Guest Post: I Wish I Were a Gardener

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I never wanted this blog to only be about my kitchen garden so, from time to time, you’ll see guest posts from gardeners I’ve been fortunate enough to meet during my time in this world.  This first post is written by a friend of mine who gardens in about a zone 8 where the hot, humid summers have everyone seeking air conditioned space and the best growing season is from fall to spring with a couple-of-days break for winter in between.  Lisa and I met in a book group and I always looked forward to when it was her turn to host since she made the best food (and served the best cocktails).  This was a few years before she started writing her lisa is cooking blog, a popular read on her attempts to actually use her vast collection of cookbooks.  I didn’t think she’d mind expanding on her subject and asked her if she would describe the delicious connection between her kitchen and her garden.  Enjoy!

I thought I knew gardening from watching my parents and grandparents grow vegetables in Illinois. It looked easy enough. When the weather finally warmed up, tomato plants, potatoes, and lettuce, radish, green bean, cabbage, zucchini, and carrot seeds went into the ground. It rained occasionally, things grew, we ate those things, everyone had too much zucchini, and that was vegetable gardening. After planting tomatoes for the first time in Austin, Texas, I realized that gardening in central Texas is not gardening in central Illinois, and maybe I don’t really know edible gardening as well as I thought. What I do know is that buying herbs at the grocery store is expensive. You end up with too much or not enough, and it’s much simpler to walk outside and snip exactly what you need. So, after accepting the space limitations of the area of my edible garden and really considering how much time I could devote to watering and maintenance, I realized that what would make me very happy in the way of gardening was to have as many herbs as possible with a few edible flowers.

A flexible herb and edible flower planting plan.

A flexible herb and edible flower planting plan.

Origanum heracleoticum aka Greek oregano

Origanum heracleoticum aka Greek oregano

Kirsten created a garden plan and planting guide for me, and I’m still trying to do the plan justice. In the winter, my garden gets more direct sun because nearby trees have lost their leaves. In the summer, a little shade isn’t a bad thing when the sun is at its most punishing, and one side of the garden is shaded more than the other. That means I have to plant things strategically. I have oregano on the sunny side, and that’s one thing that always does well. It survives a freeze, lives through the whole winter, keeps going strong in the heat of the summer, and adds great flavor to pizza sauces and Greek salads. I also make sure that sage gets plenty of sun, and my luck with sage is so-so. It will do well for about a year, but I’ve never had sage survive longer than that. I now know to only expect cilantro and parsley to live from fall to spring. Although, I once planted parsley on the shadier side of the garden, and it lived through the summer. Cilantro, however, is chopped and made into pesto when it gets tall and starts flowering. Pizza with cilantro pesto and sliced chicken sausage is a celebration of the end of cilantro season. Now, mint is another matter. I know how easy mint is supposed to be to grow. I’ve even read about how one should plant mint in a container in the ground so as to prevent the roots from spreading. Mint will take over your garden, I hear. It doesn’t take over mine since it never lives for long. I have no idea why I can’t grow mint, but I keep trying.

Calendula officinalis aka calendula or pot marigold

Calendula officinalis aka calendula or pot marigold

Tropaeolum majus aka nasturtium

Tropaeolum majus aka nasturtium

Laurus nobilis aka bay laurel

Laurus nobilis aka bay laurel

One of my favorite plants is my lemongrass which I love to use in Thai dishes and chicken soups, and I keep meaning to steep some in apple cider but haven’t tried that yet. It dies back in the winter, but it seems to get a little bigger each summer when it’s happiest. I now have four Chinese chive plants which provide visual structure in the garden and herby garlickyness in spicy chicken in lettuce cups. Kirsten gave me two plants, and I successfully divided them which is why I now have four. They don’t die back during the winter, so they’re always there bringing order to the rest of the chaos. I also have a bay laurel tree which was a gift from a neighbor years ago, and it’s so convenient to be able to grab fresh bay leaves for soups and stocks. The tree is in a large container in the middle of the garden, and it’s evergreen as well. From fall to spring, I like to have arugula and lettuces growing, but I was late in getting the seeds planted this year. I’m hoping I’ll be able to have a salad or two before the hot weather arrives and the plants wither. I completely missed the time frame for growing nasturtiums this year, but last year I had great luck with them and used the leaves in a peppery aioli. I’ve also enjoyed having violas in the past which can be candied and used for decorating cakes, and the petals of calendula flowers, which also grow best from fall to spring here, add nice color to salads and rice dishes.

banana_500

Banana

Ocimum sp. aka basil

Ocimum sp. aka basil

Beyond my little garden’s borders, I have herbs like rosemary, Mexican mint marigold, and Mexican oregano growing as ornamentals in my front yard. Since those three grow well, it’s easy enough to snip what I need and still have plenty of plant remaining for visual appeal. Another ornamental that has culinary uses is the banana plant. Here in Austin, our winters aren’t warm enough to easily grow banana fruit, but the leaves are good for wrapping tamales or enclosing fish to be grilled. Other herbs like lavender and basil are planted in containers that sit on my porch. I keep basil in pots so I can move them to get enough sun but not too much during the extreme heat. I’m so used to having at least a couple of varieties of basil growing from about April through at least early December that I never buy basil at the grocery store. I go without for the few months that it doesn’t grow well outside and then enjoy it even more when I have it. I’ve learned a lot about what grows well in my garden and what doesn’t, and I’m always amazed at what other people are able to grow in their gardens. Figuring out what works, what you use, and what’s delicious might be the key to being a good gardener. Now, if I could just figure out how to properly grow mint.

