gardening, herbal fare

Rosemary + Lemon =

I am always looking for new ways to use fresh herbs in my baking, but often think I have tried every flavor combination possible. And then along came…

Rosemary lemon bars.

I was intrigued. And rightly so. The rosemary gave an earthy depth to the citrus punch of lemon bars. I won’t bore you with a recipe, aside from this: Add one to two tablespoons of fresh minced rosemary to the dough portion of your favorite lemon bar recipe. Be sure to incorporate well so the oils from the rosemary infuse the dough.

lemon rosemary bar2

A few culinary tips for the day…

Adding fresh lemon zest is one of the quickest ways to up the citrus flavor in any recipe. Be sure to zest just the yellow portion of the lemon. Do not zest the bitter white portion.

lemon zesting2

What is the easiest way to mince fresh rosemary?

rosemary1

Take the rosemary section and lay it down on a cutting board. Hold in place.

rosemary2

Run your knife down the leaves, just offset from the branch.

rosemary3

Once the leaves are off the branch, you can mince as fine as you like.

All rosemary varieties are edible, though they do vary in flavor and in growth habits.

Some rosemary plants grow as stiff upright shrubs. (See photo below.) Their branches can be cut and used as kebob skewers to impart more rosemary flavor into meat or mushrooms.

upright rosemary in pot

Trailing rosemary (shown below) is lovely growing over the edge of a raised bed, retaining wall or container.

trailing rosemary in pot

Rosemary is winter hardy in North Texas. If you are “blessed” with heavy clay soil, as many of us are, it is best to amend your soil with compost and earthworm castings, as rosemary likes well drained soil. Rosemary can be planted year-round in zone 8a, though garden centers will have the best selection in spring and fall.

lemon rosemary bar1

 

 

bibliophile, gardening

Scattering abroad

Fall may still be a week away, but the many seeds about my garden have me thinking of autumn, harvest and the promises held within each seed.

“For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.” ~ Edwin Way Teale

red yucca seed pod

Red yucca (shown above as a dried seed pod and below as a green seed pod) has put on quite the show this year and, as always, was a hummingbird magnet.

red yucca seed pod2

“The milkweed pods are breaking, and the bits of silken down float off upon the autumn breeze across the meadows of brown.” ~ Cecil Cavedish, The Milkweed

 butterfly weed

Milkweed, shown above and below, is still flowering and just now starting to set seed. It will be another month or so before we see the mature pods split open and the silky down float upon the autumn breeze.

milkweed

“Flowers and fruit are only the beginning. In a seed lies the life and the future.” ~ Marion Zimmer Bradley

pom in fall

Pomegranate (above) has quickly become one of my favorite shrubs. In flower and in fruit at once, it offers many colors and shapes at one time!

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t have much to say about Emerson’s quote… Please excuse me while I grumble under my breath about picking up buckets and buckets of acorns to stop those thousand forests from sprouting within my garden. (I do love my oak trees. I just don’t love the potential forests contained within each acorn the squirrels bury and leave behind for me to deal with.)

acorns

“This very act of planting a seed in the earth has in it to me something beautiful. I always do it with a joy that is largely mixed with awe.” ~ Celia Thaxter

coneflower seed1

Looking at the seed heads of the native coneflower, one is able to see where its common name originates.

coneflower seed2

“If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?” ~ G.K. Chesterton

rose hip1.png

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” ~ Jim Bishop

Golden rose hips (above and below) from Thomas Affleck contain the rose’s many seeds.

rose hip2

“The seed cannot sprout upwards without simultaneously sending roots into the ground.” ~ Ancient Egyptian Proverb

(Bee balm seed head below)

bee balm seed

 

gardening

Organic lawn care 101

The PSA came across my garden newsfeed this week. Urgent! If you want a life without dandelions and henbit, NOW is the time to apply a pre-emergent!

As we walk through the neighborhood, we observe the lawns. Which ones often have the most weeds? The ones that are scalped in the spring, and regularly sprayed and fed with chemicals of all sorts. Pre-emergent. Weed killer. Chemical fertilizers.

Then we end our walk… looking at our own lawn, which has been organically maintained for 23 years now and is nearly weed-free. If I didn’t want to sound like an environmental zealot (which I don’t mind sounding like!), I would call our lawn “maintained the lazy way.” We have a long list of things we don’t do to our lawn.

