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Gifts to Myself

There it is. In black and white. I have finally admitted it. Twice in my life I bought myself a gift. The first time it happened, I was shopping for others. I promise I was. It started innocently enough, with the best of intentions.

Staub Roaster

I was in a kitchen store poking around in the clearance section, as I am wont to do. I noticed an indigo blue enameled pan on a lower shelf. Curious, I pulled it out. It was a small Staub roasting pan.

Now I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I have a not-so-cleverly disguised penchant for enameled cast iron cookware. Let’s also just admit that the French-made Staub is the Range Rover of enameled cast iron.

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I realize that one doesn’t need a Range Rover in the “I need a large glass of water in the middle of the Sahara desert” sort of way. But there’s something about its superb design and construction that pulls you in. (Pardon me for not using a French car as an analogy, but I just can’t think of one that fits the metaphoric bill).

As with a first-rate automobile, Staub cookware’s carefully researched qualities work. Its thickness makes for evenly dispersed heat that is very forgiving. The black matte enameled interior has nonstick qualities and is quite tough. The covers for the cocottes are flat, their insides covered in nubs. The condensation that naturally builds up on the inside of these covers during cooking constantly drips back onto the food. This self-basting results in the tenderest and juiciest dishes imaginable.

Giving into Temptation

All these compelling factoids were swirling around in my head as I stared at this little roasting pan I’d just pulled out. I hadn’t planned to buy anything for me on this trip to the store. But it virtually had my name on it. The color was perfect. The size was also handy, a little smaller than your typical 9”x13” pans yet a little deeper. Just the dish for a cozy dinner party. And then there was the heft. This pan was not going anywhere on a windy day. And the price, did I mention clearance?

You know the rest of the story; I took this beauty home with me and have not looked back. It was the holiday season, so I wrapped it up, marked it “To Cami, From Cami” and placed it under the tree.

It’s been years now, but this little pan still brings me joy every time I use it.

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Two pairs of Felco shears. The original purchase was the pair on the top left.

Felco Shears

The other time I self-indulged was early in my journey as I gardener. I had been struggling to prune because of a pair of horribly dull shears I had acquired on the cheap. The task at hand was reining in a long row of red-twig dogwoods and my collection of grape vines. There is nothing like a cheap, dull tool to lengthen an already big job. After struggling for a while, I up and got into the car and drove to the garden store where a nice selection of Felco shears awaited me.

My sharp Felco shears have served me tirelessly for more than twenty years and have at least that much life left in them. Like my knives, I have been known to tuck them into my luggage if I suspect I’ll be doing some pruning during my travels.

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Whether in the kitchen or the garden, procuring and correctly maintaining the right tools for the job at hand makes life much more efficient and pleasurable. As passionate about foods and plants as I am, I am also passionate about having the needed equipment and tools to cook and garden well, be it a sharp knife, an enameled cast iron pot, or a pair of Felco shears.

Treat yourself today to a great tool…and don’t look back!

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Love through Food

Of all the days in the year, Valentine’s Day is the day that has been set aside to show those dear to you that you care about them, that they are important to you. Sometimes this show of affection is outright. Other times it is hidden.

Valentines of Old

I remember one year when I was in elementary school, our teacher had set up a post office in our classroom. It was festively encased in pink and white crepe paper. Inside were post boxes for everyone in the class. Prior to the day, students carefully made valentines at home or chose them in a store. When the day finally arrived, we each went to the post office to “mail” our cards. At the end of the day, we celebrated with a party where we could go to the post office to pick up our mail. It was all so exciting for the young me.

Cooking to Show Love

Today that excitement remains but has grown into a more refined essence. This holiday arrives in the midst of cold February. It seems many are feeling the winter blues, yet here comes this day, inserting itself into the busy schedule that life brings. Today gives us the opportunity to look outward to those around us whom we hold dear. We share kindness, say we love someone, and stop what we are doing to celebrate others.

When the trees and landscapes are at their starkest, we brighten with colorful bouquets of flowers. We also receive, for this day is reciprocal. If we love, it is likely we are loved. In addition to giving, let yourself bask in the love showered on you. Just as we want to affirm, let yourself be affirmed.

Sweet Celebration

Not surprisingly, I tend to cook for my loved ones on this day. Let’s start at the end. Dessert. It has to be something special. Not necessarily time consuming, just something that says, “you are the most important to me,” and “I love you”.

Because food always seems to appear in celebrations, we give chocolate. Today we indulge with chocolate mousse. Not just ordinary mousse, but the kind where I separate eggs, whip whites, add espresso, melt rich dark chocolate, and fold whipped cream into the mix. It’s that sort of mousse.

We bake decadent chocolate cake, offer chocolate-dipped ruby strawberries, serve cocoa dusted chocolate truffles. Or we lean towards a red theme, whether a gooey cranberry dessert or the always classic red velvet cake. Those who want to dine in make special meals, those who don’t go out to favorite restaurants. We write our thoughts on poignant cards, forgetting ourselves to think of our loved ones.

The Main Course

Because the temperature is dropping below the floor, the substance of our meal has to be piping hot, such as a meaty stew. Leafy greens with slivers of roasted red peppers (of course, on this day it has to be red!) tossed in a red wine vinaigrette make up the salad course. A pungent cheese and seedy crackers accompany. Lit candles and early Jazz tunes in the background complete the festivity.

We love and are loved. In and of itself, this is a gift. Know this every day of the year. Especially today on this Valentine’s Day, let us collectively pause, look to those around us, and say “thank you for being in my life.”

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Taking Stock, Making Stock

It is a new year, the height, or should I say depth of winter. As such, it is the time for both new beginnings and comfort foods. This two-sided seasonal coin seems to serve disparate agendas. On one hand we seek change in the form of resolutions, and on the other we yearn for the trusty, classic dishes like a hearty soup that define winter in the North.  

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Pot of New Orleans style chicken stew

Starting Fresh

At the start of every year, we give ourselves permission to analyze, to look over our past year and reflect upon successes and failures. Our society does this from the very personal up to the large-scale corporate and even governmental level. We aim to improve our lives, communities, businesses, country, and world.

We come down from the busy high of the holidays into the calm of a new year, and we yearn to take this time to reset ourselves. This practice stems thousands of years and numerous cultures, and it is perhaps driven by an innate need for redemption and a fresh start. So this is the time. Is there something you have been thinking about transforming in your life? Use this season as an opportunity for yourself.

The Coziness Factor

The other side of this winter coin is the fact that it is just plain cold outside. Really cold. This brings us into our homes. We crave warm and cozy foods, blankets, and sweaters.

My oven is always on for roasting meats or finishing a braise. The soup pot has taken up permanent residence on my stove. It seems that delicious beefy stews, bisques, and chowders have become a daily food. I roast bones and then create rich stocks that take hours of simmering to come into their own. The always classic French onion soup rises to new heights when made from this homemade beef stock. I really do tend to eat in a seasonal pattern. Soups like French onion, borscht, or ham and bean happen only in the chilly climes of winter.

Comfort Cooking

Even though hot foods do not in actuality heat us up from the inside out (our body works very hard to maintain its constant temperature), the act of cooking warms us. As we hover over a simmering pot of soup or hold a piping hot bowl to inhale the steamy aroma, we become warm. Whether the warming effect is literal or psychological, to me it makes no difference. I love hot foods on a cold day. They warm my soul. They tell my loved ones that I care for them, that I want to warm them up as well. There is nothing that says “I love you” more than a bowl full of chili on a chilly day.   

