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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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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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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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A Year for Beans

“Never ever ever mess around with my greens. Especially the beans!” My sentiments exactly. This line from the musical Into the Woods echoed through my mind as I watched the beans twist and curl their way up the fences. This summer was, for me, an adventurous journey into the world of funky, heirloom beans. 

Too Many Kinds to Count

There were so many varieties, each with distinctive patterns and colors. White beans inside yellow pods, black or brown beans in green pods, pink stripes, purple stripes, deep purple; these are just a sampling of this summer’s collection. Even multiple continents made an appearance. There were beans from Italy, Ireland, the U.S., Germany, France, the Netherlands, and even a bean developed in good ol’ Minnesota. 

I used the forgotten spaces of the fenceline to plant the pole bean varieties. I tucked the bush beans into open areas or spaces previously used by early spring vegetables like radishes.  Because beans need to be planted once the soil is warm, you can inter-plant them with plants like sugar snap peas and radishes that bear quickly in the spring and then are done. Beans mature much later than radishes or peas, so by planting them in the same space, you are maximizing your garden yield. 

A Beneficial Legume for The Garden

Beans are part of the legume family. Legumes are a beneficial type of vegetable to plant throughout your garden because legumes fix nitrogen. They pull atmospheric nitrogen out of the air, and then the bacteria attached to its roots convert the nitrogen into a form usable as a nutrient for the plant. When the plant is done, the usable forms (ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites) are available in the soil for the nearby plant roots to use. Biological nitrogen fixation is an example of nature using its own plants to fertilize itself. 

Companion Planting the Beans

This concept is also referred to as companion planting, where plants mutually benefit each other when planted next to one another, a practice that has been done for centuries. Native Americans mastered this age-old practice when they would plant a combination of vegetables they named “the three sisters.” First they buried corn kernels into the ground in the shape of small rings, and then they surrounded the corn with beans. Lastly, they planted squash in the spaces between the corn/bean rings. The beans fertilized the soil for the corn and squash, using the tall corn stalks as a trellis to climb. The squash formed a high thick carpet on the ground that cooled the roots of the beans and corn, allowing them to thrive. The squash’s thick prickly leaves also served as a deterrent for animals that might want to come and nibble on the crops. 

The Health of Beans

Beans are not only good for the soil; they are likewise good for your health. A wonderful source of the B vitamin folate, they are also high in fiber, protein, iron, and magnesium. As a nutrient-packed, low fat, and very inexpensive vegetable, let’s just say their return on investment is huge. For each single little bean buried into the sweet summer dirt, you will reap a hundredfold in harvest.

Harvesting and Storing

I began harvesting the long, thin French varieties in July. They add a delightful crunch to salads. You can steam them with a touch of butter and lemon or steam and quickly cool them to dip into aioli on an antipasto platter. The wax and purple varieties came next. These went into stir fries, soups, and casseroles. Finally, a breakpoint arrived where I halted harvesting them so the remaining could mature and become dried beans for this winter. 

This is where I find myself now. I have brought all the beans in from the garden. I have threshed the driest of the bunch to get the beans out of the stiff, dried pod. The rest find themselves spread out in the basement until they are also ready for threshing. 

I have pulled out a select few from each variety to plant again next year. I will store these in a cool spot until early next summer when I will plant them. The remaining dried beans are awaiting incorporation into our winter menu of hearty stews, casseroles, bean salads, and dips.

Garden grown beans offer a welcome consolation in these cool, dreary, autumn days. Whether it’s a cassoulet or a bowl of ham and bean soup, these are the gifts summer has given to winter. The memory of delicate purple flowers gracing the tips of vines exploring their way up and over the fenceline. Tiny little bean pods transforming into delicious adult counterparts. I taste these memories as I bring a spoonful to my lips. 

Yes, as the fairy tales have claimed, beans are certainly magical. And they are not to be messed with.

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For the Love of Tomatoes

How is it that our favorite vegetable is only available in its perfectly ripened glory for a couple months in late summer? Tomatoes, naturally sweetened by the sun, have a fresh yet unami quality that is hard to replicate in the winter months. Their shortened availability feeds our ubiquitous obsession with the pomme d’amour of all colors and sizes.

