Thursday

Notes from the Garden

I grow lots of my seasonal herbs and veggies from seed, which means I always have too many seedlings for the area I've reserved for them. I give some away, but there always seem to be more -- and more -- and more than I plan for.

Instead of throwing the extras on the compost pile like any reasonable person, I try to squeeze them in here and there, putting them in pots, arranging them in flowerbeds where they won't cause (many) problems. At harvest time, I have more peppers, basil, sage, oregano, mint, tomatoes, catnip, cucumbers, eggplant and zucchini than I know what to do with.

It's an embarrassment of riches, but one that always makes me feel wonderful. It's something about abundance. Having plenty -- more than plenty -- makes me feel wealthy. It can be aloe vera pups or scotch bonnets; doesn't matter. I give them away, donate them and eat more than my fair share of produce between July and September (and that's an understatement).

Every year my husband tried to get me to cut back. He always has reasonable, compelling arguments, too. I plan on complying -- every time. Somewhere between looking at herb catalogs and checking out the latest vegetable varieties, my resolve falters and vanishes like morning fog. I'm left clutching a list of plant candidates that's, if anything, is longer than last year's.

I don't want to be saved from myself, though. How about you?

This year is no different. As I wander among the rows, sidestepping burgeoning squash vines that are making it harder and harder to get around (and for my husband to mow the lawn), I feel a little guilty. I should really buy some nifty canning equipment that will make it easier to "put up" some of this bounty. Yea, that's the practical thing to do.

The pundits lie. Less isn't more. More is more.



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Image 1 - VegetableGarden_Wiki
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Vegetable_Garden_at_Pockerley_Manor_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1396355.jpg
John Firth CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 LettuceMF
http://morguefile.com/archive/display/533427

Image 3 - CabbageMF
http://morguefile.com/archive/display/724852

How to Make Fried Zucchini Cakes with Herbs

Fried Zucchini Cakes
One of my success stories in the garden is definitely squash. When I manage to save my crop from the ravages of squash bugs, vine borers, and powdery mildew, I'm ready to celebrate. I fry the blossoms for an incredibly tasty appetizer and grate young, tender zucchini into cakes, cupcakes and wonderful fried patties that are a little like a crab cakes -- without the crab. That may sound bland, but it's not.

Zucchini cakes make a satisfying side and a nice change from fresh corn and spicy bean dishes. Serve them with a dollop of sour cream, soft cheese, homemade yogurt cheese or homemade garlic mayonnaise. I have links to recipes for yogurt cheese and garlic mayo below.

Recipe for Fried Zucchini Cakes

Ingredients

2-1/2 cups zucchini, grated fine and squeezed to remove the excess moisture
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
1/4 cup bread or cracker crumbs
1/4 cup onion, minced fine
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced fine
1/2 teaspoon, minced chives
1/2 teaspoon fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Pinch grated nutmeg
Pinch black pepper
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt to taste

Fried Zucchini Cake Directions

Heat oil in a large skillet. You want it hot but not smoking. You may want to do this in two batches. If so, heat half the oil at a time.

While the oil is heating, combine the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir to incorporate.

Drop the mixture by heaping serving spoon (about twice the size of a tablespoon) into the hot oil. To avoid splashing, slide the sticky mixture off the spoon by nudging it with a second spoon.

Cook for two minutes on each side. You're looking for an internal temperature of about 165°F (74 C)

Drain on a paper towel and serve immediately.

Related Recipes:

Wednesday

Cleaning Flower Pots - and Decorating Them Too

Cleaning Flower Pots

I'm a big advocate of variety in plant pots. I've used ceramic mixing bowls (that I drilled holes in with a special drill bit -- a big thumbs up for Ms. Fixit), watering cans, bulk kitty litter containers, buckets, window boxes, bulk plastic plant pots tinted to look like terra cotta, actual terra cotta pots, wooden barrels, glass bottles.

Once, I even used a roasting pan. It might sound as though my deck looks like junkyard, but somehow all that growing greenery pulls everything together.

