The season of spooktacular pumpkins is upon us, an October ritual that brings back so many family memories. When a friend of Sam’s visited for a week, she brought her own memories of making pumpkin pie with her father.

So Tessa and Sam baked pumpkin pie last weekend. They walked over to the pumpkin patch at the Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill Church (“Buy a pumpkin, help the world”) and picked out a sugar pumpkin. They cut up the pumpkin and boiled it and then pulled out my tried and true, battered and splattered Betty Crocker’s Cookbook that my mother gave me when I was a teen.

This is a basic pie recipe that I have prepared since I was 10. I am still drawn to this cookbook for nostalgia – whenever I use it, I think about my mom. There are no fancy recipes in it. Nothing like the fabulous pumpkin desserts that our friend Sandy bakes every Thanksgiving. Or the touch of genius that Laurie puts in her pumpkin pie — diced crystalized ginger. Just solid American cooking.

It was fun watching Sam and Tessa cook together in the kitchen. It was quite a team production. The pie was delicious and a few days later we begged them to make another. As if on cue, the bottom heating element of the oven broke down. We concocted a plan to cook the pie using the broiler – we put the pie pan on the lowest rack, and turned the broiler on for 5 minutes, then off for 5 minutes. Pie turned out great. A cloud of whipped cream cured any small imperfections.

Betty Crocker’s Pumpkin Pie

2 c. cooked pumpkin (see note)

2 eggs

¾ c. sugar

½ t. salt

1 t. cinnamon

½ t. ground ginger

½ t. ground cloves

1 can evaporated milk

Note: Cut a sugar pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds. Place the halves cut-side down in a baking pan. Add 1 cup of water so the pumpkin doesn’t dry out. Bake at 350 for about an hour, or until a knife inserts easily. Cool, then scrape the pumpkin flesh and discard the skin. Puree pumpkin in a food processor until very smooth.

Beat the eggs. Add the pumpkin. Then add the other ingredients and mix until smooth. Carefully pour the custard into a prepared 9-inch pie crust. Cover the edges of the pie crust with foil so they don’t burn. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, lower temp to 350 and bake another 40 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

CRR and I finished our circuit of the Del Ray farmer’s market, a Saturday morning ritual. It can be hard on your wallet – the vendors demand, and get, top dollar for their organic, pesticide-free fruits and veggies and the homemade focaccia and apple cider donuts. Today’s take was pretty light for us – new potatoes, leeks and onions.

We jumped into the car and drove around the corner. There, little more than a block away from the happy buzz of the boomers and Gen-Xers at the market, a hundred people quietly stood in line outside the Alexandria social services office. The line stretched around the block. They were waiting for food assistance.

Almost one in 10 Virginians doesn’t know where their next meal will come from. The government has a bureaucratic name for it: food insecurity.

Also known as hunger.

There are dozens of ways to help those who are hungry in this land of bounty. The Boy Scouts have a food drive every year. So do the postal carriers and AARP. My church publishes places you can volunteer to help people who are hungry. Next Saturday, for example, church members are ‘gleaning’ produce that will go to food banks.

In Alexandria, 11.9 percent of the residents are food insecure. That’s 16,600 of my neighbors. Curious about your community? County-by-county hunger stats here.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I am a big fan of lasagna, an amazingly adaptable dish that I have tinkered with for years. It can also be assembled ahead, a bonus for a working mom.

When no-boil lasagna noodles hit the market, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. No more boiling! No more tearing the wet noodles! I have used them for several years, to great success. A lasagna made recently with whole wheat no-boil noodles elicited a rare “best ever” comment from my son.

Then I saw “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten describing her lasagna trick – just soak regular noodles in super hot water for a few minutes. That got me wondering, do they have to be cooked at all?

A quick Google search of chat boards convinced me that, no, you don’t need to boil even regular lasagna noodles if you provide enough moisture in the other ingredients to “cook” the pasta while it is baking.

Why does this matter? $$$ The pasta industry is selling the no-boil sheets for about double the cost of regular lasagna noodles.

I won’t inflict my lasagna recipe on you, mostly because it changes every time I make it. Sometimes I sub thin-sliced sautéed mushrooms for the meat. Sometimes I add spinach for the extra nutrition. I’ve substituted small curd cottage cheese for the ricotta (just drain off the extra liquid).

Last weekend’s lasagna used my fresh-made tomato sauce (a little on the thin side, so 4 cups was perfect with the ‘regular’ noodles) and 1 cup of blanched chopped spinach folded into the ricotta. The noodles cooked perfectly.

Makes me wonder: What other cooking tricks have eluded me all these years?

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

After months of suspense, Alexandria police have finally charged Charles Severance in the murders of three well-known Alexandrians. Curiously, the prosecution will not seek the death penalty.

