Friday, February 26, 2010

Sorrel Soup with Broccoli, Spinach and Fennel

The sorrel in our garden has grown ridiculously big during these cold winter months, with some leaves reaching over two feet long from stem to tip.  The leaves stand out in the winter garden with their dramatic pointed shape and bright green color.  For some reason, though, sorrel is never the first thing we think of using as we survey the garden for dinner ideas.  When we do get around to using it, though, the results are so tasty that we inevitably regret neglecting this wonderful leafy green.   
Sorrel is also a gardener's dream come true.  Our sorrel plants have never had a pest problem, they thrive during our hot summer months when few plants can survive, and they grow equally well in cold months.  In fact, part of the reason we tend to forget about using sorrel in the kitchen is the fact that we know it will be around tomorrow and the day after that if we don't cook with it today.  That's hard to say for most garden vegetables.  Add in the lovely tart, lemony flavor and the fact that sorrel is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and the conclusion is obvious:  If you live in Zone 9, sorrel is a wonderful year-old green that deserves a spot in your garden.

Sorrel Soup with Broccoli, Spinach & Fennel Soup
Based on a recipe in Love Soup by Anna Thomas


2                    yellow onions, chopped
3        Tbs      olive oil
1 1/2   tsp       sea salt, plus more to taste
12       oz        broccoli florets (we used broccoli florets)
1                    fennel bulb
8         oz        spinach
8         oz        sorrel
1                     medium sweet potato
3         cups     vegetable broth
                       black pepper
                       cayenne pepper
                       fresh lemon juice

  1. Saute onions in olive oil with half a teaspoon salt, stirring occasionally over medium heat until they are soft and golden brown. Do not hurry this process; it will take at least half an hour, and when you think the onions are done, cook them a little longer to develop their rich, sweet flavor.
  2. While the onions cook, thoroughly wash the broccoli, fennel, spinach, and sorrel. Coarsely chop the greens and the fennel bulb.  Peel and dice the yam. Combine these vegetables in a big stock pot with 5 cups water, the vegetable broth, and 1 tsp of salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the caramelized onions to the soup and continue to simmer, covered, another 15 minutes. 
  4. Add black pepper and cayenne to taste, plus 1 Tbs olive oil.   Puree soup until smooth in food processor or with an immersion blender.  Season again to taste with sea salt and pepper.  Add lemon juice to taste (depends on how strong your sorrel is) until the soup has a delicate, slightly tart flavor.
  5. Serve with a crostini or thick, crusty bread for dipping.  Optional:  crumble some cheese (feta, goat cheese or cotija work) on top of each bowl of soup.

If you like this recipe, try our Flatbread with French Sorrel, Roasted Cauliflower, and Crumbled Goat Cheese
Or, try our Slow-Cooked Butter Beans with Sorrel

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Panelle (Chickpea Fries) with Dipping Sauce

Panelle (in Italy) or Panisse (in France), are "fries" made with the same chickpea flour as farinata, but the preparation is quite different.  They are tasty with any number of dipping sauces including a spicy aioli or a smoky tomato sauce.  For our fries, we made a quick tahini dip with garlic, smoky paprika and red pepper.

You need to plan ahead a bit because the dough must chill for at least one hour before cooking.  If you like to prepare things over the weekend to use later on a busy weeknight, this is a great recipe.  We refrigerated the batter for three days, and the fries were fantastic. 
Chickpea Fries


1      cup              farina
1      tsp               sea salt
1/4   tsp               black pepper
1      tsp               smoky paprika
                            pinch of cayenne pepper
2      Tbs             olive oil
                            vegetable oil for frying

  1.  Boil 2 cups of water, then add farina, salt, peppers, paprika and olive oil.  Whisk well constantly for about 1 minute.
  2. Remove and spread in a 9 x 13" pan or similar, smoothing surface.  Cool at room temperature for about half an hour, then press plastic wrap directly onto dough and refrigerate at least an hour, or up to 3 days.
  3. Heat oil for frying (we used our deep fryer) to 375°.  Cut fries into strips, then fry.  When golden brown, remove to paper towels to drain, sprinkling with more sea salt.
  4. Serve with dipping sauce of your choice.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mixed Berry Grunt

A grunt, also known as a slump, is a stovetop version of a fruit cobbler.  The biscuit topping is steamed in berry juices resulting in fluffy dumplings floating in a thick sea of raspberries, blueberries and blackberries.  Feel free to play around with the berry ratios, although these proportions do approach perfection.  Serve warm with a generous amount of creme fraiche, and the origin of the name will become abundantly clear as you grunt with pleasure.

