Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Timing the garden

Our spring came later than usual this year in central Kentucky. The beginning of the month was as dry as August and filled with encouraging sunshine. But it only takes a day for clouds, rain and cool winds to reappear and remind us it’s not summer yet. That’s what we have this week.

Gardeners pay attention to the weather because it’s important. The vegetables I have in the ground now are thriving because this is when they like to grow. Lettuce, spinach, arugula, onions, potatoes, beets, peas, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage are all happily opening their arms to the drizzle and the cool nights. The weather will make them sweet, crisp and filled with flavor. This is their season.

Just last week the warm weather dangled temptation in front of many gardeners, including my husband. “When are you going to plant your tomatoes?” he asked as he eyed the healthy plants I grew from seed. He encouraged me to go ahead and put a few of them in the ground. I declined. In Kentucky it’s never a good idea to put summer crops in the ground until some time in May.

If you’re new to gardening and unsure about the timing of setting our your plants, check with your local agricultural extension office. When I first started gardening, a friend gave me a gardening guide from the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service that included earliest and latest safe planting dates. Just last year I picked up an updated version. It’s invaluable, especially on those tempting days of spring.

Monday, April 26, 2010

First garden meal of the season

Jim and I are fans of the television show Chopped and he’s been promising to give me a Chopped challenge. It came on Sunday in our modified version—prepare an entrée plate, no time limit, with fresh garden asparagus, onions, arugula and radishes.

So I went to work. All of those great veggies sounded like they would pair nicely with rice and fish, so I first got out two salmon fillets to unthaw. Then I put on a pot of brown rice to cook. Next, I sliced the onions thinly and put them in a sauté pan with olive oil and a little butter and salt to slowly caramelize them. We love onions that way!

With the longest cooking items on, I turned the oven on 425 degrees then cut the asparagus in one to two inch pieces, tossed it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and put it in to roast. I also prepared the salmon with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and put it in approximately 10 minutes later. Remember, you only need a small amount of salt to bring out flavors; no need to go overboard because then you’ll only taste salt.

As the rice cooked, I considered what to add to it. I decided to head outside to check out the herbs. I cut some oregano, parsley and sage. I put the sage into the pan where I was slowly browning some butter and two whole garlic cloves. Then I chopped the oregano and added it to the cooked rice, along with chopped arugula and a little bit of freshly grated parmesan cheese. I used that as the bed for the salmon (topped with fresh parsley) and the onions and asparagus, which I mixed. On the side, I placed a fresh arugula and radish salad, a piece of parmesan flatbread (leftover) and a bowl of tomato soup (leftover also).

Since the sun was shining, I suggested we eat outside, which turned out to be a wonderful choice for our first garden meal of the season. By the way, it might not have gotten me anywhere in a competition but Jim gave the whole thing a 10 and didn’t even add salt. This recipe is a keeper!

Friday, April 23, 2010

A week of exploring rhubarb

Yes, it’s been exploration week. Rhubarb stays good in the refrigerator for about a week, so I wanted to use some of it fresh while I could. It has lots of Vitamin K and calcium plus some other healthy goodies plus I didn't want to lose out on the flavor. So I began my search for rhubarb recipes.

Recipe #1: Rhubarb pie. There are plenty of recipes out there for this favorite. I wish I had my grandmother’s recipe because it’s my mom’s favorite pie. We liked the one I made, although we agreed that to get the true rhubarb flavor, it needed less sugar to allow the sour to bite through a tad.

Recipe #2: Lentils and rhubarb stew. This one wasn’t such a hit. In fact, it’s probably the lowest rated recipe Jim ever agreed to give me an opinion on. This dish, which I found online, was way too sour and just tasted odd. But being the leftover queen that I have become, there was no chance I would throw it out. Instead, I made brown rice last night to combine with it. I also used our canned tomatoes for tomato soup to accompany it. That made it a whole new meal that wasn’t bad, although I still don’t think I’ll try the stew again.

Recipe #3: Rhubarb slaw. I haven’t tried this one yet, or the Rhubarb lemonade recipe my friend Shirley sent to me. I think she said she got them from a magazine. After the lentil stew experiment, I’m a little afraid to try either one. Yet, when I summon my courage, I’ll cut more rhubarb and try them both.

In the meantime, I’m going to freeze the remaining rhubarb in the refrigerator (cut into piece, freeze on a tray then bag) so I can make Mom her pie the next time I see her.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Canned and frozen vegetables combine for good flavors

We harvested our first rhubarb this weekend. I made pie, which was delicious, but I plan to experiment with some savory rhubarb dishes as well. In the meantime, here's what else we've been eating . . .