The word restaurant in French means “something restoring.” In the 16th century in France, restaurant was the word commonly used to describe an inexpensive soup that was sold on the streets of Paris. When an enterprising Parisian opened a shop where he made and sold soup, it was called restaurant. This is the origin of the current use of the word restaurants today.

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French onion soup with homemade beef stock

The parallel between restoring and soup holds forth in our mother’s chicken noodle soup served to us when fighting the flu or a cold. The funny thing is the rehydrating nature of the ingredients did help us mend.

These subzero temperatures are definitely good for something. Whether we are taking this time to improve a facet of our lives or simply to slow down and savor a cozy meal, the cold awakens a strength within us and reminds us what it means to be human.

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Coffee Brewed

All we want to do these cool, winter days is curl up with a hot mug of freshly brewed coffee. With the morning news. In a Yeti mug as we go out the door to work. Meeting friends at a coffee shop. Weak church brew in the narthex on Sunday mornings. Espresso and chocolate truffles after dinner. When is it not a good time for coffee?

The Many Faces of Coffee

It can be made as simply as the “dirty stick coffee” we would make when hiking in the mountains. With this method, we mix water and grounds and place them in a pot over a campfire and stirred with a stick (hopefully not a dirty one) from the nearby forest. Coffee also takes on an artform created by a master barista such as the sage latte made by Avery Burke of the Temporarium in San Francisco. In this drink deemed by many to be the world’s most complicated, he starts by frosting the rim of the cup in pomegranate molasses, curry powder, and cayenne pepper. This drink then involves cream steeped in blackened (a blowtorch is involved here) sage leaves and cream, anise, and brown sugar then poured over espresso. Coffee can include ingredients from all the food groups, from brown butter to pumpkin to hazelnut to cinnamon.

Straight Coffee

So whatever happened to plain ol’ coffee? Straight up, hot, and black? Well, that’s out there too. Sometimes as a pour over, other times a cold brew, French press, or Chemex, only a few of the many methods of brewing pure, black coffee. Last year I attended a series of coffee tasting events called cuppings. These are much like a wine tasting.

Single origin beans from a specific country, region, and/or farm are brewed at an ideal temperature and for a specific length of time to show off the coffee’s best traits. Cuppings include smelling, swishing the drink across the taste buds, and then spitting it out (which, of course, I could never bring myself to do). In places such as these, you can appreciate the taste of beans from Guatemala versus Ethiopia and how fermentation, rainfall, or elevation affect the flavor of the drink. Furthermore, you can hear stories of the hard working farmers who toil in all sorts of conditions to bring us the most delicious beans possible.

At its Finest

My many rich experiences with this drink have inspired me to slow down and smell the process. To appreciate what goes into a great cup. The aroma of the freshly ground beans or the steaming richness of the elixir poured from my French press to my tall pottery mug. As with so many other things in life, we can drink coffee, or we can savor it. I first dipped my toes into this proverbial coffee stew by drinking conventionally percolated grocery store brew.

As time progressed so did my palate. Mostly this happened gradually as the coffee culture in our society developed. I do, however, have some hallmark memories of firsts. For example, the first time I walked into the original Dunn Bros. on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minn., and smelled beans roasting in their massive Probat roaster. Or the time I sipped my first perfectly crafted espresso, crested with just the right amount of crema. I was standing at a espresso bar just feet from the Duomo in Florence, Italy. Those Italians…and their coffee…

The Cup

One can’t leave the topic of coffee without also discussing mugs. Everyone has their favorite size and shape. Mine tend to be tall, narrow at the top to keep the drink hot, and hand crafted. On the other hand, I’m also drawn to ones that carry poignant messages such as the simple heavy white ones with “call your mother” inscripted on the side. Maybe you use vintage cups given to you by your grandmother or ones collected on a particularly memorable trip. Whether it’s squat and wide to show off a talented barista’s design in the froth or sturdy with a tight lid to bring on a car trip, we all seem to have a preference.

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For me, as much as I love my coffee brewed in just the right way and as much as I like drinking it out of a mug of my choosing, the most important thing about this drink is who we drink it with. As interesting as the history and the story, coffee is simply the vehicle, or rather the impetus that brings people together. Family, loved ones, friends. In your kitchen, on your front porch, or on the patio of your local coffee shop. It’s the conversation over the drink that’s the memory created. Enjoying coffee you love with people you love. That is the good life.

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Savoring our sweet hygge

The snap and pop of a fire in the hearth, the twinkle of lights on the mantle, a steaming mug of cocoa, Wynton Marsalis playing a jazz version of “Winter Wonderland,” candles burning; these are the sights and sounds of hygge in December in the north. Cinnamon, cardamom, pine, nutmeg, apple, ginger, bread baking; these are the aromas that linger.

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A Scandinavian Christmas

In our house Nordic traditions include round after round of tender lefse coming off the grill, savory Swedish meatballs with lingonberries providing a sweet counter, a delicately carved rosewood crèche on the side table, the rich scent of Yulekake and cardamom buns baking in the oven, gingersnaps cooling on the counter. Smoked salmon, Jarlsburg cheese, and pâté made of goat cheese and dill served on thin crisps of rye bread. Glasses of eggnog or hot buttered rum are raised in toast.

Tis the season to be cozy and warm, to create hygge in our homes and lifestyle. Hygge is the Scandinavian (particularly Danish) way of simplifying to create a cozy sense of well being. Choosing the essential and eliminating the unnecessary. Sometimes the build up of to-do lists, parties, and the tasks that we take on to make the season that much more special actually detract from its beauty.

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Charming simplicity

The seasonal starkness has a beauty all its own. As I sit writing in the dusky dawn gazing out at the grey outdoor light and then at the flickering amber candle, I cannot help but think of my ancestors who hailed from above the Arctic Circle. Did they love this diminished daylight as much as I do? Cloudy skies the color of Tahitian pearls. Our ornament-laden Christmas tree virtually glows in this milky light.

What is it about the wintry north, where absence has a reverse effect of heightening our appreciation of what we do have? This is nature’s version of hygge. When the sun emerges on those crystalline December mornings, the crunch of snow beneath our steps is louder, the song of the ruby cardinal on a far off branch is music we dance to, the diamond-like sparkle of frost takes our breath away. I’ve often thought necessity inspires creativity. The need for warmth became the beautiful and intricate Norwegian sweater, where the more involved the Fair Isle design, the more layers of yarn used, resulting in an almost opulent but necessary coziness.

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Subtraction becomes resplendent multiplication. Friendships seem to matter more. We linger longer over coffee and conversation. Friends gather and sip from hot cups of soup. We roast and bake and share with others. The gratefulness on the faces of needy neighbors when presented with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven warms our souls more than any down jacket could.

Treasured tradition

The dark cold months focus our priorities. It seems that in the lush green of other seasons we venture into the unknown. We try new activities, taste new foods, travel to new places, establish new goals, or start new habits. But at the holidays, we treasure the tried, the true, the traditions that we hold dear. For me this means remembering the Christ Child’s birth, singing favorite carols, preparing time-honored foods, hearing the crackle of Ponderosa Pine logs burning in the fireplace, smelling the heady aroma of roasting meats, listening to Handel’s Messiah, or hearing the ringing sound of handbell choirs.

Music runs along the season as a common thread. Christmas tunes play everywhere. When walking down Main Street or in the grocery aisle, we are constantly serenaded. We are cheered. I find myself flitting from inspirational John Rutter choral pieces to the nostalgic Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, then on to the husky voice of Louis Armstrong or the peaceful sound of Laurance Jube playing his guitar.