One thing I am a stickler about is clean pots. I sterilize and remove mineral deposits with vinegar and a scrub brush. The work goes quickly and this process is very effective. You can probably tidy up your whole pot collection in an hour on the weekend.

I also like to add moss to pots - and even some statuary. Fuzzy green moss can make even a dime store pot look like it's earned a spot in the garden.

I've written about cleaning and decorating pots before -- as well as my fascination with dumpster diving for interesting pot prospects. You can find a few of those posts and articles below.

Cleaning Flower PotsThe holiday weekend is coming up, and it'll be a great time to perform some pot maintenance. Oh, and if have rosemary in the garden and you're grilling lamb, chicken or pork, throw a few sprigs in the coals. You'll love results. Have a great Wednesday.



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Image 1 - Garden.fountain.arp.750pix_PublicDomain.jpg By Adrian Pingstone at en.wikipedia (Own work Transferred from en.wikipedia.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Garden.fountain.arp.750pix.jpg
Image 2 - MilkCanPot_PublicDomain Public Domain Image - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hawes_flower_pot.JPG

Monday

How to Make Sun Tea With Fresh Herbs (or tea bags)


Pemon Balm Tea
I'm all for beverages that make themselves -- while I do something else. Sun tea is like that. It's also very nice to make something right in the garden.

A neighbor used to place a huge glass jar filled with fresh herbs for sun tea in her driveway -- that's where she had the best direct sunlight. It sat there during long summer afternoons. In the evening, her sun brewed tea would end up in a pitcher on her dinner table. What a nice idea!

How to Make Sun Tea

Making sun tea is an informal affair - that's part of its appeal. Here's how it works:

Grab a few bunches of your favorite fresh herbs, say three cups for every seven or eight cups of water. You can use one herb or mix and match your favorites.

Wash the herbs well and place them in a large, sealable jar. I prefer to use glass. Add room temperature or slightly warmer water, seal and place the jar out in the sun. Ideally, you want to situate the jar where it will get five to eight hours of direct light on a warm day.

That's it.

You can sweeten sun tea or not. In fact, you can serve and embellish sun tea just as you would any other tea. The only limitation is that you should drink it within about 24 hours. Because it isn't processed and doesn't boil, sun tea will sour faster than traditionally brewed dried tea preparations.

One of my favorites is mint and lemon balm tea. For color and added flavor, I'll sometimes add a tea bag or two -- say a fruity tea like pomegranate or something with an neutral base like chamomile.

Sun TeaIf you're relying on tea bags for your sun tea, use about six tea bags to a half gallon of water. Curing time should take two to three hours.  Do a taste test after a couple of hours and use your judgment.  Different teas have different levels of intensity, so you may have to experiment a little.

For some interesting combinations, you can visit my other sun tea post: Herbal Sun Tea Recipes and Instructions

The title sounds a little flat, but some of the tea combos I've tried and listed are definitely worth a look.


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Top photo - Courtesy of KaiMartin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons - 
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lemon_Balm_Tea.jpg
Bottom photo - Ginny (sun tea) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Sun_tea.jpg

How to Grow Borage (and why you should)



Borage has been used for herbal healing since at least Roman times. Recently, you may have read about its effectiveness in treating the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It's an interesting herb with a lot going for it -- but there's some controversy associated with it too.

What is Borage?

Borage is most often sold as a concentrated oil to treat arthritis (and also as a source of gamma linolenic acid). Since there can be side effects like liver damage from using too much of it, you'll see as many discouraging warnings about using borage oil as there are testimonials.

Adding large amounts of fresh borage to your diet may also cause problems as the plant contains some dangerous compounds that don't exist in the oil. This can make borage a complicated herbal remedy you should discuss carefully with your doctor and evaluate thoroughly relative to other medications you're taking. Borage can also cause premature labor, so it should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women.