Mixed Berry Grunt


3         cups           raspberries
1 1/2   cups           blueberries
3         cups           blackberries
                             zest and juice of 1 small lemon
1/2      tsp             vanilla
                             pinch of cinnamon
2         Tbs            water
                             straight-sided skillet with a lid that fits and
                             deep enough to prevent juices from flooding
                             your kitchen while this cooks
3/4      cup            unbleached A.P. flour
1         tsp             baking powder
2         Tbs            sugar
                             pinch of salt
1/8      tsp             cinnamon
1/3      cup            heavy cream or whole milk, room temp
2         Tbs            butter, melted

  1. Combine filling ingredients and place in skillet.  Cover and bring to a boil over medium high.  Stir often in the beginning until fruit starts to release juices.  Cook until juices are starting to thicken.
  2. While fruit is cooking, make topping.  Combine dry and mix well.  Mix cream with melted butter, then stir into dry.
  3. Drop dough in balls into the berries, evenly spacing.  You'll have eight to ten dumplings.  Cover and reduce heat to medium.  Watch to avoid the juices overflowing -- if they do, leave top very slightly ajar or remove 1/4 cup liquid (which you can add back later).
  4. Cook until dumplings are cooked through and fluffy, about 15 minutes.  Serve warm with lots of creme fraiche.  If you don't have creme fraiche, it's worth the minimal effort to make some (although you have to plan ahead because it takes a few days).  Or, keep it simple and serve with warm heavy cream or whipped cream.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Butternut Squash, Green Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad

The arugula and mint in our garden do not seem bothered by all the cold weather we have experienced this winter.  Our total neglect has not seemed to harm the plants either   In fact, the arugula has formed thick heads packed with leaves big and small, and the mint is cascading beautifully from two pots that line our driveway.  Arugula and mint combine here for a filling meal packed with powerful flavors in this lentil and butternut squash salad.  The recipe makes enough for dinner for two.

Butternut Squash, Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad
serves 2 as an entree


3/4       cup        French green lentils
2          lb           butternut squash,
                          peeled and cut into 1" cubes
1          tsp         cumin
1          tsp         Spanish hot smoked paprika
1/2       tsp         sea salt
3-4      cups       arugula
1          cup        soft goat cheese, crumbled
1/4       cup        fresh mint, diced
1          Tbs       red wine vinegar
                         olive oil

  1. Cover lentils with cold water and soak 10 minutes.  Drain.
  2. Cook lentils in boiling salted water until tender but still firm, about 30 minutes.  Drain, rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process, then drain again and set aside.
  3. Preheat oven to 375°.  Toss butternut squash cubes in 2 Tbs olive oil.  Add cumin, paprika and sea salt.  Spread on a sheet pan and roast until tender, about 30 minutes, tossing after the first 15 minutes to evenly roast.  Remove from oven and cool, reserving juices on the sheet pan..
  4. Combine lentils, butternut squash, oils and juices on the sheet pan with the arugula.  Add half the goat cheese, plus mint, vinegar and 1 Tbs olive oil.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Serve with remaining goat cheese on top.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Granny Smith Apple Fritters

No need for a deep fryer; these fritters cooked beautifully in a saucepan on the stove.  You'll need the oil to be about 2 inches deep.  If you let the kids help out as we did, just be sure to supervise closely to ensure the safety of both your kids and your fritters.

