“And don’t think the garden

Loses its ecstasy in winter.

It’s quiet but the roots

Are down there riotous.”

My sister Sonja posted this on Facebook, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Look at the vibrancy beneath the surface, which is the kind of thing that she would actually notice and say.

CRR likes to walk over to our dormant garden plot and simply look at it. I’ve never been a big fan, other than for the exercise. To me, the garden in winter is just dirt, punctuated by a couple herbs struggling valiantly against the cold, and maybe a few weeds that CRR stomps out.10647151_819459994779772_2839438141352384331_n

But my sister’s post reminds me of what lies beneath. All the beautiful organisms that enrich our soil over the winter months and create a bed of promise in the spring.

Just as CRR sees it now, this is likely how my father and his father saw the soil. Not dead, not barren – full of potential for growth, for nurturing, for sustenance. For life.

Wish I could see, wish I could watch, what lies beneath. Until next spring, I will observe and wonder.

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

 

ISO Dumplings.

My son insisted (as only Sam can insist) that the best soup dumplings in all of Shanghai are made at Yang’s Fry Dumpling.

So I dutifully downloaded a list of 10 Yang’s across this city of 24 million. I kept an eye on the street signs as I traveled across Shanghai on business. Meanwhile, I had some pretty darn good soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) elsewhere: from the 6-for-$1 variety at a little shop serving students at Fudan University to the sophisticated crab soup dumplings at a YuYuan Gardens restaurant where President Clinton once dined.

On my last day in Shanghai, as I strolled People’s Square, I finally spotted a Yang’s, barely a hole in the wall. So even though it was 10:15 am, just a few hours after my buffet breakfast, I knew I had to eat a few more soup dumplings.P1000618

At Yang’s, you can watch the dumplings being made by hand. An assembly line of cooks rolls out dumplings by the hundreds. One worker throws a small ball of dough onto the counter and rolls it thin. The next smears the circle of dough with a congealed fatty sauce (this is what makes the soup part, so don’t flinch!) and adds the small meatball of choice: pork, shrimp, crab. Then the dough is quickly pleated into the classic soup dumpling style and transferred to a huge saute pan to cook by the dozen.

The fun comes next. You carefully place a soup dumpling into a spoon, poke a hole into the top with a chopstick and suck out the soupy goodness. Forget what your mother told you about manners and slurp away. The only sound you’ll hear across the room is slurp slurp slurp. Then carefully dip the dumpling into vinegar and savor the meatball and dough.

This is interactive food at its best. Oh, and Yang’s charges 6RMB ($1) for four big xiaolongbao, a bargain in any language.

P1000619Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

It took three trips to the Gothic quarter of Barcelona before I found La Boqueria. Granted, the first two were evening dinner forays where I simply explored the old city and enjoyed tapas and gelato and cava with a wandering eye that did not land on the market.

I knew I had to make a dedicated trip to find the ancient market because my friends were insistent that it was a must-see on my trip to Barcelona. So glad I made that third foray!photo (44)

La Boqueria is simply astounding, a covered market with hundreds of vendors. It dates to the year 1217 when farmers sold their produce on the outskirts of the old gated city. The current structure was built in1840.

Today’s vendors artfully arrange their goods, a feast for the eyes to tempt the belly. Each vendor has its specialty. Spices sold by the kilogram. Eggs sized from tiny quail eggs to softball-sized emu. Iberian ham stalls where the butchers patiently explained the origins of the much-coveted pork while carving paper-thin slices. Pate stands. Beautifully packaged salt flavored with provencal herbs or chilis or lemon. And of course more veg and fruit stands than you could count.

These vendors know their tourist audience. They package many items for people on-the-go: papayas halved and wrapped with plastic with a tiny spoon, paper cones filled with jamon ham slices or cheese wedges, plastic cups of colorful fresh-squeezed juices chilled on ice, skewers of all combinations, and empanadas to eat out of hand.

At 10 am, people were bellied up to a handful of tapas bars within the market, sitting at counters to watch the creation of their small plates.

And what I really loved was the little old Spanish ladies doing their daily marketing, nimbly navigating the narrow passages and towing a small cart to stow their purchases. La Boqueria is a ‘supermarket’ for the ages.

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers