“Mostly Plants”*: 5 Food Books for Starting the New Year Right

oh-she-glows-cookbookI am obsessed with cookbooks.  When I first started to learn to cook for real (in my early twenties, just after I turned vegetarian), I would entertain myself for whole afternoons by going to the cooking section of a bookstore, sitting down on the floor (this was in the days before bookstores provided comfy reading chairs), and pulling a cookbook off the shelf to read it cover to cover.  Now that I have a regular income, I periodically break my budget (or fill my Christmas wish list) with a stack of cookbooks that I can pile next to me on the coffee table and read one after the other like novels.

Although I’ve been more or less vegetarian for the past 25 years (with exceptions made for fish and seafood because they made my life easier and, I believed, made me healthier), my diet has taken a sharp turn to the left recently.  I stumbled upon a string of documentaries, the most notable of them being Forks Over Knives and Vegucated, that convinced me of something I already half believed: I should try to eliminate all animal products from my diet.

So I’m starting 2015 with this tentative goal.  I’m not yet ready to demand that restaurants make my sag aloo without any ghee, or to carry a vegan bento to dinner parties in case my friends put eggs in their handmade pasta.  However, I’m having fun going through old cookbooks and buying (or demanding) new ones, and learning how to make cashew cream and multigrain chia power bread.  And the smoothies!  So many smoothies.  It’s a good time.

On my path to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, the food books below have been both helpful and enjoyable.  If you love a good cookbook, whether or not you want more plants and fewer animals in your diet, these books will give you hours of reading entertainment, an excuse to spend leisurely afternoons in the health-food store buying buckwheat groats and sorghum, and freezers full of healthy, tasty meals.  Which, when taken all together, is pretty much my definition of bliss.

1. The Oh She Glows Cookbook (photo above): A friend introduced me to Angela Liddon’s blog at around the same time this vegan, allergy-friendly book was released.  It’s where I learned to make overnight oatmeal, and it inspired me to buy a vegetable spiralizer.  It’s also super pretty, especially the Canadian edition with the chia pudding fruit parfait on the cover!
thug-kitchen-cookbook2. Thug Kitchen: Caution: profanity.  Lots and lots of profanity.  My husband sent me the “trailer” for this book/blog because a) he couldn’t stop laughing, and b) he wanted to gauge, by my reaction, whether he should buy me the cookbook for Christmas.  And, because I said, “Holy &%$*,” he did.  It is great, and the blog is too.  Best recipe so far is the citrus tofu marinade, but I’m looking forward to trying the “Warm the F%*# Up Minestrone” next.
YU_Book_Main3. YumUniverse: This book is a wonderful compendium for someone embarking on what Heather Crosby calls a “plant-powerful, whole-food lifestyle.” As a bonus, all recipes are gluten free and most are made without soy.  The first chapter compiles research on why we should eat lots of plants and less of other things.  The second gives lots of good advice on filling your pantry and your kitchen tool cabinet.  The best part, though, is the pages dedicated to making staples like dairy-free milks (I have been avoiding buying these lately because they’re so full of preservatives), soaking and sprouting, storing vegetables, etc.
fok4. The Forks Over Knives Plan: The companion to the documentary mentioned above, this book details the research on the advantages of low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diets entirely from a health perspective.  It then offers recipes and techniques (like how to saute without oil – it works!)  If you’re interested in the research behind plant-based eating, I would also recommend two books upon which this one is based: The China Study and Whole, both by T. Colin Campbell.  The China Study was a foundational text for the Forks Over Knives documentary, and gives excellent arguments for giving up all animal protein, as well as reducing added fat and salt, in order to ward off or even reverse chronic disease.
SS-b5. Salad Samurai: This was another Christmas gift, and I love it even though I haven’t yet made a thing out of it.  Just reading about Coconut Samosa Potato Salad and Tempeh Rubenesque Salad has made my life better.  Terry Hope Romero is one of the geniuses behind the classic vegan cookbook Veganomicon (with Isa Chandra Moscowitz, a vegan punk icon).  This book is not light on the fat – its subtitle includes the phrases “ultra-hearty” and “you don’t have to be a vegan to love” – but it is heavy on the veggies, legumes and grains, and is a gorgeous little handbook to making every salad a meal.

What food books have improved your year?  Do you have a favourite vegan or vegetarian collection?  Have you made any changes to your diet recently that you feel were for the better?  Let me know your thoughts.

*Note: post title from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, another great food book not on this list.

 

Montreal Melon

This week’s most exciting garden development: the melon is making melons.

melon

A friend gave me some seeds for Montreal Melon last year; it was too late to start them, so I designated them this year’s project.  I had never considered growing melons.  I grow all my veg in containers, and pack the containers fairly close together to maximize my tiny yard space; I wasn’t sure a melon plant would be happy under such conditions, as they require a lot of room.  I decided to partly address the problem by growing my melon on a tomato cage, so it could grow up instead of out.

melon cage

The plan is to create little hammocks, out of old tights, for the fruit as they get heavier.  Not sure what I’ll do about the raccoons, but so far they haven’t been a major nuisance this year; I will consider constructing a cage as the melons mature, but I might just take my chances.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Montreal Melon was a hugely popular garden fruit and considered an exquisite delicacy.  However, it was labourious to grow and did not ship well, and so all but disappeared until recently, when, starting with a few forgotten seeds in an American seed bank, one intrepid gardener managed to grow a plant and harvest the seeds.  Since then, local supporters of the melon have made a project of bringing it back.  You can read a detailed history of the Montreal Melon here.