Embracing the season 

Apart from the other times of the year, the cold winter tranquility stirs passion and a strong sense of fearlessness in our souls. We venture out into the brisk nights bundled up in our coats and boots, the biting winds and looming darkness unable to dampen our spirits. Then after a long, full day, we nestle into the warmth of our homes to soak in the sounds, smells, and beautiful sights that define the serenity of the season.

Winter, December, waiting, Christmas, laughter, darkness, stockings on the mantle, Advent candles, baby Jesus, cold, joy, warm sweaters, ice skating, Christmas concerts, red velvet, snow, white fur, Kransekake, light, bells, icicles, kindness, gingerbread houses, shearling slippers, cedar and holly garland. So many indispensable words, these words of the season.

This year I have whittled and parsed all the while clarifying. The essence of my own Christmas season becomes a marriage of the most unsuspecting companions. The pairings of cold and family leads to memories created. Elimination of the unnecessary makes for times all the more treasured thanks to their poignant simplicity. This is my holiday hygge.

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Celebrate with a Thankful Heart

Tradition

It seems that everyone has stories to tell about their Thanksgiving traditions. The preparation for this meal usually involves several days. Turkeys are bought days ahead. They fill our refrigerators as they thaw. The aromas begin to fill our homes: cranberry sauce cooking on the stove, pies baking in the oven. These are the reminiscent smells that welcome family as they gather.

The actual day of Thanksgiving arises early as the final rubs and fillings are applied to the big bird before we slide it into the oven to roast. If you are like most cooks, you breathe a sigh of relief once this step is done. The day is still early, and the house is quiet. It is the perfect time to sit for a minute and sip some coffee.

Next up, think about the side dishes, the hors d’oeuvres, and last but certainly not least, the desserts. Vegetables need scrubbing, potatoes need peeling, green beans need trimming. Time to start mixing up the dinner rolls. We must always include favorite foods. Is your pie of choice pumpkin, apple, or pecan? Do you eat marshmallows on your sweet potatoes?

Our culinary traditions bring us together as friends and families, but also together as a country. This is the time we remember to give thanks. We give thanks for loved ones, food, warm houses, freedom, friendships. We also think about and give in record amounts to those who do not have loved ones, who are going hungry this November, and who lack a warm house to call their own. This is a time for thankfulness, and out of this full heart comes generosity.

Our Past

The tradition of a harvest festival grew up with our country, starting in the early 1600s. This celebration took many forms in fits and starts before it finally settled in to what it is today. George Washington declared a national day of Thanksgiving on September 25, 1789. This was sporadically observed for a number of years following his declaration.

The idea of a designated Thanksgiving Day, however, was championed by a most unlikely suspect. Sarah Josepha Hale, a poor young widow who then rose to become the editor of the most popular magazine of its time, Godey’s Lady Book, talked about this idea for many years, presenting it to multiple presidents. Finally Abraham Lincoln listened and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that the last Thursday of November should be set aside. It wasn’t until 1941, thanks to President Roosevelt, that Congress officially established that day as a national holiday.

New Twists

In our home, Thanksgiving tends to be tradition with a twist. While the basic food items such as turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberries, etc, are present at the Thanksgiving table, their form and what dish they show up in is constantly changing. One year cranberries are in the stuffing, the next year they appear in the beverage, the next, in a dessert. Likewise with apples or pecans.

Our turkey may appear green thanks to the herb paste stuffed under the skin or have copper sheen due to being glazed with sweet mix of pomegranate molasses and orange juice. Sometimes we roast it upside down, other times on high heat. Some years we stuff it with apples, onions, lemon, garlic, and sage leaves, other times with cornbread sausage stuffing. Every year is an opportunity to try new versions of the trusty old ingredients.

Trio of cranberry sauces: cranberry pear, cranberry jalapeño, and cranberry fig.

This year the cranberries are going to have some added kick, sauteed with shallots and jalapeno peppers. A second sweet variation will include Bosc pears, quince paste, and ginger root. A butternut squash will be pan-roasted with sage leaves, tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese, and then drizzled all over with pistachio pesto. Our stuffing will be gluten-free by using a base of wild rice.

Roasted butternut squash with fresh mozzarella, sage, and pistachio pesto.

With so much change, does anything stay the same? Yes, the tender, fresh from the oven dinner rolls. These never change. They must show up every year. They are so pristinely baked that a goodly number of them never make it to the dinner table.

Find your own recipe for melding tradition with change. We are a blessed people, so this Thanksgiving, both give and give thanks.

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Autumn: The Season of Abundance

The mornings are crisp, the evenings almost nonexistent. The sidewalks are piled with yellow and golden leaves from the ubiquitous maple trees. They crunch underfoot. Squirrels busily scurry through them, burying then digging up and reburying their walnuts, searching for the perfect spot to hide their cache.

We pass through fall entertained by the sounds of distant football games and geese honking overhead. On our schedule are trips to the apple orchard, hot mugs of cider shared with friends, getting lost in a corn maze, and listening to the tales of our farmers who have been combining into the early morning hours to get their crop harvested before the snow flies.

Autumn’s Garden

Let us linger in this autumnal doorway. We come inside into our kitchens bringing in pumpkins, squash, fat fennel bulbs, thick stalks filled with Brussels sprouts. We carry in armloads of hardy vegetables and greens. Mounds of lacinato kale and ruby-ribbed Swiss chard spill out from garden baskets. Magenta carrots, pale leeks, sweet onions, and beets make their way into braises, stews and bisques. Any more bounty and my refrigerator will burst.

So we chop. We cook. We roast. Ripe tomatoes, garbanzo beans, and kale meld into a richly flavored Pomodoro Sauce. Green tomatoes become pickles or are sautéed with roasted peppers and curry and then served over rice. I wait all year to assemble beefy Borscht out of freshly scrubbed beets.

Cooking the Bounty

For tonight’s dinner party, I have stuffed juicy sweet apples with sauteed leeks that were tossed with goat cheese. I baked these in a pool of Sauvignon Blanc, butter, and bay leaves. Now as they finish cooking, the cozy aroma welcomes the arriving guests.

The main course is a large hen stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, sage, and thyme. Lemon quarters, cipollini onions, and pats of butter peek out of the cavity. I then rub the outside with a paste of olive oil, minced garlic, sea salt, and crushed black peppercorns. This bird is surrounded with root vegetables, carrots, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. Finally, slivers of kale, red onion, and Pecorino Romano tossed with a grassy olive oil and champagne vinegar comprise the salad.

Finally, warm from the oven free-form pear galettes drizzled with lavender honey serve as the capstone to this harvest meal. The meal fills with rich laughter and the garden’s final offerings.

Life celebrated by friends and food: fall is the perfect time of year for this. Now neighbors have returned from their summer travels. The bitey cold is not yet on the horizon. Autumn is certainly the season of abundance. Therefore invite friends, prepare your table, and savor the verdant plentitude.

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Why Preserve?

A Way of Life

Preserving has been a longstanding tradition in our kitchen. Come August and September, we are canning the summer’s bounty. A day in the raspberry patch and a trip to the apple orchard yield jams of ruby elixir and fragrant apple butter. Pasta sauces, salsas, catsup, pestos, bisques, pickles, savory jams, giardiniera; these and more fill the pantry by the time the first hard frost kisses my garden in October.

This savory rhythm has become an essential element of the treasure we call home. At the finish of every semester, our kids would neatly tie ribbons and thank you notes to their favorite flavors of jams and present them to their teachers as gifts. A preserve of one sort or another has become the hostess gift of choice. Be it a topper for toast, the spicy sweet counterpart to a stack of smoky meat, or the sauce in a hearty lasagna, I turn to my stash on a regular basis.

