Chicago Greens

After traveling well over 2500 miles of the upper Midwest — by car, ferry, bicycle, and foot — POD has returned. While wandering our way through the windy city we discovered what might well be the best urban gardening store ever: Sprout Home.

Enjoying Chicago’s delayed growing season we sampled fresh peas, asparagus, and Swiss chard (along with roast chicken, lamb, lake trout, and short rib tortellini) at the new Nightwood Restaurant in the Pilsen neighborhood.  Excellent.  At Avec, the fennel and Brussel sprouts took the day and at the Publican the pork belly with fava was fabulous.

But oh good sweet dessert lord…the Baked Alaska with homemade strawberry ice cream, shortbread cookie, and wicked strawberry rhubarb sauce (served with a complimentary glass of Muscat — thanks, bartender guy) at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate wins, hands down.

Stay tuned for updates from the Little Blue Deck, but in meantime, enjoy this vision of lettuce and Swiss chard.

Chicago Lettuce
Chicago Lettuce
Fields of Green
Fields of Green

Body by POD

bicep builder
bicep builder

See that? That’s the medieval-looking pulley system that services the little blue deck.

Obviously the builders of our 100ish-year old South Philly row home didn’t think to install a spigot on the second floor exterior. (Heck, we think the current kitchen was built over the space previously held by the privy.)

For the first few years, we hauled buckets of water up the sladder to service PODS blooms or poured water — by the measuring cupful — from the bathroom tap into a watering can just outside the bathroom window. A slow process at best, dangerous at worst. (Just ask the friends who’ve missed a step.)

A couple of years ago POD’s mom imported a carload of plants from her favorite Michigan greenhouses and POD’s dad carted along this massive bicep builder. Thanks, guys.

Hello, My Pretties

POD began with visions of gorgeous flowers, cascading from well-designed containers. And, for the first few years, visitors to the little blue deck were greeted by a riot of color.

Then, almost surreptitiously, a basil plant slipped in, then a jalapeno and Mr. Stripey…Now, the little blue deck sports almost entirely vegetables. There are enough flowers to encourage pollination, but great gobs of satisfaction — culinary, environmental and yes, aesthetic satisfaction — can be derived from growing vegetables in containers.

The red lettuce surrounding these spacemaster cucumbers and Minnesota Midget melons provide a nice splash of red against a small sea of soon-to-be towering green.
The red lettuce surrounding these spacemaster cucumbers and Minnesota Midget melons provide a nice splash of red against a small sea of soon-to-be towering green.
This lone glazed terra cotta pot stars tarragon, thyme and lavender. Contrasting greens, varied heights and textures combine to present a pretty striking container.
This lone glazed terra cotta pot stars tarragon, thyme and lavender. Contrasting greens, varied heights and textures combine to present a pretty striking container. (Sorry the picture isn't so hot!)

Flower Power

snapdragon pollinate!

Cucumbers need to get around. That is, they must pollinate (or be pollinated) to successfully set fruit. Sometimes, especially in urban gardens, a little matchmaking must be done for these heat-loving climbers.

female cucumber
female cucumber

When gardening on a small urban sundeck, each precious inch of soil must be put to good use (see: Making the Most of it). Although it’s tempting to fill every precious pot with something edible, to maximize your edible garden’s potential, throw in a few flowers to encourage the local bumble bees to stop by and get it on.

If your plants aren’t buzzing, and Mother Nature’s not quite hitting it off, don’t be afraid to help out. Grab a small watercolor paint brush, gently gather pollen from the male flower and dab it onto the female flower. (Honestly, it’s easy to tell cucumber flowers apart: female flowers will have a miniature wee cucumber at the base of the flower, male flowers don’t.)

Picking Pots

If it’s big enough to hold dirt and you can drill a few holes in the bottom, it’ll probably work.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother: So, you have a roof deck garden that’s maybe, maybe not built to code? Keep it light! No terra cotta, no stone, no clay, no concrete, no ceramic.

It’s like Death Valley Up On Deck — Plus Humidity, Plus Wind: Your soil will dry out fast. So, avoid porous materials. Synthetic resin pots stay cooler and retain moisture longer. Light colors reflect the sun’s hottest rays; dark colors soak ‘em up and bake the roots. Metal also conducts heat pretty efficiently but you’ll notice that most of POD’s containers are aluminum.

choosing containers
choosing containers

Why? Because they’re pretty, okay? They’re cheap, too. Forget the garden section and check out classic Behren’s galvanized garbage cans – you should be able to find a 6-gallon container for well under $15. When a real scorcher of a day is expected, move your planters  to the shade. Besides, aluminum and plastic are also frost-resistant and therefore easy to store and/or plant for the winter.

Size Matters: The bigger the better, my friends. Cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes must be grown in 5-gallon or larger containers. Basil, peppers, lettuce, and even bush beans can be grown in smaller containers. Still, shoot for something that holds at least a gallon of dirt, preferably more.

Fakin’ It: Honestly, if I hadn’t spent so much money on containers over the past decade, I’d be buying fiberglass and resin pots. Synthetic planters (formerly hideous monstrosities) have come a long way since POD’s planters were purchased. Now they’re light, durable, frost-resistant, and attractive.