Granny Smith Apple Fritters
makes about 12 fritters


1         cup            unbleached A.P. flour
1/4      cup            sugar
3/4      tsp             salt
1 1/2   tsp             baking powder
1         tsp             cinnamon
1/3      cup            whole milk
1                           egg
1                           Granny Smith apple, peeled, with 1/2 finely diced and the other 1/2 shredded
                             vegetable oil for frying
                             powdered sugar and milk for glaze

  1. Heat vegetable oil to 375° (use a candy thermometer).
  2. While oil is heating, combine flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, cinnamon.
  3. Add milk and egg until just combined. 
  4. Add diced and shredded apple.
  5. Drop a heaping tablespoon of dough into oil.  Fry until well browned, using slotted spoon to make sure doughnut is fried on both sides.   
  6. Remove to paper towels to dry.
  7. Combine about 1 T milk with enough powdered sugar to make a thick glaze (about 1 cup).  Drizzle over apple fritters.  Flip doughnuts over and glaze other side.
  8. Eat while still warm.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Granny Smith Apple Risotto

Apples and parmesan cheese may sound like an odd combination, but the flavors in the savory risotto will convince you otherwise.   We vegetarianized Mario Batali's recipe and added more cheese (can you ever have enough parmesan?), but otherwise remained true to the original.  We still have lots of Italian parsley in the garden which is loaded with flavor.  If you use store-bought parsley (which in our experience is quite bland), you may want to double the quantity for this recipe.

Granny Smith Apple Risotto
adapted from Mario Batali's Simple Italian Food


4 -5            cups       vegetable stock, warmed up
4                 Tbs        butter
2                 Tbs        olive oil
1                               red onion, diced
2                               Granny Smith apples, peeled and thinly sliced
2                cups        arborio rice
1                cup          dry white wine
3/4             cup          parmesan, grated
1/4             cup          Italian parsley, chopped
                                  sea salt and black pepper to taste

  1. Saute onion in 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat until just soft.
  2. Add apples and rice and simmer 4 minutes.
  3. Add wine and simmer until wine evaporates.
  4. Add enough warm stock to cover the rice and simmer until the liquid goes below the top of the rice.  Keep adding stock and cooking until most of the stock has been absorbed, about 18 minutes.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking.  Rice should be tender but not mushy.
  5. Add 2 Tbs butter, 1/2 cup cheese and parsley and combine well.  Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Serve topped with parmesan cheese and fresh apple slices.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blackberry Cobbler

This cobbler contains over two pounds of blackberries topped by a rich, flaky biscuit, but we still managed to polish it off in just a few days.  And when I say "we", it does not include the kids.  It is best served with creme fraiche (which is easy to make if it is not available locally), but a topping of vanilla ice cream or whipped cream certainly wouldn't hurt. 

Blackberry Cobbler


Biscuit Topping

1 1/2             cups           unbleached A.P. flour
1/4                tsp              salt
1                   Tbs             baking powder
2                   Tbs             sugar, plus more for sprinkling
4                   Tbs             butter, cubed and cold
1                   cup              heavy cream

Blackberry Filling

36                  oz               fresh blackberries
1                    cup             sugar
1/2                 cup             water
1/2                  tsp             vanilla
1/2                  tsp             lemon zest

  1. Combine blackberries, sugar, water, lemon zest and vanilla in sauce pan.  Bring to a simmer, then continue to cook on low, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickly coats the back of a spoon and berries are soft, about 20 minutes.  Depending on tartness of the blackberries, you may need to add more sugar (up to 1/4 cup). 
  2. While berries are cooking, make biscuit topping.
  3. Combine dry, then work in the butter until it resembles coarse meal (I use my fingers to do this, but you can also use a pastry cutter, forks or a food processor).  Add cream and mix until evenly moistened.  Refrigerate until ready to use.
  4. Preheat oven to 350° convection (or 375° conventional). 
  5. Place cooked berries and sauce in 8" square pyrex or similar (or individual ramekins).  Top with biscuit topping, sprinkle sugar on top, and bake until top is golden brown and fruit filling is thick and bubbling, about 40 minutes.
  6. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, craime fraiche (this is our favorite topping) or whipped cream.
  7. Extra keeps well in refrigerator if well-wrapped.  Re-heat before serving.
If you like this recipe, try our Rhubarb Strawberry Cobbler which uses the same biscuit topping.
And here's another great recipe for fresh blackberries, Blackberry Shortbread Bars

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blackberry Shortbread Bars

These bars are a study in contrasting textures:  a custardy filling with a streak of fresh blackberries atop a dense shortbread crust and a buttery crumble topping.  These bars have an excellent shelf life, so pack them in cello bags, tie with a bow, and you've got Valentine's Day gifts for the special people in your life.   Or serve warmed at home with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream.

