My BEST Gift This Season

Santa doesn’t visit me much anymore. Not because I’m naughty or anything, but because I’m older, wiser. And I buy a lot of my own stuff these days. So… Not a lot of boxes under the tree with my name on them. No worries. I don’t need anything come end of December. If I need it, I buy it. If I don’t, I set it back on the shelf. Need vs. want. It’s a lesson I tend to harp on with my kids.

However, this year I had a brainstorm. It’s lettuce season in Central Florida which means I’m making several trips to the garden per week collecting lettuce leaves, washing and drying them and of course, devouring them. I mentioned this to my daughter, along with a hint that I could really use a salad spinner.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“An automatic lettuce dryer.”

You can imagine the disgruntled look on her face. “Seriously? You want me to buy you a lettuce dryer for Christmas?”

I nodded. “I do.”

Being the good daughter that she is, she obliged her crazy mother’s request. And can I tell you? It’s the best-gift-EVER. Really!

It looks simple enough–can be found in most any homeware department–but the results?

AMAZING. Wash, deposit, press, spin, pluck and voila! You have yourself freshly dried lettuce from the garden!

Warning: Please do not skimp on the washing step. There’s nothing that wrankles a husband’s nose quicker than crunching down on gritty lettuce.

Exactly. Lettuce isn’t supposed to be gritty. It’s supposed to be crisp, yes. Gritty, no. And lettuce fresh from the garden tends to collect dirt. Lots of dirt. So take a word from the wise and wash your lettuce thoroughly. I usually rinse mine in the garden, using the overflow to water my plants as opposed to allowing it to run down the sink drain.

I will give it another quick rinse in the kitchen–but a very quick rinse–then I deposit it into the spinner bin (I actually collect my leaves from the garden using the spinner bin). Push down on the center “spin” button and away we go! Can you see the droplets of water collected on the inside bowl?

Fabulous. Less than a minute later, I pluck freshly dried lettuce from the bin and transfer it to my salad bowl. Genius.

Now I realize the holidays have passed, but perhaps you have a birthday fast-approaching? Special anniversary? Aw heck, why not go out and spoil yourself with a surprise purchase. You’ll be glad you did!

And if you harvested too much lettuce for one serving, refer to my terrific storage tips. Click here for full details on how to store your lettuce for days (although pass over the tedious drying methods used in my example. It’s needs an update!!).

New Year, New Food

Every year, many of us make the new year’s resolution to eat healthier and exercise more. It’s a worthy goal to be sure. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years about making well-meaning resolutions, it’s the fact that resolutions without staying power won’t succeed. Not even with the best intentions.

What do I mean by staying power?

Simple. Have you chosen a method of exercise or diet with the allure of holding your attention? Your desire? If not, don’t bother wasting the effort. It won’t work. One look at any gym membership contract should convince you. They don’t offer you a month-by-month deal for a reason. Most people don’t enjoy going to the gym. Pay for the year, attend for a month or two. Why? It becomes tedious, monotonous, and a chore in and of itself.

No good. Despite my teenage son’s conviction that “Mom loves chores” — I don’t. No one does! But I do like to dance (a GREAT way to get the heart pumping and the calories burning). I also like to eat. Chocolate, cheese, and of course, ice cream. Fortunately for me, I also like salads, vegetables, hummus, juice–I love it all!

So this year I’m going to share some of my secrets to staying slim and healthy. First and foremost, look for something you enjoy doing–dancing, walking, jogging, gardening–and do it. Just do it. Every day, every other day, start small and work your way up to bigger and better workouts. For me, cranking up the music and dancing around my house for a half an hour works wonders. In fact, I enjoy it so much, I’ll keep the music playing and clean the house. Check mark: chores!

When it comes to food, I eat what I want–chocolate, cheese, ice cream–but I do so in small increments throughout the day. The key to eating smart is to eat early and eat often. Eight small meals a day will serve you better than 3-4 big meals. Why? Because you’re eating all of the time so you’ll NEVER feel deprived–an important aspect when it comes to changing dietary habits. You’re also avoiding the pitfall of fighting a hungry belly. Eventually, your stomach will shrink in size and feel full sooner. A good thing!

What should you eat?

Good question. Below are a few of my favorite healthy alternatives, beginning with my ever-popular belly-cleansing ulcer-easing juice recipe, Cabbage-Carrot-Apple juice.

