Inspectors in the Garden

Well, you knew it would happen.  Yes, our plants have come under attack.  By what, you ask?

Not sure.  But these kids are on the hunt.  Folded within the leaves of the beans are bugs, the kind with numerous legs and countless more eggs.  As you can see, once fully grown, these little fellas can do some damage!


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.

Interesting Tidbits from the Garden

Did you know that parsley is a natural breath freshener?  Yep.  A couple of chomps on this distinctive green and you’ll feel minty fresh and ready to converse.  So next time you see that little gem on your dinner plate, pluck a few leaves off and plop them in your mouth.  Your table companions will thank you. 🙂

Basil?  This one is just pain delicious with a scent rivaling the rose–IMHO–but guess what?  It’s also good for digestion.  And you probably know that chamomile has calming abilities, but how about lavender?  I don’t know about you, but every time I catch the scent of lavender I’m instantly transformed into a relaxing machine!

But lavender does double-duty.  Not only is it perfect for bath time before bed, this plant is said to repel fleas.  *gee* Does it get any better?  Plant it everywhere–inside, outside, you name it!

Talk about two-timing duties, did you know that cilantro and coriander come from the same plant?  Yes, ma’am!  The first leaves are used as cilantro (think salsa), but if you let it continue to grow and flower, you’ll find yourself with a whole host of coriander seeds.  Awesome.  Just awesome.

One of my all-time favorite herbs is rosemary.  Not only does it make for a great hedge around the house, but this one provides a natural mental boost.  Simply brush your hands through its leaves and inhale.  Ahhh…….  Better yet, it prevents forgetfulness. Woo hoo!  I mean, who doesn’t need that?

And your kids will love this one:  how about growing your own sugar?  Well, in so many words, that is.  Stevia is a plant that produces naturally sweet leaves–leaves you can use to sweeten almost anything.  The kids and I made a lovely cucumber soup sweetened with stevia, and it was delightful.  (They ate it, anyway.)  But how about lemonade?  Pull a few lemons from that tree and juice them up, add a few leaves of stevia and blend.  Voila!  Instant homemade lemonade to die for.  Add a cup of steeped rosemary per gallon of lemonade and now you have yourself a REAL treat.  For this recipe and others, check out my garden blog Bloominthyme!

Caution:  if you love both basil and rosemary, be aware that planting basil near rosemary can KILL your rosemary plant.  Who knew?

Got ants?   No problem.  Plant mint–peppermint, spearmint, plain mint–they’re all good not to mention they make wonderful borders along walkways and flower beds.  Last but not least is my beloved aloe plant.  You may have heard this one is good for burns and you heard right.  Anytime I burn myself slaving away over a hot stove or oven (the things I do for my family), I immediately cut a spiked aloe leaf and rub the gooey salve directly on the fresh wound.  I’ll warn you, it’s stinky (and stains), but doing so will eliminate any scar you may otherwise have suffered.  LOVE it!

So what do you say?  Know of any special herbs or plants in the garden with outstanding qualities that I missed?

Feeling a little Sassy, Saucy?

Me, too.  Or have been lately.  But I’m sure it’s just Valentine’s and all the excitement, hoopla and romance of the week.  Phew —  not sure I can take another minute of all this loving!  (You do know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, don’t you?)  And good old-fashioned home cooking takes time.  It takes effort.  And we’ve haven’t even begun to tackle the dishes, yet.  But you know what?  When you try a recipe for the first time, and the result is a delicious meal…

It’s all worth it.  This week I made chimichurri sauce for the first time.  Originally from Miami, you may be surprised to hear I haven’t mastered this baby yet, but what can I say?  I’ve been preoccupied with paella and plantanos, picadillo, black beans and rice.  I went to restaurants for chimichurri—I didn’t make it at home.

Ah…but I do now! It was easy and yummy and healthy. If you ask me, these are the keys to success.  Now I’ll warn any vegetarians right now:  I served this in traditional fashion with flank steak and rice.  Yes, I had black beans and plantanos, but this sauce served over medium rare meat is amazing.  But if you don’t eat meat, don’t despair.  Try it over salad, over veggies.  It’s that good.

The main ingredients are parsley, oregano and garlic—all of which I grow in my home garden.  And remember those olive trees Mandy planted?  Well hurry up and get your “grow” on girls—I need some olives to…to…  What exactly do you do to olives to make oil?  Press them?  Puree them?

Sheesh, I still have a lot to learn.  Okay.  So I’ll barter for the olive oil.  I do want to maintain my “self-sustaining” status when I cook, but honestly, it can be a challenge.  Especially when it comes to the white wine vinegar needed for this recipe, though my husband assures me we can grow our own grapes and make our own wine.  Hmph.  This, coming from “tractor” man.  What the heck does he know about “growing” anything?  He’s a grinder (of soil).  I’m the grower around here.

