Florida

Where Garden Meets Kitchen

Summer gardening is a challenge in Florida.  Okay, who am I kidding?  Between scorching drought and rising floods, a sprinkler system run amuck and intermittent vacations, I’m not gardening a whole heck of a lot this summer (though I am solarizing a host of underground beasts hiding out in my beds).  Instead, I’m creating delicacies in the kitchen with my spring produce.  Yes!  Doesn’t that sound marvelous?

Now that the sun is shining and my spirits have recovered from a rainy beach vacation, I’m turning my attention to crafty ways to use my herbs–those that survived the downpour post-drought, that is.  Yep.  You guessed it.  We’re talking rosemary, the feisty old gal.  Hard to kill this beauty (another point in the “I love you” column!) which is why I have two of these babes.  They grow like weeds with or without my help, so this week when the kids and I cut them back, we decided to pack them with butter and lemon juice.

I saw this in a magazine once, where they mixed fresh herbs and froze them–or did they refrigerate them?  I don’t recall exactly, but what I do remember is how simple a process it seemed and how handy to have these cubes on hand when I need to whip up a fancy dinner for hubby and the kids.  Fresh fish with herb butter anyone?  How about a little rosemary lemon drizzle on that pasta?  Mix it up with olive oil and we’re talking salad dressing galore.

And pre-prepared–the key behind the project.  Because I assure you, if I had to collect fresh herbs, chop them finely and mix with lemon juice and olive oil just to eat a salad?  It wouldn’t happen.  Nope.  Nada.  Never.  I simply don’t have that kind of time OR forethought.  *sigh*  It’s a curse.

Any-hoo, let’s not bother with all that–let’s make it a craft for the kids!  C’mon guys, think of it:  you can pop a rosemary lemon ice-cube into your lemonade any time you want for instant rosemary lemonade!  Yay!  Simply steep your rosemary according to my recipe, grab an ice tray, mix the herb liquid with lemon juice (we used concentrate) and fill your tray.  Freeze them for individual ice cubes that you can pop into a beverage, at your leisure.  Psst…they go great with vodka, too.  Five o’clock, summer style. 🙂

While you have the rosemary out, chop it very fine, mix with softened butter and do the same in a separate ice-cube tray.  Or heck, mix and match in the same tray.  That’s what we did.   I do love a multi-tasker!  No rosemary?  Try basil with butter, chives, even parsley.  Maybe a combination of your favorites?

And while you have your thinking cap on, try freezing a little cilantro and lime juice for an easy addition to homemade salsa, or mango smoothies.  My kids are big on smoothies.  Seems to be the most appealing way for them to eat their fruit.  Me?  I say, whatever works.  Then it hits me.  Why stop there? 

Hey kids, how about making mom a little mango sorbet with your ice cream maker, and throw in a cilantro/lime cube while you’re at it?  Fresh mint and vanilla ice cream?  Mmmm….  Don’t forget the chocolate chips!

The possibilities are endless.  Just be sure to cover your trays with plastic wrap so they don’t absorb any undelightful odors from your freezer.  If you’re only working with butter, the refrigerator will work.  Also, when the butter hardens, individually wrap your squares for easy use. 

Easy-peasy-lemony-squeezy!  Told you I was all sunshine and spirit today…  So rather than cry over the heat and humidity, use what herbs you have now and save some for later.

Thanks, Jack Frost!

Because you were kind enough to delay your visit to Florida this year, my tomatoes are blooming, producing quite the bounty!  Why, just look at these gorgeous babies…

Aren’t they fabulous?  And better yet, they taste delicious–especially in sauce form.  But before we get to the kitchen, I wanted to share a few things I learned this season with regard to growing tomatoes.  Number one:  sturdy triangle towers are your BEST bet.  This round contraption with the adjustable vertical supports was no good.  Actually collapsed beneath the weight of the plant!

Sure, I could have manipulated the positioning of these supports and in fact did so several times–but is that how I want to be spending my time in the garden?  Nope.  I’d rather stroll down to the garden and admire my sturdy triangle tomato towers, and then pluck ruby-red tomatoes (or nearly so) from my plants.  I mean, that’s the reason I’m gardening, right?  The harvest?