Blackberry Shortbread Bars



3            cups           unbleached A.P. flour
1 1/2      cups           sugar
1/4         tsp              salt
1 1/2      cups            butter, cubed and chilled


4                                eggs
2             cups            sugar
1             cup              sour cream
3/4          cup              unbleached A.P. flour
1/8          tsp                salt
                                    zest of 1 small lemon
6             cups              blackberries

  1. Preheat oven to 325° convection (350° conventional) and place rack in the middle of the oven.
  2. Generously butter a 9 x 13" baking pan.  We used a Dansk enamel pan this time, but we have also used pyrex with good results.
  3. In food processor, combine dry crust ingredients well.  Add butter and process until mixture is crumbly and butter is well-distributed.
  4. Reserve about 2 cups of mixture, then spread the rest in the bottom of the baking pan.  Press well to create an even layer, then bake until golden brown, 20 minutes in our oven.  Remove and cool 15 minutes.
  5. Combine all filling ingredients except the blackberries, and mix well.  Add blackberries.
  6. Spread filling evenly over pre-baked crust.  Sprinkle reserved crust mixture on top of filling.
  7. Bake until bars have puffed up and feel firm through to the center, and top is golden brown, around 1 hour in our oven.
  8. Remove to cooling rack and cool well before cutting into bars.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sweet Potato Corn Muffins

These muffins are a beautiful mango color with hints of both corn and sweet potato flavors.  The original plan was to eat these with our sweet potato poblano soup, but the kids inhaled the muffins straight out of the oven.  Good news since sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber, beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, and many important minerals including potassium, calcium and iron.  We have therefore renamed these the "How to Trick Your Kids Into Eating Sweet Potato Muffins".  They are so easy to make, a second batch was ready in a flash for the grown-ups.

Sweet Potato Corn Muffins
aka How to Trick Your Kids Into Eating Sweet Potato Muffins
makes 12 muffins
based on recipe in Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking


1  3/4           cup              white corn meal
1/4               cup              unbleached A.P. flour
2                  tsp               baking powder
1                  tsp               salt
1/3               cup              sugar
2                  Tbs              unsalted butter
1                   cup             hot cooked sweet potato
1                                     egg
1                   cup             milk
                                       muffin tin and papers

  1. Preheat oven to 400° convection (425° conventional), place shelf in middle of oven.
  2. Line muffin pan with papers or butter well.  Recipe makes 12 muffins.
  3. Pierce sweet potato several times and then cook in microwave until soft, about 12 minutes depending on how big your potato is.  Remove skin and mash well with a fork, removing as many lumps as possible.  Add butter immediately and mash again so butter melts into the potato.
  4. Combine dry in a large bowl.
  5. Combine egg and milk; mix well with a fork or whisk.
  6. Combine mashed sweet potato with milk and mix well.  Add dry.  Batter will be very thick
  7. Fill muffin pan and cook until baked through and browned on top, 19 minutes in our convection oven.
  8. Serve warm plain, with orange marmalade or whipped honey butter.  For savory, serve with soup.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010

    Blog Bites

    Blog Bites 
    February 2010

    Welcome to the first edition of Blog Bites.  We have tried many recipes developed by fellow bloggers, and discovered amazing food as a result.  Sometimes we adhere strictly to the recipe, other times we use the original as inspiration.    We would love to hear about your experiences doing the same, so we are starting a monthly event, Blog Bites, to give everyone an opportunity to post their take on a recipe they've made that originated on a blog.  This will be an opportunity for all of us to find recipes we may have missed, discover new blogs, and to share ideas.

