Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Confessions of a Would-Be Gardener

(My monthly column for Heartland Women)
April 2009

I just love the idea of having my own garden. In a perfect springtime world, I would jump out of bed in the morning, grab my wide-brimmed straw hat, crisp cotton smock, gardening gloves and wellies and head straight for my own little patch of earth. There I would spend my day blissfully turning soil, planting, watering, mulching, pinching, pruning, fertilizing and weeding. At the end of the day, I would gather my harvest in my trusty trug and return to my kitchen to create delicious meals from my homegrown produce. I would smile with satisfaction as my dinner companions sang my praises as earth mother of the prairie.

Here's the problem. My ideal temperature “range” is 72. Any temperature above that makes my face turn beet-red - a good color for beets, not so much for me. Most of my skin predates sunscreen and it shows. The sun is not my friend. I don’t tan, E-V-E-R. But I do turn bright red and develop spots that require surgical removal. I hate humidity, especially when it touches me. I don’t even like moisturizer because of its name. Sweating . . . excuse me . . . perspiring makes my face sting and break out and it makes my clothes fuse to my body in the most unflattering places. And extreme temperatures are not always required to elicit this response, as I am now equipped with my personal furnace. All flying and biting insects are naturally drawn to me, but the feeling is not mutual. My right knee no longer functions as a true hinge, or much of a support system, if I try to squat. My knee’s favorite angle is 180 degrees – in either a vertical or horizontal plane.

Research based on the annals of weather from the Farmer’s Almanac, shows there are about six days every year when atmospheric conditions converge in support of my desire to be a gardener. Even I know that is not enough time to bring a garden to fruition. Why, six days is barely enough time to find the ideal straw hat, perfect gloves, and size 9.5 wellies! To do a job right, one must always have the essential tools and dress the part.

I guess I am a dreamer. I’ll never be much of a gardener. Undaunted, I persevere. I am an herb gardener, and it suits me perfectly.

Garden Notes
My herb garden is in a raised bed that is easy on my knees. Herbs are easy to plant in the cool spring and simple to maintain during a long growing season.

Herb gardens are great for beginning gardeners, especially children. Growing what you eat is a natural way to learn about good food, self-sufficiency, responsibility and life.

Their requirements are few, so herbs are probably the easiest food/plants to grow organically and without chemical pesticides – another plus for young gardeners.

Herb gardens need 6-8 hours of sun daily and well-drained soil. A little sand or compost worked in will help our clay-like soil.

Most herbs prefer full sun and are heat and drought tolerant, so with a little mulch around the base, they’re happy with infrequent rain or watering.

Pruning requirements are also minimal. Keep the flowers removed from the tops as soon as they appear, and the plants will grow healthy, happy leaves – that’s the part you want – not the flowers.

Harvesting is done early in the day, after the dew dries, but before it gets too hot. Cut down a few inches from the top of the stem to keep the plant from getting too spindly or taller than it is wide – except for taller herbs like dill and rosemary.

Most herbs will grow to a height of 1 to 2 feet and should also be planted 1 to 2 feet apart. In our climate zone, some herbs are perennials and others biennials, giving you a very good return on your investment.

When the ground gets too warm and too dry, the plants become stressed and produce more flowers and fewer leaves, also called “bolting.” Mulch spread around the plants keeps the ground cooler.

Pinch off the tops of the plant stems to create a fuller, rounder plant. Cut off any flowers on the stems as soon as they appear to keep the leaves from turning bitter.

Many gardeners grow herbs in pots, especially if space or sunlight is at a premium. Use clay pots placed directly on the ground to keep the plants cool from the soil below. On a sunny deck or patio, ceramic or plastic pots will help keep the moisture from evaporating where the surface temperature is hotter.

Herb gardens are also known as kitchen gardens. Whether you plant them in a garden bed or in pots, keep the location close to your kitchen so you will have easy access. Herbs should be picked close to the time they will be used.

Fresh and dried herbs have become very expensive at the market. For the price of one package of fresh herbs (about $3) or one jar of dried herbs ($3-$10!), just one herb plant from the nursery will give you a season full of flavorful foods. And you will have plenty left at the end of the season for freezing or drying to use until next spring – when the cycle begins again.

And remember, some of those herb plants will be waiting patiently in your garden, probably under a pile of leaf mulch, when you wake from your garden dream next spring.
Remember dried herbs have a concentrated flavor, so when substituting fresh for dried herbs in recipes, use two to three times more fresh herbs than dried.

Cooking With Herbs
Here are some suggestions to help you choose herbs to grow, based on different cuisines you may enjoy:
Asian – cilantro, lemon grass
French – tarragon, chervil, thyme, marjoram, fennel,
lavender, rosemary
Greek/Mediterranean - oregano, mint, basil, dill, thyme,
Italian – basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano
Mexican – cilantro, oregano
Teas – chamomile, spearmint, peppermint
Misc. – dill, chives

Now, I can’t guarantee a completely heat-free, sun-free, bug-free, sweat-free, work-free, squat-free gardening experience if you plant an herb garden this year – that’s my dream, not yours. But I can promise lots of good flavors from your kitchen and your grill, lots of smiles, and lots of compliments – especially if you get a pretty straw hat with matching gloves and wellies!


