In my Missouri town my furry hat and leather gloves are needed when I get out and about this week. Winter’s chill is here to stay for a few months. It came before the winter solstice and Christmas this year. A fire in a wood stove or fireplace is welcomed, but the chillest of December days seem to warm up with good food, drink, and fellowship. Holiday celebrations are underway. The inner chef in me loves the holidays. With last week’s office party I made a traditional tiramisu to go with the Italian luncheon of pasta con broccoli and lettuce salad. For the extended family gathering last weekend, I prepared a 11-lb ham with a Bavarian-style glaze of brandy, brown sugar, and Dijon mustard with each family member pitching in with a homemade side dish or dessert. A cheese platter like this photo from Cabot will be designed for another celebration, with spirits served at each gathering. I want to connect with those I love, and those I need to love more … warming spirits and hearts. Tis the season, reason for the season. Hibernation will come later. Curling under a blanket with a book, writing, and dreaming. “Ham and green beans in my evening rice, with a glass of that good blackcherry wine on the side. Hibernation is a fine art!” ~David J. Beard.
I use my abundant, pungent arugula in my salads as well as egg, pasta, and rice dishes these days. A little goes a long way, so most of my culinary creations as of late include my fresh grown arugula. One important aspect to the culinary arts is that improvisation goes a long way. It is easier to substitute ingredients with cooking versus baking. I find arugula can be used in place of spinach in most dishes and salads. There is a taste difference with these 2 greens, but cooking properties similar. Arugula like spinach is a great source of vitamin A and C as well as potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Arugula grows much like spinach, spring and autumn sowing here in Missouri.
I love creamed spinach! The best I ever had is crafted by the executive chef Gerard Germain. I learned much from the culinary experts while working at Dierbergs School of Cooking. Chef Gerard dazzles his students’ appetites with Italian and French cuisines. A first generation French immigrant applies his old world culinary magic in the kitchen of a fine Italian establishment in St. Louis called Tony’s. The next best thing is spinach in a white sauce over pasta. So here is my attempt to a lighter version of Pasta alla Fiorentina … Pasta Arugula (or the Italians say rucola), but my recipe is American-style. I lessen the butter and use a little olive oil as a base for the slurry as well as use whole milk instead of cream or half & half. Of course, arugula goes in the recipe instead of spinach. Noted for the recipe this evening, I cooked too much whole-grain pasta for the amount of white sauce I made, and did not add enough arugula. Fresh arugula shrinks considerably while sauteed. Tonight I served the Pasta Arugula with locally-made chicken Italian sausage and crusty bread. I sipped a glass of lavender sparkling water, and Dean downed a domestic beer this rainy summer evening.
So what do lent, love, eagles, and presidents have in common? They share this 4-day weekend in February! And Dean and I shared these 4 days with my five grandchildren. The kids took turns with video games, movies, building with Lego blocks, and cooking in the kitchen. I prepared cheese tortellini with a garlicky white sauce for our first Lenten Friday dinner this season. Our parish hosted a 3-hour mini retreat on prayer Saturday morning. A much needed spiritual renewal for me. Saturday evening Hannah and I made chicken and dumplings which filled everyone’s belly and we had an extra portion for the “Souper Sunday” mission trip fundraiser. Overnight french toast and maple sausage welcomed our Sunday with Ella’s assistance. Church-bound this snowy, sleety Valentine’s Day. We are warmed by God’s love. Then gifts of hand-made palm crosses, sweetheart candies, flowers, and Italian cuisine fill this day of love. Red and white sauces, heart-shaped pasta, meatballs, cheesy baked bread, and pizza. The star chefs are my granddaughters, Hannah, Libby, and Ella.
