Noodles!

Farfalle noodles with spinach, roasted peppers and shrimp

I know many of us reach for mashed potatoes when longing for comfort food. I reach for noodles. Any kind of noodles. Nothing delights me more than to find leftover noodles in the fridge because the possibilities are endless.

It’s so easy to make a delectable dish with only a few additions. All it takes to start is a bowl of cooked noodles. Add vegetables, sauces and proteins for a complete meal. Whatever your taste preference – Chinese, Italian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese. It seems every culture has a favorite noodle dish.

I like to keep a few commercial sauces in the pantry, just in case I don’t have time to whip up a sauce of my own. Thai peanut satay sauce tossed with cooked fettucini or egg noodles, a couple of torn basil leaves and you have an “almost” pad thai.

Lovely leftover linguini or angel hair noodles tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce and a little sambal olek (garlic chile paste) make as good a cold noodle dish as any you find at an Asian food truck. All you need is the little white turtle box to look completely authentic.

Hot spaghetti noodles dressed with chopped fresh tomato, minced garlic, minced fresh basil and olive oil create a quick Italian noodle specialty that tastes like summer.

Pasta with kale and mushrooms

The types of noodles are endless, from long pasta like fettuccine and linguini to rice-shaped orzo to bowties and elbows. Asian noodles widen your repertoire with cellophane, Canton, and ramen noodles. The additions are also limitless – be creative with whatever you find in the fridge. Or, simply do as I do and heat leftover noodles, drizzle with olive oil and garlic salt and toss with parmesan. Mmmmm.

Here’s a kitchen hack I learned from a professional chef:

Cook your noodles until they are not quite done. A little less than al dente if you use that as a guide. When you drain them, do it over a measuring cup and save the pasta water. When you are ready to sauce your noodles, make the sauce and add the noodles. Then add about the same amount of pasta water as sauce. Heat everything gently. The noodles will finish cooking and the sauce will be velvety and delicious. You can certainly use broth instead of pasta water, but the water from draining the noodles thickens and adds extra flavor.

Also, when cooking noodles, salt the water more than you think necessary. Don’t put oil in the water. Put the noodles into rapidly boiling water and stir them for a while to separate. Turn down the heat and cook, watching them and tasting until they are ready. You can throw a piece of pasta against the wall, the old Italian way, and if it sticks, it’s done. Seriously, keep tasting.

Once done, return them to the cooking pot, drizzle with a little olive oil and put the lid on to keep them from becoming sticky.

Whole wheat pasta with sauteed romaine lettuce

Here are a few recipes to get you started:

Pasta Primavera

2 minced garlic cloves
1 T. olive oil
1 c. fresh mushrooms
½ basket cherry tomatoes halved
½ roasted red pepper, chopped (jarred is fine)
¼ c. parmesan

Sauté garlic in stock. Add mushrooms and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add rest of ingredients and cook 2-3 minutes. Add cooked penne pasta (or your choice), mix in enough leftover pasta water to make a creamy dressing.

Pasta with Fresh Herbed Ricotta

2 c. fresh spinach rinsed and stemmed
1 c. ricotta
2 scallions minced
¼ c. packed basil leaves, minced
1 tomato, chopped
1 T. parsley, chopped
2 T. olive oil
½ lb farfalle

Blanch spinach in salted water for about a minute. Drain, cool, pat dry and chop. Put the ricotta in a large bowl and beat with a fork until smooth. Stir in the rest of the ingredients, except the pasta. Cook the farfalle, saving the water. Toss with the cheese mixture, adding pasta water as necessary to make it creamy.

Caramelized onion pasta

2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, very thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 t. red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 T. tomato paste (about half a can)
6 oz. pasta of choice (penne works well)

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally until they become totally softened and caramelized with golden-brown fried edges, 15 to 20 minutes.

Add red pepper and garlic and saute for about 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly to prevent scorching until the tomato paste has turned from bright red to deep brick red, about 2 minutes.

Remove from heat. Cook pasta until just a bit chewier than al dente. Mix with sauce and ½ c. pasta water. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring to coat each piece of pasta. Cook until the sauce is thick and sticky, 3 to 5 minutes.

Frittata or Clafoutis (the s is silent)

Blueberry and strawberry clafoutis

How can you go wrong with eggs, cheese and vegetables for breakfast (or lunch or dinner)? Or fruit baked in custard for dessert?

 Frittata or clafoutis is quick to throw together, quick to cook and can be served warm, room temperature or cold, giving you plenty of freedom in meal prep. One key to success is to cook in a cast-iron pan.