Using Borage

I've grown borage for its flowers. As an edible decoration, borage flowers are generally considered safe, but there may be some slight potential to cause allergic reactions. Borage flowers are often included in published lists of popular edible flowers. They're small, bright blue, star shaped blossoms that can be sugared and added to cookies, cakes and other desserts. They're also very pretty when frozen into ice cubes.

It may sound silly, but if you've ever seen a drawing of a whimsical fairy and thought it looked delicately lovely, you'll appreciate the petite appeal of borage blossoms. Enhancing a dozen cupcakes for a birthday party, they're uniquely charming and worth the effort.

I've also used young borage leaves (and later the flowers) in salads. The leaves give salad a light cucumber flavor, and it doesn't take many to do the job. Stick with the young leaves, though. As borage matures, the leaves become hairy, prickly and unappealing.

How to Grow Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage is an easy to grow annual that thrives in poor soil. It likes good light and regular watering, although it can survive a dry spell if you mulch it well. Growing to a height of around two feet, borage is no beauty. It doesn't require staking, but the leaves do look floppy and hairy. It spreads out quite a bit too, so be sure to give it a three foot space in your herb patch. Its one saving grace in the garden is that it creates many clusters of startlingly blue flowers.

A prolific self-seeder, once planted, borage will come back year after year. You can propagate by division and from cuttings too.

Over the centuries, borage has been known by many wonderful names, including: Bugloss (don't confuse it with Anchusa officinalis), tailwort, bee bread, (or bee's bread) cool tankard, and starflower.

Bees love borage, and bee honey made from borage flowers tastes particularly sweet and flavorful. A few summer's ago, I kept borage and hyssop plants adjacent to one another, and that corner of the garden looked like a bee convention all summer. Honey bees need all the help they can get these days, so consider planting one or both of these bee loving plants for them if for no other reason.

References

"Drug and Natural Medicine Advisor". Time Life Books

Houdret, Jessica. "Practical Herb Garden". Anness Publishing Ltd. 2003.

A Frances Tenebaum Book. "Taylor's Guides - Encyclopedia of Garden Plants." Houghton Mifflin Company. 2003.



Top photo courtesy of Magnus Manske (Own work.) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Borago_officinalis_'Borage'_(Boraginaceae)_flower.JPG


Second photos courtesy of John Byer http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1053900

Friday

How to Make Dill Pickles from Scratch

Make Dill Pickles from Scratch
It's easy to make dill pickles -- and it's fun too.

The dill in my garden is up to my knees and ready to harvest. Actually, I'm lucky it hasn't bolted. It's in dappled light by a ruined wooden post in the garden, so it's happy to list sideways in the breeze, leaning into the shade in a filigree of delicate leaves.

I use dill every year to make salads and pickles. It's also wonderful on grilled fish like salmon.

This year my garden also boasts pickling cucumbers as long as my little finger. A couple of cucumber plants are still so loaded with blossoms that bees hovering around them on sunny afternoons sound like a distant aerobatics show.

I plan on putting these two prolific plant varieties together for a tasty treat that's very flavorful but still low in calories.

Making Dill Pickles the Easy Way

If you like pickles but balk at the high grocery store prices, you can "cheat" your way to dill pickles using reserved pickle juice from your favorite jarred variety. Just slice cucumbers into the juice and refrigerate the mixture for a couple of weeks. Taste a pickle slice occasionally until you like the flavor. If you want to dill them up, throw a handful of fresh dill and a few whole peppercorns into the mixture. It works every time, and you can perform this wizardry in five minutes or less. Never throw out pickle juice.

If you don't use leftover pickle juice to make a quick pickle marinade, you can add a little to your potato salad. Just drizzle it over the warm potatoes for rich flavor that goes all the way to the center of your spuds. This is my hint for fast and easy pickles and dill-icious flavor. If you want to make pickles from scratch, here's my recipe:

How to Make Dill Pickles from Scratch

I make batches of pickles as my cucumber crop matures. I don’t restrict myself to pickling cucumbers, either. I pickle onions, carrots, broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, green tomatoes and anything else that looks interesting. The recipe below is for a gallon jar filled with likely (clean) pickling candidates. Use a wide mouth gallon jar (with a plastic screw top) and glass, ceramic, plastic or wooden implements. If you can't find a jar with a lid, you can use a covering of waxed paper and a couple of sturdy rubber bands.

