Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sweet Beets

In honor of the little beet seedlings emerging in my cool-weather crop bed, and to do justice to the gorgeous baby beets I came across at the farmer’s market, I prepared a huge tray of quartered, roasted beets.

The small red beets I used were only 79-cents per pound, so I picked up a bagload of them. The beets in my beds are largely golden beets, from a two-year-old seed packet I found while filing away this year’s lettuce seeds. I say “largely” golden because with those seeds, I came across a red beet seed packet from 2004. I threw a small row of them in the soil just to see if they’d come up. One has. But the golden beets are germinating at much better rate, as expected.

The following preparation makes beets that are great hot, cold or at room temperature – toss on a salad, or just sneak a few from the fridge the next day and snack away. And if your beets come with tops (mine didn’t), all the better. Prepare them as a side dish.

Up to 4 lbs small beets, your choice of variety
4-6 T. light, grassy olive oil or canola oil
2 T. Sherry vinegar
2 large garlic cloves, microplaned or finely minced
1-2 T. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 t. turbinado sugar
½ T. sea salt
fresh ground pepper, according to taste and to quantity of beets used

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Line a sheet pan or two with foil or parchment.
Scrub beets, trim off rough top end. Dry and set aside.
Combine marinade ingredients thoroughly in a large glass bowl.
Quarter your beets, or cut them into the size desired so they are uniform for cooking, placing them in the marinade bowl as you go.
Stir to coat thoroughly. Let them sit for at least five minutes to allow the color and juices bleed into the marinade, stirring occasionally.
Scatter on the pan(s), ensuring some space between.
Reserve the marinade. You’ll likely have somewhat more than when you started.
Roast for about 1 hour, agitating and turning the beets halfway through.

Taste your marinade and add more Sherry vinegar as desired (I usually do another tablespoon.)
Serve the beets drizzled with the marinade as a dressing. Adjust S & P as desired. Garnish with fresh chopped Italian parsley.
Toasted walnuts and crumbled goat cheese are also good on top, a classic (if not somewhat cliché) addition.
The beet marinade also makes a good salad dressing. Or carrot & celery stick dip.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grape Hyacinths

My grandmother came to visit this week, for the first time in a year.

Oh, she stops by from time to time, but I knew this visit was for a good, long spell: The wide, dramatic swath of grape hyacinths that carpet the slope of my front yard leading up to the door has burst into bloom.

And I know she’s proud to see them. Mom-mom gave the grape hyacinths to me the first autumn that my husband and I were in our house. She and I dug the dormant bulbs together from her back yard, the yard she’d cultivated since the 1930’s. I broke up the clumps and scattered the bulbs in a small, curvy trench, delighted upon their appearance the following spring, and have watched them multiply annually ever since.

I've been sharing plants with friends and family for only a short time in the grand scheme of things, but plan to continue for as long as I can. Friendship gardening is not only about amassing neat specimens. And it’s not just a frugal gardener’s best friend. Friendship gardening has made my house a home and will keep memories alive for years to come.

My older sister, Gloria, guided and gifted me through her five-acre woodland tract outside Amherst, Mass. Sherry from my Junior Women's Club gave me the Salvia "Caradonna" that blooms beneath my birdfeeder. My mother-in-law showed up with a clump of her Black-Eyed Susans one year, and they’ve provided an ever-growing month long blaze of fall color ever since. And Marena, a longtime family friend, gave me a cutting of ivy when we moved in - ivy that actually came from my childhood home, which my parents sold long before I had my own backyard to fill.

Even late in the growing season, my garden will be awash in color: flames of red sedum lining the rear bed of my back yard, a waterfall of white clematis cascading over a fence, and spires of blue monkshood reaching nearly six feet into the sky. And I didn’t buy a single one of them.

Friendship Gardens are about as old as sharing itself, and are created to reflect what friendship is all about: giving, caring, sharing, memories, sentiment and life.

While formal friendship gardens boast Old World origins - very old world, with some traced to ancient Japan - they didn't fully take hold in the New World until the early 20th Century, at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair. The International Friendship Gardens booth proved so popular that the Indiana-based organization has been going strong ever since: By the year 2000, its original single garden design had blossomed into a land plan that includes 25 gardens, ranging from ethnic gardens to an American Prairie garden to children’s gardens, all created with shared plants from around the nation and the world.