We don’t scalp our lawn in the spring. (Cutting the grass too short allows more sun to hit the soil, drying it out faster, while also allowing weed seeds to germinate.)

We don’t bag our grass clippings. In fact, well, we don’t even have a typical lawn mower let alone a bag for it.

We don’t apply pre-emergents or weedkillers of any sort. The “weeds” we do fight are mostly self-inflicted weeds. Trumpet vine. Mexican petunia. I am not saying that we don’t get weeds. Yes, we do get weeds. But we chose to allow some  to grow (such as dandelions and henbit), as they are beneficial to the pollinators we depend upon. The few “weeds” we do get, we pull by hand.

A weed is a flower in the wrong place,
a flower is a weed in the right place… ~ Ian Emberson

Henbit, in particular, blooms in late winter and early spring when few other flowers are blooming. Dandelions – no matter how many wishes have been blown to the wind in our garden – have never reproduced to any point of being a nuisance.

Weeds can actually tell you a lot about your lawn. For example, clover in the lawn indicates low nitrogen levels. Sedge and bindweed generally grow in soils that are poorly drained, while dandelions grow in poor soil. Studying up on weeds can tell you a lot about your lawn and its needs.

A few lawn pointers:

Never mow lower than 2 1/2″ inches, while 3-4″ high is best. Mowing at least once a week during the spring disrupts weeds’ growing cycle, as the weeds never have time to set seed.

Leaving grass clippings on the lawn is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to add essential organic matter to your yard.

If you must apply a pre-emergent, consider using corn gluten meal, an organic method of controlling weed germination. (In full disclosure, I have never used corn gluten meal as weeds have never been an issue for us.)

sunflower3

Leave some leaf litter around the garden for lizards and bugs to hide out in through the winter. If you are lucky, you will also see birds, such as the brown thrasher, come in to thrash about, looking for food. (Above mentioned lizards and bugs. Such is the cycle of life)

“Darting about in the thickets,
His red-brown coat to veil,
Foraging there amongst dead leaves,
Thrashing his long brown tail.”
~ Alice E Ball

lawnmower1

We shocked the neighborhood when we moved in and proceeded to pull a brand new reel mower out of the garage. We had several neighbors come rushing over, offering us their gas powered lawn mowers “until we could afford a real lawn mower.” Cost wasn’t the reason we went with a reel mower. In fact, our reel mower, new, cost more than a basic (ie: cheap) lawn mower. We knew from experience that a reel mower did just as good of a job of maintaining a lawn, while also being environmentally friendly, quiet and low maintenance.

lawnmower2

There are two small downsides to the reel mower: Twigs will stop the blades immediately, so all lawn debris does need to be picked up first. (Which is advisable with all lawn mowers.) Deeper patches of grass (like after a rainy period) may need a few quick passes, in alternating directions, to be cut evenly.

Every few years, we take it into the shop and get the blades sharpened. (We could do that on our own, but prefer to hire it done.) That is the extent of its upkeep.

Flower beds prevail over lawn today, but our house – situated in a cul-de-sac – has a large yard, by suburban living standards.  When we first moved in, we had quite a bit of yard to mow, but it was never an issue to mow it with the reel mower.

We have now had said reel lawn mower for 23 years now and still love it as much today as we did when we first bought it.

vintage

A “ruff” photo shoot

It all started well enough…

A dried sunflower or three in an old enamel coffee pot…

But then… My Master wanted more green…

So she put the coffee pot and the sunflower or three on the lawn…

dried sunflower 1

Hm… My little curious nose said. Dried sunflowers?

dried sunflower 2

Dried? Sunflowers?

dried sunflower7

I mean. Who can resist dried sunflowers, right?

I know this little puppy can’t!

dried sunflower4

And. What is more important? A photo shoot of some old dried sunflowers in an old enamel coffee pot?

Or… My happiness?

dried sunflower6

Yup. My happiness won out.

dried sunflower 3

The End.

 

 

 

 

gardening

The summer flower that blooms and dies

“All your renown is like the summer flower that blooms and dies; because the sunny glow which brings it forth, soon slays with parching power.”
~ Alighieri Dante

Ah… Late August in Texas… Where even long-time Texas gardeners wonder if cooler days will ever come. The calendar may say fall is around the corner, but this heat says, “Not so quick, I am not done yet.”

