Category Archives: food

Best Damn Rainbow Fruit Skewers And Dip Out There!

This Easter we went to our family’s low country shrimp boil in San Antonio. I love the food every year! This year though, was a bit different. I discovered last year that I can’t eat wheat. I’ve developed an allergy to it, and it’s pretty serious.

I’m not gluten intolerant, either. I can eat other grains with gluten, but wheat is BAD news for me. It causes my esophagus to narrow and then I just can’t swallow.

It’s pretty scary and I aspirated the first time it happened, trying to wash the stuck food down with water. This crazy thing is inherited, but I’m the first one who figured out it’s caused by wheat (thanks to a specialist and an elimination diet he put me on.) It’s in my mom’s side of the family and I’ve apparently got the worst case of it of all the women on her side. Lucky me.

I’m sure that part of the sensitivity, is from climbing up into the grain trucks at my grandparent’s house, when I was a kid. I had the worst hay fever when it was time to bring in the wheat! I remember I could hardly breathe. All you got back then: was a cool cloth and maybe some benadryl. I guess that allergy never went away, it just transformed a bit. Again: lucky me.

So I needed something wheat free and I didn’t want to mess with weird ingredients to make some sort of baked goody. I wanted to bring a pretty party plate, so I decided that rainbow fruit skewers sounded really fun, and were the way to go. But, still, that’s just fruit on a stick, and I didn’t want to be lame, so I decided I should make a dip.

I looked online. I didn’t really see anything I wanted to use. I saw some interesting ingredients but nothing that really made me think: “Wow! I need to make that!”

So I looked at what I did like and came up with my own version… And it is damned good! This had everyone (including me, my husband and my kids!) loading up on the dip (and cleaning their plates of whatever didn’t end up on the fruit.) It is crazy good and I will probably never make any other fruit dip. It’s just: Oh. My. Gosh. GOOD!

Here’s the recipe for both the skewers and the dip:

Rainbow Fruit Skewers:

1 medium container of fresh strawberries (my container made about 20 skewers, so how many you need can be approximated through that number per box.)

2-3 oranges or cuties peeled and segmented. You need to count out what you want with a couple extra “just in case”. (We always have cuties, or other seasonal, small, oranges, so I had a large bag to work from.)

Container of cored fresh pineapple (or whole, if you want to cut it yourself. Either save the juice from the pineapple, or: you can buy prepackaged pineapple juice for the dip.)

Green grapes

Container of fresh blueberries

Red grapes

Long wooden skewers

Half an icebox (ie. small) watermelon

A plate (to bring it to your gathering)

Add the strawberries (from the top down) to the end of your skewer and then slide the rest of the fruit from the bottom up, from the pointed end. Do this in the order of the ingredients mentioned above. The most fragile fruit is the pineapple and if you aren’t careful it will split. If it does: try to use larger sections or just rotate it a quarter turn and try again. Blueberries are pretty fragile too, so be careful with those, as well. The rest is easy peasy.

Place your skewers in a baking dish, if you are making it ahead. Put some plastic wrap over the dish and put them back in your refrigerator. (I made mine 2 days ahead.)

For the day of the party take your skewers and punch them, pointy side down, into the watermelon half. Try and keep them upright for ease in portability. Tent them in a big piece of saran wrap and you are done with that part!

Best Damned Fruit Dip Ever:

1 container cool whip (I used cool whip “lite”)

1 lemon, zested (I zested about half of mine and it was plenty.)

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 cup pineapple juice

I made this ahead and mixed all of the above ingredients with a whisk, put it back in the cool whip container and returned it to the refrigerator.

The next day I put the cool whip mix in the bowl that I was bringing to the party and whisked half a large container of honey strawberry “Greek Gods” Greek yogurt into the mix. In my opinion: this is the best tasting Greek yogurt out there.

I’ve always referred to it as “ice cream” with my kids and they love it. I always put some in their lunches. Every day I have to drain off a little of the whey that separates in the container. This is why I waited to add it to the cool whip mix. The yogurt is thick and loves to separate.

I also don’t like any other Greek yogurt (or regular yogurt, for that matter), but if you have a favorite you can sub that. If you’ve never tasted “Greek Gods” and you can find it: use it!

After I whisked in the yogurt I tasted the end product. I added a teaspoon more lemon juice and a couple more Tablespoons of pineapple juice. That’s the great part of this: it’s super flexible. If you want more flavor: add a little more pineapple and lemon juice, until you are happy. Be aware that the dip will eventually separate (once its been out of the refrigerator for a while) and get soupy, if you add a whole lot of liquid.

You can end here or do what I did: add a teaspoon of orange blossom water. It makes it very French and upscale. (I loved the cool crazy, foot long marshmallows I bought in France with flavors like: rose, violet, lavender and orange blossom. Ah. I wish I could just drop everything and travel like I did when I was young. Maybe after my kids are grown? We’ll see.)

You can’t take the orange blossom water back out, if you don’t like it, so add a drop to a spoonful and see if you want to commit to it. I LOVE orange blossom water and have enjoyed it in all sorts of dishes. Just make sure you you don’t overload your dip. A little goes a long way! It is in our international aisle at the grocer and is frequently used in Turkish dishes.

I provided small plates and forks to eat the fruit (I don’t recommend trying to eat it on the skewer. We slid them off and onto the plate. The skewers are all for presentation!) and a big spoon for the dip. It went fast and everyone wanted to know what was in it!

It was so good people were adding it to the baked goods (like the brownies.) It’s really a stunning way to present a healthy snack. I also love that the dip was light and fluffy and not some thick, heavy calorie bomb.

If you have leftovers: mix the dip with the fruit for an old fashioned fruit salad. It won’t be around for long! You will eat it right up!

There you have: my freakishly good dip and cute rainbow fruit skewers. I’d love to hear your comments about it if you make it. Let me know what you think of the orange blossom water addition if you try it, too!

Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

This is a great time of year to plan and build raised beds. This is how I built my raised beds and I have given them no supplemental watering in the last two years of San Antonio heat and I’ve had bumper crops with almost no input outside of planting and occasional weeding! This has been a super fantastic bed for me and I will only build duplicates of these from now on!

2014 mother’s day raised beds:

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day!

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My boys and my husband made me a cake!

The best part of the weekend? I got another hugelkultur inspired raised bed! Don’t know Hugelkultur? Learn more here: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/

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This is the second year I’ve gotten a raised bed on Mother’s Day and I am super excited! The first one we built is here on my post: “Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas”. We did this one a bit differently, but kept the main ideas we used on the original  Hugelkultur inspired bed.

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This is a cinder block bed. The inner dimensions are 6 by 10 feet. We lined it with cardboard.

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You need to wet this as you go. Cardboard and paper take a ton of water. It works well to step on it as you water. That will squeeze the air out and help your dry materials absorb the liquid.

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There’s a layer of packing paper. This is a great use of all the stuff you end up with after a move! We chose to add the wood chips again. These wood chips will eventually absorb water and act like a giant sponge. Through each new addition to the bed make sure you wet it well. It will be impossible to wet it thouroughly later on.

Expect to have the giant grubs if you are in Texas. You can see my solution on my post “When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea!” I’ve seen a lot of queries about giant grubs on search engines from people down here so I know I’m not the only one!

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We used about 5 bags of mulch in this bed. I just bought the cheapest mulch I could find which ended up being pine bark mulch. The larger the chips: the longer the chips will last. Remember to wet as you go!

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The next layer is compost. I don’t buy anything I haven’t touched. I won’t buy anything that feels like there’s a ton of sand in it. We went to a local rock yard and were disappointed as usual. I’ve always done price comparisons between hardware stores and rock yards and have chosen hardware store bagged soil every time, but this rock yard had really poor quality soil as well. Bagged soil at Lowe’s was about a dollar less a yard and much, much better quality. I haven’t found good soil at Walmart or Home Depot locally, but you can certainly check whatever is near you and see if you have better luck. I skipped the hay in this bed. Since we’re in a severe drought: hay is not a cost effective option right now.

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Your access to brands of bagged soil will depend on your location. If you see this stuff at Lowe’s, it is what I choose for amending. It’s a good price and a great quality soil. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need something that has a certain “type” of soil listed on the bag. Touch it and judge the soil by what you feel. This bag says

“compost”, I call it: great soil. The only thing you need to stay away from (as far as it being too rich) would be manure (composted or not). Watch your added Nitrogen levels with manure. It will burn your plants if you add too much and will be full of the salts they add as supplements to animals in feed lots.

Please refer to my post “Making Sense Of Old Sayings” to help you learn the importance of building great soil and how to recognize good bagged soil.