On President’s Day Libby led her cousins in making chocolate pancakes. The Lincoln Museum is a bit far for us, so in the afternoon we took a drive north of our hometown to the Mississippi River scouting for bald eagles. We saw a bald eagle perched in a tall bare tree across the mighty river, as well as gulls and a blue heron. We meandered down the country highway to the Our Lady Of The Rivers shrine in Portage des Sioux. A few more eagles were seen high in the trees along the way. This warmer afternoon had the ice and snow melting to a slush. Perfect for snow balls! Not sure who threw the first one, but it became a free-for-all for a good 20 minutes under the Blessed Mary’s statue. Libby wondered what Mary must have thought. I think Mother Mary rather enjoyed seeing us all having fun this winter afternoon! A few wet shoes and stinging fingers, we warmed up with hot chocolate and marshmallows when we got home. A wonderful weekend to share with the younger generation.
My inner farmer tells me that an early frost will be here soon. Beware of the “f word”, Farmer Dave recently warns on his local radio talk show. Only 2 more days and it is offically autumn. Our bush beans have come to the end of their producing. We had some delicious green beans most of the summer months. The final harvest of our herbs will come this next week to 10 days. Last week we harvested buckets of basil, of which I made lemon-Tai pesto and Italian-Genovese pesto. The lemon-Tai pesto will compliment chicken breasts and rice for our Sunday dinner tomorrow. The Italian-Genovese pesto has made a pesto pasta as well as tangy pesto-mayo spread for turkey sandwiches this past week. I had given away basil for others to dabble with in their kitchens. Our summer savory, sage, and marjoram will hang to dry in the garage along side the dill we harvested a month ago. But before the final harvest, I will plant a pot of each herb for the kitchen window to use over the long winter months. Our tropical and house plants will come indoors to their winter home before Jack Frost has a chance to nip their leaves. This frost frenzy comes every year, but comes quickly even after a long summer when cooler air is welcomed. Grower beware.
“Herbs deserve to be used much more liberally,” quoting food writer and chef, Yotam Ottolenghi. I keep telling my friends, family, and co-workers the marvelous benefits of herbs. Bursting flavor and full of nutrition! I recently found this guide, the ANDI guide which rates foods based on nutrient density. My ravings on herbs are justified according to ANDI. ANDI stands for “Aggregate Nutrient Density Index,” a scoring system that rates foods on a scale from 1 to 1000 based on nutrient content. ANDI scores are calculated by evaluating an extensive range of micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidant capacities.
Here is a list of basic herbs and their scores to illustrate this concept.
Herbs/ ANDI Score
Bay Leaves/ 271
Basil rated the highest of all the herbs! Such an easy herb to grow in terra cotta pots in the kitchen window sill or in a sunny garden spot. Our bed of herbs in the screenhouse of our greenhouse include a few varieties of basil. Genovese, lemon, and Tai to name three. In the heat of the summer, it is prolific! Basil nutrients rate up there with arugula, leaf lettuce, and radishes. It’s about 50% the value of superfoods kale and garden cress, but 4 or 5 times more than soybeans or pinto beans. The Italian and Mediterranean cultures include basil in many of their recipes as well as Thai and Mexican cultures. Where I live and work in the St. Louis, Missouri region, there is an Italian restaurant or pizzeria on every corner of the block and in between. We love our pasta and pizza! My home kitchen has the flavors of Italy with my own fresh homegrown basil. Cost pennies to grow. Last night I made homemade pizza with a cup of fresh Genovese basil leaves cut into strips and atop tomato sauce, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, garlic and black olives. Sometimes its a veggie pizza, with chunky tomatoes, mushrooms, bell peppers, spinach, arugula, black olives, etc. You know, the plumposity of veggies in a single slice of pizza pie! Then there’s pesto! It’s flavor tastes how the word sounds when you say it. PEST-O! More flavors to discover in this nutrient dense herb … sweet, lemon, Tai, spicy, lime, Genovese, cinnamon, anise. Cannot wait to make some lemon scones with the lemon basil this weekend. What herb has captured your taste buds?
