30 September, 2009

Pesto Da y 2009

Our pesto sign hauled out of storage waits to be placed announcing our 7th Annual Pesto Day before we got it hung out on Saturday. (The only free time I had to take photos...)

This year's Pesto Day was a success by many measures! First of all, it was the least stressful Pesto Day for everyone on my side of the serving line: we have gotten the plan down pretty well grooved and we had a superb group of volunteers manning all the different stations. We don't yet have a final tally, but we didn't go into the red - which is always the bottom line - if we make money (it IS a fundraiser!) we are very happy; but if we at least pay our way, it means we can do this again next year, which we want to do because it is FUN! And tastes great too!

A friend of mine who has been in the non-profit world once said to me, "David, you don't really have fund-raisers so much as you have friend-raisers..." Well, I hope we made a few new friends in The Learning Garden on Saturday. And I hope we see even more folks at The Learning Garden on our next adventure!


20 September, 2009

Pesto Day - Excellent Yumminess On Its Way!!

It's not just basil and garlic, but that is the most important part of pesto - if you don't have spectacular basil and garlic, you won't have spectacular pesto. Our basil is Italian in origin, Genovesa Profutissimo and our garlic is an heirloom hardneck, usually Spanish Roja (if not, then we substitute Chesnok Red or Inchellium Red). Combine these ingredients with some good pine nuts, olive oil and some quality Parmesan cheese and you have a treat that is hard to beat.

Just to prove you can't make the same pesto at home that we sell at The Learning Garden, here's the Rockenwagner recipe that I started with about seven years ago. It makes a good pesto, but if you add in Genovesa and Spanish Roja, you have something to celebrate!

Always try to process as little basil as possible at one time. If you use a food processor, chill the bowl and the blade so they stay cool while you make the pesto. Make sure to cover the pesto tightly or store in an airtight container imediately after making it. The top layer will discolor faster than the rest you can keep a thin layer of oil on top to stop oxygen from getting to the pesto and causing discoloration, but this will add more oil to the pesto each time you use it. Some of us think this is not a problem.

2 cloves of garlic
1½ Tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
¾ cup plus ½ teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all the ingredients, except the ½ teaspoon olive oil, in a food processor and process until a puree forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Transfer to an airtight container and pour the remaining ½ teaspoon of olive oil over the pesto, covering completely. Cover and refrigerate until needed (the pesto keeps for several days, tightly covered, but loses it’s bright green color after the first day).

Come on over to The Learning Garden this Saturday, September 26th, 2-5 PM and pick up a jar of our famous pesto, or just sample it in an Italian meal on our patio in the company of our neighbors and good folks. Troop 2131 is providing the lemonade!


15 September, 2009

Last Tuesday - It's Been Busy Around Here!

Tina Gruen (curly hair on the right) and teachers gather at one of our picnic tables in The Learning Garden to go over the scheduling and plans for the first term of CASAA (Culinary Arts and Sustainable Agriculture Academy) at Venice High School. This new academy, Tina's brainchild and baby, will take students through a regular high school curriculum but will emphasis our relationship to food from the growing, preparing and getting it to the kitchen, through cooking it in a nutritional and appetizing way.

We in The Learning Garden are excited because this will be an important part of our Garden and will encourage students to see the whole food process beyond ordering a burger at McDonald's! Whatta concept!


13 September, 2009


I'm very pleased to show this picture of corn from this year's harvest. A flat of unidentified corn plants had come to me needing the space to grow and I planted them out in June unsure of what I had on hand, except some vague mumblings from woman who gave them to me that she thought they might be some 'Indian corn.'

Like there was some other kind? But I took it to mean she thought they were a flour corn, not a 'sweet' corn. As they grew, the kernels did not look like sweet corn, some had neat rows, some were jumbled (like Country Gentleman). I never looked at all the corn, but I knew there were some different colors in the mix.

When I harvested the corn last week, I was dumbfounded pulling the shucks off the ears by the variety and beauty of the kernels! Look at the ear at the bottom of the photo, or the one on the right above the red ear! It is as if each kernel was hand painted by a meticulous painter, each one a true work of art. I am making sure I've got them dried enough to keep and I'll be planting the seeds of those two ears for certain in the coming year!


08 September, 2009

PTSA Teacher Welcome Back Brunch

Teachers in the Garden! It's the end of Summer for sure now - the Venice High School PTSA has their annual Back To School Brunch for the teachers out on our patio. Lot's of good food and the teachers all seem to be eager to be back. Many compliments on the Garden, like "never looked better." I am grateful to all the volunteers who have spent so many hours in this Garden over the summer months! We have sent over 900 pounds of fresh food from this Garden so far this year and more will be sent off soon.


Scoville Heat Units in Peppers

A couple of Jalapenos (SHUs 3500) and a couple Sweet Bananas (SHUs about 1200), both of which I have enough to learn how to preserve by drying and pickling. There are still a lot more green peppers in the Garden - but all of them will have to be picked soon because the Venice High School students will be in the Garden learning to grow a whole new crop of edibles for winter!

I've had a great crop of peppers this year – which, I find a tad disturbing, because this year was lousy for eggplants to a lack of consistent heat, and if it didn't get hot enough for one, I'd think it'd not be hot enough for the other. But I have a lot of peppers. We pickled about 5 pints of the Sweet Banana peppers so far this year, but the jalapeƱos, I'm letting stay on the vine until they turn red so I can dry them until they are crispy to grind them into powder for a teentsy little zip in some recipes over the coming months.

One thing to remember when working with hot peppers: either wear rubber gloves or make very sure to wash your hands thoroughly before you touch your face – especially your eyes – the juice in hot peppers are just about one of the most painful solutions you can get into your eyes. Or other sensitive flesh parts of your body.