Don’t know if you are dealing with hot or cold manure? Read up on adding valuable natural fertilizers to your soil here: http://www.garden.org/ediblelandscaping/?page=201104-animal-manures and here: http://www.moongrow.com/organic_gardening_guide/fertilizers/manure.html

Here’s a site that explains why our rabbit is my favorite source of fertilizer: http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8156/rabbit-manure-in-the-garden

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We added a bale of peat humus to lower the pH and help hold water. Everything down here (including the water from the tap) is basic. The water has such a high pH it will kill acid loving plants even if they are potted in low pH soil. I make my coffee in a coffee press. When I’m done I pour more water in, let it sit in the old grounds and then go water my gardenias with the water. Be careful with the grounds themselves. You can easily kill a plant with coffee grounds…even acid loving ones. This is the voice of experience.

In the last bed I used another concept called Keyhole Gardening. There is a beautiful how to video from Africa on this concept and it makes the idea really easy to understand: http://youtu.be/ykCXfjzfaco . I tried this with the last bed I built. Over the year that it’s been installed: the feeder areas that I made with chicken wire have collapsed. This year I am going to use different, more permanent materials (three large pvc pipes with holes drilled in it for drainage instead of chicken wire) and add another aspect to it: worms! I got the idea from this blog: http://milkwood.net/2010/10/12/how-to-make-a-worm-tower/

So, I’m creating 1-3 permanent worm bins inside the bed. I may put one in and see how I like it and add others later. The site above calls it a “worm tower”. This is the basic idea of the keyhole garden which is set up to feed and water the beds, but with updated materials…and some red wigglers, which will do fine as a permanent outdoor worm bin in our climate. I love the new addition to the theme because: I have no interest in keeping up with feeding and emptying independent worm bins. I also was wondering how I was going to keep critters out of an outdoor bin full of wonderful kitchen scraps and yummy worms. We’ve already got armadillos in the yard tearing up areas looking for grubs. So far, they have stayed out of the raised bed.

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Last year’s melons. I had a bumper crop but had problems with a family of opossums helping themselves to the ripe ones!

On the to do list: My husband is going to enclose the garden with fencing. I had trouble with opossums in my melons last year so I will probably end up using electric fence in conjunction with the fence my husband wants to put in.

This bed is cheap to construct, permanent, easy to maintain and I don’t have to deal with our crummy natural soil. I will be planting it this weekend.

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Instead of lining this with plastic tarp like we used on the last one I have discovered that filling the holes in the blocks with soil does about the same thing. We will then cap them with concrete block pavers. I am soo ready to get out and plant this!!!!

Watch for next weeks post! I will teach you a great way to water your raised beds and keep it from losing water to evaporation. Down here in the summer we have days over 100 degrees for weeks at a time on top of water restrictions. They have promised an El Nino year which will hopefully end our drought but will bring torrential rains. Either way, this bed is going to provide us with a great area to grow veggies this year, and for years to come!

Want more information?  The “Gardening Basics” tab at the top of this page will walk you through everything you need to know to start you on the path towards a successful gardening experience. The information is free and I’m genuinely interested in helping you succeed. Let me know if you would like more information on specific topics for future posts. I’m here to help. Good luck and go out and get your hands dirty!

Get updates on this blog via Facebook here: www.facebook.com/CrazyGreenThumbs

Beginning Gardener: Class 3-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the third part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first and second parts of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) and Beginning Gardener (part 2) The links in this post and part 1 and part 2 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

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I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part three for the beginner gardener:

What are you growing? Will the answers to the questions from part 1 and part 2 support it? Your county extension office will have suggestions for varieties of plants as will the agriculture departments of local Universities. In the planning phase, web searches can be your best friend!    

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What should you NOT grow? Invasive plants can be beautiful in one zone and a nightmare in another. Before you plant a perennial make sure you know what you’re getting into. An example is heavenly bamboo (nandina domestica, pictured above.) This is in most people’s yards down here and it shouldn’t be. It’s considered invasive in South Texas and I am already having problems with it spreading. I will be removing our pair (that came with our home) soon. Other common examples of garden bullies are: mint, burdock and Bermuda grass. These can be very aggressive and so hard to remove/keep out of beds once they have outgrown their space. There are a lot of plants that are commonly planted here that are invasive. If you live in Texas check this site out: http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=CYDA Plants that send out runners need barriers, others reseed heavily and still others have roots that can come back from very, very small pieces left in the soil. Understand the kind of work involved in keeping your choice of plants contained (or removing it) if it does breach your barriers or outpace your attempts to slow it down. Look up your state’s invasive plant list and make sure you keep those species out of your life. Here is the National Invasive Species Information Center: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml

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What size will your mature plants be? In five, ten or twenty years you don’t want to live in a jungle of poorly spaced overgrown plants. Also, what are your plant’s mature fruiting expectations? If you are planting a fruit tree (or multiples) how many hundreds of pears, apples (or whatever) can you really expect to eat or process? (This huge surplus from trees will be a yearly conundrum. The bigger the fruiting plant size the more you will have. Often, a berry bush or two is a better idea than trees.) If you are growing fruits or vegetables what kind of yearly effort will these plants need from you? Planting, water, fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, pruning. What exactly are you getting into? Fruits can be rewarding but they take a lot of work. What kind of work are you willing to invest to get a good return? Again, your county extension will have good advice on this. Your local Master Gardeners are volunteers that go through a course and must put in hours helping educate the community to keep their M.G. designation. These people are usually old hands at gardening in your area. They are there to help you! If you have some at your county extension, use their expertise!!! My extension answers emails. I often get responses within a day and it’s free! (Do not rely solely on information from people who are trying to sell you something. They have a conflict of interest.)

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Sit down. Draw out your plan (or use a computer program. Look for something simple). Make a master plan and keep it in a place that you can access and update. (If you own your home, an easy way to do this is to get a blueprint of your property from the county assessor’s office and make copies so you can mark things to scale.) Things to keep in mind with perennials: Start small (don’t put in a lot of plants at once) but start big (the largest additions and your non-plant structures). You need to make your plan then put your large trees in first. Fruit, syrup and nut trees take years (sometimes decades) to bear. Don’t put trees in that you aren’t sure you will like! If you’ve never eaten the kind of fruit you are buying: try and find a source online where you can try some. You can start at your local grocer. In the international isle you may find canned examples of fruit you are interested in growing. Also, Amazon might carry what you are looking for. Look for dried fruit, jams and jellies online. You can then decide if you want to pursue the plant. Sometimes there are only examples at the nurseries that sell the plants. Raintree nursery often carries jellies and jams of their products.

Also, if you have 500 pears from a mature tree (even if you loooove pears, what are you really going to do with that many?), or if you only like certain kinds of apples and you have no idea what the variety you are ordering is going to taste like (and even if you like them you will still end up with hundreds of them) then these are probably not good choices for you or your yard. If you don’t get out and harvest fruit before it drops you will have animals (large and small), wasps (and a million other kinds of bugs) and angry neighbors (from the smell of rotting fruit in your yard.) If you want to grow fruits: go to your local farmer’s markets, find out what varieties of food you are eating, then plant what you love. If it’s growing well enough to be at the farmer’s market: it will probably be a good bet for you, too. You don’t want to wait 5-15 years to get something that you hate. Don’t put 5, 10, 20 or 50 full sized fruit trees in!!!! Unless you are starting your own farmers market (or super market chain), you CAN’T use this many! Before you purchase a fruit tree, find out how many fruit you will be dealing with at it’s mature age. If you are interested in selling your surplus call your local CSA and ask what they are interested in purchasing, then plant those types of plants. You can also find specialty markets online, but you are dealing with food distribution laws at that point and you will need to have sound advice before you begin. Find your market before you plant your trees. It would be a huge issue for you if you are planting things that you expect to sell that don’t (and won’t) have a market. Orchards are a huge responsibility and expensive to maintain and create. Make sure you are aiming at something that you can actually accomplish.

If you are looking for shade or privacy: fast is not better. Fast growing trees have weak wood. You will be picking up limbs after every wind and ice storm and/or your plant will aggressively spread across your property. Look for a medium growth tree, get ideas from your county extension and realize: structures (fences, arbors, gazebos etc), not plants, are the fastest, easiest ways to accomplish immediate privacy and shade issues.

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Keep a spiral notebook just for your garden information/notes and don’t put anything else in it. You will thank me later. For your spiral notebook: make a list of what you are growing from seed, what you have problems/success with during the season, what helps your plants, what doesn’t…this is a science experiment: heavy documentation truly helps. Otherwise, you WILL forget details between seasons. It’s okay, you will learn each year what you need to add and keep track of.

