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Let’s Ditch the Dry Turkey

Can I admit to you, my dear friends, that I sometimes find the Thanksgiving meal boring? There it is. Out in the open. But hear me out. This is one holiday where we are all tied to the exact same meal on the fourth Thursday of November. To make matters worse, usually we use the exact same recipes as we always have and often the same as our mothers did before us.

Don’t take this the wrong way. This boredom doesn’t take anything away from the value and appreciation I place on Thanksgiving as a holiday. Or, for that matter, my love of the month of November.

The Glories of November

November really is an unsung month. It no doubt has middle child syndrome. But like a middle child, November has charming characteristics all its own. For me, it’s a relaxing month. The busy rhythm of summer has ended, and the craziness of December is yet to begin.

I spend more time sipping coffee. Long evening walks watching crisp and clear sunsets become the norm. I start making braises and soups, all the warm cozy foods. I wash windows and organize my closets, taking out all the wool, knitted pieces I’ll need in the winter months. Taking long deep breaths of relaxation, I catch my breath. By the end of the month, I am fully thankful, if for nothing less than for having had a wonderful month.

What’s to Love About Thanksgiving?

As far as the Thanksgiving holiday goes, it has much to offer. First, the purpose of giving thanks is something essential to our well-being. An attitude of thankfulness changes how we view life. In my experience, we always have something to be thankful for, no matter the situation. When we find those things and are grateful for them, it’s like the dawn of a new day.

What’s Not to Love …

All this said, I have to admit I’m not thankful for canned sweet potatoes topped with toasted marshmallows. I’m not super thankful for glazed carrots or green bean casserole, canned cranberries, shredded carrot jello, or grocery store pie. While I appreciate the tradition that goes along with the decades of serving these menu items, I can’t help but think they’re boring. And even though all the mothers that have gone before us (God rest their souls) might disagree, they’re not that tasty.

What I’m Doing About It

It is with this combination of boredom and a healthy respect for tradition in mind that I have ventured on a quest. How do I un-bore Thanksgiving dinner and add some zing to the menu items, all the while keeping it fairly low on the labor-intensive spectrum?

Dessert

Let’s start with dessert because, well, why not? The capstone is always a good place to begin. I’m considering whether to remove pie from the menu altogether … There has to be something more spectacular that can serve as a replacement. But the stakes are high. If I don’t succeed at dessert, my family may boycott the meal altogether.

To make the day flow easier, I’m going to choose a dessert I can make a day or two ahead. The first thing that pops in my mind is pumpkin cheesecake. Cheesecake needs to be made in advance, and my recipe is delicious. However, it is still mildly boring, plus I’ve made it for Thanksgiving before. Perhaps pumpkin tiramisu or a pear galette. Either would be delicious and interesting enough.

But I finally settle on a goat cheese cheesecake topped with cranberry gelee and salty/sweet pecans. Oh, and individual persimmon pudding cakes served with cinnamon whipped cream. Cranberries and persimmons are two of my favorite fall fruits. The creamy cheesecake counters the freshness of the cranberry gelee, a true show stopper. As a nod to those who must have pumpkin on Thanksgiving, I may have a few individual pumpkin custards sitting in the wings.

Turkey

Moving backwards in the meal is the piece de resistance, the turkey. I have to tell you that I could probably write a book named “55 Ways to Cook a Turkey.” I’ve tried them roasted right side up, upside down, brined, marinated, high-heat roasted, slow-roasted, stuffed, unstuffed, rubbed with herb paste under the skin, rubbed with herbs on the outside … I’m always searching for ways to make the turkey both flavorful and tasty. But the preparation must be simple. There are enough parts to this meal that I don’t want a complicated turkey recipe.

The challenge is keeping the turkey meat moist while also making it delicious and unique. After much thought and research, I am going to use a hybrid of one of Thomas Keller’s recipes, Bouchon Roast Turkey. Here he uses a mix of techniques to achieve two of my three criteria. This turkey will be both moist and delicious.

He starts by soaking the meat in a brine mixture of lemon, garlic, herbs, pepper, and kosher salt. This particular combination of ingredients will really amp up the flavor of this bird. He then uses a high heat method to cook the turkey. The theory behind doing this is that the higher temperatures of the oven seal the juices inside the bird, making it more moist.

The Accoutrements

As far as the side dishes go, they happen to be the favorite part of the meal for most of my family. The edict from my clan has always been, “Don’t mess with the side dishes!” Thus, my challenge is to change things up without changing things up too much.

Cranberries

Typically, I like the cranberries to be unadulterated, cooked with just water and sugar. This year, though, I am going to make a second cranberry sauce with added apples. I’ll substitute apple cider for some of the water and add a finely chopped apple to the cranberries before cooking them. The extra sweetness from the apple and cider is enough that I won’t need to add any sugar in the recipe—always a good thing.

Sweet Potatoes

I’ll whip the sweet potatoes into a puree, adding a bit of cream and mascarpone cheese to make them creamier and increase the richness. The marshmallows will stay in the pantry. I prefer sweet potatoes to be on the savory side of the flavor wheel.

Stuffing

Stuffing is something one never wants to skimp on, so this year I’m going to amp up the classic version using dried sourdough bread from a local bakery, sautéed Italian sausage, garden onions and celery, and an abundance of herbs harvested from my garden.

Green Bean Casserole

In homage to certain members of my family, I’ll make green bean casserole. Mine, however, will use fresh French green beans, mushrooms, shallots, and thyme sautéed in butter and sherry vinegar, then finished with heavy cream, salt, and pepper. I’ll cover it with crispy fried shallots. Now that is my kind of green bean casserole!

A Spot of Something Sweet

Lest anyone get faint from hunger during the football game, I am adding a new iteration of snickerdoodles, chai-spiced. They’re a standard snickerdoodle dough rolled in a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamon. What a delicious riff on a classic cookie.

I Can’t Forget the Dinner Rolls

Alas, I would be remiss if I failed to mention everyone’s highlight. These homemade dinner rolls entered my family’s Thanksgiving tradition more than twenty years ago. They have been deemed essential, and thus, they must be freshly made on Thanksgiving Day. God forbid day old dinner rolls …

You wonder why these humble rolls hold such a hallowed spot? Firstly because their aroma when baking is what wakes everyone up in the morning. Coffee and fresh dinner rolls enjoyed in your pajamas are a highly valued tradition in our house. In the evening, they become a necessary component of the ubiquitous turkey sandwiches. With all this early and late ingestion of dinner rolls, you are no doubt wondering if there are enough for the actual meal. Don’t tell anyone, but I tuck a certain percentage away only to bring them out for the Thanksgiving meal itself.

There you have it. My rough and tumble plan for this year’s Thanksgiving meal. Hopefully you glean a few bits of inspiration from my slightly askew interpretation of the meal. Now that this planning is out of the way, I’m going to sit down with a cup of tea and try to figure out how to make my December more like its easy-going sibling, November.

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Introducing the 2022 Holiday Greeting Cards

As the Christmas season nears, I wanted to share the stories that shaped this year’s collection of holiday greeting cards...

Pinecone

It was autumn on the shores of Lake Tahoe. As we walked along the path that bordered the lake, majestic pine trees rose grandly all around us. As we ventured through the trees, we stumbled upon some of the most beautiful pinecones I had ever seen. Upon investigation, I discovered these pinecones belonged to the Jeffrey’s pine, a close relative of the Ponderosa pine. Jeffrey’s pine trees are found in a long strip from Oregon to northern Baja California in Mexico, at higher elevations, and in my case, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

We gathered as many of these gorgeous, chunky pine cones as we could fit in our car. Draped in twinkle lights, along with sugar pine cones, they have since graced my fireplace mantle every Christmas. Interspersed with candle votives, wax-dipped pinecones, and Christmas tree balls, Jeffrey’s pinecones create the calming holiday ambiance I seek during a busy holiday season.

Pomegranate

As soon as the calendar flips to December, I get in the mood for all things pomegranate. Fresh pomegranates await in my fruit bowl, ready to garnish a variety of dishes. These ruby seeds find their way into my cocktails, salads, and hors d’oeuvres boards. I use reduced pomegranate juice in glazes for meats and in several sauces and braises I make over the holiday season.

Pomegranates are one of the quintessential Christmas fruits, bringing a crunchy zing to any dish. They were an obvious choice for including in my holiday greeting cards this year.

Holly

Holly, the shiny-leafed evergreen, is one of my favorite Christmas plants. On a stark winter day, their bright green leaves and red berries remind us that spring will come again. The plant’s thorny points that encircle the leaves and bright berries give a distinctive look that enhances any holiday bouquet. It’s my hope that this year’s holly wreath design will brighten your holiday and remind you of the life and love ever present in this season.

Nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatches are a darling and quirky little bird. All winter they flit around our yard, moving between our bird feeder, where they eat upside down, and our massive pine tree, where they run up and down the trunk looking for bugs underneath the tree’s bark.

The nuthatch’s upside-down view of life helps find bugs that are missed by birds that only look at things from a right-side up perspective. Nuthatches may be small, but they fiercely defend themselves and their young against larger predators, such as hawks, woodpeckers, owls, and squirrels.

