Saturday, April 30, 2011

Green Envy

I thought you might enjoy seeing pictures of the wonderful leafy greens in our vegetable garden. All of this survived the winter. We have enjoyed a veritable vegetable bounty since mid January! Most of the plants were set out in November and then ignored. I had great intentions. I didn't intend to ignore them but the Christmas holiday preparations and two long and unplanned road trips precluded any significant time investment in our garden.

In addition to what you see here, the kale, onions, a few artichoke plants and a variety of herbs also braved the cold months and are currently thriving. I think this survival rate, at least for the tender greens, is somewhat unusual thus my plan for this year is to winterize the garden in the late fall. I may even be able to grow a few things in the green house that we are currently building. Fortunately winter 2011 didn't bring the cold of winters past, at least not for multiple days on end. Therefore the tender plants weren't devastated by a constant freeze/thaw cycle. This was a real bonus for us since we weren't here to baby them along.

I rarely pull up an entire bunch of anything green. I use my clippers to remove the amount of leaves I need and I cut from each plant rather than clipping just from one. This is a great way to harvest because the plants will just continue to produce new growth and the yield per plant is much greater.

I will share with you my favorite way to prepare the greens. You may have a preferred method but this is what I like to do~

First, snip a generous basketful of greens. Use a variety of whatever you have growing. If you are buying rather than harvesting then I suggest rainbow Swiss chard, spinach, kale (red or green) and a nice handful of fresh chives. Clean all of your leafy greens well. This takes a little time. I always leave my greens soaking in the sink for about 15 minutes. Then I run the leaves individually under tepid water to make sure that I have removed all the grit and dirt.

While your greens are soaking, rinse the chives and dice them rather finely. Along with the chives, I love to add minced fresh garlic. Saute the chives and garlic in about 3 Tablespoons of olive oil until just wilted. After your greens are thoroughly cleaned and patted dry, roughly chop them up, discarding the fibrous lower stems. To prepare the kale you will need to cut the leaves from the center stem all the way up. The stems of kale are just too tough and they don't get tender in the cooking.

When you have finished preparing the greens, add them to your chives and garlic. Saute them briefly over medium heat until they are just crispy tender. Don't over cook them. If the saute appears to be too dry you might want to add a little additional olive oil or a little organic chicken broth

Finally, add some very high quality sea salt to taste and serve. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed. In my opinion sauteed greens far surpass steamed. You might even fool a finicky eater!

You can also use these dense leafy greens in soups. My mom makes a wonderful soup with sweet potatoes, kale and coconut milk. If you like to eat raw you might try topping your greens with an olive oil and rice vinegar dressing. Just throw in some chives or onion, a crispy organic apple roughly diced, a handful of pecans and some shredded asiago cheese and you have a delicious main dish salad loaded with essential phyto-nutrients.

Because the vegetables with the darkest and most intense color have the highest nutrient content, the dark leafy greens are a prescription for great health. That's why they're growing in our garden. And best of all, with careful harvesting these plants will just keep on giving.

Let me know which leafy vegetables you love and how you like to serve them. I would especially enjoy hearing about your own vegetable gardening experiences!

Looking forward to your comments...

A Post Script: Tonight's dinner! A melange of greens sauteed in olive oil with green onions, roasted garlic, pecans and fresh sheep's cheese. Spicy chicken sausages round out the meal.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Hatching Fresh Ideas

I just love these boughs of cherry blossoms that Larry cut from our tree yesterday! They are not particularly scented but this pre-foliage display is resplendent. This is the first year I have thought about using them in the house.

My cherry branch bouquet happened quite by accident. Yesterday Larry combined a trip into town on business with a stop at the market for me. Because we were having a little dinner party I asked him to pick up the bread last minute so that it would be as fresh as possible. I had intended to add fresh cut flowers to his list and forgot; so I called his cell hoping to catch him before he left for home. Unfortunately he was already in our driveway when he answered his phone.

