Archive for December, 2011

Windowfarm Update:

After my last failed attempt at starting seeds for my Windowfarm, I had only one set of grow plugs and a few seeds left, so I decided to step it up for round two and invest in grow lights (they came in a box helpfully labeled “GROW LIGHTS!” which caused the front desk staff to raise their eyebrows when we picked it up in the lobby).  But lo and behold, they work!  At first there were just a few sprouts – the arugula is very eager.  But with 16 hours of indoor light a day and the near constant spraying of the sponges in this dry weather, we now have tiny sprouts of kale, tomatoes, shishitos, cilantro, parsley, arugula and basil.  It’s really amazing to watch something this closely and now I’m afraid I will be bereft if they die on me.  But I’m optimistic for a 2012 full of indoor bounty.

Happy New Year!

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DIY Holiday

I will be the first to admit that I’m not crazy about the holidays.  Sure, I enjoy a holiday gathering here and there and the lights all around Columbus Circle are pretty, but the imposed cheer can get to you – especially when it starts in early November.  My favorite thing about this time of year are the small gifts:  my colleague who makes and decorates beautiful gingerbread cookies each year, the lovely homemade candy that I wrote about in my last post, and the random and wonderful things my husband brings home from his work colleagues:  olive oil, clementines and even a fancy bottle of gin.

Between our colleagues, neighbors and teachers, there are a lot of people to remember this season and the challenge is to make something either beautiful or delicious .   Our go-to gifts are biscotti and truffles, but this year I decided to go in a different direction.  I love forcing bulbs in the winter, but since buying 50 amaryllis bulbs would exceed our budget, I decided to go with paperwhites – which are a nice reminder of spring in the middle of winter.  Paperwhite bulbs + mason jars + colorful stones = fun Saturday afternoon with our daughters.   For what child doesn’t love to put rocks in jars?

Because paperwhites don’t require chilling in order to bloom and can grow without soil, they are the perfect choice for a project like this.  Just fill the jar 3/4 full with stones, add the bulb, and secure with the jar-top:

Dress with raffia, greenery and instructions and voilà: Happy Holidays!

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FOOD & MEMORY

Like many people, I have a file folder full of clippings and handwritten recipes. Despite my professional inclination toward classification,  it has no organization at all, so that when I want to find a recipe I once made back in 1994, I need to sort through the entire unruly pile.  The question is: why keep this stack of ephemera at all when there is no shortage of beautiful websites devoted to conjuring the perfect recipe in an instant?  I could spend all day on sites like Gojee, My Cooking Diary and FoodGawker,  but I can’t quite get myself to dump my pile of papers that serve as tangible memories of what I’ve made over the past 25 years.  Represented there is the vegetarian nut-loaf phase, the risotto phase, the experimental holiday dinner phase, among others.  If I had the time, I suppose I could scan them into Evernote, or at least put them in a binder – it’s on the list.

My friend Forest, who is always a source of inspiration, found a beautiful solution to bridging the gap between the analog recipe card and the digital recipe database.  When his grandmother –  the matriarch of a large family – passed away last year, there was some discussion about who was to receive her much coveted recipe box, full of meticulously handwritten cards containing the key to so many dishes she was known for.  Forest took on the project of scanning and organizing the cards so that anyone in the family could have access to Ruth’s recipes, and through the process has started experimenting with making foods he hadn’t had since childhood.  All he has to do is prop up his iPad in the kitchen and he can scroll through the culinary history of his family.

We have gotten together a few times this year to try some of these vintage gems that call for ingredients that are so not 2011.  When was the last time you used Karo syrup?  This fall, we tried our hand at making seafoam candy, something that Forest remembered fondly from childhood particularly because the making of it is like a wacky science experiment.  Our attempt, however, was a failure when we let the sugar and syrup overheat and suddenly it was a sticky inedible mess.  I kept meaning to try it again with the girls, but never got around to it and I was left wondering what it would be like if it actually turned out.

On Monday, I received one of the best DIY holiday gifts ever.  I came home to the little box pictured above filled with salted caramels and seafoam candy from the kitchen of Ruth Evashevski. The caramels were to die for and the seafoam was better than I even imagined it could be.  I can’t think of a better way to honor a beloved grandmother than through preserving her recipes this way and actually making them!

Which of your grandmother’s recipes do you still make?

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Terrarium Love

The mania for terrariums began in our house last summer after I took the girls to the Museum of Art and Design to see  Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities.  Celebrating the tiny and the strange, the exhibition was divided into four themes: Apocalpytic Archeology, Dreams and Memories, Voyeurs/Provacateurs, and Unnatural Nature.  For a show that featured a large number of snow globes and dioramas, it was not exactly aimed for an audience of  small children, a point I felt acutely when trying to explain a snow-globe scene that appeared to be two people disposing of a body in a rolled-up carpet.  But generally, it was fascinating in the way that tiny things can be and has a virtual afterlife in the website, Small Realities, where you can peruse photos from the exhibition and even submit your own miniature creations.

MAD has an open studio program where they invite working artists to use their space to demonstrate their process – usually related to the exhibitions.  The day we were there, the artists in residence happened to be from Twig Terrarium.  I had long admired their work from afar and was excited to see them in action – as were the girls who couldn’t get enough of the moss.  Inspired, I paid a visit to Sprout Home  where I picked up some supplies.  Aided by Hurricane Irene which kept us indoors, we gathered up jars and rocks, hunkered down,  and set to work.

