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Monday, September 9, 2013

Lettuce all Year Long! or How to Grow Great Greens in the heat.

It was 2008 when I first wrote about lettuce and in celebration of the fact that I have had varieties of lettuce in my garden for an entire year I am again singing the praises of growing lettuce. Because I like my home grown lettuce so much, every year I have tried to stretch the growing window, not an easy feat in the heat and humidity of Northeast Florida. Most lettuces get very unhappy as soon as temperatures top 90 degrees so in previous years, my lettuce production declined and slowly ended sometime in July. Not this year! We have had our usual wet, humid and hot summer with daytime temperatures in to 90's and nights in the 70's. Not your usual lettuce growing weather but this year my lettuce production has stretched into September and I have a new crop of seeds planted and sprouted.

arugula in August heat

Why grow your own lettuce?

Grow your own lettuce because it tastes better and I know it has NO chemicals on it. There is also a price consideration. One package of arugula seeds costs less than $2. I plant 2 packages of arugula a year (in 4 plantings.) One bag of organic arugula costs close to $5.
Grow lettuce because it is easy! You can grow it is a pot, in a flower bed, a raised bed and it is not very picky about the sun conditions. Most lettuce seed packs say to plant in full sun. I do plant in full sun in the winter and early spring. By late spring I am planting in partial shade or filtered light to provide protection from our hot North Florida summers. Lettuce is not very picky about the cold either. I have had varieties grow right through the winter.

How to grow lettuce
Select the right varieties for your area. You can find out what zone you are in by using this map. Plant Hardiness Map by Zip Code. I am in zone 9A. I am looking for varieties that are heat tolerant. A general rule is that the leafy lettuces don't perform well in the heat. My go to lettuces particularly for the warmer months  are arugula and other spicy lettuces like endive, chicory, radicchio, and Mizuna. I also use various other greens for salads. When young and tender, mustard greens, collard greens, kale and Swiss chard all make delicious salads.

My favorite mustard greens, Giant Red Mustard and Ruby Streaks Both are beautiful in flower beds.

Planting lettuce tips

  1. Check the back of the seed pack for planting depth and don't plant seeds too deep. 
  2. Plant in well drained damp soil either directly in the ground or start in flats. Most lettuce transplants easily.
  3. Many lettuce seeds are tiny and hard not to plant too close together. You can mix the seeds with fine sand to broadcast evenly.
  4. Fertilize with 1/2 strength fertilizer and be sure to get fertilizer with micro-nutrients.
  5. As your plants grow thin if necessary. The thinings are delicious
  6. You can harvest you greens by cutting them with scissors. They will grow again for months.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Freshest Best Eggs Ever

Or Backyard Chickens the easy way
Or How I went to the feed store for feed and came home with a tiny flock to feed
Teenage chickens Barbara and Susan, who are named after my sisters.
Susan is quite exotic and she lays pale green eggs.

My entree into backyard poultry did not come with much planning. I went to the feed store with my husband to get gardening supplies. Right inside the door was a big basket of tiny chicks.Nick got very excited and started babbling about raising chickens was easy, his grandmother did it, blah blah. I told the guy behind the cash register, "Don't sell this guy any chickens!" and went to get my stuff. Of course by the time I got back, Nick had our first flock in a box ready to go. On the way home I told Nick we don't know anything about chicken and he assured me he did. We first put our tiny feathery friends in a rabbit hutch (no we don't and never have had rabbits but Nick collects EVERYTHING). The wires were too far apart and the chicks promptly jumped out. What you see in the photo below is a much reinforced rabbit hutch. We put the whole thing in the shed with lights at night to keep our girls safe and warm.

They were very cute but the uninitiated chicken raisers should beware that little chicks do not lay any eggs for 4 or more months! Of course when they do you will have the very best eggs you have ever tasted. The yolks are a rich gold color and they taste fabulous.

How to Hard Boil Eggs.

The best hard boiled eggs are not boiled at all! My eggs are generally at room temperature because they are fresh and we don't refrigerate them. Put eggs in a saucepan and cover with at least an inch of water above the eggs. Bring water to a boil, cover pan and turn off burner. Let sit for 15 minutes. Pour off water and slightly crack the surface of the eggs. I usually do this be shaking them in the pan. Cover with very cold water and let them sit for a few minutes before peeling. Eat plain, add to salad or...

