My Tomato Cheers and Jeers of 2013

Eating the last garden-fresh tomato is bittersweet. It’s sad because it’s the last tomato. I eat it slowly and savor ever single bite. I use it sparingly and thank the heavens my boyfriend hates tomatoes. Eating the last tomato is also a happy time because I know I’m one moment closer to the new season and will get to do it all over again soon. I fantasize about what seeds I’ll start and reflect on the season’s tomato successes and failures. Here’s a summary of my tomato-related pain and joy of 2013:

Miserable Failures:

  • Moving a five foot Thai Pink Egg plant that was doing fantastically into a place where it would get more sun is a terrible decision. Dragging a perfectly happy plant to a new location is stupid. The plant was miserable, it turned a sickly yellow-brown and then proceeded to die.
  • Hot and cold and hot and cold and so on…. Plants hate this, but it’s out of our control. Things died.
  • Too much rain and humidity leads to mildew and oodles of aphids.

Successes:

Thai Pink Egg tomatoes proliferated…

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Chadwick Cherry tomatoes were super hearty…

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Healani plants, although difficult and fickle, provided me with quite a few delicious tomatoes…

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Overall, I can’t really complain. Gardening is a series of events, both wonderful and tragic, which lead to a greater understanding of our environment and how we can live in harmony with it. Gardening organically is challenging; I won’t say it’s not. But it’s worth it, both for our planet and our health. And, besides, it’s a blast, and I can’t think of any better excuse to play in the dirt.

Happy gardening, my friends.

 

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Florida Fall Gardening: Starting Lettuce and Brassica Seeds Indoors

I’m quite fond of starting seeds indoors. Why? Because it’s easier. And because I have a small garden and can’t afford to waste precious space on things that might not even germinate. In the past, I’ve started all of my heirloom tomatoes and peppers indoors, then hardened them off appropriately before sending them out into the cruel, cruel world. This time, however, I’m trying something new. About 10 days ago, I sewed seeds for major hybrid broccoli, lime green brocoverde cauliflower, sweet Valentine romaine, and black seeded Simpson leaf lettuce.

I placed good quality organic seed starting mix in each compartment, and, initially, I thought I’d just put one seed in each compartment. Then I added a few more thinking I could tip the scale in my favor. I didn’t go overboard, though…I think. I labeled each row, watered gently with a spray bottle, and placed them in my sunroom. It’s the most humid and warm area of the house. I watered only when the mix felt dry-ish because seeds hate too much water.

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In about a week, this is what sprouted:

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There was a good show from the broccoli and cauliflower, but less from the lettuces. I wonder if I should have used a humidity dome. I wonder if the seeds from the black seeded Simpson lettuce were too old  (they were six months from expiring) as only one reared its cute little head. I wonder if the seeds are too finicky for the potting mix I used. I wonder if I could learn to communicate with seeds. (You think I’m kidding…)

I’d like to increase the seed germination rate next time. Thoughts? Advice? Words of wisdom?  I’m calling out to you, the big, beautiful blogosphere, for help.

Love and happy gardening,

Jenna

Easy, Breezy, Eggplant Parmesan Casserole

I do this thing where I go to the farmer’s market, buy the most perfect, tender organic eggplant, and then they go bad and end up in my compost bin before I get to use them. Well, not this time, my friends. Oh no. I present to you the whole reason I buy these babies: Eggplant Parmesan Casserole.

I’m almost ashamed to show how easy this is. Seriously, it’s a piece of pie (pumpkin, of course)! And one of the greatest things about this recipe is you can make it with just about any amount of eggplant, sauce, or cheese you have on hand. It’s very forgiving.

Regardless, there are some ingredients you’ll need:

  • Fresh, firm organic eggplants (I used white, but you could go with any you like)
  • Bread crumbs (seasoned with granulated garlic, salt, and pepper)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • All-purpose flour
  • Your favorite organic tomato sauce (marinara, pomodoro, or whatever you like)
  • Mozzarella or provolone cheese
  • Fresh grated parmesan cheese

First things first, get your breading station ready. In three different bowls, put the beaten egg, about a cup of flour, and a cup of seasoned bread crumbs.

