First Harvest

My husband picked our first vegetables of the year from our garden. About two seconds later, he found one of his pepper plants stripped bare of its’ leaves. He also found the fattest caterpillar on earth next to the plant, with an incriminating fleck of pepper leaf in the corner of its’ little caterpillar mouth.

My husband used words that are not fit for public consumption, but being the softie he is, simply relocated the guilty party to another part of the yard.

I’m going to laugh when he finds the caterpillar back in the peppers tomorrow.

 

Overcoming Garden Trauma—Where Do We Go From Here?

With Spring not too far around the corner, I’ve realized that I better come up with some type of plan to rehabilitate our yard.

Last summer, my little section of Louisiana experienced both record heat and drought. It rained only a handful of times for five months, and even when it did rain, it felt more like the sky was spitting on us than actual precipitation. We had more consecutive days of 100+ degree temperatures than at any other time in history, many of those days reaching 110 degrees, if not more. As a result, huge sections of our grass died completely, or were overrun by weeds that could probably survive an apocalypse. We also lost several azaleas, and many other plants that were significant to our landscaping. Our raised-bed vegetable garden was hit and miss, with the exception of a bumper jalapeno crop. Go figure.

My husband tried to water everything as much as he could, to the point that our water bill rivaled our electricity bill for which would be the biggest budget-killer. By the end of the summer, we admitted defeat and hoped for better luck next year. Consequently, our yard is a wreck, and our gardening enthusiasm is at an all-time low.

I know I’ll have to replace the azaleas and other landscaping plants, but I am clueless what to do about the lawn. Should we reseed the dead sections? Weed-and-Feed what’s left and hope for the best? We also are having the mildest winter in years, so does this mean that summer will be as bad, if not worse than last year? How can I heal my balding lawn and help it thrive?

I am still an abject gardening novice, not to mention inexcusably lazy when 100-degree heat is involved. However, if I don’t get my butt in gear and come up with a plan, our home is going to be a whole lot more scraggly-looking come Fall.

Can, Freeze, Burn My Hands Off, Repeat

I am drowning in garden produce this week, so I spent my Sunday making jalapeno salsa, so I could my use some of my burgeoning jalapeno crop before it overtakes my kitchen:

And, to be honest, I was the total idiot who decided to chop seventy-plus jalapenos without protective gloves. My hands are still burning, and I nearly cried when I washed my hair in the hot shower this morning. Let’s just file that under lesson learned, shall we?

Since our jalapeno plants continue to thrive like they drank radioactive Kool-Aid, I also plan on making and freezing some bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers next weekend, in hopes of having readily available appetizers for our busy holiday entertaining season. My poor Food Saver is probably going to go on strike soon, because it’s my go-to answer when I have a lot of fresh garden produce but not enough time for a marathon canning session.

So far, all my canning attempts have followed my trusty Ball Blue Book, but I think I’m ready to branch out a little. A trip to the bookstore may be in order soon, because I need to fresh ideas to preserve our hard-earned harvest. However, that’s a bridge I’ll cross later this week.

Despite the added workload that the garden poses right now, I still am so incredibly happy that we put in the effort to get it going during the Spring. The raised beds were both costly and time-consuming, but they accomplished exactly what we hoped: we have a thriving vegetable garden in an area of hard-clay soil, and we’ve taken a step toward more sustainable living in the midst of our urban community. Even more important, the heathens see their dad and I working together to plan, create and execute a shared vision for our family.

I’ll just keep reminding myself of that fact when I’m seeding seventy more jalapenos next weekend.

With gloves, of course.

A Trip to the Farmers’ Market, a Day of Cooking and Gran’s Fresh Tomato Dip

With my husband out of town, doing whatever it is guys do on a “guys’ weekend,” I decided to split my time today between fun and productivity. First, the heathens and I headed out early to explore our town’s new and improved Farmers’ Market. We tried to support our local Market last year, but with limited vendors and few genuinely local products, we wrote it off after our first visit. However, the organizers must have really listened to the community, because they’ve tripled the size of the Market and I was amazed at the diverse offerings from many north Louisiana vendors. Because my garden is overwhelming me with my own produce, I was more interested in finding other handcrafted products in my efforts to buy locally whenever I can. Well, by the time we left, I had a pound of local honey (from Hummer & Sons), a bottle of Southern Hurricane wine (from On Cloud Wine) and a tub of sundried-tomato goat cheese from a central Louisiana goat farmer (WesMar Farms). In the meantime, the boys snacked on fresh beignets, bought various knickknacks from local artists with their allowance money, and charmed the honey guy out of a couple of fresh sunflowers.

