Hiding the balcony

Not forever – just the winter. We don’t break the balcony down until the spring when we’re getting close to starting it up again, mostly because right now it looks like this:

Winter on the balconyNo thanks! (Admittedly, this photo is from the snowstorm a couple of weeks ago; right now everything just looks dry and grey.)

If it was just the snow there’d be no reason to hide anything, but the frozen plants and containers of green waste that go to my parents (our building is still in the process of introducing the green bin program) aren’t very attractive. Also, yes, that is a pot right by the door. My favourite thing about winter might just be that we basically get a second huge freezer.

Since Christmas is basically here, we’ve been thinking about decorating. We normally don’t do that much since our place is small and Sophie is destructive, but IKEA has been selling fabric with massive pine trees on it, so we bought some and I hemmed it. It’s currently hung up in front of our balcony to block the unsightliness of the plants and will also function as a place to put presents on Christmas day.

Condo-sized Christmas treeGiven that the balcony is essentially closed for the winter, I need to find something else to occupy this blog for the next few months. Food, obviously, since we’ll still be cooking, but also probably sewing, knitting, and crocheting projects. I also need to restart that long forgotten garden bucket list – I’ll definitely be needing some sour cherry pie to combat the dreary winter!

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Saving tomato seeds, part 1

It’s that time of year when we have to start thinking about… next year! Even though we didn’t start much from seed this year (thanks to our trip) we want to keep it up next year. We’ve been getting a steady supply of tomatoes from mom and dad as well as harvesting the yellow currant tomatoes from our balcony (143 so far). Tomatoes are a must on our balcony, so we’ve started saving some seeds. It’s a slightly more complex process than picking them, but only barely. The main requirement is time – up to a week.

Tomato seedsThe first step is to get the tomato seeds out of the tomato (obviously) and then into a couple of inches of water in a loosely covered jar (less obvious).The purpose of the water is to break down the jelly coat around the seeds; this is the part that takes time. As the jar sits in a warm place, the jelly coat will break down, and a grungy layer of tomato bits and mold will build up on the surface of the water. Once that happens, we’ll scoop off and discard the floating solids (including any floating seeds, which won’t grow), give the seeds a good rinse in a strainer, and dry them thoroughly before storing them in some paper envelopes or paper towel. And then we’re all set for next year! Really well set, actually, since we only have space for two plants. Does anyone want some seeds?

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Korean perilla, and the greatest noodles in the history of noodles

I mentioned in the last post that we’d planted a few seeds of what we thought were perilla, but turned out to be even more lemon balm. Good for tea, not as good for wrapping around grilled pork. Even before we’d realized this error, we’d been on the hunt for perilla plants, since we weren’t sure the seeds would grow (they were old and neglected). We were specifically looking for the huge Korean perilla leaves, thanks to our trip to Korea, where we’d had some truly epic grilled pork from the famous black pigs of Jeju Island. The hand-sized perilla leaves that came with the pork were the perfect accompaniment, cutting through the heavy fat with their strong flavour, reminiscent of anise. When we came back, we knew we wanted some.

This is the restaurant on Black Pork Street that we ate at in Jeju City - endorsed by MBC, KBS, SBS, and the Michelin guide!

This is the restaurant on Black Pork Street that we ate at in Jeju City – endorsed by MBC, KBS, SBS, and the Michelin guide!

That turned out to be easier said than done. Continue reading

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Getting back in the swing of things

Longest break ever? Maybe! To be honest, there wasn’t too much going on with the balcony last summer. We were both pretty busy, and it showed with our lousy crop: a handful of tomatoes and two chilis. The only thing that did well was the parsley in the railing planter, a bit of a surprise given how those planters don’t tend to perform well.


The balcony today.

The balcony today.

This year, we’ve simplified a little. Continue reading

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A quick update

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted – I suspect the whole season will be like this – but there’s been some progress! The seeds we planted in the pellets have by and large sprouted (the tomatoes worryingly have done absolutely nothing, along with the perilla, and the dill… is being really disappointing). Since we’re not starting any more pellets this year, I’ve passed on the seeds to my parents, and in exchange I’ll steal some seedlings from them later. We have started a few more things from seed, though – namely, peas. We decided to take a break from the blue podded peas, which were beautiful but not especially productive or sweet, truth be told. Instead this year we’re trying Yellow Sugar peas (which I suspect are the same as Golden Sweet peas) and Tom Thumbs.

I wasn’t originally planning on doing two varieties of pea, but the Yellow Sugar peas, which were my original choice, have purple flowers. The blue podded peas did, too, and this year I have a hankering for some snowy white flowers, so I figured we’d give the Tom Thumbs a shot. An added bonus is that with a mature height of approximately 1 foot, we don’t have to worry about staking them. Of course, we do have the trellis from last year up, but with a free-standing pea plant, we can move the pot around to take advantage of our space, if necessary.

