Making progress in the garden

Mike and I spent most of the day Sunday working on the yard and trying to get our garden fully planted. Our tomato and pepper transplants arrived from Seed Savers, and after a little late freeze scare, we decided to get them in the ground.

I think this year will be our best garden yet. We’ve had three years to play with different setups and find out what works and doesn’t work here (and also what we will actually use). So this year’s garden will contain:

-Tomatoes (Amish paste, purple cherokee, brandywine and a cherry tomato variety)
-Peppers (red bell peppers than we can also pick green, small hot peppers)
-Beets (chiogga and yellow)
-Greens (spinach, two kinds of red lettuce, and a pretty green lettuce)

We’ve almost got a full salad already.

I’ve made the front porch a dedicated space for herbs in pots. So far I have sweet basil, Thai basil, thyme, and dill. I want to get oregano and cilantro, too.

We realized pretty quickly that we weren’t going to have room for everything in the backyard garden, so we picked a spot in our side flower garden to use for overflow. Last year we tried growing a watermelon there, but it didn’t work.

I still need to do some work on the side garden to make it look a little better. We have rose bushes, some perennial flowers that are just starting to bloom, and a bunch of bulbs that were there long before us. I just need to mulch around those plants and add the overflow vegetables there.

We also moved two hostas that were in a raised bed in the backyard to a shadier bed and covered them with black mulch. We’re going to use the sunnier spot that they used to be in for zucchini, which for some reason died last year.

To be honest, our yard is so overgrown in parts that it really needs a lot of landscaping help and tree removal to look truly great. But since we’re just renting, we are only going to do enough work to make it tolerable while we’re here, and to get the most out of our garden.

Thank goodness I have Mike to mow the lawn! (I really hate that part.)

There is one part of the yard that drives me absolutely crazy. In between our screened-in porch and the garage you can see an area (maybe 4 by 10 feet) that’s completely overgrown. I’m calling it the secret garden. We tried to cover it with river rocks a while back, but since we didn’t put plastic underneath, the weeds just grew through the rocks. I want to fix it, but it’s a lot of work I’m not looking forward to redoing. We’ll see how motivated I am…

I was going to show you more photos of our progress, but unfortunately it has been raining for three days and I haven’t gotten a chance to finish the side garden. We’re out of town this weekend so I won’t get to do it then either. I guess it will just have to wait for sunnier days!

Ah, spring

Little signs of spring are everywhere now, and despite all the itchy eyes and sneezing that comes along with fresh flowers, I’m so in love with this time of year.

The tree in our front yard is so pretty when it’s full of white blooms like it is now.

The ferns have started to unfurl. If you blink you might miss this part.

We’ve got some baby spinach coming up in the garden.

I always forget we have a few of these little bells planted in the side garden.

These perennials I planted a few years ago are some of the first to come up there.

My hen and chicks are starting to replicate again. (Actually they grew nicely inside all winter and have just been put on the front porch again).

It’s almost too much for my little gnome to handle.

I’m really enjoying these eggs we have been getting from a local farmer. The yolks are just unbelievably huge and orangey.

And strawberries. How I’ve missed you!

Compost pile, take 2

Remember when Mike built us a cinder block compost pile?

Well, it worked great, except for one thing. The dogs always seemed to be able to dig underneath the fencing in front and dig out scraps for themselves. And after you’ve spent enough nights with a dog who’s been eating rotten food, you HAVE to do something about it.

So, Mike designed this fenced frame to go around the cinder blocks. When you need to dump something in it, you just lift up the top section.

You can see how the left side has been turned to reveal some very black compost that’s been there longer. The right side is the new stuff.

I don’t think the dogs are too happy about it, but they’ll just have to deal.

Signs of spring

I got a nice surprise when I went outside today and saw these adorable flowers in the yard.

They sort of sprung up out of a pile of leaves and broken twigs that has been buried under a lot of snow all winter. I know we have bulbs planted throughout the yard but I haven’t seen any other blooms yet.

The dogs are happy. Every day they come up with a different toy that has been frozen all winter. And unfortunately for me and any neighbors who are home during the day, the squirrels are back to taunt Sadie.

And she is so ready.

Carrot muffins

Have I mentioned one or two or a million times how much I love my Simply in Season cookbook? It came through again with this great recipe for carrot muffins. Not only did I get to use the fresh carrots from our garden, but I felt pretty good about eating muffins that use only 1 cup of flour (half of that whole wheat), plus oats and milled flax seed.

I altered the recipe a little to reflect what I like to have in muffins (less cooked fruit, more nuts), so here’s what I ended up with:

Carrot muffins

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups shredded carrot
1 cup milled flax seed
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange liners in a muffin tin. Combine first eight ingredients in a big bowl.

Add carrots, flax seed and nuts and mix well. Make a little well in the center.

In a separate bowl, combine slightly beaten eggs, milk and oil. Pour into the well and combine wet and dry ingredients, just until moistened.

I used a 1/4 cup measuring cup to fill the muffin tins about 3/4 full. You should be able to get 18 muffins out of the recipe.

(Ask the dogs for help. Get no response.)

Bake 18-20 minutes. Cool, and enjoy. They bake up into small, dense muffins.

