Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cobras in the Compost by Andrew McIntyre

My friend Andrew was born in South Africa, educated in England and Scotland and now lives and writes in San Francisco. When I heard of his early experiences with his family's compost heap, I asked him to share them in my blog.

Cobras in the Compost


     In the late summer of 1967, we were living near Johannesburg, South Africa, in a large bungalow, five rooms,  with about two acres of land developed into a magnificent recreation of an English country garden, the legacy of my parents' nostalgia.

Bucolic rose garden
     Besides numerous varietals of rose, we grew mimosa, bougainvillea, and arum lilies, along with oranges, lemons, apricots, peaches and figs. The property ended with some mulberry trees, beyond which a narrow dirt road led into the veld.

Lemon trees in the garden
     Hidden under pine trees near the servants' quarters, an intimidating mound of pungent, moist green brown, the compost heap had expanded over the years into a very large insect infested pile of mowed lawn, rotting leaves and discarded vegetable matter. Fearful of what lay within, I was nevertheless captivated by the strange heat emanating from the interior.

Intimidating compost heap
     The warmth occasionally attracted visitors. Late one evening Samson, our Zulu garden boy, perceived movement as he washed under the tap near his room. He immediately informed my parents of the situation.
   "You're to stay out of the garden until further notice," said my father, "And Tosh too, keep him inside. Seems likely two Rinkhals are nesting in the compost heap. We'll try and get them tomorrow."
     Seldom more than a meter long, with a black or dark brown body, white bands near the head, the Rinkhals is also known as the Spitting Cobra. An aggressive snake, fast moving, very venomous, they are common throughout Southern Africa.
     Early next morning, in the chill of the still dawn air, Samson and my father hid, observing the heap. Nocturnal creatures, the snakes would return to hide during the day. They had to be killed together otherwise Samson would leave, fearing that the bereaved mate would seek revenge.  Rumors would spread, we might have trouble finding another Zulu.
     Sure enough, a slight stirring and one serpent returned, followed shortly by the other. Armed with a fork and a large stick, Samson rapidly raked the heap, while my father killed both snakes. I was allowed to view the results, fascinated as Samson held a limp hose-like body.
     He shouted Zulu, "Very bad snake now dead, Little Master."
     "Cobras," said my father, lighting a cigarette.
     Smashed in the detritus, about twenty eggs, yellow and sticky, quite unlike hen's eggs. The remains of the tiny unborn offspring, perfectly formed amid the gooey destruction.
      A month or so later, Samson was fired for drinking my father's whisky. You can't fool a Scotsman, he'd been replacing what he'd drunk with tap water. The morning of his departure was the first time I saw a man crying.  I missed my best friend.
     My father retired, and the house was sold. Dreaming of an England that never was, we boarded the RMS Pendennis Castle in Durban, expected destination Southampton. Transplanted from Africa to English boarding school,  I quickly forgot Zulu, and my feet grew soft.

RMS Pendennis Castle 
     Forty-five summers on, Johannesburg has spread, the house is now surrounded by suburbs. A nearby mall and a freeway have added to its value. The garden is still a kaleidoscopic idyll of rose bushes and fruit trees. The compost heap exudes its warmth, in that shaded area near the servants' quarters and, in the chilly nights, it attracts the occasional visitor.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


On midsummer's eve, June 21st, I decorated my green bin with seasonal fruits, flowers and herbs to welcome the 2012 summer solstice. I realize that's a bit anthropomorphic, but it was great fun, and Green Bin didn't complain. This frivolity brought back memories of camping in Finland one long-ago midsummer's eve. This is one of Finland's most popular holidays and I was lucky to have participated.  The Finns decorated their cars with branches and, since it remained light all night,  they celebrated by lighting bonfires for good luck, grilling sausages, and alternately taking hot saunas and jumping into the frigid nearby lake.

Green bin decorated with lemons, hydrangeas, banana and cage free eggs

Green bin with peach, artichoke flower, lavender  and mint


In my cookbook collection, I found my favorite summer volume, Summer Food by Judith Olney, published in hardcover by Atheneum in 1978.  Mrs. Olney is the sister-in-law of Richard Olney, patron saint of Chez Panisse and author of such classics as The French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food.  He lived in Provence most of his adult life, and Judith Olney's many Provencal  recipes reflect his influence.  I always liked this book for its lovely use of herbs, flowers and garden-fresh vegetables, and I remember enjoying her recipes for warm potato salad and flower garden soup.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


                                     A FEAST FOR THE GREEN BIN
A good day for my kitchen green bin

In my Strawberry blog I neglected my green bin terribly, so this time I will make up for it by disposing of  multitudes of thick, thorny compost. We are talking about THE ARTICHOKE here, and green bin is lovin'  it!   I confess I am not a big artichoke fan; I approach them with caution and curiosity. Those prickly thorns on the tips of the tough leaves are dangerous, and the heart, the only really edible part of the plant, is surrounded by a hairy choke which must be removed. So much foliage for so little reward!  Of  course, my loss is green bin's gain. Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, had a point when, in 77 A.D., he called the choke "one of earth's monstrosities." However, I do appreciate the fact that artichokes are actually  flower buds and if allowed to bloom, make a nice arrangement.

Flowering Artichokes

Perhaps my apprehension stems from the fact that I led an artichoke-deprived Midwestern childhood. My husband, however was plucking leaves and dipping them in melted butter at a tender age; he grew up in Walnut Creek, California and made annual trips to Carmel with his family. En route they passed nearby Castroville, "artichoke capital of the world!" Artichokes were everywhere. In fact, all artichokes commercially grown in the U.S. are grown in California.

