Book Recommendation: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible

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I am often asked questions regarding when to plant, how to control pests and which crops grow well in certain conditions.  While most of this knowledge can be gained from trial and error, it’s definitely helpful to have a few points of reference when you are deciding what to plant and how to care for your garden.

One of my favorite resources is The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith.

When it comes to vegetable garden books, this volume is an invaluable resource of planting information, pest control ideas and methods for increasing the quality and quantity of your garden produce. My copy is always at my side during spring planting time (so I can reference seed depth and spacing), amid the heat of summer when I am on bug control duty, come fall time when the harvest is bountiful, and during winter when I’m busy planning the next year’s crops.

I have used Smith’s wide row format to design several gardens over the last 10 years.  His use of deep soil and low tillage methods are perfect for the raised-bed planting style of many desert gardeners.  If you have questions regarding how, when and what to plant or just want a great all-in-one reference for your garden, pick up a copy of The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.

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Strawberry Freezer Jam

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Have you read the children’s book, The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear

The sneaky fox goes to great lengths to get just half of a juicy strawberry and I certainly don’t blame him.  A fresh-picked berry is nature’s perfect treat. They are unique in taste and structure, being the only fruit to bear its seeds on the outside rather than in, and can be successfully used in sweet and savory dishes alike.

Strawberries grow reasonably well in Zone 8, especially if you plant varieties that are heat-tolerant.  Two of my personal favorites are Earliglow and Eversweet, but the local nurseries almost always carry a selection of appropriate types.  Plant them in a raised bed with plenty of loose soil and consider a location that will give them a little afternoon shade for a longer season.

Nothing beats heading out to pick a few for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert.  When our plants are bearing fruit, my kids can always be found outdoors during snack time.  When you find yourself with an abundance of fruit from your backyard patch, or the local sale, try this freezer jam.  Unlike cooked jams, it brings back that fresh taste of spring berries all year round.  Try it over vanilla ice cream or toss a little over fresh berries for the perfect strawberry shortcake topping.

Strawberry Freezer Jam

6 cups finely chopped strawberries, pulsed in food processor
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 cups sugar
½ cup instant pectin
¼ – ½ cup Ultra Sperse/Instant Clear Jel (a starch thickener that does not need to be heated)

Pulse strawberries in food processor until finely chopped.  In large bowl, mix strawberries, pectin and sugar.  Add Ultra Sperse until desired texture is reached.  Freeze in zip-top bags or plastic containers labeled with the date.

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Butternut Squash Bisque

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It almost never snows where I live, so when it does, making soup is a requirement.  Today we saw the first, and possibly last, white flurries of the season and while the kids were wildly planning to build a gigantic snowman with the 0.047 inches of snow, I was dreaming of a rich, luscious bowl of soup.

I still have a few butternut squash from our garden in storage and I have been brainstorming the perfect recipe for weeks now.  I wanted it to have layers of flavor, like my favorite tomato bisque (I PROMISE to post that recipe this week as well) and be creamy without masking the flavor of the squash.

I used several recipes as a baseline for this one, and I think it turned out to be the perfect combo of easy prep and gourmet taste.  You’ll want to pull out your blender, one of these amazing jelly roll pans and a heavy-bottomed saucepan or dutch oven.   I love this one and may in fact consider saving it during a house fire if all my people were safely accounted for. Other than that, you’ll be sitting down to a steaming bowl within 45 minutes.  If you served it with a side of sourdough bread and butter, I’m certain no one would mind.

Roasted Butternut Squash Bisque

1 large or 2 medium butternut squash peeled and sliced (or use a combo of butternut and white acorn, which you won’t need to peel)
4 medium carrots, cut lengthwise
4 large cloves garlic, peeled
½ a large onion, cut into large chunks
olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
salt
pepper
4-5 cups chicken stock
2 large fresh sage leaves or a pinch of dried
salt and pepper to taste
¾-1 cup heavy cream

2 -3 cups mushrooms
1 Tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 450° F.

Prepare squash, carrots, garlic and onion and arrange on a jelly roll pan.  Drizzle liberally with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Slice 2 Tbsp of butter and place on top of veggies.

Roast for about 20-35 minutes, or until everything is beginning to char, but before it really burns.