Growing Tomatoes

I have grown (and attempted to grow) tomatoes for over 30 years. They can actually be quite a finicky plant to grow well. Many factors go into successfully planting, growing, and harvesting these beauties. They are known to be heavy feeders, so you want to plant them in rich soil. They tend to be susceptible to diseases, especially those that are moisture-related. A number of insects agree with us and think they are delicious. They do best in as much sun as they can get. The stems can break easily, so we’re always looking for the newest and greatest way to support them. This is getting to be a daunting list.

Despite these potential obstacles, tomatoes are the one vegetable around which my garden is organized. My primario. I decide where in the garden I am going to move my tomatoes (because, of course, tomatoes are picky about this as well. They shouldn’t be planted in the same spot year to year, or they will get a blight disease that harbors in the soil). Once I know they’ll be in a spot they fancy and where they’ll flourish, I lay out the blueprint for the rest of my garden.

Choosing Varieties

My first consideration in choosing which tomatoes to plant is always about how I am going to use them in the kitchen. Will they be eaten fresh, in sandwiches, in salads, or as part of an hors d’oeuvre? How much pasta sauce or salsa am I going to preserve this year?

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That leads me to which varieties are going to serve my needs best. I tend to prefer the complex flavors, shapes and colors of heirlooms, yet I am constantly frustrated by how easily they get diseased and how relatively few tomatoes each plant produces. After years of planting only heirlooms or hybrids, the last few years I have planted a cross between the two. I am hedging my bets, hoping that the best qualities of each will shine through.

I have faithfully done everything my high-maintenance, lipstick-colored orbs require. The soil has been enriched with compost, they have been fertilized, mulched, pruned, staked, nipped, and tucked. Now it’s time for them to start giving back. To earn their keep, so to speak. It’s August, and I have big culinary plans, almost all of which involves tomatoes.

Cooking with Tomatoes

Let’s start simply. The cherry versions often don’t make it out of the garden, nibbled by kids and adults alike. One of my favorite treats is to sprinkle an interesting sea salt on slices and eat these while still warm from the sunshine.

This is when I splurge on great olive oil, as freshly pressed as I can find. I lean toward the grassy peppery flavor tones. This gets drizzled over tomatoes, slivers of my newly harvested garlic, pieces of torn basil leaves, crushed pepper, and a flaky sea salt. When stacked atop a slice of grilled baguette, it becomes a dish I could actually eat every night of the year. I know I can’t, however, thus compounding its allure.

My imagination for their uses is only limited by the available waking hours of the days. I tuck tomatoes into tarts, crepes, tacos, soups, pizza, braises, pasta dishes, salads, and sandwiches. I haven’t included them in my oatmeal or homemade ice cream, so for now, breakfast and dessert haven’t been invaded. I’ll have to work on that. A tomato sorbet might be in my future.

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Garden Planning to Soothe the Soul

Spring Planting

Seed catalogs litter my couch. I keep pouring over the pages of flowers and vegetables. I have garden tabs open across the top of my computer screen, and I have been driving through town, stopping by garden shops. Amid all this planning, the plants are pulling me in, whispering, “I am beautiful. I am delicious. Buy me. Plant me.”

Planting time is approaching. The days are longer and warmer. We have been cooped up, self-isolating, and our reaction to this seclusion is to get outside. In the face of sickness, we have an inner voice inspiring us to self-improve and do what we can within ourselves to combat the enemy that is consuming our world.

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We have this urge to grow plants for eating. We want to surround ourselves with beauty, living greenery, and flowers. The desire to eat healthy foods enthralls us. We are exercising more than ever. It seems more important than ever that we plant our gardens. For our soundness of mind, we need to sink our hands in the dirt and bury seeds that soon will produce vegetal plenty.

Finding Garden Plants

Now, where to go to procure these seeds and plants? As local businesses are struggling, it seems more important now than ever to support them. I choose to buy my garden supplies from those I value and rely on during normal gardening seasons. I carefully tuck away the catalogs, turn off the computer, and buy from the shops in my community.