Fakin’ It and Lazy: Okay, next year POD’s totally splurging on at least one self-watering synthetic container. If you’re just starting out, try a couple of these puppies. Let me know how they work, ‘kay? You can also make your own on the cheap (if you’re less interested in aesthetics): self-watering planter instructions

Spring Curry

This spring curry features POD-grown Swiss chard, bay, and Thai chilies. Serves 6-8.

spring curry ingredients
spring curry ingredients

2 chicken breasts, rinsed and cut into 1″ cubes
3/4 lb potatoes, parboiled cut into 1″ cubes
1/2 tsp saffron
4 tbs heavy cream
4 tbs canola oil
12 cardamom pods
4 cinnamon sticks
6 bay leaves
4 bird chilies (or to taste), minced
3 large shallots, sliced
2 tbs ginger, minced
8 cloves garlic (or to taste), minced
4 tbs whole almonds
2 tbs ground coriander
1 tbs ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 tsp turmeric
3/4 tsp salt
1 c. chicken stock (or water)
1 c. buttermilk (or yogurt)
10 oz chard, sliced
2 c. peas

1 1/2 c. basmati, well-rinsed
3 c. water (or stock/water combo)
6 cardamom pods

1) Heat cream, add saffron. Set aside to steep.
2) Heat oil over medium high in Dutch oven, add the cardamom, cinnamon, and bay. Stir until they begin to release yummy smells. About a minute. Add chicken pieces and cook until barely not pink. Remove the chicken and set it aside. Leave as many of the spices in the pot as you can.
2b) Stick the rice, cardamom pods, and water/stock combo in a pot. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 17-20 minutes until done.
3) Add the shallots to the sizzling spices and fry until they’re reddish brown. You may want to increase the heat a touch. Add the garlic, ginger, and Thai chilies and fry for an additional minute. Reduce heat a bit. Add the almonds, coriander, cumin, cayenne, salt, and turmeric. Stir for a few seconds. Avoid coughing into the spice cloud.
4) Add the chicken stock and buttermilk or yogurt. Scape all the good stuff off the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to a simmer. It should be fairly liquidy. Add a little more yogurt or buttermilk to suit your tastes.
5) Toss in the chicken, chard, potatoes, and peas. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes or so.
6) Stir in saffron cream mixture.
7) Serve over rice. Try not to eat the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks.

Swiss Chard and Preserved Lemons

It’s so ridiculously satisfying to climb up the sladder, pick chard, climb down, chop it,  throw some other stuff in a pan, and eat. Of course, you’ll need to have made the preserved lemons two months ago, but still. Good stuff. If you don’t have preserved lemons lounging in your fridge like some food nerds do, lemon zest, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a pinch of coriander and cinnamon also happens to be pretty darn tasty.

swiss chard with preserved lemons
swiss chard with preserved lemons

Swiss Chard and Preserved Lemons
1 bunch swiss chard (about 6-8 stalks), chopped
1 tbs olive oil
a slosh of sherry vinegar (about 2-3 tbs, depending on taste)
¼ preserved lemon (pulp removed and well-rinsed), chopped finely
black pepper or red pepper flakes, to taste

1) Heat olive oil
2) Drop in chard
3) Sauté for a few minutes, until leaves have wilted
4) Add vinegar to hot pan, swirl until it mostly disappears
5) Remove from heat and stir in chopped preserved lemon and pepper

Preserved Lemons
Quoted directly from: Casa Moro (2004) by Sam and Sam Clark

Preserved lemons are a great feature of North African cooking, especially in Morocco. They have a strong, distinctive flavour used to give character to tagines (stews), sauces, fish dishes and salads

10 organic lemons, washed and drained
1 kg (2.2 lbs)
3 cinnamon sticks, broken up roughly
1 tbs coriander seeds
1tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cloves
5 small dried red chilies
5 bay leaves (preferably fresh)
juice of 8 extra lemons

Make a cross in the top of each lemon and continue to cut until two-thirds the way day. Open out slightly, pushing some salt inside each one and press together again. In a large, sterilized preserving jar about 1.5 litres, alternate the salt with the spices ad the lemons so that everything is more or less evenly packed in the jar. Press down on the lemons to help extrude some of the juice. Pour on the extra lemon juice to cover completely. Close the jar and leave at room temperature for about 2 months, or until the skins are soft all the way through. When you are ready to use a lemon, remove it from the jar, rinse under cold water to remove any excess salt, pull out and discard the pulp, then chop the skin as desired. Preserved lemons are deceptive in their strength, so only the smallest amounts will b e necessary in most recipes: although it may seem like nothing, beware of adding more. The lemons should keep for up to a year in the fridge.

Container Gardening: Making the Most of It, Part II

lettuce and indian eggplant
lettuce and indian eggplant

This little guy is chock-full of goodness. Last year this pot quite successfully housed two prolific Thai eggplants. This year we’re giving three a whirl (one Thai from last year’s seed collection and two Indian Udmalbet). Sure, it may well be too crowded, but you never know until you try.

While the plants are still young, they’re sharing some space with a couple of very leafy lettuce plants.

Lettuce, by the way,  is POD’s moneymaker. It gets crammed into every available cranny and with diligent re-seeding and plenty of water it produces almost all season long into November.  It saves us at least $6-8 a week. (Next year a cost-benefit analysis is in the works for POD. )

Typically we just snip or tear off the outer leaves until the plant starts looking a little leggy (usually at least 4-6 harvests). When it starts tasting a little too bitter for your tastes, just yank it up and start over again. (Or, in this case, yank it out for tonight’s Cobb salad and give the eggplants a little more breathing room.)

Since eggplants take about 120 days to go from seed to vegetable, it’s gratifying to see something edible emerge from the pot within just  a few weeks.