Source: Cherries Galore

CRR and I drove into the countryside on a recent lazy weekend, and veered off the main highways onto those beautiful lanes that remind us why we love living in Virginia. We visited two vineyards, enjoyed the scenery and then wandered into an orchard where we had picked apples with the boys when they were young.

Turns out it was cherry season. We’ve lived in Virginia for 30 years and didn’t realize cherries were grown here. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apples – we’ve picked them all. But cherries? We were pleasantly astonished.

Stella-Cherry-Tree-450wWe picked huge bags full of cherries at $2 a pound. We gobbled some on the way home and schemed what to do with the rest. We compromised. I spent a couple hours sitting on the patio pitting the cherries. Then I froze half of them and CRR began fermenting his half for cherry wine, or whatever will result.

This weekend, I cooked my cherries in the easiest cobbler imaginable. Here is the recipe, adapted from

4-6 c. pitted cherries (if using frozen, thaw them)

1 c. flour

1 c. sugar

1 c. milk

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ c. butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Bring the cherries and their juices to a boil. Set aside. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt in a bowl. Incorporate the milk and set aside. Melt the butter in a 2-quart baking vessel. Pour the batter over the butter. Carefully pour the cherries over the mixture. Do not stir. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of raw or turbinado sugar over the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes until batter is browned. Serve warm or at room temp. Ice cream is optional: we tried 3 variations: pistachio, vanilla bean and pineapple coconut.








Source: Fear The Cucumber

Confession: We have been cucumber failures. Utter abysmal defeat. Bugs got ‘em. Disease got ‘em. So we quit trying. Garden what you’re good at, right?

Then last year we cleared some gardening space in our back yard. It’s a long story but we almost quit the erratically-managed community garden where we’ve rented for a decade. At the last minute, CRR caved. So we’ve got two gardens: our back yard and the community garden mile away.

Time to experiment. We have about six hours of direct sun at home, so we tried vegetables that have failed us time and time again in the full-sun community plot. The sugar snap peas have had a spectacular season. No issue there – we eat them right of hand, or in salads. Arugula and butter lettuce have had a long spectacular season, apparently loving the cool shade. We love it.

cukesBut the cukes. O.M.G. After two months of agonizing over their lazy interest to thrive, BOOM, the vines took off. I watched the cute little yellow blossoms turn into tiny cucumbers-to-be. They’re climbing the trellises and threatening the tomatoes.

Now we are reaping the harvest. Suddenly we have 6-8-10-inch muscle-bound cukes. Gulp. After so many years of failure, I am ill-equipped to deal with this onslaught.

I’m making a mandoline-thin sliced cucumber feta salad for dinner tonight. But clearly I need more ideas. Send me your recipes! #Help!

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist who writes real news and is a fierce protector of the First Amendment. 

More cruises to Cuba are setting sail from ports on Florida’s coast this year as the market for American tourism settles down after Obama eased travel restrictions in 2015. My family just returned from a week-long cruise with stops at Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and, yes, Havana.

Caution: These cruises aren’t Love Boats. They are regulated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which means travelers must participate in educational activities, often called people-to-people exchanges. An educational visa is required.

We loved the educational vibe on our cruise. The cultural activities were fun and interesting: lessons on Cuban history, santoria, salsa dancing classes, African-Cuban history, performances by Cuban dance and music groups, rum-tasting, and more.

For us, the on-ship highlight was an improvised talk by four Cuban exiles who were returning “home” for the first time. They described their ambivalence and the downright hostility of some of their older relatives whose grudge against the Castro brothers remains strong. In the end, all said they were compelled to go back to Cuba to see what had changed and to see relatives left behind five decades ago. One was Elena, a retired teacher who couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to Havana after 55 years to meet a half-sister for the first time. We later saw them walking down the street holding hands.

As part of the people-to-people requirement, we were encouraged to engage with Cubans on shore. We were schooled in basic Spanish phrases, currency tips and cultural do’s and don’ts. Once on shore, we chatted with shopkeepers, artists, vendors, people who have opened cafes in their homes (paladeres) and yes, the drivers of the vintage 1950s cars that are the staple of the taxi fleet. We roamed the streets of Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Havana. Cuban people were friendly and curious. Love of baseball was a common denominator.


We’d been pondering how to visit Cuba for several years and knew lodging is scarce (and likely without AC). The cruise ship helped resolve that issue – it gave us comfortable rooms and amenities, we only had to unpack once and transportation between cities was taken care of. The downside to cruising is we had less time on shore. We had to rush some of our “must see” sites.

We’re big Teddy Roosevelt fans so we were thrilled to see San Juan Hill, the site of the military victory in 1898 that propelled his political career. Note that the locals call the conflict the Spanish-Cuban-American War, because while freed from Spanish rule they were then occupied by Americans for decades.