So why do this? Why go to all this work when the grocery stores are brimming with aisles of canned offerings? It is so much easier to just load up your grocery cart.

It is because the golden sweetness of peach jam made at the height of juicy ripeness is irresistible. The complex aroma of a pasta sauce stewing on the stove will bring memories of those warm, summer days into your mid-winter meals. A gift crafted from the labor of one’s hands is the definition of kindheartedness. The modeling of these increasingly rare culinary arts perpetuates these rich traditions, weaving them into the fabric of our families.

Long Held Tradition

The history of preserving foods goes back thousands of years. It was a way to stretch out the meat, fruits, and vegetables into the seasons where they were not available. In the northern climes, our ancestors could freeze foods. In my Norwegian culture, transforming potatoes into a flatbread called lefse enabled them to enjoy potatoes all winter long. Meats were slow smoked over fires using local woods for the fire, local salt, and herbs to flavor. All over the world, people preserved using the elements and ingredients of their particular environment. Fermentation was used to turn grapes to wine. Honey, fruits or grains, and spices became mead. The early American settlers filled large earthen crocks with layers of pork, salt, and fat. Then these were kept cool in cellars, providing protein for these hungry families throughout the winter months.

Canning using glass jars was invented by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809 after he was commissioned to find a way to preserve food for France’s army and navy. After much experimentation, he noticed that when foods were tightly sealed in glass, then heated to a certain temperature, they did not spoil. It would take 50 years before Louis Pasteur came along to discover and explain that heat killed to microorganisms and that sealing kept other microorganisms from entering and contaminating the contents. In the meantime, however, others were making their own discoveries. Peter Durand in England discovered and then patented the use of tin-coated iron cans instead of glass. This method was used by the British Royal Navy to feed their troops on long forays across the oceans.

Canning Today

What started long ago as a necessity has now morphed into almost an artform. From strawberry balsamic black pepper jam to pickled fennel with orange or lemon garlic pickled cauliflower, the delicious taste matches the beauty. This year, try smearing roasted onion sage jam over your Thanksgiving turkey before baking it. The variations of preserves are as many as your imagination is creative.

I have been both recipient and giver of the results of creative preservation. The smear of Bill’s Worcestershire sauce on a freshly grilled hamburger, Cindy’s cucumber hot pepper jam on my goat cheese crostini, Tami’s blackberry preserves on warm toasted slices of crusty baguettes; these are tokens of generosity. They remind me of friendships both present and past. Through their preserved creations, they have brought me into their lives. I cannot help but feel blessed by their kindness.

I remember the sounds and smells of their kitchens, their blackberry patches, dinners under the lights of their pergolas. Family, friends, jams, pickles, capacious conversations extending late into the evening. These are the ingredients to the jam called “A Heritage Preserved.” They are our heritage preserved.

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My Garden Muse

Starting Out with Gardening

By the time I was launching into my adult life, I had lived on three continents and had at one point or another been fluent in multiple languages. However, I did not have any idea how to garden (my cooking skills were not any better, but that is a story for another time).

I limped along every summer, reading what I could, listening to family and friends, and using a lot of trial and error, mostly error. I loved the idea of gathering fresh produce from my garden for the upcoming evening’s meal. My knowledge, however, was accumulating at a glacial pace.

Glenn the Gardener

My family then moved to a new house in a new city in a new state. Our next door neighbors were Cindy and Glenn. My garden muse presented himself in the unsuspecting form of Glenn, my new neighbor. A teacher by trade, he is a coupling of all that is both brilliant and quirky.

I had never heard of using corn gluten meal as an organic herbicide on lawns. Creating a garden conducive to attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects was a new concept to me. I knew not of the advantages and how-to of companion planting. It seemed that all my questions and garden challenges were answered with a wise solution or a “let’s figure this out.”

When Glenn planted a collection of prairie flowers on a strip of our adjoining properties, he introduced me to the multitude of benefits that come from using native wildflowers in your landscaping. Glenn has since graduated his prairie yard into an actual prairie on his 20 acre property just outside of town. If you want to see butterflies and other pollinators, this is the place to go. As they say, “Build it, and they will come”. Well, Glenn planted it, and they came in droves. Long before it became popular, he has been intentional about fostering a climate for pollinators.

Learning from the Master

As someone with many questions, learning was made simple because of being able to walk a few feet to the south and know I could get the answers. Glenn introduced me to collectible lilies, composting, building living soil, catching rainwater, how to grow grapes, garlic, fruit trees, seed saving, and so on.

Gardening wisdom oozes from Glenn and Cindy’s property. Cindy, Glenn’s wife, quickly became a dear friend, and together we cooked, preserved, and all ate from the bountiful quantities. As is so often the case in life, as much as I loved the ease from their proximity, I appreciated his wisdom even more after we moved away. Having a garden guru at the ready jump started my passion for gardening, and I have carried his many lessons with me ever since.

Although there have been many other wise garden savants since Glenn, he was my first garden muse. My yard and gardens blossomed profusely under his careful tutelage. As a result, I have adopted his passion as my own. I will always be grateful to Glenn for living next door to me.

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Farm to Your Table

If it’s Saturday morning and it’s summer, our farmers market is open for business. The center aisle is packed with shoppers. A folk music group serenades us with background tunes. A young couple meanders, sipping their steaming cups of freshly brewed Cherrybean coffee. Others are loaded down with bags of vegetables or a massive bouquet from Alissa’s Flower Farm. The aroma of wood-fired pizza wafts through the air, welcoming us in from the parking lot. We bump into friends, catch up on the latest happenings, compare loot, promise to get together soon, and then move on.

Produce at the Market

I have so many favorite stops. I make it a habit to buy a little something from many. Sunnyside Gardens is my go-to for unique and colorful annuals that make up the flower pots flanking my front door.

John at The Cornucopia was kind enough to bring me a bushel of basil last year when I was binge-making pesto. He carries gorgeous greens like red bok choy and long, curly garlic scapes. He is always ready to tell an interesting story. We know about how he had to harvest his 1400 heads of garlic early because of flooding.

I count on Jensen Sweet Corn for their purple, lime green, and pale orange cauliflower. True to its name, their sweet corn is deliciously sweet.

I have become quite obsessed with the pearl oyster mushrooms from Daniel at Dakota Mushrooms and Microgreens, often making the trip to the farmers market with the intention of picking up some of these tasty fungi. Pearl oyster mushrooms, when sauteed in a little olive oil, finished with sherry and truffle salt, and served with roasted new potatoes is positively addictive.

The middle of August is the time for picking up flats of tomatoes from Carper Sweet Corn and Produce or Seedtime and Harvest. These ruby heirlooms are an essential component to canned salsa, pasta sauce, and tomato basil bisque.

I must not forget to give a shout-out to a recent farmers market addition, Darin at D’s Smoked Nuts. Darin slow-smokes a variety of nuts, then adds some spicy heat. His nuts are almost as good as his quirky videos on his website, or should I say they’re much better.

Cauliflower from Jensen Sweet Corn roasted with green olives and golden raisins

A Rich History

The history behind markets such as these goes back thousands of years to when farmers would bring their wares to the nearest town to sell in a centralized space. This central plaza was the place to be. Business was conducted, and people met to socialize.

In the history of our country, the first official farmers market was located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They actually designed the town around a central lot that was designated as the Central Market. This market continues to thrive today with many of the vendors being multi-generational. From that first market, farmers markets grew into a movement. Today there are approximately 8000 official farmers markets in the U.S. This of course does not include roadside stands and other pop-up markets (originally called “curb markets”) that you come across as you drive our nation’s byways.