Yes.  And once I gather a basket-full of San Marzanos, it’s off to check on the others.  My Lincoln tomatoes are doing well, but why are some of them yellow?  In fact, they look amazingly similar to the Lemon Drop variety I saw in one of my seed catalogs.  Hmph.  I don’t remember ordering those, let alone planting them!

But stranger things have happened.  I guess.  Right?  No worries.  It’s all fun. 🙂  Wandering still further, I noticed this little beauty.

Don’t ask me how it ended up in my tomato cage.  Blame it on the fact that I expanded the garden into the wildflower field, coupled with unseasonably warm weather…  Not really sure.  Like I said–strange things are happening around here.  Yet wonderful things are about to happen in my kitchen!  C’mon, I’ll show you! 

Now making tomato sauce is an easy task.  Easier when using canned, but we’re gardeners and a little extra effort to use fresh doesn’t bother us in the least bit.  So first things first, we need to remove the skin and seeds.  I call this “blanch and push.”  You’ll find full instructions on how-to in my recipe section but for now, we’ll cover the basics. 

Next up is the cooking process.  First you’ll want to saute onion and garlic in olive oil and then add your tomatoes.  Mush ’em up real good (helps them cling to the noodles).  Add the seasoning of your choice, bring to a boil and then simmer on low for 20 minutes to several hours. 

Wow.  That’s vague. 

Yes.  And so are most Italians when you ask them how to make tomato sauce.  Some may slant you the evil eye while others will simply smile yet remain mum.  You see, tomato sauce is akin to the family jewels when it comes to Italians and they won’t share (other than with their firstborn) the recipe for their tomato sauce.  Shoot–some won’t even eat another’s sauce let alone tell you how they make theirs!

Blasphemy, pure and simple.  But since I’m only Italian by marriage, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned along the way.  Sauce to Italians is like gravy to Americans and everyone’s taste buds run different.  You know, some like it lumpy, others don’t.  Some like it dark while others prefer it light.  Salt, no salt…  Which pretty much sums up tomato sauce.  Fiddle with the recipe until you tweak it just right to suit YOUR family and call it a day.

You’ll never please everyone so worry about those who matter.  Same goes for meatballs (but were not even going to GO there).  When it comes to sauce, think “taste and cling” and above all, enjoy the process. Buon Appetito!

Attention Shoppers

When you’re standing in the midst of rows and rows of luscious flowers and plants, herbs and vegetables I warn you:  TAKE CAUTION—your desire may outweigh your energy.

At least mine does!  Kinda like my “eyes are bigger than my stomach” syndrome, my desire for fabulous vegetables fresh from the garden can outweigh my energy level—to weed, plant, mulch and feed them all.  Especially fall and spring here in Central Florida.  It’s our planting seasons. 

How do I know?  Well, this weekend I found myself in the garden for more hours than I had planned and while this isn’t particularly unusual for a woman like me (multi-tasker extraordinaire, 4000 sq. ft. garden), it was still eye-opening.  I had a babysitter for the evening–I had places to go, a husband to talk to, dinners (I didn’t cook) to eat!  I didn’t have time to toil away in the garden, I was busy, busy, busy!

But much like standing before a sumptuous buffet on a cruise ship, I couldn’t help myself as I shopped, piling more plants and flowers into my basket until I could barely fit them in the back-end of my suburban. 

“Ohhh…look at that lavender!  (Grabbed one.) Those cabbage are absolutely delectable.  (Snatched up two.) And garlic–is it that time already?”

Add a few shallots, some more scallions and oh what the heck, why not get a head start on my sweet onions?  (Toss in a little brown bag-full.)  Sure I’ve already ordered two hundred-count bunches from my neighborhood seed shop—so what?  These will go in earlier and mature earlier which will amount to an endless harvest of sweet buttery onions!  Mmmmm….

You can see how it happens.  It’s easy to fall prey.  So please, take a word of advice from an overachiever and make a list—before you go.  Buy only what you need, but do bring an extra bag with you.  Like those dastardly buy one-get ones at my local supermarket, I can’t help myself when I see a great deal and this time of year—you’ll see plenty.  From the sweet savory onion bulbs calling your name to the fresh green herbs thick and full, you’ll have more than enough to choose from.  And don’t forget the mulch, weed protection, fertilizer…

They all equate to more time and more energy!  Great when you have it, not so much when you don’t.  But in the end, it’s worth it.  My garden is healthy and happy and I think is the most beautiful sight to behold.  Corn, limas, tomatoes, zucchini, beans, squash, lettuce, garlic, onions (scallions, sweets and shallots!), pumpkins, cantaloupe, okra, sweet potatoes…

And this is only the beginning!  Wait until I get my hands on some golden papas!  Then we’re talking cream of the crop!  Healthy French fries, roasted quarters, mashed, baked—you name it, the skye’s the limit.