A bowl of yogurt and berries works wonders for your digestion, too, including a powerful punch of antioxidants. Did you know that raspberries have one of the highest content of fiber among fruits? They do!

As does a freshly-plucked salad from the garden. I love chickpeas–for protein AND regularity.

Speaking of chickpeas, homemade Roasted Red Pepper Hummus is always a winner with me. I devour mine on the end of a pretzel stick, celery stalk or cracker.

Tomato Sauce will please the entire family at dinner time…

I like a healthy dose of pesto, as well.

Garlic is good!! And with all the tomatoes bursting in my garden, I need to find LOTS of ways to consume them.

Need more ideas? Check the Heart Healthy tab of my recipe section. Surely there’s something with staying power for you to enjoy. Happy New Year!

Christmas Food Faves

During the holiday season, people eat. (At least I know I do!) They gather around the kitchen and bake together, stuff turkey together, whip up potatoes and pies–or any wonderful mix of dishes that bring comfort and cheer. And this time of year, some of my favorite vegetables are in season and ready for harvest. At least in Florida.

Compost sweet potatoes make for the most delectable side dish. Even better when topped with marshmallows!

top sweets with marshmallows

 

Brussels sprouts and bacon add intense flavor to any turkey meal.

Savory Brussels Sprouts

My husband prefers corn with his turkey. Why not spice it up and roast it with those last jalapeno peppers from the garden? There’s one good thing about warm weather in December. Tomatoes and peppers enjoy a prolonged harvest season!

roasted corn

Me. I like mashed potatoes and stuffing with my turkey. I also like pie. Pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie–they both work!

sweet potato pie

Speaking of pumpkins… I miss my little wee-one!

kids love pumpkins

She’s a teenager now, but I remember this day in the pumpkin patch like it was yesterday. **sigh** She used to let me buy her clothes, drive her around town and snuggle. But alas, things change. Hug your loved ones. It’s that special time of year…

Merry Christmas!

Poinsettia Perfection

leggy poinsettiaMany of you know that I’ve been working hard to save my Poinsettia plants from year to year. Not because I’m cheap and don’t want to purchase beautiful new plants every year (though there is a nugget of truth in that statement), I do like a challenge. And this year, I’ve conquered the everlasting Poinsettia challenge.

I’ve achieved partial success in the past. They survived from years past, but were a bit too leggy and awkward for me to consider a glowing success.

But this year was different. I strategically placed them in and around my current landscape–in the line of sprinklers, mind you–and crossed my fingers. Sure I fed and clipped them throughout the year but that was pretty much it.

And how was I rewarded? With these darling Poinsettia. Aren’t they fabulous?

poinsettia success

They’re full and gorgeous and look right at home next to my existing Indian Hawthorne. I also saved a white Poinsettia. Isn’t she a beauty?

white poinsettia

Lovely. Simply, lovely.

What’s the secret?

Indirect sunlight and protected from cool drafts.  As a native of Mexico, this plant doesn’t like the cold, so whenever the temperature dips below 50-55 degrees, you must be vigilant and cover it else it shrivel up and die.

Also, it prefers less than 12 hours of sunlight, which makes the west and north side of my property best. Better bet is to keep them in complete darkness from 5:00 pm to 7:00 am. Remember to water them regularly (Poinsettia don’t like to dry out) and feed them a well-balanced fertilizer come spring.

dualing poinsettia

Stimulating them with a little “root tonic” couldn’t hurt.  The shock from their lovely potted plant status to in ground can be quite daunting.  Hopefully, you have some worms on the welcoming committee as you place them in ground and all will be well. 

When summer rolls around, I’ll cut mine back to encourage healthy new growth for the upcoming holiday season. When December arrives, I’ll cut back on the fertilizer and allow my gorgeous girls to bloom. Easy peasy. Your turn! 

