Summer flowers or summer blooms? Could I include a blooming cucumber plant in my “flower” list? What about blooming basil, thyme or mint? The mood, and objective, of our backyard has certainly shifted this year. I was aiming at creating working city garden for a while now, but this year gave me the final push. Halfway there model no longer worked. When spring turned into summer backyard turned chaotic, completely lacking any colorful annuals unless self sown, veggie producing container garden jungle. Here are some of my favorites, all grown from seed this year, most saved from last years plants. I am missing names on many of them. What started as an ambitious seed farm with neatly arranged labels, turned into planting frenzy one damp day in May. Just because the conditions were right! Names were misplaced, zinnias mixed up. I can name only two now – the purple brown yellow colored Aztec Sunset, that produces cascades of small, cheerful flowers and neatly drapes itself with its curly branches over the ceramic pot. The other is Queen Lime Orange, the name says it all. Regal, tall, and a chameleon of lime and orange hues currently peeking through cherry tomato plants. I have been careful not to deadhead any of them too early, after observing bumble bees talking their time luxuriating in the pollen of the mature booms. Bumble bees win, every time.
Spider plants, or cleome, have been with me for years. I always gather seeds, then forget to plan them, but nature still takes care of them for me. They overwinter in the soil and pop up when decide it’s warm enough. This year there are pink and some pure white ones. Always fun to watch tiny insects swarm them and slide on their “whiskers” like acrobats.
August brings sunflowers. This year I am growing Ruby Eclipse. We have a mini forest of them right outside the windows, gently bouncing in a wind. Occasionally, the bounce turns out to be not wind, but yellow finches, who take to them with gusto, as if they were woodpeckers. The sunflowers, as well as zinnias, make great cut flowers. Mine stayed fresh in a vase for almost two weeks. I tend to mix them with whatever I can find by the sidewalk, or whatever I prune out in the garden. Entire tomato branch in the arrangement? Why not?
The end of gardening season is almost here. Sure, there is still baby spinach and red mustard that may or may not bring harvest before the frost, and a lone Tuscan kale plant, that I am half heartedly guarding against the critters…The days are short, shadows are long, and there is only enough warmth and direct sunshine to sustain less than an hour of sitting in a garden with a good read.
Before the backyard disappears into a soggy and eventually a frosty, entangled mess, here is a reflection of what did well, and what was only a tease in our city backyard this year. I now strongly believe that documenting is the only way for growth and progress, and it has certain, almost soul nurturing, quality. Teaches patience, and makes the home grown food, when it eventually reaches the table, feel so special. Also, and that is a huge part of why we grow food in containers and even the tiniest of city plots, makes it almost impossible to let the food go to waste. After so much wait and effort (watering by hand with rain water) would you really allow it to spoil? The garden also feels like an extension of our home, generously lending space to alfresco meals, (for us and the neighborhood bees) and offering what is seems like an attractive stopover to occasional dragonfly. Which happens to be my favorite insect of all times!
Winners this year:
- – Pepper Bianca
- – Eggplant Fairy Tale
- – Japanese cucumbers
- – Tomatoes: Sungold, Sweet 100, Black Cherry
- – Garlic German Red
- – Basil Genovese and Thai that were, and still are in late October, an absolute delight
- – Cilantro: both as a fresh plant and dried seeds it produced.
Only a tease category:
- Any large heirloom tomato, maybe with exception of Green Zebra
- Zucchini that only produced gorgeous flowers
It is late June as I write this, but it happened to be the same moist, lush green and heavy on a drizzle day as month ago when I set off to photograph the Raspberry Cordial and Rhubarb Cake afternoon treat. You would think that only children get restless when it rains for 48 hours non-stop…Think twice. On day two of the rain deluge in the southeastern Poland, a town tucked away at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, in the region called Beskid Niski, I opened wide my parents’ garage door, set up my trusty prop table stored there just for the occasion, and set up an afternoon tea. At least that was the idea, but why not sneak in a little of homemade raspberry cordial, just to warm things up. A quick rummage through the cellar produced a vintage carafe, and the last two unbroken glasses from the set that was given to my parents as a wedding gift. Inevitably, we went down memory lane, reminiscing of long gone neighbors. Objects with rich stories.
