Note: The pumpkins are back! Recycling this column and encouraging everyone to buy a pumpkin at the church on the corner of Quaker & Seminary in Alexandria. It’s a small price to watch little children giggle and toddle through the pumpkin patch. 

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I know fall has arrived when the Episcopalians set out the pumpkins.

The front yard of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill turns orange with pumpkins every October. The congregation unloads hundreds of pumpkins of all colors and sizes, trucked in from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Then church members sell the pumpkins (and some other goodies) from morning til night, through Halloween. The profits go to local charities like ALIVE! and Carpenter’s Shelter and international ones like Heifer International. “Buy pumpkins, help the world,” the church sign says.1186252_518431311583381_357164123_n

Like many places in 250-year-old Alexandria, Immanuel has a historical footnote. Gerald R. Ford lived a few blocks away and the Ford family attended Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill for years. He served as an usher and the first lady taught Sunday school (presumably before presidential duties intervened).

The church plays a role in our family history as well. After we moved to this neighborhood, we would roll a red wagon to the pumpkin sale with our sons and they would carefully choose among the pumpkin bounty. One year, Sam insisted that I not discard the pumpkin “guts” when we carved his pumpkin, and make a pie instead. So from that year forward, I have roasted a pumpkin and pureed it for a pie. A little more work than the $3.19 canned pumpkin from the store, but it brings back memories of Halloweens past.

This year, our “mystery” volunteer plant in the garden turned out to be a pumpkin vine that sent runners around two sides of the garden. Though lush with many blossoms, it produced exactly two pumpkins. CRR turned one into a savory pumpkin soup. The other one will be carved at Laurie and Mark’s annual pumpkin salon.

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

Source: Deep Into Tomato Season

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 have been privileged to dine at some great restaurants.

Dinners at Le Bernardin before I even knew who chef Eric Ripert was. Same with Jean-Pierre. Dinner three nights running one magical week at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans in the era of chefs Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. A buffet catered by Alice Waters. Dinner at the original Spago by Wolfgang Puck (ask me about him sometime…). Citronelle, Jean Claude, Le Bec Fin, Café Milano, Nobu, etc.

It is one of the few privileges of being a journalist – to dine with the rich and famous while you are neither.

This week I dined with journalists at a restaurant in St. Louis that is the equal of any of the elite. It was a meal that one jaded journalist said was the best of her life. I told her: if you can remember any one dish in six months, then indeed it was the best.

Where? Farmhaus, in St. Louis, where chef Kevin Willmann is at the helm. Born into a farm family, raised on the Gulf of Mexico, trained in kitchens all over and then came “home” to cook his own food, a passionate blend of local ingredients from Missouri, Illinois, the Mississippi River and the Gulf.

Willmann delivers. I had an amazing meal there with 20 journalists chosen for the National Press Foundation’s food and farm sustainability seminar. His restaurant is normally closed on Mondays but Chef Willmann made an exception to teach journalists about his special brand of (27)

He created a menu to showcase the best of the season:

*Missouri caviar (from paddlefish) on a corn blini

*Charcuterie board with porchetta di testa, smoked hogs head, chicken liver mousse, cheese and assorted embellishments

*Summer veg salad with corn, pepper, tomato, goat cheese on a lettuce leaf.

*Snapper en papillote with chanterelle mushrooms, husk cherries and fennel

*Bacon-wrapped meatloaf with charred tomato reduction

*Peach cake with candied ginger streusel and blackberry sorbet

Did I mention the local wine and beer pairings? Without reservation I can recommend Farmhaus. If you’re in St. Louis, see a baseball game or walk the amazing botanical gardens. Then find an hour or two for Farmhaus, a foodie’s dream.

Watch the 5-minute video by NPF digital manager Reyna Levine:

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

We planted Swiss chard for the first time this year, our experiment of the year. Chard’s vibrant colors are a tip-off that it is packed with nutrients. Indeed, chard ranks third on the CDC’s list of powerhouse vegetables. I am a huge fan of spinach, so it should follow that I’d enjoy chard too. But it’s just a little too tough for my taste. We tried several recipes (thanks Michelle!) and I gamely chewed, and chewed. photo (23)

Then CRR came up with a great idea. Use the chard as a substitute for spinach to make spanakopita. Brilliant (as he will tell you). Credit where credit is due. We dined on chard-akopita last night with the first of the garden beets. A feast for a king/queen!