Make Dill Pickles from ScratchHomemade Dill Pickle Recipe

For homemade dill pickles, you'll need:

1 quart distilled water
3/4 cup distilled white vinegar (Sometimes I'll substitute rice wine vinegar or red wine vinegar for a change of pace.)
5 tablespoons salt (Any variety will work, but Kosher salt is traditional.)
2 cups fresh dill leaves, small stems and a few blossoms
6 garlic cloves (peeled - optional)
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1-1/2 tablespoons prepared pickling spice
10 whole peppercorns

Directions

Clean the jar and lid thoroughly in very hot water. (You can also use multiple smaller jars if you prefer.)

In a ceramic or glass pitcher, combine the water, vinegar and salt. Stir to incorporate.

Place half the fresh dill and all the garlic cloves on the bottom of the jar. Hint: Whole vegetables will taste great, but if you love the strong flavor of dill, slit or slice cucumbers and other vegetables to increase contact with the liquid. You'll get a more flavorful bite. This goes for the garlic, too.

Add cleaned cucumbers (or other veggies) to the jar, packing them tightly.

Add remaining seasoning ingredients to the jar, cover with wax paper or the lid. Make sure the liquid completely covers the pickles. Shake thoroughly and place the jar in a shady spot on your countertop for two to three days. Refrigerate. Let the mixture "season" in the fridge until the pickles reach the flavor intensity you desire. I usually let them mellow for a couple of weeks or more.

For this process, I keep pickles refrigerated and don't can them using a hot water bath. They won't have as long a shelf (refrigerator) life this way, but they're easy to make and completely, crunchy fresh.

Make Dill Pickles from ScratchHints and Tips for Making Dill Pickles From Scratch:
  • Once I've eaten the pickles, I reserve the juice for fast pickling. I really can't let that wonderfully flavorful juice go to waste. I'll add end of season veggies -- you know, those green tomatoes that won't ripen and a few stunted peppers. Ten days in the mixture is enough to give them added flavor.
  • All that vinegar and salt kills bacteria fast, so I don't worry much about contamination, but it pays to make sure that your container, mixing pitcher, utensils and produce are super clean before you use them. Sending the equipment on a trip through the dishwasher is a good idea. Oh, and to be on the safe side, use your equipment warm right from the dishwasher. (If you've turned your water heater down to save energy, make sure to crank it back up for this project.) Because the garlic is probably the most problematic ingredient from a bacteria standpoint, I always make sure it's on the bottom where it'll stay in the brine at all times.
  • If you make batches of pickles in smaller containers, they're great to give away as gifts.
  • For presentation (gift) pickle jars, add a yellow dill blossom for color, and instead of using red pepper flakes, slit whole hot peppers for the batch. The jar will look as good as it tastes.
  • You can cut up produce for pickling, too. I like rough chopping different colored bell peppers with cauliflower and a few cherry tomatoes.
  • Once prepared, your pickled veggies can be chopped or minced fine for use in other recipes, like coleslaw, macaroni salad and potato salad.
For the straight scoop on making sweet pickles (those refreshing sweet and sour slices of heaven), check out my post: How to Make Sweet Pickles
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    Photo Provided Courtesy of Michal Zacharzewski at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1154949
    Photo Provided Courtesy of Daniel L http://www.sxc.hu/photo/834468

    Thursday

    Herb Butter Recipe for Lamb

    Herb Butter Recipe
    I love lamb, and my favorite holiday dish is leg of lamb cooked on the rotisserie. I use lots of rosemary, oregano, garlic and lemon during prep, and add a little mint too.