Almost every room in our house has a view of our backyard. Given the amount of time I spend gazing at our landscape it seems so surprising to me that I hadn't considered using fruit tree blossoms in arrangements before now. We have at least 8 fruit trees that are presently in full bloom. I feel foolish admitting that this thought never occurred to me before yesterday. I am so happy with the way the cherry blossoms look on my kitchen island and my lady-guest was so complimentary! How glad I was that I forgot to ask Larry to buy flowers. Of course I didn't admit to my friend that the cherry boughs were an after-thought and frantically cut and arranged just prior to her arrival. (I'm entrusting you with this secret.)

We all know that a fruit tree blossom has a utilitarian purpose; it attracts the bees for pollination which enables its fruit production and/or plant propagation. However, I've decided that trees, in any stage of their cycle, are wonderful sources of both color and texture to visually delight us indoors as well as out. When planning an ornamental arrangement I think we need to condition ourselves to think beyond flowers which are grown expressly for use in bouquets. In addition to cut flowers consider fruit trees--both those that actually bear and the ornamentals--as foundational sources for cut arrangements.

There are also many flowering shrubs that bloom before they leaf and they too function well as cut flowers. Two great examples are the forsythia and the flowering quince. Selective snipping of twigs and branches will not diminish a plant's health or productivity and might actually invigorate it. So don't be shy about a little cutting here and there even in the midst of the bloom phase.

Flowering Quince

Perhaps the trees in your yard are already beyond the flower stage and so you will save this tip for next year, so here is an additional idea to consider. Tree pruning and shaping is usually carried out in late winter before blossoming. In the early months of the year, if you're not buried in snow, grab some sticks; some of what would otherwise just become part of your green waste. Even sticks look great in vases, so you might try mixing some of your own tree cuttings with dried reeds and grasses from a crafts store (such as Michael's). Below is an example of this idea. By the way, these vases are super-vintage Pottery Barn closeouts. These were a purchase I was talked into by a Pottery Barn customer service agent years ago! They were so inexpensive that I have since concluded that they were obviously not a Pottery Barn top seller. Nevertheless, the vases are a good fit on my wall and I periodically add interest to them with a few pieces dried tree trimmings from Larry's ever-growing burn pile.

Perhaps you will look at your own landscape from a new perspective. What do you have that might add a new dimension to a cut arrangement? Maybe there's a tree or shrub that provides a brilliant spring green during these months and an autumn red or gold in October or November. I am thinking of my red-twigged dogwoods. The little leaves are just emerging and are bright green. They would be stunning in a vase with a few stargazer lilies. Later in the year, when the leaves have once again dropped the branches will be brilliantly red. As I previously mentioned, even void of their leaves a few twigs and branches will add warmth, texture and structure to natural arrangements; perfect for use at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Red Twig Dogwood

I hope you will look enjoy taking a fresh look at your plantings. Maybe you will even consider a trip to your favorite garden center to buy something new; a tree or a bush that will lend it's beauty in a fresh, new way to your interior accents. As I write I hear the wind fiercely howling at the windows. My quince has begun to flower nicely so I'm hoping there are some blossoms left for me to bring inside tomorrow. I'll report back.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Going Against the Grain

I have undertaken a new eating plan in an effort to navigate the challenges that have taken up residence in my digestive tract. The plan is basically a personal adaptation of the No Grain Diet. This is hard for me; very, very hard. I love grains. Or maybe I should be totally up front and admit that I crave them. A(manranth), B(uckwheat), C(ous cous)-- shall I continue all the way to R(ice)? Nothing pleases me more than beans, rice and tortilla chips for dinner, and I could happily dine on this multiple times per week. Oatmeal for breakfast? Bring it on! How about a midday wrap or roll-up? Delicious yes, on the diet; not so much.