Building Our Bean Fort

How fun is that?

It’s WAY fun and what an endeavor this has turned out to be–for adults and kids alike!  Just look at this beauty.  Isn’t it amazing?

But let’s start from the beginning, when our middle school students took on the task of building the framework for this project.  It began with a request for my future engineers.  Hands shot up.  Then my architects.  More hands shot up.  Then my laborers.  More hands shot up (don’t you just love eager and exuberant?) and then the assistants, coordinators, you name it.  “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”  Enthusiasm 101. 

Once we assembled our crew, the design process began. 

Now I’m no engineer–but I am smart enough to know how to delegate, so I handed the technical aspects over to the kids. 

Good thing too, because every time I did pipe up it wasn’t as fruitful as I’d hoped.  (But I’m a writer not an engineer!)  No matter.  The kids politely moved past my suggestions and continued solving the problem amongst themselves.  They dug the foundation, tied the framework together.

Then they worked to stabilize the structure and all was running efficient and smooth, much like a well-oiled machine, especially when they came up with the bright idea to use PVC pipe for our roof support beams.  In case my husband is reading this–Yes, I know.  You told me to bring our PVC pipe from homeYes, it was a great idea

What can I say?  (I forgot.)  Moving right along…  While all this fort construction was going on, we turned our compost pile.  Look at all that gorgeous dirt!

Any-hoo, back to the roof.  All was running well–

Until it came time to attach the roof.  A bit of a “mutiny of ideas” ensued as to how we best support the lattice top–cross-wise, lengthwise, overlap–though fortunately it was short-lived.  

“We’re working together around here, right?”  I looked around at disgruntled faces and nodded my head (this is an excellent psychological warfare tactic–nod and they will agree).  “Right?”

Right.  And back to the roof we went, now secured attached and utterly stupendous.  It’s certainly something to be proud, wouldn’t you agree?  I mean, this is a masterpiece of teamwork, energy, determination (all the more amazing under the warm and humid conditions we had to endure). Gotta love Florida!  At least it gives us TWO growing seasons which equals TWICE the fun, right kids?  (We’re nodding again here.) 

Enter lower elementary, a.k.a. our bean planters. 

Their job was to “build” the walls.  Okay, maybe not actually build but certainly plant the seeds for future “wall” growth.  And we want our walls to be dense so don’t be shy kids–plant as many as you can!

This bean fort is going to be really cool.  Almost private, like a real hideaway.  And it will fit a good 5-10 kids!  “Party in the fort1!” Depending upon their size and agreeability, of course.  Better yet, won’t this make for a great photo opportunity?

We think so and since we plan to hang out a bit, we want it to be comfortable.  What’s more comfy than a hay covered floor? 

Awesome.  And more than beautiful, our bean fort will be edible. 

 Yep.  Green beans will be hanging within our reach.  Organic green beans.  Yum. Pluck em, peel em, plop em in! 

But that’s not all we did this week!  Upper elementary planted tomatoes.  And because they’re experts in the garden, they know plants need nutrients to grow full and lush and were sure to include them. 

What do tomatoes need? Epsom salts and eggshells!  Or magnesium sulfate and calcium for you non-gardener types.

Blossom-end rot (ugly black spots) on our tomatoes can be due to a lack of calcium.  And nobody wants to eat rot spots.  But we also like BIG tomatoes so we included magnesium sulfate because magnesium helps chlorophyll formation while sulfate aids in strong healthy cell development. 

 And we do look forward to our plump red tomatoes.  Makes sense to give them the best start we can.  Besides, handling crinkly eggshells (pre-cleaned) and crystallized Epsom salt is kinda neat.  

So what do you think?  Need a bean fort in your neck of the woods?  It’s easy to do, great fun and will be the oh-so-popular place to be! 