The spirited personalities of nuthatches mesmerizes me and keeps me returning to the window to watch them. Acrobatic, agile, and loud they surely are. They’re in and out, up and down, back and forth. This amusing and energetic northern bird is a pleasure to include in this year’s holiday collection

Red Pine

As a young girl, I spent my days building forts, playing hide and seek, and picking wild blueberries in the shadows of the great red pines. You see, for many years of my childhood, my playground was a vast forest of red pines in northern Minnesota, where they’re uniquely known as Norway pines. The ubiquitous Norway pine tree is Minnesota’s state tree. With its top-heavy nature, the Norway pine doesn’t resemble your stereotypical conifer.

There are a few distinctive things about northern Minnesota, pine forests and lakes being two of them. Oh, and those -20°F winters! Minnesota is called the land of 10,000 lakes, but it could as easily be called the land of 10,000 Norway pine trees, except it’s probably closer to a million.

These tall majestic trees can grow to heights of 150 feet with straight trunks that often grow to three feet in diameter. When young, they are a popular choice to use as a Christmas tree. This variety of pine is self pruning, which leads to a large percentage of the bottom of the trunk having no branches. In turn, they open up the forest floor, which leaves lots of space for fort building!

Conifer forests of one sort or another have played important roles in my life, whether it’s the lodgepole pines of the Absaroka Beartooth mountain range in southern Montana, the ponderosa pines that scattered across my property in Colorado, or the Norway pines of my youth. When thinking about which conifer to paint for this year’s holiday collection, the red pine quickly rose to the top of the list.

The Holiday Greeting Cards

It is with joy that I offer you this year’s holiday collection of greeting cards. It is my hope that they inspire you to slow down and savor the season. Take a moment to look out the window and watch the winter birds skitter about. Breathe in the pine scent of your Christmas tree. Sip on that pomegranate martini. Light the votives on your holly and pinecone-laden mantle. And through it all, remember what’s truly important in life, and hold them a little closer.

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Fall Art Release: Vegetable Watercolor Collection

The Hum of Autumn

The dawn is crisp as I step into my garden. This coolness is new and refreshing. I know the day will heat up later, but for now I contentedly pause to breathe in the chilled air. I arrived at the garden early today to assess which vegetables are ripe and ready to be turned into rich pots of sauces or pickled into crunchy delicacies.

Something about the late summer days calms me even though the days and nights are full with harvesting and canning. Maybe it’s because the heat of summer is over and all that I’ve been preparing for since early spring is now bearing fruit.

Harvesting Garden Vegetables

Evenings and weekends hum along with a similar tune. I open the kitchen windows, turn on jazz saxophone music, and start creating from the garden bounty. It’s my happy time. What have I made before that I want to repeat? What new venture will I try this year?

Carrots

Back in the garden, I start with the carrot patch. I planted three varieties this year. Nantes and Chantenay are the two orange carrots I chose. They are trusty producers, always sweet and juicy. The other variety I planted is Purple Dragon. This is such a beautiful carrot, purple on the outside and orange on the inside. It’s always a crowd pleaser sliced into a salad.

Tomatoes

Across the aisle from the carrots are the tomatoes. Let’s just say I went a little overboard when I ordered my seeds last winter. It was a frigid day in the depths of January when I perused the seed catalogs and websites. This is a dangerous combination for me, as I’m bound to start dreaming of summer and a prolific harvest.

Now, as I look over my tomato collection, I’m glad I planted so many varieties. Most are interesting and delicious. I have what I call the United Nations of tomatoes and peppers.

They hail from most corners of the globe—with many countries in Europe, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Americas represented. Some of my favorite medium and large tomato varieties include German Pink, Japanese Black Trifele, Black Sea Man, and Dester. I’m newly addicted to two cherry tomato varieties, Blondkopfchen and Sunrise BumbleBee.

Garlic

Planting my garlic has become a cherished tradition for me. I spend many evenings scrolling through the garlic producer’s websites, reading about each type, and trying to choose what varieties to plant. Of course because of where I live, I have to pick from the hardneck options, which thrive in cooler Northern climes. This year I played it safe with the reliable Music variety, and I ventured into the unknown with Georgian Crystal, Pehoski Purple, and Chrysalis Purple.

Radicchio

Every year I challenge myself by planting a new type of vegetable in my garden. One of my favorite introductions was radicchio. This is such a sturdy little plant, whose best trait is that it shines in the very late fall when the days are cool. Radicchio is an Italian chicory. It’s delicious sautéed and tossed into risotto along with Parmigiano-Reggiano and pancetta. The leaves’ complex bitterness offsets the creamy richness of this dish. In addition, radicchio has been the subject of many experiments in my cooking, its flexibility making it an asset to any garden.

Mushrooms

On summery Saturday mornings, I hustle into line at the local farmers market to stock up on mushrooms. In my town, a local grower offers several varieties of unique mushrooms, and Chanterelles have become one of my favorites. They can form the base of a rich, savory bisque. They are heavenly when sautéed in butter and white wine and then finished with truffle salt and served over warm brie. Chanterelles are a mushroom I return to time after time, and for good reason.

The Vegetables of Fall

Autumn vegetables: from artichokes on my hors d’oeuvres platter to the bundle of flint corn gracing my front door, this group of vegetables is in a league all its own. They shine in both beauty and flavor. They elevate my cooking game. I say that tomatoes are my favorites, but that’s not really true. After all, then I’m abandoning the peppers, olives, onions, and squash in my life, and I could never do that.

These vegetables are at their delicious height right now, and I can do nothing but slow down and savor their bounty. In the spirit of these bountiful garden harvests this fall, I’m sharing my gourmet and autumn vegetable greeting card designs with you. I hope you find these pieces of art will bring joy to each person you send them to. Visit my shop to view the designs available in this new card collection.

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Summer Flower Cards: About the New Art Collection

Every summer growing up, my family would pack into the car and travel across Minnesota and North Dakota. We’d end up just into the eastern slice of Montana at my grandparents’ ranch. As we drove west, we couldn’t help but notice the countryside getting more and more arid. As we drove past the stunning North Dakota badlands, the multicolored lines in the rock formations jumped out at us in their stark beauty. As we drove, fields of sunflowers and corn turned into rolling hills with rock outcroppings, and fields of wheat transformed into cattle pastures.

Petunia

My grandparents’ ranch was located on a great, open prairie. Rolling fields of wheat, barley, and hay greeted us as we drove down the gravel road leading to the homestead. Upon turning into their driveway, however, our eyes turned to another scene. Billowing beds of brightly colored petunias circled the white stucco house. My grandmother, always one to turn a challenge into something of beauty, had found one of the few flowers that thrives in hot sunny spaces. Give petunias some soil, water, and sun, and you’ll have a colorful profusion of flowers all summer long.

On the hot, dry expanse of northeastern Montana, she created and tended a garden so lovely that it welcomed visitors into her space. The desolate nature of the location was lost in the colorful floral greeting.

Zinnia

In recent years, I have followed in my grandmother’s footsteps by planting an inordinate number of flowers in my vegetable garden. Planting flowers not only helps out the pollinator insects, but it also allows me to share flowers far and wide. After all, flowers always seem to lift our spirits and brighten the day of everyone who gets to enjoy them.

The flowers I leaned into were zinnias. I purchased them in many colors and sizes and proceeded to plant them in every nook and cranny I could find, and they did not disappoint. They flowered, and flowered, and flowered some more from late June until frost finally took them in October. Zinnias will always hold a special place in my heart because of their uniquely colorful hues and their ability to bring life to a kitchen table.

Nasturtium

I’ve had trouble deciding who loves nasturtium more: me or the robins. Promptly after I plant my nasturtium seeds, the robins descend, feverishly digging around in my planters, searching for the seeds to eat for dinner. On the off chance that one of my seeds evades their notice long enough to become a flowering plant, nasturtium tend to bloom with abandon.
All parts of the nasturtium plant are edible. The flowers and leaves appear as often in my salads as they do in my bouquets. Then, the seeds produced after the flowers are done blooming taste delicious when pickled with other garden vegetables.

Nasturtium plants’ brightly colored flowers, quirky twisted stems, and circular leaves are an essential addition to my planters. Together with basil, I tuck them in and around my tomato plants, using companion planting to my advantage. The flowers cascade down from the pots, acting as both an attractor for pollinating insects and a deterrent to the destructive ones that might want to do harm.

Yarrow

In xeriscape landscaping, the goal is to choose plants that thrive on neglect. In this area, yarrow is a frontrunner. Yarrow prefers hot, dry, sunny conditions, so it is an obvious choice for water-challenged regions of the country. Yarrow is also an excellent pollinator flower. On any summer day, you’ll find it covered with bees and other pollinating insects. Yarrow comes in colors ranging from white and yellow to pink, red, and burgundy, so it can compliment many types of flower beds.

The downside of yarrow is that it has a tendency to multiply, so regular weeding of the baby plants is necessary if you want them to stay in the boundaries of your landscaping. When you’re weeding yarrow, dig down at least a foot to get out the whole rhizome. Any broken off piece of the rhizome can become a new plant.

In addition, remove the flowers as soon as they are fading to control the spread through seeds. A single plant can produce thousands of seeds, which can remain viable in the ground for up to nine years. While there are many great reasons to grow yarrow, don’t plant it unless you can keep it in check.