French clafoutis, Italian frittata, French quiche, Russian charlotte, timbale, pudding cake, cheese souffle and even panna cotta made with gelatin. All are basically custards with fillings. Some are made with a crust; many are without. These versatile dishes make excellent pot luck offerings, for brunch, luncheon or a light dinner. 

Once you have the basic recipe down, the riffs with different fillings and seasonings are endless. You can make them savory or sweet. You can also substitute 2 egg whites for 2 of the whole eggs. When adding vegetables or potatoes, saute them in a bit of olive oil first until crisp-tender. If you choose to add meat such as sausage, cook it first. 

Savory frittata

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Step 1: 

Savory: film a small cast-iron skillet with olive oil and put it in the oven. 

Sweet: preheat the skillet without oil, and when ready to cook, melt a tablespoon of butter and sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar over the bottom 

Basic mixture: 

5 eggs (or any mixture of eggs and egg whites of your choice) 

1 cup of milk (or cream or ½ and ½ or buttermilk)

1 T. flour

Step 2: whisk ingredients until well blended

Step 3: add embellishments and seasonings, pour into pan and cook for about 25 minutes until a knife comes out clean. You can put it under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top. Serve right from the pan, either warm or at room temperature. 

To make into quick breakfast grab-n-go, pour into oiled muffin cups and bake 25 minutes at 325.

Suggested savory fillings:

  • 1/2 c. sautéed onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped sauteed chard or spinach
  • 1/2 c. roasted red pepper
  • 1/2 t. basil
  • 1/4 t. dill
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • fresh pepper
  • 1/4 c. grated parmesan

OR

  • 1 c. cooked diced potatoes
  • 1/2 c. sautéed onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped sauteed chard or spinach
  • 1 T. fresh basil
  • 1/4 c. grated parmesan or fontina cheese
  • 1/4 t. salt
  • fresh pepper

OR

  • 2 medium zucchini, grated
  • 4 green onions, sliced
  • 1 c. cooked rice or leftover cooked pasta
  • ¾ c. crumbled feta
  • Dill to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Suggested sweet fillings:

  • 1 c. fresh blueberries
  • ¼ c. sugar
  • ¼ t. cinnamon
  • ¼ t. almond extract

OR

  • 1 c. grated apple
  • ¼ c. sugar
  • ¼ t. cinnamon
  • Dash nutmeg
Blueberry and strawberry clafoutis

Cheese puff (one serving)

  • 1 ½ slices whole grain bread, buttered
  • ½ c. milk
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ c. shredded cheese
  • 1/8 t. onion powder
  • 1/8 t. salt
  • 6-8 drops tabasco

Cut bread into strips; place with buttered sides down along the sides and bottom of a 10-oz ramekin. Lightly beat egg and combine with other ingredients. Pour into a ramekin. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. 

Fruit Clafouti 

A custardy delicious fresh dessert that is simple to make and delightful to serve. You can use any kind of fruit – cherries and berries are wonderful as are sliced peaches or halved plums or figs. Use whatever is in season. You can bake it a tart pan or pie plate, but a cast-iron skillet gives it a pretty browned edge. 

  • 1 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 c. fresh fruit, sliced and peeled if desired
  • 1 c. milk
  • ½ c. sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • ½ c. flour
  • Powdered sugar (optional)

Heat the oven to 400°F. Coat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with the melted butter and sprinkle with a bit of sugar.

Whisk milk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla until smooth.

Whisk flour into the wet ingredients, mixing until smooth (I actually use a blender to get it silky smooth). Pour the batter into the skillet and top evenly with the fruit.

Bake until a knife comes clean in the center, about 50 minutes.

Cool for about 15 minutes and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Best served warm.

Compost – most magical stuff

Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Compost is one of my favorite things. It’s sweet-smelling, comforting to let spill through your fingers, and full of remnants of plants and memories from the garden. I feel like a real gardener when I take the front off a finished bin and the rich brown earth” spills out, still steaming slightly, and full of fat worms and sometimes partially recognizable fibers from last year’s begonias, corn husks, and dill stalks. 

It may seem odd to be so enamored with such common stuff, but then it’s a gardener’s right to be eccentric, isn’t it? Compost is a feel-good garden tool since it is evidence of recycling from the garden and kitchen. And the things it does for the garden are nothing short of magic. It not only improves the soil’s tilth (isn’t that a great word!) but also improves its nutrient-holding and water-holding, and provides some extra, inexplicable disease resistance for the plants. 