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Interested in saving seed? Just because it’s a seed and you liked what it came from: doesn’t mean you can use it. Hybrid or GMO seeds will not grow into what you ate. Same with peach pits and other fruits. In large orchards, they use trees that produce the fruit you love and other varieties that are excellent, reliable pollinators. You need two varieties for good pollination but only one produces what they are selling. This means the seed you get is crossed. You are not going to grow the fruit you get at the grocery store from fruit you buy there. There is a fantastic organization for heirloom plants http://www.seedsavers.org that saves heirloom varieties for genetic diversity in the future. Without this sort of program we will loose our ability to grow our own foods with the diversity of current heirloom strains. Please think of joining or ordering your seeds from this company! Learn how to save your own heirloom seed here: http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Saving-Heirlooms/ Seed saving is not for beginners. If you are starting out, try numerous types of the same vegetable and figure out what you like, what does well for you and then work with those. You also need large isolation spaces or specialized techniques to keep seed strains pure. 

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Dig a $20 hole for a $10 tree. How you plant will directly impact your success. Your plants will not do well if they are poorly planted or in poor soil. Raised squared beds can solve dense planting sites.  I make a cinder block square, one block deep then fill the raised bed with compost and good soil. The next thing I do is turn the new dirt into the raised bed and finally dig the hole. This will keep a lot of your roots far enough from the constant clay yuck that they will flourish rather than become diseased. You can definitely amend just your planting hole, but it needs to filled back in with mostly native soil. If you have heavy clay (like I do) and you dig your hole: if you fill it back up only with garden soil you have basically created and in-ground pot. The roots will readily spread out until they hit the dense soil around the hole. The roots will then spend the rest of their time filling in the looser soil instead of spreading out. You can amend soil for a tree, but keep the soil 50% native soil and 50% amended soil (like compost and garden soil.) Also, the size and type of plant dictates what you can add to the hole. For trees and shrubs you should not add fertilizer to the planting hole. For annuals and small perennials (and this is still only if you are planting in your growing season and not fall or winter): I always add some Osmocote (a kind of granular fertilizer) to the hole.

****SUPER DUPER SITES: Are you like me and absent minded? If you don’t want to have to think too hard about your vegetable start dates, here’s a fantastic site that will walk you through what to plant each week in your growing season. http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/what-to-plant-now-zl0z0903zalt.aspx I totally rely on this site! It updates every two weeks and sends you personalized reminders to your inbox.

Want an easy way to drag and drop to get a vegetable map for this season’s garden? Go here: http://www.gardeners.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Gardeners-Site/default/Page-KGPJS

Burpee’s has a free garden app that is worth looking at. I tend to forget to use it because I prefer the planting reminders from Mother Earth News. But Burpees has plant specific information and growing tips. Want to keep track of when to harvest? Burpee’s app can handle that. Beginners will be able to take the guesswork out of the gardening experience.

I also enter fruit harvest dates in my phone’s calendar (I even keep track of when to expect bluebonnets and native fruit this way.)

One of the most inclusive and user friendly sites I’ve seen is here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/agrarian-garden-plant-a-gram/ They have a variety of tools listed under “Agrarian: Learn More”. Look towards the bottom of the menu on the left to access them. Of course they should have a great site with the prices they charge for their products! It’s really well done and free, so I do have to recommend the site. It covers pretty much anything you’d like to know on a variety of subjects including: raising poultry, beekeeping, composting, canning and creating fermented food. I would never spend the kind of money they are asking for their products, though.

You got it all? You sure? I know: too much information right? You may not know everything this season, but do your best to get familiar with the concepts. The rest, you will learn to use as you advance in skill. Get out and play with your seed/plants/bulbs and trees!

The fourth and final installment of this class will cover my favorite publications and growing aides.

Beginning Gardener: Class 2-Walking You Through What You Need To Know

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Learning to garden takes time. It’s also helpful to have a seasoned gardener show you how to garden in your area. If you don’t have someone on hand: you now have me! I may not live where you do (and it makes a huge difference if you are growing in a different area) but I can show you the basics. This is the second part of a four part online course. It’s free and if you would like to know more go to the top of this page and click on the Gardening Basics tab. Or you can get the first part of this course here: Beginning Gardener (part 1) The links in this post and part 1 are up to date. (I’m still working on the links in the Gardening Basics at the top of the page.) Follow along in these posts and I will get you started with a solid gardening foundation.

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There are some things seasoned gardeners know about that will help you (regardless of where you are growing). I’m in South Texas. Not many places get or stay this hot. Florida does, but they have a lot more rain than we do. You will have a local growing climate whose specifics will not transfer to other places any better than mine do…but the basics apply: no matter your longitude or latitude!

Bannerblog

I always recommend finding local growing information at your county extension’s website. Just put your county’s name and “county extension” in your search bar. This will pull up local gardening information and give you access to local master gardeners. Having a “master gardener” designation means these people are current volunteers in your area. They keep that designation by volunteering their time and knowledge to help people who need answers to horticultural questions. They are here to help. I email my county extension office with a question and frequently get my answer within 24 hours. Regardless of your gardening location: the information below will help. So, here is part two for the beginner gardener:

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You will need to know your sun versus shade ratio. What parts of your yard will support a sun plant? A shade plant? How many hours of sun you are getting in each area? This is fairly easy to calculate, go outside several times a day and look at where you’ve got full sun. Doing this will give you a general idea of how many hours of direct sun each part of your yard actually gets. Full sun means: AT LEAST 6 hours of direct sun a day.  What side of the house or other structure are you looking at planting on? Remember the sides of a structure are decided by the sun’s rays. You can be planting on the Northern side of a Southern wall on your property  So, even though it’s the South side of your property it isn’t the South side of the wall. This explains sun exposure: http://gardening.about.com/od/gardendesign/qt/SunExposure.htm Where is the “best” place to plant? Look at what is already there and find the areas that are naturally doing well. Example: areas of your yard with thick healthy grass. Where not to plant: areas that are perennially dry and dead, like: where your sprinklers don’t quite reach or on a rocky slope.

Please Don't Rock Your Yard!!!

Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!!!

If you are in a water restricted area please read my post that explains why you should not put rock down: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard! If you need to cover an area: use wood mulch. It breaks down and is not a permanent answer to a temporary problem. There are wood mulches that resist wind. Again, ask your county extension agents for more help in this area. Dry or rocky sloped areas will most likely not sustain tender plants and will need something more aggressive.

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Decide what you will be growing in. Depending on what you have (poor soil, a small space, acres of room) you have different options: amending existing soil, raised beds and pots. I use a combination. Each has different advantages and disadvantages.

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What are your planting goals? Beauty, shade, lawn, vegetables, fruit? Your yard not only needs to work for you, but if (and when) you sell your home (no one lives forever), it will be either a huge detractor or a huge plus (our yard was what sold every home I have lived in.) Your yard also needs to work for everyone in your family. When I move states I research at least a year before I try to install large perennials. These are usually permanent plantings. You mess it up and it’s a big deal. I will list my favorite gardening book sources in here. There are also plenty of fantastic and patient people who will take the time to teach you. Your county extension can help. Also, look for classes given by individuals and by your county. Go to garden shows. (Note that your local nurseries, especially big box stores, will sell you plants that will not do well in your area in the long run. Perennials are expensive. Do your research before you buy anything that you want to last.) Research as much as you can on the internet and in book form. Remember: forums are great resources, but more often than not, they boil down to individual opinion rather than scientific fact. Universities and local/state/federal horticulture sources are the best places to get real information.

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What would you like to grow? Is it a cool season flower or vegetable? Warm season flower or vegetable? Bulbs? Trees? Plants outside your zones (that will need to be sheltered over your winter)? Each of these has a time and a place of ideal planting.

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If you are new to gardening: I don’t recommend trying to grow from seed by randomly grabbing seed packets while you are out and about. I see a lot of new gardeners buying up seed and then sprinkling the whole package directly out in their yards. You may get a couple of plants that way, but in nature (and in ideal conditions): plants will self-sow (regrow yearly from last years dropped seed). Each plant produces hundreds to thousands of seeds to accomplish this. If you order a small bag of 10, 20 or even 200 seeds you are going to need to start them and baby them to get the same results. In some cases you will waste your seed if you go out and try and direct sow them (plant them straight in the soil. Although, there are things that require direct sowing. Check your packet and don’t start or sow the whole thing! You may have a failure, need to restart or resow, or want to space your plantings for longer harvest.)

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Even if a beginner gardener gets seeds going, they might want to also check their nursery for plants. Grow a set of plants: one set from seed and one set of the same kind of plant from a local nursery. You will be able to see which does better in your climate. Although nursery plants are more expensive than seed, it is not as complicated to get them going. They will be much larger and produce earlier. I buy large potted pansies to grow over our winter. If I started with seed it would be much more complicated and my flowers would most likely not be very impressive. I skip the extra work with sprouting and growing pansies from seed and pay the grower to do that for me. I then watch for sales and buy several flats when they mark them down to 50 cents a plant in during the Fall. Efficiency is a big part of my gardening plan. I have so much area planted that I focus attention on what I know will work best for me, so that I have more picking and less planting. This will become more clear to the beginner gardener as their experience grows.

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Starting seed indoors has it’s own set of rules. (This equals more: time, energy, experience and research!) Once you have successfully grown a few things: expand into seeds from the kind of plants that do well for you. Squash are terrific seeds to try when you are starting out and learning to grow. Corn and melons are strong growers too, but harvesting takes experience. The best things to start out with are things that don’t require judging ripeness. Leaf vegetables, root vegetables, herbs and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, ground cherries, tomatillos etc that ripen well for your area). These plants that I recommend are strong growers and need little from the gardener to start other than warm soil, lots of sun and water.

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Everything you transplant must be “hardened off” before planting. This is sometimes an ordeal but you will lose your plants if you neglect to do this. Here’s how: http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/914/  (Here is my short cut to the hardening off process.)

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Cool areas have cilantro spread like wildfire, hot areas have tomatoes and basil self sow. I still buy my tomatoes as nursery plants (the bigger the better). I have a super short season down here for tomatoes. They need cooler nights than my summer gives and they need more heat than most of my late fall, winter and early spring days have. I also only grow small fruiting tomato varieties. I’ve got to get big, healthy and fast maturing plants to win down here. If I try and grow large fruited tomatoes I usually end up with one or two tomatoes on a plant and then they usually split from heavy rains or the birds peck a hole in them long before they are ripe. I understand most people think tomatoes are easy (and in certain climates they are), but they don’t live this far South!

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In a nearly opposite climate, I’ve also lived on the front range in Colorado. To get tomatoes to ripen before frost you had to make a plastic tent to cover mature plants to keep the daytime heat in. In Kansas: tomatoes were bountiful and simple plants to grow. As you can see: it depends on where you are. Ask your county extension office what seeds and vegetable or fruit varieties are sure fire growers in your area.

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Buying seed can get expensive and you need to remember to buy only for the space you currently have. If you don’t think ahead you can end up with so much seed that the seed will go bad before you have space to plant them (leeks, onions and parsnips are notorious for being short lived seed)! Seeds are one more thing to worry about. New gardeners need to go slow. If you are just starting out, pick a couple of recommended plants and expand only as your experience gives you the opportunity to do so.

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This is the end of the second course. I hope you picked up some tips you can use this season! Watch for the third course and I will be posting my favorite gardening books for the fourth segment. Good luck and get out there and get dirty!

Drool Worthy Gingerbread Cookies From A Molasses Cookie Mix

blogcookies201510I tend to write posts for problems I come across and can’t find an answer out there…anywhere! This year I wanted to make gingerbread cookies for my kid’s teachers. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish (a yummy gingerbread cookie dipped in white chocolate and sprinkled with crushed candy canes.) It sounded simple enough. However, if you saw my post last year about perfect stained glass cookies you would know I don’t make gift cookies from scratch. I always use a mix, for the very practical reason of having no qualms about tossing a batch if it doesn’t come out well. For me, I would rather make something that I have no personal investment in until it’s ready to be baked, and then I can spend time being decorative.

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I looked for gingerbread cookie mix and I couldn’t find any. I’m guessing they were sold out at the stores near me. What I could find was molasses cookie mix. If you know the ingredient list for gingerbread, it starts out as a molasses cookie and then you add the spices. So, I wondered, “How hard it would be to start with the molasses cookie mix and make a few additions to create gingerbread?”
I did it! They turned out so good I have made 6 bags of cookies over the last four weeks. We took a couple dozen to our local fire station and police station, but we ate the rest! These are so incredibly good! Everyone who has one immediately wants another.

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These are so good you are going to feel like cookie monster! And that is exactly the kind of cookie I want to gift! I want the people I give cookies to, to really enjoy them. These are super simple (although you can take more time and get more decorative on the larger ones.) I will show you how I made all of them. Trust me when I say: make more than you need! These are super addictive and you are going to want enough to have for yourself! And a few more…and maybe one more…and then just one more…Oh, my! These are good!

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To start you need a bag/box of molasses cookie mix. These make cake like cookies, soft and chewy. If you want to make cut out cookies follow the cut out directions on the back of a bag of sugar cookie mix. Or you can find the directions online here: http://www.bettycrocker.com/recipes/easy-holiday-cutout-cookies/8b4ecec1-265e-479d-b595-c32aa4e789b7

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I wanted round cookies. I didn’t need to mix it for cutouts, but I added an extra tablespoon of flour to the mix because I knew I was going to be handling these and they needed to be a little stiffer than a drop cookie would be.
Next you are going to want to make sure this becomes a gingerbread cookie. For this I added the following ratio of spices and I wouldn’t change a thing. They are nice and spicy with this amount of ginger and there’s no mistaking this is a gingerbread cookie. (Also, there is already cinnamon in the cookie mix so I didn’t add any more). Don’t freak out about the cracked pepper. We all thought the idea of salted caramel was weird a few years ago!

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A couple of tips before we start: have some cookie cutters handy for the decorating portion. Also, you can roll these in granulated sugar, but if you want these to look like the ones on the bag you need a larger grained decorative sugar and there should be some next to the decorative sugar sprinkles at the store. If not you can find them at Micheal’s baking area (or other hobby stores that carry baking accessories.)

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I used my mortar and pestle to break the cracked pepper down into a fine powder. If you don’t own a mortar and pestle, I highly recommend getting one. Lastly, because these are rolled in sugar they will burn on the bottom pretty quickly. I baked them on parchment paper and then slid the paper and the cookies onto something to cool them (they will continue to cook if you leave them on a hot cookie sheet.) Some people buy racks for this. I am entirely too practical and just use the poor lonely broiling pan that came with my oven (that I NEVER use for anything else!)

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Here’s the recipe:
1 bag Molasses Cookie Mix. (I used Betty Crocker brand)
An Egg
A Tbs of Water
1 stick of Softened Butter (equal to 1/2 Cup. I microwave refrigerated butter for 10-15 seconds or you can leave it out at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour.)
1 Tbs All Purpose Flour
1 Tbs Ground Ginger
½ tsp Ground Allspice
½ tsp Ground Cloves
¼ tsp Fresh Cracked Pepper
Heat your oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium bowl add the cookie mix, spices and the flour. Stir with a fork until all added ingredients are incorporated into the mix. Add the softened butter, water and egg. Stir with a spoon or spatula until a soft dough forms.
For ginger snap sized cookies (these are tiny) use a rounded tsp of dough.
For regular sized cookies use a rounded Tbs of dough.
For the big cookies to gift people roll a large fist sized ball in your hands.
Roll the cookie dough in the large sugar crystals. For the small and regular sized cookies you just place the cookies on the cookie sheet. They will flatten out on their own. For the large cookies press into a flattened disk shape like this:

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Place the big gift sized cookies about 6 to a sheet. I make extra big cookies and give one per person or make a box and have one extra large cookie and a couple small decorated ones. If you go to your local baker or coffee shop you will notice they don’t sell small cookies. Take a cue from the professionals and go big! It’s way less work to make a few large pretty cookies than thirty small ones as gifts AND the recipient will remember them.

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Next is the white chocolate! For the extra large gift cookies I placed a festive cookie cutter on top of the cookie and painted inside it. I did not use icing although you could. I used a cup of white chocolate chips and a Tbs of coconut oil. (You could use shortening instead. It needs to be a fat that is solid at room temperature.) Heat the chocolate mixture in the microwave at 20 second intervals and stir between each heating. You want runny, warm but not hot, chocolate. This will make a chocolate sauce that is good for dipping, drizzling or “painting” (which is what I did on the extra large cookies.) Make sure your cookies are completely cool before starting to ice or put chocolate on them. This is also why you added the extra flour. The extra flour will stiffen the cookies and hold the cookies together as you handle them.

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As you are putting the chocolate on you need to have your crushed candy canes ready. I had a box of mini candy canes and I crushed them with the wooden handle of a knife right in the little bags they came in. This made for easy application, too. I just cut the end off with scissors and sprinkled the candy cane pieces directly on the cookie. Do one cookie at a time or your chocolate will harden and the candy won’t stick. You don’t have to push the candy down. They will stick on their own. The crushed candy canes will have good chunks and not so pretty powder at the bottom. If you really want to go all out you could put the candy in a sieve and separate the powder from the chunks. But be careful. The high humidity we have down here made the candy pieces stick to everything (including themselves) and weren’t usable after about fifteen minutes because they had fused back together and stuck to the cookie sheet. I would crush and apply as you go.