Rose

Roses are in full bloom, the billowy bushes covered in red or pink. Their aroma captivates me as I walk through the neighborhoods. I come upon an old wooden arch covered in the climbing pink variety. These look to have been growing here for years, their tangly branches reaching up and over the arch, forming what would be the perfect backdrop for a garden wedding.

I think of my mother-in-law, who was a gardener and grew the old fashioned hybrid roses. These varieties possessed a fragrance that is challenging to find in current varieties. What I would give to have some of her rose bushes in my garden.

Garden roses elicit memories of times past. A small bouquet of roses sitting in a vase next to my cup of coffee: This was a common scene when visiting my mom, aunts, or mother-in-law. Fresh roses, hot coffee, a spot of something sweet, and meaningful conversation make for fond remembrances.

Pansy

Pansies tend to be the first flower I purchase in the early spring. As the tiresome gray winter months transition to spring, the weather slowly warms, and the days lengthen. 

As the spring dawns, the purples, oranges, yellows, and pinks of pansies are the perfect antidote. The faces of the flowers almost look as if they’re smiling, and their colors no doubt brighten anyone’s day. 

As soon as the nights warm, a planter full of pansies settles in by my front door. As neighbors pass by, the pansies tell of times to come, affirming that more color is on the way. Green grass, yellow daffodils, red tulips, and purple iris will be here soon. The pansies are just the doormen to the gateway of spring.

Sweet Pea

Sweet peas are the iconic spring vining flower that climb up trellises and over garden gates, spilling over the tops of large planters. Their intoxicatingly sweet scent brings me back to the cottage gardens of our grandmothers. Long treasured for its sweet fragrance, this flowering legume has graced the walls of gardens since the 17th century. 

Sweet peas are easy to grow, and they quickly add color to any garden space. Being a legume, they enrich the soil because of their nitrogen-fixing quality. These early flowers will also bring pollinating insects into your yard, a much desired trait. 

One of the best ways to plant sweet peas is to intermingle them with other vining plants, such as pole beans, around the base of a tall bamboo tripod. Place this in the center of your garden, and the birds and insects will be sure to visit. 

The Summer Flower Cards

Flowers abound, filling my garden and my vases. The gray of winter seems more bearable contrasted against the vibrance of flowers present in the summer months. I’m soaking up the beauty while it lasts.

These flowers have inspired the creation of my latest watercolor art and greeting card designs, the summer flower collection. Composed of designs of eight distinctive summer blooms, I hope this collection warms your heart and the hearts of those to whom you send them.

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12 Beginner Garden Tips for Growing Your Garden

Gardening should be simple, but it’s often more involved than it seems. Especially if you’re new to growing your garden, what can you do to ensure your plants have the best chance of succeeding? What beginner garden tips will help you get a bigger harvest and healthier plants? 

There are several strategies that can help you as you go through the garden season. Often, learning from other people’s mistakes and experiences with growing a garden can help you make fewer mistakes yourself.

I’ll discuss 12 beginner garden tips that will help you give yourself the best chance of success with your space. Implement these strategies, and you’ll see your garden take off. 

1. Supplement Your Soil 

Your soil is the lifeblood of your plants, and healthy, rich soil produces larger, more productive plants. Good soil will nourish your plants’ roots and improve the success of your garden year after year. 

One of the key beginner garden tips is you should supplement your soil regularly. This will feed the microorganisms that live in the soil. A few tried-and-true supplements for your soil include:

  • Heated compost – add twice a year, in spring and fall
  • Compost tea – add monthly throughout summer
  • Mycorrhizal fungi – add when planting 
  • Fish emulsion – add monthly throughout summer

2. Water in the Morning

One of the key garden tips for new gardeners is to learn how to water in a way that minimizes the potential for disease and maximizes the benefit to the plants. First, ensure you water in the morning. This will allow time for the water to dry out before nightfall, when the likelihood for disease is higher. Second, watering in the morning will help your plants make use of the water to protect their roots during a hot summer day. Moisture is the primary defense against high heat, so watering will help your plants tolerate a hot day. 

Another way to help decrease the risk of disease is to focus your watering on the dirt below the plant rather than the leaves. Avoid getting the leaves wet, and just focus on watering the roots. 

Get in the habit of watering your garden in the morning rather than in the evening.

3. Weed Your Garden

Weeds will grow bigger and stronger than your plants, and if left alone, they will deter your plants’ growth. Weeds can also attract harmful insects and cause disease in your plants. Therefore, it’s important to keep them out of your garden. It’s ideal to weed before you plant your garden, again about two weeks later, and then throughout the rest of the season as needed. 

4. Use an Organic, Compostable Mulch 

A great way to keep most weeds away is to apply a compostable mulch to your garden beds and aisles. Weeds need heat, light, and moisture to survive, so when mulch covers the ground, weeds will grow less easily. Mulch will also help by providing nutrition to the soil as it decomposes. 

Remember to apply mulch after you’ve removed weeds from the space and after your seedlings are large enough to see so you don’t cover them up. A few of my favorite options for types of mulch you can use include: 

  • Seed-free straw
  • Hardwood shredded mulch (not cedar or cypress)
  • Dried leaves
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Partially decomposed compost
Add a high-quality, compostable bed covering to your garden aisles and around your plants.

5. Use Organic Insecticides

When following organic practices, it can be hard to know how to handle insect control. My garden tip for this is to use products that are safe and organic, as they will help protect your plants from disease and invasion. A couple of the best organic insecticides to use in your garden include Neem and Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which you can apply on your plants several times throughout the summer. 

6. Plan Your Placement

Where you put your plants matters. Look at the instructions on the back of your seed packets or plant labels, and place your crops in sun, partial sun, or shade depending on what each one prefers. 

It’s also important to think about the sun and how tall plants may shade the plants north of them, as well. Therefore, I recommend drawing out a garden map and planting your space with a clear plan for why you’re putting each plant where. 

7. Use Companion Planting

Companion planting is a perfect way to improve your yields and set your plants up for success without needing to do much extra work. The concept of companion planting is that certain plants do better when they are planted near other plants. On the other hand, some plants do worse when next to certain others. 

Therefore, do your research, and incorporate companion planting when designing your garden. A couple examples of easy companion plants include: 

  • Corn, beans, and squash
  • Tomatoes and basil, carrots, or lettuce
Implement companion planting strategies to benefit your plants.

8. Fence to Keep Animals Out

A simple garden tip for growing your garden and not having it eaten by rabbits and deer is to build a fence around the garden space. This can be as easy as digging a few t-posts and using chicken-wire, or you can build a more substantial wooden fence. The key with garden fencing is to ensure there are no big holes where animals can sneak through to grab their lunch. 

9. Space Your Plants for Maximum Growth

Crowding out your plants by planting them too close together can stifle their growth. When you’re planting plants, remember to plant them far enough apart to give the adult plant plenty of room to grow.

Space plants like onions, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers far enough apart for the adult plant to grow.

On the other hand, you will end up thinning the crops you plant from seed. Therefore, plant your seeds according to the directions on the back of your seed packet. Once your plants germinate, remove the extra seedlings by pulling them with your fingers. Thin the seedlings until you achieve the correct distance apart, as found on the seed packets for each variety. 

10. Add Pollinator Plants

Incorporating pollinator plants into your garden is a garden tip that is practical as well as beautiful. The flowers of pollinator plants will attract beneficial insects like bees and butterflies into your vegetable garden. Not only are pollinator plants beautiful, but also having more of these insects around means they will pollinate your vegetables, thus helping your plants produce higher yields.

Plant flowers within your vegetable garden to attract beneficial pollinator insects to your garden.

11. Deadhead Your Flowers

When growing your garden, one great way to ensure your flowers keep blooming throughout the summer is to deadhead them. Deadheading means removing the dead or dying flower heads, and when you do this, it promotes further growth and blooms on other parts of the plant. 

12. Plant Mint in a Pot

Another foundational garden tip is to never, I repeat never, plant mint in your garden bed. Mint is an invasive plant, and its root system will take over and crowd out your other plants you have growing in your garden. It will also be hard to remove because it will return year after year.

Instead, plant your mint in a dedicated pot just for mint. You can plant multiple varieties in the pot if you desire. This will enable you to enjoy mint without the negative effects of it overgrowing in your garden. 

Always plant your mint in its own pot.

Learn More About Growing Your Garden

Gardening in your own backyard is a rewarding experience for anyone. My online vegetable gardening course walks you through the entire process of growing your garden, from deciding where to locate your garden to planting and taking care of your young plants. 

To learn more about how to design and plant your garden, visit the garden course and sign up. 

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The Charm of Garden Bulbs: New Watercolor Art

It seems like spring has had to work overtime to get winter to exit the scene this year. But finally, the rains are here, the grass is greening up, and the trees are beginning to bud. More than anything, the lovely spring bulbs are starting to bloom. In this vein, I’d like to introduce you to my new collection of garden watercolor art, the flowering bulbs.

Spring Bulbs

I have always had a thing for early spring flowers. Maybe it’s the grayness of winter; maybe it’s the stark empty branches of the trees. First, I see crocuses and muscari, then daffodils, and then tulips and irises. As these flowers begin to shine their colorful faces for all the world to see, it does something to my spirit. Just like that, life is new and fresh. 

