A Garden Variety

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Hi Folks, it’s been a while. I haven’t had the time or energy to write anything worthwhile lately, but I do like to update this space every so often. Today I thought I’d share some photos of all the different things we grow organically in the backyard (with organic soil/compost, organic fertilizer, and no pesticides.) Most of what you see here was grown from seed, although I usually supplement with a few starts from local garden centers.

This year we have green beans, five varieties of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, pumpkins, summer squash, five varieties of chili peppers, kohlrabi, Cardinal basil, apple mint, cilantro, anise hyssop, and nasturtiums. I was about a week late getting most things planted so we are just starting to get a decent harvest now. The yellow squash is a new variety called ‘Sunstripe’ and it’s really beautiful, but it needs a LOT of space and we ended up having to pull it out because it was crowding out the surrounding plants. Next year we will plan better for that. I also wanted to try Kohlrabi this year, and I planted lots of seeds early in Spring but they were quite a disappointment. Most of the seeds yielded a ton of leaves but no bulbs. We pulled all but three plants, none of which have reached maturity (even though they are an “early” variety.) So we won’t likely grow those again.

We are most excited about the sugar pie pumpkins. Last year we tried growing mini jack pumpkins up a trellis and they were really fun, but they needed more space than we had allowed for them. This year my dad dug out a few shrubs next to the house, and I planted seeds for pie pumpkins. After thinning the seedlings down to one plant, we now have at least 15 sizable pumpkins hiding under the huge prickly leaves. It is such a storybook thing to grow and if you have space for them, I can’t recommend it enough. I also recommend planting lots of nasturtiums around your garden, especially if you’re growing squash and/or cucumbers. The flowers act as a trap crop for squash beetles and they are completely edible and oh-so-beautiful. 

Not surprisingly, our weather this summer has been one of extremes: weeks of drought and uncomfortable heat waves followed by back-to-back severe storms, one of which knocked over our sturdiest tomato plant. Luckily there wasn’t any serious damage to any of our crops, and we have since added some structural support where it was needed.

I hope to do another update in a few weeks when the tomatoes and peppers are ripening. One of the tomatoes I planted is a cherry type called ‘Pink Bumblebee’ – a gorgeous red variety with orange stripes that look like jewels. We have cucumbers climbing an A-frame trellis this year, a cultivar developed in Israel called ‘Beit Alpha’ that is burpless and sweet (my nephew loves cukes but hates the prickly surface of most of the larger types because they remind him of pickles – he hates pickles.) I love getting kids excited about growing their own food – it’s a skill that I think everyone should cultivate. 

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There’s never been a better time to start growing your own food, whether in your back yard, in containers on a patio, or in a community plot. So what are you waiting for? 

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Pot o’Gold Soup and Carrot Bread

My poor, sad blog is coming out of hibernation to bring you this update: whiskey is my new favorite ingredient in veggie soup.

You may recall my blog post last year on St. Patrick’s Day that featured a pub-style vegetable soup. Since that’s what I ate each day on my trip to Ireland a couple years back, I figured I’d try to outdo myself on the previous version and relive the experience once more. It may not be as rich as a Steak and Guinness Pie, nor as hearty as Dublin Coddle, but it’s still total comfort food in my book. And, since I’ve been trying to get back into healthier habits I figured lots of vegetables would help the cause.

I quickly checked in with an expert, and by that I mean I Googled a legitimate recipe for Irish vegetable soup just to get a basic feel for how it’s done correctly. Turns out it’s all about keeping the basic ratio of alliums and potatoes to other vegetables. The rest is up to the cook’s fancy. With that in mind, I’m not going to type a detailed recipe for you today because you don’t need one. Just be sure to use fresh vegetables that you love and adjust the seasonings as you go until it tastes to your liking.

Start with two or three leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed well and sliced. Saute those in some olive oil until softened. Add a few stalks of chopped celery and a couple diced carrots. Saute some more. Add a large parsnip (diced) and some cubed gold potatoes that have been well scrubbed (mine were a little past their prime so I peeled them, but you can leave the skins on if you like.) Toss in a couple of bay leaves, minced fresh garlic or garlic powder, white and/or black pepper, some fresh or dried thyme, rosemary, marjoram, tarragon, parsley or chervil, or whichever herbs you like best. Add enough water or vegetable stock to just cover the vegetables. Bring to a simmer; add some salt (start with 1/4 to 1/2 tsp – you can always add more but if you add too much, it’s game over).