Whether it’s calling on the phone, ordering by computer, or, mask in hand, actually visiting these shops, seeds and plants will come home with me. The plants that fill my garden this year and the flowers that will spill out of my planters will mean more than ever.

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Planning the Garden

First, I start with a plan. What should I plant first? Second? In a few weeks? My garden map is sketched, pencil on graph paper. I need to place the nightshade plants in a new spot this year. Maybe where the basil was last year.

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I tend to go a little crazy on tomato plants. My resolution for 2020 is to control myself and carefully choose my favorite varieties. A few heirlooms, some Romas for pasta sauce, a couple sweet cherries, a couple dependable heavy producers, and most importantly, some new interesting colors and shapes. These are going to take too much room. I erase and rearrange the vegetables on my map, trying to squeeze in my indulgences. So many indulgences, so little space… There are simply too many have-to-have tomatoes.

Planning a Timeline

The cool weather vegetables need to go into the ground. Kale, arugula, sweet peas, radishes, lettuces, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radicchio, Swiss chard.

My attention now turns to planning what I will plant in late May. It is important to purchase them now, as these unusual varieties tend to sell out. Plants include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and cold-sensitive herbs and flowers. After bringing them home, they can harden in my yard for a while before they get planted.

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Lastly are the vegetables that cannot get planted until the ground is very warm: beans, cucumbers, and squash. I buy the seeds but will hold off planting until early June.

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With my plan forming, I can already smell the intoxicating scents of the garden. Tall dill that I allow to self seed everywhere (My small contribution to the black swallowtail butterfly). The delicate white cilantro flowers. Marigolds and nasturtium. The distinctive aroma of a just pruned tomato plant. Green fingertips. The yellow finches flitting from coleus to coleus, eating their seeds. This planning process elicits a visceral reaction. This garden is already worming its way into my soul.

The Hope of Spring

While on a walk, I hear the robins chirp as they busily go about building their nests. The squirrels race from tree to tree, busy with who knows what. The buds on the magnolia trees are just appearing, ivory cashmere petals emerging from pale green, velvety calyx.

The cool spring air. I breathe in deeply. Thankful. The soft new grass seems so green. Rhubarb and strawberry leaves push up through the soft, damp earth. The roses and clematis don’t realize there’s a deadly virus afoot. The plum and cherry trees are blithely budding. Nature is seemingly unaware of our current crisis.

This new birth is calming and reassuring. Heading to the garden, trowel and seed packets in hand, I settle in to dig, plant, and water, waiting for the future, waiting for new life to emerge.

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How to Make a Braise: Basic Comfort Food

The day is cloudy and grey. Our country’s spirits reflect the weather outside. We have been asked as a society to stay home, to limit our tasks to those that are essential. To take care of those around us. To take care of ourselves.

As I consider what those essential tasks actually are at the moment, cooking and eating delicious, simple, healthy meals seems to be a priority. With everything on our minds, simplicity is the theme of the day. The need for inexpensive meals is also looming in the shadows.

The challenge for us is to stock our pantries with a combination of perishable and nonperishable ingredients that when combined in the right way will be delicious and good for us.

When I think about easy foods that are filled with healthy ingredients, I think of soups and braises. They both can have protein, usually in the form of meat, and several vegetables and fruits. The principles involved in their creation are similar.

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A beef, mushroom, and carrot braise over boiled potatoes

The Braise

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s talk about how to create the basic braise. This is an all-around dinner option that is very flexible regarding which ingredients are included as well as what they are served with. It is defined as a method of cooking food in a closed vessel with very little liquid at a low temperature and for a long time. Typically, the finished product is then served over a starch such as potatoes, pasta, or rice.

Beginning the Process

Only a handful of ingredients go into creating flavor in this dish. The first is the meat. I prefer using tough, inexpensive, less than ideal cuts. Surprisingly, these cuts, when cooked low and slow, become fall-apart tender, all the while creating a rich savory sauce. Cut the meat in two-bite chunks, saute with oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until the pieces are the color of dark caramel. The bottom of your pot will now be turning a medium brown color. This is good. This crust (or fond, as it is called in the culinary world) will help provide the flavor in the final dish.

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In the process of turning the beef. Notice the browned sides on the right half of the image and the fond developing on the bottom of the pot.