A grand jury indicted Severance for the murders of prominent realtor Nancy Dunning, wife of the former Alexandria sheriff, in a once-cold case dating to 2003; the November shooting of transportation planner Ron Kirby; and the February shooting of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato.

All three were gunned down in the foyer of their homes, within an area roughly one mile square. The murders shocked this small town, where few people locked their doors while they were home, as I described in an earlier post

The death penalty absence is interesting. Virginia is not shy about it — there are currently nine convicts on death row and the state has executed 110 killers since it reinstated the ultimate penalty. 

Police Chief Earl Cook said the death penalty is up to the prosecutor and he declined to describe a motive. Why these three victims, we hope to one day know. “I don’t know if it was targeted or not, because i can’t get into the mentality of Mr. Severance. The evidence may show something different,” Cook said.

 

 

 

In another century, 1986 to be precise, I made a beet puree that guests and CRR swooned over. I clipped the recipe from Parade magazine and cooked it several times before the business of life intervened, the recipe was lost and I moved on to other concoctions.

When we started gardening again in 2008, we grew a bumper crop of beets, which forced me to stretch my beets repertoire beyond the tried and true: boiled, skinned, cut into one-inch cubes, spritzed with butter, salt and pepper.

A few years ago, CRR asked about the beet puree. I couldn’t find the recipe in my files anywhere. But the miracles of the Internet brought forth a PDF of the old Parade magazine recipe (see here). I was a little aghast – it called for two sticks of butter! – but I set out to recreate a healthier version. I’ve since made it a dozen times because we always grow plenty of beets. We served it again last night for friends, who loved it.

Coriander Beet Puree

4 medium beets or 3 large

1 medium onion

4 T butter

¼ c. cider vinegar

1 T. sugar

1 T. ground coriander

1 t. salt

Boil the beets til just tender, let cool, then slip off skins and roughly chop. Set aside. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Roughly chop the onion and slowly cook it in a saucepan, covered, with the melted butter for 20 minutes. Add the beets and remaining ingredients, stir to coat, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Puree in batches (I like a little texture to it, but puree it smooth if that is your preference.) Return to saucepan with an extra pat of butter and heat to serve. If it is too thick, just add a little water.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I’m not much given to hyperbole (a lifetime of journalistic training) but I am head over heels crazy about this year’s garden discovery: Malabar spinach.

My friend Kyle told me about Malabar two years ago when we were exchanging garden gossip. I haven’t had much luck with regular spinach in our organic garden – the bugs chew it up whether we plant it in early spring or fall. I hadn’t been able to find Kyle’s elusive Malabar spinach until this summer, when I stumbled upon a package of seeds at our local nursery.

Malabar spinach vines

Malabar spinach vines

I planted six seeds in a large container in our garden and topped it with a 4-foot pillar for its vines to wend around. Fast forward to today: We have spinach vines growing every which way out of that container.

What is this stuff? Malabar spinach is of Indian or Ceylon extraction, so it loves the hot weather here in Virginia. As the Cornell University website says, “It creeps when temperatures are cool, but leaps when the mercury hits 90 F.” Indeed.

This spinach has a slightly different consistency than cool-weather spinach. The smaller leaves are fine for a salad, but the bigger ones are best used in dishes that require chopped spinach. So bring on your creamed spinach or Indian spinach recipes – we are deliciously flush with Malabar !

 

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Oh joy! The tomatoes are finally ripening, after months of (our) impatient waiting. It’s time to get creative with tomato recipes.

When I looked at the big plateful of tomatoes, I had a flashback to our trip to France last September. At a restaurant in Giverny where Monet used to hang out with his pals, I had a wonderful appetizer called something like “freshness of the summer.” It certainly tasted like summer. Mary and I tried to deconstruct it, and I came home with a scrap of paper with the words “tomato (gazpacho?) cucumber sour cream feta.”

All these months later, I can no longer envision it. But essentially it was a tomato parfait presented prettily in a glass. It was delicious. With my tomato bounty, I tried to re-create it. Here is my version, sorta kinda the same.

Tomato Parfait

2 c. of ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

Balsamic vinegar, reduced to a syrup

2/3 c. creme fraiche (you can substitute plain Greek yogurt but it will lose some of the silkiness)

2 seedless mini cucumbers, diced

1/4 c. feta cheese, cut into small cubes

1 T. chives, minced

Divide the diced tomatoes among four stemmed glasses. Drizzle with the reduced balsamic vinegar syrup. Mix the creme fraiche and diced cucumbers, and spread on top of the tomato layer. Scatter the feta cubes on top. Sprinkle with minced chives.

Note: I don’t think this needs salt, because of the balsamic and the feta, but add if you think necessary.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 106 other followers