The first year I attempted gardening was the year I knew, for sure, that I could continue living in my house. The Brazilian man who mows my lawn built two large raised beds, that I joyfully filled with an assortment of nursery plants that did not grow. I planted them too close together, or too early or late in the season, or over- or under-watered them, depending which website I read and which day of the week I read it on.
I learned quite a bit that year, mostly this: It doesn’t matter what website you read or how often you water or what fertilizer you use if the actual problem is slugs.
The second year, I started plants from seedlings, carefully applied slug repellant, discovered the wonders of Neem oil spray, and followed the planting schedule recommended by Seattle Tilth. I managed to grow even less than the first year, a feat I would not have thought possible. Sections of the beds often seemed to be dry, in spite of regular waterings, and I noticed there seemed to be fewer earthworms, but I could not account for it until I finally removed some despairing pea plants, but could not seem to remove their roots.
No matter how much I dug and pulled, there were more roots, fighting me tenaciously to remain in the raised bed, next to my melancholy zucchini.
I dug in other areas of the beds, and there were roots there, too: tangled masses of them in bone dry soil.
Then I looked a bit to the side, just past the fence, at the three large emerald greens that hide my windows from the street. They don’t know where the fence line is, or at least, their roots don’t – they are growing right up into my beds.
I showed the gardener and he was as surprised as I was, and when he had a day in the fall, he came and trimmed the emerald greens back. This past week, he stopped by again one quiet day, and carefully dug out all of the dirt and roots from the beds, and lay down a barrier, and refilled the boxes.
Gardening doesn’t seem like it should be that hard, and I do have evidence that it isn’t, really. Last summer, I had the gardener put in an extra garden bed, just for The Child. We put it in an unused spot on the far side of the house, where it was filled with one rhubarb plant for me and several strawberry plants for her, and left it mostly untended. She rejoiced in bowls of fresh juicy berries, and I delighted in big, tart, unnervingly green stalks of rhubarb.
If you get the basic mix right, you can be successful with very little work involved.
I’ve only managed to apply this rule successfully in one other area of endeavor: the kitchen. I received a review copy of Laurie Colwin’s book Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, which is a delight to read, filled as it is with stories of kitchen disasters and unnerving dinner party offerings (Starry-Gazey Pie, anyone?). I’ve run across Colwin’s name and recipes before, and searched her out – I wanted more.
I discovered, with much sadness, that she died in 1992, at the absurdly young age of 48. I felt like I had lost a friend, and one I’d only just met, at that – the writing is so fresh and effortless, it feels like it could have been written yesterday, in an email, to me and a few other close friends.
Her recipes are a little unnerving for those of us who are in the measure-and-follow-directions cooking crowd: Scarcely paragraphs of instructions, with ingredients listed as you go, and sometimes with no specific quantities. She promises things will work, and since she seems like someone I should trust, I decide to give it a shot with her recipe for Mustard Baked Chicken.
Okay, I looked around the internet for some approximate quantities, which I’ve included below. Who am I kidding? I measure; it’s who I am.
That said, I don’t think I’d need to measure this recipe out a second time, and it’s a recipe I’d definitely make a second time, and a third, and so on. It’s comically easy – mix together some mustard, thyme, and garlic, roll the chicken pieces in it (I used thighs since that’s what I had), and then roll the mustard-coated chicken in bread crumbs or panko.
Then toss it in the oven and ignore it for a good long time. Two hours or more.
The chicken isn’t dry or burned at the end of all this baking; rather, it is delicious and moist, encased in a flavorful crisp, crisp, crisp and mustardy crust. It’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon, or any time you have time to cook something for a long, but untended, time.
Success, with almost no effort.
The chicken is good for lunch the next day, not as crisp but definitely still tasty.
- ¾ cup Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup panko crumbs
- 4 chicken thighs
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Heat oven to 350 degrees.
- Combine mustard, garlic, thyme, cinnamon, a pinch of salt and ½ tsp black pepper, in a bowl. Place panko crumbs in another bowl.
- Working in batches, coat chicken thighs on all sides with mustard mixture, then coat completely with bread crumbs. Arrange in a single layer in a large, shallow baking pan. Dot with butter.
- Bake until crust is deep golden brown and crispy, about 2 hours. Serve hot or at room temperature.