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Tips for the chocolate:
For drizzling: Use a tablespoon sized spoon, get enough to cover the spoon but not pool, scrape off the bottom of the spoon and start drizzling off to the side of the cookie and then go back and forth across it. The reason being: The beginning of your drizzle will be a big blob and dropping that on a cookie defeats the purpose of a pretty drizzle pattern.

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For dipping: Use a small bowl. This is the easiest application of the chocolate. Just dip half the cookie, it looks nice that way.

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For “Painting”: Use a butter knife. Place a cookie cutter on top of the cookie (If you followed the above directions the cutter will not go into the cookie so make sure you hold it in place. I dipped a butter knife, drizzled down the center of the cookie cutter and then used the knife to dip in the chocolate and paint the chocolate up against the inside of the cutter. All of the cookie cutter painted chocolate cookies turned out pretty, but I liked the candy cane shape best.

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As you are adding chocolate to the cookies, sprinkle the crushed candy cane as you go. Once the chocolate hardens back up you can’t get the candy to stick. Go slow and reheat the chocolate in 20 second intervals in the microwave to keep it flowing. I used parchment paper underneath the cookies and clean up was a breeze.

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After you have a large cookie sprinkled with the crushed candy canes let them harden up for a minute and then tip them so the excess falls off. Go around your design and knock off or add any pieces that don’t look right. (This is where not having candy cane powder is helpful. The powder will get down in the cookie creases and is hard to remove.)

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I also rolled the edge in chocolate and then rolled the cookies in green sprinkles. For this I used the spoon I used earlier. Dipped it in chocolate and ran the cookies edge through the pool of chocolate on the spoon. Then I put green sugar crystals on a small plate and ran the edge of the chocolate covered cookie through the green sprinkles. It was a lot like the glue and glitter projects I did in elementary school (except this time I didn’t need to be warned not to eat the project!)

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I alternated the techniques and came up with some beautiful cookies. Great in cellophane bags, glassine envelopes or a little paper box! If you aren’t too particular even a Ziplock bag will do! We found some holiday themed food containers for the teachers and bus driver. I stacked them on platters for the firemen and policemen.

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I dropped some pretty wrapping paper down the sides of these containers. They were a hit!

Because of the humidity and the way sugar will absorb water from the air: I individually bagged the big cookies and grouped the smaller cookies by decorative type and bagged and froze everything. I got them out in the morning last Friday to send as gifts for the last day of school before Christmas break. For the stacked cookies make sure you stack them at the very last minute. The chocolate and candy on them will fuse the cookies together, if you do it early.

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These are all gone! I actually have more mix to make for tomorrow. You really don’t need to decorate them, but the candy canes and chocolate put these incredible cookies over the top!

I hope you take my advice and make more than you need! Expect to resemble the little blue Muppet of your memories with these! “MMMMM…COOOKIE! Nom Nom Nom Nom!”

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These fast fun and incredibly tasty cookies are going to make you crave them every year! I’m making another batch for Santa tomorrow!

Shrub-A-Dub-Dub What To Do With Imperfect Fruit

While we had plenty of rain this year for my vegetables it was a poor year for fruit. We got so much rain this year that the peaches all aborted and the limbs oozed sap trying to find a way to compensate for the deluge. My persimmon also dropped most of its fruit in response to the excess rain. The only fruit that survived this year was a large Breba crop of figs and first year canes with sour blackberries. Most people with figs toss the Breba (or summer) crop. The fruit is generally not as good as main crop figs, and although I could have tossed it all in the compost pile, I thought I’d find something more immediately useful for them. That’s when I came across a recipe for something called a Shrub. I am a recent convert for homemade fermented prebiotic foods. I’ve been making an awesome salsa the last couple of years and I can’t tell you how delicious a home ferment can be! It’s one of those things that once you try it: you jump in with both feet! Fermentation is one of those old time skills (like home canning) that make you nervous the first few times you do it. Mysterious and a little dangerous, your first foray into fermentation can make you wonder how anything that sits out on the counter for a week can possibly be healthy or taste good. All I can say is: give it a try. If you follow proven ferment recipes, I promise you won’t get sick and you will love the end result!
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Shrubs are a great way to use up fruit that you would otherwise have trouble finding a use for. The definition for a Shrub (thanks to Wikipedia):

“A shrub can also refer to a cocktail or soft drink that was popular during America’s colonial era, made by mixing a vinegared syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water. The term “shrub” can also be applied to the sweetened vinegar-based syrup, from which the cocktail is made; the syrup is also known as drinking vinegar. Drinking vinegar is often infused with fruit juice, herbs and spices for use in mixed drinks.”

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I saw a drinking vinegar (aka shrub) for sale in a catalog and thought: I bet I could make this! Which after some research, I found that: yes, these are great homemade! There are a variety of shrub recipes out there. Some require cooking, I prefer my fruit (and veggies, like the salsa ferment I make) fresh. There were plenty of recipes to choose from.
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For my shrub I chose to make my own recipe after examining a few shrub recipes online. I mixed some flavors from what I had on hand: figs, blackberries, cracked black peppercorns and some home grown rosemary. I decided on using apple cider vinegar for the vinegar because I tried a spoonful with the fruit I had macerated, and I thought it was good with the apple cider. (Champagne vinegar would also be nice.) I tried a good quality balsamic vinegar with the macerated fruit and that was a definite “No”. To me the balsamic vinegar puts a “rotten fruit” taste in it that I couldn’t handle.
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When you are making a homemade drinking vinegar (or shrub) you want half of your fruit to be very sweet: my Breba crop of figs, and half to be something tart: the blackberries (tart cherries would work too.) Luckily blackberries are usually for sale at the grocery (fresh or frozen) and the ones from the store are always tart. You could also add a little lime or lemon if you don’t want to go the blackberry/cherry route. For something sweet (other than figs) I would think blueberries, plums, persimmons, grapes or peaches would work well. You are going to be adding quite a bit of sugar, so having something tart makes for a kind of depth of flavor that I really enjoy. Taste it once you add the sugar and macerate the fruit. That’s when to add other flavors or adjust the fruit ratio until you are happy with the flavor. It will only become a deeper more complex version of the fruit and sugar combination from there.
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Here’s how I made mine:

2 cups washed fruit (1 cup tart: I used blackberries and 1 cup sweet: I used figs. Cut up larger fruit. I quartered the figs.)
1 1/2 cups sugar
One sprig rosemary
2 tsp freshly cracked black peppercorns
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar

Mix the sugar in with the fruit until the fruit is coated. Add the fresh cracked pepper. Remove the stem and add the fresh rosemary leaves. Mash the fruit mixture. (I used the pestle, from a mortar and pestle set, in a bowl but you can just use a fork or even a food processor.) Cover the fruit mixture with plastic wrap or a towel (to keep anything from getting into it) and leave it out out on the counter for 48 hours. After the first 24 hours: stir and crush the fruit again, then let it sit again until the 48 hours has expired. Add the vinegar and strain the juice through a sieve into a large mason jar. Put the mixture on the counter (or in the fridge. Your choice. Refrigeration will slow down but not stop the fermentation. If you leave it on the counter a “wine” type flavor may develop. I aged mine in the fridge because I like a fresh fruit flavor instead.) in a sealed mason jar for at least a week. Open the jar daily to let gases escape and shake or stir the mixture daily. At the end of a week: add some carbonated water to a drinking glass (I use a lime flavored club soda.) Fill the glass 2/3 of the way with the carbonated water: slowly add the shrub until you are happy with the flavor. You should taste the tartness of the vinegar but: it shouldn’t be overwhelming.

Shrubs remind me of Italian sodas and I can definitely see where our modern day carbonated sodas get their flavors. The shrubs are a wonderful old time way to extend your enjoyment of fruit season and a great way to use up fruit that you would usually have taken from a plant and directly dumped it into the compost (overly ripe or damaged fruit is fine, but if it’s truly rotting find something else to use!) You can also use up the tail end of any fruit glut in a Shrub. My children enjoy the shrub as well. It is a healthier alternative to pop.
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I like a sprig of mint in mine. Just roll the mint between your fingers and crush it a bit before you put it in. Vodka would also pair with this well!
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Curing An Extra Itchy Case Of The Gardening Stupids

I would bet that most gardeners have a list of a few things that they do, out of habit, that are counterproductive. For me it’s gardening without gloves or long sleeves. I almost never wear gloves or long sleeves. I love to work the soil with my hands, I weed bare handed and I harvest bare handed. Most of the time I end up in the garden working without having planned on it (which is why I’m usually dressed for Texas summer weather and not gardening!) Most of the time I can get away with this habit with minimal issues. Yesterday was not one of them!