    When I'm cooking lamb chops or grilling lamb kabobs for a quick meal, I like to consolidate my herbs into a fast, easy butter. The wonderful thing about herb butter is that you can make up a batch and freeze it. It'll keep a couple of months, and you'll have herbed butter whenever you need it. I prepare a chicken, beef and a few veggie butters to keep on hand to save time and make spicing up grilled fare easier on the BBQ guru of the household. If you love lamb but don't know how to give it the special treatment, or you'd like to get your feet wet with a lamb dish, add this butter to your grilled, broiled or fried lamb just before serving. It'll be perfection.

    Herb Butter for Lamb

    1 stick butter (1/4 pound)
    2 teaspoons rosemary, finely chopped
    1/2 teaspoon finely chopped oregano
    1/2 teaspoon chives


    1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
    *See note below about garlic


    Soften butter and combine all the ingredients except the lemon juice. Add the lemon juice a couple of drops at a time. If you pour it all in at once, you may have problems getting the ingredients to combine well.

    Place butter mixture on a piece of plastic wrap and roll into a log about five inches long. Secure the ends and refrigerate until firm or overnight.

    If you plan on displaying slices as a garnish, you can sprinkle fresh herbs (my favorite is a little minced mint, some minced rosemary and a sprinkling of paprika) on the exterior of the log once it hardens. Just rewrap the log for a few minutes after you make it pretty.

    Herbed Butter Tips
    • This recipe calls for fresh herbs, but you can substitute dry; just cut the quantities in half. (Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh herbs.)
    • You can easily double the recipe.
    • You can use margarine instead of butter.
    • A half-inch slice of herb butter per serving should do it. Slices also look lovely served on a dish of ice at the sideboard or table.
    • *If I don't intend to freeze the recipe, I add fresh minced garlic to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon). Frozen garlic can turn bitter. I also add black pepper to lamb before serving but don't include pepper in the (frozen) butter because it tends to lose flavor.

    Wednesday

    What is Castor Sugar?

    Castor sugar is a very finely wrought sugar product. It isn't powdered sugar (sugar to which anti-clumping agents like cornstarch have been added). It's a granulated sugar, but the granules are very tiny. In the U.S., castor sugar is often called superfine sugar. If you aren't a sugar purist (and I'm so not), you can approximate castor (or superfine) sugar by processing regular old granulated sugar in a spice or coffee grinder. Once ground, it'll dissolve fast and uniformly in your cooking projects.

    One of my oft repeated suggestions here is for herb folk who like to cook to invest in a coffee grinder dedicated to spice and herb use. It'll make life easier -- and tastier -- in the long run. You can pick one up on sale for under $20, and most have the power and deep well necessary for fast and uniform herb processing.

    Spice Sugar Recipe

    Spice sugar is a fall treat around our house. It's our introduction to Halloween and everything that follows.

    How to Make Spice Sugar

    I throw lots of spices together with sugar to make a mixture that I can use in pies and cookies. It's a kitchen sink kind of thing, but I'll give you some rough proportions. I've done this with both brown and granulated sugar. Brown sugar is relatively wet, so I make small batches (half the recipe below) and use them within a couple of weeks.

    Spice Sugar Recipe

    3 Cups granulated sugar (either superfine or not - superfine will typically have a stronger aroma)
    20 Allspice berries (slightly smashed)
    10 Whole cloves
    4 Cinnamon sticks (broken into one inch pieces)
    5 Star anise
    1 Nutmeg (cracked into a number of pieces, not ground)
    10 Cardamom seeds (slightly smashed)

    I combine all the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid (a screw top, actually). After shaking thoroughly, I keep it on my countertop out of the sun, shaking it every couple of days. It'll be ready to use in three weeks to a month. Strain to remove the spices.

    You can use the spices a couple of times before discarding them. You can also just remove the sugar you need and keep adding new sugar to the spice jar over the winter months. This mixture will make your house smell the way a Norman Rockwell painting looks.

    Special Spice Sugar Notes:

    • If I have one around, I'll also add the zest of an orange to the mix.

    • In a pinch, I've used the ground version of a couple of these spices, but fresh smells and tastes (I think) better.

    • The ingredients can get expensive to start, but once you have the spices, you can double or triple this spice sugar recipe and make up batches as gifts. This is a nice hostess gift, especially if you combine it with your favorite spice cookie or cake recipe (Hint: Leave the spices in the mixture for dramatic effect).

    Photo courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian at Stock.Xchng

    Cardamom Sugar Recipe

    cardamom sugar recipe
    If you aren't familiar with cardamom seed, you're missing out on a tasty sweet and savory spice that's warm and heady without being overpowering. It's the key ingredient in an outlandishly delicious hot toddy I make every holiday season.

    You don't have to limit yourself to using it for holiday baking and beverages, though. Cardamom sugar can add punch to a simple midmorning tea or coffee break, morphing it into a guilty pleasure. I'm not exaggerating. This simple sugar is wonderful in drinks, on cookies, in cakes, and even sprinkled on fruit salad or a grilled half-grapefruit. It's awesome -- there's no other word for it.

    A staple spice in Middle Eastern cooking and some Scandinavian dishes, cardamom is the seed of a plant in the ginger family. There are a few types utilized in cooking. I use the green or true cardamom Elettaria cardamomum, which is the variety you're likely to run into in most spice shops.

    You can make cardamom sugar a couple of ways, and even add additional spices for a fun blend I'll talk about in my next post. I've outlined some options below.

    Cardamom Sugar Recipe


    1 Cup Castor or Superfine Sugar (I just take granulated sugar and pulse it in my spice/coffee grinder for a few seconds)

    1 Tablespoon ground cardamom (or 30 seeds or cracked pods)

    Cardamom Sugar Directions

    I'm going to explain the concept since the ingredient list can be a bit confusing. You can incorporate ground cardamom into sugar for a blend, or suffuse cardamom into the sugar:

    Using the first option, you'll end up with sugar that has a strong flavor and aroma and very tiny bits of cardamom in it.

    Using the second method, you'll get sugar that has a strong cardamom aroma and mild taste without the cardamom bits. Either method works, but the second may be more visually appealing when flavoring beverages -- oh, and the second method does take a few weeks to cure.

    Method 1 - Combine sugar and ground cardamom and shake thoroughly. Store in a jar with a tight fitting lid. You can use the mixture immediately, and it will last for months without refrigeration.

    Method 2 - Rough chop cardamom seeds or pods and mix with sugar. Shake thoroughly and seal. Set mixture aside in a warm, dark place for a month or so, shaking every other day. Strain sugar and reserve the seeds. You can use the chopped seeds to make a couple of batches of sugar. If there's a gap between batches, store the seed starter in the refrigerator to keep it fresh.

    You can find my Spice Sugar Recipe here: How to Make Spice Sugar

    Tuesday

    Lime Sugar Recipe

    Lime sugar is very like lemon sugar, but because limes have that slightly distinctive bite, lime sugar can add that something extra to desserts and baked goods. It makes a nice, aromatic topping for cupcakes and cookies. If the idea of lemon sugar in your tea sounds refreshing, you'll love lime sugar as an addition to a sun or specialty teas. Every summer I make a batch of lime sugar for my mint tea. It's delicious.

    Lime Sugar Recipes

    Ingredients
    • 1 1/2 cups white, granulated sugar
    • 3 Limes

    Directions

    Zest the limes by removing the colored skin (not the white part). Combine the peel (zest) and sugar. Spread the mixture on a cookie sheet and let rest in a warm spot to dry. If it isn't too humid, drying should take from six to eight hours. Pour the mixture into a jar with a tight fitting lid to cure for a few weeks (three or four). Shake the jar every couple of days. The aroma should alert you that the sugar is ready to go. For a nicer product, strain the sugar to remove the lime zest.

    Sugar is a stable and easy ingredient to use as a base for herbal seasonings. It's a natural antibacterial agent, and if it clumps, all you have to do is give it a couple of turns in an herb or coffee grinder.

    Lime sugar will keep indefinitely. Just remember to keep the jar lid on tight.