Measurements of heat in peppers are in Scoville Heat Units (SHU's), which is predicated on the amount of capsaicin in the pepper. Here is a chart comparing the different peppers and their varying amounts of capsaicin. If you know the SHU of a pepper, you can avoid blasting the top of your head off. But, remember, right after the note on keeping capsaicin out of your eyes, if you dry peppers, the heat increases by a factor of ten! That's an increase worth remembering!

Pepper Type Heat rating (in Scoville heat units)
Pure Capsaicin 16,000,000
Naga Jolokia 800,000 ~ 1,041,000
Dorset Naga 800,000 ~ 900,000
Red Savina Habanero 350,000 ~ 575,000
Habanero 200,000-300,000
Red Amazon 75,000
Pequin 75,000
Chiltecepin 70,000-75,000
Tabasco 30,00-50,000
Cayenne 35,000
Arbol 25,000
Japone 25,000
Smoked Jalepeno (Chipotle) 10,000
Serrano 7,000-25,000
Puya 5,000
Guajillo 5,000
Jalepeno 3,500-4,500
Poblano 2,500-3,000
Pasilla 2,500
TAM Mild Jalepeno-1 1,000-1,500
Anaheim 1,000-1,400
New Mexican 1,000
Ancho 1,000
Bell & Pimento 0

I'm afraid my Kansas heritage precludes eating most of these. Anything above Jalapeno would not be found in my kitchen! And yet, I've dried Jalapenos. That's just a little scary - the only use I have for the final dried Jalapeno powder will be to add a pinch to my famous Hot Chocolate That Kills, served at the Learning Garden for Dia de los Muertos and again at Valentines Day. Other than that, I'll keep it tightly capped and show the container to some things I'm cooking just to make them THINK about being warmer. :-)


The Garden In September, Part I

Lettuce is one of our winter crops in Los Angeles – Merville des Quatres Saissons (Marvel of the Four Seasons) is more like Marvel of the Two Seasons here – our summers are way too hot to grow this lovely French belle, but in cooler months this is a true delight that is as tasty as it is beautiful – and it's really beautiful!!

As the Summer crops begin to decline, we now get ready to see the seasons change in a dramatic fashion. The plants that have given you tomatoes all summer, are mostly a heap of sad, brown vines. If there has not been any difficult diseases, I prefer to leave the vegetation where it lays. I chop it up using my trusty pruners or a machete – or a shovel, if it is handy and will do the job. The cut up plant debris is left where it lies and fresh mulch is piled up on top of it – to three or four inches deep. The paths are filled with wood chips if I don't have a clover or other green manure crop growing there. The old vegetation will break down and in the process will become composted in place.

These plants have drawn nutrients from the soil and, by leaving them in place, we allow some of that nutritional value to be returned to the soil. It's true, when we harvest a tomato, we are really harvesting the soil's fertility that has been converted via the sun's energy into the things we eat to live. Putting the tomato plant back into the soil, without the tomatoes you harvested, represents a net loss for the soil. That's where the additional mulch and wood chips come in – we try to replace the stuff we ate with stuff that will allow the soil to recreate its bevy of nutrients to nourish our next round of food plants. It is not sufficient, in the long run, to just add fertilizers – we need to add things that will provide sustenance for the critters in the soil – a thriving soil ecology will provide better nutrition to your plants without spending needless dollars on fertilizer, most of which will only provide pollution of our ground water.

In a garden where perennial weeds are not a huge problem, I encourage everyone to plant a perennial crop that will assist in nourishing the soil. I like any one of several clovers or alfalfa or whatever else that will take mild foot traffic and will do something to add to the fertility of the soil. If this crop is mowed in a sustainable manner – like with a hand sickle, for a small area, to a scythe for larger areas – the mowings can be put right back into the beds next to where it was cut. Some kind of soil regeneration must be happening all the time or the soil will eventually not support food crops. Unfortunately, growing in a community garden, control of the perennial weeds is only as good as the worst gardener and so a perennial cover crop on the pathways isn't always a practice we can use.

One portion of the garden needs to be left fallow in every season, 'fallow' means it is not growing a crop to harvest – usually what we call a green manure crop. For gardeners in Sunset Zone 24, that means a part of the garden can be left without growing crops to harvest every single month of the year. In areas where there is not a huge problem with perennial weeds, the paths can supplement this soil enrichment by growing something like clover year round that improves soil viability. In any growing season, it is better to have the soil covered with some crop – even a crop of weeds is better than leaving the soil barren, except they'll produce more weeds if they go to seed.

More September later in the month!


01 September, 2009

Let Us Experiment; Post 2

It was just a couple of weeks ago I posted the cute little plants that comprise this summers' "Lettuce Experiment" tiny in their temporary six pack homes. A few weeks along and they look a lot more like lunch. Four of the five lettuces chosen for the project are happily growing on to size in our Garden

It hasn't turned out to be much of an experiment! This summer has been so darn cool that we're not getting a good look at which lettuce varieties are really heat-resistant. Smoke resistant maybe (some really bad wildfires are burning on the fringes of LA, but our skies are covered over with smoke and ash making breathing difficult, but proving which lettuces taste best growing under smoke and ash was not the point of this experiment!), but not so much heat resistant. We have had precious little heat until these last few days when it finally soared into triple digits. In this photo, green Jericho, is nestled in among the very dark red Bughatti, the vigorous Red Fire and the much more reticent Red Sails. Missing from this photo is Summertime which had very poor germination and hasn't made it out of its first six pack yet!

These photos which are making my mouth water to try, don't tell the story. A big ol' head of lettuce isn't worth the act of harvesting if it is bitter or tough. That's where the judging will really happen - by the forkful!

That's the point of growing your own.