Monday, September 20, 2010

The Love/Hate Relationship Continues

Tomorrow is my garden club's "Harvest Fair."  I was supposed to grow vegetables from seed, nurture them all summer, and have beautiful specimen heirloom tomatoes or butternut squash to show off and win prizes.  I am not a good vegetable gardener.

Though mentally I am so "over" those hideous flowering quince, between work, vacations, school, kids and life, I still have not removed them from my garden.

In desperation, I went out this morning and harvested about 25 quince from the ugly shrubs. 

I washed them. 
I cut them up. 
I cooked them. 
I drained them. 
I cooked the juice with lots and lots of sugar. 
I made quince jelly. 

It's really quite tasty.  When it cools, I'm going to spread it on a cracker with some manchego cheese.

I'm still not keeping the shrubs, unless perhaps, I win a ribbon. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

They Say That Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Chaenomeles speciosa 'Texas Scarlet' in flower

I have had a long love/hate relationship with a hedge of Flowering Quince, Chaenomeles speciosa 'Texas Scarlet' shrubs. 

Nearly 15 years ago, our inherited foundation plantings of azaleas sited in full, southern sun had finally cut bait.  Eager, but not well-educated, I went fishing for new plants that could take the blazing sun, yet offer some color and interest.  The cultivar's name alone hooked me and I reeled in three tiny shrubs. 

I spaced them correctly, and followed all of the directions for proper planting and care.  Alas, no flowers the following spring.  Nor the next.  Not until their third year did they reveal any blossoms, but they were almost hidden in the foliage.  Truly, not the spectacular showing that I had envisioned.  I did some research and found that "renewal" pruning - like an almost break-up - would result in better flowering.  No such luck on my part as the hedging looked stubby, then resulted in no better flowering the following year.  Michael Dirr in his most eloquent way has said that while flowering quince "in full flower was beautiful, however, during the rest of the year (50 to 51 weeks) the planting was intolerable (emphasis added) . . . almost unlikeable."  I agreed completely.  But, with other areas upon which to focus my attention, I just left them alone for a number of years. 

Then, this spring, these plants brought forth a new hope, that they had changed and were worth keeping.  Flowers, they made flowers, lots of delicate rich red blossoms along interesting, sculpturally craggy stems.  Lovely, long cut branches were spectacular in a tall vase on the mantel.  Yes, they showed their worthiness of the space in my small garden.

That is, until now.  Obviously, my years of hatred and neglect and then sudden adoration has thus resulted in some sort of backlash.  The quince have produced, of all things, quince!  And not just one or two, but dozens upon dozens.  Quince are not desirable like sweet cherries or small plums or even a crabapple, but bitter and sour.  They are weighing down the branches and falling and rotting on the ground.  I'm not even considering making the effort of cooking and canning quince jam.

Chaenomeles speciosa 'Texas Scarlet' in fruit (foreground)

After all of the on-again, off-again feelings about these plants, I now realize that it's finally time to cut bait and put an end to this relationship and start anew. 

And really, it's me, not them.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Blueberry Crisp

Our dear friends were visiting last weekend and we were hosting ten for dinner.  With rainstorms threatening all afternoon, the planned grilling and dinner outdoors was not a viable option.  Back to the drawing board, I crafted a summer country supper of homemade turkey meatloaf, creamy garlic mashed potatoes, roasted carrots with dill and fresh corn on the cob.  Very cold Budweiser and a light pinot gris were perfect accompaniements.  But this menu just beckoned a scrumptious blueberry crisp - and I dragged out my favorite Maine recipe.  The key is finding wild blueberries - they have less liquid and more flavor so the crisp is never runny and the berries never overpowered by the topping.  Just make sure you make enough for everyone to have second helpings!

Blueberry Crisp

4 cups wild blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 cup butter
1 cup light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup flour
1 cup rolled oats

Combine the blueberries, sugar and lemon rind and place in an 8"x8"x2" baking dish.  Mix the flour, brown sugar, rolled oats, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Cut in the butter (like preparing a pie crust) until all ingredients are well blended (will be quite crumbly).  Spread over the blueberries; it does not have to completly cover the berries.

