Archives for category: 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 locavore.photo (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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu9a6rpGVOM

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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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

Guess what food craze doesn’t even crack the top 10 super foods?

Kale. That’s right – the chewy green stuff that chefs and foodies have been swooning over for far too many years.

You may have guessed: I am not a fan. I have had kale many different ways and only found two to be even remotely palatable. My sister’s kale stir fried with garlic and a Whole Foods salad in the Santa Monica branch that had about a dozen ingredients so the chopped kale didn’t overwhelm the dish.

So with glee I noted the CDC’s list of “Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables,” ranked by density of nutrients packed into each bite. Here’s to a healthy New Year!

#10. Collard Greens. One of our garden neighbors plants collard greens in the fall, along with another healthy but often badly-cooked leaf, the mustard green (#12).

#9. Romaine Lettuce. Big winner at our house, almost always the leafy green of choice.

#8. Parsley. Though I typically use parsley as a herb, ie sparingly, I do pack my gazpacho with lots of chopped parsley. Need to find a few more recipes that use it as a main ingredient. Ideas anyone?

#7. Leaf Lettuce. This is our garden mainstay in the spring.

#6. Chicory. Hmm, need to use this more often!

#5. Spinach. Love it, in almost any savory concoction. Still have a couple frozen packets of our garden spinach. Note to self: Find the Malabar varietal again. It was a tremendous producer in 2014.

#4. Beet Greens. CRR scores on this one. His favorite preparation involves steaming the beet greens and flavoring them with a little vinegar. I prefer the beet itself.

#3. Chard. Maybe we will try growing it this year, to elevate our super-food-iness quotient.

watercress

watercress

#2. Chinese Cabbage. Who knew?

#1. Watercress. It’s on today’s grocery list. Love the peppery taste, so why don’t I buy it more often? It scores a perfect 100 percent nutrient density by the CDC. Call it Mother Nature’s multi-vitamin.

And the evil kale? #13.

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

 

“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

 

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

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.