    We find Sundays are a great day to get caught up on reading, so Blog Bites will be posted on the first Sunday of each month.   Click here for more info about Blog Bites.  Future hosts to be announced soon.  Here are this months submissions.

    Appetizers and Salads
    Mushroom and Mozzarella Toasts -- "Golden-brown mini toasts topped with melting mozzarella and mushrooms sautéed in rose wine, seasoned with Italian herbs… just perfect!"  posted by Alina from Russian Season and inspired by Sunny Side Up Recipes

    Farinata (Socca) with Manchego --  "This is comfort food Mediterranean-style, best eaten straight out of the oven"  posted here at Vegetable Matter and inspired by Pamie from My Man's Belly

    Brussels Sprout Salad -- "I am not much of a salad person. But's my current addiction!" posted by Cookbrooke and inspired by Vegetable Matter


    Roasted Red Pepper Soup --  A beautiful vegan soup with smoky red pepper and loads of flavor, based on the Eat Clean Diet Book, which is all about "eating clean and natural foods. It is not focused on weight loss, but about eating foods that came as close to the ground/earth as possible"  posted by Nicole from Making Good Choices.

    Roasted Eggplant in Spices (Baingan Bhartha) --Eggplant, aka the "kind of vegetables" is the star in this spicy North Indian dish posted by Shirley at Enriching Your Kid! and inspired by Chef Sanjay Tumma

    Red Beans and Sticky Rice, with Gomashio -- "While the recipe is simple -- requiring only adzuki beans, sticky rice (aka mochi rice or sweet rice), black sesame seeds and salt -- it incorporates different flavors and textures than the usual beans and rice dish", posted by Beatrice at Ginger Beat and inspired by just bento and tea and cookies

    Chocolate-Drenched Salted Peanut Cajeta Cups- a little dollop of paradise, posted by Linda at Salty Seattle and inspired by David Lebovitz Living the Sweet Life in Paris

    Thursday, February 4, 2010

    Roasted Brussels Sprout Salad with Wild Chicory and Toasted Pecans

    Our Wild Chicory has formed beautiful rosettes over the last month thanks to the chilly weather.  The name is misleading as this chicory is grown from seeds purchased from Nichols, and cannot be found growing wild anywhere here in Houston.  We started the seeds directly in the garden in August with a second round planted in October.    Despite the name, this chicory is very well behaved and we now have two thick rows of gorgeous greens.  Wild chicory is a wonderful salad green with its big leaves and mildly bitter taste.  We're not sure if it's commercially grown, so if you aren't cultivating wild chicory at home and can't find it at market, try arugula, escarole, dandelion greens or endive for this salad.  We combine the chicory with another of our favorite winter vegetables, Brussels sprouts.

    Roasted Brussels Sprout Salad with Wild Chicory and Toasted Pecans
    serves 2 as an entree



    3             Tbs            olive oil
    1             Tbs             white wine vinegar
                                      sea salt and black pepper to taste


    1              lb              Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
                                     olive oil, sea salt and black pepper
    1/2           cup            pecans
    1/2           Tbs            butter
    1/4            tsp            salt
    2               cups          wild chicory
                                      (or however much you like)
    1/8            cup           Grana Padano Stravecchio cheese, shredded
                                      or Parmesan, shredded

    1. Combine dressing ingredients, whisk well, and set aside.
    2. Preheat oven to 350°.  Spread pecans on sheet pan and bake until fragrant and a few shades darker, about 10 minutes.  Toss immediately in a bowl with butter and salt until nuts are well coated.
    3. Preheat oven to 425°.  Toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil to coat, then season with salt and pepper.  Spread on a sheet pan, cut side down, until soft and browned, about 15 minutes.
    4. Trim chicory, then toss with the salad dressing.  Top with Brussels sprouts and pecans, then sprinkle cheese on top.
    5. Serve while sprouts are still warm, or at room temperature. 