Deviled Eggs
Slice eggs in half, remove yolks and mash yolks thoroughly. Add a touch of good mayonnaise and a healthy dose of Dijon mustard. Other possible additions are:
Herbs; tarragon, thyme, basil or chives
Pickles or capers
Eggs from happy chickens. The green egg in the center was laid by Susan, an Americana bird. The weird looking ceramic bug was a Christmas present from my sister Nancy. I don't know what it was supposed to be fo but it makes a great egg caddy.

Nancy with Mary Anne behind her.

The labor pains of getting the girls to laying age are all but forgotten and there are many sources online about backyard chickens. Here are some...

 Things I have Learned being a Poultry Mama.

  1. Chickens will eat anything. Clean out your fridge and take it to the henhouse. They will also eat weeds, flowers, insect of all sorts and dirt. They have no teeth so you need to provide some kind of grit for them. We tried to smash up oyster shells until we realized you can buy them for "cheep, cheep."
  2. Chickens do not get lost and they follow the leader or top of the pecking order. Nancy is the leader of my flock, she is also the fattest and she is named after my sister (who is not fat). One time my girls got under the fence into the alley and a neighbor spotted them trying to get back in! Get one of them interested in something and they will all follow.
  3. Lock them in a secure pen at night! Cats, possums, raccoons and all kinds of varmints will consider them dinner.
  4. Don't obsess about what you need to raise chickens, just do it. We left the feed store with directions and feed. Those guys know what they are doing and if you get a sick bird, they will tell you what is wrong, sell you the antibiotics and you won't pay much. Our girls came from  Standard Feed in Jacksonville FL.
  5. Chickens LOVE sunflower seeds. I grow sunflowers for them every year. If I want them in their pen and it is not dusk (when they will go to roost naturally) I shake a container of sunflower seeds and yell "seeeeeds," They come running!
    I grew sunflowers that were over 12 feet tall in the alley next to my garden. Neighborhood beautification and chicken treats in one easy to grow plant. I have volunteers from last year's crop too!

  6. If you have had a bad day or just want some entertainment, take a glass of wine, go out to your chickens and enjoy. I sit on the steps and waggle collard greens in front of them (I grow the greens year round for the girls, just 2 plants). Chickens love to eat greens this way. They make little chickeny noises and somehow all seems right with the world. 
  7. Chickens eat bugs and worms. I have very few insect and disease problems and I grow 100% organically. The chicken free range on 2 sides of my fenced garden area. 
  8. Chickens produce great compost material. All straw and droppings from their pen go into a compost area. Sometimes I mix the soiled hay into compost and sometimes I just let it sit for 30-45 days and then use it to mulch my vegetables. What a deal... mulch and fertilizer in 1 package.
  9. They don't need lots of room. I live in the city in the historic district. Their coop is 4x8 feet with a second story roost and nesting box. They could just stay in the pen but I let them free range in a larger fenced area and sometimes under supervision they get to go in my backyard. Remember they eat bugs and worms.
So you might want to think seriously about adding some feathered friends to your family.One of my girlfriend did and she lives in an equally populated urban area. She made a coop and run out of a child's playset and it looks terrific. Many cities have ordinances allowing hens in residential areas. Jacksonville does not but a tireless group of bird lovers is trying to make that happen. Check out Hens In Jax or see them on Facebook

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Save the flavor... herbs and tomatoes

Basil, A great herb and a great dog.
Basil on my windowsill

Summer Basil

Flavorful and delicious, basil is the ultimate herb. I like basil so much I had a dog named Basil. My husband used to always say the girl dog with the herb name. All summer long I have used it in soup, salads, entrees and even in cocktails (more on that in this post). I grow it from seed starting in February and transplant it to pots or to my garden. Once picked the...

Best Way To Save Basil

Put in in a jar of water on your windowsill. It doesn't get bruised or soggy this way and it makes you kitchen smell good.