I also have a globe thistle, which wasn’t there when we bought the house, but arrived one way or another a few years ago. It is called Miss Willmot’s Ghost, with good reason: The globe thistle could easily be called the original friendship plant, since it had a "habit" of appearing everywhere Ellen Wilmott went. Legend has it that she carried thistle seeds with her wherever she went in jolly Olde England, scattering a few here and a few more there, informally starting friendship gardens along the way.

And that’s another charming aspect of friendship gardening. While formal or planned gardens would include full Latin names or labels for each specimen, home-grown friendship gardens traditionally do not. Plants tend to be called by the giver’s name: Helen’s Hosta, Sherry’s Salvia, Virginia’s Tulips, The Pascack Road House Ivy, Mom-Mom’s Rhubarb. If I ever move from this house, I’ll need to hire an additional truck just to carry plant divisions!

As far as plants go, I've given as good as I've gotten, from cheerful American Shasta Daisies that bloom all summer, to tasty divisions from my perennial herb garden to spice up the lives of friends and family throughout the year.

But some of my most valued specimens came from my grandmother, always the most hale and hearty do-it-yourself member of the family - she'd take any of us on, old or young! I can gaze out my kitchen window onto my backyard peppered with her perennials: a division of white peony that explodes into six-inch blooms in June, a dependable white astilbe that flowers even in the shade, a fall-blooming white clematis with delicate white flowers and a sweet vanilla scent that wafts throughout my garden when other plants are winding down for their long winter's rest.

Upon turning 90 in 2004, I noticed that she started gardening a little less with each passing year. Thinking back, that was the year that I stopped simply dabbling in the garden. The torch had been passed.

Her gift to me will always live on – and not just in my backyard. By the time she was two, my daughter, Annelise, Mom-Mom’s third great-grandchild, was toddling her way so enthusiastically through flowerbeds and our vegetable garden that I knew she would carry on the tradition. It’s a gift that I am proud to pass onto her, as Mom-Mom passed it onto me. We’re already planning to bring a cutting of “The Pascack Road Ivy,” some heirloom tomato seedlings Annelise started and a few eyes of “Mom-Mom’s white peony” to my younger sister’s housewarming party in May. Mom-Mom will always be with Joelle, too.

And I know Mom-Mom will always be with me, as grandmothers have that special way of somehow sitting on your shoulder and speaking to your heart wherever you may be.

Her pink peony blooms earlier than my others. Combined with the last of the tall, pink Elizabeth Arden tulips, “Virginia’s Tulips,” planted for Annelise the year she was born, the two create a lush backdrop and a colorful hint of the summer to come during family barbecues on Memorial Day.

When Annelise and I pick herbs to flavor a summer dinner, she can’t get enough of the fresh oregano, picking, sniffing and tasting cuttings from our thick, hardy bush – originally a small division from Mom-Mom.

For my daughter’s birthday parties in September, I create bouquets of Pee-Gee hydrangea blooms surrounded by tendrils of Mom-Mom’s white clematis.

When I returned from Mom-Mom’s funeral in April of the year she died, she was waiting for me at home: that huge swath of grape hyacinth began to bloom while we were away.

That’s when I cried, really cried, for the first time. A week later, when more had opened and the first mass of flowers were still going strong, that’s when I finally smiled again. Like some plants, relationships, too, can be wild, woolly and long-lived. They can make you laugh, sigh and cry, but they'll always make you marvel at their everlasting qualities. And no matter what the future brings, Mom-Mom will always live on in my own little River Edge garden, just as she does in my heart.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

My seedlings are fighting against all odds this year, both indoors and out.

Let’s start with the outdoor issues. Cold. Wet. Cloud coverage for weeks on end. Colder yet. Wetter yet. Interminable dampness ensues. My sad excuses for seedlings are largely in a holding pattern. And they’re all cool-weather crops! One bright spot is that four out of six cauliflower seeds sown are somewhat like actual plants. Finally, a ray of hope.

Let’s head indoors now. First, see damping off entry. Twelve of 18 celery root seedlings saved by repotting, with more seeds started in the hope getting an actual crop come fall.