This summer has been particularly hot. And dry. I won’t bother you with statistics (like how many days in a row it was 103 degrees and above…) but I will say this: This summer, in particular, I am thankful to each and every plant that not only decided to brave the Texas sun’s parching power, but did so with style and grace.

To the each and every survivor and thriver, I say Thank You.

Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

With bright red blooms that shine from late spring to first frost, Turk’s cap attracts hummingbirds aplenty. It is native to shady, wet areas of Texas, but can take sun and drier conditions if it receives irrigation during the most intense part of summer.

summer11

What started as one or two plants in my garden has happily spread the entire length of the driveway to take the place of the roses that once grew in this bed. Parts of this flower bed are shaded by a volunteer bur oak tree while others are in full Texas sun. All receive reflected heat off the driveway.

(As an aside, there is Full Sun, then there is Full Texas Sun. If a plant tag or garden source says the plant can take Full Sun, check and verify with a Texas source before believing. Because. There is Full Sun and Full Texas Sun and they are as different as New Jersey and Texas.)

Variegated ginger (below) receives dappled shade where it grows in a container alongside the driveway. While not hardy in my Zone 8a garden, I am willing to schlep it into my garage in the winter. It is important to remember that tropical foliage plants can offer summer interest when some plants may be dormant or uninteresting.

summer13

Dwarf pomegranate has quickly become one of my favorite post-rose-garden plants. Below, the pomegranate grows and blooms with Turk’s cap in my front flower garden. The glossy, deep green leaves hold up in the full sun.

summer7

The flowers and ornamental fruits (below) are a bright reddish-orange. (My new favorite garden color – also, in these post-rose-garden days.)

summer8

Rosemary.

So much to love and be thankful for! A great addition to the kitchen garden, an ever green shrub in the flower border, a tactile plant for the sensory garden… Here, the rosemary grows along the front sidewalk in full sun. Not quite its rocky Mediterranean habitat, but it is still a happy grower in Texas.

summer6

Another post-rose-garden plant for me: The newer Black Diamond Crepe Myrtle. I have three planted around the garden and all are settling in nicely and blooming well two years after being planted.

summer14

Blue plumbago (Plumbago auriculata

Plumbago is a tropical addition to my garden and has been blooming since early June. Its soft blue color is so welcoming.

summer9

This plant is several years old, as it was planted with another tropical and was brought inside for the winters. It grows fast enough and is readily available in the nursery trade, so that it can be treated as an annual. It is winter hardy in Zone 8b, so may survive outside in a mild winter in North Texas if planted on the southern side of the house. It grows 2-3 feet tall and wide, with a draping habit. It is beautiful cascading out of a container or over a raised bed.

summer10

Beautyberry. (Callicarpa americana)

The native shrub that lives up to its name.(Shown below)

Beauty. Berry.

It is a sprawling plant, growing 3-5 feet tall and wide. It is loaded with berries through the summer, which the birds will devour once they ripen. There is a white variety but I honestly can’t imagine growing it when one can have luscious purple berries in their garden.

summer15

Thyme (below) does equally well in a container as it does in the garden. I keep this one right outside my door so I can easily harvest for culinary use. (Don’t forget that  containers can offer a great splash of color year-round.)

summer3

Another herb – garlic chives, below. Half weed. But how you have to love something that comes into bloom when it is hotter than Hades outside.

summer17

These should be in full bloom within the next few days, making an important nectar source for sulfur and skipper butterflies. (Photo below from several years ago.) I do not care to use this variety for culinary uses, as onion chives have a milder – and more pleasant – taste.

butterfly

Passion vine (Passiflora)

This is another plant that thrives in our hot summers and is an important larval food source for Gulf Fritillaries. The holes in the leaves (below) are from the caterpillars. It is purely cosmetic damage and does not slow down or hinder its growth. (Ha. I don’t think a chemical bomb could slow down this vine. Plant with care.)

summer16

Autumn… It will come in its own time. Until then, Keep Calm and Garden On.