The hardest part will be waiting for it to fill in… 🙂

Oh, and lower elementary will be keeping a journal on the entire process, sort of our “record keepers” for the project.  Love teamwork.  But we are a community of gardeners and gardeners enjoy sharing the adventure!

Fiddling with Floating Row Covers

And I do mean fiddling, because as a first-timer using this method, I frankly have no idea what I’m doing.  But I’m desperate.  The squash bugs were BAD this year.  They ate my squash, my zucchini–they’re even after my watermelon as we speak!   They’re beasts, pure and simple.  Hungry beasts.  And with our pumpkin seeds freshly planted, I don’t want to take the chance of losing a single one to squash bugs.  (The kids would never forgive me!)  As to these barren looking beds of mine you’ll have to trust me.  There are seeds under there.

But how does one work these floating row covers to prevent squash bugs, exactly?  I’ve seen pictures.  I know they’re supposed to allow light and water in while keeping bugs out.  Hopefully they’re allowing a nice breeze to whistle through, else we run into a fungus problem.  Then of course there are the afternoon thunderstorms to consider.  When the wind picks up around these parts of Florida, it usually picks up my row covers right along with it!  Anchor pins are not what they’re cracked up to be.  My rock weights don’t always work, either.  Mother Nature is a tough old broad.

So setting my metal half-moons in the dirt, I then cover them with an ultra sheer fabric cover.  That is what a floating row cover is, right?  (Anyone feel free to jump in here.) This should be simple…

After anchoring the ends with pins and rocks, I can only hope it will withstand the winds of summer.  Will this row cover be here when I return this afternoon?  Weather gal did forecast rain for today…

But gazing upon my handiwork, I think really?  Or will I come home to find the white fabric clear across the street in the neighbor’s yard?

That’s the question–or problem, depending on how you like to look at these things. 🙂  How about challenge.  Let’s say we forget all this “problem” talk and move on to the challenge.  The thrill of the game, the test of wills, the exciting match between myself and Mother Nature.  So long as she doesn’t hurl a hurricane my way, I at least stand a chance, don’t you think?

We’ll see.  Stay tuned!

Florida’s Sea Garden

The family and I went scalloping this last week and reaped quite the bounty–and not only scallops, but starfish, blue crabs, fish–the works!  Easy, fun, this was a great trip.  For full details on our adventure, check out my blog here.

While out on the boat scavenging for scallops, we ate well.  No, not fresh veggies (though we did have fruit).  Boiled peanuts are the preferred diet for scallop hunting and while I’d like to lay claim to them as my own, I cannot.  Mine are slated as “football peanuts” and won’t be ready until August/September.  These gems came from one of our farm-friendly families and were boiled on site to perfection in their handy-dandy boiler.  Have large pot, will travel!

And let me tell you, they were good.  If you’ve never enjoyed boiled peanuts, you’re in for a treat.  Easy to make, you simply soak your green peanuts in salted water and cook like you would a roast in a crock pot.  Monitor as they simmer and add water as needed, since the peanuts will soak up the water in your pot. Usually takes a few hours before they’re ready, but when soft–serve warm! 

Another treat for your large pot is crabs.  The kids had a ball catching these little guys and of course they wanted to eat them so Mom tossed them into a pot of boiling water and ta-da!  Crabs for dinner.

Which go very well with scallops.  These were soaked in butter, wine and garlic and served over pasta.  Makes for a nice vacation dinner, don’t you think?

And we do like to eat on vacation!

 

Transplanting Beans

Talk about excitement–this week the students transplanted their bean sprouts into the garden–woo-hoo!  Pull those seed journals out and get scribbling because we have things to report!   Now, before we go on, let’s acknowledge the (sad) fact that not all seeds germinate.  As in nature, some make it and some don’t.  Glancing over the seed trays, it was apparent several of ours didn’t sprout.  But why?

It’s simple really.  Beans are like Goldilocks.  They like their soil not too wet, not too dry… actually. they like it just right.   And as their trusty gardeners, it’s our responsibility to maintain proper germination conditions.  As their supervisor, it was an issue I wanted to explore. 

“If yours didn’t sprout, I want you to dig for your bean.”

The burrowing began.  “Hey–who stole my bean!”

