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Rosemary Chicken Soup with Roasted Root Vegetables & Caramelized Onion.

It is spring, without a doubt, mostly comforting warm with a gentle light breeze. Blossoms have begun to dot the trees and bright green spears of bulbs have erupted all over the landscape. Soft yellow daffodils line the fence and the deep purple irises won’t be far behind.

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Inside all the seeds best started indoors have already grown, tiny green sprouts of various heights becoming larger every day and the already larger early spring veggies have been transplanted to the garden, first peas and spinach planted, carrots and radishes sewn.

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But in spite of all that tepid weather and new growth casting out of the winter season, the wet season has begun here on the plains and the cooler dreary drizzling days simply call for soup. Heavy winter soups won’t do in the early spring climate, but rather something lighter was called for and so this soup, a simple mashing together of other older recipes I’ve had for too long, a good use for available ingredients when a spring soup fix is needed.

ROSEMARY CHICKEN SOUP WITH ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES & CARAMELIZED ONION
This is a soup that is so simple it relies on having the freshest and best quality ingredients. Do not go cheap. With so few required ingredients, it is worth a slight splurge. The onions cook down to a delicate sweetness that absolutely dances with the brightness of the rosemary, coloring the broth to a rich savory caramel tone. And the potatoes, pre-roasting gives them firmness but once cooked in the soup they are absolutely buttery melt in your mouth delicious. Taste before seasoning with salt and pepper however, as spices can easily be overdone with this recipe.

spr11post¾ lb small heirloom potatoes
3 large carrots or 1/2lb baby carrots
1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cups roasted chicken, shredded
Coarse sea salt
1 tsp pepper
¾ tsp rosemary
2 tsp olive oil
6 cups chicken broth

Preheat the oven to 425. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise, then cut the pieces into halves or quarters depending on their size. On the prepared baking sheet, toss the potatoes olive oil and about a ½ tsp of salt. Roast for 10 minutes then stir. Continue to roast until tender, about 10 more minutes. Remove the potatoes and carrots from the oven and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut any larger pieces to bit size and slide the carrots.

Heat oil in 10 inch skillet over med high heat. Add the onions and cook until they begin to brown, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium. Cook until the onions are tender and caramelized, stirring occasionally. Remove the skillet from heat and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat broth, rosemary, and black pepper to a boil. Stir in the chicken, reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 or so minutes. Add the potatoes and carrots and allow to cook 5 minutes more. Stir in onions, flavor with additional salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

 

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Seed starting and the novice.

Outside the garden has been expanded by about twenty feet in two directions and the fence reset, the ground has been tilled, and the overgrowth project continues in the woods, clearing, cutting, and stacking. Spring bulbs and early blooming shrubs are beginning their show and the early cool season’s veggies are hardening off while inside the early and mid-summer season vegetables are sprouting in rapid succession. All the prep for the growing season is moving rapidly toward fruition.

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Inspired by all this new growth of early spring and the sight of tables full of seeds starting, a quick guide to seed starting rooted in experience seems in order. Starting your veggies indoors gives you not only the advantage of a stronger harvest by besting your local climate but also of not spending a ridiculous amount of money on transplants and giving you a seemingly endless variety from which to choose. Besides, the satisfaction of nurturing your plants from start to finish cannot be understated. But if you’ve ever failed with seeds you know exactly how frustrating the process can be at times, especially on your first try. While you will almost inevitably fail at some point with seeds no matter how experienced you become, here are five key pieces of advice from my experience starting seeds indoors:

Too much, too soon. It’s no secret I am a seed collector from way back and keep a staggering inventory of seed types. However, I also have a sizeable garden plot and I tend to gift plants during the spring. But for the first year (or year two do-over) space, experience, and time should be your very key words. No matter how ambitious you feel or how tempting all those pictures in the shiny seed catalogue are, I strongly suggest starting with at most 5-10 varieties based on time and space. Once you know what your schedule and planting area allow, decide what you want whether that is a basic selection or one geared more toward your personal cooking taste. Also consider your climate when choosing seed types. And most importantly the first year, you have no idea how time consuming nurturing young plants can be until you try it. Starting with a handful of plants allows you to gain that knowledge and in the future calculate how much more your schedule allows, rather than starting with an overabundance, burning out, killing if ever germinating dozens of seedlings, and throwing your hands up in failure. After the first year or two, when you’ve harnessed the basics of growth and tending and have a better idea what you do and don’t like gardening wise, start expanding.