I have found as I've gotten older that grains have become increasingly hard for me to digest. It's not that I am technically grain or gluten intolerant but I definitely have a sensitivity. Therefore I have eliminated almost all grain; and everyday I have to recommit myself to the plan.

Bread is my nemesis. It's my number one comfort food and to live without it is a real struggle. So I have begun researching no-grain bread options. As with the gluten free breads that are available in stores now, most grain free breads have unappealing textures. Great texture is paramount to reaching bread nirvana. I think that rather than thinking of my grain free options as 'bread', I would do myself a favor if I would define them as 'breakfast loaves'; slices of satisfying taste to go with the one cup of dark and robust coffee that I allow myself in the morning.

Today I tried making a quinoa loaf for the first time. I don't know how much you know about quinoa, so here's a brief lesson~

Quinoa (play /ˈknwɑː/ or /kɪˈn.ə/, Spanish: quinua, from Quechua: kinwa), a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium), is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a member of the grass family. As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds.*

So basically quinoa is a seed with much less starch and much more protein than true grains. The texture of uncooked quinoa might be described as true grit, and even after cooking it retains its nutty texture. It is amazingly easy to digest and I do like the taste.

I found a very nice recipe online entitled, Quinoa Breakfast Bread. The text was written more as a narrative which seemed to give it a no-fail quality. It was as if it were written to a novice cook as a tutorial. I especially liked this sentence: "When you've got all of your ingredients ready, preheat the oven to 375 F. " I like this step-by-step style.

"Look", I felt like saying. "Everything's ready." As you might be able to tell from the picture, this is no cheap loaf of bread! When shopping yesterday I kept hoping that I would love the finished product because I made quite a substantial investment. The nice thing is, I think I will use all of these ingredients again, whether or not I like this particular recipe.

One of the processes involved in creating this loaf was to make milk from raw, unsalted cashews. This required that I soak the nuts overnight. This morning I drained and rinsed them well and put them in my food processor with 3 cups of water and some raw honey. My Cuisinart is almost 30 years old but I have to tell you it is still up to the challenge! The milk is very delicious and because the recipe only called for 3/4 Cup, I have plenty left over for another use.

The preparation went fairly smoothly until I got to the last step which is to put the batter in the pan. The recipe said that the batter was supposed to resemble pancake batter. Uh oh! Mine looked a little more like sour dough starter on steroids. It was growing out of the bowl before I even finished mixing it. I think this is because the recipe called for 2 T of 'starch' but it didn't specificy what starch. Since I am talking totally grain-free here, I chose xanthan gum over corn starch. What I didn't know is that xanthan is a fermented sugar and I think using only 1 Tablespoon would have been a better idea. Learn by doing. During the baking process I had to turn the oven all the way down to 300. The bread rose so fast that I thought it was going to push the oven door open and make itself at home on the kitchen floor. I am sure there was an I Love Lucy episode about this very thing! Anyway, this loaf with lofty aspirations grew so tall that it was pressing into the rack above. This was seriously funny stuff.

Fortunately when the loaf was finally baked through and cooling on the counter it began to settle down. It kind of went from souffle to brick in a matter of about 20 minutes. It has not completely cooled yet but I couldn't resist a little bite. The taste is good and the texture moist. I think it has promise. And as my mom said, "Hey, with enough butter anything will taste good". She's got that right! Oh and yes, I do make my own butter. I'll tell you about that another time.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Searching for Blooms in Uncommon Vases

Happy, happy happy! The sun is out in a big way and my house is warm and toasty. So warm in fact that my gorgeous tulips from the Skagit Valley have popped open! I've had them for 3 days but they were in protection mode; tight red buds atop their slender stems. I love the way tulips open and stand erect when it's warm and close up when it's cool. And they are pretty either way.

