Sunday, April 29, 2012

Garden Planning

It's that time here, in Zone 4, where gardeners' green thumbs start to twitch.  Better people than myself have their early spring plants in - onions, parsley, peas, radishes, greens.  Good for them.  I was on the beach.

But it's time!

Here's our vegetable garden space:

It's approximately 15' x 14' which seems to suit our gardening desires and needs.  I'm not a canner, but I do freeze some things, make refrigerator pickles, , and give a few things away to my parents and neighbors.

The lattice on the deck stairs makes the best thing for growing cucumbers, pole beans and ornamental gourds.  Pole beans are the bomb!  Long after my summer bush beans are done, I'm picking long, lovely green beans well into October.

Those brick pathways you see?  Leftover from the brick patio that was here when we moved in 5 years ago.  I was sort of moaning about no garden space, and one day I was also moaning about that brick patio (south facing) being too hot for anyone to enjoy, and the two brain cells left in my head collided and I said "GARDEN SPACE."

Having an epiphany in your 40s is a thing of beauty, let me tell you.

So Eric ripped up most of the bricks, leaving some for walking on.  He's so clever!

The soil was horrid!  Lots and lots of clay.  Which we're used to in this part of the world, but it was a bummer to remedy.  We added a bunch of manure, compost (purchased), peat moss, and some sand.  The first year produced a small crop of veggies and an even smaller crop of weeds.  If your soil doesn't grow weeds very well, you're in trouble.

Next weekend, I'll put in radishes, greens (mixed salad plus a ton of arugula), onion sets, and scallions.  In a few weeks, we'll finish with summer squash, tomatoes, bush beans, pole beans, cucumbers, chile peppers, jalapeno peppers, and carrots.  I'd say about 50% of that space will be tomatoes.  We plant them 1 foot apart and let them sprawl - no cages, no tying, nada.  Ever since we employed that method, we've had abundant and delicious tomatoes.  More about that later.

The very next thing we did that first summer was build a compost bin.  I say "we" loosely, because I have under-gardeners for such tasks.  Here's our compost bin <----------------

Built for free from branches of trees we cut out of our woods.  Did I mention how clever Eric is?  Seriously.

In that lovely structure we dump egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and veggie scraps, leaves, grass (no chemical spray, please!), evergreen boughs from Christmas decor, end-of-the-year garden plants.

Every so often, a tomato plant or cucumber vine grows in there all by itself.  That's fun!

In the fall, the compost gets turned and a layer of beautiful live mush gets added to the garden soil, dug in, and then covered with a layer of straw (left from our straw bale fall decorations!).

Here's my herb garden, which in truth is my favorite thing.  On the other side of the fence is my perennial flower garden, and in the way back is our fire pit, created with leftover bricks and sawed logs for stools and benches:

I have oregano, lemon balm, sage, thyme, chives, and garlic chives that come back every year.  I'll add 6 plants of basil, one of rosemary, three of flat leaf parsley, and in the pot I'll plant mint.  I love walking out my front door, taking a few steps, and cutting fresh herbs for cooking.  Sally, age 7, has learned to pick chives for her eggs or quesadillas that she loves.  She's so darn cute.

So there you have it - the Sassy Garden.  Stay tuned for planting updates, tips, successes, failures, and recipes.  Happy gardening!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Potato Leek Gratin

If you think fat and calories are the enemy, then go ahead and stop reading.

If, however, you like to put a bit of richness into your mouth from time to time, and worry about your thighs a different time, then by all means MAKE THIS GRATIN.

We had this with our Easter dinner yesterday.  Went nicely with the salty sweet ham, and the light spinach salad, and roasted asparagus.  There just had to be one rich thing on the menu.

Potato Leek Gratin

2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
3 cups cream or half and half
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
6 ounces bacon, cooked and crumbled (reserve 2 tablespoons of the grease)
3 leeks, white and light green part only, thinly sliced and cleaned well
fresh or dried tarragon (if you prefer rosemary, go for it)
8 ounces sliced Havarti cheese

In a pot, simmer the potatoes, cream, salt and pepper for about 15 minutes or until barely tender.  Remove from heat.

While the potatoes are simmering, saute' the leeks in the bacon grease until just starting to soften.

In a shallow baking dish, layer half the potatoes and cream, half the bacon, half the leeks, and a light pinch of tarragon (little goes a long way!).  Layer the rest of the potatoes and cream, bacon, leeks, and tarragon.  Top evenly with the sliced cheese, and press down lightly.

This can be made and refrigerated up to this point, overnight.

To bake - heat oven to 375 degrees.  Bake 40 minutes, uncovered, until the top is golden brown and very bubbly.  If starting from refrigerated, add 10 minutes to the baking time.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Almond Poppyseed Pound Cake

I'm pretty sure I've made my point about almond - the nut, the extract, the general joy of it all.

This is our favorite variation of pound cake.  Have you ever made pound cake?  In the old days, the recipe called for a pound each of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter.  Hello, yes, thank you very much.  What on earth could be wrong with those ingredients?

You can make plain pound cake, with just vanilla extract, and serve it very simply with berries and whipped cream.  You can add almond extract and poppyseeds like I do, make an almondy glaze to drizzle over the top, and even sprinkle with sliced almonds.  You can substitute lemon for the almond, and have a delightfully light and spring-y tasting cake, perfect for serving at Easter.  You could substitute brown sugar for the white sugar, toss in a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, and have some chocolate goodness.  LOTS of room for interpretation.

So here it is, straight from the classic Betty Crocker cookbook, 40th Anniversary Edition.

When you read the word "bundt," and if you are so inclined, laugh hysterically remembering the bundt scene from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."  Adding a flower pot is up to you here.

Almond Poppyseed Pound Cake

2 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
5 large eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons poppyseeds
Almond Glaze (recipe follows)

Grease and flour a 12 cup bundt pan.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat sugar, butter, almond and eggs in a large bowl on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl constantly.  Increase to high speed, and beat for 3 minutes, scraping occasionally.  Mix flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.  Beat dry mixture alternately with milk on low speed, until batter is combined and smooth.  Stir in poppyseeds.

Spread into bundt pan.  Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes, then turn onto a rack and cool completely.  Frost with Almond Glaze.

Almond Glaze

4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups powdered sugar
2-4 tablespoons cream or milk

Beat all in a medium bowl til smooth and about the consistency of very thick cream.  Drizzle over the top of the cake.  Lick the bowl and the beaters.