So other wintertime occupations have started indoors for me. Watching love birds sharing seeds with each other, along with the holiday movies and music specials, Scrabble games, and reading library books on snowy evenings are what I have in mind this week and the many others this long winter. And what about the wintertime foods and drinks? Well, that is all a part of it, too. Warming soups and pastas. Tea time every day at work. Tonight, Dean and I will indulge in some Bailey’s Irish creme while in front of the blazing fire of our kitchen fireplace. We will finish up the list of guests for the weddings next year. All three of Dean’s children are to be wedded in 2014! Maybe we will chat about our garden dreams for next year, as we cannot solve the cares of our jobs and of this world … “We have learned that more of the ‘earth-earthiness’ would solve our social problems, remove many ‘isms’ from our vocabulary, and purify our art. And so we often wish that those who interpret life for us by pen or brush would buy a trowel and pack of seeds.” ~ Ruth R. Blodgett.
Our dill is daintily charming, and so fragrant. Yesterday evening we harvest our 1st crop, and will put in a 2nd crop after the 4th of July holiday. Wild sunflowers and sprigs of dill fill a green vase today. Our chef son-in-law will use this 1st crop of dill to make pickles with his homegrown cucumbers. Maybe a jar or two of Hannahway Farm sun pickles are on our way?! The patriarch spice shoppe owner says in Europe dill is used in just about every dish. I love it with my baked fish and potato salad dishes. The 3rd crop of dill will go in early autumn, with plans to take as show-n-tell farm products to the City of St. Charles preschool classrooms Farmer Dean and I visit in November. Our 1st crop of basil screams pesto! Served with veggies, chicken, bread, and pasta, I cannot wait!
This week’s other farm chores include straightening and cleaning the screenhouse, putting extra pots and trays together in somewhat orderly fashion, and throwing broken items in the recycle pile. One recycled dresser is filled with “tea room” stuff, as well as a recycled tile-top table put aside for our meal and snack times. Another recycled dresser holds pots of blooming geraniums. We are making space in the screenhouse in case we need to move our plants to this cooler side of the greenhouse structure. Last year at this time the heat wave and drought was well underway in Missouri. The extreme heat required us to water two times a day, early morning and early evening. Our plants were housed under the shelter of shade trees in our yard while the greenhouse reconstruction plans were being modified until autumn when the heat subsided. The lack of rain has not been an issue this spring and early summer, thank you God! The growing gourd plants will go into the ground this weekend.
Growers, what are you harvesting now? What are you putting in for an autumn crop?
The tax year of 2012 Dean and I both did not claim one of our six children as a tax dependent. It has been years for either of us since this has occurred. They are all grown up! According to our accountant, our tax deductions came from our greenhouse business this year, not our children. We took a loss this tax year, as last year. Greenhouse rebuilds are costly and timely. An expensive hobby rather than a business, maybe? I’d rather be playing in the dirt and planting green things for my eye palette or taste palette than gambling at the casino, perusing the neighborhood bars, or loafing on the couch. We have a hefty tax return coming which will in turn be reinvested into Deanna Greens And Garden Art. Electric for our structure is around the corner, with propane and solar heat as the next big investments.
I never viewed our Deanna Greens And Garden Art plants as dependents, but that is what they are. And they depend on us to thrive in this world. Water, food, and light on a regular basis, and Mother Nature does her part. I am so anxious for the weather to warm up enough to get our plants under the shelter of our unheated greenhouse. The plant lights in the garages have done good, but the natural sunlight is what the plants need to get greener, fuller, and growing with such vigor. Rain water (or snow in our case!) catching in the rain barrels will provide more minerals for our plants. After a few weeks in the greenhouse, the plants will be moved to the screenhouse to avoid scorching this summer. That scenario seems so far away. We are still under normal temperatures for March. Come on Spring, we need you!
Planning out the growing and market season, Dean and I will have some annual flowers such as marigolds, zinnias, and wildflower mixes. Marigolds are a great natural insect repellant for your vegetable garden and patio area. Zinnias and wildflowers make beautiful summer bouquets. Organic herbs such as basil, thyme, sage, chives, and nastrium will be sold live in pots of various sizes. We will make some potted herb gardens. Garden spoon signs and homemade lavendar soap will be brought to the farmers’ markets. I will design some relic stepping stones and have them ready for market on Mother’s Day weekend. And then there are houseplants, with succulents as our specialty plant. Currently, we are in search for unique pots to divide and transplant our huge succulents into. We hope to plant some vegetables for our consumption. Any leftovers will be frozen or stored for next winter’s pastas, stews, and soups. The circle of life … Parents provide and care for, grown children provide and care for …
Tune in for local farmers’ market information in my next post or two.