Simmer over medium heat until the vegetables are tender but not falling apart. Ladle 1/3 of the soup into a blender. Add two tablespoons of roasted hazelnut butter and some cold water – about 1/3 cup or so – just enough to get it to blend smooth. Pour the puree into a large vessel and puree the remaining soup, this time adding a bit of milk (I used oat milk) to make it easier to liquify. Add the pureed batches back into the soup pot. Stir in two tablespoons of good Irish whiskey, two tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice and about one or two tablespoons of natural sweetener (local honey or maple syrup) to balance the flavors. Bring to a simmer, taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Cook for 10 minutes on medium low heat. Remember that it can take a few minutes for the flavors to develop so if adding additional salt or seasoning, a little at a time is best. For the best flavor, chill overnight and reheat gently before serving.

Oh, and about that bread — it’s whole wheat carrot bread and is the perfect thing to eat alongside this soup. I adapted it slightly from a recipe by a fellow Wisconsinite, who also happened to submit it to the WI State Fair. While it’s traditional in Ireland to eat soup with brown bread, unfortunately I forgot to order the special Irish-style whole wheat flour to make it. Maybe next year I’ll be more organized, but I have no regrets about trying this recipe as it is astoundingly good.

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Summer Lentil Salad with Swiss Chard

Here we are in August. It’s hot. The whole world is a mess. And here I am posting another recipe. I might delete it next week, in fact I might delete the whole blog with it. At this point cooking is merely a distraction from the weekly chaos, and I haven’t derived the same enjoyment from it (or anything else) as I have in the past. But every so often, maybe once a month I come up with a recipe on the fly that I’d like to make again so here we are.

I’ve got plenty of Swiss chard in the garden this year (it’s the most beautiful vegetable) and to be honest it’s not my favorite of the leafy greens. It has an earthiness that I feel is an acquired taste. I can handle any kale you throw at me. I love mustard greens, bok choy, cabbage, collards, arugula, you name it. Chard, however is a different story. I had to choke it down the other day when I tossed it with some pasta. The stems and ribs have a flavor that can be overpowering but I was determined to find a way to enjoy it. I’m happy to report that the sweet-tart dressing, the nutty flavor of the roasted cauliflower, and the earthy lentils provided the perfect counterpoint and allowed me to overcome my aversion.

Summer Lentil Salad with Swiss chard
1 small head cauliflower, chopped into small florets
2 to 3 medium carrots, scrubbed and grated
1/4 cup chopped, lightly toasted walnuts
3 tbsp Sicilian Lemon white balsamic vinegar*
1 1/2 tsp Herbes de Provence**
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 cup (dry/uncooked) French green lentils
2 tbsp coconut aminos or reduced-sodium tamari
1 tbsp onion flakes
1 bunch Swiss chard, washed, stemmed, and chopped into bite-size pieces
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place the cauliflower florets on a parchment lined baking sheet and dry roast for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer florets to a large mixing bowl; add the grated carrots, walnuts, balsamic vinegar, Herbes de Provence, and the lemon juice. Toss to combine.

Meanwhile, add the lentils and 3 cups of water to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a steady simmer and cook for 20 minutes or until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain any remaining water and rinse with cool water in a mesh strainer.

While the lentils are simmering, heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the coconut aminos and the onion flakes. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and add the chard. Steam fry just until the greens are wilted. Do not overcook!

Add the cooked lentils and chard along with the pan juices to the cauliflower mixture. Toss to combine, add some freshly ground black pepper to taste, and adjust the seasonings if necessary. The salad makes about 4 to 6 servings, and tastes best if chilled for at least an hour before consuming.

*If Lemon Balsamic Vinegar is not available, you can substitute 2 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juice (use the zest too), or white wine vinegar. In this instance, I’d recommend also adding a tablespoon of natural sweetener such as date nectar or pure maple syrup to balance the earthiness of the chard.

**Herbes de Provence is quite aromatic; I’d recommend starting with one teaspoon. Add a bit more if you’d like a more pronounced flavor.

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Irish Pub-Style Vegetable Soup + Brown Bread

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, readers. Last year while traveling in Ireland I was lucky enough to try many versions of their ubiquitous vegetable soup. Almost every single pub we visited had it on the menu and it was always served with brown bread. It hit the spot every time. I’ve been craving it ever since I got back, but for various reasons I didn’t get around to creating my own version until now.

I made this soup a couple of days in advance for two reasons. First, we all know soup tastes better the next day, and second, I wanted to make sure I had enough time to make a loaf of brown bread – which should be served as fresh as possible. As my luck would have it, the grocery store was out of whole wheat flour. So, in this time of self-quarantine I used what I had in my pantry and ended up making a variation on this gluten-free recipe.

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A note on the soup: Most of the vitamins and minerals of the vegetables reside in the peels so whenever possible, I left the peels on. You will hardly notice any peels since the soup is blended, and we all need to boost our immune systems right now! So if it’s within your means, try to buy organic and leave the peels on. I’ve been using this fruit and veggie wash to make sure my ingredients are as clean as possible.