The birds’ chirping seems louder and happier. People are starting to move outdoors. Runners and cyclists are taking advantage of the warming days to exercise on the paths and streets of my city. In every spring thaw, life emerges after a deep winter sleep.  

Gardening with Bulbs

Years ago, I sort of went wild planting bulbs around my yard, choosing everything from fritillaria to muscari to many unique interesting varieties of tulips, daffodils, irises, and lilies. I planned it in such a way that we had bulbs of many kinds constantly blooming from early spring well into summer. 

Some of the advantages of planting bulbs in your landscaping and garden beds include: 

  • They are perennials, so they come back year after year.
  • Spring bulbs are often early to emerge, offering spring color. 
  • Most bulbs are low maintenance.
  • Bulbs multiply on their own, so you can divide them and spread them out in your beds or give them away to friends.
  • Many bulbs are deer and rodent-resistant (amaryllis, daffodil, snowflake, crocus, muscari, iris).
  • Lilies have a long bloom time, and you can stagger the bloom times of the various bulbs by planting a mix that bloom at different times throughout the spring/summer. 

This year already, I have seen muscari, tulips, and daffodils in bloom, and they never cease to enhance the landscape with picturesque vibrance.  


Learn more about creating a garden this year through my virtual home gardening course. You still have time to sign up and get started with planting your garden this spring.

The New Garden Watercolor Art Collection

It is with these flowers in mind that I painted the new garden watercolor art bulb series, choosing to include lilies, tulips, iris, and daffodils. I painted them with the bulbs attached, hailing back to the many vintage botanical paintings I’ve enjoyed looking at over the years. 

I’ve created these designs into both cards and art prints. The cards are available individually as well as in packs. I’m also excited to announce that for the first time, I’m offering these four flowers as smaller individual art prints, matted into an 8×10 inch size.

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Cooking with a Hint of Sweetness: Gourmet Fruit Art Collection

Figs, apricots, quince, persimmons, and grapes; these gourmet fruit varieties stem from such unique lineages but possess similar captivating applications in the kitchen.

These are a collection of gourmet fruit ingredients I use time and again in entertaining because they transform the level of a dish. Their panache is unparalleled. I use them in appetizers as a sweet counter to savory meats and cheeses. They’re delightful as a part of the main course in braises, tagines, or roasts.

Then finally, they act as a sweet capstone in tarts, galettes, cakes, or toppings. These fruits have the power to change whatever you are serving from ordinary to special. They lend an earthy classiness to your meal.

Apricot

When I was a little girl, my mom would regularly make apricot jam. I grew to adore this jam on a piece of freshly toasted English muffin. I still taste the apricot flavor in my memories. Now, as an adult, I return to apricots as often as I can. They often find their way into braises, such as a chicken, white wine, and wild mushroom braise atop potatoes or rice. Apricots perfectly balance the savory hues and help create well-developed sauce. 

Quince

Likewise, quinces have played a role in my culinary journey. I was first introduced to this fruit when I lived in the French province of Alsace. The mild climate of eastern France is perfect for quince trees to thrive. Harvested in the late fall, they turn into pastes and butters, and they’re baked into cakes, tarts, and galettes. Quince also adds a refreshing sweetness when sliced and roasted with lamb in a tagine. 

As an added bonus, if you happen to live where quince trees grow, you get the privilege of enjoying their spring blossoms, which are the most electric color of pink coral possible. I swoon at the far-fetched idea of having a quince tree in my yard.

Fig

Figs seem like an almost mystical fruit to me. I’m always experimenting with interesting ways to use them. My most recent find was a recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table cookbook: 

I take fresh, homemade pasta (trust me, it’s worth it to make the pasta for this recipe from scratch), and toss it with browned butter, figs, and pistachios, among other things. What stands out to me in this recipe is the crunchy je ne sais quoi nature of those tiny fig seeds. It’s worth buying the cookbook just for this recipe! 

As with quinces and apricots, making a fig paste, or a very concentrated jam, to serve with cheeses and meats proves a sweet counter to the more savory hors d’oeuvres items. These intensely flavored fig pastes are also amazing with a slice of buttery pound cake, in the filling of a crepe along with some Brie, or melted into a marinade for grilled meat; the list could go on and on. Pretty soon I’ll be putting it on my toast. Wait a minute, that’s actually a great idea…

Persimmon

Persimmons meet and exceed the same thresholds as the other fruits in this collection. They can have both sweet and savory applications. When included in your menu, they elevate the playing field. The color and shape of persimmons are almost cartoonist. They make me smile. As with many fruits, the wild ones have the most interesting flavor. When cooked into pudding and butters, persimmons’ bright flavor adds a complicated sweetness that’s hard to pin down but delightful to the palate.

Red Grape

I have left my oldest friend for last, the red grape. For most of us, grapes have woven their way in and out of our menus our whole lives. They’re an easy and nutritious fruit that your mom packed in your lunchbox during elementary school. For me grapes showed up in their wild form first. Wild grapes grow all over Minnesota. They spread by the birds, so they can be found along many public fencelines or climbing up poles or trees. These aren’t the sweet grapes from the grocery store. Rather they are tiny explosions of richness in your mouth. They really shine when made into jam, juices, or pastes, which I grew up eating. The best grocery store jam pales in comparison. 

Moving into adulthood, the first savory use for grapes was a chicken salad recipe from Lukins and Rosso’s original Silver Palate cookbook. Here red grapes serve as a delightful surprise up against the slivers of chicken, celery, and onion. A chicken, grape, and white wine braise over curried rice was my next iteration.

The grape I chose to paint for this newest collection caught my fancy because of its charming story. A vine was discovered winding its way up and around an old oak tree on Longanesi’s property in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. They took cuttings and planted them in their vineyard. The grapes grew and thrived, and today roughly 500 acres of this grape variety is grown. Many Uva Longanesi varietal wines are now made from this grape.   

The Gourmet Fruit Art Collection

I painted the gourmet fruit varieties in this culinary art series because each lies close to my heart with its connection to great cooking. They are delicious in countless meals, and with them you can create complexly flavored food year round.

This art collection honors just a few of the sweet and beautiful ingredients in our repertoire. It’s my wish that you enjoy these fruits on greeting cards and fine art prints as much as you would enjoy them in your cooking. 

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The Story Behind the Mountain Wildflower Collection

Wildflowers of My Life

Mountain wildflowers have been part of the formative memories in my life. Not only did they proliferate on the dry mountainside of our Colorado home, but they have been ubiquitous on our mountain hikes and backpacking trips. Whether it was Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, or New Mexico, the native flowers that have been a part of my life are both tenacious and beautiful.

The Blue Hue of Lupines

Wild lupines transport me back to Montana, when in the early summer, cerulean violet lupine flowers begin to cover the mountain valleys. They form a luscious carpet. The meadows surrounding my family’s cabins take on a blue hue as all these iconic flowers come into bloom. 

Many years ago, my dear aunt Joyce even named her cabin after them, Lupine Lodge. When I think back on lupines, I remember all the summers spent in Montana from the time I was a young girl to now. 

The Bitter Chokecherries of My Youth

It is somewhat of an oxymoron to pick a fruit as bitter and poisonous as the chokecherry only to cook it into something as delectable as chokecherry jam.

I first encountered chokecherries in the days of my foolish youth, when my parents, siblings, and I would stop along the road and pick the Montana berries. We would fill ice cream buckets and then haul them back to the log cabin nestled in the backwoods of the Absaroka Beartooth mountain range. There we would begin the long process of transforming these bitter berries into luscious jams and syrups. 

Backpacking with Thimbleberries 

Likewise, thimbleberries have been part of many a mountain hike. The day typically goes like this: we’re walking along the trail, maybe having just crossed a hot sunny rockslide. We progress into a shaded area, and there’s a small mountain stream that runs next to the path. 

Billowing among the undergrowth are thimbleberry bushes. Of course, we stop, nibble on some for a few minutes, take a big swig of water from our bottles, then start moving again. This scenario could repeat itself over and over depending on how much of a hurry we’re in. 

Thimbleberries to me represent a refreshing pause for a fatigued body. They are a fresh respite to a hot day and a touch of nourishment to our increasingly hungry stomachs. 

Beauty on the Edge of a Mountain

Our house sat just back from the edge of the steep Rocky Mountain foothills of Colorado. The hills were stony with clusters of scrub oak and prairie grasses. Cacti poked their thorny faces out from the rocky soil, just asking you to step on them. 

As I made my way down to the valley below, I couldn’t help but marvel at how so many varieties of wildflowers seemingly thrived in such harsh and adverse conditions. The soil was very poor, and the hillside faced southwest, so it got a beating from the afternoon sun. What moisture did come either evaporated off or ran down the incline. 

Indian Paintbrush

In this unwelcoming xeriscape, wildflowers dotted the hillside, cheerfully beaming their colorful faces. Darling little burgundy Mexican hats, Indian paintbrush, ruby colored penstemon, yellow potentilla, and rudbeckia scattered across the dry slope. 

These wild beauties have adapted to the conditions of their environment. Many of them have long roots that drill down to the moisture and nutrients that are deep below the surface. Indian paintbrush thrive despite the conditions. Being a hemiparasite, this flower piggybacks off the surrounding grasses. They attach themselves to the roots of nearby grasses, which are already burrowed deep in the soil.  