Peering over his shoulder, he wasn’t telling tales.  There was definitely no bean in the soil.   “Now, let’s not be too quick to judgment, kids.  There could be another reason your bean is missing.”  Met with suspicious scowls, I continued, “Remember, your beans are heavier than the light fluffy dirt.  If you flood your seed tray with water, the seeds can float to the soil’s surface.”

“Hey,” another perked to attention.  “Mine’s mushy.”

“Why do you think that happened?”

The pointed finger flew through the air.  “She watered my sprout too much!”

“Oh she did, did she?”  You see, much like adults, it never tends to be our fault.  It was someone else.  I’m sure of it. 

Another bean came up dry.  Actually split into two pieces.  He frowned.  “Mine didn’t get enough water.”

“You see, just like in nature, if there’s not enough rain or too much sun, the seeds won’t grow will they?”  Heads swung from side to side.  Not one to commiserate, I exclaimed, “How about we plant the ones we have!”

The kids jumped to attention.  “Okay!”  Well that was easy.   Guiding them to the correct row, the kids weeded the bed and tilled the soil. 

Plants do prefer soft beds.  Next, we dug holes twice the size of our sprout’s root ball.

Gently–and I do mean to emphasize gently–we removed the sprouts from their containers and placed them into the awaiting holes.  

“Okay, now, same as a castle, let’s build a moat around our sprouts.  This is called a well and it will collect the water, directing it straight to the sprout’s roots.”

Oh, ho–do these kids know about building moats!  They went straight to work and formed the most beautiful wells you’d ever want to see.  (It’s all about the lingo.  Speak in kid terms and you can communicate anything!)

Stepping back, surveying our handiwork, we had to admit, these transplants looked great.  We’re going to have ourselves one lush row of limas to be sure.  But better than the ample harvest on our horizon was the sheer cooperation these kids demonstrated.  Transplanting bean sprouts can be tricky business.  Many of the kids needed help transferring their delicate sprouts from tray to dirt and you know who helped them?

Their fellow students.  To watch as one child took charge and assisted the other place his hard-earned sprout into the ground warmed this mother’s heart.  Weeks of watering and tending their trays really made an impact on these kids–to the point they felt a vested interest in the outcome of their transplant.  Which doesn’t bode well for our co-op concept.  (Kids are funny that way —  they’ll remember exactly where their sprout is and make sure everyone knows it’s theirs.) 

But that’s okay.  It all works out in the end.  One thing I’ve personally discovered is that if you want to get a child to eat vegetables, have them grow them themselves.  I’ve never seen so much plucking of fresh veggies and popping them in their mouths as I have in this garden!

But who can blame them?  They are gorgeous, aren’t they?  Definitely a feat to be proud.  We’ll worry about doling out beans later.  For now, we simply enjoy.

Sunshine and Carrots

Nothing like a beautiful golden bounty of carrots to lift your spirits — especially after losing most everything else.   Aren’t they divine?

Perfect for stuffing.  I think.  Never tried it but certainly willing!  As with everyone, Christmas is a busy time of year for us.  Between cooking and kids, family and entertaining…  It’s a wonder I know which direction I’m running!

Which reminds me, I have NO time for blogging.   Besides, I hear Santa’s already begun his journey — saw him sailing over Australia, in fact (thank you, Norad Santa Tracker).  I don’t know about you, but we here in Florida can’t wait for our turn!  Is it bedtime, yet?

Merry Christmas everyone!

The Kids Are Off and Running — Literally!

It’s great to see their excitement.  When it’s time to garden, the kids line up, water bottles in hand, anxious to head for the garden.  Once the door opens they dash out, run cross field and straight to the garden!  I tell myself their exuberance has nothing to do with escaping the monotony of being in one room all day long, cooped up as the teacher pours information into their absorbent minds.  No.  This an excitement solely geared toward the adventure of gardening. 

That’s what I tell myself.  Besides, it is exciting

First stop — a quick review through garden etiquette.  No stomping across beds, no throwing worm castings or top soil on the walkways (black gold!), no putting unidentified things into your mouth, no digging without gloves, no rough handling of the sprouts…   Now that we have that settled, we’ll amend the sandy soil.  In additon to putting in  seeds, we’ll be transplanting ; a delicate process indeed.  (Don’t mind those brown weeds you see – we’re not after perfection but production – and those dead old things pose no risk.)