Second, I have [or had, read on] no idea what in the heck has been happening to my tray of tomato varieties. They took seemingly forever to germinate, even keeping in mind my general zeal and ensuing impatience with every single seed. I can never wait to see that first little tooth poke through!

But once they did, the tops kept disappearing. Sometimes it was just one leaf of the original two. Sometimes the seedling mysteriously looked like a withered sprout. Once, a seedling was pulled from the root fully in tact and laid across its peat pellet. It’s a tray with a clear cover that’s pretty much on all the time until germination and a small measure of growth occur. I spent close to two weeks replacing lost seedlings with new seeds. I thought they were safe and secure, but apparently I was mistaken.

One morning, I saw my cat Maisy, a 7-lb ball of fluff and puff, nosing around the tray. Using one claw, she proceeded to pick at and lift the clear cover out of the tiered rim of the tray base. Then, selecting just the right tomato sprout, nipped off the leaves.

“Maisy! Pssst! What are you doing?!!?? Pssst! Get away from there!!”

She turns to me, pricks up her ears, and chirps “Bprrrrt!” as if to say, “Mommy, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” All the while, a tiny tomato leaf is hanging from her fang.

That problem was solved with a wide rubber band around the tray and a small, but heavy, silver dish laid on top to further prevent that lid (and my lid) from being flipped. It worked. Most developed their second set of leaves.

Then, suddenly, half my sprouts were snapped and bent over. Why? I got a clue this weekend when Daisy, Maisy’s sister, was standing on the tray cover, collapsing the top and crushing whatever was under her rear paws. She was hunched on her stalking haunches, chattering out the window to a squirrel who, one, didn’t give a darn and two, cackled back at the cat, taunting and basically driving Daisy crazy. And me too.

It’s like Lord of the Flies in my house, and the seedlings are Piggy.

May is six days away. Planting out is less than 20. And I am, yet again, starting from scratch on my heirlooms.

Oh, and PS: The cat burglar has since clipped three of my “saved” celery root plants. I’m now down to nine.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Damping Off

My celery root seedlings are damping off.

Or, in the least, they’re falling over at a thin point in the root. I’m hoping that potting them in seed cells filled with a soil-less mix will improve their condition.

Damping off is a fungal condition that thrives with too much moisture and too little air circulation. I learned about this very early on in my seedling forays, years ago before my daughter was born. I started seeds in an inappropriate medium: pots and yogurt cups filled with heavy black dirt taken from a bag of topsoil we purchased to fill in some deep divots to the lawn. One day, my tomatoes were three inches high. The next morning, all had fallen over at a rotted point in their severed stems. Hey, I didn’t know!

To be honest, I don’t think my celery root, or celeriac, is truly damping off. At least I hope not. The root structure they develop early on is not like a tomato seedling’s, whose fingers and hairs weave their way through the growing medium. This root vegetable just goes straight down with one thin thread to start, kind of like a carrot. Considered a “challenge to grow,” celeriac also has a long (120-day) growing season. I’m hoping I don’t lose them. If I had to start new seeds at this point in time, there’s a big chance a frost would kill them outside before the crispy, knobby roots are ready to harvest. I’m hoping a deeper planting for support and more light to reduce “stretching” are what my 18 little seedlings need.

I pray that’s all they’ll need … When I came home from work today to take care of transplantation, the peat was very, very wet. I am thinking a little pair of overeager hands has been overwatering. Let us pray.

I also purchased the $3.49 bag of soil-less mix for transplanting any and all seedlings that outgrow their peat pellets. My seed cells are free, left over from last year’s annuals and the flat of purple pansies my mother bought to brighten up her porches this spring.

So, let’s add $3.73, tax included, to the Eco-nomics running total:

Past total of Seeds,
Peat Pellets, other: $40.60
Soilless Mix $ 3.73
Total: $44.33

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Queen of Royal Icing

Once again, I am one step closer to being crowned the Queen of Royal Icing. My daughter and I created a menagerie of chicks, lambs, rabbits and ducks in a grass-filled Easter basket, with spring tulips rising in the background and colorful eggs scattered around the grass.

These are the kinds of cookies that the kids love, but the mothers hate you for making. I do them with relish for the former and with wicked pleasure for the latter. And this Easter was no different.