Pesto Perfection

I love pesto–on most anything. From bread to pasta, cheese to chicken, its sharp distinct flavor and powerful punch makes me reel with delight. Even in the garden, it’s one of my favorite herbs to grow. One simple “brush” with this plant, and I carry its fragrance for hours.

pesto-toast

And for you garden and foodie enthusiasts, it’s very easy to grow. Sunlight, tad bit of fertilizer, well-drained soil and you’re off to the gourmet section right in your very own kitchen. If you grow it out in the garden, basil prefers to be near its “bestie” the tomato plant. Basil is said to improve the flavor of your tomatoes. Love it!

basil-and-tomato-companions

Making pesto is easy. Basil, Parmesan, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, DONE. (I don’t use salt, but it’s definitely a classic addition for this recipe.)

pesto-ingredients

My Cuisinart makes the process of preparing pesto all the more simple, though you can use any blender, really.

pesto-blend

Which is about all you need to do. Basically, you blend everything until a smooth paste forms. (Told you it was easy!) Better yet, you can make this recipe 1 day ahead. A tip for preserving its freshness: cover the top of your sauce with a 1/2 inch layer of olive oil before chilling.

Next, enjoy–over warm pasta, fresh bread, or that boring chicken you needed to spruce up. Or dare I say…turkey?

No worries. It’s all good!

Classic Pesto Sauce

4 cups fresh basil leaves (about 3 large bunches)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 pine nuts

2 garlic cloves

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1 tsp coarse kosher salt (I like Himalayan salt!)

Combine basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic in a blender. Blend until a paste forms. If your basil flies up the sides of your blender, gently push it back down and encourage assimilation with the other ingredients. Add cheese and salt and blend until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and enjoy!

pesto

Variations abound for pesto sauce, including choice of nuts, choice of greens, choice of cheese. For example, walnuts can provide an omega-3 advantage while your cheese can be a combination of Parmesan and Pecorino Sardo, Asiago–have fun with it! How about adding parsley leaves to the mix? Maybe a cilantro version? Mint? Feel free to experiment!

Infusing your passion for gardening with the joy of cooking…

Maple-Orange Pumpkin Granola

This time of year, I love everything pumpkin–coffee, cupcakes, bread, bagels, and now, granola. Yep, granola. Healthy granola, too! Sort of. Everything but the maple syrup, anyway. And really, can’t a girl splurge during the holidays? (My holiday season officially begins when the pumpkin-fall menus enter the scene.)

fall pumpkin granola

I would have to answer, yes, I believe so. This granola is so delicious, you’ll want to eat it with ice cream, yogurt, or straight out of the pan. And while it’s high in fat, it’s mostly healthy fat, I can rationalize it as healthy, because pumpkin and flax seeds are so good for you. Really good.

So how do you make decadent pumpkin granola? That’s also easy. Simply mix oats and seeds, add some of what I call “granola glue” — the stuff that makes granola clumps — and bake.

Decadent Pumpkin Granola

pumpkin granola2 cups rolled oats

1/2 cup pumpkin seed, natural, not salted or roasted

1/4 cup ground flax seed

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup melted butter

1 tsp orange zest

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 300°F. In a large bowl, combine rolled oats, pumpkin and flax seed. Mix well. For the granola glue, mix together maple syrup, melted butter, orange zest and vanilla extract. Whisk well and pour over oat and seed mixture. Mix all ingredients until well blended. Note: this might be easier done with your hands. If you like the orange zest, go ahead and add some more. It’s a nice compliment to the maple syrup. More

Fall 2016 Update

Well into the fall planting season, you might be wondering how my garden is growing.

Fantastic! My corn is thriving. Lined with lettuce, everyone is happy!

corn-and-lettuce

The corn is sprouted its first silk, lovely as a blonde beauty and a sure sign harvest time is nearing.

blonde-silk-beauty_corn

My tomatoes are burgeoning with fruit. Brushed with Dipel Dust, the worms haven’t got a chance!

tomatoes-in-progress-fall-2016

Dipel Dust is the white stuff on the leaves!

tomatoes-and-dipel-dust

Broccoli is expanding its reach. Still young and tender, but showing great promise. Those are my newly planted sweet onions next to them. For the most part, the peanuts have been pulled and boiled, making room for Brussels sprouts and cabbage.

img_3563

I’ll also be introducing a sole rosemary plant. I have a herb garden close to my house, but since I’m about to till it up for soil refreshment and bug removal purposes, I decided you can never have too much rosemary. Soon, I’ll have it near and far!

lovely-squash

My squash is satisfied and going strong. Can’t wait!

christmas-jalapeno-peppers

Alas, my peppers are waning but still producing. An assortment of green and red, they remind me of the upcoming holidays. Joy to the world…my garden is gorgeous!