The heat soon drove us back home, and I got started on taming my own mountain of vegetables that was overtaking my kitchen counters. First, I tackled the eggplant by making Baba Ghanoush, as well as a completely improvisational roasted vegetable ratatouille. Both are now chilling in the refrigerator, so the jury is still out on whether those experiments will be tasty treats or epic failures. Next, I popped about 30 tomatoes in the oven to slow roast, with the plan to make some roasted-tomato pesto, and save any leftover tomatoes to snack on throughout the week. Finally, I used up the remaining tomatoes on my homegrown tomato standby recipe: Gran’s Fresh Tomato Dip.

This dip is a weird in that it is neither a salsa nor a pico de gallo. If I had to describe it in a few short words, I’d say this dip is just a delicious way to appreciate the sheer perfection of a homegrown tomato. In fact, I usually will not make this recipe using store-bought tomatoes, so we seem to enjoy Gran’s Dip only during the summer months. Got a tomato invasion of your own? Here’s Gran’s Tomato Dip, step by ridiculously easy step.

First, let’s start with the players:

Gran's Tomato Dip

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  • 2-3 large tomatoes, preferably homegrown or locally produced
  • 3 green onions
  • 1 small can chopped black olives, drained (4.25 oz…I think)
  • 1 small can chopped green chilies (about 4 oz…I think…again)
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (not pictured, because I am a dork)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • Black pepper to taste and additional salt if you so choose
  • To make Gran’s tomato dip, start by chopping the tomatoes and placing them in a medium-size bowl:

    Next, chop the green onions, including both the white bases and green tops:

    Add the green onions, green chilies, olives, olive oil, vinegar, garlic salt and pepper to the tomatoes:

    Stir gently until well-combined. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 4 hours, but preferably 8 hours or overnight. Taste and see if it needs additional salt before serving, but it usually doesn’t.

    Serve with tortilla chips, Frito’s scoops or whatever similar chip you prefer.

    I’m going to make a cocktail now…I’m tired.

    It’s just not natural to have so much productivity on a Saturday…

    Avian Invaders and Greek Food—Yep, It’s as Completely Unrelated as You Think

    When I came home from work today, this little guy had taken up residence in the base of my deck. I gave him wide berth, but he somehow managed to give me the “Whatchoo talking bout, Willis” look from every angle.

    I am pretty sure that look is the “bleep off” version of bird. Hopefully, he’ll move along soon, because my boys will start thinking he’s a pet if he hangs around much longer.

    In completely unrelated news, the garden continues to produce food faster than we can eat, can and freeze. I got a little desperate this weekend, and did a frantic search for eggplant recipes, with the hope of reducing the pile of vegetables that is overtaking my kitchen counter. I landed on Moussaka (which I can’t even pronounce, by the way), and decided that a little experimentation was in order.

    I certainly did not have high hopes for this recipe. First, it contained a bunch of ingredients that regularly send the heathens into riot-mode. Second, I am a Louisiana girl, and my pathetically underdeveloped palate is still confounded by the spice combinations that are in a lot of Greek food. Indian food too, for that matter. Lastly, just the simple fact that eggplant is the main ingredient was enough to have my husband doing the dramatic choking/dying pantomime. *Sigh*

    Well, lo and behold, we all liked this dish, and I got to rack up the cool mom points for a garden-fresh meal. It was deliciously rich and cheesy, and the eggplant was well-disguised from the heathens’ vegetable-laser-vision. I don’t know how “authentic” this recipe is, but our simpleton taste buds sure enjoyed it, and I was able to reduce my vegetable invasion for at least a day.