July 26, 2013: The State of the Garden

I have built an elaborate, possibly futile anti-squirrel fortress for the tomatoes.

tomatofortress

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tomatofortress4

tomatofortress5

So far, it seems to have been effective.  Before I built it, I found several green tomatoes scattered around the pots, some with bites out of them.  Since I constructed this – a chicken-wire fence, a spiderweb of twine and rubber bands on bamboo stakes, topped with a generous blanket of netting anchored at the bottom with bricks – the plants seem to have been undisturbed.  The trickiest part will be getting at them; three cool days have meant that they haven’t needed to be watered yet, but tomorrow I’ll need to get in there, and it may be quite a process.

In the meantime, the cabbage worms ate my kale.

chewedkale

I’ve put in some collards and lettuce for the fall; I’ll plant some more lettuce after the worst of the summer heat has passed.

collardslettuce

The balcony herbs are doing pretty well.

balconyherbs

balconybasil

However, the Moroccan mint has been developing brown spots on its leaves.  I’ve moved it into more direct sunlight to see if that helps.

mint

The squirrels have not been entirely deterred by the netting on the strawberries, but it seems to have prevented total decimation.  That said, many of the berries have developed brown spots and, after a few delicious ones in the beginning, the rest have been bland and bitter.  I haven’t determined what’s causing this; maybe you have some ideas?

strawberryjuly

I’m looking forward to some more dill.

dill

The cress is not happy, but the chocolate mint is doing fine.

cresschocmint

The zucchini has gone through a couple of traumas, including falling over and battery by thunderstorms.  It looks fairly happy now, but it hasn’t fruited much for the last couple of weeks.  I’m hoping it’ll pull itself together, especially if we get some hot weather again soon.

zuchinninotfruiting

The cucumber is doing GREAT right now, and the nasturtiums are making everything cheerful.

cucumbernasturtiums

cucumbernasturtiums2

I’m looking forward to a second crop of beans.

beanflower

However, a couple of bean plants have developed these spots on their lowest leaves.  I’m not sure whether this is something to be concerned about.

beanspots

One poblano fell from the plant during a rainstorm, so I chopped it up to fry in a peppers-and-onions dish and it added a lovely spice.  I can’t wait for this one to fully ripen.

bigpoblano

I’m hopeful that August will bring a big pepper crop.  The bell peppers have been struggling but are starting to flower more profusely now, and the poblanos in the shadier part of the garden are showing signs of maturity too.  I’m thinking chiles rellenos.

bellpepperflower

And finally, after a struggle that began in January and has seen the death of many seedlings, it seems I’m able to grow a catnip plant.

catnip

Next year, I may try to scale back a bit.  (Do I really need four tomato plants?  My husband can’t eat tomatoes.  Two zucchini plants in one pot is overkill.  Seven poblano plants – what on earth?)  However, I suspect that in January, when browsing seed catalogues will be my only way to feel like a gardener, plans may change.

Even if everything keels over tomorrow, my garden has been a godsend this year.  In the moments (many of them) when I feel that owning a house is too much for me to handle, I look out at the back yard and remind myself that none of this would have been possible in our cozy second-floor Outremont apartment.  Wandering through the pots every morning, coffee in hand, cats hiding under the foliage, has turned every day into an adventure.

Maybe next year I’ll start caring about the flowers in the front a little more.  I expect the neighbours will appreciate that.

I’m trying to see this whole process as an education.

They Grow Up So Fast

Over the last few days, there have been all sorts of exciting garden developments.  Some have been good!  Some have not.

In the bad news:

1. Zucchini down!

zucchinidown

At first, I blamed the cats.  Then the squirrels.  In the end, though, I think the zucchini was too big for its britches.  Which is to say, its container.  Next year, I will rig up some support.  I was tempted to fiddle with it, but after much agonizing I decided to leave it alone, and it’s recovering:

zukefeelingbetter

2. The savoury plant seems to be a perpetual victim.

poorsavoury

This is the second time it’s been knocked off its perch.  Not sure who to blame, but the cat looked guiltier than usual.

3. A couple of the tomato plants have bad cases of leaf roll.

tomatoroll

After doing some research, I think this is due to cool temperatures and high humidity, and nothing dire.  They are still producing like crazy and, although some leaves have a mild black speckle, there is no sign of spots.  Some of the lower leaves, however, are looking chewed, so I’m keeping an eye on them.

4. The beans and the kale are also getting munched.

chewedbeans chewedkale

I’m not too worried about the beans – they are otherwise fine, and production doesn’t seem to be affected.  The kale makes me sad, though.  Some of the basil plants are getting it too.  I expect it’s slugs, but am investigating other possibilities.

