Garden Time

I had a dream about planting lettuce last night. Yup, it’s time to start thinking about the garden.

Batavia lettuce

I love planning the garden, especially since I’m growing my own transplants this year. Planning is such a spirit lifter and the enthusiasm  sometimes makes it hard to keep plant numbers in check.

Too Many Tomatoes

I spoke with a gardening friend who said she grew 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes last year. So, I asked why – could she really use that many tomatoes? Nope – she just wanted to see if she could do it. I get it. I don’t need 25 tomato plants, but there are so many great varieties I want to try. How can I just start one or two of each? 

Heirloom tomatoes

Slow Gardening

I’m trying really hard to keep my slow gardening mantra in mind. Slow gardening doesn’t mean lazy gardening although it can certainly apply to those of us who don’t want to spend every waking moment worrying about and tending to the garden. But it’s also a way to evaluate what I really want and what I can actually use. 

Starting more than I need is okay as long as I have somewhere to place them. I mean with friends. It’s also insurance against losses, should the inevitable happen. 

Seeds started!

So seeds have been ordered and my calendar is up to date. It’s actually time in my area to start broccoli, eggplant, chard and pac choi next week. Lettuce, spinach and peas have been planted outdoors.

Lettuce seedlings

Cook Your Lettuce

And did you know you can cook lettuce? Grilled romaine is delectable and leaf lettuces can be sauteed just like any other greens. Who knew?

Grilled Lettuce Salad

Grilled romaine lettuce salad

smoky on the outside, cool and crunchy on the inside

1 small head of romaine other tight-headed lettuce

1 T. bleu, feta or goat cheese

olive oil

balsamic vinegar

Preheat grill or grill pan. Slice lettuce into halves, keeping the core intact to hold the leaves together. Drizzle lettuce halves with olive oil and grill approximately 2-3 minutes a side, just long enough to begin wilting and starting to char. You can serve immediately with more olive oil, balsamic vinegar and cheese or you can chill the lettuce and then chop and serve later with a caesar dressing. 

Pestos!

Pesto over hot pasta couldn’t be a simpler, more healthy meal (or over rice or on a baked potato). Traditional Italian pesto is made of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic and parmesan. It’s delicious, but at the risk of offending my Italian cook-friends, I’m going to give you some riffs on traditional pesto, to make use of whatever is harvestable. 

Pestos are infinitely adaptable

Pestos can be adapted to just about any flavor you like, and will give you a good shot of serious vitamins when added to soups, stews or pastas. I’ve also heard the term “green smash” used for a pesto-like sauce made with herbs which is a beautifully imaginative way to present it.

Greens make great pesto

Greens such as kale, beets, Swiss chard or Asian mizuna, are prolific producers, so you will almost always have more greens than you can eat in summer. One of the easiest ways to preserve them for winter eating is in pesto. 

Chard pesto ingredients

Simply wash and stem the greens, and toss in the food processor with a couple of cloves of garlic, some olive oil, a handful of roasted nuts (pine, almond, walnut, pecan, pistachio), fresh basil or other herb of your choice, salt and pepper. Punch up your pesto with roasted peppers, sun dried or fresh tomatoes, roasted winter squash or roasted carrots.

Prepare for the freezer

Puree the mixture and put in a plastic freezer bag. Squeeze out all the air and flatten the bag to freeze. This way, you can simply break off chunks to use without having the thaw the entire bag. Alternatively, you can freeze in ice cube trays or single portion bags. Don’t add cheese until you plan to use the pesto – it doesn’t freeze well. 

Toss with pasta, rice, potatoes

For a quick lunch or dinner, thaw the pesto and toss with pasta or rice and add a generous helping of high-quality grated parmesan, romano or asiago cheese. You can embellish with chopped tomatoes, fresh slivers of red onion or anything else that catches your eye. Add silken tofu or plain Greek yogurt to any pesto when serving for added nutrition.

I’ve listed a classic pesto recipe below but check out the recipe page for chard, red pepper and garlic scape pesto recipes.

Classic Pesto

3 cloves garlic

2 c. fresh basil leaves

¼ c. nuts

1 ½ t. salt

¼ t. pepper

½ cup olive oil

3 oz. Parmesan

Combine all ingredients except oil and cheese in blender or processor. Add half the oil. Process while adding other half the oil. Stir in cheese as you serve.

Aromatherapy

Sauteeing onions in butter

You can certainly have your lavender (I love it too) and your patchouli. But when I need scent to make me feel better, I turn to the kitchen. There is nothing as uplifting as the aroma of sauteeing onions in butter. It smells delicious and reminds me of happy times in my grandmother’s and mother’s kitchens. It is the great beginning for just about anything savory and tongue pleasing.

Spinach with onions

Minced onion and garlic sauteed in a little olive oil and a touch of butter brings a simple green like spinach to something sublime. This is a wonderful dish all by itself, but can also be added to soups, stews, risotto, eggs………only limited by imagination.