“There ought to be gardens for all the months in the year, in which, severally, things of beauty may be then in season.” ~ Sir Francis Bacon

 

 

 

 

 

herbal fare

Fig, pancetta and thyme pasta

This is a recreation of a lovely herbal fig pasta dish I enjoyed at a small Italian restaurant in Austin earlier this year. I cut the recipe (below) down to a single serving. It was a quick and delicious lunch.

figsscrabble

Fig, pancetta and thyme pasta

fig pasta

Pasta (16 ounces of your choice of pasta, I used gluten free fettuccine)

5 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 shallots, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup cream
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
12 figs, quartered
fresh thyme, removed from stems (about 2 teaspoons, or to taste)
sea salt and fresh black pepper

Cook pasta to package directions and keep warm.

Meanwhile, saute pancetta, shallots and garlic until pancetta is golden brown. Add figs and thyme and cook another minute or until figs are lightly cooked. Remove from pan.

In pan over medium heat, add cream, Parmesan cheese and cooked pasta. Stir constantly until cheese is melted, about two to three minutes. Stir in 3/4 to 1 cup broth until pasta sauce is creamy. Add fig and pancetta mixture and lightly toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Serves six.

Photo below: Leia perfects the photobomb

figs photobomb

gardening

Fig 101

If your only idea of a fig is a highly processed cookie with a sticky fig paste inside and a crumbly cake outside, you are in for a wonderful treat when you first taste a fresh fig. Better yet, taste one straight from the tree. Pure bliss.

Figs have been grown in Texas since the early Spanish settlers arrived and brought the trees with them. That variety was later named Mission fig, and it is still grown throughout the state today.

Celeste, the variety I grow, is reported to be the most cold tolerant fig. Indeed, I have not had any freeze damage in the many years I have had the tree. Brown Turkey and Texas Everbearing are two other fig varieties our local nurseries carry.  All varieties grow to about 15-20 feet tall and wide. Once established, they require very little care, aside from watering during dry periods and the occasional application of fertilizer. (Do not fertilize in the fall, however, as you do not want to push out tender new growth before winter.)

Figs require a sunny location for the best fruit production. In dry spells, irrigation is needed to get the fruit to harvest. They are not picky about soil type, though cannot take standing water. My fig tree is in heavy clay soil. I do amend my soil with loads of organic matter, like shredded leaves, compost, earthworm castings and such. This area of my garden, though, seems to resist my attempts to break up the clay. Thankfully, the fig doesn’t seem to mind.

fig tree outside windo

(Ignore the glass glare in the above photo, please. This photo was taken from inside our kitchen, right after we got new windows, removed icky old wallpaper and painted the kitchen a vibrant shade of green. I am excited I had the forethought to plant a beautiful tree outside this formerly awful window years ago, so now I may enjoy this view.)

The Celeste fig is small and ripens to a brown to purple color. The figs ripen over several weeks in mid-July, so not all are ready for harvest at once. (See photo below, with one ripe fig and two figs that needs about a week yet to grow and ripen.)

fig on tree

I use the scientific method to tell when it is time to harvest the figs. If I touch the fig and it falls off, into my hand, it is ready to pick. (Newton’s Law of Gravitation… See? Very scientific.) If it stays tight, I wait another day or two.

figs

Aren’t the leaves gorgeous? The fact that this wonderful shade tree also produces edible fruits is just a bonus.

fig leaf

(Technically, figs are not a fruit, rather they are a flower… Isn’t botany amazing?!)

herbal fare

Figs… Figs… Ice Cream…

Today is National Ice Cream Day.

With 100+ degree days forecast for the upcoming seven days, I think we should get at least a week to relish in ice cream guilt-free.

I have fond memories of attending ice cream socials at my late aunt and uncle’s rural Nebraska church, with many many hours spent beforehand, cranking the ice cream maker, churning batch after batch of homemade ice cream for the event. There is something so comforting and nostalgic about the old wooden ice cream maker, packed with ice and rock salt, the quintessential sight and sound of summer. I am sure my son won’t have such fond memories of his mom pulling out the Cuisinart ice cream maker, pouring in the ice cream mixture and flipping the switch to On. But there is something to be said for whipping up a quick batch of ice cream on a hot July afternoon… And I love the smaller size of the Cuisinart ice cream maker, as it allows me to experiment with flavor combinations.

(The Cuisinart ice cream maker insert needs to be chilled in the freezer the night before making ice cream. This recipe can be adjusted for other ice cream makers.)

fig ice cream take 2

Fig Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream

1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup fig pulp
1/4 cup chocolate chunks, chopped

Slice the figs and scoop the pulp out with a spoon. Mix together all of the ingredients, except the chocolate chunks. Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours. Prepare your ice cream maker and add the liquid mixture. Churn until it is mostly set. Add chocolate chunks and churn until combined. Once the mixture is frozen, transfer to a freezer-safe container. Cover and freeze for several hours before eating.