Adapted from Epicurious.com
3/4 c. olive oil
3 tbsp. Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 medium shallots, peeled, quartered
1 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
3 c. (packed) stemmed fresh parsley
2 c. (packed) stemmed fresh cilantro
1 c. (packed) stemmed fresh mint

Combine first 8 ingredients in blender; blend until almost smooth. Add 1/4 of parsley, 1/4 of cilantro, and 1/4 of mint; blend until incorporated. Add remaining herbs in 3 more additions, pureeing until almost smooth after each addition.
Can be made 3 hours ahead. Cover; chill. Serve with grilled steak, chicken or fish.

pizza dough divided for 4 small pizzas
corn meal
1 14-oz. can peeled whole tomatoes, drained
1 1/2 tsp. fresh oregano, minced
1/4 c. plus 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 lbs. fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
32 large basil leaves, torn into pieces

Place a pizza stone in the oven on the lowest rack and preheat the oven to 500°, allowing at least 45 minutes for the stone to heat. In a food processor, pulse tomatoes until coarsely chopped. Stir in the oregano and 1 tbsp. of the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
On a lightly floured surface, stretch one ball of dough into a 13-inch round and transfer to a corn meal coated pizza peel. Spread 1/4 c. of the tomato sauce over the dough to within 1 in. of the edge. Spread one-fourth of the cheese over the pizza and drizzle with 1 tbsp. of oil. Season with sea salt and pepper and slide the pizza onto the stone. Bake until the bottom is charred and the cheese is melted, about 5-8 minutes. Scatter one-fourth of the basil on top and let stand for 3 mins. before serving. Repeat with the remaining dough and toppings.

2 tbsp. honey
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tbsp. chopped tarragon
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
6 tbsp. olive oil

In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine honey, vinegar, tarragon, salt and pepper. Shake well. Add oil and shake vigorously. Let stand 1 hour. Can be used as a salad dressing or as a marinade for chicken. Makes 1 cup.


Adapted from Epicurious.com
3/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
1/3 c. chopped fresh chives
3 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. grated lemon peel
1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 lbs. red-skinned new potatoes, halved lengthwise

Blend parsley, chives, rosemary, 1 tbsp. olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, lemon peel, and 1/2 tsp. salt in processor to coarse puree. Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss potatoes and remaining 2 tbsp. oil in large bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Arrange potatoes, cut side down, on rimmed baking sheet. Roast until potatoes are golden brown and tender, about 40 mins. Using spatula, transfer potatoes to large bowl. Add pesto and toss to coat. Serve warm or room temperature.


1 pkg. active dry yeast
1 tsp. sugar
2 to 2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 c. olive oil, divided
1 tbsp. minced rosemary
2 tsp. coarse salt

In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in 3/4 c. warm water. Stir in sugar. Set aside for 5 mins. or until frothy. In a medium bowl, stir together 2 c. flour and salt. Pour in yeast and 2 tbsp. oil. Stir until moistened. Turn out onto a floured board and knead, adding flour as needed for 5 mins. - or until dough is smooth, but still soft. Oil bowl, place dough in and turn once to cover with oil. Let rise for 30 mins. Turn out onto a floured board and roll out to fit into a 10-in. x 15-in. baking sheet. Oil sheet pan and place dough on it. Cover and let rise 15 mins. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Press fingertips into dough to leave small indentations, brush with oil, sprinkle with rosemary and salt. Bake 12 to 15 mins. - or until golden brown.


Adapted from about.com
16 oz. box bowtie pasta
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. chicken broth
1 c. half and half
1 large bunch asparagus, cut diagonally in 2-in. pieces
1 c. fresh or frozen green peas
1 lemon, zest and juice separate
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions. Prepare sauce while pasta is cooking. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-low heat; add garlic. Cook garlic for 30 seconds – do not brown! Add the stock, half and half, lemon zest and turn heat to high. When mixture begins to boil, add the asparagus and peas and cook until asparagus is tender-crisp – about 3 mins. Turn off heat. Drain the pasta, but do not rinse; return pasta to pot. Pour the sauce mixture over the pasta and toss to coat evenly. Add lemon juice, basil, Parmesan and salt and pepper. Toss again and serve immediately.


Adapted from Gourmet Magazine
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 1/2 tablespoon superfine granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp. each finely chopped fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, softened

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 375°F.
Stir together flour, 1/4 c. sugar, salt, and chopped herbs in a bowl, then add butter and stir with a fork until mixture forms dough – do not over mix. Divide dough in half and pat each half into a 6 1/2 to 7-in. round on an ungreased baking sheet. Crimp edges of rounds and cut each into 8 wedges with a sharp knife. Bake until golden, 15 to 17 minutes. Recut wedges while shortbread is hot, then cool completely on baking sheet placed on a rack.


Maris said...

I really should start a mini herb garden, even living in the city. These recipes all sound so good!

nckitkat said...

will you come and plant my garden for me? maybe in my greenhouse, that holds leftover pots, and weeds?

Anonymous said...

Hi Cora! Beautiful site :)