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.

I grew up only vaguely aware of my heritage. Unlike some of my college friends who were raised in communities that were overwhelmingly German or Norwegian, my hometown was a mishmash of early 20th century European immigrants – German, Scandinavian, English, a smattering of Dutch.

My father was 100 percent Swedish (though he and his brothers loved to tease us that Grandma was part Indian, which we believed for an unreasonable number of years). So I grew up eating Swedish meatballs with cream gravy, rice pudding, a fried dough called fattigmand, and sweet yeast rolls fragrant with cinnamon that replaced the cardamom traditional to Sweden. Lingonberries couldn’t be found in South Dakota, but berry jam was a good substitute.

In 2006, CRR and I traveled to Sweden to check out my ancestral homeland. I didn’t really give the food much thought, given what I grew up with, until I started reading up for the trip. The guidebooks explained why pickled herring played such a prominent role in the salad bars of my youth, and the difference between salmon lox and gravlax. I became enamored of a dish with the whimsical name of pyttipanna, a hash with beets. When we arrived in Stockholm, we made a beeline for a restaurant specializing in pyttipanna in the cobblestoned old town district.Pyttipanna

I don’t remember what CRR ordered but I was besotted with … hash. I think the beets made the difference from an American hash, adding a natural sweetness that complemented the onion.

So when I harvested a bunch of beets this week, memories of our Sweden trip flooded back and pyttipanna came to mind. It is a perfect supper or brunch dish.

Pyttipanna (recipe courtesy of the Berns Hotel, the 1860s hotel where we stayed)

Saute diced onion in olive oil until translucent. Then add equal amounts of cooked diced potato, diced beet and diced meat (I used Italian sausage because I had some on hand; I have also used leftover beef and pork). Saute on mid-to-high heat until browned to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Place into bowls, top with poached or over-easy eggs that will run into the hash when broken. Close your eyes and dream of fjords and Vikings.

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

It’s a tradition at our house. The first tomatoes are eaten out-of-hand, standing in the garden while the fruit is still warm from the sun. The honor this year went to the Juliet, which began producing its egg-sized tomatoes a week ago.

The next step, after a large tomato ripens, is a BLT built with thick slices of tomato.

BLT

BLT

This season’s BLT debut featured the Sioux varietal, which we bought for sentimental reasons — our native South Dakota being home to the Sioux tribes. DeBaggio’s promised sweet, tangy, 6-ounce orbs – and that’s exactly what we got.

The BLT was actually a BBT – I substituted big broad leaves of Genoa basil (can’t go wrong with basil and tomato, after all!) for the lettuce. I lacquered wheat toast with mayo, followed by stacks of basil, tomato slices and bacon slabs.

Messy … and a heavenly taste of summer.

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 was weeding the garden (a never-ending task) when I heard the little critter: the unmistakable high-pitched whine of a mosquito. It was early morning and mosquitos are notorious at that hour in our garden plot. I looked at my exposed skin but didn’t see any skeeters settling in for breakfast. So back to work, silently cursing that I hadn’t spritzed myself with bug spray.

The buzz was insistent, and I kept looking for mosquitos to no avail. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something aloft about 50 yards away. It was a small drone, being flown by remote control by a man while his delighted young daughter chased it around.

Curious, I walked over and asked him a few questions. It had a wing span of 38 inches, he said, and could hold a 5-pound camera. He bought it online, and uses it to take video for television ads. He was practicing with a new remote control.Gadget Show

I found the drone online – it sells for $1,300. Amazing. I know drones are an exciting prospect for law enforcement and for commerce. The FAA has projected as many as 7,500 commercial drones may be in use by 2018, and the drone industry hypes that more than 100,000 drone-related jobs will be created in the next decade.

What began as a weapon of war, costing taxpayers $90 million for each of the most sophisticated killer drones, has morphed into an airborne videocam with unlimited domestic potential. I suppose we should be grateful to the military industrial complex for its ingenuity. But I can’t help but worry that if a guy can buzz my garden plot with such ease, what could a criminal or terrorist pull off?

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

If you lived in the Washington, D.C. area on June 29, 2012, you remember exactly where you were when the derecho steamrolled through.

We’d never heard of the meteorological term until afterward. The National Weather Service had warned of severe thunderstorms, and I stood in the doorway mesmerized by the trees swaying and the rain pounding the patio with a fearsome backdrop of lightning. Then I heard a loud crack, and jumped back into the house. It was a transformer blowing, and so we joined 4 million people who lost power for days.

One good thing came out of that storm. A fledgling craft brewery in Alexandria, Port City Brewing Company, lost power and thought its full tank of beer would go bad. Instead, the beer simply fermented at a higher temperature. Thus was born the Derecho Common beer. The brewery smartly marketed the beer as “the storm’s gift,” and just this weekend released the third annual Derecho beer.

CRR's Growler

CRR’s Growler

For you beer aficionados and home brewers (JJJ take note), here’s how Port City describes it: “Deep golden in color, and has toasty, biscuit malt flavors. It is medium bodies with an assertive hop profile. It is dry hopped with Amarillo hops, which give it a spicy, citrusy hop kick on the finish.” Alcohol 4.8 percent.

It took us some time to find our way to Port City, which turns out to be practically in our back yard in Alexandria. Sam got CRR a growler of Port City brew for Christmas, and we’ve been back several times since.

Take the tour: for $10, you can schedule a tour of the backlot of the brewery and get five tickets for 6-ounce pours of their microbrews. My current favorite: Tartan ale, a hearty beer that falls between the lighter IPAs and the stouts. CRR recently came away with a growler filled with Colossal Two, a smoked imperial stout. “Hints of bacon”, for real!

Port City’s fame is growing — Chef Geoff of the eponymous restaurant chain just commissioned a beer named Northwest — so go soon before the line is out the door.

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 first beets are in! After lording it over my gardening sibs (who demanded time-stamped proof), what to do with the first beets of the season?

I love all-things-beets. But the first beets get the unadulterated treatment. I simmered them til almost tender, skinned them, and ate a bowlful for dinner. That’s all: Beets, a spritz of butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can almost feel the iron coursing through your veins. Move over Popeye! (and if you know who Popeye is, well, you’ve dated yourself)

One lone beet survived the initial beet-fest. I thought through my beet possibilities. Beet goat cheese dip, from our friends Ruth and Tim? Mandoline-thin slices of beet topped with salad and goat cheese? Or perhaps a knockoff of a quinoa salad I had at Virtue Feed & Grain in Old Town Alexandria?

Done. I love quinoa and the Lone Beet provided the excuse to reinvent Cathal Armstrong’s recipe.

Beet Quinoa Salad

Cook one cup quinoa according to package instructions. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, dice one beet into small ruby-colored cubes and snip a handful of chives. The restaurant’s recipe calls for paper thin slices of radishes, but I substituted apple slices since my radish crop had ended. The former gives the salad a peppery bite; the apple instead added a little sweetness. Mix up a lemon vinaigrette. Gently mix the quinoa with the other ingredients, salt & pepper to taste. Then sprinkle with goat cheese. Enjoy. Serves 4 as a side dish.

Share your favorite beet recipes, because we are about to come into a beet bonanza!

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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