I don't have many tulips growing around my house. I have a few that I think have been moved to their present location because of squirrel hyper-activity. I have made no sincere effort to enhance my landscape with spring-flowering bulbs. The reason for this is that I don't like the way above ground bulb foliage looks once the flowers have withered. And unfortunately the unsightly green leaves and stems, bereft of the once magnificent color, must be left alone to slowly shrivel. You just can't cut them down prematurely. Otherwise the health of the bulb is in peril. My plan is to one day have a bulb bed somewhere on our property, perhaps a raised-bed arrangement, massively planted. I would position the bed such that once I have cut the flower itself the slow deterioration of the stem and leaves will occur and not annoy me.

Here is a picture of a gorgeous yellow tulip just outside our front door. It is a stand-alone and has not multiplied in the 4 years it has been here. Larry loves this tulip just as it is and has asked me not to move it so I won't. I do wish it would reproduce but perhaps it is an attention grabber and prefers to remain single.

During the month of April tulips are a great buy at our local grocery stores. I think I paid $3.99 for this breathtaking red bunch (above, top). I want to bring your attention to the crockery pitcher that I use mostly as a vase. It is a fantastic beige with a perfect glaze and it holds water without sweating. I bought this vase at a first-rate antique shop when we lived in Hermann, Missouri. I have moved the pitcher carefully from house to house since we left Hermann in 1993. It is among my highly-prized interior accents because it is so simple and straightforward in its appeal. And it has quietly made its presence knows in each of our houses because it is so unobtrusive. Best of all, vases such as this pitcher showcase the flowers rather than noisily inserting themselves into the scene. All I'm really trying to suggest, in voluble fashion, is that you should rethink vase next time you buy flowers. Perhaps you have something already that could double as a vase and would make you feel happy each time you bring it out.

Look at this cupboard above my microwave. It's filled with vases. By the way, where else should one store vases and for what else can you use a cupboard such as this one? As it is the vases have to share space with the microwave cord so I think this the cupboard is unsuitable for most other things. I tried putting cookbooks up there but I have too many.

If you can believe it, I recently thinned my vase population. I donated any that I didn't like, especially if they were of no sentimental value. A few of them I even threw away. And I still have a cupboard full of vases I rarely use. I prefer uncommon vases and have taken to collecting English ironstone and vintage silver. Here are two of my most favorite finds:

By early summer I will have hydrangeas ready to cut and they look simply amazing in either of these pitchers. Hydrangeas are a ways away yet. How about if we 'round the vases' one more time when the hydrangeas are in bloom?

In closing I pose the question, "what's in your cupboard"? Let me know? Bloggers love comments!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pretty in Pink!

It's almost Easter and a late one at that. Did you know that in some years Easter occurs as early as March 22? I heard Easter described as a "moveable feast day in the Christian church year". However, the explanation for this is really complex and deeply rooted in church history so I won't go into it here. A nice thing about a later Easter Sunday is that in most places in the Northern Hemisphere the weather has begun to improve. Warmer weather means Easter egg hunts outside on the lawn, and little girls in bright pastels. (Can't you just picture the little white purses we carried to church and our shiny patent leather shoes?) Unfortunately I cannot say that Northwest Washington will be blessed with warmer weather. We will likely top out at 50 degrees and the chances of sun at a sunrise service are only moderate. I will still be dressed in a series of warm layers when I attend our Easter church service. However, God knows that it is spring even here in Skagit County, Washington and therefore we have acres and acres of brightly colored bulbs, flowering trees, and even azaleas and rhododendrons to delight our eye and lift our spirits. It may not be warm but it will be beautiful.

Speaking of beautiful, pictured above is a bright pink kalanchoe which was given to me as a hostess gift by a close guy friend of ours. Did you know that this plant is actually pronounced kal-an-ko-ee? I learned this about a year ago when I attended a very informative lecture at our local library about gardening with succulents in containers. Anyway, I don't use a lot of pink in my house but at Easter time bright pinks and robin egg blue seem so appropriate.

I actually received this kalanchoe at Christmas. It was blooming then as profusely as it is now. I assumed at the time that it had been forced in a greenhouse and that I would likely get one showing and that was it. I didn't even position it in a sunny location but rather stationed it in an unlighted spot in the dining room for optimal viewing while seated. And then I proceeded to ignore it... I even forgot to water it! A few weeks back I decided to do a little indoor plant maintenance so I gave it a good soaking and clipped the spent blossoms. Next, without even transplanting (I was too lazy), I set the little plastic container in this very cool clay pot and moved it to the living room. Look at it now! It's robust and covered with blossoms.

Well my friends, this little story is not just about the plant but it's about a bargain; and I love to write about bargains. While recently in Tucson visiting my parents, my mom and I took a walk through Home Goods. I really didn't expect to find anything below my spending limit, which on this given day was $20. However, above is proof positive that it never hurts to have a look. As you can see I scored this amazing cloche, (French for bell), for $14.99! It is a lovely hand-blown treasure from Poland. I didn't know what I was going to do with it but I had to have it. We've all been there, right? Well, my adorable little kalanchoe seems to be thriving beneath it. The bell added additional structure and dimension to the plant-in-pot and thus very appropriately anchors my coffee tabletop arrangement. And because the table is low, relative to other pieces of furniture in our house, the bell doesn't obstruct conversation.

At the aforementioned lecture regarding succulents the speaker affectionately referred to this classification of succulents as, "the lowly kalanchoe". We all laughed about how common they are in the floral departments at supermarkets and how given husbands are to grabbing them to bring home as love-tokens. A close friend was furious at her husband several year ago for giving her a most-enormous kalnchoe (with orange blossoms) on their anniversary. She was hoping for a new sewing machine!

Guess what? Just in the past few years this historic wall flower has been paid much more attention by growers. Perhaps in response to the outcry of wives everywhere, a wide array of new colors has been cultivated. Attention guys! You can redeem yourselves because you now have a choice other than orange! And not only are there new and brilliant colors for you to choose from but there are exotic new blossom shapes as well. This proverbial Plain Jane suddenly burst forth!

Maybe I have given you reason to rethink this humble little succulent. They are still very low maintenance (as my Gramma would say, they 'thrive on neglect'). There are beautiful colors available, they are prettier than they've ever been and they are more highly esteemed by housewives. Husbands rejoice! Just as an aside, a new sewing machine (or a gift at that level) is still the better choice.

Want to see more? Visit here:

Wishing you a most blessed Easter!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Putting Down Roots!

In February we celebrated our 9th anniversary in this house. Considering we have been married just shy of 30, 9 years in a house doesn't sound like such an accomplishment. I'm embarassed to admit that we have owned 7 other houses prior to our move to the island. My brother in law once described us as vagabonds; proverbial rolling stones. I like to think of ourselves as adventurers. Instead of rolling stones we are just a couple who doesn't like to leave stones unturned.

We have tried suburbia (more than once), semi-rural, small town, track homes, custom homes and a tear-down-still-standing. We've lived in Coastal California, the Midwest, the Northwest and even briefly in the Sonoran Desert. We have lived in this house, our island cottage, longer than we have lived in any other. I think we have finally put down roots.

Speaking of roots, that's partly what you will find my blog to be about. I love to garden and I have 3/4 of an acre on which to practice. I say practice because a good landscape is never static. It constantly evolves through the process of 'trowel and error'.

I also love being a homemaker. And the making of our home is what you will read about here. We started with a shack-- an ugly duckling; but we are creating a swan. Larry and I have found that between the two of us there is not much we can't create and build. We seem to have an attraction for fixers, and neither we nor anyone else in our families have figured out why. This house has undergone the greatest transformation of them all.

I hope you will enjoy following our island adventure. I love to share personal experiences because I love reading those of others. I love real-time blogs to which I can honestly relate. I hope that's how you will come to feel about mine.

Stop in anytime! The coffee is always fresh and the conversation lively.