I can’t say these were the most beautiful muffins I ever made, but they were the perfect accompaniment to a cup of morning coffee. Not too sweet, and just a little crunch from the nuts.

Fresh cucumber salsa

I realized the other day that I have never made salsa before. Mike used to make a delish black bean salsa in the summertime, but since he’s been super busy, tomato duty has fallen to me. So, I dug out a recipe I took from the Boulder farmers market back in 2005 and adapted it to what I had in the kitchen.

I had some tomatoes and a green pepper from our garden and a cucumber from the farmers market, plus a few other things.

The recipe made the freshest, most vibrant, colorful salsa I could have imagined. And it tasted really good, especially when you got a little bit of the marinated tomato juice in the bottom in your bite. I had gotten out my spice blend to add to it, but realized it didn’t even need that. I stuck with a sprinkling of salt and pepper for seasoning, just like I would on a sliced tomato.

Fresh cucumber salsa

4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, diced
1/2 onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1/2 a lime
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a big bowl. That’s it!

Loving: purple cherokees

These are my favorite tomatoes, so it’s really exciting to get to eat them every day. They are definitely the kind that I’d rather eat plain with a little salt and pepper than cook and put in a dish. Caprese anyone?

Fresh tomato sauce

It’s taken a while for me to get this recipe down, but I think I finally have it. Last night we had this sauce over whole wheat fettucine with some roasted zucchini on the side, and it was absolutely wonderful. I didn’t add any sugar to the tomato sauce, but because I used all garden fresh tomatoes they made it super sweet. And with green peppers and basil also from our backyard it was fresh, fresh, fresh. Love it.

Anyway, I have found some kitchen gadgets that make saucemaking so much easier for me. It’s still a pretty messy and involved process, but it can be simplified.

Top left you have a soft peeler. Even though you are going to blanch the tomatoes to get the skins off, you’re bound to have a few stubborn pieces. This device peels them right off. And if you wanted to save time or dishes to clean by just straight peeling them, this is what you should use.

Top right is a cutting board with a built-in strainer. This is great for cutting tomatoes because you can push the juice and seeds into the strainer instead of watching them run down the sides and onto your cabinets, which always seems to happen to me.

Bottom left, a wire mesh strainer will help you grab your tomatoes out of the water after you blanch them. You can find these really cheap at Asian foods stores.

And finally, a sharp paring knife. Don’t mess around with a dull knife, especially when you’re cutting tomatoes. We did for a long time, until my cousin mentioned that she got a 40 percent discount at Williams Sonoma, and we got this Wusthof beauty.

OK, so onto the recipe. I’m writing it here for 6 tomatoes because that’s what I had ripe from our garden (really 7, but some were small), but you can double, triple, or whatever you need to do for the amount you have. For saucemaking we grow Amish paste tomatoes from Seed Savers because they have lots of flesh and fewer seeds.

Fresh tomato sauce

6 medium tomatoes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 green pepper, diced
1/4 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
6 or so basil leaves, cut into ribbons

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Later you can make the sauce in this pot. Meanwhile, cut the stems out of your tomatoes and remove any split, bruised or bad parts.

When your water starts to boil, drop in the tomatoes for about a minute or until you can begin to see this skins loosening. Drop them into an ice bath to cool off.

The skins should peel right off, but if they don’t, just remove them with the soft peeler or a knife.

Next, slice the tomatoes into chunks and remove the seeds. You probably won’t be able to get all of them, but that’s no big deal.

Don’t worry about saving the juice – you’re actually going to try to boil it off in a few minutes anyway.

Dump out your boil water and start heating the oil over medium. Drop in the onion, green pepper and garlic and saute those for a few minutes. A little zucchini might be good here, too. Sometimes we add a hot pepper.

After you’ve seeded all the tomatoes, cut them into half-inch chunks and drop them in with the rest of the veggies. Season with salt and pepper, but hold off on adding the basil until the end.

Here’s the part where it gets a bit tricky. I’m impatient and I always want to take the sauce off before it’s really done. In order to get a thick, rich sauce it’s going to have to simmer for a while. It could be 20 minutes, it could be an hour. Fresh tomatoes are very watery, and that’s no good when you go to pour the sauce over pasta. So let it reduce by about half. This only leaves you with maybe 2 cups of sauce, but a little goes a long way, and it’s so, so good.

I would say mine probably simmered somewhere in the 30-40 minute range. When it’s ready, drop in the basil and serve.

More roasted veggies

In addition to pesto potatoes, I also made this dish of roasted veggies, some of which came from our garden.

So this is baby golden potatoes (quartered) and then diced carrots, chiogga beets and onions. I tossed them with a little rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper and olive oil and roasted them for about 30 minutes.

Today I ate the first tomato from our garden, and it was wonderful. The watermelon is about five inches long now, which is pretty exciting. Now I’m trying to convince Mike to make a carrot cake with those big purple carrots I picked the other day.

And by the way, thanks for your sweet comments here and on Facebook about the dogs. They have a followup appointment next Wednesday, and so far they seem to be doing well.

A good use of pesto

I mixed a good spoonful of pesto (from my basil plant that overfloweth) with some halved baby golden potatoes and baked them at 400 for about 30 minutes. YUM.