30 April 2014

Spring garden 2014

Spring garden 2014: view from garden beds toward house

You guys, it was over 90F out today: the hottest day so far this year. For now, it's a novelty, but let's get real. Summer is almost on us. We have about a month or so until the temperatures stop bobbing up and down and settle into a steady 80-85.

You've probably heard about (or experienced) the near-total lack of rain in California this spring. Shit is serious. The entire state is in drought for the first time in 15 years. Just look at this map from the US Drought Monitor. YIKES. Water rationing hasn't started yet; evidently rationing is more complicated than it appears.

Outside, you can see the effects of the drought really easily. The grass is crisp two months before it should be. The ground is hard. The lemon balm and mint, both of which are usually super rampant, only take up about 2/3 as much space as they did last year. You can sit on the ground with no threat of damp pants. So although the plants themselves look pretty good so far, I am feeling concerned about the garden.

Let's have a tour.

lemon tree with fruit and flowers

When you go out the side door of our house, this lemon tree nearly clocks you in the face. It's full of both mature lemons and new blossoms. The branches bow really dramatically under the weight of the fruit. When you pick a ripe lemon, they spring back and bounce up and down.

lemon balm and water mint

In the side bed, there is indeed a bunch of lemon balm and mint. The darker, smoother leaves are the mint. These guys normally make themselves seen in late January, with the first rains. This year they came up in March.

I know what to do with mint: dry it and make all kinds of iced mint tea. The lemon balm is a little harder. I did make a batch of fresh tea with some the other day, but I'm not sure whether I like it yet. It was surprisingly vegetal, almost like a spinach-lemon tea. I think I need to try it iced.

chives in bloom

The chives are doing really well, although those blossoms are pretty early. They are usually a pretty early herb in general, though. I like to make chive vinegar out of the blossoms and throw the chives themselves in practically everything I make.

If you go around the back of the house, you run smack into a bank of pineapple guava blossoms.

pineapple guava blossoms and foliage

There are a million of them. I may be exaggerating just little, but not much. The tree overhangs our entire backyard, and it is entirely full of flowers. The bees LOVE it. We have a bee-loud glade in our backyard right now, is what I'm saying. It's really nice not to have to worry about not attracting enough pollinators. There is no shortage.

You can eat pineapple guava blossoms, but we usually don't. They're soft and faintly tropical-fruity.

volunteer caspian pink tomato seedling

In the actual garden bed, the key players are the two tomato plants. They're both volunteer seedlings from the Caspian Pink tomato I planted last year. They may have gotten cross-pollinated with the other tomatoes, but I don't care. As long as there are a bunch of home-grown tomatoes, everything will be fine.

Of course, with tomatoes you have to worry about water. These guys are in partial shade--Caspian Pink is a partial shade tomato, which I got especially for that purpose--so the water will have a fighting chance not to evaporate instantly. I feel fairly hopeful there.

red bell pepper seedling

Otherwise, the bed is filled with a mishmash of delightful things. This guy is a red bell pepper. There's a jalapeno pepper plant which is looking partially eaten and may need a replacement, and a volunteer potato, also a bit eaten. I have a bunch of scattered scallions and garlic looking like random blades of grass. The peppers at least should be happy on water restriction. Otherwise, I can mulch.

Spring garden 2014: view from back door with pineapple guava tree

Yeah. I like my garden. I would like to keep it alive. We'll see how it goes.

How are your gardens going this spring?

20 April 2014

Broccolini vinaigrette with chopped egg and red onion

Broccolini vinaigrette with chopped egg and red onion

Everyone has been on the asparagus bandwagon lately. I have too. The roasted asparagus is just jumping onto our plates. But you know what? So are all the other spring vegetables.

How about broccolini?

No one is singing the praises of broccolini this spring. Why not? It's tender, delicious, sweet, and available in nice bunches for your eating pleasure. Go get some!

Broccolini and broccoli rabé are not quite the same thing. Broccolini is sweeter and has bigger, floppier blossoms; broccoli rabé is more bitter, with tighter, more broccoli-like blossoms. They're close enough to each other that they're frequently mislabeled, and they're definitely interchangeable in recipes, but the two flavors will be a little different. If you prefer a more tender green, broccolini is the way to go; if bitter greens are your thing, broccoli rabé. Either one should make a delicious salad.

You can, of course, make this with asparagus too, but why not go for something completely different?

Broccolini vinaigrette with chopped egg and red onion

Broccolini vinaigrette with chopped egg and red onion

red onion
hard-boiled egg
olive oil
lemon wedge
salt & pepper

If you need to hard-boil an egg, do it in advance. I boil mine for eight to nine minutes, depending on size, and ice them immediately when done. You can use whatever method you like best.