You simply cannot grow too much basil. Every September I know that the lifespan of my basil will soon be over. At the first serious dip in the temperature, basil goes from green glory to withered mess. One of my gardening pals said to...

Freeze Basil in Cube of Olive Oil

After washing and thoroughly air drying my freshest leaves of basil, I sliced the leaves thinly, mixed with olive oil and spooned into an ice cube tray. After freezing, I ran the bottom of the tray under hot water (very important or they will not come out) and then popped out the cubes of basil olive oil and put them in a plastic bag. I bet this will be delicious with pasta or in salads this winter.

My most creative foodie niece Rachael showed another great way to preserve herb flavor

Herby Cocktail Syrup

Make simple syrup using 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water. After you boil the mix and the sugar melts, take it off the stove and add herbs of your choice. here are some of my favorites.

  • Just Rosemary, thyme or basil
  • Mint and lemon or lime zest
  • Ginger (knobs of ginger not the powdered stuff)

What do you do with the syrup? Use you imagination and make cocktails with it. A little rosemary syrup is great in my favorite vodka grapefruit juice drink. Any of the syrups can be mixed with soda, a squeeze of citrus and topped with a sprig of the herb.

Years ago before I grew my own tomatoes my husband would buy home grown tomatoes and preserve them in jars with fresh basil. In the winter I would open the jars and smell summer. I grew lots of tomatoes this year and one variety in particular, the Juliette, was particularly prolific. Here is how I preserved the dearth of tomatoes.

Kind of Dried Tomatoes.

I  sliced the Juliette (plumb shaped) tomatoes into quarters and spread them out on a parchment paper lined pan. I then roasted them in a convection oven at 225 degrees for about 2 hours. They were kind of dry. When cool I put some directly into a freezer bag and some in a container with olive oil. Both are frozen so I can get my home grown tomato fix this winter.
This idea came from a salad served a a local restaurant. It was a Mediterranean inspired dish with partially dried tomatoes. The flavor is intensified and the texture divine, much better than all the way dried tomatoes.

Keeping fresh flavors is a very worthwhile effort particularly when you can do it this easily!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What to do with Kale

This most amazing vegetable is easy to grow, tasty in many preparations, low in calories and packed with nutrients. Living in Florida, I can plant Kale in the fall, plant again in the winter and this year I planted a third small crop in the late spring. My favorite varieties are Red Russian which I even planted in my front yard and Toscano which is still growing along with my tomatoes.
Red Russian Kale

  1. Kale Chips – I don’t know who first came up with this idea but it is a delicious alternative to all those processed food snacks. Simple preheat your oven to 350 degrees, tear dry kale into chip size, toss with a little olive oil, add seasoning if you wish (anything, garlic, hot sauce), spread on cookie sheets and bake till crisp, about 25 minutes. Dust lightly with sea salt and serve!
  2. Kale and bean soup – This does not have to be complicated! Sauté onions, possible carrots, possibly celery and garlic. Tear or cut kale into bit sized pieces and add to sauté mix. Cook briefly Add can of rinsed white beans, (any kind) and some vegetable or chicken stock and freshly ground pepper. I always mix packaged stock with water because the flavor is otherwise too strong.  Simmer 20-30 minutes until all is tender. Serve with Romano or parmesean cheese grated on top and crusty bread. Other variations could include Italian sausage, ham, chicken and sometimes I combine the kale with collard or mustard greens.
  3. Kale sauté - Sauté chopped kale in olive oil. At the end add minced garlic. Take off heat and add a good squeeze of lemon and fresh ground pepper. Grate a little lemon rind on top. You can also add toasted hazelnuts or almonds to this. Delicious.
  4. Kale & Parmesan salad – Stack kale leaves in a pile and roll them up. Slice kale into thin ribbons. Add a splash of olive oil and a good squeeze of lemon and fresh ground pepper. Grate a little lemon rind on top. You can also add toasted hazelnuts or almonds to this. Delicious. Notice how this is just like the Kale sauté only the kale is raw? I often use Locatelli Romano cheese instead pf Parmesan. Both are salty and that’s why I do not say add salt. Taste first and you may not need it!
  5. Asian Kale Salad – tear kale into bite sized pieces and sprinkle with salt. Add a little splash of olive oil and massage the kale to make it tender. Don’t overdo this step or it will become mushy. Add thinly sliced cabbage (red cabbage or Nappa cabbage or just regular green cabbage), dried cranberries, raisins or cherries and grated carrots. Dress lightly with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, grated fresh ginger, and a little honey.  Sometimes I throw in a little sesame seed oil. You can also top with sliced toasted almonds or some other nut you are fond of. This is terrific!  Pictured above is Kale salad with fresh mango and crumbled goat cheese.
For me a recipe is only a rough draft. Take any of these ideas and add whatever you like to make them you own.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tomato Time

