DC’s Pie Lady

Are you thinking of entering a pie in one of the 2012 DC State Fair competitions? Well, I hope you got started last September, because that’s when last year’s pie-making contender, Ninette Dean, began planning her comeback. She walked home with everything but 1st place and “Best Apple Pie,” but she’s practicing hard to claim both titles this year, something that her husband, family, and friends—the main beneficiaries of Ninette’s baking prowess—must be enjoying.

Cherry Pistachio Pie

Ninette Dean loves a good cookbook and is a professed disciple of Martha Stewart. “I think I’m channeling a ’50s housewife,” she says. And for those interests, Ninette has the ideal day-job at the Smithsonian Libraries, which house a goldmine of cookbooks cleverly named the CHOW Collection, which was donated by the Culinary Historians of Washington. They even blog about their best finds. You could call the pictures in cookbooks her muse, since they are the starting point for some of her best recipes. Ninette also adapts some other pastries she has eaten into new pie ideas. One of her favorites is a cherry pistachio pie, which was inspired by a tart she ate at Pierre Hermé in Paris. (We’re hoping to see that one at the Fair this year.)

Chocolate Macadamia Pie

There are two “secrets” to Ninette’s pie prowess, although only one is truly a secret: her pie crust recipe. The crust, as Ninette attests, “makes or breaks a pie.” The non-secret secret to a great pie is finding the best ingredients for your filling: Those canned cherries on your grocery store shelf will not do. Ninette often goes out to hand pick fresh fruit for her fillings, and for other needs she usually has a long-term relationship with a particular local farmer.

It seems like Ninette has a lot of fun in her kitchen, which she mentioned can be a bit of an obstacle course at times. “According to my husband, the pies aren’t good unless I’m swearing,” she says. Her fun does not come without a little turmoil. But never fret, Ninette has one strong piece of advice for new bakers: “Don’t be so afraid of it.” Admittedly, that is some hard advice to swallow from the pie maven of Washington, DC.

A Gardening Duo Shares Their Success

Wendy Caron and Mark Perry are not your typical DC urban gardeners. In their large plot at Blair Road Community Garden near Fort Totten, they grow potatoes, garlic, beans, salad greens, asparagus, cucumbers, squash, beets, carrots, onions, berries, cherries, herbs, and more. They grow enough produce over a long enough season to cover almost all of their personal needs. Like, they haven’t purchased garlic in twelve years. Compare that to your correspondent, a novice DC urban gardener. My plot at Wangari Gardensis three months old; I grow tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers; I will produce enough to make a few salads and impress my friends. As gardeners, Wendy and Mark may be on a different plateau—but we all share the challenges of growing vegetables in a strictly urban environment.

Last year, Wendy and Mark had the run of the vegetable competitions at the DC State Fair. Their garden shows no signs of slowing down, so it will be up to the rest of the field to rise up to that level. As for the gardening duo, they simply want more competitors.

When asked about their motivation behind gardening, Wendy and Mark unsurprisingly cite the delight in “eating what we grow” and that it is “most satisfying to be independent.” But in meeting the pair, it is clear that they live and breathe gardening. Mark is a self-proclaimed lover of compost; they keep a great pile of the stuff at their garden, and it is fed regularly by materials from his professional landscaping business. The compost heap is kept above 180 degrees to kill any lingering weed seeds. You can imagine how large a pile must be to maintain that kind of temperature.

The most tangible evidence of Wendy and Mark’s growing prowess is the delicious produce that emerges from their garden. Less obviously, their experience has built a store of knowledge invaluable to a beginning gardener. Of most interest to the more whimsical would be Mark’s advice on planting and eating by the phases of the moon. If the plant’s edible parts grow above ground, you should plant your seeds while the moon is waxing; for those plants with edible parts growing underground, plant during the waning moon. (An exception: Transplanting should always be done in the waning moon because root growth is of utmost importance.)

There is a traditional explanation for this common practice: Just as the gravity fluctuations from the moon’s phases ebb the tides, so do they move moisture within the ground. And any gardener knows how important water retention is to healthy plants. Wendy suggests that for all the hoopla about moon phases, it is really a great way to organize your time during planting season. Considering how much her garden grows, err on the side of trusting her.

Wendy and Mark encourage more DC residents to garden wherever they can. They have a few basic pointers: plant at a depth of approximately three times the seed or bulb’s length; vegetables need full sun; raised beds are great because the water drains from them very easily, but they are pesky because the water drains from them so easily.  Maybe their simplest advice is to just get started.