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Wanted: Three new winter tenants

Things did not stay as right as I would have liked with my little herbs in front of our house. The mint grew wildly, as expected, but developed a scaly quality to its leaves that was neither delicious nor attractive. Then the scaliness hopped over to both the lemon balm and the rosemary, and, well, that made me decide it was time to start again.

Last Sunday, I composted the dirt out of three of my four herb pots with a plan of starting from scratch, rather than continuing to walk by the pots, glaring out of the side of my eye at the scaly, ill-kempt herbs in the corner.

The sage, after a good weeding and a vigorous cut-back, got a reprieve, though to be honest, it doesn’t look as healthy as I’d like, either. It does have plenty of new growth going for it, so there’s that.

Though I had time to do that bit of clean-up, I didn’t have time to go poke around our local hardware store for replacement options. I’m considering some kind of easy-maintenance winter flower, or even just planting some kind of greens (kale or spinach or something along those lines) that might be easy to keep from killing.

Cyclamen might be a good option—it is planted everywhere in Oakland over the winter, but like all things common, those flowers get a little boring after awhile. Whatever goes in has to like morning sun, but not much direct light the rest of the day, which also limits what might work.

Any brilliant ideas? I’m always open to options.

Simple, brilliant, stunning, gone

I only saw Judy Rodgers in person once. In September 2008, I was on a tour of the Monterey Market in Berkeley, Calif. Bill Fujimoto, who owned the market at the time, had taken us to look in the back loading and storage area, where fruits and vegetables were stacked in boxes on pallets, and there was Judy, touching and tasting and sorting, her list in hand, picking out the very best ingredients to be served that night at Zuni Café.

I tried to get a photo without being obvious, and failed miserably. What I came up with was more smudged than focused, a photo of a woman turned sideways as she shimmied between pallets, a woman focused on getting the ingredients she needed while trying to get Bill’s attention as he told us stories about his store. She was on a mission, and I was too shy to stop her, ask if I could take a decent portrait, and tell her how much I admired her work.I grew up eating a lot of roast chicken, and roast Cornish hens, and lots and lots of salad. But I remember when two friends took me to my first dinner at Zuni Café while I was visiting San Francisco in 2002 on business. “That chicken and bread saladsounds good,” I said. “But it says there’s a long wait for it.”

“You have to get it,” said my friend Susan, who was a vegetarian and wouldn’t have touched it anyway. “It’s the dish to order here.”

“I’ll split it with you,” said Robin, Susan’s friend, who I was just meeting for the first time that night. “I don’t mind waiting.” She agreed it was incredibly good and not-to-be missed.

But incredibly good doesn’t even begin to describe how that dish tasted. I’m not exaggerating when I say it made all the roast chicken before and since pale in comparison. It was unbelievably simple—chicken, salt, pepper, mustard greens, currants, pine nuts, bread, vinaigrette—and, in that, unbelievably sublime. The skin crackled between my teeth.

I didn’t return until 2011, when took my parents there for their anniversary. Over that dinner, I introduced them to The Unicorn. I know we had other food to eat that night, but I demanded that we have the roast chicken and bread salad. “It’s the dish to order here,” I said, and it’s the only thing I really remember eating that night.

It was as good as the first time, and it is one dish I can always conjure up, almost able to taste it in my imagination. It is simple and brilliant and stunning, like the chef made famous by it.

I wish, before she’d left too soon, that I’d found a way to say thank you.

Read more tributes to Judy Rodgers, who died yesterday of cancer at 57, here:

Green Thumb Sunday: One up, three down

Three down, one up

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Green Thumb Sunday: Halloween roses

Halloween roses

Spotted these roses on my walk to work on Halloween morning. These aren’t what I would consider seasonal, but they sure were gorgeous…

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Green Thumb Sunday: Farmers market bunch

6 bunches for $20

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Green Thumb Sunday: A purple edge


Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

In a pinch: Pick-a-pepper pizza sauce

Warning: This is not a seasonal post.

It’s not seasonal because it addresses a problem that none of you, unless you are Australian and/or in that hemisphere, should be having at the moment. But store it away. Tuck it into your mental file. You, too, may run into the very same problem that I did, and now? That problem IS SOLVED.

Here’s what happened: Somewhere, back in the dark days of mid- to late Spring, I got home from work on a night when I planned to make homemade pizza. My plan involved using some leftover tomato sauce that I swore was in the freezer, but I arrived home to realize that, indeed, I had used up the sauce for some other purpose. This is the culinary equivalent of spending your tax refund 15 times before it actually arrives in your checking account, not that I would know anything about that.

It was not tomato season AT ALL, so I had none in the house. (See? This is where the whole seasonal thing comes in. Right now, you could TOTALLY do this with those great, summer tomatoes.) Loathe to go back out, I put my ingenuity to the test, and realized I had a couple of red bell peppers in the crisper.