Farmers Markets Today

What is it about a farmers market that is so magnetic? Why do we go to it even though we often have our own gardens at home? Perhaps it is the pervasive sense of celebrating community. Or is it about honoring our local family farmers and food artisans? A century ago the average family farm produced over fifty different kinds of crops or products. The resurgence of this sort of diversified farmer with just-picked organic produce faithfully offered each week, rain or shine, is an inspiration.

Supporting their commitment and hard work is crucial to their success. Crafting delicious dishes from these nutritious gems is beneficial for all. In our house, the weekly summertime tradition is such: Saturday morning, go to the farmers market and pick from our garden, then Saturday evening, cook from the bounty.

From cheese that is cultured just up the road to freshly-baked pastries. From hand-made soaps to cuts of bison, eggplants to zinnias, it’s all there at your farmers market. You just need to bring it home to your table.

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Bugs, Bees, and Butterflies

Insects Galore

The other day, when picking produce from my community garden, I was enthralled by a bumble bee buzzing in front of a cucumber blossom. It landed on the edge of the flower, burying its head inside. Soon it moved on to another blossom, then a third. Later, little hoverflies worked their way across a collection of white cilantro blossoms. It is the height of summer; plants have full leaves, and they are flowering. Fruits and vegetables are growing larger and ripening.

All of this verdurous growth creates a buzz in the insect world. A number of years ago, after deciding to garden organically and soaking in the wisdom of entomologists I have had the pleasure of learning from, both my tolerance of and fascination for bugs have markedly increased.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on three categories of insects. First, there are the insects that eat or otherwise destroy your plants, like the cucumber beetle I recently killed. Second, there are the insects that are very helpful, the above-mentioned bumble bee and hoverfly are two examples. Finally, there are the insects that “worm” their way into our hearts because they kill harmful insects (we love these guys!).

Fostering a Healthy Insect Population

There are many things one can do to foster the symbiotic relationship that insects have with one another and with our plants. As a baseline, it is wise to take the time to search for and plant disease resistant varieties of seeds or plants. I learned my lesson this year when I planted four kinds of cucumbers. A couple are resistant to cucumber wilt bacteria and a couple (that I just HAD to try) were not. Guess what? The varieties that aren’t resistant have cucumber wilt. This is a disease that is spread by the cucumber beetle, and the bacteria overwinters in the soil. This is happening in my community garden, where the history of what was planted in years past is unknown. (I might have been given a little bit of a break if I had known where cucumbers had been and planted this year’s in a different spot.)

A great way to help the pollinator insects is to let some of your plants go to flower and then seed. The butterflies, bees, and hoverflies will love you for it! I always leave a portion of my cilantro, arugula, lettuces, bak choy, basil, mint, among others to flower and seed. Those plants are very busy places right now. In addition, I scatter flower seeds throughout my garden. Nasturtiums, marigolds, and sunflowers are all edible and thus beneficial in several ways. Then there are the blossoms on tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, squash, peas, beans, etc. What a plethora of options for our insect friends!

Another helpful practice is to plant things that are specific foods for certain desirable insects. I let my fennel reseed itself every year and plant dill everywhere because that is what the black swallowtail butterfly larvae eat. With Monarch butterflies, their larvae only eat milkweed, so including that in your landscape will help them multiply.

One of the more interesting groups of the insect world are the predatory insects. We all know about ladybugs eating aphids, but other examples include the cicada killer wasp as well as spiders. One of the more voracious predators, and maybe the most maligned, are spiders. Let’s just say spiders are not vegetarians. They eat other insects, many of them harmful to our yard and garden plants. So instead of cleaning up all those cobwebs in your garden, leave them. I’m not saying to leave the cobwebs around doors, windows, and house. But in your garden, these hungry critters are doing your work for you.

Think twice before you buy packages of earthworms, lady beetles, praying mantis, etc. I could write an epistle on the downsides of introducing foreign bugs into your environment. Instead, foster the conditions to help the native bugs that are already present thrive and do their thing.

It goes without saying, use insecticides either not at all or very, very sparingly. Most insecticides don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

It doesn’t take much to change your way of thinking and your practices. Just like many of us try attract birds to our yards, we can attract insects. In fact, it is easy to do this because much of what attracts insects is leaving your garden alone. Don’t harvest some of your greens, don’t apply insecticides, don’t pick all your flowers. This laid-back approach will, in the end, increase your insect population, which will increase the health of your plants and lead to higher production.

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Early Summer Bounty

Abundant Produce

Now that summer is in full swing, gardens are following suit. I find myself wandering to my garden beds before almost every meal prep, snipping this, gathering that, filling my basket. After all, marinated Italian white beans need mint. Furthermore they have to be served on a bed of bitey arugula. Lettuces are necessary for a whole host of summer salads. Bok Choy works itself into almost every meal; a tossed salad with mulberries, a quinoa salad, marinated in lemon and oil then served in a pulled pork sandwich. Because I tend to put everything in my morning smoothie, in goes the extra Bok Choy. A vase of its tiny yellow flowers even sits on my counter.

Grilled peach arugula prosciutto pizza anyone? How about mulberry mojitos? Frosty cucumber mint brews straight from the garden? Purple basil blossoms seem to dot everything nowadays. Baby Italian kale sauteed with almonds and lemon zest makes a delicious side.

While my tomatoes, beets, and eggplant are at least a month from being ready, there is still plenty of produce to get crazy with right now. Our strawberries are so sweet that the only option is to eat them straight up, unadorned. I planted these beauties three years ago and have been impatiently waiting for them to produce. This year’s bumper crop has been much anticipated.

A Garden’s Fine Routine

It seems that summertime brings an interesting shift in routine. All winter, we walk the produce aisles, filling our carts with those cold-weather staples like potatoes, parsnips, and onions. Sweet Texas grapefruit and Cara Cara oranges notwithstanding, there isn’t the same olfactory allure to the produce. These dog-days are different. Right now, I wait to plan menus until after scoping out the farmers’ market and bringing home what catches my eye. Even more, what is ready in my backyard garden or my community garden makes all the difference as to what meals I make.

Harvest, then create. It seems backwards compared to wintertime ways. But I can’t help myself; cooking this way is truly satisfying! When purple or green cauliflower or oyster mushrooms somehow end up on my kitchen counter, my mind starts racing…grilled veggies, oyster mushroom crepes…the dishes start rolling out. Freshly slivered basil and freshly cut cilantro inspire me, so one only needs to eat and enjoy.

Summer bounty is a long awaited pleasure. In these cold climes, when the grey days call on us to light candles, listen to Bach, drink lavender lattes, and peruse seed catalogs; this is what we’ve been waiting all winter for.

I, for one, am taking full advantage.

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Mulberries: The Forgotten Fruit

An Unsuspecting Gift

When we moved into our house, a weird, little tree was growing in the corner of our garden. I didn’t think much about it for a couple of years. One June I noticed berries forming on the branches. They looked like little blackberries. After doing some research, I discovered that this was a White Mulberry tree and that the mulberries were edible. We picked the dark juicy berries and popped them in our mouths. They are not quite as sweet as a blackberry, but they have a very nice taste that the whole family has grown to love.

People tend think mulberries and blackberries are almost the same fruit. While they do look a bit alike, they are actually very different. In fact, mulberries are not even a berry. They are a fruit that grows on a deciduous tree, whereas blackberries are a true berry belonging to the rose botanical family.