Once the meat is nicely brown on all sides remove it from the pan and set aside for a few minutes. Add vegetables such as onions, celery, carrots, and garlic to the hot pan. You may need to add a little more oil at this point. Check the heat to make sure it’s medium to medium-low. You don’t want the fond to go from brown to black. Saute these vegetables until light brown. If you are adding spices (often called aromatics) to the dish, stir them in at this point. It adds flavor to have them cook for a minute or two before adding liquid.

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This is the color you are aiming for when you are finished sauteing the meat. Notice the spacing between pieces of meat and the dark fond on the base of the pot. Now I remove the meat and saute the vegetables.

Deglazing

This brings us to the next step in the process. That is the deglazing of this fond. Here we use the second category of ingredients. These deglazing agents usually have an acidic nature to them. Some of my favorites include broth, wine, tomato juice, vinegar, water, sherry or port.

Add your chosen deglazing liquid now. Let it cook for a couple minutes before stirring. This way the fond can soften and start to dissolve before you pull it off the bottom of the pan with your spoon. Once it has softened for a minute, stir and gently scrape the bits off the bottom surface.

Now put the meat back into the pot. Add more liquid (this can be any of your deglazing ingredients except maybe vinegar) and any other vegetables or fruits that you are using in your dish. For this braise specifically, I ended up using a combination of port, tomato sauce, concentrated beef stock, and water. I don’t cover the mixture with liquid but rather have about one-third to one-half of the meat and vegetables showing on top.

Into the Oven

Cook on the stove top until the mixture reaches a simmer, and then cover the pot and put it into your oven at a low temperature. The ideal braising temperatures range between 275 and 325 degrees F. I tend to choose on the low end of this range and bake the dish for a longer time frame. Typical braising time in the oven ranges from one to three hours. For bigger or tougher pieces of meat, allow for a longer bake time. You’ll know the meat is ready when it falls apart easily when you handle it.

When it has baked to your satisfaction, pull it from the oven, and add salt and pepper to taste. If you have used a higher fat meat, the rendered fat will float to the surface during cooking. Skim this off using a large wide spoon. It is now ready to serve, either alone or with your favorite accompaniments.

The Braise Menagerie

Versatility certainly defines a braise. Because of the ability to choose between many types of meat, vegetables, deglazing agents, fruits and accompanying agents, it enables you to make it even with a limited pantry. Do you have small amounts of this or that ingredient? Put it in the braise. For example, do you have dried plums, an onion, a lemon, and a couple of chicken thighs? You can make a braise out of these. How about a lonely piece of beef in your freezer, a can of mushrooms, and some onion and garlic? You can make a braise. Search through your cupboards for your most flavorful deglazing options. Do the same with your spices.

As you look through your kitchen, do you discover something that would be a tasty addition? Maybe something you need to use up? I did. In the bottom of my vegetable drawer were some gorgeous carrots that I had picked up last week. They were chunked up and added to the pot right before it went into the oven. In the end they were a sweet and colorful addition.

Final Braising Tips

A simple creation. A frugal fare cobbled together from the stores in your kitchen, delivered to your dining room table with grace and confidence. You will be amazed with yourself. You can create something very delicious from almost nothing at all. Just remember the key steps to create flavor.

Let the fond develop on the bottom of the pot by not overcrowding the pot when sauteing the meat. Cook it on medium heat, and stir occasionally to sear on all sides. Use the most flavorful spices and deglazing ingredients you have on hand, and bake the whole menagerie low and slow. Tuck into this delectable dinner with the confidence that this simple and economical dish is the healthy comfort food you’ve been craving. Eat well, be well.

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At this time of crisis in our world, in lieu of offering classes, I would like to extend the invitation for anyone that has questions regarding cooking, creating meals from your pantry, planning and planting a garden for this summer or needs any advice on keeping you and your family healthy through cooking and gardening, please reach out to me via email. I am here to help you and answer any questions you may have.

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A Garlic Obsession

Is it possible to create a new food group? How about an additional nutrient? Maybe it was one of the treasures found in the pyramids of Egypt. Questions fly around such as, “Is it a vegetable or an herb?” Aaahhh, yes, you know I am talking about garlic. In my kitchen there are few things that sneak themselves into my cooking more often than that firm but juicy bulb named garlic.