Bell peppers, ready for action

Now, let’s be honest—bell peppers aren’t really seasonal at that time of year, either, but they hold up a lot better in the grocery store, and they taste a lot better than out of season tomatoes. Yes, I know they’re on the Dirty Dozen Plus list put out every year by the Environmental Working Group. Yes, I know they’re covered in pesticide residue. But if the option is to order pizza from a joint where they throw a bunch of preservatives in their product, or make homemade pizza at home with the red bell pepper, I’m going with the pesticide-laden pepper. At least I’m not also microwaving it in a plastic container while licking a BPA-laden receipt. A girl has to have boundaries.

So, into the food processor went the raw (You could roast them first, but I didn’t want to take the time…) red peppers, with just a little bit of water (maybe ⅛ cup) to smooth the processing. A few seconds of whirr later, I had a lovely red pepper puree that I seasoned with salt, pepper, and a spice blend that The Unicorn brought back from Turkey, so I can’t tell you where to buy it, but honestly, any Italian or Mediterranean spice blend would work equally well in this case. Just think about what your other toppings will be and act accordingly. (If you have specific questions about what spice blend to use, ask me in the comments and I’ll be happy to advise.) Make it taste good.

A note in case you’re ready for action RIGHT NOW with tomatoes in the house: You can absolutely make a fresh tomato puree if you have great tomatoes on hand, but just leave out the water, which is totally unnecessary in that case. If you hate tomato skins, go ahead and blanch them in boiling water for a minute or two, then plunge them into ice water for 30 seconds, then peel them before the puree, but honestly, tomato skin isn’t going to kill you, and that’s a giant waste of water. It’s your planet, too, after all.

I simmered the puree on the stove until it was hot and bubbly, but honestly, that was probably an unnecessary step—after all, it was going to get plenty hot on the pizza crust as it baked. Still, it made me feel like I was making a sauce, rather than just slapping baby food (OK, OK, I know, the pesticides…it’s a metaphor! No babies were poisoned in the development of this blog post!) on my pie.

Simmering sauce

A side note on the crust: Many people have a favorite crust recipe, and I’m no exception. I’ve been using Megan of Chez Mégane’s fast pizza dough recipe for years, and I swear by it. If you don’t have a go-to option, but have a food processor or a stand mixer, try this recipe. It has completely broken me of the habit of ever buying pre-made dough or those freakish Boboli shells. (Yes, I used to be a total Boboli-girl. Bah humbug.)

Sauce on the pizza

So. Crust, then a topping of sauce, then a bit of a bake, then further toppings. Keep in mind: red peppers are way sweeter than tomatoes, so plan your toppings accordingly—this is a great sauce to use with some bitter greens and sausage, or anything else that doesn’t lean toward the sweet side of things. Balance, folks. Moderation in all things.

The Unicorn declared the pepper treatment a success, and so did I. Do I prefer it to tomatoes? No. But when ‘tis not the season and I’ve got nothing canned on hand, it’ll do in a pinch.

Green Thumb Sunday: Garden bench

Garden bench

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Alinea and my 40th

A couple of weeks ago, I turned 40. 40! It hardly seems possible, since most of the time I feel more like I’m 39.

The occasion had to be marked properly, and therefore, I bought tickets for The Unicorn and I to dine at Alinea on my birthday night. I had been dreaming of eating at this Chicago temple of molecular gastronomy for years, and finally the stars were aligning: Big celebration that happened to fall on a Saturday night and finally someone in my life who would appreciate it as much as I would? It had to happen.

I chose not to report a plate-by-plate description of the meal. First of all, it would have been too distracting to take the notes required to do that. I wanted to enjoy the meal as it was. That’s not to say that I didn’t take some photos, but beyond those and our copies of the menus, I would have had to rely totally on memory.


And the fact is, though I’ll always remember many of the dishes—some in more exquisite detail than others—I’ll remember the emotions of the dinner much longer. Here’s a taste of the story:

I’m not kidding when I say I walked in with high expectations. I’d spent hours combing through websites to read others’ experiences. I’d read the memoir co-written by Alinea’s chef, Grant Achatz, and his business partner, Nick Kokonas, Life, On The Line, which documented their incredible commitment to every detail of creating one of the best restaurants in the world. I’d replayed that meal at minibar and my one dinner at The French Laundry (which is not modernist, but is a truly stellar experience) in my head, trying to prepare myself to once again experience food as art.

The payoff came with the first bite. The dish, called “Osetra, classical,” was a spoon coated in creme fraiche, with brioche crumbs pressed to the bottom tip of the utensil. Resting in the spoon’s bowl was some Osetra caviar and a select few ingredients including a small ball of butter that, when you touched it with your tongue, exploded in pure flavor and melded with the other flavors perfectly. I would rank this as one of the most exquisite things I have ever eaten, and as soon as I put it in my mouth, I started to cry.

Read the rest of the story on

Green Thumb Sunday: As if lit by a flash

No flash

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.