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Preheat your oil to 375 degrees in a heavy skillet or pot. Fill the vessel just a couple of inches; it’ll be more than enough.

Next, slice your eggplant in nice, even slices. I used six small eggplants for this because my boyfriend is crazy and doesn’t like eggplant. It’s an offense punishable by breaking up. (Kidding…or am I?)

Some people like to salt them and let them drain for few minutes to draw out the bitterness, but the white ones are so sweet. I  honestly don’t even do this with the purple ones. I just skip it altogether. They’ll start browning a smidge, but it’s OK; they’ll be fine. The taste isn’t affected whatsoever.

To fry the eggplant, dredge first in flour (shake off excess), next dip in the egg, and coat in bread crumbs. This is sort of messy, I admit, but it’s well worth it. One by one, place in the oil. Do this in small batches as to not bring down the temperature of the oil by overcrowding. You want things to get nicely browned and crispy. And, for the love of all that’s good, don’t put the eggplant on paper towels to drain. Use a wire cooling rack to allow the oil to drip down. Paper towels only make things soggy. That’s not good eats. (Alton Brown’s so smart.)

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Then, in your favorite casserole dish, start layering. Think lasagna. I place a layer of fried and drained eggplant, some sauce (by the way, here is the link for my favorite sauce recipe), some grated parmesan, some shredded mozzarella, and repeat until you’re all out of ingredients. Make sure, though, whatever you do to top with sauce and cheese. Because, let’s face it, that bubbly layer of cheese is why you’re all here.

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Bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes or until the top is all brown, bubbly, and perfect.

Let cool for a few minutes (resist the urge to pick all the cheese off the top), slice, and eat. Finally, thank God for creating the eggplant.

Happy eating, everyone!

Oh, by the way, sorry about not having a final photo. Melted cheese is my siren song, and I forgot. I’m so weak.

Protein-Rich and Veggie Laden Breakfast Quesadillas

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There’s nothing that I can’t and won’t slap between two tortilla shells, and breakfast is certainly no exception. This morning I got a little crazy with some local eggs, purple bell peppers, red onion, yellow extra sharp Vermont cheddar, yellow sharp cheddar, and chicken apple sausage. To channel my inner Guy Fieri, I bought a one way ticket to Flavortown.

NOTE: If you’re vegetarian, gluten-free, or dairy-free, I’ll give some ways for you to adapt this to your dietary needs at the end of the post. 🙂

First thing’s first. Sautee the peppers and onions in a bit of canola oil until they’re translucent. Medium heat for 3-4 minutes should do the trick. Transfer to a plate.

Next soft scramble some eggs. To do this, beat them with a bit of milk and, using the same pan the veggies were in, add a smidge of butter, let it melt, and add the egg mixture. Moving them around the pan every 30 seconds or so, just cook them until they’re barely done. Runny is good. Salt and pepper them while they’re cooking. Transfer them to the same plate the veggies are on. Make neat little piles of your cooked goodies.

Finally, slice and sauté the chicken sausage. I really like the depth of flavor that comes with caramelization. This is a crucial step. As with the ingredients before, add these to the plate of goodies.

Now wipe out your pan. Add a bit more butter, and place one tortilla in the pan. Make sure the heat is on low-medium. Layer by layer, add some cheese, egg, veggies, chicken sausage, and more cheese.

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Cover with the other tortilla. Wait about two minutes, and check the underneath. It should be nice and golden brown. If so, carefully flip it over.

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Cook for another two minutes, transfer to a plate, and cut into triangles. I use a pizza wheel for this.

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Now all that’s left to do is grab your favorite hot sauce and chow down. Happy eating, everyone!

And, as promised, here’s some substitutions or omissions for my friends with dietary needs:

  • For my vegetarian friends, just leave out the chicken sausage or sub your favorite veggie one. Veggie bacon would also be yummy.
  • For my gluten-free friends, just swap corn tortillas for the flour ones. Also, the Al Fresco apple maple sausages are gluten-free, so you’re fine with those.
  • For my dairy-free friends, just use Daiya cheese, omit the milk in the eggs, and use Earth Balance spread instead of butter.