It seems like a silly mistake, but be sure to individually label each of your seeds. Forgetting to or postponing labeling will inevitably lead to confusion.

It seems like a silly mistake, but be sure to individually label each of your seeds. Forgetting to or postponing labeling will inevitably lead to confusion.

Stress. Stress is a killer and plants are not exempted from that rule. Improper amounts of water, light, and warmth (see below) can create stress but two other common forms of stress are fertilizer burn and transplant shock. Seedlings will need fertilizing at least once before transplanting (3-4 weeks from after sprouting, typically) but even the most mature plant can fall victim to fertilizer burn, so fertilizer must be heavily diluted and applied carefully. A spray mister and water tray will be your best friends for both fertilizer application and watering your seedlings (details in the water section).

With regard to transplanting, I strongly suggest planting them in a single container until outdoor transplanting or trying homemade seed pods as described here which simplify the potting up process. Even then, reduce the process of potting up to only one step per day for the baby plant so that it need only recover from one stressor at a time. (Potting up is the process of taking your seedling from seed starting pods upward in pot size to account for its growth until it is time to plant outdoors. An excellent how to guide can be found here.) And when it comes time to transplant your pampered plant into the garden, you’re in for disaster if you skip hardening them off. It can be time consuming if you overdo from the outset with too many plants, but if you start low volume with just a few plants, it’s fairly simple. About a week or two before planting them out, when the days become warm enough, begin taking your baby plant outside. The first day only set them out for a few hours splitting the time between shade and sun, the second day set them out a couple of hours longer, still longer the next, and so on until it’s time to transplant. This allows them to acclimate from the cozy indoors to the more harsh environment outside preventing issues such as windburn, freeze, and sunburn. And also, when you do transplant, do not do so at the peak of day in the bright sunshine. Either choose an overcast day or plant when the sun is low and try not to disturb the rootball during the transplant.

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Light & Warmth. Don’t give into the temptation to use even the brightest window in your house as your light source. It not only likely won’t be enough light no matter how much sun it lets in, but the cold from outside will get through. Grow lights are available online or shop lamps are a handy option. They provide both light and heat and can be hung in such a way that they are easily adjusted upward as your young plant grows. From the very beginning, your light source should be directly above and two to three inches from your seedlings at all times. This provides for the straightest, strongest growth. By leaving the lights on 12-14 hours a day, you are both imitating summer sunshine and creating a significant difference in temperature even indoors when the lights are on and off (10-15 degrees typically) which helps prepare your seedling for the outdoors environment.
* Some less common species do not appreciate any swings in temperature as seedlings, an issue you should be aware of as you start expanding your seed selection. A few minutes of research will let you know if your new seed type falls into the latter category.

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The soil. Always, always use new soil with seeds. They are extra sensitive to bacteria so sterile soil is a must. You can make your own seed starting soil or purchase it from your local nursery, but it cannot be understated that it must be sterile. (Also be sure to sterilize the containers you plan to use with diluted vinegar if you aren’t using a biodegradable type.) If you’d done everything else correctly in the past but used old soil and had plants die on you or never germinate at all, that may likely have been the cause.

But by far the most common mistake with soil and planting seeds (both indoors and out) isn’t the soil itself, rather it is the planting depth. Simply put, plant a seed too deep and it will never emerge. Read the instructions for your particular seed and follow them to the letter. For example, even if you just planted one tomato type only seconds ago and are about to plant another, don’t assume they are the same. A cherry type tomato typical plants at a shallower depth than say a beefsteak. It may only be a ¼”, but a ¼” makes all the difference to a tiny seed trying to sprout. And if a seed needs light to germinate, it has to be surface sewn. Not covering a seed seems counterintuitive the first few times you do it, but for certain seeds the immediate light and warmth are musts for germination. Just pack the surface soil and gently press the seed into it, enough to give it good contact but without covering it.

Some seeds benefit from soaking before planting, but not all.