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My wonderful but itchy okra! If you wondered about your okra plant’s smell: Yes. The entire plant, including the pods, have a distinct cat pee like smell. It’s part of the plant’s defense and easily rinses off the pods using just water.

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All of the okra goodness is under those big spiny leaves!

In high summer heat everything in my garden seems to have some sort of defense. Tomatoes, beans, squash, melons, cucumbers and okra (especially okra!) have spines or hairs that can break off in your skin (like the irritating glochid fuzzy hairs you can find on cacti) and cause a rash on your arms and hands (or whatever part of your body that brushes up against the plant.)

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The hairy underside of a poona kheera cucumber leaf.

I also grow some things with sap that can irritate. I have figs whose milky sap can cause itching and then there is the parsnips that can cause a chemical burn if you rub up against the leaves and stems. Yesterday I got into all of the above with no gloves or long sleeves to protect myself. My “duhhh” factor was in full swing and I was miserable by the time I came inside!

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The breba crop of a fig tree that I got a start from in my neighborhood.

It was like an instant poison ivy rash. I was itching so enthusiastically I was sure I was going to break the skin on my arms! I believe the main culprit was the okra spines I got into while reaching across the plants to harvest some pods but, I also carried in an arm full of figs. It’s entirely possible this was a cumulative rash from the many bad decisions I made that day to handle things without gloves or sleeves.

Regardless of the cause: I needed a cure, and fast! I first grabbed a tube of anti-itch cream from my husband’s dopp kit and applied enough to cover a large farm animal, with no results. The itching was completely uncontrolled with the cream so my mind started racing looking for an alternative to what I had already tried. I washed my arms repeatedly with castille soap because I was afraid it was sap from the arm load of figs I’d gathered (since my arms were sort of sticky.) That didn’t help much either. That’s when I remembered we have a can of instant oatmeal in the bathroom to mix in my kid’s baths when they get viral or allergic rashes. I was desperate at this point and I was ready to try anything.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d gotten into fire ants. This was sooooo bad! The itching was insane!

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The fuzz on tomatoes and beans make the plant leaves a little bit like Velcro!

I have used oatmeal in baths before for my kids, but what I was dealing with was not going to be relieved by my soaking in a tub with just a little bit of oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in a small cup and added enough water to make a paste. I rubbed it all over my poor bright red, itchy arms and hands. It was a messy process but:

I had instant relief!

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My son said this was zombie skin. To me: I see relief. This was after I’d let it dry and knocked off the big chunks of oatmeal. You would think I might have tried this at one point over the last forty some years! But this was the first time I’ve used it as a paste, and an oatmeal paste will be what I turn to first…next time!

I left it on long enough for it to start drying and then rubbed off the big chunks of oatmeal over the kitchen sink. What I was left with was a thin powdery coating of the oatmeal paste (my older boy noted that my skin looked like a zombie.) I left this coating on my arms for about an hour and then rinsed it off. I’ve never reacted to okra like this before, but in gardening: there are always first times for everything. I had complete and total itch relief. Now I have a new (old fashioned) cure for when I walk into another plant that my skin decides to violently dislike!DSCN0025

Lastly, over the years: this has become a bigger problem for me. If you are getting crazy itching on your forearms every time you get dry skin or after you are out in the sun for a while: you may have something called Brachioradial pruritus. You would need a doctor to diagnose that, but it’s getting diagnosed more frequently. Ice helps. I keep a dish sponge cut in half soaked with water in zip lock bags in my freezer or use a gel freezer pack. 

Or just a baggy of ice. The cold REALLY helps! 

I keep several frozen to help because the itching was becoming a problem several times a week. I also only moisturize with either an oatmeal baby lotion 

or something equivalent to Cetaphil lotion and I make sure to do it after every shower or bath: before the itching has an opportunity to start! I cover my arms too, when I’m outside,  so the sunlight doesn’t have a chance to start the intense itching. 

Cetaphil brand is expensive. This is the pump Walmart version.

This is a Cetaphil knock-off tub from a random grocery store.

Since the disorder above is also light sensitive it finally makes sense why my bare arms were crazy itchy after being out in the sun gardening. I no longer use any soaps or detergents on my lower arms and I have gotten a little bit of control over what I have (which actually IS what I linked to above.) Since pinched nerves can cause this: I also believe my chiropractor helps when he adjusts my neck. 

This itching is worse (or equal to)  poison ivy but there’s currently no treatment or cure. Try the above suggestions, and if this is becoming frequent for you: see a doctor. It might be something else, it might be serious or you might have what I have and these suggestions will save you hours of misery. Good luck! Let me know how this works for you! 

Kohlrabi Ham Bake!

This year has started off with a whole mess load of stress. We have had to gratefully step through doors (so that we could close them) while trying to remain open to new adventures. It’s been rough, but gratitude is an incredibly stabilizing force during loss and chaos. The one thing that has stayed constant is: my garden. Although most of the country is in a deep freeze, down here in Texas my garden is chugging along. This is a preview for the rest of the country’s spring. I advise everyone to take the plunge and try growing kohlrabi this year!

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Crazy looking kohlrabi. It’s the best kept garden secret out there!

Trying to grow cool weather crops this far south means planting in fall and harvesting mid winter. I recently pulled some Kohlrabi, turnips and carrots.

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I jump for joy when the kohlrabi is ready. It’s my very favorite vegetable (and it’s my mom’s favorite, too!) Kohlrabi may look funny but it is a tasty brassica. Brassicas are a big family and include: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, mustard, turnips, kohlrabi, kale, rutabaga, horseradish and many more. You will often hear them grouped together as cruciferous vegetables or cole crops. In the below recipe you can substitute rutabaga or turnips or use a mix. Use whatever you can find at the grocer or what you have growing, although I think the kohlrabi is the tastiest in this.

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That’s right. This weird looking fellow is what I am telling you to grow. You HAVE to try this! It comes in purple like the one in the photo or a light green. You peel the outside anyway so the exterior color doesn’t matter much. It looks pretty goofy and alien but it tastes divine!!!

 

Brassicas have great health benefits including antimicrobial effects, anticancer compounds and they may help your liver clean up toxins. They have a couple of unusual drawbacks to consider. If you have thyroid problems, do not eat these veggies raw. They can cause goiter in people who have iodine deficient thyroid issues. They may also cause colic in breastfed babies. Once they are cooked they lose most of their thyroid disrupting potential. If you are breastfeeding a colicky baby: try removing brassicas from your diet to see if it makes a difference.

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If you have thyroid disease: cooking these vegetables will greatly reduce goitrogens and nitriles, making them safe to eat in moderation. Don’t worry about these veggies if you don’t fall into the above two categories. For most people these vegetables are powerful, healthy additions to your diet.

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This is rutabaga. When I am outside of my kohlrabi growing window I often sub rutabaga or turnips in this. Those are root veggies and they are sweeter and less woody the smaller the root size. Look for turnips that are the size of baseballs (or smaller) and rutabaga that are the size of softballs (or smaller.)

Kohlrabi looks like a root vegetable but is actually a swollen piece of the stem. Do not plant them too close together as this will make them long and leggy and they will become woody. Also, do not try and grow these in the heat of summer: there is no removing the bitterness a brassica will develop in the heat. Cool weather will produce a sweet, round, root like vegetable with a taste somewhere between broccoli stems and rutabagas (rutabagas are a wonderful root vegetable. I find them at the grocer occasionally. They are also easy to grow. Once cooked: rutabagas remind me of a potato but with better flavor.)

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Like root vegetables in this family: you need to remove a band of fibrous tissue that surrounds the edible part of the kohlrabi. You can see the part that needs to be removed in this photo, it’s the white ring and everything outside of it. The easiest way to remove this area is to use a knife. You can use a vegetable peeler but: it will take a long time, and several passes, because of the amount that needs to be removed.

A lot of people enjoy kohlrabi raw. They have a slight bite when raw, like a very (very) mild radish or a turnip. I am one of the people that can’t eat raw brassicas because of thyroid disease, so I am very lucky that kohlrabi (like most cole crops) tastes delicious cooked with ham or bacon. I think kohlrabi was born for the recipe below and the result is a truly enjoyable comfort food!

