Archive for March, 2008

Eggs, the best eggs, and Eggs Benedict

Having just said goodbye to too many reminders that eggs are – or were – seasonal, and thus a symbol of spring rebirth, I won’t go into it except to point out that the best eggs still ARE seasonal, and that there’s a huge difference between an egg that’s as good as an egg can be and a conventional mass-produced egg.

Well-treated chickens that are not fed things you don’t want to think about produce tastier eggs year ‘round, but the eggs that are really worth crowing about are super-fresh local eggs from hens that spend a lot of time outdoors getting exercise and fresh air, eating bugs (concentrated protein, lots of minerals) and green vegetables. ( Many kinds of dark green leaves are rich in carotenes, precursors to vitamin A and a much better way to have deep yellow yolks than putting annato – a spice that acts as a yellow dye – in the chicken feed).

These eggs come from Ilana Nilsen, who sells her backyard eggs at farmers markets and at a store in Millbrook, NY called Best Creations. This is nice to know if you happen to live near Millbrook, but what’s nicer is that there are good local eggs just about everywhere, if you bother to look, and there are likely to be more and more because Ilana isn’t the only person who just wanted a few heirloom chickens and wound up with more than she bargained for.

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The Most Happy Houseplants

It’s spring! Time to evaluate, improve – or possibly discard – your current collection of houseplants. But it can be hard to see old friends clearly; loyalty gets in the way. The fix? A field trip to the nearest public conservatory. Botanic gardens, universities and colleges all over the country have greenhouses full of wonderful plants and these include (more often than not) humongous, obscenely healthy versions of those meek green units in the living room.
Your fiddleleaf fig could be 13 feet tall too, although you might be just as glad it’s not.

Tropical orchids, ferns on steroids, fragrant blossoms dripping from vines and trees – even the smallest of these places puts spring flower shows to shame. And small can be especially beautiful. Displays will be far less polished but publicity is nonexistent, which means they’re seldom crowded. Call ahead to find out the slow times and you might be the only visitor.

What a deal, especially in raw, cold March. What’s not to like about peaceful warm rooms filled with tropical beauties that somebody else has been taking good care of for years and years and years?

This staghorn fern, more than 6 feet across, was not built in a day.

It also takes more than a moment to grow a good sized flock of birds of paradise.

Oddly enough, seeing one’s familiar home companions in this new light is more energizing than depressing and there is almost always something to learn: When a fiddleleaf gets old, the bark gets gorgeous; dormant orchids don’t look any better when there are 60 pots of them; pruning matters as much indoors as it does in the yard; and whether camellias are worth the hassle may be a function of heritage. Could be you have to be southern.



Oh right, I forgot to mention fruit. In addition to proving dwarf citrus trees CAN produce something that looks like a crop (those are ponderosa lemons, not grapefruit), these places harbor edibles most of us can’t see without buying a plane ticket.

Papaya tree at @ 16 feet ( those dark footballs are the papayas)

The base of the tree is fat, gray and gnarly; the roots go right through the gravel floor, deep into the deeply alien Hudson Vally soil.

But not for much longer, and thus we come to the carpe diem part. These pictures were taken at the greenhouse that belongs to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook New York. It will be closed before the end of March, its collection dispersed, the building dismantled. Gone forever after more than 30 years.

And it’s not likely to be alone. Glasshouses cost a lot to heat; older models cost really a lot to heat. As the price of oil sails ever upward while funding for public institutions shrinks and those institutions start thinking about greenness in a different way …

A bit of creative googling is likely to turn up at least one that’s close to you, but you might as well start with the advanced garden search at the American Public Gardens Association and the international list at

Soda Bread (not just for the Irish)

Is it just wishful thinking or are there really somewhat fewer green glitter shamrocks (and similar) this year? Not that I have anything against the good Saint, and I know Irish immigrants have made huge contributions. But it’s always seemed like a bit of a stretch to make the thing into a National Holiday. The only reason I can see is that, Easter being a movable feast, you have to be sure there’s something you can celebrate in March.
On the other hand, it’s useful to be reminded of soda bread and potatoes, two splendid foodstuffs that get a lot less respect than they should.

Soda bread fresh out of the oven. The funny looking butter pat is because the very good cultured butter is packaged in a fat plastic tube (the better to preserve its freshness, I assume), by Vermont Butter and Cheese.


Properly made, with a good proportion of fresh whole wheat flour, without any fat or sugar, this is probably the loveliest, most intensely bread-tasting bread you can make without yeast: crisp crusted, tender crumbed, the partner for which butter was invented – or so it seems when you have that first chunk. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare and about 40 minutes to bake, so adding in oven heating time you arrive at a one hour wonder. Admittedly, it doesn’t stay wonderful too much longer than that; but omigod, what terrific toast.

A word about oven-enhancement: Putting this on a flat pan and baking it will produce delicious bread. Putting it in a heated iron kettle and covering same with a hot iron lid will produce bread that is delicious plus. (The cast iron evens out oven heat and the lid traps steam, enabling you to get a crust that’s crisp without being hard. ) This technique got a recent boost from Mark Bittman, who uses it to good effect for a no-knead “European-style boule”, but of course it’s nothing new. They don’t call those kettles Dutch ovens for nothin.’

Actually, this is a chicken fryer – terrific pan, btw, just like a Dutch oven but shorter – given the necessary height with a make-do lid.

For one 8 to 9 inch round

1 ¼ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ tsp. salt

1 tsp baking soda

2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour*

@1 ½ cups buttermilk

cornmeal to sprinkle on the pan

1. Heat the oven to 425. If using an iron pot, put it and the lid in to heat up about 5 minutes before you start the dough.

2. Put the unbleached flour, soda and salt in a large bowl and stir with a wire whisk until well combined. Stir in the whole wheat flour.

3. Using a wooden spoon, make a well in the flour and pour in most of the buttermilk. Mix thoroughly, quickly, adding additional buttermilk as needed until you have a soft, slightly sticky dough. Lightly flour your hands, reach in and knead just enough to bring everything together, then form the dough into a round.

4. Sprinkle cornmeal on the baking sheet or the bottom of the hot heavy pot. Place the dough on it, seam side down. Use a sharp thin-bladed knife to cut a cross about ½ inch deep into the top of the bread. Put on the hot heavy lid, if using, and put the pan in the oven.

Ready to bake. You can’t really see it but the cornmeal is smoking slightly. Not to worry.

5. Check after 30 minutes. The bread should be well risen and brown. If it’s still on the pale gold side, give it a few more minutes, still under cover if you’re using a lid.

Tarting it up in traditional fashion: stir in 1 teaspoon caraway seeds when you stir in the whole wheat flour and stir in 3/4 cup of plump raisins when the dough is approaching complete but has not yet come together.

Eat it while it’s still hot, if possible

* Whole wheat flour is pretty much it in the flavoring department, so quality really matters. If yours has been sitting around for a while, treat yourself to a new sack. The bread in the picture was made with a combination of King Arthur Organic Whole Wheat, available ( mirabile dictu! Who’d have thought it in the old days) at large supermarkets, and Wild Hive Farm Wholegrain Soft White Winter Wheat, which we buy – along with the butter – at Adams.


A garden miracle, easy to plant, easy to care for, tremendous yields, and a terrific thing to plant with kids. More about planting at planting time ( soon but not yet) . Right now, the thing to know is that time is running out for ordering from one of my favorite sources, Moose Tubers (Fedco) 45 varieties to choose from but only until March 14th. After that, there’s always Wood Prairie Farm, a far slicker but no less trustworthy establishment.