Start by trimming the ends of as much broccolini as you want to eat. I used half a small bunch for one lunch-sized serving; a whole bunch could serve two for lunch or three to four as a side.

Steam your broccolini over boiling water. After three minutes, pull out all the thinner stems. Continue to steam the thicker stems for about two more minutes before pulling them as well. (If you're using broccoli rabé, you may need to add a few minutes to the steaming time.) Let them sit for a minute to let the clinging water evaporate, but don't shock them in cold water unless you want a cold salad.

While your broccolini is steaming and resting, finely mince a slice or two of red onion. You can also use shallot if you like. Peel your hard-boiled egg and finely mince it as well. You'll want about half an egg per serving; I left the second half of mine whole and just ate it alongside my broccolini with some salt and extra red onion.

Dress your broccolini in a light drizzle of olive oil, turning to coat all sides. Arrange the pieces on a plate. Squeeze a lemon wedge over all, scatter with a tablespoon of red onion and one of egg, and season with salt and pepper.

It's so good.

What new spring vegetables are you most excited to eat?

15 April 2014

Strawberry ginger yogurt smoothie

Strawberry ginger yogurt smoothie

It's spring and my system wants all the fresh berries as immediately as possible.

That means it's time for...a smoothie with no banana!

I don't know about you guys, but I cannot stand frozen bananas in smoothies. For a long time, this made me think I didn't like smoothies. (Well, this plus my continued distaste for washing the blender.) But I was wrong, because guess what I can sub in? Yogurt.

So the ubiquitous vat of plain yogurt isn't just for curries, garnishes, and labneh anymore -- it's also my standby for cramming my face full of as much fresh fruit and veg as possible. Hooray!

I broke out the new spring strawberries and went to work.

Strawberries and ginger are an amazing combination in my book, so I punched up this smoothie with a chunk of fresh ginger. If you find the zing of ginger too strong, you can add a small apple, peeled and chopped, but be aware that the yogurt will tame it a bit too. Personally, I prefer the full-zing version, but both are very good. It's up to you and your taste buds. And of course you can always add more ginger for the most exciting smoothie in the land!

I used a standard plain full-fat yogurt for this smoothie. If you happen to have Greek yogurt instead, you can halve the amount and thin your smoothie accordingly with the milk of your choice. It's all good.

Strawberry ginger yogurt smoothie

Strawberry ginger yogurt smoothie

3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced or grated
1 1/2 cups chopped strawberries
(optional apple)

Put everything in a blender, with the yogurt on the bottom and the strawberries on top. Liquefy thoroughly. Pour into the glass of your choosing and drink. Makes approximately 1 pint.

Strawberry ginger yogurt smoothie

This smoothie makes a perfect breakfast or mid-morning break on those days when you can't quite bring yourself to eat something hot. So good!

How are you eating your fresh spring strawberries? Any fantastic smoothies in your current rotation?

11 April 2014

Roasted beet salad with butter lettuce and sliced eggs

Salads are the best. Salads that fulfill the lunch quota for the day are even better.

This time I went for a contrast in temperature and texture as well as flavor. Beets and eggs still warm from cooking over cool, crunchy lettuce, covered with a tangy, herby vinaigrette? Perfect. I ate a plateful for lunch, had a sliced apple for dessert, and was thus well prepared for an afternoon's work. Yay!

For an added bonus, you can absolutely make 90% of this salad in advance. Roasted beets, hard-boiled eggs, and vinaigrette all keep quite well for a good week, so you can have a prep party and get all of them ready on a long, lazy weekend afternoon. A few days later, when you discover that you need to eat lunch immediately, you can assemble it on the spot and go.

I kept this salad super simple, with only three main ingredients, but you can absolutely up the fance factor if you so desire. A handful of toasted almonds or walnuts, some beautifully garlicky croutons, or a scattering of crumbled feta or goat cheese would all be excellent over hearty, earthy-sweet beets. Extra crunch and tang? Yes, please.

Roasted beet salad with butter lettuce and sliced eggs

2-3 small beets or 1 large
2 eggs
butter lettuce
salt & pepper
vinaigrette of your choice

To roast your beets: Preheat the oven to 400F while you scrub your beets under running water. Trim the stems, saving the leaves for the braised, stir-fried, or ensoupenated application of your choice.

Wrap the beets in foil, put them in a small casserole dish, and roast for about 45 to 60 minutes, or until tender to the point of a knife.

When your beets are done, give them a few minutes to cool, and then slip off the skins with your fingers. Slice into whatever size pieces you prefer.

To hard-boil your eggs: put your eggs in a small pot with a lid and cover them with water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, for eight minutes for large eggs and nine for extra-large.

