Something that neither the Alinea cookbook nor the Mosaic (that I know of) touch on greatly but that’s evident from working through the recipes is the importance of gardening. Nearly every dish uses fresh herbs of some sort, and very often they’re garnished with leaves or flowers of various plants (often distinctively so; dishes frequently look naked if they’re missing the splash of color some fresh vibrant leaves or flowers offer). I’ve grown to be fascinated by this; there’s no proof that I’ve seen in visiting the restaurant that they maintain a garden, but it seems evident from the recipes that they surely must have to. Though I love my Berkeley Bowl, I can’t yet roll up and buy a teaspoonful of basil flowers or zuta levana leaves. Some herbs I can find fresh there (and to save time, I often buy them), but many others I find I have to search elsewhere for.
Several years ago I tried the “buy some live basil at the grocery, bring it home and try to keep it alive for more than a week” thing, and 10 times out of 10 I’d end up with a dried brown dead plant in my kitchen within days. I wouldn’t claim to be a green thumb gardener now by any means, but it’s kind of amazing what just a bit of paying attention can do for one’s ability to care for plants. It’s also fascinating to me to watch them grow; they’re so interestingly different, and I love watching the choices they make–when and where they throw out tendrils, flowers, or leaves. Sometimes when I’m bored I just go stare at them; Sarah teases me and calls them my ducks (“You’re like Tony Soprano with those things”). Some of the plants are very mellow and slow while others are excitable and obnoxious.
A few recipes ago I needed some anise hyssop leaves. Calling around local nurseries in search of an anise hyssop plant turned up dry, so I found and ordered some seeds off amazon. I used little expanding peat cups form Home Depot to sprout the seeds, and within about 3 weeks or so I had several nice little plants ready to be used for the dish. Those plants have continued to grow (I hate to just toss them after I use them), and this past week one of them started to flower. I thought it was kinda pretty.
Given a bit of success with this starting-a-plant-from-seed thing, I’ve gotten more bold about doing this more. Most recently I’ve been sprouting some celery seeds; one of the Alinea dishes is served atop a bed of sprouting thyme, and I’m curious about the idea of how far a seed will sprout without any dirt (obviously serving a dish atop dirt isn’t terribly appetizing). I don’t have thyme seeds, but I did have some celery ones, so I tried sprouting them on a wet paper towel.
Some seeds I can just find at Home Depot easily enough; if not I often turn to Amazon for them. The Zuta Levana was a tougher one though; these seeds came from a small horticulturalist in Canada, and are just now starting to peek out of their peat cups two weeks after planting.
This is Kentucky Bluegrass growing in a smal bread loaf pan. I like the idea of potentially serving something on top of this because it’s more personal, or maybe finding some other interesting use for it.
By far the most elusive growing endeavor for me so far is bee balm; there’s one dish in the book that’s so incredibly beautiful, largely due to a garnish of a bee balm flower. It’s very distinctive and vibrant. Shortly after I started this project I bought a bee balm plant in New Zealand; I cared for it for about a year before we left. It never bloomed. A month or so after we got to Oakland I tracked down a pack of seeds and started all over again. Right now I have about 20 plants growing in various spots around the house and in our yard. I’m trying to hedge my bets as much as possible to increase the likelihood that at least one of them will produce a flower this summer sometime. If so it’ll have taken me two years to get it. I refuse to make the dish without that flower though.
This one seems to be doing the best; he’s got the prime real estate in my kitchen window and I’m also trying the use of a full-spectrum light bulb that stays on for most of the day, which seems to be working well.
I also still have and am caring for three lemon verbena plants, originally used in the Huckleberry dish to make Lemon Verbena Gel. They’re very active and are pretty easy to grow.
…and some cucumbers and zucchini. I need a flowering cucumber/zucchini for a dish I hope to make later this summer.
By far the most exciting plant I have at the moment though is this guy: a hop plant. I bought him as a rhizome (a root section from which sprouts grow after its been planted) maybe about 2 months ago. It’s already sprouted several vines, some of which are over 10 feet long. They seem to be growing by about a foot per week; it’s totally amazing and awesome. I’ve run coconut coir lines around my yard for them to hug onto and spiral around. Interestingly, the info I’ve found about growing hop plants suggest training them onto lines in a clockwise direction so that they follow the sun’s arc through the sky throughout the day, so that they continue spiraling around the lines. Pretty neat.
I should point out that the hop plant has nothing to do with Alinea stuff (yet); I just really love IPA’s and started brewing my own beers a few months back. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have enough hop flowers to use in a batch of beer.