Earlier in the day we visited an old family friend, and as it is custom with such visits there, left with a care package of the leftover cake, perfect for my impromptu photo shoot. It was one of those “everyday” cakes, as the host somewhat apologetically explained. No recipe, still warm from the over, made with whatever fruit is in the season. These are my absolute favorites!
For the longest time I could not make this desert ‘properly’, not because of its complicated recipe, or ingredient list, but simply because I did not have the right vessel for it. Custard glass cups from the supermarket just would not do it. My lucky break came earlier this summer at a small yard sale north of the city. I instantly scooped up a set of four. They remind me of much larger ones we had always used for desserts in my family. They still sit on the upper shelves in my parents’ pantry in my hometown in Poland. They don’t make appearance all that often now, everyone seems to gravitate to either ice cream or cake these days at the family gathering. But my heart is firmly with this simple jello dessert of my childhood.
The key is to use the ripest fruit that gets submerged and set in jello – raspberries and wild strawberries work particularly well. Once set for a couple of hours in refrigerator, out comes the topping. This should be done just before serving. No real rules here. I tend to add a dollop or two of homemade whip cream, shaved bitter chocolate, sometimes chopped hazelnuts, and always more fruit. Childhood treat that pleases children and adults alike!
Lets’ continue our summer backyard entertaining series, shall we? By the time the 2nd pick-your-own strawberries adventure happened this June, we were already through strawberry dessert, strawberry pierogies, and generally eating strawberries and (and cream!) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was time for some experiments to get through the rest. Looking at a huge basil plant in the back yard with its glossy, bright green leaves, an idea hatched. I remembered that I have seen a recipe for a strawberry and basil lemonade with bourbon, another ingredient from clean-your-pantry-shelf list. The loosely adapted recipe follows.
Start with ripe strawberries, and I promise, it will work, everything else is just a matter of personal taste, more sweet or more tart…or more bourbon!
For about 3 drinks (I used small jam jars) I used:
- About 1/2 pound strawberries with green tops removed
- 2/3 cup sugar
- juice from one lemon
- 6 basil leaves, chopped and lightly smashed with a wooden spoon
- 3 oz of bourbon, depending on taste
Puree strawberries in a blender with a bit of water, add a cup of water and heat on the stove until puree boils, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Cool completely. Strain through a mesh sieve (do not discard solids, more on this later!) Chill sirup for at least an hour. In a pitcher, combine syrup, ice water, lemon juice, and basil. Stir. Serve over ice decorated with basil sprig, blooming, if you have it!
As for the solids saved from the puree, I find it irresistible as a sauce for french toasts, used instead of maple syrup. Assuming the strawberries were ripe, you cannot go wrong. Just save little of the puree to dilute, if needed. Would be as good on crepes, too!
Once a year, when the strawberry season is in full swing, we head to Cape Ann in Massachusetts, to our favorite pick-your-own farm. I confess, I only eat strawberries when in season, and when I pick them myself. The entire experience can sustain me for a year. I get the fix of all things strawberry by making the seasonal treats that childhood memories are made of: strawberry pierogies, strawberry sirup for winter tea, and this Polish dessert. Recipe below.
3 tablespoon flour
300g powdered sugar
250g unsalted butter
very ripe strawberries
2 packages ladyfinger cookies
Boil milk and completely cool. Beat eggs with flour and bit of milk. Place milk back on the stove and on low/med heat, pour the egg mixture slowly into milk, constantly stirring, until it boils. Let it cool completely.
Beat butter with powdered sugar in a mixer, and start adding, one spoon at a time, the cooled off egg mixture. Again, let it cool.
Arrange ladyfinger cookies on the bottom and sides of a springform, trimming as needed to fill the smaller gaps. I trim the ends of the side pieces by about and inch, so they stand up easy and evenly. Start filling the springform with above cream and strawberry layers. Decorate with strawberries. Chill for at least two hours to set initially, but it is best enjoyed at room temperature.