The water. Just like mature plants in the garden, your seeds live or die by water. A seed will rot in too much water and never sprout. Under water seedlings, they stress or dry out and die. Overwater them, they drown or develop fungus and die. Even moisture must be maintained throughout the process of starting seeds. The simplest way to do so before seeds emerge is to wrap their pots in plastic to seal in moisture and remove the plastic when they sprout. It will keep moisture even until the seedlings emerge. If you are using paper pots or otherwise logistically cannot wrap your plants, watering from the bottom prevents most overwatering issues by allowing the plant to soak up water through their pots. Simply set the pots in a plastic tray and fill the try to about ¼” of water. After about half an hour or when you notice surface moisture is beginning to appear, pour out any excess water from the tray. (Fertilizer is best applied in the same way diluted in the water.) A mister spray bottle to water from above will prevent both overwatering and soil surface disturbance. How often you water your seedlings will depend on the dryness of the indoor air.

Here’s to the best of luck with your gardening this year.

Simple Chicken Lo Mein

It is unusually warm the last week and the groundhog is calling for an early spring. With temperatures in the upper sixties and low seventies, I find myself more often outside, tilling, expanding the garden, finishing final pruning, prepping flowerbeds and dotting our acreage with wood stacks from the trees we are thinning. Sunsets are lengthening and twilight finds us on the porch relaxing, springtime breezes and summer afternoons coming so close we can taste them. Even my flowering quince has already begun to bloom. (Another snow won’t come as a surprise however. This is Oklahoma, after all.) But with all this unseasonable warmth, my cravings for soups and winter fare are tapered and for this week’s recipe the Chinese New Year is the inspiration.

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This simple version of chicken lo mein takes no time to throw together and has saved me an awful lot on take out over the years. Being where we are and delivery not being an option, it’s perfect when those cravings hit.

Happy lunar new year and may the year of the monkey be lucky for you.

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SIMPLE CHICKEN LO MEIN
3 tbsp hoisin sauce
¼ cup chicken broth
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame seed oil
1 tsp cornstarch

lm7post½ pound lo mein noodles
Olive oil
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
1 med onion, thinly sliced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
½ cup thin sliced carrots
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup sugar snap pea pods
1 15oz can baby corn, drained
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 lb skinless, boneless chicken, sliced bite size

In a small bowl, whisk together the first five ingredients and set aside. Cook the noodles according to package directions, drain, rinse and set aside. In a wok, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over med high heat and stir fry the ginger for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and stir fry for about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and carrots and stir fry 2 minutes more. Finally add the broccoli, sugar snap peas, baby corn, and water chestnuts and stir fry 2 more minutes then transfer the vegetables to a large bowl. Heat another tablespoon of olive oil and stir fry the sliced chicken until it is no longer pink, about 6-8 minutes. Add the noodles, sauce, and vegetables. Turn the heat down to medium and lightly toss the mixture until heated through, about 3 minutes.

Notes:
This recipe makes a lot, about 8 servings. Although the leftovers are tasty, I’d cut it in half if you don’t need a large amount.

If you can’t find lo mein noodles, angel hair pasta works in a pinch. It isn’t quite the same, but it’s good nonetheless.

Creamy Chicken Tortellini Soup

Last week in a hunger for savory warmth, I roasted a chicken, but knowing the snow was coming, I pulled the remaining meat and stored it for making what may just be the finest use of leftover roast (or rotisserie) chicken. Frequently in the summer with the leftovers of roast chicken a lighter version of this soup can be found in my kitchen, but waking to snow and freezing cold, the heartier, creamier version is called for.

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I woke in mood to do little but read, tend and create, and as these first weeks of the new year are thus far deeply productive, I caved to my relaxation whim. Aside from keeping a warm fire going in the stove and tending the already started early cool season vegetable seedlings now taking up better than a third of the dining room table, there was no real must in the air.

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And after some wandering in the cold quiet woods, a bit of reading and mild tending of business, I found myself in the kitchen to create. Outside the smell of crisp smoke tendriled down from the chimney, the fresh biting scent of snow hung from the branches and inside, the warm intoxicating aroma of chicken broth filled the air. There are few places as warm and comforting as a wintertime kitchen.