Remove from oven and transfer veggies to blender with about 3 cups of the stock.  Puree until smooth.

Combine puree with as much remaining stock as necessary to reach the desired consistency. Add sage leaves and simmer gently for 10 minutes or so to combine flavors, stirring often.

Meanwhile, clean and slice mushrooms and saute in a little butter.  They will sweat out a lot of liquid.  Keep sauteing until the liquid is evaporated and the mushrooms are coated in a golden glaze.  

Taste for seasoning and adjust.  Stir in the heavy cream and heat through, but DO NOT ALLOW to boil.  Remove sage leaves or inform your guests that they may find a “lucky leaf” in their bowl.

Serve drizzled with plain or flavored olive oil and with a spoonful of mushrooms for garnish.  Sourdough bread with butter is the perfect accompaniment.

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Easy Roasted Vegetables 

By request, I give you:

Easy Roasted Vegetables

Vegetables, of course! (We use this technique for Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, thick slices of cabbage, and butternut squash (or other winter varieties)

Olive oil (or avocado oil)

Kosher or coarse salt

Freshly-ground pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Wash and prep all veggies.

  • Broccoli/Cauliflower: separate large clusters into single pieces about the size you’d see on a raw veggie tray and then slice in half, exposing a flat side.
  • Brussels Sprouts: peel outer layer away. Trim stem ends and slice in half the long way (hot-dog style!).
  • Cabbage: peel outer layer and cut 1 inch slices (they will be a circle) from the whole head.
  • Winter Squash: peel (this peeler will change your life for under $10, promise!) and either cube or cut into 1/2 inch-thick slices.

Toss veggies in olive oil until well coated. (Except cabbage, which you will put directly on the pan and then drizzle with oil).

Arrange veggies, cut side down, on a baking sheet. You won’t need to grease it as long as you’ve oiled your vegetables well.

Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.

Roast at 450 until the underside that is contact with the pan is nice and golden. Use a spatula to lift a few specimens from the pan to check for doneness. Resist the urge to flip them or turn the oven down. I promise they will be perfection!

Enjoy!

Roasted Rosemary Potatoes

Many herbs can be grown as perennials, either in the garden or as a decorative accent plant around the yard. Rosemary is perfectly suited for both locations and adds a wonderful flavor to dishes throughout the year. Chances are, if you don’t already have a rosemary plant in your yard, there is one close by. Many landscapers use rosemary as an accent for it’s evergreen beauty in both residential and commercial settings. In the kitchen, I use it to spice up mixed nuts during the winter holidays, as an accent for whole-roasted chicken in spring, in a marinade for grilled meat or fish in summer and as a perfect pair for roasted potatoes come fall.

The humble potato has been a main food source since ancient times and it continues to nourish much of the world today. Even in America, with our relatively short national history, we go way back with the potato. My father is a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy who spent a portion of his childhood on a farm and prefers a potato aside his protein any day of the week. My children’s generation is definitely acquainted with the french fry!

Potatoes can be anywhere on the spectrum from comfort food to five-star fancy. However, in any application, they need a few ingredient partners to succeed culinarily. First is fat, and many kinds work well with potatoes: butter, olive oil, canola oil, etc. Second is seasoning. At the very least, potatoes need a good helping of salt and pepper to shine. There are many herbs and spices that can be added to a potato dish successfully, but you will be hard-pressed to find an herb better suited to the potato than rosemary. In these Rosemary-Roasted Potatoes, you will find the trio of olive oil, potatoes and rosemary complement each other particularly well.  The key to the success of this recipe is to par-cook the potatoes and then roast them, cut side down until a golden crust forms on the underside.IMG_0666

Roasted-Rosemary Potatoes

2 lbs red potatoes, about 12 small potatoes
3 Tbsp delicious-tasting olive oil, divided
1 Tbsp rosemary, finely chopped
2 tsp kosher salt, divided
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 tsp granular garlic

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Scrub potatoes, removing any large eyes or blemishes. Halve potatoes so that you end up with two long flat pieces rather than two tall pieces. In a medium, microwave-safe bowl, toss potatoes, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp kosher salt and black pepper. Cover completely with saran wrap or a silicone lid and microwave on high for three minute increments (toss them around to redistribute in between times) until potatoes are about ¾ done, approximately 6 minutes. Microwaves vary.

Meanwhile, spread remaining olive oil in a film over the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Sprinkle rosemary, remaining salt (I actually like to use a salt grinder for this), pepper, and garlic evenly over the oil.

Using tongs, place par-cooked potatoes cut-side down in oil. Roast 15-20 minutes, or until you see a nice golden crust of spices and cooked potato when you lift one of the potatoes from the pan.

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Beets Are Beautiful

Beets are one of the treasures of the garden!  They are dirty and rough on the outside, but inside they are gorgeous in color and taste. Like most root vegetables, beets are high in natural sugar, making them attractive to most kids.  I love them adorned simply with salt and butter.

The real challenge with beets is to get past the thick skin without cooking them to death. Roasting can take quite awhile and boiling them whole makes a huge mess, takes time and leaves your hands a nice dingy tint for several days if you don’t use gloves when you slip the skins off after cooking.

Enter the Messermeister peeler. 

I have been telling people for years that if I were stuck on a deserted island and could bring only one kitchen tool with me, this would be it.  Yes, I would choose this over my chef’s knife because it would peel the coconut and mango alike.  There is absolutely no peeler on the market as good as this one.  I own two so that one is always sure to be clean when I need it.  It easily peels yams, fresh tomatoes and peaches, beets, carrots, butternut squash and even potatoes.

It will peel ANYTHING (including your finger-don’t say I didn’t warn you).  The blade is actually serrated, which means it’s sharp as razors but also handles delicate produce without ripping or bruising the flesh.  There is also a non-serrated version, but it is not the same magician as it’s cousin and I therefore don’t even own one.

Back to the beets…using your serrated peeler, quickly peel the skins right off!  Check out the tiny little grooves created by the peeler in the photo below.  Then dice into uniform size pieces and steam for about 7 minutes.

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Add the tops of the beets (remove the stems) during the last minute or two of cooking time.  At my house I am the only one who eats the greens–they are delicious in their own right, but not nearly as sweet as the root.  Beets are done cooking when you can poke them with a fork and not meet much resistance.  Diced, they cook quite quickly.  Add salt, pepper and butter and serve steaming hot.  Yum!

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**If you enjoy beets as much as I do, don’t be alarmed if your outputs change color during the 24 hours after enjoying your meal.  Read here for more info on that non-dinner table topic.

Fall Planting and Winter Gardening for Your Zone

Did you need a project for the weekend?  Is “need” really the correct verb for the previous sentence?  Either way, it’s time to get planting in the garden if you want winter and even some spring produce!  The first thing you need to know is your USDA Hardiness Zone.

USDA Map

The map gives you a general idea, but it’s best to visit their site and type in your zip code to find the correct zone.  Once you know that, you’ll also know your winter low temperature range.  Mine is an 8a, so any of you with lower temperature ranges than 10-15° F either need to begin this process earlier (next year, that is) or be prepared to do more frost protection.  We will talk about methods for that in a later post.  You also need to be real about what you can and can’t keep alive given your particular gardening setup.  Even though I may be able to keep a tomato plant alive in my backyard all winter (don’t put it past me, I may try it one day) I will have more success with crops that are less frost sensitive.

Now, here is RULE 1 when it comes to “winter gardening:”  IT’S SUNLIGHT MORE THAN TEMPERATURE THAT DETERMINES SUCCESS.  So, technically, you should all go out and figure out your latitude on a map and then base when you begin your winter plantings on that number.  The further north you are, the earlier you must plant to get the growth necessary before low temperatures set in and light is at a minimum for your area.  Once you’ve reached that point in the calendar year where you feel like the days are significantly shorter than during the summer growing season, your plants will not grow significantly.  The idea is to get the growth taken care of BEFORE this happens so there is something to harvest.

Here is THE BIG SECRET about fall/winter gardening: IN MANY WAYS IT’S EASIER TO GARDEN DURING THE FALL AND WINTER.  The bugs die off (literally), you use less water and there are less weeds.  Everything is a little slower paced and more manageable.  Once I get past the motivation to get it planted, my fall garden is probably my most rewarding of them all, which brings us back to that project you wanted (?) to do this weekend.

Here are some ideas for quick-growing winter crops that most of us can still get in the ground:

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Beets.  We always have a bowl of steaming, buttered beets on our Thanksgiving table.  I absolutely LOVE the tradition of going out and pulling the last of our beets out just before the holiday.  It feels like the perfect way to remember that this has always been a day of gratitude for what we already have .  If you’re thinking your kids won’t like them, trust me when I say that beets grown in the cool weather of fall are like eating sugar.  If they (or you) still aren’t convinced, try explaining that only those people who eat their beets all gone get to have pink-colored pee the next day.  That ought to at least get them listening.  Look for varieties with a shorter “days to harvest” number or those specifically advertised for fall planting.

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Spinach.  Clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys a good spinach salad.  I’ve got some leaf miners who are already feasting on the fall garden, but they’re nothing a little B.t. can’t handle.  (For more on that, read what I had to say here.)  I’d much rather deal with a few miners than eat a pesticide-drenched salad, anyway.  With a good head-start, your spinach will be the rock star of your fall/winter/spring garden.  Spinach planted and kept alive through winter will grow gangbusters the next spring.  The root system is already developed, and it takes off as soon as the temperatures and light even begin suggesting spring.  Plus, you can continue to harvest spinach all winter long in most climates, with little to no frost protection.  Look for varieties that specifically mention “winter” and save those heat tolerant varieties for your later spring plantings.

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Carrots.  One of my children is personally offended if we do not always have carrots growing in our garden.  Even when I lived in Zone 5B with a winter low temperature range of -15 to -10 we kept carrots in the ground and harvested them all winter long.  It was muddy, but worth it.  Again, look for shorter germination to harvest times for fall plantings.

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Quick-growing crops (Herbs, radishes, lettuce).  It’s not too late to get a few more batches of cilantro out of your patch of garden, or to finally get some radishes that aren’t so spicy (the heat adds to their zip).  Choose mixes of lettuce for a quick micro-greens crop before the first frost.

Garlic.  Plant it soon and harvest it during late spring to early summer next year.  I haven’t done this yet because it’s a little too early where I live.

More on how to frost protect during the frozen months will come later on.  For now, get out there and scratch a little soil up and plant some seeds this weekend.  Your winter menu will thank you for it!

How to Propagate Herbs in Water: AKA My Kid’s Next Science Project

We had some accidental science going on in the kitchen windowsill last week.  I cut some basil from the garden for a recipe and ended up with too much.  It was gorgeous, and I didn’t want to waste it, so I put it in a cup in the windowsill with some water figuring I’d use it in the next few days.  One of these cups:

And then I ignored it for at least a week.  I’m honestly not sure  if the fact that the stems were down there in the dark of the red cup was advantageous to the experiment, hence, the science project reference–more on that in a minute.  Last night, I pulled it out wondering how it had not died yet, since I hadn’t even given it additional water, and here is what I found:

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Roots!  It grew real, plant-nourishing roots!  I find this important for home gardeners for several reasons:

  • You can have more of what you already have.  You want three basil plants instead of one?  Go ahead and cut a few, get them to root, and plant them!
  • You can bring plants indoors for the winter without having to dig up dirt from your garden and try to transplant a gigantic plant into a container sized appropriately for indoors.
  • It’s FREE!
  • It’s a fast way to get a plant you already know you like.  Unless, you are out of red cups and have to go to Costco (this might also negate bullet point #3 and make this the most expensive herb you ever bought).
  • It’s EASY!  Make sure your cut is fresh (cut a small part of stem off RIGHT before you put it in the water-this means you’ll likely cut it twice: once outside and once after you bring it in the house to get it in water).  Give it sufficient water, and you’re all set!

A little internet research will divulge that this works with many plants, especially herbs.  So, considering that it’s September and the frost will hit all of us eventually this fall, start thinking about which of your favorite herbs you’d like growing inside this winter.  They’ll be sure to brighten your windowsill and your culinary efforts!

A note on the un-scientific method used here:

I’m planning to convince one of my children to use this as their science fair project this year repeat this little experiment a couple of times changing only one variable per time.  By which I mean that we will pick three or four different herbs from the yard and propagate them all in red cups and then we will make cuttings of those exact same herbs and propagate them in glass jars.  We may also do a third set or a secondary experiment where we add marbles or decorative glass gems because there is some indication in reading about this process that the roots like something down in the bottom of the container to stimulate them.