      Wednesday, February 3, 2010

      Chocolate Pecan Fudge Pie

      If you have a little extra bittersweet chocolate from yesterday's Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake, here's a great way to use it.  This is an old-fashioned Southern fudge pie, but great chocolate and roasted pecans elevate it into something really special. 
      Chocolate Pecan Fudge Pie


      2/3        cup      evaporated milk
      2           Tbs      butter
      6           oz        good-quality bittersweet chocolate
      2                      eggs
      1           cup      sugar
      2           Tbs      unbleached A.P. flour
      1/4        tsp       salt
      1           tsp       vanilla
      1           cup      roasted pecans***, coarsely chopped
      1                      unbaked pie shell

      *** you can roast the pecans yourself or buy roasted pecans.  Candied pecans are amazing in this pie if you have the time to make them.

      1. Preheat oven to 350° convection (375° conventional) and place shelf in middle of oven.
      2. Combine chocolate, evaporated milk and butter in pyrex measuring cup and melt in short blasts in the microwave until melted.  If you started with chocolate in bar or block form, chop first.  Discs can go straight into the micro.  Be careful to make sure chocolate doesn't burn, stirring well between blasts.  Allow to cool to room temperature.
      3. Combine eggs, sugar, flour, salt, vanilla and pecans until well blended.  Add melted chocolate mixture and combine well. 
      4. Fill pie shell and bake until crust forms on top but filling is still dark and a bit liquidy underneath, about 30 minutes in our oven.
      5. Cool, then store well-wrapped in the refrigerator.
      6. If desired, top with more pecans and chocolate shavings.  Serve slightly warmed with creme fraiche, whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream.

      Tuesday, February 2, 2010

      Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake

      Since we've been in the flower business, the meaning of Valentine's Day has changed dramatically.  No more romantic weekend getaways or fancy dinners out, just long, stressful hours and more red roses than we care to count.  We are usually exhausted by the end of the day, and look forward to a peaceful family dinner.  If you are celebrating Valentine's Day at home this year like we are, our Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake is, in our humble opinion, the perfect chocolate dessert.  With a pound and a half of chocolate, the cake is so rich, a small slice will satisfy the most devoted chocoholic.  It is amazingly easy to make, and keeps well in the refrigerator.   Just be sure to use high-quality bittersweet chocolate since this cake is all about the chocolate. 

      Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake



      1        cup         water
      3/4     cup         sugar
      9        Tbs         unsalted butter
      18      oz           bittersweet chocolate***
      6                       eggs
                               10" springform pan
                                big roasting pan
                                parchment paper
                                aluminum foil


      1         cup        heavy whipping cream
      8         oz          bittersweet chocolate***

      ***use the best quality bittersweet chocolate you can find.  Our favorite is Valrhona Caraibe (we use the discs).  El Rey, Guittard and Callebaut are also excellent. 


      1. Preheat oven to 300° convection, 350° conventional.  Place shelf in middle of oven.
      2. Butter a 10" springform pan, then line the bottom and sides with parchment paper (it will stick on thanks to the butter).  Wrap pan in several layers of aluminum foil to keep out the water from the water bath in which the cake will be baked.
      3. Fill a tea kettle and bring water to a boil.  If it boils before you're ready to stick your cake in the oven, just set the kettle aside.  The water will stay hot enough.  Locate a roasting pan that is wide and deep enough to accommodate your springform pan.
      4. Combine the 1 cup water and 3/4 cup sugar in a small pan and bring to a boil over medium.  Reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes, stirring until sugar dissolves.  This is really just a simple syrup with a little less sugar than the typical 1:1 ratio of water to sugar.  Remove from heat.
      5. Melt chocolate and butter in the microwave in one-minute increments, stirring well after each minute and watching to avoid the chocolate burning.  We use chocolate discs which do not require any chopping before melting.  If you are starting with a block or bar, chop up before trying to melt in the micro.
      6. Add simple syrup to chocolate mixture, whisk well, then allow to cool enough to add eggs.  Whisk in eggs and combine well.  Pour batter into springform pan.
      7. Place springform in center of roasting pan, place in oven, then add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come up to the middle of the springform pan.
      8. Bake until cake is set in the center, about 40 minutes in our oven.  Remove from water bath and cool completely on a rack.
      1. Melt chocolate and cream together in the microwave in a big pyrex measuring cup or similar.  See our earlier note re starting with discs vs. a bar or block before you start nuking your chocolate.  Whisk until smooth, then pour over cooled cake (still in the springform) and distribute evenly.  
      2. Can refrigerate immediately, or once ganache is set. Allow ganache to set completely before removing from springform pan and cutting into cake.   
      3. Make chocolate shavings with a microplane, and serve slices topped with shavings and fresh raspberries, with a dollop of creme fraiche, whipped cream, or raspberry sauce on the side.
      4. Store extra cake well-wrapped in refrigerator.
      5. Keeps several days.