Anyhoo, here’s what I did:  finely chopped the parsley and oregano, minced the garlic and mixed it with white wine vinegar and olive oil.  I’m no fan of salt, but you can add this and black pepper to your liking.  I used a mezzaluna knife—one of my favorites for chopping herbs—but you can also do this in a food processor.  And that’s it.  Pretty easy, right?  Now I snagged the original recipe from Williams-Sonoma, but after checking out a slew of others, changed it to suit my taste.  For full details, check the recipe section of my website.

Whether you’re a fan of Latin inspired dishes or not, this one is worth a try.  I think of it as the Latin version of tabouli–only oregano instead of mint.  Alright, alright—and none of the tomato, cucumber and bulgur.  Call it a wacky comparison at the dinner table, but that’s how it struck me. 🙂  (Some things there’s no explainin’!)

It was good.  “Hey Mikey!  Try it, you’ll like it!”

Health Benefits of Herbs and Plants

Ever suspect you might have bad breath, and not an ounce of mouthwash on hand (but don’t dare lean to your lunch date and ask)?   And speaking of bad breath, how’s your sinus?  A bit stuffy today?  Not to worry — simply munch that sprig of parsley on your plate, dab a pinch of chili pepper on your tongue and problem solved.   It’s the natural solution.   Parsley freshens breath while the capsaicin in the pepper clears the mucus–voila!

And let’s say that handsome waiter bumps your arm with the oven hot skillet dish you ordered (an accident, though you couldn’t be mad at him if you tried), leaving a mild red burn in its place.  Sure, mild is relative, but if you’ll pluck a branch of aloe from the attractive plant nearby, then squeeze some of its gooey gel over the burn, the healing will be almost immediate.  Disregard the “stink” factor — we’re concerned with saving skin here, not sensibilities.

One of my favorites is the cocoa bean.  There’s a reason we reach for a chocolate bar when we’re feeling blue:  it’s the natural antidepressant.  Yes, we women are innately brilliant this way.   Neurotransmitters send relaxing messages to your body while the phenylethylamine makes you feel like you’re falling in love.   (Hint to men:  if you’re standing nearby while she’s devouring said chocolate, you may reap some lovey-dovey mood benefits!)  Chocolate is also good for your cardiovascular health, due to its polyphenols (think red wine).  So take heart fearless men and consume to your heart’s content!  So long as the chocolate in question doesn’t belong to a female.  If so, I’d take sword and shield and run for cover.

And if your sweetheart takes you out for a night of sushi, but your stomach disagrees, nibble a bit of the pretty ginger on your plate.  It does wonders for an upset belly, though my preferred remedy is Coke.  Much like chicken soup eases the symptoms of a cold — and I couldn’t tell you why —  this soda cures a tummy ache like nobody’s business!   And if you’re still feeling sick, it may mean something more serious.  Try leaving a few sliced onions around the house.  It’s said the onions attract the harmful bacteria from the air, thus keeping them from entering your system.  Could be an old wives’ tale, but most old wives I know are pretty smart!

So more than a place to grow gorgeous herbs and vegetables, your garden is like nature’s pharmacy.  I knew this gardening thing was a good idea. 

Caterpillar Dispatch is NOT for the Queasy

It’s squish duty.  Definitely not for the faint of heart, those who tend to “freak” easily or even butterfly fans (technically I think we’re talking moths here, but when it comes to a sweet child’s heart of compassion, does the distinction matter?). 

Nope.  It’s a simple reality of gardening.  And as you can see, these little fellas can do a lot of damage before tucking themselves out of sight. 

Next, reveal them for all to see.

Successful gardening, anyway, where your plants survive and thrive as opposed to quiver and die.  Caterpillars eat a lot — especially beautiful green leaves.  Yes, they get full — eventually.  But the question becomes:  At what risk to our beautiful pole beans?

Major.  So for us, caterpillar dispatch duty commenced!

Rounds of spotters took turns searching for intruders.

After cleaning our leaves of invaders, we headed off to weed.  The kids are learning how to identify plants by their leaves.  Crucial, as we don’t want to “weed” our parsley — we want to keep it! 

Same goes for our baby spinach, swiss chard, etc. 

One smart boy reminded me there’s another way to identify plants —  their smell!  (Thanks Eric O.!)  He knew a basil when he smelled one.  But don’t forget: you want to pinch the ends for bushier, more vigorous growth!

While touring our garden, we spotted some sweet baby peppers.  Aren’t they cute?

The pumpkins are spreading out, too.

All in all, our plants are doing quite well.  Better than some of mine at home, but we won’t go there.  As for the students, it was another great week in the garden!