Cooking with Garlic

I must admit, I have a self-diagnosed and historical obsession with the culinary bulb. As a way of denial, let’s call it a garlic penchant. Garlic has been inching its way more and more into my dishes and menus for several decades now. It started innocently enough back in the mid ‘80s when a little garlic powder sprinkled on my garlic bread was a natural accompaniment to spaghetti sauce with meatballs. When I moved from opening a jar to creating the sauce for the afore-mentioned spaghetti sauce, I realized the value of its culinary pungency. It was uphill (or should I say downhill?) from there.

I seem to regularly make dishes that just happen to have it as an ingredient. Or do I search for dishes that include it? In the back of my mind, I remember, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In my way of thinking, it is “A garlic clove per day…”

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Ingredients for a Cambodian chicken curry featuring scratch lemongrass paste made with garden garlic and lemongrass.

Three square meals of garlic per day, you say? That is possible. Garlic for breakfast? Yep. A necessity in mushroom crepes. Lunch? Of course. The classic French oil and vinegar dressing drizzled on my garden greens by all standards Françoise must contain a minced clove. Then from 4:00 p.m. and onward, it shows up everywhere, working its way into every dish. Garlic is an essential part of the tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella cheese crostini I’m currently addicted to. Whether I make a Mexican dish like pork green chili, a toothsome Tuscan garlic and kale soup, a Creole classic Maque Choix, or Spanish paella, they are all rife with garlic.

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Garden tomatoes, basil, and garlic with mozzarella over French bread.

Growing Garlic

Garlic has been much more easily consumed in my kitchen than grown in my garden. My issues with growing a successful crop has included forgetting to harvest it in a timely fashion (it needs to come out of the ground once about half of the green tops have dried and turned a sandy color and in mid July), overcrowding the cloves when planting, locating the garlic plot in a sunny location, planting smaller cloves (large cloves=large bulbs the following year).

Well, this year I’ve finally arrived! I successfully grew garlic! Last summer I decided it was time I took the time and effort to buy and plant this beloved vegetable properly. After reading up on the specifics of growing garlic, I shopped around online and ended up ordering from Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa. I chose the sunniest spot in my garden beds and prepped the soil. Garlic bulbs are heavy feeders, so I added extra compost to the area. In late September I buried them in the ground, layering inches of dried leaves overtop to insulate against our frigid winters. I secured these with battened down cardboard. Lo and behold, they even survived this winter’s Polar Vortex.

About the Bulb

Regarding garlic, it belongs to the onion genus, Allium, which in turn is a part of the lily family. In the garden, it has almost no enemies. I suppose the same odor that, when consumed by you and me, scares away friends and family also keeps away garden pests. As it turns out it is also rather easy to grow (a fact that previously seems to have eluded me). When you give it sun and space, it rewards you first with scapes and then large bulbous heads.

The only catch to success is that you have to plan a year in advance. In the upper Midwest, the bulbs need to go into the ground in the fall nine months before they are harvested. If you have a sunny corner and an interest in growing garlic, it is almost time to plant. You can check your local greenhouses or look at online vendors, bearing in mind that favorite varieties sell out quickly.

Varieties

The garlic that you find in the vegetable section of your grocery store usually is not successful in your garden. There are several reasons for this. First, much of our grocery store garlic comes from China and they treat it with a chemical to prevent it from sprouting. Secondly, most garlic you find in grocery store is soft neck garlic which isn’t hardy north of zone 6. If you live in zone 6 or south and want to try planting these soft-neck varieties, do it in the very early spring while it is still cold out.

The rest of us have to “settle” for the wonderfully interesting hard-neck varieties. These little gems we’re settling for, why do we love them so? I know I’ve mentioned juicy before, but that’s one of their prime descriptors. Juicy and crisp. Very different from your grocery store bulbs that have been sitting around for months before they get to the produce department. And quite honestly, the taste is fresher. Something is delicious about them because they are disappearing out of my kitchen faster than I can say “I am crazy for roasted garlic soup.”