Compost is the ultimate soil conditioner, texturizer and nourisher, and something I need in unmanageable quantities right now. When I left my old garden, the one thing I couldn’t move was the compost. Composting is very personal, and I would never assume that someone moving into a new house would want to continue my compost pile. So, like a good, dutiful gardener, I politely spread all that was left on the existing beds for the next owners. It hurt, knowing that I would be starting anew, without compost, and here was all this black gold from which they would reap the benefits. 

But enough grousing at what I left behind. It’s time to concentrate on starting my new compost pile. Since I’m in the city, I don’t have lots of room for piles. So, I’ve started with a commercial recycled plastic bin and a wire bin for leaves. So far it seems to be working well. 

Wire bin with shredded leaves

I’ve never used any of the commercial compost accelerators or synthetic fertilizers, and it seems to be decomposing well with only occasional turning, the addition of soil and shredded leaves every so often, and occasionally some water. 

I don’t use commercial fertilizers in the garden, and I find that my plants thrive as long as I pay careful attention to the soil. The only thing I add is compost as a top dressing or mulch a couple of times a season. I wish I could say that I follow a careful schedule for this, but mostly I topdress when I have enough finished compost. I turn under what’s there in the fall and then add more the following spring. 

Even though I don’t have nearly enough compost to use this season, there is a great feeling of comfort at looking at my bin, knowing it will be chock-full by the end of the gardening season and just waiting to be emptied on next year’s garden.

One of the benefits of great soil is great vegetables. My peas are coming on strong, and it won’t be long until I get to enjoy them fixed in a myriad of ways. A favorite is green pea bruschetta or dip: 

Green Pea Dip or Bruschetta

1 cup shelled garden peas (or thawed frozen peas)

2 T. extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh basil leaves (you can change out the herbs to suit your taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Pulse in a food processor until almost smooth but there is still some texture left. 

Serve as a dip for fresh vegetables or spread puree on toasted slices of French bread and top with a dollop crème Fraiche and a swirl of Sriracha or chipotle tabasco. 

March garden tips

Lettuce seedlings ready to be planted

We made it to late March! Not that it won’t get cold again, but winter’s back is broken and now we can really look ahead to the gardening season. Let’s put a list of tasks on the fridge so whenever we have half an hour, we can accomplish something in the garden. 

  1. Gently remove dead foliage from around perennial crowns (no need to remove it entirely). Cut back to the ground all perennials and ornamental grasses that were left standing for winter interest.

2. Bulbs that begin to send up green shoots when the weather is prematurely warm will usually not be harmed by late frosts. There may be a bit of tip damage, but the flower buds are still protected beneath the soil and will bloom later just fine.

spring anticipation

3. Start pruning. However, be selective about which trees you prune. Avoid pruning trees whose sap runs freely in warm weather such as elms, maples, and birches. If pruned in spring they will “bleed” sap profusely. This won’t harm the trees, but it is unsightly. Prune these trees when temperatures are very cold or wait until late June.

4. Don’t be tempted to get into the garden when the soil is too wet. Working or walking on wet soil compacts it and makes it hard for roots to penetrate. Take a clump of soil in your hand and squeeze. If it oozes water, walk away. If it stays in a tight clump, walk away. If it breaks apart easily, get to work. 

Garden soil ready to plant

5. If a houseplant has roots growing through the drainage holes, roots on the soil surface, smaller than normal new leaves, or if it wilts between waterings, consider repotting. Plants recover best when in active growth, so do it now before it starts its spring flush.

6. Clean up all old peony foliage if botrytis blight was a problem last year. Put out peony rings or stakes while the shoots are still only a few inches or the leaves will begin to unfold making it hard to stake. Avoid overhead watering to prevent the fungus.

7. Plant garden, snap, and snow peas now. Seed them about 1 1/2 inches deep and 1-2 inches apart in single or double rows. Most peas need support to grow on, so put your trellis in place before seeding to avoid damaging tender seedlings. Mulch to keep the soil cool.

Snap pea seedlings

8. Put out a rain gauge. Monitor every few days during the rainy season to make sure that your landscape receives at least an inch of water a week. If it doesn’t, plan to irrigate. Put your gauge wherever you are sprinkling to make sure you get the amount of water you want.

9. Cut back ornamental grasses. Do it now so that you don’t clip the tops off of the newly emerging growth later in the season.