Bake at 325 degrees until the topping is golden and the filling bubbles in the center, approximately 45 minutes.  Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  Serves 8 people.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Worms in a Can

"It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures."  Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, 1881.

A proverbial can of worms was opened for me recently, and usually, such an occurence is not a welcome thing, especially when the worms have been tended and nicely packed away in their can for a couple of decades.  But it made me think a little further about how the idiom became commonly used.  The expression, a modern-day version of Pandora's box, is thought to have originiated in America around the 1950s, with fishermen who once opening their cans of worms had difficulty getting them back in the can.  Growing up, we often stopped on our way fishing to buy little styrofoam containers of worms - great for catching sun perch in our little lake in East Texas.  But we fished until all the worms were gone so I don't remember that it took much effort to put worms back into a container.

Worms are not just good for fishing, but amazing friends to have in the garden.  Author Amy Stewart wrote an lovely little book about the marvels of earthworms, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, and the important impact they have on the planet.   Gardeners know that if worms are found in the soil, it is often a good indication that the soil is fertile.  Worms convert organic matter into nutrients that plants can use.  They loosen the soil, making it easier for plant roots to grow and to absorb nutrients.  Worms also oxygenate the soil and increase the movement of water through the soil.  Too, they support additional wildlife in the garden as food for birds. 

Perhaps my worms can stay out of the can for a while . . .

Sunday, May 30, 2010

You Say "Ahndeeve" and I Say "Indive"

I've never been a fan of the pretentious endive, with its bitter taste and difficult pronunciation.  No matter how I try, I never seem to say the word correctly.  Picking it out of fancy salads, no way would I ever prepare endive and serve it to my friends.

Until last week.

With the tart endive, tangy cheese and sweet caramelized pears, this salad is scrumptious and gorgeous (but must be plated prior to serving). 

3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sugar
2 pears, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup Stilton cheese, crumbled (or any other blue cheese)
25 endive spears, rinsed and dried
1/2 cup pecan halves (or 25 pieces), toasted
watercress sprigs, for garnish
1 cup cream cheese, for presentation

In large saute pan over medium heat, add butter and sugar.  Add diced pears and cook until well caramelized, approximately 8 minutes.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together garlic, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil.  Add the mixture to the cheese.  Arrange the spears on a plate by first making a small mound of cream cheese in the center, then placing 3-4 endive spears on the cream cheese in a floral, three-dimensional pattern.  Top the center of the endive spears with the cheese, then sauteed pears, and topping them with a few toasted pecans.  Garnish with a sprig of watercress. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Perfect Ginger Cookie

Though not a lifelong quest, I do love a good ginger cookie that isn't too sweet, or too heavily gingered, or overly gooey or excessively crunchy.  A friend shared a dairy-free version the other evening after dinner.  Even knowing what these morsels didn't contain, I still devored more than one as if they were the last cookies on the planet.  Yet, still not quite perfect. 

Today, I tried a recipe shared by our neighborhood babysitter.  Scrumptious.  Perhaps not perfection, but pretty darn close.  And the 3-plus dozen that I made this afternoon are . . . gone (hence, no photo to share).

Yummy Molasses Ginger Cookies

1 cup sugar (plus a little extra for rolling)
3/4 cup shortening (or substitute equal part butter at room temperature)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon (heaping) ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon (heaping) ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix all dry ingredients and set aside.  Cream sugar and shortening.  Stir in egg and molasses.  Mix in dry ingredients and stir by hand until blended.  Chill dough for 15-30 minutes (for easier handling, but not necessary).  Form 1-inch balls of dough, roll in sugar and place on ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake 9-11 minutes (until you see lots of cracks on the top).  Makes 3-4 dozen.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Chowder Kind of Day

What is there to do with more than 2 feet of snow on the ground?  Cook!  And nothing is better than a warm bowl of corn and chicken chowder on a cold snowy day.  I wholeheartedly trust any of Ina Garten's recipes - and this one is one of the best.  I will note that fresh summer corn gives it a much sweeter taste, but in the dead of winter, frozen corn is just fine.

As adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

2 large chicken breasts, bone in
8 ounces bacon, chopped
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
4 large onions, chopped
1/2 stick of unsalted butter
1/2 cup all purpose flower
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
12 cups chicken broth
2 pounds medium white boiling potatoes, unpeeled and diced
10 cups fresh corn (or 3 pounds frozen corn)
2 cups half-and-half
8 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, grated

Boil chicken breasts in a pot of water until cooked.  Remove and let cool, then debone, shred and save until later.  Strain and reserve broth.

In a large stockpot on medium-high heat, cook the bacon and olive oil until the bacon is crisp. Remove and reserve.  Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and butter to the bacon drippings in the stockpot and cook about 10 minutes or until the onions are translucent.

Stir in the flour, salt, pepper and turmeric and cook for about 3 minutes.  Add the chicken broth and potatoes, bring to a boil, and simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.  Add the corn* and chicken to the soup, then add the half-and-half and cheddar cheese.  Cook for 5 more minutes (do not let boil again) until the cheese is melted.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve hot with a garnish of bacon.

I think I'll get another bowl.

*If using fresh corn (about 10 ears), cut kernels off the cobs and blanch for about 3 minutes in boiling, salted water.  Of course, this step is not necessary with frozen corn.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Farmer's Garden

"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat" keeps our own neighborhood farmers' market from bringing fresh produce, organic meats and baked goods, and locally grown cut flowers.  But given that it's not the easiest task to grow produce in the mid-Atlantic in January, I wonder how I might find out if any local farmers have what I am seeking? 

Check out this version of a virtual farmers market.  The Farmer's Garden is like a classified ad search engine that allows posting of produce to sell or to buy, all based upon your zip code.  Now I know what I'll do with the bushel of tomatoes I'll have late next summer. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Give me a break!

I'm sure I could squeeze out 30 hours of leisure time each week, no problem.  Of course, my family would not eat, the kids would not have received help studying for final exams, and the dog would not be walked. 

No wonder this supposed time management expert is no longer married.  I'm recycling - no, I'm trashing this article today!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Making It Easy to Be GRRReen

In the immortal words of Kermit the Frog, "it's not that easy being green." In 2010, green means much more than color. To simplify things for myself, I personally like to define green as reduce, reuse, recycle - today's definition of the "Rs."

Just yesterday, a new law took effect in Washington, DC, that mandates all retail establishments that sell food items charge 5 cents per each plastic bag used. Most of this "user fee" (aka tax) is collected by the city and becomes dedicated funding to clean up the Anacostia River. However, as I read this morning in the Washington Post, the retail establishments can keep "1 to 2 cents" of each nickel collected. I'm not sure why they get to keep some of the tax as they'll be spending less on supplying customers with plastic bags. Regardless, I do hereby resolve in 2010 to be more diligent about carrying around my reusable shopping bags.

I'm not a fan of making resolutions for the New Year because when I break them (and I always do), I feel guilty and disappointed with myself. Why do I need to just set myself up to feel bad? I reserve all those self-improvement efforts for Lent - a mere six weeks long - when I am much more likely to follow through with something for a limited time.

However, because my wallet needs to make at least that one resolution, I have decided that I'll give the year my own theme and then modify my actions to fulfill that theme.

2010 - Making it easy to be GRRReen

Each and every day I will either reduce, reuse or recycle something. Yesterday, I reused shopping bags at the grocery store. Today, I am recycling some old gardening catalogs that I think I can live without. My short-term goal is to make a habit of being conscious and aware of what I keep, what I throw away and what I do (or don't) purchase. In the long-term, I think I'll feel less burdened by the material things in life and better about how what I do impacts the earth. (I'll update periodically with RRRs of note).

In the meantime, I'm off to figure out what I'll RRR tomorrow.
PS - Ray Charles sings it pretty nicely here.