A Flower’s Inspiration 

Is the Indian paintbrush’s stamina and unexpected beauty a metaphor for life? When one fights hard for something, the result becomes particularly striking. Over time, these flowers have figured out not only how to grow, but they’ve learned how to flourish in adverse situations. In fact, for these flowers, their environment isn’t adverse; it’s the norm.

Joy from Wildflowers and Berries

I find wildflowers to be inspiring. When I am huffing and puffing up a mountainside, I look over the steep slopes or high mountain meadows, and I see spectacular beauty in the wildest environments. How can I not breathe easier in their delicate elegance? 

My eyes light up when I see wildflowers in bloom against the stark and vast background they call home. Then the wild berries come as a rare gift in the wilderness when tasted on the edge of a remote trail.

As I sit here, painting within the bleak January landscape, I wait for next summer. I hope my family’s trips into the mountains coincide with the bloom times of our favorite flowers or the ripening of our favorite mountain fruits. 

Until then I draw them, and I paint them, and I offer them for you to enjoy on art prints and cards as well. This is so you can dream along with me. We can wait together for warmer days, for summer mountain wildflowers, for buckets full of chokecherries, for bushes alongside high mountain trails that offer up what little they have so that the fleeting visitor might be refreshed. 

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Persimmon – The Unsung Holiday Fruit

Holiday Memories

As I dipped my spoon into the steamy rust-colored persimmon pudding, the rich, spicy aroma wafted from the dish. A little of the accompanying cream ran into my spoon and mixed with the pudding. The flavor of this unique fruit and dessert signify the holidays for me. 

For many years my sister-in-law, an Indiana native, has given me the gift of a tub of Indiana wild persimmon paste. It usually arrives in the fall, typically just before Thanksgiving. My favorite thing to do with this paste is to turn it into persimmon pudding. I have tended to make this delicious pudding as one of the desserts for Thanksgiving dinner. When served warm with a bit of fresh cream overtop, it is divine. 

What is a Persimmon?

American persimmons are native to southern Indiana and ripen in September and October, making them the perfect holiday fruit. When ripe, their flavor is nicely sweet in a complex sort of way.

Unfortunately for me, I don’t live in a part of the country where persimmons grow, so I pick them up in the grocery stores, which are currently carrying both the Fuyu and Hachiya varieties.

This year I’ve decided to branch out and mess around with using persimmons in other ways. The Fuyu variety I purchased this year is still firm when they are ripe, so I figured they would hold up well when roasted or broiled. The oven heat will serve to concentrate the flavors and amp up their already sweet nature. 

Roasted Persimmon Salad

I start by slicing one of the persimmons into thin wedges. Then I brush the wedges with olive oil and roast them in a high heat oven (425 degrees F) until they turn brown on the edges. 

While these are roasting, I whisk together a citrus/olive oil vinaigrette, slice some roasted beets and a clementine. Once the persimmons are ready, I arrange all the components on plates. I add Lacinato kale and microgreens and then drizzle vinaigrette over the top. Crushed black pepper and chunky sea salt round out the dish. This gorgeous deconstructed salad will serve as the first course at one of my holiday dinners. 

Broiled Persimmons

Let’s now move on to my next idea, broiling them much like I would fresh plums. For this I take slices of a crusty baguette and top each slice with a piece of soft triple cream cheese. I then place a thin sliver of fresh persimmon on top. I again brush the persimmon with olive oil. 

To add a little sweet crunch, I sprinkle on a bit of raw sugar. I place them under the broiler, and a few minutes later out come the prettiest crostini I have seen in a long time. The sweet roasted fruit proved to be a great counter to the pungent cheese. A new go-to hors d’oeuvres is born.

Spilling Persimmons Over Goat Cheese

The inspiration keeps flowing with my next plan for my persimmons. I love warm spilling fruits. For this I usually take fruits like plums, pears, peaches, or berries and combine them with sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla. After gently simmering them for a few minutes on the stove, the fruit breaks down and forms the most delectable sauce. 

I can use these spilling sauces over a myriad of dishes including pound cakes or olive oil cakes, cheesecake or panna cotta, goat or brie cheese, or prosciutto on a savory tart. I can also use it as a marinade and dipping sauce for roasted pork or chicken. 

It turns out that persimmons lend themselves perfectly to this application. When simmered with a little sugar, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and then pureed with the stick blender, the persimmons make the prettiest and most delicious sauce. I spoon some over a log of goat cheese and serve it with baguette slices. What a perfect start to my holiday culinary journey.

So the Creating Continues 

Persimmons, a seemingly forgotten fruit, prove to be versatile, delicious, and beautiful. They have definitely earned a place in my holiday repertoire alongside the other winter fruits such as pomegranates, oranges, pears, and grapefruit. They have even made an appearance in my newly released holiday card collection. I’m sure I’ll be dreaming up other dishes with this fruit soon. Dehydrated persimmon chips, persimmon salsa chutney, fruit leathers, persimmon jam, persimmon sorbet, persimmon cocktails… Persimmon prosciutto pizza, anyone?

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Art from the Garden

My Love for Art

In my kitchen hangs a painting of a sprouting potato. An unassuming thing, but it brings me joy. Its creator was Betty Strand, an artist and family friend. I’ve always been enthralled by art. Drawings, watercolors, sketches, weavings, batiks, pottery; the list could go on. My walls certainly reflect this passion, and art takes up residence in every possible area of my home.

As you all know, my fascination with cooking and gardening is all-consuming, and a day doesn’t go by that I’m not dreaming about freshly sliced heirloom tomatoes or something of the sort. So why not tie my love for art with my love for all things food and garden? Thus an idea bloomed.

My original sketches when forming the idea to create garden art. You can see I carried some of my original designs into my later finished pieces. 

As I thought about what I could offer you, my mind went to the passion I have for drawing and painting. If only I could give you a taste of the garden within the home, a reminder of the daffodils and crisp sweet peas of spring when you are surrounded by a January blizzard. The garden and kitchen bring me such contentment, and I hope they will bring you the same. Whether you hang my creations on your walls or send them as a greeting card to a friend, I hope they will brighten each blustery day.

Why I Love Paper

Over the years, as I have wandered through little boutique shops on lazy Saturday afternoons, what always catches my eye is their fine art paper and supplies. I don’t quite know why this is, but I have always had an odd obsession with beautiful, high-quality pens, pencils, and brushes of every ilk.

Don’t even get me started on art paper. Sheets of all sizes and colors stacked in cubbies that line an entire wall. Paper hung in large sheets on racks. The thicker the better, I say, and ideally it has some great texture, as well. Paper is such a simple thing, but I love high quality, thick paper, paper with frayed edges, and envelopes in unique shapes that tie shut with little leather strings.

I no doubt leave the boutique a poorer but happier woman, loaded down with a stack of thick cotton vellums, rolls of paper, several pens, and brushes of various sizes and thicknesses. 

The finished card sets. How do I show paper in a still image? Just rest assured, the paper I found passes the Cami test. Thick, linen-textured, faint ivory color, divine. 

The Creative Process

Drawing and painting is an activity I have come back to time and again over the years. It’s in my bones, a part of who I am. I started off this project by sketching. Then I painted. They were small at first, and then they evolved to larger, more refined paintings that can stand the test of time.

Left: my original artwork as well as some of the original, smaller designs. Top right: close-up of a few of my original ideas. Bottom right: the finished card sets. 

There have been many iterations along the way, and I am sure there will be more. It is my pleasure to introduce you to my initial three collections, selections of favorite fruits, vegetables, and garden flowers. I am excited to continue creating more designs as well.

As we tread in the new water of this artistic endeavor, I hope you appreciate my lovingly painted watercolor art. I also wish for you to find meaning in the prose that I crafted to inspire and teach about each plant. I hope these designs printed on thick, beautiful, linen cardstock will make charming, classic greeting cards. Finally, when these pieces of art adorn your walls in frames, I hope they provide an elegant reminder of our collective love for plants.

I am excited to launch this new venture, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions for future designs.

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The Autumn Garden’s End

One Dreary Autumn Day

It had rained overnight, so as I stepped out the door, a fresh layer of fallen ochre-colored sugar maple leaves greeted me. Like gemstones, when strewn on the wet gray cement, the autumn leaves were almost luminous.

Oak and maple leaves in the fall with the play between the yellow, orange, rust, and wine colors, continue to inspire me. As the world around them is shutting down for winter and is becoming brown and gray, they shine in their brilliant splendor for all the world to see. 

Autumn bounty from the garden

Autumn Animal Visitors

I watch as a squirrel carries a large walnut in his mouth over to a spot in the lawn where he starts to dig. Nope, not quite the right spot. He moves a few feet over, then moves again. Finally he finds what he deems the perfect location to bury his precious nut. He starts to feverishly dig, into the hole drops the nut, and it’s quickly buried.

A mama cardinal lands on the fence and sits, looking over the situation before flying into the feeder to get an afternoon snack. It seems that all the birds are back in our yard. They’ve been out in the bushes, trees, and prairies all summer, but now they’re back at our feeders. It’s good to see them, the little nuthatches, the red-breasted woodpeckers, the slate-colored juncos, the chickadees, and of course the cardinals. 

Kale and green tomatoes from the garden.