One of my favorite breakfasts:

Spinach and Avocado Toast

(called tartine if you want to be fancy – a tartine is a slice of bread with a sweet or savory topping.

1 medium bunch spinach, coarsely chopped

¼ onion, chopped finely

1 T. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 slices whole grain bread

Grainy brown mustard

2 oz. your choice of cheese

½ avocado (optional)

spinach toast with avocado and sriracha sauce

Sriracha (optional)

Saute onion and spinach in olive oil until the spinach wilts. Salt and pepper to taste.  Toast bread, spread with mustard and pile on spinach and avocado if using. Top with cheese. Broil until cheese melts.

Bean Dip (and traditional Hummus)

Have you ever been to a potluck or party where bean dip or hummus was not standard fare? Kick these healthful dips up a notch by adding all manner of vegetables and seasonings – a great chance to use your imagination. 

Serve traditional hummus in non-traditional ways

Traditional hummus is made with chickpeas and tahini, but you can make a delectable spread or dip with absolutely any type of bean and just about anything added to it. Vary your recipe with seasonings as well as what you serve it on. Try it spread on toasted baguette slices, topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil as a riff on bruschetta. Or simply try it on a sandwich in place of mayonnaise. Delectable!

If you’re willing to experiment: 

If you’re willing to experiment!

Puree 2 cups cooked garbanzos, cannelini beans, even black-eyed peas. You can use tahini or any other type of butter such as almond, walnut or pecan butter. Peanut butter makes it a bit strong, but still good. Add roasted peppers, cooked pumpkin, spinach, chard and season with garlic, cilantro, parsley or thyme. Season with sriracha, chipotle tabasco or other pepper for a kick. Leave it somewhat chunky or puree until smooth, according to your taste.

The basic recipe for hummus (substitute at will!):

1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained or 2 cups freshly cooked

1/2 c. tahini

1 T. lime juice

1 t. cumin

1 clove garlic

1/4 t. cayenne

Olive oil

Salt to taste

Blend all but the olive oil. Gradually add enough olive oil to make it creamy but not runny. Season with salt to taste. Refrigerate for the flavors to blend. Serve at room temperature with toasted pita chips, pretzels or sliced cucumbers, peppers aand carrot sticks. 

Other combinations:

Black beans with sour cream, cumin, garlic and chopped chipotle chiles in adobo. Serve with tortilla chips or toasted corn tortilla wedges

White beans with almond butter, roasted peppers, roasted garlic. Serve with pita chips or toasted baguette slices.

Black-eyed peas with crumbled crisp bacon, sweet onion and sweet peppers. Serve with cornbread squares

To traditional hummus, add chopped roasted red peppers, a couple of tablespoons of cooked pumpkin or butternut squash or sun dried tomatoes.

Old Cookbooks

My dear friend Rae recently gave me a book called Eat My Words by Janet Theophano. It’s a wonderful look at how women through the ages tell the stories of their lives through their cookbooks. I’m entranced.

I bought a cookbook at an estate sale several years ago, and I got to meet the woman to whom it belonged. Mrs. Holmes’ cookbook, written by Emma Ewing in 1924, has quite a few practical recipes, and some that are downright scary. The menus at the back give an interesting look at the food eaten by families in 1924.

Mrs. Holmes had tucked newspaper clippings of recipes from her time (the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s) inside the front cover. The recipes for Mrs. Snyder’s caramel creams from 1945 and Making Good Butter from the Farmer’s Wife, June 1925 are practical and straightforward. And pressed between the first few pages is a sweet columbine flower. 

Grandmothers

My paternal grandmother didn’t use cookbooks, but put recipes other women gave her on cards (not that she actually cooked any of these recipes for us). I inherited these cards, complete with her notes on them of the recipe being “not good”. Yet she kept the card.

My maternal grandmother would have been incensed at being asked to use a cookbook so I have no record from her. Only fond memories of the food she cooked. 

My mother’s cards

My mother kept her recipes on many, many cards with notes. More than she could possibly ever cook. I picked up her habit of tearing things out of magazines that sound good. Too many to ever make. My husband asked one day if I could just throw away all my piles of recipes. I was offended at first, but after I thought it through, I realized it made sense. It was liberating.

Mostly it shows how far I’ve come in own comfort with cooking. I don’t use recipes often, and when I do it’s usually just to trigger an idea. I‘m actually hoping to leave a legacy of notes in a cookbook I’m writing to leave my daughters. One loves to cook, one doesn’t. But who knows where that will go over time? 

An Old Recipe

Here’s an interesting recipe from the 1924 Art of Cookery

Sea Moss Blanc Mange

Wash a small handful of sea moss, Irish moss or Iceland moss, free from sand and dust. 

Soak in cold water for half an hour, then put it in a quart of boiling milk and let steep at boiling heat for twenty or thirty minutes.

Test it by putting a spoonful to cool, and it if stiffens like jelly it has steepened long enough. When sufficiently steeped drain off the liquid and sweeten and flavor to taste. Serve cold, without without cream. 