Spring has arrived suddenly this year. On a weekend. Clothed in heavy, almost humid air. The cat darted outside to inspect backyard planters for even smallest leaves of grass, anything chewable, really, would do. No such luck yet, but we both started pottering around, turning wooden crates upside down, sweeping winter-worth of compacted leaves, pulling vines off of the fence, already battered by recent damaging winds.
The vines became 5 minute wreaths, adorned with some faux succulents I was given recently. The fruit crate landed on a rusty chair for an impromptu tulip vignette styling. This is when I am the happiest, in the backyard, rearranging, repurposing, crafting decor out of ordinary things and found objects saved from a landfill.
The season is upon us. I have been reading and admiring some wonderful gift guides on the blogs (and making note of any ceramics for myself), but really yearning for a different type of gift giving experience. Something small, something handmade, something with a story…I tend to walk around the city these days looking for color palette or a mood that will spark the inspiration and connect the dots on an idea. Just loving this copper, silver and white spotted at the NYC Flower District last week.
The fragrant sachet is hardly a novel idea, but this particular one has a story. This summer, I was growing for the first time from seed Basil Aramato. Several tall, bushy, fragrant plants were left to go to seed and I collected the branches in a hurry some late October evening and left them to dry in the basement. I was husking the seeds the other day to store them for next year, and was surprised how fragrant the pods were. It would be such a waste to discard them. Quickly went through a stash of fabrics to sew few sachets. I like combination of wool on one side, and linen or cotton on the other side. Cut matching squares, machine sew all around leaving 1-1/2″ opening for the fill (make sure it is not close to the corner, so they are all nice and crisp). Trim the excess diagonally on all corners and turn inside out. Fill and blind stitch by hand. I will be also including the note about planting the seeds from the filling in the spring!
The hot and sunny summer this year brought an abundance of tomatoes. Out tiny city yard was just big enough to fit few bushes of Sungolds, some Roma, and a plant or two each of red cherry and big burgundy slicing tomato, which name escapes me now. It is dutifully noted at the bottom of the planter, but it is a jungle out there… It is a a container jungle, but far from being contained. The Sungolds are reaching the top of first story window, tied with – what else – ties made from Liberty fabric scraps. Slicing tomatoes are taller then the fence, all thanks to strictly organic fertilizer, which was only used once, despite best efforts to keep “schedule”. And this is how we roll in our tiny city backyard, if you squint hard enough you can pretend it is a country garden shack. Welcome.
This year’s culinary discovery for me was tomato confit. Mine is lightly cooked in oil with home grown thyme an some garlic, just so the skins burst. Tomatoes are peeled when cooled, and frozen whole with leftover oil on top, for winter pizza and pasta. The fragrance permeating the kitchen when I make it it just a bonus.
Every year when jasmine (Philadelphus or mock-orange) and peonies start to bloom, I can time days and hours to my favorite time of the year. The longest days, the still-crisp nights, and the heady, perfumed air. It is Midsummer time, which has nothing to do with middle of the summer, after all it is about to begin, but an old North and Central European celebrations of flowers, fire, and dance. June 24th, St. John’s Day, and the night leading to it, is the time to toss the handmade flower crowns in the streams and rivers, and to celebrate.
This year, I was fortunate to have spent few days at my parents’ and their gorgeous gardens, where we celebrated early this special time of the year together. With strawberry season in full swing, the annual strawberry desert that my brother and I loved as kids, made an appearance. Midsummer celebrations are all about nature, woodland mystery, and for me personally – Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. An old willow tree stump covered in moss served as a table, cow parsley and old fashioned roses found on a walk at an old church courtyard fit the scene perfectly.
Bonfires have been part of our family celebrations as long as I can remember. Usually with a bite of sausage cooked on the open fire, sometimes accompanied by guitar and singing, watching bats fly over our heads. Over years, the family picnic spot evolved to the most cherished place, with views across the garden, over the meadows, under the stately linden trees planted years ago by my grandfather. My little niece and nephew will continue the tradition, I hope, as they already love spending the time around bonfire, lighting the miniature torches made of sticks and happily grilling buns over the flames. All, while blooming jasmine’s eerily white flowers punctuate the night…