10. The earlier you get summer bulbs started, the better a chance you will have for bloom. Pot up caladiums, begonias, cannas, elephant ears, agapanthus, and calla lilies in sterile potting soil in a pot with drainage. Water with warm water and place on a bright windowsill until after frost danger is past.

11. If you haven’t yet removed your iris foliage, do this any time you have a reasonable day to get outside. Removing every shred of foliage now will take the eggs of iris borers with it and leave your irises clean for the season.

Dead iris foliage

12. If your soil dries out enough to rake lightly, you can plant your lettuce seeds. Sprinkle seeds on the soil and rake lightly. Even if the soil is moist, water in the seeds gently in order to get good contact with the soil. Make sure to keep them watered through the germination process.

Lettuce seedlings

Marinated Beet Salad

Beet salad with spiralized beets and beet greens

If you‘re lucky enough to have lettuce coming up in the garden, splurge on beets (most grocers have plenty), and prepare an earthy beet salad on top of fresh lettuce to refresh you and give you a glimpse into the garden to come. 

  • 2 beets
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 2 T. white wine or balsamic vinegar depending on your taste
  • 1 t. Dijon mustard
  • 1 t. honey
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1/4 t. pepper
  • 1/2 c. diced red onion
  • 1 large hard-cooked egg
  • 1/2 T. parsley
  • fresh leaf lettuce as a base (use chopped beet greens if you choose)

Preheat oven to 400. Put washed, trimmed beets in a roasting pan with a couple of tablespoons of water and seal tightly with foil. Roast 1 hour or until beets are easily pierced with a knife; let cool.  Peel; cut into 1/2-inch chunks, grate or spiralize.  

Whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, salt and pepper. Toss beets with dressing and let stand 1 hour,  tossing occasionally.  Mix in onion. Finely chop eggs and mix with parsley.  Serve atop a bed of freshly torn lettuce.  Makes 2 generous servings. 

Get ready to garden

I did it again. We had one nice day and I ran outdoors like a crazy woman trying to do so many things before the weather turned. And, as usual, I hurt myself. I could hardly get out of bed the next day. 

Get garden tools ready. Especially the biggest tool – your body

I consider myself in reasonable shape physically, but the things one does when gardening are totally different than anything done at the gym or in yoga class. 

Gardening feels so good, that it’s a shame to go at it in a way that hurts. So, if I can give a little advice (and plan to take it myself) before the real garden season begins, add some strengthening exercises to your day so you can take a stronger body outdoors. 

Strong back

My worst offending hurt is my back. I know from physical therapists that most back issues come from a not-so-strong core, so that’s where I’m going to concentrate my exercises. 

Strong legs

In the evenings, I will pull out my mat and simply do whatever feels right to twist and pull and get my core in shape. It may sound silly, but you can actually do exercises that mimic actual movement in the garden such as hoeing, kneeling and stretching to prune a branch. As much as I don’t like doing squats in the gym, I do them constantly in the garden so they are valuable preparation for being outside. 

Strong hands

I also purchased one of those small tension balls to squeeze whenever I’m sitting, to get my hands stronger. I refuse to take my dad’s advice that the only way to get your hands in shape is to plunge them repeatedly into a bucket of ice (he was kidding). But even though the muscles in the hands are small, they are indispensable for almost every garden task, and having strong hands makes gardening easier. 

We all know that gardening is good for the soul, and that the food we produce makes us healthy on the inside. But gardening is so very good for the body because it does make use of all muscles. We use our hands when transplanting, arms when pruning and planting, our backs and legs when hoeing or mowing. I was shocked that even my feet were sore because I wore my muck boots for the first time of the season and my feet had to get used to them. 

Strong mind

Gardening is also wonderful for the mind. Our mental and emotional health get a lovely boost from doing something we feel is worthwhile and from being outdoors, in tune with nature. It’s hard not to be happy when looking at a freshly opened daffodil or a beautifully executed pruning job on an apple tree. So take that mental uplift and combine it with a strong body to get the maximum enjoyment out of your garden. 

Recipe of the day – one of my favorites for spring (I have been known to simply eat it by the spoonful)

Creamy Sorrel Sauce

(adapted from More Recipes from a Kitchen Garden by Renee Shepherd)

Creamy sorrel sauce (image from Pixabay)

This lovely light green sauce can be modified in a lot of interesting ways, adding herbs like basil and dill, changing the carriers from mayonnaise to all yogurt, sour cream, creme fraiche, etc. You will love it on salmon, vegetables, potatoes and especially on freshly roasted asparagus. 