Tomato Pizza Margarita
Tomatoes with eggplant and feta, served with grilled lamb chops and roasted sweet potatoes.

Debbie floods my street and sidewalk
One of the very best vegetables to grow is tomatoes mainly because tomatoes taste the very worst if you buy the grown-to- ship not to taste varieties sold in grocery stores. This year I grew 16 varieties of tomatoes almost all heirlooms in the most challenging weather conditions ever! There was the drought that went on forever, followed by tropical storm Beryl (she dumped 8+ inches followed by every bug known to tomatoes.) Then came tropical storm Debbie with flooded streets, pools of water all over the yard and some very unhappy chickens! (I have 5 in my urban flock.) Miraculously, we have enjoyed tomatoes for the past month along with the 4 different varieties of basil from my garden. Here are some of my favorite tomato dishes.

  1. Caprese salad. Nothing better! layer slabs of tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella cheese. Salt, pepper and olive oil are all you need. If you want to gild the lily, drizzle with balsamic glaze.
  2. Tomato sandwich, My husband's fav! Hellman's mayo, basil for lettuce. Yum.
  3. Greek shrimp. We get lovely local shrimp here in Jacksonville, FL tasting infinitly better than those foreign farm raised guys. To make the dish, slice tomatoes, salt and let drain for a bit then roast them in a single layer (I use a taster broiler over set at 375) until they just start to color. Sprinkle with thin shavings of garlic, a touch of red pepper flakes, ribbons of fresh basil and top with another single layer of shrimp. Drizzle all with olive oil then sprinkle a generous layer of crumbled feta cheese on the top. Roast until the shrim are just done. Don't overcook! About 10 minutes. I put more fresh basil on top after removing from the oven. Serve with crusty bread, rice or pasta. I make this with canned tomatoes in the winter and change out the basil for dill, oregano, marjoram, whatever I have.
  4. Tomatoes and eggplant. Use the Greek shrimp concept and substitute roasted eggplant for shrimp. I roast eggplant  and tomatoes separately at 450 until brown, then combine with other ingredients. this is fab as a sandwich, bruschetta or over rice or pasta.
  5. Tomato salad. I love simple tomatoes on a bed  of arugula drizzled with olive oil topped with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano (I am a fan of the real thing, It's expensive but well worth it and a little gives a rel falvor punch. I also like Locetelli Roman, a little friskier with wonderful depth of flavor. This is beautiful with an assortment of heirloom tomatoes.
  6. Fried green tomatoes. Soak in buttermilk, dip in cornbread mix then fry!
  7. Corn, tomatoes and okra. I grew okra too! Beautiful towering plants that the bugs seem to ingore and that just keep on producing tender little okra pods well into fall.Briefly saute okra just until it's a bit brown. Remove from pan. Add chopped tomatoes and corn (fresh cut off the cob.). cook a few minutes, then add okra. and finish cooking for a few minutes. Don't overcook! I do this with olive oil although I have been know the slip in some crumbled bacon for special occasions.
  8. Fresh tomato pasta. Cut up tomatoes, basil and thinly sliver garlic. Salt and red pepper. Let sit while you boil pasta, any kind. toss pasta in the room temp tomato mixture and serve with grated cheese. this is fast and fabulous!
  9. Fresh tomato sauce. I saute onions and garlic then deglaze with a splash of wine. Add chopped tomatoes, and a bunch of basil. cook about 10 minutes, remove the basil sprig then puree in the blender. Great go to sauce for just about anything!
  10. Pizza! Coming soon... post about making pizza

