Archives for category: 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.

As we begin the 90-90 season in Washington (90 degrees, 90 percent humidity), it’s an appropriate time to introduce a refreshing drink from the Middle East.

When I visited Sam in UAE, we toured an ancient neighborhood of Dubai. After several hours we were hot and sweaty and parched. He suggested a local drink, mint lemonade, as a sure pick-me-up. I wasn’t so sure, but readily agreed. Getting out of the sun was my priority.

We sat silently in the late afternoon shade while the waitress slowly made her rounds and eventually produced our drinks. The mint lemonades in tall icy-cold glasses were curiously green. Herbaceously green.

Mint Lemonade

Mint Lemonade

I took a sip. Mmm. It was so refreshing. The mint, the lemon, the ice all combined to create a drink that washed away the heat. After a few sips, we were alive again, talking, enthusiastic about our evening plans.

Since we have an abundance of mint (ie, the worst winter in half a century didn’t make a dent in it), I decided to figure out why this drink was so restorative.

A quick Google search brought these qualities to the fore:

Mint: astringent, antiseptic, antibacterial, antimicrobial, decongestant, expectorant, antiviral.

Lemon: antibacterial, antiviral, immune-boosting, digestive aid, liver cleanser.

I decided to give a home version of mint lemonade a try. I chose a warm Sunday when Chris and Jeff were visiting, after a walking tour of the super-cool Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.

A purist would make the lemonade from scratch. I took a shortcut and bought a no-bad-stuff lemonade, Newman’s Own Virgin Lemonade, which is made of filtered water, organic sugar and lemon juice/pulp. I harvested a bunch of mint, plucked the leaves and chucked the rest. Here’s the basic recipe:

Mint Lemonade

Pack a blender container with a handful or two of mint leaves. Add enough lemonade to cover. Whirl for a minute or two until the mint is pulverized. (This is no muddled julep!). Spoon a teaspoon or two of the mint pulp into the bottom of a tall glass, add ice, fill with lemonade. Top with a twist of lemon. Serve with a straw, which you use to stir and sip.

Ratio is the tricky part. CRR likes less mint puree; I like more. It’s a personal thing. You’ll have to find your bliss.

The four of us sat on the patio, slowly sipped and felt the antibodies (see above) take effect. Jeffrey declared himself relaxed. You had to be there to believe it.

If you troll Mideast foodie websites, some make the lemonade from scratch, others add a teaspoon of orange blossom water (which has a heavenly smell) or perhaps top it off with sparkling soda. Others whirl it into a frozen drink, and the racy ones suggest a splash of rum or vodka.

After experimenting for several weeks, I think I’ll freeze some mint puree in ice cube trays. Then I’ll plop a mint cube into a glass of lemonade at the end of the languid summer nights to come. And dream of Arabian nights.

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 plant a variety of vegetables every year — little of this, little of that. My dream garden would be all tomatoes, only tomatoes.

My earliest garden memories are of tomatoes. Big platters of my mother’s sliced beefsteak tomatoes, which my father would sprinkle with sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the fruit. And like my grandmother, my mom grew yellow pear tomatoes, the distinctive shape and size delightful to a child.

My mother would extend the tomato season by canning quarts of them, beautiful jars of ruby-toned fruit lined up by the dozen in the basement. To this day, my 82-year-old mother grows at least one tomato plant and brags with the rest of us about her harvest.

This year, we’ve got a mix of old favorites, new varietals and (once again!) an experiment with grafted tomatoes. DeBaggio’s didn’t make our choices easy, with 100 varietals to choose from (they stagger their stock into early and late harvest types – check the website).

Juliet. These are slightly larger cherry tomatoes, oval in shape, growing in abundant clusters. We had great success with Juliet a couple years back, and I expect to be popping the first one into my mouth in less than 60 days.juliet

Brandywine. This is native to either Amish country in Pennsylvania or the Shenanoah Valley, depending on who you believe. In any event, it produces well here in the DC suburbs. DeBaggio’s says it is “considered by many to be the finest-flavored tomato ever offered.” Ever! Bold deep flavors is what I remember. Counting back from 90 days…

German Giant. We had great fun joking about our German Johnson tomato a few years back. This one is an heirloom that promises big deep pink fruit. Heirlooms are tricky in our hot humid climate, so we’ll watch it closely.

Tangerine. DeBaggio’s says this is a heavy producer of orange (tangerine?) colored fruit.

Japanese Black Trifele. This one is the wildcard. Color ranges from intense black to dark gray blushed with magenta. Pear-shaped fruit weighing three to five ounces.

These tomatoes are in the ground, with a sprinkling of crushed egg shells to strengthen the shaft with calcium (a trick we learned from gardening guru Mike McGrath).  They are thriving in last week’s rain and now basking in mid-70s sunshine. The grafted tomatoes are coming from Wisconsin, and given the long cold winter there, might not show up til June!

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’d been watching for weeks, stalking DeBaggio online. Finally the words I sought were flashing across the nursery’s website: “Basil, tomatoes, peppers now available.” CRR and I were both running Saturday morning errands and I texted him: Time to drive out to Chantilly.

Our friend Anne swore by DeBaggio’s for these garden necessities. She said the nursery wouldn’t put anything out for sale until the overnight temperatures would let them survive and thrive. Indeed the website says, “I can guarantee the quality of our plants because we grow them ourselves.” So weeks earlier we had decided on a road trip for this year’s tender veggies and drove 33 miles out to Chantilly.

DeBaggio’s Herb Garden and Nursery dates to 1975. It was once surrounded by Virginia countryside but exurban growth has encroached to within a block of the nursery. The founder, Thomas DeBaggio, wrote several well-regarded books about gardening – and later, stricken with Alzheimer’s, he wrote about the disease and advocated for research on Oprah and NPR. His family carried on after he died a few years ago.

We browsed the stock, astonished at the variety. 23 kinds of oregano – after tasting several leaves, I settled on Greek Mountain, which the DeBaggio catalog said would “make the tongue tingle.” 27 types of basil – I picked up Napoletano, Genoa Green and a pistou miniature. The catalog said the Genoa Green “is the only variety we use for pesto.” OK then!

DeBaggio’s had 16 varietals of rosemary, an herb described as “shrouded in ancient legends and the smoke from modern barbeque grills.” By chance, I had read an article in the Washington Post last week about the severe winter kill-off of rosemary plants in our region. I lost two. So I chose Hill Hardy rosemary, which DeBaggio’s said was winter hardy below zero. That should defy the winter gods. The catalog had three essays dedicated to rosemary, one on “hardiness of rosemary and growing outdoors,” “growing rosemary in containers,” and “ranking rosemary varieties for use.”

DeBaggio's

DeBaggio’s

It was a pleasure to shop for herbs at a nursery that obviously cares deeply about its products and relates to gardeners as professional-to-professional, even for us amateurs.

Next week: our tomato selections.

P.S. Since we were so deep into the Virginia suburbs, we drove the extra 10 miles to Arno’s pastry stand at Gilberts Corner for a treat. CRR chose a cream-filled éclair and I picked a tart lemon meringue tart.  As I wrote earlier, delicieux!

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