Artichokes rule in Castroville

It was during my junior semester abroad in Florence when I first tasted an artichoke. One Sunday supper, Signora Rusconi, with whom I lived, served a frittata filled with strange, drab, inedible leaves.  Mamma Mia!  During the same semester I was doubly confused when I tasted a dark brown, bitter-sweet  Italian liqueur called Cynar, made from artichokes and thirteen different herbs. It purported to make foods that followed taste sweeter.  What a concept—  a vegetable unpleasant in both solid and liquid form!  But  Cynar's label was impressive. 

The Italian digestivo made from artichokes and herbs

It was not until twenty five years later that I discovered tender baby artichokes at a Berkeley farmer's market. After steaming them quickly and devouring the entire luscious morsels with only a little salt, I realized what the fuss was all about!

Artichokes at the Berkeley Farmer's Market

On a more recent trip to Rome, I enjoyed an international favorite,"Carciofi alla Giudea" (deep-fried artichokes, Jewish style) at Ristorante Piperno in Trastevere. Delicious as it is, I don't prepare it at home. More fear of frying.  Plus, I always need an excuse to return to ITALY!

Carciofi alla Giudea or deep  fried artichokes  (Rome) 

Ironically, the recipe I do make at home uses canned artichokes, not fresh.  I love it,  but my green bin doesn't approve.


1 can artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 green onions, chopped

  • Heat oven to 350
  • Mix all ingredients by hand or in food processor
  • Spoon into shallow ovenproof dish
  • Bake 15 to 20 minutes until hot and bubbly
  • Serve warm with crackers, warm baguette slices or fresh vegetables

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


SONG - Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles

Strawberry tarts  from a patisserie
My first memory of strawberries is a childhood breakfast: red summer berries circling a mound of white powdered sugar. My mother always used her favorite flat Norwegian bowls. My sister and I dipped each berry in the powdery pile. What heavenly flavors!  I have not repeated this ritual since then, but the magic lingers still.
Another fond childhood memory is the gallons of strawberry ice cream we ate during the  hot, humid  Wisconsin summers. We bought  this in cardboard cartons which were easy to dispose of , though we never considered that then. But the best  treat of all was strawberry shortcake, which I will discuss later.There's a lot to say about America's favorite dessert.

Now however, let's jump to the present and continue the story with my green bin. In Berkeley, if the weather cooperates, berries arrive in late March just in time for Easter,  and they continue in the markets until November. I eat them daily throughout most of their season, and I almost always buy them at the Farmer's Market. It's important to buy organic because strawberries are often sprayed and maintain a high pesticide residue.  I prefer Swanton Farm's sweet berries but I also like Lucero's. Mr. Lucero taught me how to store the berries: put them in a paper towel-lined Tupperware container, close the lid and refrigerate. This really slows spoilage. And I like to bring my empty container to the market and transfer the fruit right into it, leaving the mesh basket at the stand to be refilled by the vendor. This is catching on here; in fact, while I was photographing strawberries, three shoppers walked up with their containers. I try to avoid buying fruit packaged in plastic.  I'm so grateful to live in Berkeley where I have the option of buying produce and grains in bulk, without  packaging!

Mesh baskets at Lucero's at Berkeley's Farmers' Market

Plastic containers at Trader Joe's:  NO  NO  NO

At home I  rinse the berries lightly when I'm ready to use them and finally start collaborating with my green bin. The only inedible parts of a strawberry are the green leaves on top and their removal is called "hulling". You can do this with a tool called a strawberry huller or it can be done by hand. I like to pinch off the hull with my finger tips and flick it directly into my green bin. There's not  much compost here but the quantity of leaves I remove creating morning smoothies, evening cocktails (white wine with halved  berries is refreshing), fruit salads, spinach salads (pictured below) and  an occasional rhubarb-strawberry crisp, does add up. I think about making exquisite strawberry fritters that I tasted in a cooking class taught by Giuliano  Bugialli, the famous cookbook author, instructor and Tuscan scholar, though I never do.  Fear of frying, I guess. But the recipe, "Fragole in Camicia",  can be found in Bugialli's Italy.

Toni Koshlap's spinach salad

"Old-fashioned shortcake is always made with biscuit dough, not cake, and is served with unsweetened heavy cream, unwhipped". So says Fannie Merritt Farmer in in her Original Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, 1896. I follow most of her advice when I make this quintessential and truly American summer dessert. I always use biscuit dough instead of cake, though I know controversy surrounds the subject.  I bake the biscuits immediately prior to serving, for they must be hot from the oven to qualify as perfect shortcake. Fork-split and lavishly buttered, these savory morsels are now ready for their gaudy topping of sweetened quartered berries and cream. Here, I part ways with Fannie and use lightly sugared, whipped cream . That is my ideal strawberry shortcake: buttered hot biscuits, sweetened ripe strawberries and  whipped cream laced with powdered sugar and vanilla.

Classic strawberry shortcake

Pictured below is my mother's recipe box, showing her "basic shortcake", written front and back on  an old 3x5 card. It contains many recipes in her handwriting, a nostalgic reminder of happy childhood hours spent in her kitchen. This particular recipe comes from an old stained copy of the classic,  The Settlement Cookbook, her favorite.


Today I'm  featuring The Compleat Strawberry by Stafford Whiteaker, published simultaneously in England by Century and  in New York by Random House Value, 1985. It's an amusing volume by a British enthusiast who celebrates the berry in art, poetry and song, with herbal remedies, gardening tips and seventy delectable recipes.  This charming book is readily available on-line.