While my daughter and I put together quite a batch for her pre-school class for Valentine’s Day – all manner, colors and sizes of hearts, plus X and O letters, and Hello Kitty faces – I thoroughly enjoyed making an Easter Basket with the cookies on sticks. The colors are soft, the shapes are charming and the chicks on sticks always crack me up. I'm not sure why! Our menagerie in Easter grass thrilled one and all at her school.

Working alone, I can usually do this relatively neatly with near picture perfect results. Working together, my daughter and I made a huge mess, used seemingly every shallow bowl and saucer in the kitchen, scattered non-pariels and sent dragées plinking and rolling into kitchen crevices that I never knew existed and ended up with dried royal icing spackling utensils, pastry tips and twist-ties to the countertop.

In other words, we had a ball.


1C Unsalted butter
1C Sugar
1 Lge egg
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp Baking Powder
½ tsp salt
3 C Flour

Blend ingredients from top to bottom as you would for cookies. Separate and flatten into two disks and chill. Roll and cut. Bake @ 350 for 8-12 minutes, depending on your cookie cutter size.

These are not my favorite cookies for taste, but the dough really holds the cookie shapes while baking – very little spreading or puffing if at all. You may also make chocolate cookies with the same good baking results by swapping ½ cup cocoa powder for ½ cup of the flour. I tend to make at least half the batch chocolate at Halloween for black cats and bats. Also, if you do them on sticks, soak the skewers in water for at least 20 minutes to prevent scorching. Insert carefully and bake as directed.


3 Tbs meringue powder
4 C Confectioners sugar
[up to] 6 T H2O

Blend 6-8 minutes using a standing mixer; longer with a hand held.

Divide the white icing according to the number of colors you’ll be using. Spoon icing into piping bags fitted with your needed tips for outlining, leaves, stripes, flowers, etc.

**While working, cover the bowl with a damp paper towel.

For outlined cookies, use “pipe and fill.” Using a #2 tip, pipe a color around the edge(s) of your cookies. Fill in with thinned icing of a different color.

You can use the “thin and dip” technique by spooning the needed amount of icing into a shallow dish or saucer, then stirring in a few drops of water to reach the desired consistency. It takes some practice – the icing can’t be too thin. There’s a fine line.

Alternatively, add a scant few drops for what I call “dip and spread.” Using thicker icing, dip the cookies face down then spread the icing to the edges using an offset spatula or even a butter knife.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cannoli 18 Ways

I came into cannoli shells last week, both small and large, at 25 cents and 50 cents per box, respectively. There’s nothing wrong with them, the boxes aren’t dinged, nor are they even near their expiration date(s). I suppose the store was just clearing out stock of an item they may no longer carry. So did I ever stock up! Over the summer, I plan to dip some shells in chocolate and fill them with ice cream or sorbet.

But for now, I had ricotta on hand from last week, so cannoli was naturally our Sunday baking project. This recipe will fill a heckuvalot of mini shells, which is good because I have a heckuvalot on hand. This recipe can easily be halved, or doubled if you are baking for an army. And hey, I’m Italian, so I always make enough for an army anyway.

1 pound ricotta cheese, drained (about 2 cups)
Up to 1 cup confectioner’s sugar (I use a generous half; we don’t like them overly sweet)
The scraped contents of half a vanilla bean
Good pinch of fresh orange zest

Blend together all ingredients very thoroughly but gently. Add ingredients (see below) according to your tastes or needs. Spoon into a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip and chill, or chill in the bowl.

Spoon or pipe into prepared shells. I used a large, star tip [6B] on these. As usual, it was nearly impossible to pry it from my daughter’s little hands. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers.

I like freshly made cannoli, so try to pipe filling into only what you’ll need. The filling will keep for up to a week in the pastry bag for future and/or other use.

Divide the filling in half or thirds if you want more than one kind on your dessert tray, or if you simply want to try some variations:

Chocolate chips. Tiny, mini-chips folded into the filling are pretty traditional, then sprinkled on the ends of the filled cannoli. I like to use good quality bittersweet chocolate shavings instead, and usually have a bar on hand. The shavings melt in your mouth.

Citron. My daughter likes this stuff, so I chop it fine and fold it through the filling. I’ll mainly do this during the holidays, when I tend to have those gelled cubes of red, yellow and green-dyed peels.