Waste Not, Want Not: Making Organic Chicken Stock

One of the best reasons for roasting a whole chicken is the carcass. Why, you ask? Well, homemade, honest-to-goodness, gluten-free, organic chicken stock is the correct answer. So many recipes benefit from stock: from rice pilaf to gravy to soup, it’s a necessary and versatile flavor booster for your culinary repertoire. And there’s nearly no reason to purchase stock or broth when it’s a cinch to make at home. First, high-quality, organic products are expensive! Second, if you’re a foodie control freak like me, you can adjust it to your liking. Parsley here, garlic there, whatever you want; it’s all up to you. Third, see reasons one and two.

To make easy, breezy, organic chicken stock at home, you’ll need:

  • Carcass from 5-pound roasted organic chicken
  • 1-2 organic carrots
  • 1 organic onion
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-2 stalks of organic celery (optional)
  • Handful of fresh organic parsley (optional)

Put all ingredients in a large stock pot or dutch oven.

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Add enough water to cover.

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Bring the contents to a boil, give it a good stir, and then bring down to a simmer for 3-4 hours. The color will go from this:

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…to this:

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Once it’s done, strain it. I use a large colander over a huge glass bowl because I honestly don’t care that much if it’s got tiny bits of chicken or veg. Use a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth if you’e really concerned. Once it’s strained, this’ll be what you’re left with:

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Isn’t it beautiful? Portion it out in whatever size freezer-safe containers work best for you. I like to use a mixture of pint and quart sizes. Don’t forget to label them with the contents and the date!

This recipe makes about 4 quarts of organic chicken stock. By the way, if you were to purchase quantity in a grocery store, you’d pay about $15-$20! And all you did was use what remained from your delicious, wholesome, organic roasted chicken. (See the recipe here for my gluten-free Heavenly Roasted Chicken.) Doesn’t that make you happy?

So, everyone, I bid you happiness and good-for-you, frugal, wonderful, sensible cooking endeavors. Have a fantastic Friday night…and don’t throw away that carcass!

Starting Pepper Plants Indoors for Florida Fall Gardening

Florida gardening is unique. We don’t winter over, so pests run rampant for most of the year. Starting seeds outdoors for things like peppers and tomatoes have proved unsuccessful (for me, at least). So I’ve really taken to starting plants indoors to make sure I’m planting healthy, hardened off, and well-adjusted plants in my garden. I like to give them a lot of TLC as I give them a head start. Also, I don’t have a lot of space, so I’ve got little room for error.

About three weeks ago, I began the indoor seed-starting project. Using a clean and sterilized a clean egg carton, I put some Miracle Gro seed starting mix in each compartment. I sewed four heirloom non-GMO Jupiter pepper seeds from Southern a Exposure Seed Co., four heirloom non-GMO Doe Hill pepper seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Co., and four California Wonder pepper seeds from Ferry-Morse. I marked the varieties with used wine corks on a bamboo skewer, so I’d know what I had growing. Yay, upcycling!

Humidity is very beneficial for seed germination, so I used a tray with a humidity dome that I got from my local gardening supply store. I placed the egg carton inside, sprayed each compartment with water from a clean spray bottle, put on the humidity dome, and placed the whole shebang in a sunny indoor location. I checked them and watered them lightly each day. This was the first adorable sprout that came up after about a week:

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I removed the dome after mostly all of the seeds germinated and popped up their little green heads. Sunlight would be their ally at this point. This is them two weeks later on my windowsill:

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As you can see, not all of the seeds germinated. All of the California Wonder seeds came up, though. I really wonder why they’re so dependable (maybe I should be afraid to ask?). Here are photos of each seedling variety:

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I’ll be potting up each of the babies this weekend, and when they’re about 6-8 inches above the soil line, I’ll start hardening them off little by little to get them acclimated to the outdoors. I’ll be sure to post on their progress, and, please, wish me luck in the meantime!

Happy gardening, everyone!