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The entire plant is edible. The stems taste a little earthy (like beets) to me. The leaves are very thick and can be cooked like kale or collard greens. Save the leaves and stems for another recipe. The real hero of this plant is the swollen stem. Once they are cooked they become slightly sweet and wonderfully savory. They are incredibly delicious and once you’ve tried them you will, forever after, be sure to add plenty of space for them in the spring/fall garden.

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This is a young kohlrabi plant before the stem begins to swell.

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This gets to be a good sized plant. Give it room (a foot or more per plant) and it will reward you with a softball sized swollen stem.

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Almost time! This kohlrabi is swelling and just about ready to pick. I let mine get to be the size of a softball but you can pull them and use them when they’re smaller (although, why would you short yourself with a smaller plant?!) This is when patience pays off.

People in the know impatiently wait for their kohlrabi to mature and do a special kohlrabi “happy dance” when they are ready to pick! Trust me. I’m not the only one head over heals in love with this vegetable: it’s really that good!

Kohlrabi Ham Bake:

Ingredients:

3 Tbs Butter or Bacon Grease

4 Kohlrabi, Peeled and Diced (Or any mix of: turnip, rutabaga and/or kohlrabi)

8 oz. Ham Steak, Diced

Fist Sized Amount of Fresh Chopped Parsley

4 Egg Yolks

1 Cup Heavy Cream, Table Cream or 1/2 and 1/2

3 Tbs All Purpose Flour

1 tsp Mace (No, this isn’t the stuff you spray on attackers! You’ll find it in the spice isle.)

1/8 tsp (+/- To Your Liking) Each Of Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. In a large skillet, melt the butter or bacon grease on medium heat. Add the diced kohlrabi and gently cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Beat the egg yolks and whisk in the heavy cream, flour, mace, salt and pepper until well combined.

3. Place half of the cooked kohlrabi in a greased, large oven-proof casserole dish. Layer the ham and parsley and top with the rest of the kohlrabi. Pour sauce over the mixture. The thicker you layer this: the longer it is going to take to bake. I keep mine fairly thin and wait until the center is bubbling to call it done. If you make this really thick the outside will be done long before the inside so try to keep it thin. If yours is starting to set on the outside and the center is not done, go ahead and stir it. It won’t taste any different than if you have neat layers and you will get a better end product if it is all finished cooking at the same time.

4. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until the center is bubbling and no longer runny. Serve immediately. You can add grated cheese to the top if you like, but I prefer the recipe as is.

Serves 4.

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Once you try this, you will be a convert to this weird looking vegetable. It’s truly a shame that more people don’t have access to this veggie. The seeds are easy to sprout and will come up in your spring garden with the beets and peas…but once you’ve had kohlrabi: those other spring vegetables won’t matter. Spring and fall will start to mean “Kohlrabi season”. On top of your personal enjoyment: you can surprise and convert your friends into kohlrabi lovers when you serve this underused garden star. Then show them the crazy looking raw stem: It’s guaranteed to “wow” the uninitiated!

 

Stained Glass Cookies!

20141219_220815I always have these great ideas about making everyone gifts. Then it gets down to the last minute and I end up having picked ideas that are way too complex to complete in the time I have left. These can be done in one day. I just finished them and they are beautiful! The cookies were so much fun to make and I gave them individually to bus drivers, teachers and I even have some for our neighbors.

If you feel like you are backed against the wall and don’t cook frequently or don’t have a lot of experience baking. Stop now! Don’t ruin your own Christmas trying to make everyone on your list happy. If you really aren’t looking forward to trying these ideas or you already are behind with other things: go pick up some cute ornaments and put them in some festive bags and call it done! You deserve a great Christmas season, too! If you think you can do these without going crazy: I guarantee these are fun, simple and they will be well received.

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Stained Glass Cookies

You need:

A sugar cookie dough base (From scratch: or pick up a bag of cookie mix from the grocer.)

Translucent hard candy (I used a bag of Jolly Ranchers)

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F or follow the directions in your recipe or on your bag of cookie mix.

I saw these in my Family Fun magazine and knew I had to try them. They made their cookies from scratch. Yeah. I’m too busy right now and I can find bagged cookie mix in the grocery store. These can definitely be done from scratch but you are adding more time and work to this that you don’t have to. If you buy a bag of sugar cookie mix: look for the directions on the back for cut out cookies and follow that recipe. You will either be adding a lot less butter or adding flour to the mix. I also don’t mind scraping cookies from cookie mixes into the trash if they don’t work out. The first batch I lost three out of twelve cookies. Part of it is my oven but the other part is you are combining two very different main ingredients: dough and hard candy. Getting them to come out perfect takes some work and practice.

However, those not so perfect cookies make great treats for my kids (and for me). We don’t care what they look like! The best thing about these cookies is they are impressive enough to give a single cookie as a gift. That means you have way less to do to have finished presents for people like your mailman or kid’s bus driver.

Make your cookie dough according to the directions for the cut out cookie recipe on the bag (or if you’re making a bunch of cookies and want to make yours from scratch: you can use your own recipe.)

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Roll out your cookie dough on a floured surface. Keep adding flour to your rolling pin, cookie cutters and the surface of your dough as you go so the cookie dough behaves itself. You want these thin (otherwise they will puff up and you will loose your design.) Aim for 1/4 inch thickness. Don’t worry, they will hold together with their rigid candy center.

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I used a drinking glass to use as my original cut out for the cookies.

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If you don’t get a clean outline with a glass: when you transfer the cookie to the baking sheet tap the side of the cookie with the flat side of a butter knife until you have a sharp edge on the cookie.

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After you get your cookies cut out (and before you cut the second interior shape out): put them on a room temperature cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. (Yes. you definitely want to use the parchment paper and not just a non stick cookie sheet.)

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I only bake 6 cookies a sheet with this method (These are large showy cookies. Don’t waste your time making little ones!) and the parchment paper keeps everything clean and reusing the sheets is easy.

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Get out your interior cookie cutter. Pick something simple. My first batch had a snowflake design and it ended up being a mess with all of the points the candy had to melt into. I now am using a heart shape and they turn out exactly like I want them too. Dip the cutter in flour between each cut out. If the dough doesn’t come up with the cutter use a butter knife to lift the interior out.

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If you end up with a bunch of flour in the cut out: gently blow it out.

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Refrigerate your tray! You need to do this to keep your cookie shape crisp. Put them in for 10-15 minutes. If you are stacking them in the fridge over what is already in your refrigerator: you can do it by arranging what is in there so they fit flatly.

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When your trays are ready: take them out of the refrigerator and quickly add your hard candy to the center. From experience I have found that I need more than one candy per cookie. I suggest you bake a single cookie to test what you need to do, rather than end up with a mess and having a whole tray (or two) that didn’t work.

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I recommend if you are going to add a second candy to the cookie, that you wait until half way through baking. I time my cookies for 3 minutes and then remove the trays from the oven, add the extra candy and put the trays back in (while switching the racks that the trays were on). After you put them back in the oven: Do not take your eyes off of them! They will go from unfinished to overdone very quickly. The main problem you will have with the candy is when it gets hot enough it will start bubbling and it will boil up and out of the cookie. Adding the second candy in the middle of the bake time lowers the temperature of the candy that is already baking.

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Hopefully, this will keep the candy from boiling up and ruining the look of the cookie. Keep an eye on your cookies after you put them back in. Watch for bubbling: which can ruin the cookie if you let it get out of the center of the cookie. You want the outside of your cookie to just start to brown. Take them out and let them cool a minute or so before you slide the sheet of parchment with the cookies off on the counter to finish cooling.

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They should separate from the paper without the candy bending as you slide them off of your tray. (If you move them before the center has started to solidify you will break the cookies.) Be very careful of the candy while it is hot. This could potentially cause a very bad burn if it gets on your skin!

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If you get the very outside of the cookie a little too brown you can take a knife and gently remove that portion while the cookies are still warm.

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Make sure you wrap them in something clear because they are really pretty!

20141217_215035Cling wrap will make the cookie look even prettier if you fold the edges over the back. It creates a crinkling effect. If you are sending these to school or somewhere where you need more than one for a teacher and teacher’s aide(s): gently wrap when in a parchment paper envelope and stack them in a plastic container.

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Tip the container gently to see if the cookies are in there solidly. I was able to send three cookies for teachers in a bento box with my youngest (and he didn’t destroy them in his backpack on the bus.) Make sure you let whoever you are giving these to know that they are to eat. They look like ornaments and I had a few people question what they were. They are truly beautiful and I was happy to give them out.

As you can see from the different colors these would be great ideas for a variety of holidays and celebrations. Choose the colors to match: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas, your wedding or batchelorette party colors or birthday. You could find orange and black candy for Halloween. The applications are endless!