      Monday, February 1, 2010

      Get Growing in February

      The Get Growing Series

      Welcome to our third Get Growing entry. This series will span 12 months, and is designed to help aspiring vegetable gardeners get out of the kitchen and into the garden. On the first of each month, we will discuss one garden project for the novice vegetable gardener. Because we are located in Houston, Texas, our growing conditions differ from many parts of the English-speaking world. To help guide gardeners in cooler climates, our Get Growing partner is Daphne of Daphne's Dandelions. Daphne gardens in Boston, and she will be providing monthly advice for Northern gardeners (although her excellent site is a wonderful resource for gardeners everywhere). For Get Growing in February, Daphne discusses compost:  what it is, how to make it, and how to use it  Regardless of where you live, her advice is invaluable.

      Starting Tomatoes in February

      February 15th is the average last frost date for Houston.  This means that there are many summer vegetable seeds we can start in February, but please first read our words of caution about "average" last frost dates.  You will need to be prepared to protect your seedlings from an unseasonable frost which means using insulators or covers, or keeping your seedlings in pots so they can be brought inside if necessary.

      Tomatoes are one of those vegetables that everyone stresses about growing.  There are diseases and insects to worry about, birds will attach your fruit just before it's ready to pick, intense rains may cause blossom-end rot, and our hot weather will stop fruit production early in the summer.   With all these issues, we debated about presenting tomatoes as this month's gardening project.  But home-grown tomatoes are so far superior to what is available for purchase, we think it's worth the challenge.  And, we're going to try to keep it very simple for the novice gardener so that you're guaranteed to succeed.

      Why start tomato seeds now when there's still a risk of a late frost?

      Tomato fruit tends to set in a fairly narrow temperature window, and once it gets too hot (night time temperatures over 75° or day time temperatures over 92°), your plants may not produce fruit.   In Houston, that can happen as early as June, so the idea of tomatoes as a "summer" vegetable doesn't work in Zone 9.  Higher temperatures also make tomato plants more susceptible to disease and insects.  If you wait until tomato transplants start showing up at the garden center in April or May, your plants don't have much chance of success.   Starting your seeds now is a bit of a gamble, but if you start them in pots (which we recommend), you can bring them indoors if we get a late frost.  And, starting with seeds instead of plants has a few benefits:
      • you can select from thousands of varieties
      • buying seeds is much cheaper than purchasing plants
      • you can start your plants much earlier
      • you will know your plants are healthy, organic and disease-free
      • you will know what you're growing (we have purchase mis-labeled plants more than once, ending up with a huge red tomato that was supposed to be a yellow cherry tomato, for example)

      Preparing the garden

      • First, select a spot that gets full sun.  We grow our tomatoes along our driveway in a section of the garden that faces south and gets sun from morning until late in the day.  
      • Tomato plants need fertile soil, and the easiest way to provide this is to prepare your soil ahead of time.  We have been saving bags of leaves, pine needles and grass clippings all winter, and we simply add these to the soil ahead of time.  If you have a compost pile, amend generously now.   If you start with fertile soil, your plants should thrive without much intervention later in the season.
      • If you experience heavy rains like we do in Houston, a raised bed is not a bad idea.   
      • Because tomatoes can be susceptible to soil-bourne diseases, try to select a spot where you have not recently grown tomatoes.  Some suggest selecting a spot where no solonocae (eggplants, peppers, etc) have recently grown.
      • Plan to mulch heavily around your tomato plants.
      Choosing your tomato varieties
      If you are a novice tomato grower, focus on cherry tomatoes.  These tomatoes are much easier to grow in in Zone 9, and you will be rewarded with heavy production for a long period, even in the hottest months, if you grow these small tomatoes.  Two of our favorite varieties are Yellow Pear (above) and Matt's Wild Cherry (below).   Standard tomatoes are much fussier and challenging, but the pay-off is amazing.  If you want to also grow a full-size tomato, select one that suits your preferences for flavor, size and color.  Our instructions below work for cherry or standard tomatoes.