    I served the Moussaka with a simple Greek salad (also using veggies from the garden):

    And got to feel like the Saturday dinner superstar. Want to have a Moussaka adventure of your own? Here’s the recipe I used:

    Moussaka

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    Ingredients

    • 3 eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices
    • salt
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon butter
    • 1 pound lean ground beef
    • salt to taste
    • ground black pepper to taste
    • 2 onions, chopped
    • 1 clove garlic, minced
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    • 1/2 teaspoon fines herbs
    • 2 tablespoons dried parsley
    • 1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
    • 1/2 cup red wine
    • 1 egg, beaten
    • 4 cups milk
    • 1/2 cup butter
    • 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
    • salt to taste
    • ground white pepper, to taste
    • 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

    Directions

    1. Lay the slices of eggplant on paper towels, sprinkle lightly with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes to draw out the moisture. Then in a skillet over high heat, heat the olive oil. Quickly fry the eggplant until browned. Set aside on paper towels to drain.
    2. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the ground beef, salt and pepper to taste, onions, and garlic. After the beef is browned, sprinkle in the cinnamon, nutmeg, fines herbs and parsley. Pour in the tomato sauce and wine, and mix well. Simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool, and then stir in beaten egg.
    3. To make the béchamel sauce, begin by scalding the milk in a saucepan. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth. Lower heat; gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. Season with salt, and white pepper.
    4. Arrange a layer of eggplant in a greased 9×13 inch baking dish. Cover eggplant with all of the meat mixture, and then sprinkle 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese over the meat. Cover with remaining eggplant, and sprinkle another 1/2 cup of cheese on top. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the nutmeg. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
    5. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees F.

    Why My Husband Deserves a Cookie

    My husband has been working his proverbial behind off on our garden this year, and he deserves a cookie, some kudos and a vacation. On a completely unrelated tangent, am I the only person that remembers the Kudos granola bars? When I was a kid, my mom used to buy the Price Club in L.A. out of Kudos bars, because she knew that they were a sure-fire afternoon snack for our eternally hungry household.

    Hmmmm…Kudos….but I digress…

    After realizing last year that we now live in an area of hard, compacted clay, my husband and I spent our Spring constructing raised vegetable beds, in hopes of transforming our new, urban surroundings into something that nurtured our inner farm-kids. I think we both felt drawn to the comforts and convenience of city life, but we still yearned for some of the creativity and self-sufficiency that we both experienced during our country upbringings. Since our new city home just happened to be situated on a double, corner lot, we were blessed to have plenty of room to goof around with…relatively speaking, of course.

    We spent a considerable amount of time this Spring building the raised beds, and transforming them from empty shells to an actual garden.

    Well, to be honest, my husband did the building, planting and caretaking, and I…supervised… but you get the idea. These vegetable beds were definitely more costly and time consuming than we initially anticipated, and after my husband moved approximately 200 wheelbarrows full of dirt with only his wits and a shovel, I think we both wondered if we should just abandon our urban, overly-optimistic homesteading vision. At the time, we had to constantly remind ourselves that the initial investment would result in years of culinary dividends.

    Luckily for me, my husband is stubborn with a capital S. He has spent EVERY single day watering, weeding and babying our little garden, including my often neglected herb garden:

    Long after the first few 100-degree days drove me into complete garden apathy, he’s still been spending his mornings and evenings ensuring that our early efforts continue to pay off. And Holy Cow, has it ever:

    He’s picking veggies faster than I know what to do with them. Meanwhile, my youngest heathen continues to take credit for his eggplant seed selection:

    As you can see, it’s a daily freak-show at my house. But a dang-tasty one…

    Slow-Down Sunday and an Unexpected Macaroni Grill Copycat

    After several hectic weeks, and an unfortunate tendency to overbook, overdo and overanalyze everything, we slowed things down around our house this weekend. I always seem to forget how fine the line is between “active” and “overwhelmed,” until I’ve jumped past it into the land of Stressville.