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My last few tips are these:

1. Most recipes you find for these are for small cookies and some require you break the hard candy into pieces so they fit in those small cookies. Don’t bother with those. It is nearly impossible to break hard candy without having pieces shoot across the room and stick to everything. Also, they won’t be impressive enough to give as single gifts if they are small.

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2. After you take the cookies out (to put the second candy in): squat down and watch these through your oven window  If you see the candy flatten out and start to bubble they are probably done. They will brown a little more as they start to cool.  So, it’s better to have them just done than a little brown.

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3. Get to know your oven! It you have a gas oven (like I do), move the racks as far away from the heat source as you can. If you are lucky enough to have a convection oven: turn it on! If you notice that the cookies are starting to brown differently in the oven: take advantage of the fact that you remove these 1/2 way through cooking, and rearrange the trays so that they all have a turn in the hot spot.

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4. Store the cookies between the parchment you used to cook them on. I just cut the used parchment in half and continually fold it over and add more parchment strips as I add cookies.

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5. If you are giving more than one to someone: pick a plain white or silver paper plate. The cookies are incredibly beautiful and patterns behind them will just distract from their beauty. If you are giving just one and the recipients are not formal ones (like your kids bus driver or teacher instead of your boss or someone else you’d like to really impress) you can just drop them in a ziplock bag folded over and stapled with a piece of wrapping paper used for a tag. You could get fancy with glassine envelopes (or just make your own out of more parchment paper) add ribbon and tags. Whatever you do (and no matter how you choose to present them): the cookies will impress!

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If you post your finished product, remember where you got your instructions and please link back to my page! Thanks and Merry Christmas!!!

Decadent Herbal Cold Remedy: Turmeric Milk

I’m sick. This has been a bad year for colds in our home. My youngest boy started school and he loves to germ up while he’s there and then come home and share! I love my little walking petri dishes, but I am tired of the viral circus that they star in!

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About a decade ago I decided I was going to go all herbal with my remedies. I had good intentions, but eventually there were some things I found Western medicine necessary for. Cold viruses were not one of them. These little nasties are not treated here in the US by doctors. Your every day US citizen doesn’t have a cold treatment repertoire much outside of half-hearted attempts to use echinacea or zinc.

I have a wonderful friend from South India who grew up near Hyderabad. She was my roommate for a quite a while and I learned a lot about Indian culture through our friendship. As our friendship grew: I started a journey into trying to understand the Hindu religion, the caste system she was expected to marry into (which is quite a departure from my decidedly Western viewpoint) and her view of Ghandi (which was not what I expected, but that I respect). I grew to appreciate her views, as I attempted to glimpse the world through my friend’s perspective on reality, by asking lots of questions and visiting her temple (the service always seemed like a huge party and everyone is fed at the end). During this time I also fell in love with South Indian cuisine. Turmeric has a vital role in those curried dishes.

While I attempted to understand an entire country through my friend’s individual experience: I began to marvel at a culture with a long, rich and interesting history. One of the key pieces of India’s puzzle (at least for me) is Ayurveda. I will not pretend to be fluent in the medical practice of Ayurveda, never the less: I find it fascinating. The diagnosis of illness and treatment in Ayurveda relies on examining your dominant dosha. Doshas are believed to be one of three life forces (or energies) in your body. They are said to be a combination of the 5 basic elements in the Universe. “People may be of a predominant dosha prakruti (constitution), but all doshas have the basic elements within them.” -Wikipedia (Learn more about doshas here: LINK)

You can take a fun test here and see what your dominant dosha is: http://doshaquiz.chopra.com/

The above dosha quiz is on a site written by Deepak Chopra. I have been interested in his views for quite a while. I saw him speak at a lecture once about 15 years ago…I recommend reading his books, instead. It was quite a snoozefest (although, maybe he was just having a bad day.)

I also own a fantastic hybrid style herbal remedy book by Andrew Chevallier. It is hands down the most complete, reliable and useful book in my library. I have relied on it to assemble my daily teas that I make from plants in my garden. I use this book a lot!

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So, with my fixation on herbal remedies and interest in Ayurvedic medicine I stumbled across Turmeric milk (also known as golden milk, yellow milk and originally: haldi ka doodh) as a traditional cold remedy. I have been playing around with my recipe for this for several years. I am now at the point where I would choose (and do choose!) this drink over hot cocoa: I think it’s that good!

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If you are unfamiliar with turmeric and it’s active compound curcumin (Read up on curcumin here: LINK) it is touted as a “super herb” used to treat things as varied as: “arthritis, heartburn (dyspepsia), stomach pain, diarrhea, intestinal gas, stomach bloating, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver problems and gallbladder disorders. It is also used for headaches, bronchitis, colds, lung infections, fibromyalgia, leprosy, fever, menstrual problems, and cancer. Other uses include depression, Alzheimer’s disease, water retention, worms, and kidney problems.” (Source: Webmd )

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I can attest to its effectiveness against depression and I knock out colds with it regularly. I can’t take the herbal supplement pills because I get gastrointestinal problems. They’re just too strong. I still want the effect of turmeric, but I have to watch how I ingest it. That is where this recipe comes in.

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I also add cinnamon (which is frequently cassia: a cheaper relative of cinnamon and interchangeable in labeling in the United States. Learn more here: LINK) Cinnamon is a folk remedy for regulating diabetes: “In addition to diabetes, Cassia cinnamon is used for gas (flatulence), muscle and stomach spasms, preventing nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, infections, the common cold, and loss of appetite.” (Source: Webmd ) I add it to my turmeric milk for flavor and because it is a “warming” spice that is supposed to help fight colds. Learn more here: LINK

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I add the vanilla for flavor (I don’t use artificial vanillin, but you can. Artificial vanillin is a synthetic flavoring) but it is reputed to help with digestion and fever: “People take vanilla to treat intestinal gas and fever.” (Source Webmd: LINK)

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These herb’s health benefit claims are not scientifically proven but at the very least: they don’t hurt. Personally, I have found them helpful and you may, too. Either way, learning more about your dominant dosha is a fun way to try to wrap your head around your health and your body. A warm cup of turmeric milk is also a soothing way to treat yourself. You may also be improving your health by drinking it.

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I advise that you make sure whatever you use as the liquid base has fat in it, if you are prone to an upset stomach. I use cow’s milk but almond milk or coconut milk (etc) would work well, too. The fat seems to keep the spice from upsetting my stomach…and with this recipe: turmeric milk becomes a decadent wonder! You can definitely spend more time making this, but I’m more practical than purist, so this is how I do it:

Ingredients:

Milk (or milk substitute)

Approximately 1/4-1/2 tsp Turmeric (You may also make a paste with butter or ghee and heat it with the turmeric before adding to the milk, although I now skip that step.)

Approximately 1/8-1/4 tsp Cinnamon

Two or three drops of Vanilla

Sweetener of your choice: to taste

Marshmallows (If you really want a treat!)

Directions:

Find a mug you’d like to drink this out of and fill it with hot milk or a milk substitute. If your milk gets hot enough that it forms a skin, skim that off or it will bind your spices together and they will sink to the bottom of your cup unmixed. (This is why most traditional recipes combine butter or ghee with the spices and heat them first. Going that direction will give you a more consistent mixture but it is extra time and extra calories that I choose not to use with this, especially since what I’ve usually got on hand is whole milk.)

Sprinkle the turmeric and cinnamon into the milk (You can decide to increase or decrease the amount of the spices to suite your taste and tolerance.)

Add vanilla and a sweetener of your choice (I use Truvia, which is a no calorie sugar free stevia product) and stir until well mixed.

If you like: you can add marshmallows at this point (I totally recommend it!)

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That is my cold/depression fighting, warm fuzzy, yummy, decadent way to get your daily dose of turmeric, vanilla and cinnamon (and everyone deserves marshmallows when they feel yucky!) These should help you get well soon!

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I also use the above supplements to help with a viral illness. I have found them to be very useful and I use them in conjunction with the turmeric milk. I use oil of oregano, garlic pills (You lose some effectiveness going with an odorless variety like I have in this picture.) and zinc. All of these together: usually keep me out of bed and I also deal with minimal symptoms. I recommend them, although you should be careful adding anything new to an herbal regimen. Make sure read the instructions on the bottle and ask your doctor if any of these are appropriate for you or if they will interfere with any other medications you are taking.

On a side note: while I was fighting my cold I decided to make marmalade with the kumquats I grew this year. It was a great success but definitely not something you just “throw together and can”! I’ll post my recipe on here soon. In the mean time here are some pictures of my beautiful kumquat marmalade:

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Yummy!