Sweet Onion Savvy

I just picked up my sweet onion sets and couldn’t wait to get them in the ground. They take about six months to grow, meaning my November planting won’t be ready to harvest until at least May, maybe June. But the wait is worth it.

fresh sweet onions

Come spring, I’ll have tons of sweets. And I do mean tons. My local seed store sells these gals in batches of 100, so whether I need that many or not, that’s how many I’m planting. Which brings me to rule number one in my garden: keep it simple and make it easy!

onion-sets-in-channels

Remember my corn channels? I have onion channels now. It’s my new favorite way to plant. I simply drag a hoe down the row, place my onions at the proper distance apart – about 3-4 inches – then back fill them with my compost, ultimately covering them 1 inch deep. Mine are actually closer to 6-8 inches apart, but then again, I want to make sure my babies have room to grow and EXPAND.

back-fill-onion-sets-with-compost

Next, I set the gals upright and water well. Easy! Onions require a moderate amount of fertilizer in equal parts of N, P, K and medium water. Remember not to give them too much nitrogen, or you’ll end up with all leaves and no fruit. No good! Relatively few bugs prefer their pungent taste and smell which makes them all the easier to grow. Wunderbar!

set-onion-sets-upright

And they’re quite content next to their friends, broccoli.

Me? I’m quite content thinking about all the goodies I can make with delicious sweet onions. French Onion Soup, Onions Au Gratin, Baked and Savory Sweet Onions, Sautéed Cabbage and Onions–the list goes on!

Harvesting Eggplant

I love eggplant. Not only delicious, but it’s easy to grow and beautiful to gaze upon. From the delicate purple blossoms accentuated by bright yellow centers to the sleek black bodies of fruit, I love everything about eggplant.

eggplant-blossom

Unfortunately, I’m the only one in my family who enjoys this robust fruit, hence the reason I only have one plant in my garden. One, lone plant, tucked away within the rows of its close family member, the tomato.

eggplant-and-tomato-friends

Both part of the nightshade family of plants, eggplant and tomato can thrive planted alongside one another, however, beware of allowing them to follow one another in your crop rotation. Not a great idea, because verticillium wilt fungus that infects tomatoes one season can live in the soil for years and likely infect subsequent crops. Peppers and potatoes are also members of the nightshade family so consider these four plants as one unit when it comes to crop rotation.

A few varieties of tomatoes are resistant to this fungus, ie. Carnival, Celebrity and Santiago. I happen to grow Celebrity and Beefsteak, so I’m half-resistant! Just another example of why crop rotation is so very important in your organic garden.

first-eggplant-harvestAnd since I’m both gardener and chef in my household, I grow and enjoy eggplant as much as I want — serving it up sautéed golden brown with tomato sauce, or layered in lasagna.

sauteed-eggplant

Simply delightful! Check out my recipe section for Sautéed Eggplant full details.

Broccoli Babes

As my peanuts finish out for the season, it’s time to introduce a new crop. To best utilize my garden space, I interplant based on crop rotation rules. Crop rotation is an organic gardening practice where you change the placement of your plants from season to season. Doing so improves the structure and quality of your soil as well as minimizes the risk of disease and pest infestation. I use a rotation of beans-leaves-roots-fruits. Basically, this means that after my “beans” have produced, I plant “leaves.” In this case, beans = peanuts and leaves = broccoli. Peanuts fix nitrogen into the soil and broccoli requires lots of nitrogen to produce big green leaves so this rotation makes good sense.

baby-broccoli-and-mature-peanuts

In between the broccoli sprouts will be spinach. Both love nitrogen and are good companions in the garden. Other crop rotation considerations are how my tomatoes followed peanuts from earlier this season, corn followed my bush beans. These peanuts (shown above) actually followed okra, although I normally try to follow a fruit group, say tomatoes, squash or peppers.

my-fall-garden-2016

Above is my fall garden to date (just prior to the insertion of my tomato stakes and cables). Blueberry bushes are located in the farthest row. Black beans are in the ground next to them. Then there’s my corn, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, broccoli and spinach. Still to come this season are sweet onions and carrots, cabbage and chard. Potatoes will go in around January. Can’t wait!