Summer Pickings

Ever since the mulberries first appeared on our tree, from mid-June to mid-July, I stop and nibble on these little darlings every time I pass under the branches. In fact, you can count on me taking three to four minutes extra every time I walk under it. One of the most enjoyable things about this tree is to listen and watch the robins go to town in the branches. They sing and fight with each other, but mostly they are busy stuffing their little beaks full of the nutritious, little berries.

People often call the mulberry tree a weed because said birds deposit the seeds elsewhere. For my part, I am glad they do. That, no doubt, is how we got ours. Next time, however, I will tell the birds to plant it on the back corner of our yard instead of the front corner, as I do spend a bit of time sweeping the berries off our sidewalk!

White Mulberry trees are quite a common tree in our region, probably for the above reason. They have an interesting trait in that they have leaves of three distinctly different shapes. One is unlobed, one is shaped a bit like a mitten, and one can look a little like a two-thumbed mitten. The tree originated in China where its leaves are used as the main food for the silkworm. The leaves are edible for humans if cooked first. They can be used in wrapping foods as you would with a grape leaf.

Cooking with Mulberries

This year I’m drying the berries to add to muffins and granola. They are also great served fresh in both savory and sweet dishes. After slightly crushing them, they are delicious sprinkled with superfine sugar and served over a lemon curd tart. They add depth to icy drinks by muddling them with fresh mint leaves. They make for a sweet/savory fresh salsa with lime and cilantro. I enjoy using them as an interesting counter to the savory taste of a bok choi salad. For breakfast, they are a great addition to crepes with brie cheese and cinnamon. Creating with these tasty little berries has kept my creativity working overtime.

Mulberry, brie cheese, and cinnamon crepes.

I love the idea of eating such an interesting berry from a tree that was planted by those chatty, fat robins, that many consider a nuisance. While mulberries don’t come close to matching the sweetness of raspberries or strawberries, I am thoroughly enjoying having this tree around. It is a part of my edible landscape. It truly is a multi-purpose tree: it feeds us, feeds the robin population, keeps us entertained, looks good with strands of twinkle lights wrapped around its branches, and provides nice shade and vertical dimension to that corner of the yard. We don’t dance around it singing nursery rhymes– wait! Maybe we should do that as well…

Mulberries over a lemon curd pie with homemade whipped cream.

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The Invisible Glory of Dirt

What Happened to All the Dirt?

The new house we were moving into was in a section of town that was being carved out of native prairie. The neighborhood was located on a large (mostly) limestone plateau that looked out over the city below. I was excited. It was a large lot for a new subdivision. It was flat, and we had big plans for all that space. The final thing to happen before we moved in was for the contractor to grade the yard and lay down the sod. We had reserved a chunk in the very back for what would become our vegetable and flower garden. The rest they scraped and sodded. They said they had to do it so that we’d have a nice flat lawn. Our plan included flower beds surrounding the house and a stone patio with beds around that as well.

We moved in the fall, so when spring rolled around, we were ready, with shovels in hand, to create our flower beds. We pierced the ground with our shovels only to discover rock and clay hiding just below the surface. This was not the dark, rich soil we had envisioned. Our plants would not grow in this! Then we remembered; the native topsoil, teaming with living microorganisms, that was there originally had been scrapped away by those developing our neighborhood and by our builder as he leveled our lot.

Developing Good Dirt

At the time, we didn’t know a lot about dirt, but we knew enough to know the bulbs, flowering bushes, and perennials we had planned to put there weren’t going to thrive in rocky, clay soil.

So we decided to go about changing our dirt. First we carved the outlines of our beds. Next we removed all the dirt down about two feet. Truckloads of good, black dirt, compost, manure, and sand were dumped in tall piles on the end our driveway. We mixed these together, including some of the original dirt. Then we refilled all of our soon-to-be flowerbeds and vegetable garden with this new mixture.

All this work paid off in spades. We were rewarded with abundance in flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Though we didn’t know why exactly our plants thrived in healthy dirt, we saw the delicious and beautiful results.

The Microscopic World of Soil

Only relatively recently has the scientific community begun to put together all the many parts of what goes on under the ground in our soil. Scientists have historically thought that soil was made up of clay, sand, silt, and dead plant material. They didn’t know that in healthy soil the organic matter is almost completely made up of living and dead microbes. They are just beginning to understand how critical these microbes are to soil health and thus to plant health, and because we eat plants or eat animals that eat plants, to people health.

Life in the soil is mostly microscopic. What cannot be seen has not been understood. Now thanks to advances in scientific research, we are beginning to get a grasp on the role of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archea, etc. The vast majority of these are extremely beneficial and essential to plant health.

Plant roots and the microorganisms that surround them have a mutually beneficial relationship. In a myriad of ways, this symbiosis makes our plants healthier. They have bigger root systems, and they have a much higher immunity to diseases. It has been shown they not only produce more fruits and vegetables, but those yields contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to plants grown in poor soil.

Creating Healthy Dirt

This begs the question, how can we get the healthiest soil possible? Of course, that is what we all want, right? Our solution over the past century has been to fertilize. If plants and soil need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, let’s just give it to them. And we have … in abundance. The problem is that putting these minerals on the soil does not create healthy, living soil the plants need. Yes, the plants can grow large, but they are not growing better. They do not have the immunity to disease. They are not able to take advantage of the millions of organisms in the soil that make it possible for them to absorb necessary nutrients. Healthy soil absorbs and holds onto moisture better, making for more water for the plants as well as less runoff.

I liken it to the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Creating good soil is providing plants with the all the tools at nature’s disposal to flourish.

Enriching Your Soil

Healthy soil can be created almost anywhere by thinking through what you have at your disposal and faithfully applying it to your yard and garden.

It’s not unlike a recipe in your kitchen. Laying down compost and dried leaves in the fall (especially oak) grass clippings, wood mulch, compost tea, aged manure, even things like coffee grounds or fish emulsion. The more you add, the more food there is for the microorganisms to eat. This healthy soil makes for plants that can better fight off pests and diseases while bearing more produce.

As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” And as it turns out, so are plants.

Spring is the perfect time to start creating great soil. Your landscapes are fairly bare, making it much easier to work with your soil. I would recommend just laying everything on the top of the ground. Don’t work it in. Trust me, the microbes will know where to find the food they need. It turns out the underground is like a microscopic city with infrastructure, pathways, and means of communication all set up. When we till, we destroy these established networks. Then it takes time to set it all back up again.

Soil experts and farmers around the world are only beginning to understand this and put into practice “no till” methods of farming. Farmers that practice just this one thing are seeing greater crops yields (as well as lower expenses because they are not spending the time and money it takes to till).

Try this: put away your chemicals, and instead feed your soil. Let’s see where this takes your yard and garden.
Soil is one of earth’s greatest assets, so let’s do what we can to make it better. The funny thing is, when we improve it, it will improve us.

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The Many Uses of Ginger Root

A Ginger Collection

Who knew when we were young and sipping on a can of ginger ale that this root would become such a large part of our culture and diet?

As one of Scandinavian heritage, I was first exposed to the spice in the form of my Aunt Joyce’s incredibly crisp ginger snaps and my family’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. It was an ingredient people used to bake things. I didn’t give it much thought or find it particularly remarkable.

The root morphed its way into my life like the shoe collection taking over my closet. It slowly expanded, almost unnoticed, into more and more of the dishes I made. Now I eat it in something almost every day.