Hard-pressed to think of a better way to relax would be understating the situation and those are the days worth all the efforts between.

CREAMY CHICKEN TORTELLINI SOUP
Perfect served up with a nice crusty bread, this soup is simple, creamy, and delicious, a perfect use for left over roast chicken. It can be made with freshly cooked, shredded chicken just as easily.

ct4post4 carrots, sliced
2 leeks, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
Olive oil
8oz cheese tortellini
2 cups shredded roast or rotisserie chicken
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp dried thyme
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
Salt & Pepper
¼ cup butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sauté carrots, leeks, celery and onion until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté an additional minute. Pour in broth, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add tortellini and cook about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, over a med heat melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add flour whisking constantly for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and continuing to whisk constantly, slowly pour in the milk. Return to heat and pour in cream. Heat to a boil, whisking constantly to remove any lumps. Pour milk roux into soup and add chicken. Cook for 3-5 minutes more until tortellini and chicken are cooked through. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, remove bay leaves, and serve immediately. Approximately 6 servings.

New Year’s Day Soup

Every year, no matter the kind of year just closed, no matter the hopes or anxieties of the coming year, one thing stays the same. Well, to be more accurate, four things: pork, greens, cornbread, and black eyed peas.

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Today is vaguely unceremonious for all my excitement at ousting a tiresome year. All the seed cases have been sorted and a list of needed seeds and other garden accoutrement made for the coming season. The annual Twilight Zone marathon has droned on for more than a day. But more than anything, it is a quiet day, calm and tranquil.

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Rather than casting forward nets toward mighty goals as was my proclivity with yesterday’s goal noting endeavors, today is all about the quiet. After too many months trapped in a forward moving and somewhat productive but more so deeply stormy and saddening year, today is like the first break in the clouds. Our house feels restful thus wrapping up garden planning, idly prattling away in the kitchen, and reading up on new to me ideas in soil amending sound ideal.

Here is to a serene year filled to the brim with luck.

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NEW YEAR’S DAY SOUP

Wildly superstitious and too hillbilly blooded for my own good, I never miss a meal of greens, ham, black eyed peas, and cornbread for the first eats of each year. Whether or not you believe in the good luck mojo of these vittles, this soup is an amazing combination of all but the cornbread, which makes the perfect sopping companion for this meal. Over the last few years, I’ve honed this adaptation from Southern Living for those years when the first comes cold and soup in lieu of hog jowl speaks to my appetite.

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp bacon grease
6 green onions, sliced, green tips separated
2 cups diced cooked ham
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups black eyed peas, soaked in advance
1 bunch turnip, mustard or collard greens, stems removed, leaves shredded
2 cups water
bep5post4 cups chicken broth
1 tsp Tabasco
Salt & Pepper
2-3 tsp white wine vinegar

In a large pot, heat butter and bacon grease over medium low heat. Add ham, onion bulbs, and garlic. Cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes, just until fragrant and heated through. Add the water, broth, greens, Tabasco, black eyed peas, and a dash of salt to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20-25 minutes or until black eyed peas are tender. Remove from the heat and stir in a teaspoon of pepper, the vinegar, and green onion tops. Add additional Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with fresh cornbread.

Notes: While fresh black eyed peas are best, frozen work just as well. Avoid canned.

This soup keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days. Personally, I think it is even better the second day once the flavors have had all night to merge.

If your taste leans away from spicy, you might turn down the Tabasco or use Louisiana Hot Sauce for kick with less heat.

Gingered Shortbread Cookies

 In the early morning, long before dawn, the cold crept in and woke me. The fire was dying. A quick rekindling and coffee turned on, I took my first glance outside at the icy glaze glistening in the dark. The world had been coated overnight, the first ice storm of the season and winter hasn’t officially started yet.

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But Thanksgiving is over, the Christmas tree is up, and plans for hanging outdoor lights are being bantered about. It is that time of the year. And so, since this is the time when homemade sweets are ever at the ready for grazing, a simple cookie recipe. Because I love gingerbread and usually make it around Christmas (to be fair, in my world anything ginger is acceptable any time of the year) but this year I crave the soft sweetness of shortbread, a sort of combination of the two seemed in order. All the sweet sharpness of ginger pairs beautifully with the buttery softness of shortbread, making these cookies a simple go to recipe for company or yourself. Add a touch of white chocolate icing and be ready to enjoy these tiny delights with a warm cup of cocoa.