Arranging plants in small glass enclosures is a decidedly Victorian pursuit that can be traced back to Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (1791-1868).  A London doctor by profession, Ward had a keen interest in botany and the cultivation of ferns but found that most of his plants were not thriving in the polluted, urban environment that was London in the 1820’s.  Like all good 19th-century polymaths, he also liked to cultivate butterflies and moths and kept them in glass jars.  Quite by accident he noticed that the small bits of grass he kept in the jar with the cocoons had taken root and actually bloomed.  This discovery lead him to design the  Wardian Case, a sealed glass container that was subsequently used to ship plants back and forth between England and the colonies.   In 1842, he published On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases and soon after, every respectable Victorian home had its own Wardian case used to cultivate ferns and later, orchids.

Our approach to the terrarium is much less scientific and more about arranging things in glass containers.  We started with  rocks, acorns, and other random items of a vaguely botanical nature that we had on hand.  We collected sand and shells at the beach and – when we went upstate in the fall – we spent a glorious morning “mossing” on the hillside next to our friend’s house:

Not only did we find moss, but some amazing mushrooms, too (that we left in situ).

Our apartment is now filled with various containers of collected moss, rocks, sand, and a few plants we are hoping will take root in our little ecosystems.  Most of our terrariums are in the form of hanging globes in the windows which my youngest daughter uses as a place to arrange her various Lego people, creating tableaux that change on a daily basis and remind me of the Little Prince visiting his asteroids.

If you’re also compelled to arrange plants in jars, I recommend looking at The Fern and Mossery, a great resource for all things terrarium.

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Adventures in Windowfarming

Last May, I took a course at 3rd Ward the title of which I could not resist.  Urban Food Production for the Landless is a workshop taught by Brooklyn Homesteader, Meg Paska.  The course covered all of the things one can grow indoors in a small urban space, including sprouting beans, starting seeds, making edible pea-shoot terrariums, and – most intriguing – growing mushrooms in coffee grounds.  Although I like watching them grow, I’m not much of  a sprout eater, but growing young pea shoots is easy and delicious. The mushrooms are on my list to try.  While the workshop was fun, I wouldn’t say we are “living off the fat of no land” here in Manhattan.

It did, however, give me the momentum to pursue building a Windowfarm, something I’ve been wanting to do since learning about the project created by artist, Britta Riley, in February 2009 and first shown at the Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology.  Windowfarms are indoor, hydroponic gardening systems made out of recycled materials – mostly plastic bottles- designed to operate in low-light urban environments.  Riley, an artist whose work deals with crowd-sourcing solutions to environmental issues, was inspired to design an accessible way to promote  urban food production after reading Michael Pollen’s 2008 New York Times article, “Why Bother?”. Originally, the Windowfarm project consisted of an open source web platform developed by Riley called “Research and Develop it Yourself” that posted instructions on how to build your own kit and created an online forum for early windowfarmers – there are now 22,000 of us online – to share their experiences and innovations on the plans.  Unless you’re MacGyver however, the truth is, building a windowfarm is a somewhat complicated process and the plans were intimidating.  Until I learned that you could purchase a windowfarm kit: all the parts are included, you just have to put it together.  Easy peasy.  Except when the kit arrived, I realized it was a little more involved than spending a few minutes hanging it up. So it took me a good, long while to work up to taking all the pieces out of the box.

Installing a windowfarm is best done with two people.  Luckily, my dad is sort of like MacGyver, so over a visit this fall we (mostly he) put the kit together in the only sunny room in our apartment (not that you could tell by this photo):

When fully installed, an electric pump is attached to the reservoir at the bottom of the bottles, forcing nutrient-enhanced water  to the top of the bottles where it trickles back down in a closed hydroponic system.  Of course, before you get to that stage, one must have plants to grow. Based on the experiences of more experienced window farmers and our light situation, I ordered a variety of seeds to try: basil, arugula, kale, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.  With the seeds came grow-plugs, a spongy, soil-free, seed-starting medium that my daughter was disappointed to learn were not actually the chocolate brownies they appeared to be. Before planting the seeds in the grow-plugs, I was advised to soak them in a solution of 10% Hydrogen Peroxide which is supposed to help the little seeds break through their casings:

After a few minutes, I planted the seeds in the grow-plugs and placed them in an egg carton to germinate.

The first 24 hours were spent – as directed – in a dark closet.  After that, I set them on the windowsill where my windowfarm is installed.  After the second day, I was thrilled to see the arugula sprouting!  I felt awesome.  Like maybe this will actually work.

But it was only the arugula.  Nothing else.  And it didn’t last long, I think the windowsill environment was too cold for the little seedlings and the next day they were dead.  I’m thinking this indoor agriculture endeavor has a higher learning curve than I previously imagined.  But I still have seeds, and I still have grow-plugs and now I have a new indoor grow-light system to help my next batch of seedlings along.  I don’t want to be deterred, because I think this is one of the coolest ideas to come along in the past decade and I would love to see it catch on.

In the meantime, WindowFarm design has evolved to a new level and has a Kickstarter Campaign for their groovy new high-design models that will make it even easier and more beautiful to install in your apartment.  If you support their cause in the next 4 days, you can have one of your very own!  Click on the image below and they’ll tell you all about it. In the meantime, I am starting my second round of seedlings today.

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