  • 1 c. any combination of plain Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, sour cream
  • 1 c. fresh sorrel with stems removed and leaves chopped
  • 1 T. soy sauce or 1 t. salt (soy sauce gives it more flavor but you can pump up the flavor with herbs also)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced

Blend (a blender works best to make a velvety sauce) and serve cold. 

Creasy greens

A weird-sounding name, right? I saw them advertised on the outdoor sign of our local greengrocer and just had to find out what they were. Evidently, these foraged greens are a delicacy served in the Blue Ridge Mountains for years. 

So I checked them out. They do occur naturally although they are not technically native. They’re bright green in early spring, followed by tiny yellow flowers. A cousin to watercress, they’re one of many plants in the mustard family that occur all over the United States. The flower is four-petaled just like arugula, radish and mustard. These greens are prized for their peppery taste. 

Pennsylvania bittercress or Creasy greens

As soon as our snow melted, a similar plant emerged in my garden, growing everywhere in moist landscape beds. In the past I simply pulled it and tossed in the compost as a regular weed. This plant has similar leaves to creasies, but the flowers are white and the leaves have a hint of bitterness in addition to the peppery flavor. My plant is Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica). Creasy greens are Barbarea verna, with yellow flowers.  

Now for experimenting. Sources I found said to either saute the leaves of either plant for a stir-fry or use them fresh in a salad. And, the roots can actually be ground and mixed with vinegar and salt to make a horseradish-like sauce. Evidently, both types of greens have amazing nutritional qualities – Vitamins C and A particularly. 

Plentiful in my landscape (thought they were only weeds)

I’ve never been a fanatic forager but this has sparked that early spring yearning to find bitter greens to add to a salad. They are spring tonics that really do renew the body. Now that I have these growing right in my landscape, I won’t have to go far for my spring tonic. I’m sure I can find a few new dandelions soon to add to the mix. 

Easy Creasy Greens (or any greens for that matter)

Film a skillet with about a tablespoon of oil of choice (sesame, olive, bacon grease)

Thinly slice half an onion and add to pan over medium heat. Saute until slightly tender. 

Wash greens, remove flower stalks if there are any, and coarsely chop 2-3 handfuls. Add greens to the onions and toss in the oil until coated. Cook briefly until the greens are wilted. Add a couple of tablespoons water or stock, a dash of cider vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. 

Serve as a side dish alone or toss with rice or pasta. I found that mixed with kale and sauteed over pasta is an excellent way to serve them.

Bartering and Barley Soup

I love the concept of bartering. It’s such a simple way of adjusting the pace of living, giving something you have in exchange for something you need without money changing hands. It just feels like a healthy way to develop a sense of community as neighbors get to know neighbors. And it takes our focus away, even if only for a little while, from earning power and the bottom line. 

I have a wonderful memory of my mother striking up a conversation in the produce section of a grocery store. While squeezing melons, she and another woman started out by talking about their gardens and they ended up sharing fruit. My mother provided a bushel of peaches and she received a bushel of apples in return. Both women’s larders were soon full of canned peaches and apple butter. Even better, the two became friends. 

buckets of squash given to a neighbor yielded luscious squash bread for my family

I’ve challenged myself to see just how many things I can barter for. I started by making a list of all I have to offer, material things as well as things I can do. I even listed those things I tend not to think of as marketable such as lawn mowing, sewing and bread baking. After making this list, I whittled it down to things that I like to do. Sure, I can clean bathtubs and cut grass, but who wants to? I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t enjoy doing something, 1 won’t feel good about the barter and my exchange system will fall apart. 

To start bartering, it’s taken me a lot of courage to step forward and start conversations with a stranger. It also takes nerve to open up and talk about who you are and what you do. But the outcomes can be so rewarding, not only in a bartering milieu but also with the people I’ve gotten to know and the friendships that have developed along the way. 

I got started by frequenting the places where gardeners and cooks hang out. Whether at the farmer’s market or the local garden center, if you begin talking to the people there, you’ll find there is a natural exchange of information that can be the start of a trading network. 

Plentiful apples from a friend yielded applesauce for both families

Another natural starting point is with your neighbors working in their yards. People who garden love to talk about their gardens and most also love to share. I would bet that very few gardens that I’ve visited are comprised solely of plants and seeds that were purchased. Sure, I bought some of the plants in my garden, but the majority are trades with other gardeners. I have just moved into a new neighborhood (well, a year ago), and am looking forward to starting barters with my neighbors.