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Very Dutch Christmas... in Florida

Some years ago my nephew married a tall, beautiful and brainy woman of Bulgarian descent named Tia. She brings much to our family table including a new Christmas day traditional meal. Each year she take our family on a gastronomical journey to another culture by preparing 12 dishes from that country. Past years' repasts included her homeland, Bulgaria, The Czech Republic and the Caribbean. This year we feasted on Dutch food and I do mean feasted! Practicing the modicum of self control I rarely have, I managed to take only a little of each dish so I could enjoy them all. From the ubiquitous herring salad, to the creamy delightful asparagus soup to the extraordinary chicken pie... it was all just too good!

The Menu *
Kaasoesjes (cheese Puffs)
Assorted Dutch gouda Cheese, pickled tiny onions
Terrein van gerookte Limburgse forel (terrine of smoked Limburg trout)
Kiekenpastey (Chicken Pie)

Zeeuwse mussel soup (Zeeland Mussel soup)
Aspergesoep (Asparagus soup)

Haringsla (Herring Salad)
Main Courses

Zalm met sinaasappel (salmon with orange)
Amsterdamse rollade (Amsterdam beef roll)

Potato puree
Kale and mashed potatoes

Hollandse appeltaart (Dutch apple pie)

Special Drink
Dutch Gin and tonic (Dutch gin tastes very different from English gin. Much more herbal)

*All recipes came from Dutch Cooking by Janny de Moor. Included with the authentic recipes are all things Dutch including history, geography, ingredients, eating habits, festivals and the development of Dutch cooking.

What a wonderful introduction to foods of the Netherlands. Many dishes had cream and/or fish, many were cooked with wine and potatoes appeared in numerous dishes although the preparation was so varied, I didn't even notice that until I read the recipes. The salmon dish could easily find a home on a Florida table.
Salmon with Orange
Pour into man, bring to boil and simmer for 10 minutes...
1 1/4 cup Rhine wine
1 1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 Tbsp finely chopped white onion
2 Tsp grated orange rind
pinch each ground cinnamon and ginger
4, 6 oz each salmon fillets
Poach gently for 10 minutes
Remove fish and keep warm.
Boil liquid until thickened and reduced
Season with salt and butter
Garnish salmon with orange slices and cinnamon and serve with boiled rice.
This is really yummy!
Another take away recipe idea from this dinner is the combination of kale and mashed potatoes. What a great idea to get the most from vegetables. Recently I served leftover mustard greens mashed with potatoes.
The idea of celebrating a different culture along with a traditional holiday is a good one. We are reminded that we are all brothers when it comes to good food, family and friends. Of course in order to accomplish this you have to have a very adventurous and ambitious cook. It takes a cook to understand what a feat it was to bring all of this goodness to the table. Bravo Tia!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Homage to Julia

Like so many others whose foodiness today is directly linked to Julia Child, I am reflecting on the many things she taught me. Before lamb legs came boned, I remember learning how from Julia. How to roast a chicken, the art of simple salad dressing, potato leek soup, making omelets, beef Burguignon, Caesar salad, poached whole fish and so many more.
Almost as memorable are all the things that she inspired me to make that I will probably never make again. Things like Gauteau St. Honere, puff pasty balls glued with caramel filled with cream surrounding a pasty round filled with French pastry cream and topped with whipped cream. Of course it was delicious but it took all day to make and made me realizes that I do not like to bake. I also remember making miniature beef Wellingtons to serve to a crowd. They were topped with a pate and were wonderful. Julia also inspired me to make French bread and for years I perfected the technique. Of course that was when you couldn't get good French bread in Jacksonville Florida and now you can. However in Julia's honor I think I may take up bread making again. I will be hosting a dinner party in her honor this Saturday, August 15 on her birthday.
Julia Child's real legacy is in the host of devotees that along with technique developed a real appreciation for incredibly good food. We learned from her that good cooking does not have to be complicated but it does require the very freshest and best ingredients. Although her recipes are very precise she taught us to improvise based on what you have and what you like. Julia Child gave me a passion for good food and good cooking. How I miss her!