Clearing the Garden

I turned away from my little friends. There was a laundry list of things to get done, and I had to get busy. I needed to harvest the last of my vegetable garden before the temperature drops. Working outside in the cold, I picked the season’s final tomatoes. It has been a great year for tomato production, but the vines started to turn brown. I pulled them out of the ground and stacked the cages. 

Next, it was on to digging up the carrots and beets. Then the leeks and onions, Then the peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers. My baskets filled up, and yet there was more to do. I dried the beans to shuck at a later time, so I laid those out on a tarp in the garage. I clip the herbs and store them in freezer bags for me to use this winter.

Autumn bounty from harvest time.

Planting for Next Year

The final task of the day was planting my garlic in my newly empty garden bed. I chose some interesting varieties of garlic this year, and I’m excited to get them planted. There are a couple of purple varieties, one that grills up nicely, and a couple that will be sweet when eaten raw. I picked all of them for their lasting quality, as I hang them in my kitchen to use throughout the winter. First I dug holes in my rich dirt, buried the cloves, labeled the spaces, and covered the bed with piles of the dried oak and maple leaves. At last my work was done. 

Top left: onions from the garden, bottom left: more garden bounty, right: kale leaves from the garden.

Transition to Winter

It’s almost as if I just finished up reading a riveting novel. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey and now am in the final chapters. I don’t want the book to end. But end it does. Such has been this summer, the greenery, the garden bounty, the profuse flowers, the long, idyllic evenings. The chapters in this summertime novel are long and have captured my heart. Closing the cover to this book is bittersweet. 

With late autumn we move our lives indoors. We take the piles of vegetables on our counters and create rich stews and braises. We don sweaters and light candles. Soon the lovely scent of fireplaces burning will permeate our neighborhoods. The next novel, a wintertime one, is at my doorstep, and I’m ready to begin reading.

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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

We stained our fingers deep red, and our buckets mounded high with the chokecherries we’d been gathering all morning. My mother, my children, and I had driven down to a large thicket on a side road along the mountain river. It was a forgotten spot, a little traveled place where few went. Here the chokecherry bushes billowed over the ditch on the edge of the gravel. We felt like we held a precious secret in knowing where this stash of bitter berries grew. The berries grew abundantly, and we picked with abandon.

Now as we looked at our haul, we knew the work was far from over. We needed to turn these currently inedible berries into the sweet and delicious canned goods we treasured all winter long. My mother, a native of Montana, had grown up around these wild gems and knew the secrets to pulling out their flavor. We followed her lead as she patiently instructed us on how to clean and cook them and then extract the meat from the inner seed, resulting in a thick liquid. This deep, garnet-colored juice became the foundation for our jams and syrups. 

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

Not long after this, my mom and I went through a similar process again, this time in Minnesota. It was early September, the time of year when the wild grapes ripen. We picked on the fence lines that bordered the freeways in spots where birds had planted the grape seeds years before. Once again buckets filled the kitchen table, and as we looked upon the bounty we had just gathered, we knew we had hours of work ahead of us. Undaunted, my mom pulled out the big pots from the cupboards, filled the sink with cool water, and we began the tasks of sorting and cleaning the grapes and then creating the delectable wild grape jam we treasured so much.

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

I am grateful that my mom taught me how to go out into the woods and pick wild berries, be it wild blueberries, wild plums, wild grapes, or chokecherries. The concentrated nature of wild fruit results in an unusually flavorful jam. I grew up eating these delicacies, so they became a part of my cherished memory.

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

My mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had homesteaded land in eastern Montana. Life on the prairie had not been easy for my grandparents as they worked tirelessly to tame the land and carve out a ranch. Cold, heat, grasshoppers, an overall lack of resources, the Great Depression, and more all worked against their success. I’m not sure that my mom or her siblings ever noticed, however. The spirit in the home was one of resolve, humble tenacity, and a calm graciousness. They crafted niceties from scraps, making intricately embroidered linens, dinners for neighbors, and warm loaves of bread baked in a coal-fired oven. 

Mom's wild rice soup

You see, it was a part of my mom’s inner soul to create sweet delicacies from sour grapes. It was who her parents had been and their parents before them. Eeking out beauty from scarcity. Hospitality bubbled up from a natural interest in others and their wellbeing. This graciousness was ingrained in her fiber as she welcomed family, friends, and strangers alike into the home. They often stayed for just a cup of coffee and a piece of something sweet, but sometimes they stayed for years.

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

From an early age, my mom modeled many things for me. She was an effortless hostess. That generation didn’t fuss for guests. You see, a tin of homemade goodies always sat in the freezer waiting to be enjoyed. Sometimes it was a lemon bar or a piece of apple crisp. Other times she treated us to was a plate full of hamburger mushroom casserole or a bowl of Minnesota wild rice soup. Sometimes all we needed was her listening ear. Other times it was a warm bed and a shower. She spent her days thinking about others. When people came to visit, my mom feted them and welcomed them wholeheartedly.

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

The two constants were the tables. One was in the kitchen, the other in the dining room. The first greeted you on frosty mornings with a hot mug of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, or crispy toast smeared with the jam du jour. The other table became the site of prolonged story telling by hosts and guests alike as dinners and the accompanying conversations ran late into the evenings. The food always remained simple, hearty, and home cooked. Soups, stews, casseroles; food to feed a crowd of hungry stomachs. We came, hungry for conversation and nourishment, and we left sated on all fronts. 

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

Even as the years passed and age began to get the better of her, hosting her dear family remained my mother’s favorite pastime. I like to think I inherited that from her. Whether we arrived early or came in after dark, the windows of the house would be glowing with a warm yellow light, the porchlight welcoming weary travelers.  My mother greeted the family with open arms, cozy beds, and fresh towels laid out for us.

Fresh peach pie

What remains today are the memories, the inner pull to emulate the gracious ambiance for others that she so faithfully created for me. An ambiance that pulled people toward her, that made them feel in that moment that they were the only ones that mattered. She wasn’t one to jump to a decision, but she carefully weighed the options. Mom gave me her measured thoughtfulness. She gave me the gift of time, her time. Such a precious and rare gift this is. It’s simple yet seemingly increasingly unavailable. She gave with no expectation of reciprocation.

A listening ear, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, a jar of chokecherry jam, a couch on which to sit and chat awhile, a quiet wisdom; these are what I’m bringing with me into the future. These are the gifts my mother gave me.  

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Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

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A Lemony Life

Dreaming of Lemons

I have always wanted a row of lemon trees in my yard. You know the look; fruit trees planted in massive pots along a pathway, or better yet along the edge of a garden that is overflowing with lavender, basil, and San Marzano tomatoes. As I walk down the aisles of this imaginary garden, my feet crush the tiny purple blossoms of creeping thyme, releasing its intoxicating scent into the air. 

I even have gone so far in this wishful wonderland of having purchased a massive (and I mean massive) tiled terra cotta planter that would house my first lemon tree. Of course living up in the hinterland, the bliss of smelling blossoms on my way to pick basil has obviously not materialized. My funky and sizable pot has instead held red twig dogwood and curly willow branches. I guess in the north country, this is the best I can hope for with a lemon tree pot, and I must rely on the local grocer to obtain my harvest.

Fruit of Spring

The fresh cheerfulness of lemons signal for me the onset of spring. The dance between spring and lemons is as natural as that of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They were meant to dance with each other. Spring days are crisp, and a slight breeze rustles through the branches. The cool refreshing taste of lemons mirrors the weather outside, delightfully zippy. Whether creating a sweet or tart dish, this fruit can nourish and bring joy. I have in my hands something that will be used to create delicious beauty.  

Whatever the reason, it’s at this time of year that I want to move away from rich, dark, heavy braises and into using early spring greens, vegetables such as spring sweet peas, and newly harvested baby bok choy. These create a bed for grilled lean meats. I top everything with a lemony crumble, and I marinate or drizzle with abandon a dressing that includes lemon juice as a key ingredient.

Left: Chicken with lemon, mushrooms, dried plums, and green olives. Right: Grilled salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, Italian parsley, salt, and pepper 

Lemon Feasts

Forget the tradition of ham for Easter dinner. At our house, our custom is lemon for Easter. This year it appeared in many forms. Appetizers included garlicky crostini topped with a lemony Tzatziki sauce. We tossed shreds of Napa cabbage with a ginger lemon Szechuan pepper dressing to serve as a base for marinated and grilled flank steak. Then just so dessert wouldn’t feel excluded, we served little ramekins of lemon pudding cake topped with macerated strawberries and dollops of whipped cream. Did all of this meet my need for all things lemon? 

Left: Lemon pudding cake, Right: Lemon cake with a lemon glaze

Nope. Just as spring marches on, so does my need for more lemony quests. French lemon custard, caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, risotto al limone, and Greek egg lemon soup are among my favorites. I love lemony chicken with green olives over cheesy polenta or grilled lemon slices scattered on charred slabs of salmon. For dessert, lemon gelato or curd, lemon blueberry muffins, and lemon olive oil almond cake come to mind. From hors d’oeuvres to desserts with beverages in between, I fill my menus as well as my life with this fruit.

