, if allowed to, it self seeds copiously and successfully overwinters.

Even now in the heat of summer, it’s not too late to plant. Sow the seeds in a partly shady spot (under a tree could  work if there is dappled sun.) Mine is planted to the north side of my neighbour’s garage and after only four weeks its ready to harvest.  Because it bolts quickly, you should succession plant every few weeks starting in May and into the fall. If it does bolt, collect the seed to re-sow or use the seed to flavour oils or sauces.  In fact, according to Cambridge World History of Food, the seed (AKA Rocket Seed!) has been used as an aphrodisiac since the first century. Is there a better reason than that to eat it up?

Here are some recipes to savour while soaking in the sunshine.

Arugula and Parmesan Pasta
This recipe comes from my neighbour; it’s exceptional cold or hot.
1.     Cook up some pasta and in the last 2 minutes of cooking add available arugula leaves to the pot.
2.     Drain both pasta and arugula. 
3.     Pour into a large serving bowl and mix in your favorite oil (flavoured or plain).
4.     Add grated parmesan.
5.     Add chopped fresh or sun dried tomatoes.
6.     Sprinkle in salt and pepper to taste.

Arugula and Tomato Salad
If you cut everything very small, this makes a great bruschetta and is good fresh or broiled on toast or crackers.
1.     Dice tomatoes.
2.     Add chopped arugula, mild purple onion and bocconcini (the fresh mozza balls from the Italian Centre).
3.     Mix dressing: 2 parts oil, 1 part balsamic vinegar, squirt of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
4.     Pour dressing over veggies and cheese and toss to coat.  
NOTE: If you let it refrigerate for an hour or two, the flavour is even better.

Arugula Veggie Pizza
1.     Roll out pizza dough.
2.     Cover with tomato sauce and sprinkle with basil, salt, and garlic powder.
3.     Cover sauce completely with arugula.
4.     Sprinkle with mozzarella and parmesan cheese.
5.     Top with favourite  veggies (olives and onions recommended)
6.     Bake at 425 F for 18- 20 minutes until dough is golden and cheese is bubbling.
7.     Add fresh tomatoes.