Homemade Vegetable Stock

Vegetable trimmings for stock

Almost every recipe you see needs broth or stock of one sort or another. And, before you decide to just add water, think first – stock adds a nuance of flavor that you might not even know you’ll miss. 

Vegetable stock makes a big difference in flavor

Of course, when making hearty soups, stews and chili with vegetables, beans and other ingredients that give their own rich flavor, it may not be necessary to use stock for extra flavor. But when cooking rice or grains, the addition of flavored liquid can make the difference between bland and dynamite.

Use carrot tops and tips

There are all sorts of broth and stock available commercially these days, from standard chicken to organic vegetable to the richest bone broths (many are even flavored with garlic, peppers, onions and paprika).

Make your own stock

Although they certainly do in a pinch and I always try to have some in my pantry, homemade stocks are far and away better. Not only because you know what’s in them, but because the flavor is superior and you can control the salt. 

Onions are essential to a good broth

Keep a bag of vegetable trimmings in the freezer

It may seem a bit miserly but I’ve gotten in the habit of saving all my vegetable trimmings. I keep a bag in the freezer and toss in, after washing well, the leftovers from onions, shallots, celery, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, etc. It’s important that you wash the peelings before freezing them so you can simply put them in the pot when the time comes. 

Add cheese rind and mushrooms for more flavor

When I have a full bag and a day when I’ll be home for at least half a day, I toss them in a large stock pot and add garlic, bay leaf and other herbs I happen to have. The pièce d ‘resistance is to toss in a Parmesan rind to boost the umami flavor. Mushrooms also provide this flavor. You can adjust the flavors however you like with herbs and the vegetables you choose. 

Fill the pot, covering the vegetables and turn on low. There’s no need to salt the stock – you can get a better feel for salt levels when you actually use it in a dish. Let the pot simmer and fill your kitchen with a delightful aroma for the day. After four or five hours, strain the stock and refrigerate or freeze. I find it easiest to freeze it in one cup measures since I don’t always need more than that. 

Dilled rice with homemade vegetable stock

Dilled Rice

1 c. brown rice

2 c. vegetable stock

1 large clove garlic

1 t. dill seeds or 1 T. dried dill or 3 T. finely chopped fresh dill

1 t. salt

Crush the garlic clove along with the dill and salt until you have a paste. A mortar and pestle is great for this but you can also just use the flat side of a knife. Add the paste to the stock and bring to a boil. Stir in the rice, reduce the heat to very low and cover. Cook about 45-55 minutes. When the liquid is all absorbed, fluff the rice and serve by itself as a side dish or under stir-fried vegetables. 

Umami

 What does it even mean?

Sliced portobello mushrooms

Such an unusual word – what does it mean? Traditionally four flavors have been associated with most foods – sweet, salty, sour, bitter. But now cooks are going wild about this fifth taste called umami. It’s what you taste in a roasted mushroom or caramelized onions – a flavor that embodies richness in savory foods. It’s also found in the flavor of meats. 

Umami takes food from ordinary to sublime and it’s something you can master easily with vegetarian cooking. For example, think of the flavor of a steamed broccoli floret, with or without lemon or butter. Now imagine the flavor of a broccoli floret roasted in olive oil until it is somewhat charred. See the difference? 

Where does it come from?

Umami comes mostly from a protein called glutamate. Which is not important to remember, but it is important to remember that roasting or browning foods causes them to release the glutamate and increase flavor. 

Add umami flavor to your foods

Roasting tomatoes and onions

So when cooking, think ahead of time about how you can get more umami into your foods – slow-roasting tomatoes, browning mushrooms, oven roasting root vegetables, caramelizing onions, shallots and leeks. This preparatory step will make a huge difference in your cooking.  

A couple of other tricks to boost the umami is to use coconut aminos, soy sauce or miso in sauces and simply to dress vegetables. These are all fermented products, and guess what? Fermenting also releases glutamate and increases the umami taste. 

Grilled eggplant

Some other sources of umami are the smokiness  you get from grilling, the aged cheeses (especially the rind), nutritional yeast, kombu (seaweed), fish sauce and anchovies.

Umami-rich oven risotto

Risotto is a favorite dish because of its creamy richness. This recipe will let you prepare it in the oven instead of standing over the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring. The addition of roasted mushrooms boosts its umami potential exponentially. 

½ T. olive oil

¼ c. finely chopped onion or shallot

⅔ c. Arborio rice (the only rice that makes a creamy risotto)

¼ up dry white wine, (optional)

½ c. hot water

2 c. chicken or vegetable stock

½ t. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 T. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ c. roasted or sauteed mushrooms of choice

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In an ovenproof saucepan with a lid, heat oil. Stir in the onion and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring to coat the grains with oil, about 1 minute.

Stir in the wine and simmer gently until it has completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Stir in the stock and salt. Bring to a boil. Cover, transfer to the oven, and bake until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from oven. Stir in enough water to make the risotto creamy). Stir in the butter and cheese.