CRR’s Chard-akopita

2 lbs chard, washed, trimmed, coarsely chopped

2 T extra virgin olive oil

Handful chopped chives or scallion

2 c crumbled feta

1/2 c grated parmesan

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 c finely chopped fresh dill

1/3 c finely chopped parsley

1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

18 9×14 sheets phyllo dough

2 tsp milk

Heat saute pan over medium high heat. Add chard and toss with tongs until it is wilted, about 4 minutes. transfer to a colander to cool. Then wring as much liquid as you can from the wilted chard. Add oil to the pan and cook scallions until soft and fragrant. Add the chard to the pan. When it is cool, add cheese, eggs, herbs, nutmeg and salt.

With a pastry brush, lightly coat bottom and sides of a 9×13 pan. Working quickly, lightly oil one sheet of phyllo and place into pan. Repeat with 8 more sheets, alternately each so the phyllo reaches halfway up the sides. Spread the filling evenly. Then top with 9 more phyllo sheets, oiled one at a time and alternated so they reach up the sides. Then gently push the edges down so the filling is enclosed. With a sharp knife, gently score the top phyllo layer, being careful not to cut through to the filling. Using the same pastry brush, brush the milk along all the score marks; this will keep the phyllo from flaking up. Bake at 375 for 35-45 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temp.

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

My family has suffered a terrible tragedy. My 28-year-old nephew died over Memorial Day weekend while on a camping trip with his family deep in the mountains of Alaska. Dusty’s cause of death is still unknown. (Update: He died of heart failure)

I won’t/can’t go into the whole religion/higher being thing. He came from a Catholic lineage, and I know for a fact that faith will help my sister and her family cope with their grief. Everyone else will have to search for meaning in the seemingly senseless death of a vibrant young man.

There were many images posted to social media that proved Dusty’s mastery of the snow and the wilderness, as well as snowboard moves that stupefy city folk like me.

What spoke to me were the many visuals of Dusty with his brothers and sisters and parents and friends, the dime-a-dozen photos that become treasures only when a loved one is lost. I thank God that his family has hundreds of those images to remember Dusty. This is a family which lives life to the fullest, and relishes sharing it with each other.

This one video struck deep in my heart: Dusty’s brothers and a friend, 20-somethings at play on a children’s carousel, snatching a few moments of sheer delight from the depths of their sorrow. Check out their soulful glee.carousel

It reminds me of my own two sons, same age as their cousins, rediscovering their inner child on a playground in New Zealand.


My only message here is to encourage you to hold your family and friends close, love and laugh, hug and be hugged. Because you never know when the merry-go-round will stop suddenly.

If you spend even a random weekend enjoying snow sports, consider giving money to the Alaska Avalanche School in memory of Dusty and those who live their lives ISO the best that nature offers.

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


“Mayo is personal to me.”

This is how I opened my remarks to a group of journalists and Mayo Clinic doctors a few days ago. Mayo has been treating presidents, foreign royalty and VIPs like Lou Gehrig and Ernest Hemingway for 150 years. Mayo is celebrated for its global reach; Mayo also treats the humble in its midst.

If you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness where I grew up, on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, you made a beeline to Mayo. My father came here for treatment of his prostate cancer. My uncles were treated at Mayo, as were many neighbors. One neighbor was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early 1970s, practically a death sentence back then, and Mayo nursed him through that cancer – and several more – until he finally succumbed 40 years later. Forty additional years of life.

Mayo is personal to me.

photoA little history. Dr. William Mayo was appointed by President Lincoln in 1864 to provide medical examinations of men joining the Union Army in Minnesota. In 1883, a tornado destroyed much of Rochester. The Mayo brothers, Charlie and William, then built the hospital that was the beginning of the mammoth complex that exists today. Mayo now treats 1.5 million patients a year.

Mayo won the Nobel Prize for creating cortisone (though lost out on a fortune in profits that went to Merck). Its list of achievements is so long I’ll just provide a link here. A long line of presidents have been treated by Mayo doctors: LBJ, Nixon, Bush I, Reagan and more. In the middle of rural, white, Norwegian Minnesota, Mayo is a multicultural island, a veritable United Nations of Mayo staff and patients from all over the world.

I was at Mayo this week as a healthy person, along with 25 journalists learning about individualized medicine, a concept that exists through the miracle of technology and science. It is another step in a long line of miracles that Mayo performs every day – the miracle of life.

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


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