Health Benefits

I know you are asking, is garlic actually healthy for me to eat? There has and continues to be a great deal of research around this bulb and its health benefits. What the holistic community has been touting for millennia the modern scientific community is working hard to confirm. From acting as an antimicrobial to helping to improve lipid profiles to aiding in the prevention of some types of cancer, more of garlic’s attributes are being discovered or confirmed every year.

This really is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. Do we love the ethnic foods from every continent because they contain our beloved garlic, or is it because of our preoccupation with this crisp and flavorful bulb that we snatch up all available fresh heads at the local farmers market to work into our evening menu?

Does it matter? I say go forth. Indulge. And if you can’t convince your friends and family to join you in your garlic-feeding frenzy, make sure you have a stash of breath mints handy.

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Lettuce: The Shoulder Season Crop

My garden is planted. The carrots, beets, and kale are poking through the ground, the strawberries still little green orbs. Tiny flowers adorn the tomatoes and peppers in preparation for their future bounty. The rhubarb is mostly finished, having been transformed into many toothsome desserts. Alas, as far as gardens go, the middle of June is known as “shoulder season.” We are waiting, waiting for the vegetables we have planted to be laden with their bounty. Yet something is ready to be picked and eaten in all its tender beauty, lettuce.

A Time for Lettuce

My garden is bountiful with a host of lettuces. Purple and red varieties, lettuce with red speckles, lettuce with curly edges, and of course, green lettuce. These colorful leaves grace our gardens and plates.

This green loves to germinate and grow in the cool, wet weather of spring and early summer. In fact, it has a hard time germinating in the heat of midsummer. In the early spring and late fall, however, it goes to town.

The ground was barely free of snow when I planted the first seeds this spring. I’ll do this same thing again when the crisp days of fall are on the horizon. Planting in a sunny spot or one that gets a bit of afternoon sunshine will ensure that the plants quickly poke their little heads through the earth’s surface.

The spring rain showers help keep the ground moist. I usually scatter the seeds randomly in a square space. When they come up, they’ll be very crowded. I thin them as they grow, eventually leaving several inches between plants. In this way I get to harvest lettuce for weeks. I always leave a few plants to go to flower and then to seed. The flowers serve as food to the bees and little beneficial insects that drink their nectar. Once they go to seed, these seeds drop to become new plants next season.

Eating Well with Lettuce

We used to think that lettuce was basically just glorified water. We thought it did not have much nutritional value, but we now know this is absolutely not true. Lettuce and greens of all kinds are packed with nutrients, vitamins A and K, folate, and molydenum to name a few. Flavonoids and phenolic acids are just a couple of the antioxidants present that work their magic in you to help prevent diseases and keep you healthy.

If the nutritiousness does not propel you to make lettuce cups for your grilled salmon salad, the fresh crunchy flavor will. The taste of just picked lettuce is unlike any green I have tasted all winter. This is my launchpad into summer garden goodness.

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Garden lettuce is the first ingredient in any number of salads. It is the thick layer of crispness in my sandwiches. It adorns my platters of hors d’oeuvres. I fill the thicker romaine cups with endless variations of meat or vegetable salads.

Cleaning Garden Greens

One of the deterrents to eating garden lettuce is cleaning garden lettuce. I have found the fastest way to clean a pile of dirt-laden lettuce is to soak it in a sink full of cold water. Stir gently with your fingers to dislodge any soil from the leaves and stems. The dirt will sink to the bottom of the sink so that when you drain out the water, the dirt drains out first. I then refill the sink with cool water and repeat the process until the leaves are clean. This may take two or three rinses.

Finally, I scoop out the leaves and spin them in a salad spinner for a minute until they are dry. You can store it for a few days in the refrigerator by wrapping it loosely in a paper towel and sealing it in a plastic bag. Personally, I upped my intake dramatically once I started washing my lettuce in this way, and I always tend to use things faster that are washed and ready to go in the refrigerator.

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It is the season for eating lettuce. Just picked leaves of all stripes and colors is waiting for you. I, for one, will thoroughly enjoy waiting for the second wave of produce from my garden as long as I have lettuce on my plate.

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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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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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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.

 

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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!