Left: Caramelized onion, Ricotta, and lemon galette, Right: Grilling the salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper

A Savory Twist

Let’s talk a little about the use of lemon in savory dishes such as in risotto al limone or Greece’s egg lemon soup. It seems counterintuitive to add such a bright flavoring to an otherwise rich, toothsome dish. Take risotto, for example. A typical risotto is creamy with the predominant flavor being that of salty Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. When you add lemon, it’s almost like the dish changes lanes on a freeway. The lemon zest and juice transform it into something very refreshing.

Above: Risotto al limone

A similar thing happens with egg lemon soup, otherwise known as Avgolemono in Greece. This would have a fairly typical “cream of chicken soup” flavor if not for the addition of lemon to the pot. As with the risotto, the addition of lemon elevates this soup from commonplace to splendid. Such is the beauty of the lemon.

Above: French lemon cream custards with candied lemon zest

A New Lemon Drink

The most recent lemony addition to my beverage repertoire is switchel.  My current favorite variety is lemon ginger. Switchels are a beverage with a rich history. They are a beverage based on vinegar, most commonly apple cider vinegar. Switchel was to our early colonists what soda pop is to us today. Basically, it was ubiquitous. It was (and still is) seen as both refreshing and healthy.

Apple cider vinegar was available in the northeastern states and thus became the tang in the recipe, which consisted of water, cider, a sweetener like molasses, honey, or maple syrup, and a flavoring like ginger and/or lemon. Switchel, also known as Haymaker’s Punch because of its refreshing nature, became the refreshment for those working long hours out in the hot sun. However, it was not only consumed by ordinary folk but was always available on the floors of our early Congress, reportedly with a liberal flavoring of Jamacian Rum. This, shall we say, fortified switchel, probably “flavored” a few of our country’s famous and formative oratories.

Left: Switchel, Right top: Salmon with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper, Right bottom: A lemony spring spread

Spring Awakening

Tender green buds unfold on the trees. Plants poke their first leaves up through the cool earth. Nature is waking up, opening its eyes, and soon will show its full, adorned glory. Meanwhile, my sweet pea seeds have been tucked into the earth along the fenceline. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are moving into adolescence under the grow-lights in my basement. The vegetable seed packets have been arranged and rearranged as I impatiently wait to plant them in the garden.  

Above: Risotto al limone

Warmer days are on the horizon. Evenings spent outdoors with dear friends will be here soon.  At the moment, though, I’m trying to decide, do I make marmalade or preserved lemons with the extras taking up space in my fridge? Such is the sweet conundrum of a lemon-filled spring. 

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My Kind of Bowling

A Bowl for a Chilly Night

It was the evening of Valentine’s Day. The temperature outside hovered around 20 degrees below zero as the coldness sunk into the cellar. We couldn’t bring ourselves to venture outside to dine in a restaurant. It was just too cold. We needed a hot meal in steaming bowls to enjoy in the coziness of our snug house.

As I considered what to make that would be both a special meal and fit the warming requirement, my mind went to a spicy Asian noodle bowl I’d been wanting to try for some time.  This recipe overflows with my favorite ingredients: lemongrass, ginger root, turmeric, garlic, and chicken thighs. I started to chop, sauté, and stir. Soon the rich aromas filled the kitchen, satisfying my soul like the temperature outside could not. 

The steam swirling off the bowls at the dinner table was intoxicating. The first sip, pure pleasure. In addition to the temperature, it held just enough spice to heat up our mouths as we slurped and swallowed. The mix of herbs and spices created a complex and simply divine flavor. On that frigid eve, this bowl hit the spot.

Asian Bowls Aplenty

What is it with Asian soups and bowls? They have become all the rage, and for good reason. Whether they come from Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, or Singapore, they burst with flavor and are simple to prepare. In many parts of Asia, people eat these soups for breakfast. I can see why. They are nourishing and contain just enough kick to wake you up.

Serving food in bowls has been a tradition in many parts of Asia for centuries. The bowls serve a dual purpose: they retain the heat, and because they are pretty much a one-dish meal, clean-up is a dream. The artwork on them reflects the culture’s love of beauty.

Hot and Cold Varieties

To me these bowls of food seem a bit schizophrenic in that they can be either hot or cold. In hot bowls, the broth carries the bulk of the divine flavor. The cold versions contain similar ingredients, except they are mostly fresh or raw with the dressing and marinades holding the flavor. The hot versions are perfect for a cold, wintry night. The cold serves as a quick, refreshing meal on a hot summer’s evening when you have all those garden herbs and vegetables available.  

Hot Bowls

One thing I have noticed about most hot bowls is the ease of preparation. You simply sauté the aromatics and spices in a little oil, and then you add water and meat to the pot. Leave it to simmer for a while, making an unctuous broth. Meanwhile, prepare any toppings, such as cilantro leaves, scallions, or lime wedges. When the broth has finished cooking, add the fresh vegetables, cook the noodles in a separate pot of hot water, drain them, and you’re ready to eat.  

Depending on the country of origin, the meats and other ingredients can vary. Some of my favorites include a Vietnamese soup that has little meatballs made of ground pork, scallions, and spices. Immediately before serving, add a couple handfuls of watercress for a lemony freshness. Another hails from South Korea. It includes small strips of pork tenderloin and Napa cabbage kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine. The spicy kimchi juice adds a complex heat to the final dish.  

Cold Bowls

The cold versions don’t take much more time to prepare. I usually include some kind of starch, either rice or Asian noodles. I leave room in the bowl for many of the fresh vegetables to which I’m partial: sweet pea pods, strips of red and yellow peppers, julienned zucchini and carrot, Romaine lettuce leaves, and bean sprouts. The meat can be anything from chicken to shrimp, tossed in garlic, ginger, and chili and then sautéed. I’m particularly partial to the accompanying peanut dipping sauces or any sort of dressing made of flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or mint leaves. I could almost drink this stuff it’s so delicious.

For years, I have thought these bowls are better left to the experts in Thai or Vietnamese restaurants. I had no idea how simple it is to develop their complex flavor given a few key ingredients, a sharp knife, and a little creativity.

The next time you are thinking of making chicken noodle soup, pivot. Add some grated ginger root, curry powder, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and you have a soup such as what millions wake up to everyday. It is so tasty, it may even inspire you to give up that bowl of daily oatmeal you enjoy so much and replace it with Laska, a shrimp and chicken noodle soup eaten for breakfast in Singapore.

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Grapefruit for Breakfast

The icy wind freezes on my face as I make my way through the neighborhood on my early morning walk. The middle of winter greets us with frigid temperatures, icy roads and sidewalks, and cloudy, shortened days. Bringing winter clothing fashion to new heights, we layer on woolen sweaters. Soft, thick mittens and hats keep our fingers and ears warm. As I come into my kitchen from the stark outdoor greyness, the fresh yellows, oranges, and greens that emanate from the citrus bowl greet me.

It is citrus season, and its arrival could not be more welcomed and appreciated. I have been collecting as many varieties of citrus as I can find. Their colorful freshness adds a much needed sparkle to my menus.

A Little Citrus History

Many kinds of citrus find themselves into my kitchen each winter. These varieties are for the most part hybrids from the three original species, pomelos, mandarin oranges, and citron. The common citrus fruits that we consume every day such as lemons, limes, oranges, and clementines are all hybrids from these three parents.

Citrus originated in Asia, which has the perfect climate for it to thrive. As we have moved down through the centuries, both intentional and accidental mutations and hybridizations have caused the wide variety of citrus fruits we enjoy throughout the world today.

Pomelos

Recently I tasted one of these grandparents of the citrus family, the pomelo. I was surprised at its sweetness. When I included halved sections in a couscous salad, the pomelo added a cool, sweet counter to the toothsome couscous. The pomelo is so large that the meat from a single fruit is enough to meet the needs of the entire recipe.

Grapefruit

Grapefruit are a hybrid developed from an accidental cross between the pomelo and the sweet orange. Juicy ruby grapefruit sections are most often enjoyed unadorned with breakfast. However, I try to find as many ways as possible to include this delicious winter fruit into my winter cuisine. Some of my favorite uses include grapefruit sections in a salad of mesclun greens, squeezed for juice, or made into a grapefruit curd.

I probably received my love of grapefruit from my father. Every morning, like clockwork, he would meticulously carve out the sections of an entire grapefruit and enjoy them with his breakfast. This is one of the many favorite memories I have of him. He always had a large bag of grapefruit taking up space in his refrigerator, hardly leaving room for his other culinary obsessions, French cheese and pickled herring.

Meyer Lemons

Another seasonal favorite is Meyer lemons. They are juicy and sweet with tender, edible skins. I slice them into hearty braises, where they add a refreshing brightness.

Meyer lemons are delicious when slivered into paper thin slices for relishes or marmalade. Strips can be candied and used to garnish the top of sweet confections. Recently I made a relish with fresh lemon, crushed red pepper, red onion, chives, and Italian parsley. This made for a delicious embellishment on savory meat sandwiches. The season for these is not long, so if you see them in the grocery store, snap them up when you can; or wait until next year.

Blood Oranges

Moving on to yet another citrus jewel, blood oranges. Blood oranges are a mutation from a sweet orange and originally grew in Italy and Spain. The red meat of the orange is caused by the water-soluble pigment anthocyanin. I first discovered these beauties in Italy where one is seemingly able to buy fresh squeezed blood orange juice anywhere and often in the most unsuspecting places, even in the roadside convenience stores. It has always seemed so lavish to me that this delicacy is so pervasive and easily available. In the US, I have occasionally found blood oranges in the grocery stores in the winter, so keep your eyes peeled for them. Blood oranges are beautiful when made into a salad with shaved fennel bulb and red onions or simply fresh squeezed into juice for a very unusual and special breakfast juice.