Nasturtium:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/04/nasturtium-jalapeno-aioli.html

Basil:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2008/10/basil-oil.html

Arugula:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/05/roasted-potato-leek-soup.html

Mexican Mint Marigold:
http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/2009/04/grilled-halibut-with-tomato-butter.html

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Eating: Enchiladas

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

When we moved into this Edmonton neighborhood it was because the house wasn’t hideous, it was convenient to my sister, it had a garage, and the landlady was enthusiastic about us ripping up some lawn and planting a food garden.  The bonus, the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, if you will, was that we also got a couple of wonderful neighbors! 

You know the kind – willing to water the garden for you when you go on a two-week vacation (or worry about shutting off the irrigation when it rains every day you’re gone);driving you to the airport 20 minutes away and then offering to (no matter the day or time) pick you up again; invite you over for backyard barbeques that last well into the night even though y’all have to get up and go to work the next day but you don’t care because this, eating and laughing with friends, is what life is all about; offering seedlings and transplants and vegetables and preserves…

Which is how I got around to making enchiladas the other night.

Mirka and Chris, the aforementioned icing on the cake, and newbie gardeners, decided to try growing tomatilloes, a Tex-Mex staple, by the way.  Despite their inexperience and unfamiliarity with this fruit/vegetable, they had such success that it turned into their own version of zucchini  – as in, they were beginning to think they’d have to leave anonymous bags of the stuff on doorways around the ‘hood.  Eventually, as winter approached, the harvest tapered off and they were left with a lovely collection of canned tomatillo salsa to tide them over until spring.

A jar of summer

A jar of summer

Again, because they are the cherry on top, we received a jar of the salsa – which I hoarded for several weeks before deciding what to do with it.  Finally, in a moment of homesickness, missing my favorite dish of enchiladas verde at El Sol y la Luna in Austin, I decided to whip up my own version.

Because all the store-bought versions of tortillas I can find seem to have dough conditioners and perservatives, I decided to make my own version.  Using the Yellow Cornmeal Crepes recipe in my 1976 Better Homes and Gardens Crepes Cookbook, that I’ve had so long I don’t know where I got it from, I created my own facsimile of tortillas.  (Sorry, but I don’t want to do copyright infringement and post the recipe so maybe this will be a good substitute.)

Next, I sauteed half of a diced onion, a minced garlic clove, and half of a diced red pepper until soft in a cast iron frying pan with a little oil over medium heat.  Then I added about a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of ground cumin, a quarter of a cup of chopped cilantro, and a tablespoon of chopped pickled jalapenos.  While those ingredients had been cooking, I’d shredded about a cup of meat from a chicken I’d roasted the night before and I added that to the vegetables until the chicken was warm and coated with spices.  I guessed that the amount of filling would be enough for 7 crepes/tortillas.

Ingredients ready to be assembled.

Ingredients ready to be assembled.

I took a casserole dish, big enough to accommodate the rolled enchiladas in a single layer, and popped the top off the jar of tomatillo salsa.  A little taste of the tangy green sauce told me whether I’d need to add more heat (I didn’t) or more spice (nope) – it was good right out of the jar.  I spread a thin layer on the bottom of the casserole dish and then assembled my enchiladas – a tablespoon or so of filling spread in a line in the center of the crepe/tortilla, roll, place seam side down in dish.  Once the enchiladas were all in, I smothered them with the tomatillo salsa and a cup and a half of grated Monterey Jack cheese, and put them into a 350 deg. F. oven until the cheese melted.

If you want to be really authentic a la El Sol y la Luna, you serve the enchiladas with Spanish rice, black or refried beans, and chopped tomatoes.

My apologies for not having a picture of the finished dish but we were so hungry and it smelled so good that I’d dished it out and eaten it before I thought to take a picture!  And the embarrassing thing was that we didn’t even share with the neighbors who’d been so generous to us!  But I’ll remedy that soon; when Mirka found out that I hadn’t taken a picture, she gave me another jar of salsa so I could make it again – next time I’ll be sure to call over the fence and invite the cherries over.

 

Eating: Pasta e Fagioli

Thursday, December 31st, 2009
Nothing like a comforting bowl of soup using your harvest's vegetables

Nothing like a comforting bowl of soup using your harvest's vegetables

I think soup is an almost perfect food.

In one pot you can create endless variations that can result in hearty, stick-to-your-ribs winter fare or light, frothy, heat-quenchers for summer. The former was what I went for last week. The combination of colder-than-normal temperatures and a need to make some room in the freezer had me hunting for a soup recipe utilizing chard (another marvellous thing about soup is the way you can really cram in those vegetables). I decided to make Pasta e Fagioli, loosely basing it on a recipe from ‘Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant’.

  • Saute 1 chopped onion, 2 sliced carrots, and 2 sliced celery stalks in some oil in a large pot.
  • When the onion starts to turn translucent, add 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of rosemary.
  • Saute a couple of minutes before adding 3/4 lb. chard (mostly leaves) and cook until wilted.
  • Add a 28-oz. can of tomatoes and a 15-oz. can of chickpeas with liquid. Also add about 4 cups of water.
  • I had some pre-cooked turkey sausage that needed to be used so I chopped it up and added it to the soup at this point. An alternative that I made the other day was, instead of the sausage, I put in 1/2 lb. of frozen bush beans.
  • Salt to taste – I used a couple of teaspoons. Lots of black pepper.
  • Simmer gently, covered, for about a half hour.
  • I had some leftover spinach lasagna noodles that I sliced up and put in the bottom of each soup bowl but you can cook up any chunky pasta you have (cook it seperately or, even easier, throw the dry pasta into the pot with along with the tomatoes, beans, and water). A little grating of parmesan cheese and some toast made from a country loaf topped it off.

Soup is such a basic food but, as I said, has many variations. I’d love to hear some of yours…