Perhaps you know someone who is no longer physically able to tend a garden, but who does superb lawn mower repair. Or how about exchanging herbs and garden produce with someone who has no garden, but can watch your children one afternoon a week? I like to grow seedlings, so I always add a few more for a friend who repairs my trellises. 

It also helps to remember that not all trades have to be for tangible things. Offer to take someone to dinner if they will sharpen your pruners and grass shears. Or perhaps merely an offer of a visit gives both you and a friend the pleasure of relaxing conversation. Sometimes the joy is simply the benefit of giving—and not receiving anything tangible in return. 

The key to making the system work is to be clear about what you can and cannot do. Don’t be discouraged if you initially receive some negative responses. Keep searching and talking and eventually you will be on your way to a pleasant exchange. It’s a bit idealistic to think that every service and good you need can be bartered for, but even a few exchanges can make life a little simpler and increase the social network that is so important to mental health. 

The word barter brings to mind the word barley. Here is a simple, nutritious barley soup for a cold winter day. For you or to barter with a friend.

Barley Soup

Barley mushroom soup, just awaiting crusty bread to go with it
  • ½ c. pearled barley
  • 1 ¼ c. water
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • ½ c. sliced onions
  • ½ c. sliced carrots
  • ½ c. sliced celery
  • 1 plump garlic clove, minced
  • ½ c. sliced mushrooms
  • ¼ t. smoked paprika
  • 2 c. stock or broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cook barley in water according to directions (will take about 45 minutes). 

Film heavy skillet with olive oil and add all vegetables except mushrooms. Saute over high heat for about 7 minutes. Add mushrooms and paprika and saute about 3 minutes more. 

Add broth and bring to simmer. When vegetables are mostly tender, add barley, more stock if necessary and heat gently. Adjust seasonings and serve with crusty bread to soak up the juices.

This recipe lends itself well to adding leftover cooked chicken, sausage or stew beef. 

Apricity and sprouts

There is nothing that lights the soul quite like feeling the sun on your face  when it’s viciously cold outside. My new word is apricity, meaning the warmth of the sun in winter. Winter sun is often weak and pale compared to summer sun. But it is appreciated so much more because it’s infrequent. 

Apricity comes from the Latin apricus, “having lots of sunshine” or “warmed by the sun.” To apricate means to bask in the sun. My dog gets this. She moves with the sun throughout the day. 

I think I’ll mimic her and apricate every sunny winter day. Even if it means tucking myself up against the south-facing garage wall, wrapped in a heavy coat, hat and mittens. The sun on my face is delicious. And makes me dwell on the spring memory of a fresh scallion pulled from damp earth. The best scent in the world and harbinger of a bountiful garden.

Can’t head to the garden, so let’s head to the kitchen

After my sun bask, I’m recharged to get into the kitchen. It’s the middle of winter and I’m desperate for fresh vegetables so I’ve decided to add sprouts to my menu for a boost of fresh vitamins and fiber.

Sprouts

You can sprout many, many different vegetables and beans. The beauty of sprouting just about anything is that the vitamin content seems to skyrocket when a seed is sprouted. Moreover, some of the vitamins and enzymes in seeds are made more readily available to our bodies when the seeds are sprouted.

Sprouts are naturally low in fat and salt and high in fiber. Bean sprouts are full of protein and an acceptable substitute for meat. Some research is being done that is showing sprouts to have antioxidant and disease prevention qualities as well. Scientists are even noting some tumor reduction in patients who eat a lot of sprouts, and many sprouts are high in phytoestrogens which help boost bone density and prevent osteoporosis.

In essence, the perfect food!

Some of the seeds that make good spouts: soybean, mung bean, onion, mustard, sunflower, radish, lentil, broccoli, alfalfa, clover, wheat and rye. But this is not an exhaustive list. There are many other types of seeds that can make good sprouts. 

Only a few – black beans, wheat berries, mung beans, millet, lentils

How to sprout

I’ve had great luck using a large mason jar with a screen or cheesecloth lid. This method grows the sprouts with nothing more than water. Depending on the type of sprout you decide to grow, the methods may vary just a bit. You can even grow sprouts in soil, but the method is completely different and you will clip these sprouts off the root to use them. When growing with just water, you eat the entire sprout. 

Sprouting alfalfa in soil

You simply soak the seeds for 8-12 hours and then drain and rinse well. After that, you leave the seeds in the sprouting jar and rinse well two to three times a day. Critical to healthy sprouting are a clean sprouting jar,  frequent rinsing with clean, cool water, and plenty of air circulation. 