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GINGERED SHORTBREAD COOKIES

¾ cup softened butter, chopped
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1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp salt
4oz white chocolate

Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until combined. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and next three ingredients. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix into a dough. Refrigerate dough for half an hour. When dough is chilled, roll flat and using a cookie cutter cut out the cookies and lay them flat on the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes until lightly browned at the edges. Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, break the white chocolate into small pieces and place in a microwavable bowl. Microwave in 15 second increments, stirring between each until the chocolate has melted. Spread the icing on top of the cookies or dip them in the chocolate as preferred.

Notes:
These cookies are equally good without the icing. They could also be dusted lightly with icing sugar instead of chocolate for a truly delightful richness.

 

 

Winter Vegetable Salad

Love though I do Halloween, Thanksgiving is a very close second. Every year the pattern repeats: up pre-dawn, shower and coffee, begin the feast by 7am. Pies and goodies prepped the night before mingle with timeworn cookbooks and flying utensils while the Macy’s parade plays on tv. We’ll eat in the early afternoon, if nothing goes awry. The menu is planned well in advance, always essentially the same, with or without turkey (we’re a ham family) and with an occasional swapping of a side, albeit scalloped potatoes, deviled eggs, and dressing are absolute mainstays. Post feast come naps and decorating the Christmas tree to the tune of E’s excitement and George Bailey finding out it really is a wonderful life.

And while those traditions repeat annually, this year something new to celebrate our first Thanksgiving in our home. My poor little 50’s kitchen table I’ve had since college has sufficed as our dining table for a time now, but its scant four feet by just under three feet surface hardly cuts it especially for larger meals. Knowing we wanted something special, not just any store-bought premanufactured piece of furniture for our dining room, we opted to build our own table farmhouse style from these instructions.

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Perfect in its imperfections? Yes. Made from construction lumber, it was officially Josh’s second piece of furniture and he is no carpenter. Neither am I by any stretch. And neither are he and E furniture finishers, but I did my best to explain the how to’s and oversee as they helped me. In spite of our combined inexperience, it is perfect indeed in its imperfection.

And so our family gathered round a feast featuring both ham and turkey, because there is now room for both, and enough sides to choke a horse as the saying goes. And here for your family’s table is a bright and pretty winter salad, simple to make and featuring winter root vegetables played up by the delicious bittersweet bite of orange and cranberry. The flavors and ingredients are so well suited to the season and the salad itself is so pretty on the table, this recipe is ideal for Thanksgiving or Christmas feasts, but it is so delicious it pairs beautifully with any winter meal.

ts8postWINTER VEGETABLE SALAD
1 1/2lb carrots, halved lengthwise and cut into 2” pieces
4 large parsnips, peeled and sliced
4 large turnips, peeled and cubed
1 cup cranberries
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
2 cups arugula
2 cups chopped radicchio
Orange Vinaigrette

Preheat oven to 400. Toss vegetables in about three tablespoons olive oil and place in a single layer in a lightly greased jelly roll pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cranberries to the vegetable mix and bake another five minutes. Allow to cool completely, approximately 20 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together dressing. When cooled, place vegetables in a large bowl and drizzle with desired amount of dressing, toss to coat. Toss with arugula and radicchio and serve with any remaining dressing on the side.

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Orange Vinaigrette (Adapted from Southern Living)
1 tsp orange zest
Juice of one orange (Approx ¼ cup)
1 tbsp finely chopped shallot
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar ts6post
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp fresh cracked pepper
½ cup extra virgin olive oil

In a small jar or bowl with lid, combine all ingredients except the olive oil. Shake thoroughly to combine. Add the olive oil and shake again to combine.

Notes:
For a pretty presentation, the arugula and radicchio can be spread on a platter then topped with the veggie mix after tossing it with the dressing.

A mix of colors for the carrots makes for a gorgeous salad, but if you include purple carrots roast them separately from the other veggies so that their juice does not tint all the other veggies pink.

A few ounces of crumbled feta is a nice addition to this salad for those who enjoy cheese.