Immediately remove the pan from the heat, drain off the hot water, and cover your hot eggs with cold water and ice. When cool enough to handle, peel under running water. Slice.

To assemble your salad: Wash and spin dry your lettuce. Tear or chop it into bite-sized pieces.

Arrange your lettuce on a plate. Top with your beets and eggs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with vinaigrette. I did a simple oil-vinegar-dijon combination with some added parsley, but I think this herb vinaigrette would be good too. Even a squeeze of lemon would be good.

Beautiful and delicious.

What salads are you eating this spring?

08 April 2014

Grilled cheese, apples, pickles!

Grilled cheese, apples, pickles!

Evidently April is national grilled cheese month, which is good, because I already made and ate two or three different iterations of this lunch, and if you cook something that much, you really need to talk about it on the internet. Even if what you kept making was a sandwich. Yes.

So: grilled cheese.


Grilled cheese in a cast-iron pan

Grilled cheese: dijon mustard and sharp cheddar on Veronica's homemade sourdough, grilled in unsalted butter in a cast iron pan. It's the classic for a reason, and the reason is that it's unbelievably delicious. Yeah!

Apples: organic gala. Cut them up!

Refrigerator dill pickle spears

Pickles: super easy and fast overnight refrigerator pickles made with English cucumber. I threw a couple peppercorns in there too. If you have never made refrigerator pickles, OH MAN. Go get yourself a cucumber and some vinegar. It takes five minutes and is so worth it.

Put everything on a plate and go to town.


03 April 2014

Spaghetti with all-the-veg sauce

AKA: "what to do with that eggplant you found in your crisper."

On the surface, this looks like a very ordinary plate of spaghetti--but when you get past the surface, you find all the vegetables in the land.

The real story is that I LOVE eggplant. Eggplant! And I love tomato sauces stuffed with not only eggplant, but nearly every other vegetable I can get my hands on. Onion and garlic are obvious choices; bell peppers of all colors are a natural match with tomato; carrots enhance the flavor while providing their own interesting little note of sweetness. So the other night I wanted to put all of these vegetables into a punchy, spicy, and still comforting tomato sauce, and to eat it over a giant plate of as much pasta as I could possibly eat.

There was only one problem: the pasta I wanted (and had lying around) was spaghetti. A chunky sauce really, really does not work with a long, thin pasta. What to do?

Obviously, the answer was the stick blender. A pureed sauce with all the veg in the land? Perfect for coating a massive pile of long, thin pasta. So I broke out half the crisper and got to work.

Spaghetti with all-the-veg sauce

olive oil
red bell pepper
tomato puree/sauce/etc
salt, pepper, red pepper flake, oregano, basil
fresh parsley to garnish
spaghetti, vermicelli, or other long pasta
immersion blender!

The amounts here are all variable depending on what vegetables you have on hand. Use what you love.

Start by warming some olive oil in a wide saute pan. Add a chopped yellow onion and let it soften while you mince a handful of garlic cloves and peel and cube an eggplant. Peeling is important since we want the eggplant to really meld in here. I used an entire long, thin eggplant, but you can use as much as you like.

Add your garlic and eggplant to your pan along with a pinch of salt. Stir together and cook for a good ten minutes, or until your eggplant has turned golden brown and begun to collapse. If things start to stick to the pan, shy away from adding extra oil; eggplant will drink it up as fast as it can, and you'll end up with super-greasy sauce. Instead, a splash of water can help loosen things up.

Scrub and chop a carrot or two and dice up a red pepper. Add these to the pan, season with red pepper flake, oregano, and basil to taste, and mix it all together. Give the carrot and red pepper about five minutes to soften before you add your tomato.

Season with a bit more salt, bring to a simmer, and let cook for another ten minutes or so, or until your eggplant is completely cooked through. If your sauce starts to get too thick, add a little water. Otherwise, just stir things up occasionally.

While you're waiting, cook your pasta. Try to time it so it'll be done at approximately the same time as your sauce.

When your sauce is ready, turn off the heat and puree it with your immersion blender. Taste and correct seasonings, being sure to add some black pepper. Drain your finished pasta, add it to the sauce, and mix well. Keep warm over the lowest heat setting while you wash the pasta pot; this will give your pasta a chance to absorb some of the flavors of the sauce. Stir in a handful of fresh parsley, and you are done.

Serve yourself a gigantic serving of pasta, garnish with even more parsley, and eat with gusto. I had a very simple salad of butter lettuce on the side, for even more vegetable goodness.

How are you eating your spaghetti lately? Does anyone else love eggplant enough to melt one in its entirety into a vat of pasta sauce? I obviously do.