(I have Celeste figs in my garden… It took several dozen of the small figs to make one cup.)

 

herbal fare

The exquisite pleasure of figs

I live in a house of non-foodies. I shouldn’t complain too much. My husband and teenage son will both eat things like Brussels sprouts and endive. They both appreciate fresh well-prepared foods. My son will even eat salmon and sushi. (My husband never eats fish. Ever.)

But cheeses? Fuhgeddaboudit. Both hardly tolerate anything wilder than cheddar, Monterey Jack and Parmesan. Goat cheese? Blue cheese? Feta? Not going to happen. (In fact, the night I served them fried goat cheese with frisee will live on in infamy.)

Figs? Nope. Not going to happen either. Which is fine with me. The fig tree is mine. All Mine. I can pick and eat all the figs I want, give away what I know I can’t eat and let the birds have the rest.

“To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.”  ~ Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

Thankfully, fig trees grow and produce extremely well in North Texas, so we can have that touch of exquisite pleasure from the Mediterranean, too. Eating a fig fresh from the tree, like eating a tomato right off the stem, really is a gardener’s delight.

fig rocker

Since I am the only one in this household that eats figs, I look for recipes that I can easily make as an individual serving or freeze portions of individually. This fig tart recipe was easily quartered for the perfect lunch-size portion.

fig tart

Fig Tarts with Honey and Herbs
Makes four tarts

Dough:
1/4 cup corn meal
1 cup all purpose flour (I used gluten-free flour from King Arthur brand)
Pinch of sea salt
4 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 ounces cold cream cheese

Toppings:
24 small to medium figs
honey
1-2 ounces creamy goat cheese
fresh herbs, washed and chopped fine (I used a mixture of thyme and chives, but rosemary would also be nice)

In a food processor, mix together the corn meal, flour and salt. Add the butter and cream cheese and blend in the food processor until a ball of dough forms.

Separate the dough into four equal portions and place in refrigerator for about one hour. (Can be kept up to three days.)

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out each ball of dough until it is about 7 inches across. Transfer the crusts onto the baking sheets and fold up a small edge of dough.

To prepare figs, wash and trim stem end from figs. Slice fruit into quarters. Place figs onto the prepared crusts. Drizzle honey over the figs, then crumble on goat cheese, as desired. Sprinkle with fresh herbs.

Bake 25-30 minutes, rotating baking sheets half way through.

(Since I was making this for lunch, I added a bit of sauteed shallot and pancetta to the crust before topping with the figs.)

herbal fare

Blueberry-peach lavender crisp

While I have long cooked with herbs, I am relatively new to cooking with lavender. Not one to be easily intimidated in the kitchen, lavender intimidates me.

Remember this, more so with lavender than any other herb…
A little goes a long way.
More is not better. Ever.
When in doubt, error on the side of caution. (Add a bit at first, then taste and increase if desired.)

Blueberry-peach lavender crisp is one of the first lavender dishes I attempted. After all –  Fresh blueberries. Fresh peaches. Crispy topping. Not much can go wrong with that.

lavenderblueberrypeachcrisp

Blueberry-peach lavender crisp

For fruit:
4 cups fresh peaches, peeled and sliced
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon dried culinary lavender buds
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

For the topping:
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/3 packed brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup butter

Instructions:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
In a food processor, mix the lavender and sugar and pulse until lavender is infused in the sugar. In a bowl, mix together blueberries, peaches, sugar and cornstarch.
Pour fruit into an 8×8 baking pan.
Reusing same bowl from fruit, mix together oats, flour and brown sugar. Melt butter and add to the flour mixture and combine with a fork until mixture resembles coarse crumbles.
Spread topping mix over fruit.
Bake 25-30 minutes, or until top is lightly golden brown.

My recipe edits:
For the picture above, I had less peaches and more blueberries than called for, but used five cups total of fresh fruit. Also, the blueberries were farm fresh, very large and juicy. The fruit portion is bluer than it would be normally.
I use gluten-free flour and gluten-friendly oats in this recipe, in the same quantities.