A slow, quiet snow continues to fall this Lenten Friday morning. A hush only experienced just at sunrise and with snow cover. The songbirds will become active within the hour, feeding on sunflower nuts and seeds we have provided for them. Another inch of snow overnight, and a forecast saying the cloud cover will dissipate sometime this morning. It has been another week of snow, sleet, and ice, not quite the volume of last week, but winter all the same.
Lenten Fridays become a culinary holiday or tradition in my neck of the woods. Two or more dozen churches in the St. Louis area offer a Lenten fish fry. Even a Jewish community in St. Louis offers a “meatless” menu on the 6 weeks of Lenten Fridays, an opportunity for folks to gather during these last days of the winter season. These “fish fries” can include baked fish or steamed shrimp, a healthier alternative. Each year Dean & I peruse the newspaper and internet to find well-priced fish fries close to work or on the way home. The fundraiser efforts of our community churches can be expensive on our tight budget, so we gather 3 or 4 times during the season. Sometimes we get off on a Friday early enough, and make it to our home parish All Saints. We make sure we partake at the St. Peter Church in St. Charles on one of those Fridays. The wonderful portions of homemade slaw and desserts beat all the rest. St. Paul, Missouri has 2 places for a Friday evening destination, the local bar Dog Prairie as well as the local Catholic church serve up fried fish and shrimp. Albacore tuna on crackers works as well as a meatless pasta dish like my Pasta Primavera I wrote about in my previous blog. We will meet with my brother and sister-in-law next Friday, and the Friday after with Dean’s cousins. We people are like the birds who gather at the feeders and trays on these winter mornings. Chirp and chatter about the savory dishes we are partaking in, local happenings, upcoming trips, and the long winter.
According to my culinary book Food Lover’s Companion, primavera alla [pree-muh-VEHR-uhl] is the Italian phrase which means “spring style”. The Italian dish pasta primavera is an example of this culinary style. Fresh vegetables, are diced or julienne cut either raw, blanched, or lightly sauteed and added to al denta pasta tossed with olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano [pahr-muh-ZHAH-noh reh-zhee-AH-noh], Italy’s premier parmesan cheese. Well, this evening was my turn to cook dinner, as Chef Mick was off with his family with other dinner plans. I thought to make a fresh arugula pizza, but did not have any flour in the house. My low-gluten diet. One way or another I was using the organic baby arugula mix I bought at the store yesterday. Store-bought is not quite as tasteful as the home grown variety, but arugula’s destinctive flavor is what I craved, if you can tell by my previous blog. Spring fever has offically hit! I found a box of multi-grain penne, so I prepared them al dente. My kitchen’s vegetables on hand were lightly sauteed in 2 teaspoons of olive oil + 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil. So here are the ingredients found in Anna Marie’s Pasta Primavera made tonight:
2 Deanna Greens And Garden Art dried jalapeno peppers, hydrated and chopped finely
1/2 cup yellow squash chunks
1/2 cup zucchini squash chunks
3 large button mushrooms, chopped in chunks
1/4 cup fresh baby arugula leaves
1-1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/3 cup petite cut tomatoes
1/3 cup + shredded Italian cheese blend
10 oz penne pasta, cooked al dente, drained, coated with 1 teaspoon olive oil
Here are the recipe instructions:
1. Heat both oils in a medium skillet.
2. Add the finely chopped jalepeno peppers to the heated oil; saute for 30 seconds.
3. Add both squash and mushroom chunks to the skillet; saute 3 minutes.
4. Toss in arugula; stir to coat with oil.
5. Toss in basil, garlic powder, and salt; stir.
6. Stir in tomatoes and 1/3 cup cheese.
7. Toss saute vegetables with al dente pasta.
8. Pour into bowls; garnish with additional shredded cheese, if desired.
Sure savored every bite of this dish. Buonanotte!