The second, more successful round of Tom Thumbs

The second, more successful round of Tom Thumbs

We started them a while ago, actually, right before a few days of snow, and I think the cold actually managed to kill the Tom Thumbs, because none of them sprouted. I dug one up, and it was just mushy, with no sign of a root. I didn’t even know that was possible, frankly. We started another pot of them last weekend, and we soaked and sprouted them first to make sure we didn’t just get a dud batch. Those guys are just starting to peek through, so thankfully we will have our two pea varieties. Actually, three varieties, if you count the big pot of grocery store peas we also started. It’s been so nice to look out on the balcony and finally see something green. Hopefully it will keep me inspired to do more and write more!

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In the ground (and by ground I mean coconut pellets)

As planned, we started some seeds in our coconut coir pellets this weekend. These are the only plants we’ll be starting from seed – everything else we’ll have to buy as seedlings. Hopefully next year we’ll be less busy and we can be ambitious again, but until then, this is it. We started two pellets per crop, with two to three seeds in each pellet of the following:

  1. White currant tomatoes
  2. Perilla
  3. Korean mint
  4. Sweet Thai basil
  5. Bouquet dill
  6. Italian parsley
  7. Red Russian kale
  8. Lettuce

I’m not sure why I started the lettuce  – it will probably still be a little too cold outside when it needs to be moved. I guess I have to blame it on my frantic desire for something that’s green but not kale. Doesn’t it seem like it should be warmer? I know part of it is just the comparison to last winter, but I’m ready for spring and summer, and especially spring and summer veg and fruit. If I never have to see an apple again, it will be too soon…

(Peter disagrees with that last part)


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Bucket list item 2: Artichokes (and a mayo recipe)

1. Grow our own elder tree

2. Grow our own artichokes

Artichokes and salted butter - my favourite combination

Artichokes and salted butter – my favourite combination

This one is going to be tricky, but what’s a bucket list without some ambition? I should probably clarify – I mean real, honest to god globe artichokes, not Jerusalem artichokes, which, while delicious, are frankly a weed and not a very attractive one, at that. Not like that noble and delicious thistle, the globe artichoke! The problem is that artichokes thrive in a somewhat milder climate than what we have here in Toronto. As far as I can tell, the key to growing them here is to grow them as annuals but trick them into thinking they’re perennials by starting them early in a greenhouse and at some point putting them through a relatively cool, dark period. Like I said, tricky. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was possible to grow them in Ontario until last year, thanks to this article and a farmer at the Sick Kids’ Farmer’s Market (shamefully, I’ve forgotten the farm name) who sold me a couple of baby artichokes.

Honestly? I don’t know if this will ever happen. The chances that we’ll have a yard big enough to have a greenhouse capable of nurturing the young artichoke plants, and that I’ll be organized enough to fake a short, not too cold winter, and that the plants will survive transplanting to the garden, are pretty slim. Still, if I can someday plonk a couple of artichokes down on the kitchen table that have come from our backyard, it’ll be worth the headaches. I think.

How we eat our artichokes

I’ll admit I used to be intimidated by the thought of cooking artichokes. I just didn’t know where to begin. It turns out, though, they’re the perfect lazy person vegetable. You can definitely get fancy, pulling off all of the tough outside leaves and trimming off the top and any hard leaf tips, but we normally just steam them untrimmed for 30 – 45 minutes, depending on the size. Once the outer leaves pull away easily, you’re done! I’m not one for rushing dinner, or any food, really, which is fortunate given the time it takes to eat them. No matter how fast you move, peeling off individual leaves, dipping them in something and then scraping off the fleshy bit at the end of the leaves takes time. And then you have to peel away the fuzzy choke and trim the stem end of the heart… It’s a good thing they taste so good, is what I’m saying.


Like I said, salted butter is my preferred artichoke dip (maybe a splurge on some 84% Stirling? The extra 4% or so of fat is definitely worth it). I do like mayo, too, though, and it’s less fiddly than making a hollandaise, especially if you have an immersion blender.


1 egg yolk

2 tbsp cider vinegar (or any vinegar, really. Well, maybe not balsamic…)

1/2 tbsp lemon juice

1/2 tsp mustard

smidge of honey

lemon zest – from about a quarter of a lemon

salt and pepper

1/4 – 1/3 cup canola oil

1. Combine everything but the canola oil in a bowl, or the cup for your immersion blender. If you can wait for your egg yolk to be room temperature, all the better. Beat everything until it’s light and fluffy.

2. SLOWLY add the oil. If you’re beating by hand, I pity you (just a little – it can get tiring, though). The first half of the oil should basically go in drop by drop if you’re doing this by hand. With the immersion blender, I find I can get away with a very slow stream. I’ve heard that if the mayo splits you can save it by adding in a spoonful of water, but I’ve never tried it, so I don’t know if it works. I imagine throwing in another egg yolk (and subsequently more vinegar) would work well, too.

Yes, this uses raw egg yolk, and I know that’s not everybody’s thing, but I just tell myself that the vinegar’s killing anything that might be in there, and we’ve never had a problem with it. We use this as the basis for a lot of things, but our two most common flavourings are a ton of Old Bay and cayenne for fishcakes or chicken salad, or garlic, anchovies, and capers for Caesar salads. Either way, it’s delicious.

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