5.  I don’t know if this guy is bad news or not.

firefly

The best I can tell, he’s a diurnal firefly, and therefore a) benign and b) cute! and c) a firefly, albeit without the glowy stuff.  If he’s something else, that’s a different story.  I’ve solicited opinions.  Including yours, please.

In good news:

1. We harvested the first green beans!

beanharvest

I steamed them and made them into a salad with some zucchini and blossom refrigerator pickles I’d made earlier in the day.

2. So far, the netting seems to be keeping the squirrels out of the strawberries.

strawberriesprotected

We ate one of these yesterday and it was INCREDIBLE.  However, I just surprised a squirrel sitting on top of the hanger, chattering at the top of his lungs (“I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES I’M STEALING YOUR STRAWBERRIES!”) so we’ll see if the net does its job when I’m not there.  (He also knocked over the collards I’m sprouting, so I’m starting to think he’s responsible for the savoury fiascos.)

3. The calendula is blooming.

calendula

4. The peas did well, and yesterday I harvested the last of them.  Today, I pulled them up and planted some more carrots in their place.

goodbyepeas newcarrots

Not sure if it’s a good idea to put carrots in after peas – too much nitrogen in the soil – but we’ll see what happens.

5. We now have two – count ’em, two – poblano peppers.

poblanos

6. The basil and sage on the deck are looking great.

deckbasil decksage

7.  It’s a funny little garden, but it’s full of good things, and I grew it all myself.

gardenjuly8

July 5, 2013: The State of the Garden

Summer has been both exciting and frustrating in the garden.  There was much too much cold rain for a while, and now it’s very hot.  There are aphids to combat, and the squirrels have become my mortal enemies.  Nevertheless, there are some fun things happening!

summerpeas

The summer peas are doing wonderfully.  These are shelling peas, and it’s taken me all season to figure out how long to wait before picking them, so I’ve depleted my harvest by picking them too small.  That said, they are perfect right now, and are unbelievably delicious – I feel like I’ve never tasted a pea before.  I pluck them daily, shell them, and scatter them over my lunch salad.  I’m torn as to whether to grow these again next year or switch to a snap pea, as I do like to eat peas whole.

poblano

Here’s our first poblano pepper.  The bell peppers are doing poorly – the plants are yellowish and spindly and the leaves are like eyelet – but the poblanos look to be thriving.  The joints are a bit blackened but the internet assures me this is normal.

cucumber

The cucumbers are coming!  They’re about half the size of my little finger at the moment, but considering I wasn’t expecting them to make it through the premature sortie and cold spring, I’m VERY proud of them and their efforts.

nasturtium

And today, the first nasturtium.  The calendula look about ready to pop, too.

In sadder news, the strawberry plant has been troubled.  For one thing, the squirrels discovered it.

poorstrawberry

(How insulting is it that they take a single bite and leave the rest behind?  And that they pull the green ones off too, when they can’t possibly want them?  And they leave the evidence in a pot of marigolds that they dug up the night before?  I know we should respect the ways of nature, but this all feels like spite to me.)

My attempt at defense is to stick lots of bamboo skewers out of the soil to discourage digging, and drape the whole basket with an elaborate web of netting.

nettedstrawberries

I know squirrels can chew through plastic, so we’ll see how this goes.  What’s more, some of the berries have been developing brown spots as they ripen, which may be a fungus – damn all the rain! – so I’ve been picking open the netting to prune and it’s all a big pain in the butt.  I have yet to taste a delicious ripe strawberry from this plant.  Next year I may just pass in favour of more herbs.

Also: the rapini grew just a few inches and then flowered.  Pretty, but no longer edible, I don’t think.

rapiniflowers

Other catastrophes?  I placed a friend’s chair too close to the lettuce box and the box went over the deck railing.  (It wasn’t growing well anyhow, even though it was still cool outside.)  None of the spinach I planted three weeks ago has germinated; now I’ll need to wait until fall.  The arborist won’t return our calls – we’ve been waiting since May for him to come take care of our sick birch and our bolting maple.  And the marjoram and savoury plants we ordered from our CSA arrived mouldy, although the savoury seems to be recovering.

But the cherry tomatoes are growing like mad!

tomatoes1 tomatoes2

And the green beans!  Holy cannoli!

greenbeans

And how about those zucchini!

zucchini

In an effort to keep on top of the zukes and their delicious blossoms, I’ve been experimenting with refrigerator pickles – also a good way to make use of CSA basket leftovers at the end of the week.  Amanda Cohen’s great cookbook/graphic novel Dirt Candy has been very helpful with this.

pickledzukes pickledradishes

I’m learning many things.  Among them:

1. A single pan-fried zucchini blossom makes it worth it to grow your own veg.

2. Growing most herbs from seed is too much trouble.

3. You have no idea what a real salad is until you’ve plucked most of it out of your own garden.

4. It’s very difficult to grow enough peas.  I feel like I need a whole garden just for peas.

5. Finally, early morning garden inspection makes the cats very happy.

stringergarden