Irish Style Vegetable Soup
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
3 large leeks, halved and rinsed well (white and light green parts only), sliced
4 large carrots, scrubbed and cut into 1” chunks
5 medium red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1” chunks
1 small celeriac, peeled and cut into 1” chunks
1 medium sweet apple (I used a Pink Lady), cored and cut into 1/2” chunks
8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried tarragon
3/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp sea salt – preferably Celtic Sea Salt
1 quart low-sodium vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 tbsp vegan butter (I used Miyoko’s Creamery Butter to mimic Irish butter)
1/4 cup full-fat, plain non-dairy milk (I used soy milk)

In a large stockpot, heat the grapeseed oil over medium heat for about a minute. Add the leeks and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables, apple, and garlic to the pot along with the herbs, black pepper and sea salt. Add the vegetable broth and the water. The vegetables should be completely covered with liquid. If they are not, add additional water as needed. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium low and let simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Use a blender to puree the soup in batches, filling the blender only halfway each time to avoid any hot soup explosions. I used two large Pyrex bowls to hold the pureed portions while I blended the rest. Return all pureed batches to the pot and stir in the vegan butter and non-dairy milk. Taste, and add more salt and pepper if needed. If the soup is too thick, add some additional non-dairy milk.

Serve in your favorite soup bowl with a slice of freshly baked brown bread slathered with softened butter (vegan or Kerrygold depending on your preference) and imagine sitting in a cozy pub with the scent of burning peat wafting through the air. Sláinte!

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Please Stay Home

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and in the near future I’ll share more about what I’ve been up to lately. In the meantime, I want to make a request of all my American readers: Unless there is an emergency, or unless you are required to report for work outside your home, please stay home. The problem I have with the graphic above is that it advises to stay home when you’re sick. That’s not good enough. The reason this virus is spreading exponentially is because too many infected people are going out in public because they have no symptoms. It can take days for symptoms to appear! We all have a responsibility to flatten the curve and keep our communities and healthcare workers safe. This article offers compelling, data driven information on why staying home is so important right now. Thank you for your time.

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Easy Pickled Purple Cauliflower

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I love all vegetables (with the exception of raw tomatoes) but one of my absolute favorites is purple cauliflower. I went to the farmers market yesterday to pick some up and almost didn’t find it – out of nearly 40 stands I spotted one farmer who had 3 heads of it – so I snatched one up just before closing time. I had originally planned on sharing my recipe for refrigerator dill pickles using cucumbers since we have a bumper crop in the back yard, but the visions of magical purple pickles were too thrilling to ignore.

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I wanted these pickles to harness as much Wisconsin terroir as possible, so all ingredients (save for the vinegar and salt) were sourced locally. The rosemary is from my garden, the rest of the vegetables (and honey) were obtained at the farmers market. I have to admit that these pickles are the most gorgeous color I’ve ever seen and they taste fantastic. The recipe is pretty forgiving, so substitutions can be made based on what’s available.

Honey Garlic Pickled Cauliflower with Banana Peppers

The quality of these pickles rely on using the freshest possible ingredients, so try to use locally grown produce if possible. Additionally, banana peppers are typically mildly hot but mine were quite spicy, so keep that in mind if you’re sensitive to spicy foods.

12 ounces purple cauliflower florets
1-2 banana peppers, sliced into 1/4” rings, seeds removed if desired
6-8 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 1/2 cups filtered water
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp coarse sea salt
3 tbsp unfiltered honey

Place the cauliflower florets, banana peppers, garlic, and rosemary sprigs in a jar or a container with at least a 6 cup capacity. In a small saucepan, bring the water, vinegar, and sea salt to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt crystals. Remove from heat and stir in the honey. Immediately pour the brine over the vegetables. Cover and let the pickles cool a bit before placing in the fridge.

Store the pickles in the fridge for up to a week. The pickles will be ready after a day or two, depending on your personal preference. If you sterilize the container before adding the ingredients, you can safely store them for a few weeks.

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August Abundance

We started harvesting the first tomatoes a couple of weeks ago. This one is an indeterminate heirloom cherry tomato called ‘Snow White’ – it’s actually pale yellow and the plant is incredibly productive! Everyone who tried these tomatoes have liked their flavor, too.

This year I planted Wasabi Arugula and was blown away by how much it tastes like wasabi! I had several people try it at our family reunion and ended up sending seeds home with a few of my cousins. I will definitely be planting this one yearly from now on, I think it would be incredible rolled up in some avocado and cucumber maki, or incorporated into a cold soba noodle dish with ginger-sesame dressing. The plant next to it is ‘Cherries Jubilee’ nasturtium. My niece and I have been snacking on the peppery leaves – they taste like watercress! The flowers are so beautiful.

My nephew planted some Persian mini cucumber seeds in spring and I didn’t think they were going to survive. They were transplanted twice and I didn’t fertilize them for over a month. I was wrong. These just started producing about a week ago and he was so excited to harvest the first one yesterday. It was sweet and delicious. I also planted two ‘Kirby’ pickling cucumber plants under the deck and they’re growing like weeds. We’ve been harvesting a handful nearly everyday and I’m going to making some dills this afternoon. They’re delicious eaten fresh, too.

Perhaps the most exciting development is this softball sized watermelon, and the healthy carrot patch. We thinned the carrots a bit yesterday and the kids got to have them as a snack. It’s so fun to grow things that I’ve never attempted to grow before and I’m already thinking about next year’s garden plans. My nephew wants to grow chili peppers. I can’t argue with that!

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Hot in Madison

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Maxwell Street Days in Madison, WI

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m currently recovering from an intensely hot (and busy) couple of days. A friend invited me to Madison for a quick overnight trip to celebrate her birthday, and I gladly accepted since we so rarely see each other these days. This trip had everything: delicious beer and a Bavarian pretzel at The Great Dane, a Farmer’s Market, Maxwell Street Days, delicious coffee, and quality time with quality people.

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Vegetable garden on The Square

Once I arrived in town, we headed to dinner at The Great Dane – may I suggest the Crop Circle Wheat Hefeweizen if you’re there to drink – and we were feeling a bit rushed by the waitstaff. It turned out that their AC wasn’t working so they had to close early. This happened on the same day that two separate fires in the city resulted in power outages for approximately 12,000 residents of Madison, and it couldn’t have happened on a worse day (there was a heat index of over 100 degrees!) To make matters worse, our server forgot to give back my debit card and I didn’t realize it until the next day. But we still had a nice dinner despite the minor infractions.

The next morning we braved the heat and went to the farmers market and ogled the most beautiful locally-grown fruits, vegetables, honey and maple syrup, fresh baked breads and pastries, jams and pickles, and everything in between. After we finished making the loop, we were in desperate need of some iced liquids and AC so we headed to a new favorite coffee shop in Madison.

After taking our sweet time cooling off inside Ancora we decided to check out Maxwell Street Days for the short remainder of time I had before it was time for me to leave town.

No trip to Madison would be complete without entering the state capitol building and rubbing the badger’s nose for good luck, so I obliged. I did manage to make it almost all the way home before the torrential downpour, so there you have it.

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Signs of Life

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I started collecting knick-knacks for a gnome village. It’s a work in progress.

And some blue things: my borage is getting massive, and I found a big pile of Blue Jay feathers this morning. I suspect it was an owl’s dinner but it’s hard to know for certain.

We finally had a break from all the rain and the garden is starting to explode. All the seedlings have true leaves and it’s very exciting to see how much taller they get each week.

The sunflowers, carrots, and watermelons are just getting started.

Meanwhile, the tomato plants are getting huge in no time. The one in the pot is a patio variety called Big Dwarf and the one in the cage is a white cherry tomato. Life’s too short to grow boring tomato varieties if you ask me! I planted borage and basil next to them, since they’re excellent companion plants.

My niece is having fun watching her seeds grow too, including this very healthy patch of cilantro. She loves checking the alpine strawberry plants each week to see if any are ripe for picking. And my nephew is excited to watch his cucumber plant get bigger and bigger each time he visits. We have big plans for refrigerator dills in our future. 😉

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Better than Nothing

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I wish I could present you with an exciting garden update, but we’ve had some pretty lackluster weather since the start of spring so there’s not much to see yet. I did get the rest of my seeds planted as of last week Sunday and most have started to emerge, but they’re still too tiny to capture with a camera lens. So instead, have a look at what’s to come:

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My dad built this prototype raised bed planter for carrots and other root vegetables. There’s a v-shaped insert to allow enough space for deep taproots. The screened cover will hopefully deter the deer from grazing, and is removable for watering and harvesting.

I just tucked the last of the summer annuals into the front yard flower bed. And I must admit that I’m really pleased with how these begonias are looking in this galvanized pail that I scored at the hardware store (several small drainage holes were drilled into the bottom before planting.)

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The birdhouse trellis will soon be covered with sky blue morning glories, and the square cage is currently protecting some small sunflower seedlings from the family of rabbits living under the deck.

I picked up a handful of tomato seedlings at the Ozaukee Master Gardeners plant sale a few weeks ago and after a weeklong hardening-off period, they are settling in quite nicely.

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A hand-built cedar tomato cage that withstands severe midwestern thunderstorms.

That’s about all I’ve got for today. I will do my best to update this space a little more frequently, as inspiration allows. Here’s to dirty fingernails and muddy knees. 👩🏼‍🌾

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