Sprouting wheatberries

Ready for the fridge or pot

After rinsing, shake well to get as much free water off the sprouts as possible. I like to then tip the jar upside down in the drain rack to let it drain. The sprouts will take anywhere from one to three days, depending on the type of seed used. When your sprouts are the size you want, put them in a large bowl and fill it with water. This will let the hulls float to the surface where you can pour them off. They won’t hurt you, but are usually pretty chewy and may not be so palatable. Let the sprouts drain in a colander and then store in a jar in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. 

Float the hulls away before storing

How to use sprouts

Once you have your sprouts, toss them into salads, onto sandwiches, toss with rice or pasta. You can cook sprouted beans for a delicious fresh taste, quite unlike the usual cooked beans, and with higher nutrition. Sprouted grains are excellent additions to breads and baked goods. 

An excellent source for information on all things sprouts (as well as tools and sprout seeds for purchase) is the International Sprout Growers Association: https://isga-sprouts.org/

Planning the garden

Isn’t this the best time to start thinking about planning a garden? The weather is not-so-great, it’s warm and cozy indoors, and if you’re like me, the fall garden is far enough in the past that I’ve gotten over my weariness. I’m getting the itch to start gardening again. 

Putting time into planning before you even put a seed in a pot will make you a much happier gardener come planting time. You don’t necessarily have to put everything on paper, but at least start pondering some things. And if you’ve kept a calendar or notes from prior years, it’s time to drag those out and learn from your mistakes and successes. 

Site selection

If this is a brand new garden, site selection is critical. Keep in mind that you don’t need a huge spreading garden, especially to begin with. The amount of inherent work may only discourage you. Consider raised beds that dry out faster and warm up quickly, containers that can put veggies on the patio, or a small kitchen garden outside the back door with maybe a little larger garden for bigger produce like zucchini and vining cucumbers. 

Plenty of sun

Wherever you decide to put your garden, make sure you have plenty of sun. Some vegetables and fruits grow in partial shade but most need seven to eight hours of sun. 

House and water access

You will also need to consider the distance from the house – you won’t be inclined to get into the garden often if it’s down in the back forty. Make sure you have easy access to water without hauling heavy hoses for hundreds of yards. And give yourself access to a compost pile. 

Take advantage of small microclimates like next to the garage wall for plants that need warmer starting temperatures or the shady spot on the east side to grow lettuce longer than if it was in full, hot sun.

Planning garden beds

Garden rows or beds should run north and south for the best sun exposure and air circulation. And, the beds should be no more than three or four feet wide in order to allow you to reach the center of the bed without stepping in. This will help avoid soil compaction. If your soil is poor, perhaps you need to raise your beds and bring in fresh soil. Or maybe you just need to add plenty of organics.

A thing of beauty

Lastly, think about aesthetics. It really is okay to put your garden in the front yard as long as you keep it looking neat so your neighbors won’t run screaming to the authorities about your weed patch. Well-designed vegetable gardens are beautiful parts of the landscape. 

Keep quantities in mind

So, now you get to start choosing plants to grow. Before tripping through the seed catalogs and ripping out a huge seed order, take a rationality check. You don’t want to be overwhelmed with produce so only grow what you intend to eat. Of course, you may want to plan for putting food up for winter, which is fine. But bushels of tomatoes have to go somewhere, and remember that your neighbors’ tomatoes are coming in at the same time so they will not appreciate a basket of tomatoes left in the night on their front porch. Envision summer visitors laden with extra zucchini, and summarily tossing them out the car windows as they leave your home.

If you have a small garden, think twice before planning space hogs like pumpkins and sweet corn. They take up a huge amount of space for little return. And, they are always available at the farmers’ market. 

Grow what you love

It doesn’t make sense, either, to grow something you are not fond of. Brussels sprouts are awesome-looking plants, but if you don’t like the taste, don’t grow them. 

As you look at the seed catalogs, you’ll need to consider the “days to maturity” for your plants. Find out the average frost in your area (from your local cooperative extension), and plan for the right number of growing days. As wonderful as sweet potatoes taste, you need to have a long growing season. 

Warm vs. cool season plants

Spinach in the cold frame

Next, you will begin to think about warm and cool-season varieties. Cool-season plants such as lettuce, spinach and peas are usually planted directly outdoors as soon as the frost leaves the ground. Warm-season plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are usually started indoors, whether in your basement or in commercial greenhouses. 