I still have a few vegetables in the freezer and more on the shelves, so I’ve been trying to use more of them recently to accompany our meals. It’s fun to create new combinations of flavors and see which we like the best. Here are two that worked well for us.

Brown Garden Gumbo
1 quart jar canned green beans
1 quart jar canned tomatoes
½ bag frozen okra
Salt, pepper and red pepper

Cook together until the okra is cooked. Season to your taste.

Brown Garden Peas and Carrots
1 onion
1 pint jar carrots
1 bag frozen snow peas
Salt, pepper, garlic powder

Slice onion thinly. Carmelize by cooking slowing with a little salt in olive oil for 20 minutes or so. Add carrots and peas. Season with salt, pepper and garlic or garlic powder to taste.

Friday, April 16, 2010

School gardens offer inspiration

This week I’ve been working on an article about school gardens and my visits to the schools have inspired me. About 15 years ago when I did some similar articles, I primarily found native gardens designed to attract birds or butterflies. Certainly, native gardens are a wonderful teaching tool and they restore natural habitat to our environment with plants that require less care and water than others.

Since then, many schools have expanded their gardening efforts to also include composting of cafeteria waste, collecting water in rain barrels, recycling and growing vegetables. Their efforts not only teach the students about science and where that food from the grocery comes from, it also provides a way for them to connect with one another, nature and God while doing something that is sustainable for the long term. What a powerful combination!

Most of these schools take the organic approach to gardening, which I’ve also been studying a little further this week as some of my plants come up and I wait to plant more seed. I’m trying a combination of bone meal (three parts), blood meal (two parts) and kelp meal (one part) that is a recommended mixture that should have the balance most gardens need. I found the bone meal and blood meal locally, but had to order the kelp meal online.

I also stopped by a greenhouse this week that carries Neptune’s Harvest fish fertilizer. (When I asked for fish fertilizer, the clerk thought I wanted to fertilize fish in an aquarium.) It’s a good all-around fertilizer. I use it on my plants once they’ve established themselves nicely.

The warm weather has been tempting me to plant more, but I know the cold could yet return. I’m still holding out until May to plant most of what I have yet to do. And in the meantime, I’ll keep watering my sprouting plants and remembering the joy of a third-grade student who shouted to his classmates when he uncovered a wiggling red worm in the soil.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Developing a taste for tomatoes

I’ve moved most of my seedlings outside to be nourished by this unusually warm sunshine that we’re having in April. They stand happily, toughening up and growing before it’s time to put them in the ground. I’m always especially happy to see the tomato plants growing slowly into their promise of strong stems that lead to abundant fruits.

I used to hate tomatoes—couldn’t stand the texture of a fresh tomato in my mouth. I ate catsup, spaghetti sauce and a number of other foods made from cooked tomatoes. But most of my friends knew I wouldn’t put into my mouth even a cherry tomato topping a green salad.

Then I went through nutritional counseling with a holistic nurse while I underwent treatment for breast cancer. She advised me to eat tomatoes daily so I could absorb that all-important lycopene that is a powerful antioxidant. The good news she gave me was that tomatoes develop more lycopene when they are cooked, so the sauces I already liked would give me what I needed. But because of her encouragement, I also made a new attempt at eating fresh tomatoes. Here’s what I discovered.

While I was recovering from cancer, Jim and I took a trip to Ireland and Italy to celebrate. On our first day in Italy, we stopped at an outdoor café near the Vatican. Jim ordered tomato salad, fresh tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil on top. Because I love cheese, I decided to try one. Much to my surprise, I actually liked it! Perhaps the cheese disguised the slimy texture of the tomato but I think it also had to do with the fact that this tomato was sweet, not acidic.

So when I came home, I went on a mission to find a sweet Italian tomato to grow in my garden. Then I searched for the ideal sauce tomato. Here’s what I’ve come up with that I grow every year.

Constaluto Genovese—a sweet, slicing tomato that pairs beautifully with cheese or anything else.

San Marzano—a paste tomato that always grows a little larger in my garden than the typical Romas.

Cherokee Purple—an heirloom tomato that grows into a pretty color. I primarily use these for cooking but Jim likes them fresh on his sandwiches.

Oxheart—another heirloom that my friend Angela introduced me to a few years ago. They get really large and, again, they’re pretty.

There is something to be said for being tempted to eat something because of its beauty.

I don’t find these tomato plants to be available locally which is why I order seed and grow them myself. Give one of them a try this year. I hope this year’s babies will keep maturing so we can look forward to plenty of ripe fruits once again.