Another highlight was the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. The museum is filled with relics and photos depicting Castro’s takeover and the subsequent 50-year standoff with the U.S. (from his vantagepoint of course). In front of the museum sits a tank commanded by Castro at the Bay of Pigs, when exiles disastrously failed to invade. An area adjacent contains the “Granma,” the boat Castro commanded on his ultimately successful invasion in 1959.

The island really is stuck in a time warp. Castro time, that is. Half a century of U.S. embargo and then the loss of their patrons in the USSR has left a crumbling — but proud — country.

We have only two regrets. One, baseball season was over, so we didn’t catch a few innings of Cubano ball. Two, we didn’t get out into the countryside. We heard the Vinales Valley in western Cuba is incredible. We would have liked to tour a sugar cane or tobacco plantation, since they are staples (rum and cigars) of the Cuban economy. Or do some hiking in the Sierra Maestra or Escambray mountains, where Castro’s guerrillas plotted their revolution.

It’ll start our to-do list for next time. We couldn’t get enough of this colorful culture and people, blended like a fine mojito.

Addendum: Here’s a 2-minute video about travel to Cuba.

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist who writes real news and is a fierce protector of the First Amendment. 

It’s the 4th of July holiday weekend and, naturally, the Dakota kids have laid in an awesome amount of meat to grill. No matter that we’re going out for several meals – it is the principle of the thing. Holiday = grilling.

As I was shoveling protein into the refrigerator and freezer, I noticed a label on one package of beef: “100% American farmed.”

I started giggling, thinking of all the marketing and labeling shenanigans that have been foisted on the unthinking public: Light, lite, natural, low-fat, low-cal ,etc.

Protein has been particularly susceptible: organic, farm-raised,  free-range, 100% gluten-free, hormone-free, 100% vegetarian raised, wild-caught, blah blah.

People, read the labels. Then decide for yourself whether you really care that your fish was “wild caught,” when in fact it was wild caught in Thailand, where food safety rules may be, er, rather lax. Or that your pork loin, “100% farm-raised,” contains up to 15% water, vinegar and marinating chemicals.

meatCRR and I grew up with the original organic protein. Our parents raised the cattle, chickens and pigs that went to slaughter to pack our freezers. We snagged trout and walleye and perch directly from the rivers and lakes. But I also don’t sweat animals that have been raised in confinement – check out how super-expensive Kobe beef is raised.

If you really care, do your homework and make your own informed decision as a consumer. Free-range may mean something completely different than what you think. You may not actually know what a GMO is — but Jimmy Kimmel does.

Just don’t be fooled by stupid labels that some PR firm was paid millions to snooker you.

Back to the beef. Americans eat 24 billion pounds of home-grown beef a year; fewer than 1 billion pounds are imported, primarily from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

And if you want to be truly informed, read this 92-page list of USDA rules about meat additives. Then go shopping, and know what you’re talking about.

And Happy 4th of July. Grill away!

 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 is a tree hugger. Growing up on the sparsely-treed prairie, it was probably preordained that he would become a lover of trees.

During the Dust Bowl, topsoil literally blew away as winds howled down the prairie. With little natural tree cover, there was nothing to stop the clouds of dirt. Convinced that trees could break the wind, FDR ordered up “shelterbelts,” rows of trees planted by CCC and WPA workers. By 1942, 220 million trees had been planted along 18,600 miles stretching from the Dakotas to Texas. Those rows of trees defined the countryside where we grew up.

Now we have a big suburban yard with dozens of tree specimens, and CRR can name them all. When we first bought the property, the yard had been neglected for years. He brought in an arborist to identify the trees and diagnose what ailed them.

The arborist condemned the persimmon that shades the patio and a giant locust that towers over the property.

The arborist underestimated CRR’s tree powers.

He slowly nursed the persimmon back to health, with some foul-smelling ointment and a burlap cIMG_1315 (2)oat that wrapped it for two seasons.

The giant locust was a bigger project. The arborist predicted it would eventually split in two, fall, and damage our house (or our neighbor’s). CRR brought in a landscaper who cabled the thickest trunks together – even the derecho of 2012, with its winds gusting up to 80 mph, didn’t bring it down.

Snowmageddon took a big chunk out of the magnificent magnolia that graces our front yard. The tree doctor said it would never regain its shape – wrong again, with CRR’s pruning guidance.

When 9-year-old Sam brought home a sycamore seedling from his school’s Earth Day celebration, he and CRR planted it and nursed it to the rangy specimen it is today.

His latest project? A bigleaf magnolia, a mere sapling now that promises plate-sized blooms in a year or two.

IMG_1284For his attention to the trees — mulberry, sycamore, magnolia, dogwood, crepe myrtle, arborvitae, pine, persimmon, locust, tulip poplar, ornamental cherry, cypress and a forest of hollies – CRR has earned the title of tree whisperer.

Happy Father’s Day to a wonderful husband and father of our two sons.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, Va.