Kumquats

The most recent addition to my “favorites list” are kumquats. Kumquats are small ovals, about the size of a large green olive. They are completely edible. Some enjoy popping these little orbs into their mouths, eating them whole and raw. I prefer to create a sort of spilling fruit compote to spoon on top of a round of Camembert or Brie. The sweet/savory contrast makes for an hors d’oeuvres that will never disappoint.

To make this, simply saute slices of kumquats, onions, and garlic in sizzling butter until soft. Add a little brown sugar, white wine, a pinch of red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper. Let this cook on low for a few minutes to thicken. Spoon the warm sauce on top of a round of room temperature cheese and serve with a crusty baguette. Eh voila, you have just made a gorgeous and delicious yet very easy appetizer.

Cara Cara Oranges

A citrus that looks a bit similar to the blood orange is the Cara Cara orange. These have pink flesh, thanks to the carotenoid lycopene. They are a relative newcomer to the citrus world. Discovered in 1976, it is believed they were a mutation from the Washington navel orange. The pink flesh of the Cara Cara oranges makes the most luscious pink orange marmalade. Paddington bear would even approve.

Fingered Citron

One of the weirdest looking types of citrus that I’ve come across is the fingered citron, or as it’s called in southeast Asia, Buddha’s hand. When grated, its fragrant skin makes for pungent zest. When used in breads, muffins, and cakes, it results in a fruit-forward lemony flavor. Another trait similar to citron is that fingered citrons have no pulp or juice. Rather, their assets lie in their ability to make you think your kitchen is a lemon grove because of their aromatic zest. Recently I used its zest in an Italian lemon almond cake, and it resulted in a delightful lemony flavor.

In this bleak midwinter, we have a refreshing recourse at the ready. A nutrient-packed collection of citrus fruits to enhance your menus, be it beverages, desserts, main dishes, salads, vegetables, hors d’oeuvres, or breads. Their fresh taste is certain to elevate everything they touch, your food as well as your spirits.

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An Unconventional Holiday: Pies, Tarts, and Crusts

A French Thanksgiving

The year was 1977. My parents, brother, and I were spending the year in Strasbourg, France. As the end of November neared, we started to think about how we were going to celebrate Thanksgiving. In discussing with friends, we realized something we should have already known, that Thanksgiving is American. No other country celebrates this holiday. In France the fourth Thursday of November is like any other Thursday in the calendar year.

The simple act of purchasing a turkey proved futile. As it turns out, turkeys are an American phenomenon. We located cranberries (also a North American thing) and pumpkin, and so a Thanksgiving feast was cobbled together.

In an unconventional situation, we made the intentional decision to pivot, to do our own version of this meal, Alsatian style, and use what was available in the bountiful French markets. A plump chicken became the entree. We filled in with locally available items. That year was an adventure, and the Thanksgiving holiday was in keeping. We had great fun making up our own French version of a meal that typically remains rather set in stone.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Our Minimalist Holiday

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I can’t help but remember that meal in France. This year, we are being asked to do something very different, to scale back our Thanksgiving celebrations. We must pivot and create a different sort of holiday.

In this spirit of minimalism, the idea of small bits or portions becomes an enticing concept. By creating small desserts just for you and those in your home, you can explore untried recipes. Consider venturing outside your comfort zone. Since this isn’t the year you are feeding 20 at the dinner table, experimenting is in order.

Single serving items such as mini pies or tartlets can be both fun to make as well as flexible for a small group. The individual nature of these desserts also make them ideal for sharing with others, be it neighbors, a family member, or a friend who is isolating and can’t be with loved ones this year.

Allspice cinnamon scented custards with sweet potato crumbles.

Understanding Pie Crust

Let’s take this opportunity to talk about how to make a tender flaky pie crust. The crust is the foundation of any pastry. I’ve obsessed for decades to perfect the flakiest and most tender pie crust. Let me begin by explaining flakiness. In any baked good, it’s the fat that makes for tenderness. When making cookies or cake, the softened fat incorporates into the mixture so that the particles are very evenly dispersed throughout the dough. This causes the end product to be evenly tender.

Plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes ready to go in the oven.

With a baked good that needs to end up flaky, you need to take some specific steps in the process of making the pastry dough. In this situation, you want the fat to stay fairly firm. You do not want it to be evenly dispersed but rather to remain in small pieces. Thus, when rolled out, it forms long, flat strips in the dough. There are variations to this dough, but this greater category is called laminated dough, meaning the fat is laminated throughout the dough. The same general concept applies to all flaky pastries, including croissants, puff pastry, turnovers, and of course, pie crust.

The finished plum, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola galettes.

Much discussion remains in the pie crust baking world (this, most likely, consists of a very small contingent of people), about which type of fat to use, lard, butter, and/or shortening. For several reasons, I fall into the “all-butter” camp. Butter makes for a very flaky end product. This is because when baked, the water that is in the melted butter creates steam inside the dough, creating the characteristic flakes in your pastry. Secondly, butter tastes like, well, butter. And who can argue with that?

Making the Pie Crust

To achieve this flakiness, there are several steps that have to be taken. First, make sure that your butter is firm to the touch. Leave it in the fridge until just before you start to make your pie dough. The next essential step is to fill a bowl full of ice water. I do this at the beginning so the ice cubes can start to melt, making the water as cold as possible. After you prepare your water, mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Slice the larger portions of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces.

Allspice and cinnamon

Add these to the flour, mix with a pastry blender, two knives, an electric mixer, or even your fingers. Watch out on this step. Only mix until the fat is in pea-sized pieces. This can happen very quickly and you don’t want to over-mix. Next, add the ice-cold water. Again, be careful on this step to not over-mix. The dough should be just coming together, very “piecey” at this point. Tip the dough out onto a floured surface and with your hands, bring it together into a ball. There should still be visible pieces of butter in the dough.

The Next Steps

At this point, I rest the dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This resting allows the gluten to relax, making it much easier to roll out. To do this, I divide the dough into the amount I’ll need for rolling out later. Usually a single recipe makes 2 crusts, so you would divide the dough into two balls. I flatten these balls into disks and wrap with plastic wrap. Place them into the refrigerator. You can also freeze the dough at this point for use at a later time.

When it’s time to roll out the pie crust, simply place the disk on a floury surface, using a rolling pin, roll, starting in the center of the disk, working out in all directions. As you roll out the dough, you should see the little pieces of fat flatten into strips. This is what will produce flakiness. Here is my recipe:

Cami’s Pie Crust

Note: the water used can fluctuate by a tablespoon or so, depending on whether the dough is being mixed by hand or by machine.

Ingredients:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons granulated sugar, if desired
1 teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons butter, chilled, divided into pieces
6 tablespoons (approximately) ice water, as needed

  1. Mix flour, sugar, and salt together in a bowl.
  2. Working quickly, mix in the pieces of butter using a pastry blender until they are small pea-sized pieces throughout the dough.
  3. Sprinkle in the ice water several tablespoons at a time, working the water into the dough. Don’t overmix. Gather the dough into a ball, working in a circular fashion, form two disks. Wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Roll dough out on a floured surface, working the rolling pin from the center of the disk out toward the edges.
  5. Once the crust is rolled out, use it as desired, following the directions of the pie or tartlet recipe you are making.

New Thanksgiving Pie Fillings

The frosting on the cake, so to speak, for pies, is the filling you choose to put into your amazingly tender flaky crusts. I tend to gravitate toward the fruits that are in season at Thanksgiving. Many of these are unheralded, the reasons for which are beyond me. One of my favorites is pears. Pears are at their peak in the end of November with many varieties from which to choose. They create a delicate, creamy flavor when baked. Versatility is a key attribute as they move easily between hors d’oeuvres and desserts.

Other fall picks you can include are apples, plums, quince, persimmons, cranberries, figs, kumquats, sweet potatoes, or squash. Just like pears, these all move easily across the spectrum of a meal. They are as perfect used in an appetizer, as a compote for a roast, as a topping or filling for a dessert. These cool days also lend themselves to the richness of nuts. Currently, I’m particularly fond of hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, and chestnuts. Incorporating one of these into a chocolate tart will solve most of the world’s problems. At least it will be a delectable distraction. I could go on, but you get my point. The options are as endless as your creativity. This is a golden opportunity for you to try some of these lesser known ingredients. You’ll be pleased and surprised at the ease at which you may usher a new favorite into your repertoire.

A Thanksgiving for Trial and Error

I’m not sure where the saying, ”As easy as pie” came from, probably from a grandmother who had been making pies for 50 years. It’s not actually the most accurate statement. A more honest saying would be, “Pie isn’t easy at all. It’s only a success if you have taken the necessary steps and perfected the art of the flaky crust”. That’s a less than inspiring saying and quite the mouthful. That said, this is the year to practice, to experiment, to pivot, to go out of your comfort zone. Your audience will probably be small, quite accepting of your creations, and possibly rather forgiving if you fall short of success.