Anaheim pepper

There’s also another category of vegetables that are perennial and need to be planted only one time. Site selection is important for asparagus, sorrel, Jerusalem artichokes and rhubarb because the plants will be there a long time. 

Rice (or any other grain)- a great base for delicious sides or main dishes

Rice with spinach and red peppers

Check out the Grains section in the recipe folders for information on cooking each type of grain. Once you have your cooked grain, simple additions can dress it up for dinner. Grains are great warm or cold in a salad. Here are some suggestions, but let your creative side reign. And enjoy!

Suggested additions

  • Broccoli, sesame oil, chopped toasted peanuts
  • Sauteed mushrooms, snow peas and sliced water chestnuts
  • Basil pesto, cooked or raw shredded zucchini and chopped tomatoes
  • Black beans, minced red onion, chopped red pepper, cilantro 
  • Garbanzo beans, shredded carrots, parsley, ricotta and romano
  • Marinated artichoke hearts
  • Frozen spinach, thawed and drained, plus feta cheese

Dips and chips

Hummus

I’ll admit it – when I get really bored I head for the chips and dips. And I seem to be doing that a lot lately. It’s not a particularly healthy habit but it gives me a satisfyingly crunchy and creamy diversion. Of course, french onion dip and potato chips are probably the worst offenders. But oh, so good. 

In order to get rid of some of the guilt, I’m trying to reduce fat and salt with healthier choices. I’ll share with you some substitutes that are easy to make and fulfill all of the requirements of a good chip-dip combination. Salty, savory, creamy, and of course crunch from chips. 

So many salsas and vegetable combinations make great dips. It means moving away from thinking about dips as only creamy. One of my favorites is pico de gallo, a chunky salsa that is just as good on chips as it is on fajitas. 

I tend to rely on vegetables I froze last summer, but you can also buy them fresh. Even supermarket tomatoes are suitable for jazzing up in a salsa. The peppers and onions give them flavor. You can also use frozen corn, canned artichoke hearts, canned beans and even frozen mango if you want to make a fruity salsa. 

Some dips: 

  1. Roasted eggplant
  2. Feta or goat cheese blended with artichoke hearts and roasted peppers
  3. Corn and black bean salsa
  4. Pico de gallo
  5. Classic bruschetta (tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and basil)
  6. Hummus – make from chickpeas or white beans, use as a dip or a spread on sandwiches or toast. 
Texas caviar – made with black-eyed peas and corn

Chips: 

  1. Pita chips (easy to make your own by cutting fresh pita into quarters and toasting them)
  2. Fresh vegetables – peppers, celery, carrots, broccoli, radishes, turnips, cucumbers
  3. Toasted sourdough pieces
  4. Check out the myriad of commercial chips available – beets, sweet potato, taro, carrot, turnip

I grow eggplants in every summer, and although we do eat some of them fresh, I roast and freeze lots so I have them available for this rich dip. It’s a riff on baba ganouj, a classic middle eastern dish. And infinitely adaptable to whatever you want to add. 

Eggplant dip (Baba ganoush)

Eggplant dip
  • 1 medium eggplant, roasted and peeled
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, roasted and peeled
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 1 large clove garlic, diced
  • ½ c. toasted bread crumbs or panko
  • ¼ c. tahini
  • ¼ t. cumin
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 1 T. vinegar
  • Salt to taste

Saute onion and garlic in 2 T. olive oil until soft. Process in a food processor with the pepper and eggplant until you reach the consistency you like, smooth or chunky. 

Stir in rest of ingredients, salt to taste and serve at room temperature with pita chips. 

Pico de gallo

This Mexican favorite has a fresh, tangy flavor and just longs for crisp tortilla chips. 

pico de gallo
  • 1 chile, chopped (with or without seeds depending on your taste)
  • 3-4 tomatoes, chopped finely
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T. vinegar or lime juice
  • 1 T. fresh cilantro
  • 1 t. salt

Mix and chill. Serve as dip with tortilla chips, on black bean tacos or as topping for a baked potato. Feel free to add other ingredients such as black beans or corn.

Hummus 

  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained or 2 cups freshly cooked
  • 1/2 c. tahini
  • 1 T. lime juice
  • 1 t. cumin (tip from my brother – roast whole cumin seeds and grind for unbelievable flavor)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 t. cayenne
  • Olive oil (you can use some of the juice from the beans to reduce fat)
  • Salt to taste

Blend all but the olive oil. Gradually add enough olive oil or bean juice to make it creamy but not runny. Season with salt to taste. Refrigerate for the flavors to blend.