I really started playing around with the ingredient back in the early 90s. I was developing an Asian grilled pizza recipe, and I wanted a fresh kick component to the sauce. In went grated ginger root. It was the perfect je ne sais quoi I was looking for.

Cooking with Ginger

When I started exploring the world of Indian dishes, ginger was in all of them.

Next it landed in my Thai Curried Noodle Soup, and then I started pickling it to serve alongside Vietnamese dishes. I love serving it pickled with sushi. Now it shows up in my homemade rosemary ginger tea or in the lemon ginger kombucha that the family seems to devour around my house.

Fresh or frozen root is not the only way to go. My latest obsession is candied ginger, which I tuck into impossibly tender scones, buttery pound cake, and cookies. You can also sprinkle on ice cream or pancakes; the list could go on and on.

Ginger is a grass which grows in tropical regions. It produces a pretty yellow flower and is often used as a part of landscaping in warm climates. The root of the grass is called a rhizome. It reminds me of an Iris bulb, which is also a rhizome. The various Asian cultures started incorporating ginger into their cooking and diet thousands of years ago. They brew it in tea or use it as a spicy addition to hot and cold dishes alike when a little kick is wanted. They use it pickled, candied, dried and ground into a powder, and of course fresh.

Thai Curry Noodle Soup with rice noodles, ginger, curry, chicken, mango, red onion, cilantro, lime, and green onions.

Facets of the Root

There is much debate between Eastern and Western medicines as to ginger’s specific health benefits. While the experts battle this out, we can all sit back and enjoy this wonderful, edible rhizome, knowing at the very least, it is okay for you health-wise, and at the very best, it aids it relieving a half a dozen or more illnesses.

I would be remiss if I didn’t end by mentioning ginger beer, the essential ingredient in the ever-popular drink, a Moscow mule. Served in an icy cooper mug, this refreshing drink is the perfect thirst quencher on a hot summer evening.

On this cool and gratifying note, start incorporating this versatile and delicious spice into your recipes. I always have a fresh root in my vegetable drawer, a frozen root in my freezer, and the powdered or candied spice in my cupboard. Just like shoes, you can never have too much.

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What Should You Plant First?

As early spring begins, I am starting to think about what seeds I want to plant in my garden beds for the first planting of the season. You are probably thinking it is too early to start thinking about one’s summer vegetable garden. However, this is the ideal time to plan and purchase those first seeds. Some of the most interesting varieties of seeds sell out fairly quickly, so once you know what you’re hoping to plant, get the seeds while they are still available.

A number of types of vegetables thrive in the cool, wet days of spring. Many plants need this weather to really do well.  I take the temperature of my garden soil, and when it’s around 50 degrees, it is time to plant.

The vegetables I am planting this early spring include:

Radishes

Last year I planted “D’Avignon,” the traditional French breakfast radish. This year I am trying two very different varieties. Early Scarlet Globe is a very dependable radish. It is ready in 20 to 28 days, so we can enjoy eating them early. And because I like to try new things, I am planting Purple Plum, a purple radish with a great flavor. A second new venture for me is Watermelon, a white radish with a stunning, dark pink center. This variety shines in the very early spring. It lends itself well to pickling, so I may play around with doing that later this spring.

Sweet Peas

I’m going all out on three completely new varieties of snap or snow peas this year. I chose two from Seed Savers Exchange (an organization that preserves historic and heritage varieties of seeds, saving them and also reproducing some for sale) The first pea variety is the Amish Snap. This is a pea that was been grown by the Amish community long before our present varieties existed. It vines tall and vigorous. The other choice from Seed Savers is Swenson Swedish. This heirloom variety was brought to Minnesota from Sweden in 1876. It is sweet, flavorful, and productive.

Another seed company that is doing great work in preserving rare and heirloom varieties is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Missouri. I chose my third variety of sweet pea from them. This hypertendril snap pea produces more tendrils instead of some of its leaves. These, along with the beautiful pink blossoms, are deliciously edible and taste just like peas.

Lettuce

With lettuce I like to plant several kinds. I start early in the spring and reseed several times throughout the summer so I have a constant supply. I am planting two mixes, a Mesclun blend that contains some peppery lettuce varieties and a lettuce blend. All the Romaine lettuces are wonderful, so this year I am planting Red Romaine. A large variety, it is both a colorful and tasty addition to salads. Lastly, I am planting an English variety Craquerelle du Midi, sweet and crisp with dark green curled leaves. Its slowness to bolt in the heat of summer is another desired trait.

Carrots

I am starting with two varieties of carrots this year. One is an old faithful I have used for years, Scarlet Nantes. It is sweet, tender, and a proven producer. The other is a red carrot called Dragon. I love the beauty of red carrots. This tasty variety is red on the outside and orange in the center.

Arugula

The arugula I planted last year will come up again this year. I am also, however, planting a bitey variety that will nicely complement what is already out in my garden. Wasabi arugula has the spicy taste of wasabi, a very helpful addition to Asian dishes. It is more tolerant of swings in weather than other varieties. I’ll also be picking the edible blossoms to throw into salads or pasta dishes.

Kale

Lacianto Dinosaur is my kale choice this time around. This Tuscan variety dates back to at least the early 1800s. It is beautiful with dark green, deeply savoyed leaves. It is quite flavorful, making for a fabulous addition to soups and stews. This grouping of vegetables prefers the cool wetness of spring. At least a month before the final frost, I am out cleaning my garden beds and burying the these little nuggets in the ground. They don’t mind a little snow, frost, and cold spring rainstorms. They get to work, germinating and soon popping their little heads through the surface of the earth. The unsuspecting surprise of eating sweet lettuces or crunchy peas in the middle of May when most of us are just starting to put in our summer vegetables is refreshing indeed.

These early vegetables in an otherwise dormant space is like spring opening her door and saying, “Welcome to my home.” And, in fact, welcome it is!

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Sweet Mangoes – A Fruit of My Youth

Malagasy Mangoes

When I was a girl, my family lived on the island of Madagascar. Often my mom would ask me to fetch something from the yard. “Cami, would you go get me some mangoes?” I would take my wagon out to the cluster of mango trees down by the river. It was pure heaven to have the grove of mango, avocado, leches, banana, and citrus trees so close at hand. I would soon return with a wagon-full of sweet mangoes. This it when my love of this fruit first began.

When they were in season, we could never get too many mangoes. We peeled them and ate them plain, biting the juicy meat off the center seed. It was a messy business with all that sweet elixir running down our arms and dripping off our elbows. My mom would remind me, “Don’t get that juice on your clothes. Mango stains!”

The Fruit’s History

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Hailing originally from South Asia about 5,000 years ago, mangoes are now one of the most popular fruits worldwide. Nutritionally speaking, they are good sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, making them very healthy to eat.

Mangoes play a central role in the cuisines of many tropical cultures. They are cultivated all over the world: Asia, Africa, southern Spain, South and Central America, the southern United States, Hawaii, and Australia, thus completing the global circuit.

The sweet meat is used in as many ways as the cuisines it inhabits. It can become aam panna or mango lassi, both popular beverages throughout Asia. In India it becomes a part of the main entrée as an ingredient in dahl, a sauce served over rice. Furthermore, mangoes can be pickled, dried, juiced, grilled, added to salads, and mashed. Or even eaten plain.

Mangoes in Your Kitchen

With modern agricultural advancements, different varieties of mangoes are now available almost year round. I think of them, however, as a late winter/early spring fruit. Currently there are two varieties available in our grocery stores, the creamy, sweet, golden Alphonso or “honey” mango and the more prevalent green/ruby-colored Tommy Atkins cultivar. Both types are delicious. They do, however, have slightly different flavors from each other.