Here’s the difference a week can make:IMG_0745

The plant on the left was in the red cup for a week and the plant on the right was just cut and placed in water last night.  Happy experimenting!

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Lime-Infused Honeydew

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Honeydew will always remind me of my Grandma.  She was tiny, maybe  5’2″, and petite featured.  She was an Iowa farm wife during most of my dad’s childhood, which means she was amazing in a kitchen.  I remember sitting around as a child while the adults lounged in chairs, after their third gourmet meal of the day, and tried to guess how much weight they’d gained during this visit to her house.  She always quietly smiled and knew to take it as the highest compliment.  She lived a ten-hour drive away from my childhood home, so we saw her only once or twice a year.  Grandma showed her love through food and a kind temper.  She would spend weeks cooking and preparing for house guests.  She was famous for her rolls, but the freezer was full of other goodies too: twice baked potatoes, frozen fruit cups, skiers french toast, pies, and numerous cookies and to keep the grandchildren happy.

I don’t know that I ate honeydew any other time during my childhood.  I remember asking my mom what it was while standing in grandma’s kitchen, and I remember being fascinated by the name: honeydew.  I imagined it sweet and watery, just like the name implied.  I didn’t know it would taste fresh, almost like the first hint of a cool breeze in autumn.  It wasn’t overpowering like a cantaloupe can sometimes be, and it had just the right balance of flavors.  It was a lot like grandma, the perfect mixture of sweet and delicate.  My grandma’s been gone for fifteen years and I feel the sting of regret when I think of the lessons, both culinary and character, I could have learned from such a woman.  So, today’s recipe is simple, in her memory.  I hope I do justice to a fruit that will always remind me of one of the best women I have ever known, both in and out of the kitchen.

Lime-Infused Honeydew
1 medium honeydew melon
1 lime, both zested and juiced

First, halve, seed, and peel your melon.  See photos below for the steps of properly peeling any kind of melon.  Use a big knife.  For those of you who are not comfortable with big knives, start practicing on melons.  It’s the exact way I got comfortable wielding one of those huge chef’s knives around.  My melons in the photos are kinda small, but it’s what we grew, so it’s what I had for photo props.  The process is the same for any melon, even the 3o pound watermelons you want diced up.

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Begin to curve the knife blade along with the curve of the melon as you slice downward:

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Next, dice it up.  But, really, keep your hands out of the way of the knife, OK?  I need a 3rd arm for this photo blogging and somehow the shot below looks like I’m about to slice through my hand (I didn’t).  Do as I say in this case, not as I do, and hold the melon more from the top!  Stop the knife just before you reach the other side, as in the photo.  This will keep the melon intact, rather than sprawling everywhere while you dice:

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Next, ,cut downward in strips the width of dice you desire:

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Finally, cross cut your previous cuts to form the cubes.  You will be left with a small end.  Lay it flat side down on the cutting board and finish the dice:

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Add the zest and juice of one lime:

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Toss to combine, and then allow to sit while you prepare the rest of your meal:

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Eat up:

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Greek Salad

In our final ode to the tomato, let’s make some quick and tasty Greek Salad!  It’s a beautiful time of year when you can return from the yard with this still life:

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Give that cucumber, peppers and olives a chopping and remove the tomato stems:IMG_0281

Assemble the dressing ingredients:IMG_0286

Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper and then whisk the oil and vinegar together and toss over everything:IMG_0287

Greek Salad
2-3 cups cherry sized tomatoes
1 large cucumber, roughly chopped
2-3 large bell peppers, any color, roughly chopped
1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, chopped
2 tsp Kosher Real Salt* and freshly ground pepper to taste (if using a finer table salt, use half as much)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Chop all veggies and combine in a bowl.  Top with chopped olives, feta, salt and pepper.  In a liquid measure, add 1/4 cup red wine vinegar and then add the olive oil until you reach the 1/2 cup mark (this is around 1/3 cup).  Whisk oil and vinegar to combine and drizzle over salad.  Toss gently to combine.    Also delicious served inside a pita bread with a little hummus spread inside.

*Not all salt is created equal!  Some salts are more processed than others and that will affect the taste of your dish.  Also, Real Salt is naturally mined and contains minerals.  Read more about it *here*.

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