Our tomatoes and peppers have had a great start but now it’s time to introduce them to their new home.  And don’t forget the basil! 

Fifth grade students handled the task with grace and aplomb.  (These kids really are amazing.)  Settling in the tomatoes and peppers, they moved on to the onions and carrots, astonished by the size of the tiny carrot seeds. 

With incredible focus, they learned to “pinch and roll” the multitude of seeds into the channels drawn across the top of the bed, gently covering them with a fine veil of black dirt, not to mention of healthy shake of worm poop!  Er–I mean, worm castings.  We do want to keep this scientific, and all.

Finished with the task at hand they were ready for their next assignment.  It was then I had to break the news.  “Sorry kids, but it’s time to head back to class.”

Met with the expected frowns and protest, I assured them we would meet again next week for another exciting chapter of gardening! 

Cheers abounded as they cleaned up their work area and trotted back to class.  Turning back, I collected my things and thought, not bad for their first attempt at transplanting.  And to think we only lost one tomato.  It was during the process of “staking” the plant to its bamboo support when one boy pulled it out and asked, “Is this okay?”

I nearly fainted from shock.  “Agh!  No–you killed it!”  (You have to understand, I raised these babies from seeds!  It’s devastating when you lose one.)

He looked at me and I looked at him.  I nodded.  “You’ll have to give that one a nice burial, perhaps in the compost pile.”  Then I assured him, “Don’t worry.  It happens.  And look.”  I pointed to the tender sproutlings left behind.  “At least you had the trio!  We’ll just stake those two and we’re good to go!”

Then the Brownie Girl Scouts whipped in for an afternoon of gardening and boy o boy —  talk about energy and enthusiasm — these girls were all over the business of planting pole beans and got right to it! 

From dishing out dirt, tossing in seeds, patting in fertilizer, it was all I could do to keep up with their frantic pace.  I can’t be sure, but we may have pole beans growing all over the garden at the rate these spirited gardeners worked! 

But I never met a bean I didn’t like, so we’ll welcome them anywhere they show up.  Next up:  corn.  And lower elementary.  Talk about energy in the garden–you can’t beat this! 

Working in shifts, these kids were meticulous in their corn planting duties, surprised you could plant the kernel from a corn cob and it would turn into a whole plant.  Didn’t even phase them that our kernels were red.

“Ever seen red corn before?”

Hands shot up.  “I have!  I have!”

With a hand to my hip, I raised a brow.  “Really now…”

When I said they were telling me “stories” they assured me that was not the case.  They’ve seen it.  For sure.  (There is such a thing, but it’s fun to test their determination which I must admit, remained adamant.)

Our kernels are red, because they were chemically treated to keep them viable and strong for planting and sprouting.  While we’re growing organic, it can be hard to find untreated non-hybrid seed, so this will prove our exception.

Digging diligently, they added dirt and raked it smooth, careful to keep to the rows and not the beds.   We spaced out the holes, staggered our pattern and discussed the reason why.  (Corn grows real tall and needs a little elbow room!)

We even tossed out the worm poop to give them a good and healthy start.  Plants LOVE worm poop and kids LOVE tossing it.  And they refuse to call it “castings.”  It’s poop.  Plain and simple.  You gotta love kids

Another great day in the garden was had by all, not to mention great progress was made.  We’ll invite the little ones (primary/kindergarten) later next week to try their hand at bean plopping and poop tossing (something tells me they will LOVE LOVE LOVE it!)  

And what’s NOT to love about the care and feeding of your plants?

And the Sweetest Potatoes are…

My own!  I planted one row of sweet potatoes this summer.  Half with sweet potato plants I bought at the store, the other half from slips I made myself (from last year’s crop).  Take a look for yourself —

These are the ones I purchased.  Notice how, in general, they look a bit yellowed and peaked.  Skimpy vines, not full and lush. 

But these bad girls are mine!  Look at those beautiful green leaves, the gorgeous purple blossoms.  Sure, there’s a yellow blemish or two — but nobody’s perfect.  

No Ma’am!  So next spring, make sure you get those slips ready in time for summer planting because it’s easy, cheaper…not to mention more productive!  And just think of the mouth-watering sweet potato pie you can make come fall.  Or those healthy sweet potato fries.  Sweet potato casserole, anyone?  Yum.