How-to books take you only so far in January

01/06/2012 5:00 AM

01/07/2012 7:23 AM

The first week of the new year is always so refreshing (especially if it includes days when the temperature is in the 60s) — empty of just-shed holiday pressures, full of promise, decorated with a few new calendars (though I’m missing the annual pilgrimage to Borders for half-off this year).

Reading more is always a resolution of mine, and a couple of new garden books, received as Christmas presents, seemed the best place to start in 2012.

I love the initial digging into garden and cookbooks — some of them combined in one, as in “Growing at the Speed of Life” by the Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr. But, at some point, you have to put them down and cook. Or sow seeds. Otherwise you’ll go crazy, as we do watching football instead of getting outside and tossing one with the boys. (Well, you boys should do that, anyway.)

So, being an armchair gardener in January, what I was most drawn to in Kerr’s book were line drawings of vegetables in the garden, showing both the underground and aboveground parts of the plants at the same time.

I love gazing at how networks of roots spread themselves out and down, and admire how the tops and bottoms looked together as a whole.

I particularly love the Brussels sprouts – the top looks like sleigh bells, and the roots are shallow in relation to the stalks. They remind me of the Brussels sprouts I tasted at a neighbor’s on Christmas Day. They looked very Christmasy, the bowl of little green cabbage heads next to the red cranberry relish. Brussels sprouts are not my favorite vegetable — they haven’t grown on me in my adulthood as beets have, for example. But they are gorgeous, and have you seen them for sale on the stalk at the grocery store? It seems like an enormous luxury, like heads of lettuce with roots attached, sold in those plastic clamshell containers.

Where the Galloping Gourmet shines, to me, is in the kitchen, with his ways to simply prepare and garnish vegetables. A little section on cooking methods points out that steaming is preferable to boiling, unless we’re talking new potatoes and green peas.

“New potatoes can be boiled for about 10 minutes and drained, then covered with a towel (pressed down onto the potatoes) and left on a low heat for about five minutes to draw off the surplus water. This method avoids that waterlogged texture that often accompanies straightforward boiling.

“And a favorite of mine: peas tightly covered and boiled in ¼ cup of water with a few leaves of fresh mint and just a touch of sugar.”

I knew I’d have a garden veg friend in Jamie Oliver when I picked up his “Jamie’s Dinners” cookbook last month at a book sale. He is indeed fresh, on many levels.

“”We’re told that beans should only be cooked until they’re al dente, but I think we should cook them for a bit longer,” Oliver writes in describing a recipe called Good Old French Bean Salad. “I’d rather run my nails down a blackboard than eat a squeaky al dente green bean!” Thanks for the reinforcement, Jamie!

And: “You often come across people who use raw cauliflower with dips -- I personally would prefer colonic irrigation! I think cauliflowre and brocoli are just awful eaten raw.”

Add in Oliver’s daughters Daisy and Poppy and you have a cookbook with quite a garden connection.

When I pick up gardening books I like to judge them against what they say about a few choice topics -- such as squash bugs. I don’t care particularly for the 2011 “Homegrown & Handmade” by Deborah Niemann (A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living). But she does say something different about squash bugs and borers:

“I learned that planting (summer squash) later in the summer would solve the problem because most of the moths that lay the borer eggs in squash plants would have already laid their eggs. You can also use row covers to keep the plants inaccessible to insects until they start to bloom, at which point they need to be uncovered so they can be pollinated by insects. Another option is to lay a piece of wood next to the plant. The bugs will congregate on the bottom of the board, so you can flip it over and kill the bugs by stepping on them. As a last resort, you can grow squash every other year. The bugs overwinter in the soil, and without a host the following year, most of them will die.”

How I’d love to be trying that board right now rather than reading about it!

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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