Orange Zest. You can go heavy on it if you like, keeping in mind that a little does go a long way. Mine this time were quite orangey, a nice surprise and refreshing variation on what can be overly sweet when store-bought.

Lemon Zest. Ditto. You can also add a tiny drop of yellow coloring to help identify the lemon cannoli in the bunch – a pretty touch for Easter.

Nutmeg. Blend a generous pinch of nutmeg and omit the citrus. Nutmeg and Italian just go together, sweet or savory.

Cocoa. Blend unsweetened cocoa powder into the filling for chocolate cannoli filling. Dust with powdered sugar and cocoa powder once filled.

Almonds. Fold in finely chopped, slivered toasted almonds and a touch of almond extract. Sprinkle with slivered almonds to garnish.

Pistachios. Ditto, and dye the filling green – a little dab’ll do you.

What to do with watery filling:

This happens. All is not lost. This is a happy mistake and an opportunity to experiment with a still-tasty filling, just one with a different consistency. Make any of the following and no one will suspect the cream was meant for any other use.

Make choux pastry puffs. Cut them in half, fill the bottom with your cannoli cream, top with a chocolate-coated upper half of the choux, then soak in a mixture of dark rum or amaretto and simple syrup.

Make mini-babas, cut them in half, fill with your cannoli cream, then drizzle the dark rum/simple syrup mixture over the entire batch for Babas au Rhum. Sprinkle with non-pariels. Replace the rum with straight limoncello taken right from the freezer, no simple syrup required. Garnish with powdered sugar and fresh mint – it’s summer on a plate.

I have a wonderful cake pan with an indentation that allows for a filling – I use it a lot in the summer when fruits are juicy and plentiful. Bake a basic sponge (3 eggs, ¾ cup sugar, cup flour), then soak the sponge in your choice of liqueur and simple syrup. Pour the cannoli cream into the well and top with chocolate curls. Or top with strawberries, amaretto-soaked apricots, toasted slivered almonds – your choice.

Slice and/or macerate summer fruit, layer one inch at the bottom of a champagne flute or parfait glass, top with a spoonful of your cannoli cream, and repeat until you reach the top of the glass. Try this with macerated strawberries and a drizzle of aged balsamic atop the dessert.

You could also try to recover the filling by placing it in a double-boiler, adding a tablespoon or two of cornstarch, and heating gently but thoroughly through, stirring occasionally with a spatula. It will still seem watery in the double boiler while warm, but let it cool a bit, spoon into your pastry bag with the tip covered, and refrigerate overnight. The filling should be more solid and ready to go in the morning.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

64 Cents

It happens every year.

The lure of the 5/$1 seed stand is just too powerful for me to resist. I picked up both red and green looseleaf curly lettuce plus a packet of chervil seeds. The lettuce seeds make sense on two fronts: except for my radicchio, I have very little salad represented so far in the garden. Second, the fast pace of germination will give me the instant gratification I need right now, since my sugar snap peas – two weeks in the ground – have barely poked through. I need a green fix, and I need it fast!

The chervil was an impulse buy. But in hindsight, a real find. The licorice flavor is a delicate delight. Fresh chervil leaves are perfect to toss into a summer salad of young greens, and excellent in compound butters and vinaigrettes.

The seed packet also reminded me of a dish I make of pan-roasted quail with a fruit glaze and fresh chervil. I haven’t made that in quite a while, but will be sure to when the chervil comes in. Cornish game hens are a suitable substitute for the quail, as I remember oven roasting and giving the hens the treatment for a party of eight, definitely less costly than purchasing 16 quail, but equally delicious. While the herb is used throughout classic French cuisine, you don’t see it too much in this country. The flavor is unexpected on the palate – a subtle surprise that keeps guests guessing.

I can’t wait to plant it.

So, let’s add $0.64, tax included, to the running total:

Eco-nomics Running Tally:

Seeds, Peat Pellets, other: $39.96
3 Packets: $ 0.64
Total: $40.60

And a note: When I filed away the seeds with the rest of my cold weather packets, I came across golden beet seeds from two years ago and red ones from 2004. I had totally forgotten about those! I direct-sowed both - "free" crops - although admittedly, I have lower hopes for the red beets. I sowed many more golden.