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A delightful curry quinoa salad with mangoes, green onions, cilantro, and almonds.

I tend to use Alphonsos in a way that lets their sweet, smooth nature shine. I cut them into large slices and serve them in a way that they can stand alone. The Tommy Atkins mangoes hold up very well in grain salads or are used green in more of a Thai or Vietnamese-type dish. Strips of under-ripe mango simply tossed with lime juice, green or red onions, diced jalapeños, and a sprinkling of sea salt is a perfect example of a dish that rises above the sum of its parts.

The versatile, delicious mango is in season right now. Let us help you discover this wonderful fruit. Together we can explore mangoes in our myriad of classes that include them. In the meantime, when you are in the produce section, pick up some mangoes. Peel them, bite into the sweet meat, and discover the many ways you can add this gem into your meals. They are, oh, so worth it!

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Late Winter Pruning

The Great Storm

A few years ago, we had the oddest, and as it turned out, most disastrous, April ice storm. First it rained like the dickens for a day. Then the temperature dropped, and the rain changed to heavy, wet snow of which we proceeded to get about a foot. When it was all said and done, our city looked like a war zone.

Massive branches, limbs, and even whole trees were strewn everywhere. Streets were impassable, city parks a disaster. Our town came to a complete standstill. Not only could people not actually drive anywhere. It was not safe to do so because ice and snow-laden limbs continued to fall, even after the storm had moved on. Our city called on tree trimming crews from all over the upper Midwest to help clean up and restore order. This ended up taking weeks.

Lessons Learned

A few months later, I was in a lecture listening to Dr. John Ball, South Dakota’s very own brilliant and always entertaining Department of Agriculture forest health specialist and SDSU professor of agronomy. As he discussed the storm, he laid out for us how a properly pruned tree or bush makes for a healthy tree or bush. This health better enables the trees to withstand that which nature throws against it.

Later as we walked through the grounds that surrounded the lecture hall, Dr. Ball pointed out dozens of examples of negligent pruning. Trees that were allowed to be misshapen, creating rotten junctions between limb and trunk, were susceptible to breaking apart in the next big wind or ice storm. And then there were open wounds where branches had rubbed together. Said open wounds are places where harmful insects and diseases can enter the tree, set up shop, and start wreaking havoc.

Dr. Ball taught me the importance of pruning your trees. Start creating the correct shape when the tree is young and the branches are small, so the healing will be quick. And do it during the right time of year.

When is the Right Time to Prune?

Early March, or “late dormant season, is the best for most pruning.” So advises the University of Minnesota Extension tree specialists. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that the tree will soon wake up for spring, allowing the tree to heal itself much faster. Another reason is that the harmful insects are not yet awake and moving around, enabling the trees and bushes to heal before they are. A third reason is without the leaves to block one’s view of the tree’s structure, clearer decisions can be made about which branches to take and which to leave.

So, who should be doing all this pruning? I am of the full belief that the trimming of medium and large trees should be done by a certified arborist. They have both the expertise and equipment to do this job safely and properly. That said, bushes, shrubs, and small trees can all be done by you, the homeowner. Most state extension offices have very helpful tutorials on how each plant needs to be trimmed. I am also available to guide you through this process.

Caring for our Trees

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An example of an obvious branch to prune on a young apple tree.

Trees, bushes, and shrubs are anchors in our properties. They can be a large financial investment, and once planted they last decades. We carefully choose. Are they a fruit tree or a shade tree? Do we want to use their branches for a swing or a birdhouse? Whatever their purpose, they offer a pivotal contribution to creating a beautiful landscape for our homes. They give us so much, and they deserve to be cared for.

So get outside and get your trees and bushes all pruned. This summer on a sweltering August afternoon, when you are enjoying the cool shade of your beautifully trimmed oak tree or admiring your rose bush in full bloom, you will thank yourself!

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Bring Your Own Knives

Learning from a Master

Years ago I worked with a chef named Hosch. He was an extremely talented chef, very quirky, and one of the funniest people I have ever met. I quickly came to understand the meaning of a belly-laugh and laughing until you cry. He kept his coworkers constantly entertained, all the while imbuing us with nuggets of culinary wisdom. His knowledge was vast, standards clear and high. Learning from Hosch was like running through a warm, summer rain shower; delightful.

One year I invited Hosch and his family to join my family for Thanksgiving. Can I just insert here that it is a bit intimidating inviting a chef like him over for a meal? I still remember opening the front door to greet them. There stood Hosch with a rolled bundle in his arms. When he unrolled this bundle in my kitchen, there lay all of his favorite knives.

“I don’t go anywhere without my own knives,” he informed me. This has been a lesson learned for me. Invest in a few good quality knives and sharpen them correctly (Trust me, I have wrecked a couple of very nice knives from sharpening them at the wrong angle). When I first saw Hosch standing at my front door with his own knives, I thought this was both ridiculous and funny. Now, however, I do the same thing.

The Best Knife

If you are going to be doing a lot of chopping, having a sharp knife not only speeds up your work considerably, but it is also safer. A dull knife can be a dangerous thing. Also using a wide blade for chopping is much healthier on your hands and wrists.

IMG_4151 (2)How do I pick my favorite knife? It is a little like picking a favorite flower. I cannot. Each knife has its own uses. A bread knife is perfect for neatly slicing those crusty Breadico baguettes. A paring knife is the perfect size for getting garlic cloves ready to mince. The six inch and eight inch chef knives are what I use for chopping.

That fancy chef knife with holes down the blade is a vegetable knife, and the holes serve to release the suction that can build up when chopping large, wet vegetables. And then there is that monster knife. My friend Tami picked that up on a trip to China. It’s just the right choice for making quick work of cutting up a large roast or anytime you need to cut through bone. The Chinese use this type of knife for cutting through whole, large fish to slice them into steaks.

My takeaways from Hosch: Invest in the right knives for the type of cutting and chopping you need to do, keep them sharp, bring them with you at all times, and infuse laughter everywhere.

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Microgreens in the Winter

Why Microgreens?

I am thinking about them right now in the colder months because they grow so easily inside. Microgreens are defined as the edible, immature greens that are harvested about two weeks after germination. Little pea shoots, the tiny leaves and stems from broccoli, kale, amaranth, red cabbage, and sunflowers; these are a few of the more common types of microgreens.

The Uses for Microgreens

They can be used in a myriad of ways including as a confetti topping on an open-faced sandwich or pizza, tossed as a salad, or as a refreshing accompaniment to any braise. I love including them in cold quinoa or rice salads because the raw crunch adds not only depth but also beauty to the dish. Try them in a wrap or a soup. Mix them into your breakfast smoothie. They are a tasty reminder of summer.

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Research done by the USDA has shown that microgreens are many times more concentrated in a wide variety of nutrients than their adult counterparts. Research is still being done on these jewels that pack so much nutritional punch, but in the meantime, eat and enjoy knowing you are eating something good for your health.

Growing your Own Greens

I buy my microgreens at out local co-op store. I love that they are locally grown. However, if you would like to grow your own, it is very easy. Any disposable tray or pie plate will work. Poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage, fill it with moistened potting soil, and sprinkle your chosen seeds per instructions on their packets. Usually you just barely cover the seeds with more soil. Water the soil by misting it with water a couple times a day. You want to keep the soil moist but not wet. Place the tray in your sunniest window or under grow lights. The plants should get about four hours of sunshine each day.

Next time you are building a turkey, vegetable sandwich, include baby pea sprouts instead of that leaf of romaine. You will love it!

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