    Yesterday started with a marathon canning session, because our garden is producing food faster than we can eat it. My husband has managed to keep the garden healthy despite the continuing drought, and I’ve kept my green-thumb-of-death far away from it. The tomatoes, eggplant and cantaloupe aren’t quite ready yet, but we have jalapenos and cucumbers coming out of our ears. After five more jars of jalapeno jelly, I tried my hand at sweet pickles:

    That was certainly an adventure, because as a pickling virgin, I was unprepared for the otherwise predictable fact that cucumbers float. How in the heck do people keep them from popping above the rim and contaminating the lip of the jar before they can get the lid on? Am I missing something here? Anyway, these jars will have to cure about four to six weeks before I can taste- test them to see whether my first foray into pickles was epic success or depressing failure. As a relative canning newbie, the odds are split pretty evenly between these possibilities. Meanwhile during my canning sprint, the heathens goofed off, as they are wont to do:

    Yes, that was my child wearing gloves, when the temperature outside was roughly 98 degrees. Furthermore, you should note that he cut all the fingers of said gloves off, which apparently occurred WITH MY HUSBAND’S BLESSING. My oldest has since been notified that he should run all scissor-generated wardrobe modifications by ME, before undertaking them…sigh. His brother managed to contain his amusement:

    Probably because he was thinking, “better you than me!”

    We watched a rare late afternoon storm from the shelter of our front porch:

    And then headed inside for dinner.

    Perhaps the best part of the day was my surprisingly successful bread experiment. In last month’s Food Network Magazine, I saw a recipe for something similar to Macaroni Grill’s bread. Since my youngest heathen loves this bread and can eat his weight in it, I decided this copycat recipe was worth a try. After all, I was in the need for some cool mom points to start my week off right. I mixed up the dough in my stand mixer, and let it rise in our laundry room, since the heat in humidity in that room cuts our rising time in half:

    Forming the loaves was easy, because this dough was very forgiving and not at all sticky:

    The finished product was perfect:

    So, yes, I did in fact rack up some cool mom credit. The only way I deviated from the recipe was by omitting the additional sprinkling of rosemary over the top of the loaves. Rosemary is a strong enough herb in this recipe that the flavor already comes through well enough, and the additional rosemary garnish probably would have freaked the heathens out anyway. Want to try it? Here’s the recipe I found at Food Network:

    Almost Famous Rosemary Bread

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    Ingredients

    • 1 1/4-ounce packet active dry yeast
    • 2 teaspoons sugar
    • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and serving
    • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
    • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
    • 1 teaspoon fine salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt Freshly ground pepper

    Directions

    Stir the yeast, sugar and 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl (or in the bowl of a stand mixer). Let sit until foamy, about 5 minutes.

    Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons rosemary, the fine salt and 3/4 cup warm water; stir with a wooden spoon (or with the dough hook if using a mixer) until a dough forms.

    Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting lightly with flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (Or knead with the dough hook on medium-high speed, adding a little flour if the dough sticks to the bowl, about 8 minutes.)

    Brush a large bowl with olive oil. Add the dough, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature until more than doubled, about 2 hours.

    Brush 2 baking sheets with olive oil. Generously flour a work surface; turn the dough out onto the flour and divide into 4 pieces. Working with one piece at a time, sprinkle some flour on the dough, then fold the top and bottom portions into the middle. Fold in the sides to make a free-form square. Use a spatula to turn the dough over, then tuck the corners under to form a ball. Place seam-side down on a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough, putting 2 balls on each baking sheet. Let stand, uncovered, until more than doubled, about 2 hours.

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake the loaves 10 minutes; brush with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with the kosher salt and the remaining 1/2 tablespoon rosemary. Continue baking until golden brown, about 10 more minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Serve with olive oil seasoned with pepper.

    Garden Observations In Lieu of Housework

    Despite the fact that I know the misery of a Louisiana summer is just around the corner, I can’t help but revel in the perfect Spring weather. As you can see, the hydrangeas are blooming, which happens to be my favorite flower. I plan to grab some shears tomorrow and clip some flowers to put around the house. Even though my housework is sadly neglected in recent days, I grabbed the camera after work, and spent an hour snapping pictures and watching the guys play catch. After all, who needs clean underwear anyway?

    Our vegetable garden appears to be thriving, probably because I keep my green-thumb-of-death far, far away. I call it an altruistic act of garden preservation…my husband calls it flat-out laziness. Who cares, as long as it lives?

    We still have plenty of work and tinkering to do around the yard, but I managed to solicit (read: draft) some volunteers. I may or may not have said, “come on, put your back into it,” in the seconds before this photo was taken.

    Just kidding! He WANTED to play with the shovel…really!

    If you’ll excuse me, I have a bathroom to clean…

    Send wine, STAT!