      Starting your seeds and Transplanting

      We recommend that you start your seeds in grower pots.  If you start with good seeds (see our sidebar for some of our favorite seed suppliers), tomatoes have an excellent germination rate, so you don't need to start thousands of seeds.  Keep the seedlings watered and make sure they get lots of light so they don't become too leggy.  Once they have developed three or four sets of leaves, pinch off the bottom leaves and transplant into the garden.  Plant so that the spot where you pinched the leaves is BELOW the soil level.  Roots will develop here, producing a plant with extensive, deep roots that will help protect the plant from our summer heat.
      Drive a stake into the ground when you transplant the seedling, and gently secure the seedling to the stake. We use bamboo from our garden and recycled twist ties for this.

       If you plan to use cages, select a sturdy one, and place it in the ground when you transplant the seedlings.  If you wait until the seedling grows into a large plant first, you risk seriously damaging the plant when you try to squeeze it into the cage.

      Seedling care

      Tomatoes like consistent water, although not too much.  Here in Houston we have sudden, intense rain storms which make that difficult.  Our advise is to not stress about what you can't control, and just water your seedlings at regular intervals if there is no rain.  Mulch will help keep the soil evenly moist.   If you started with fertile soil, you should not need to amend during the growing season.

      As the seedlings develop, they will form suckers.  You can read our post on suckers and their removal, and how to convert suckers into new seedlings to share with friends and family.

      Fruit Production
      Tomatoes have "perfect" flowers which means there are no male and female flowers.   This generally means easier fruit production, but if you don't want to take any chances, you can always hand-pollinate your plants.  This is extremely easy, and one of the few gardening projects that produces results in just a few days.  If you have the time, we highly recommend hand-pollination.

      Fruit Harvest
      Cherry tomatoes do not tend to have significant pest problems, so we leave them to fully ripen on the plant.  They taste amazing this way.  They grow in clusters, so you should be able to harvest several at one time. With full-size tomatoes, we have often waited one day too long only to find a big chunk taken our of our tomatoes by a bird, or to see cracks forming in the tomato skin.  We suggest harvesting your full-size tomatoes when they are close to mature, then letting them fully ripen in the safety of your kitchen.

      Seed Collection

      If you are growing an heirloom tomato variety (as opposed to a hybrid variety), you should collect seeds from your biggest and most beautiful fruit.  Since tomatoes have "perfect" flowers, there's little risk of cross-pollination even if you are growing more than one tomato variety.  This means your seeds will produce seedlings true to their variety as opposed to a combination of yellow pear and wild cherry.

      Simply squeeze the seeds into a thin-meshed sieve, then rinse well with clean water.  Spread the seeds out on paper towels to dry, then store in an envelope or plastic bag for next year.  Be sure to label your seeds with the collection date and variety name.  In Zone 9, we start a second crop of tomatoes in the fall, so you may end up using these collected seeds later this year.

      Organic Gardening
      We don't use chemicals or pesticides in our garden.  We don't want to expose ourselves, our kids, and our neighbors to those chemicals.  Our garden has been organic since we purchased our house 14 years ago, and we have never had a pest problem with one exception, the squash vine borer, which wiped out our zucchini and squash plants last year.  The squash vine borer is the caterpillar of a moth which lays it's eggs on squash plants.

      Similarly, tomatoes attract a moth which lays eggs that hatch into the tomato hornworm, a surprisingly beautiful caterpillar despite it's nasty ways.  We had a few hornworms last year, easy to spot when you notice plant stems that are missing all their leaves, but most were eliminated early on by garden predators.  We just picked off the few we discovered (and sent them to an early death).  They did not seriously interfere with our tomato fruit production, and are certainly not worth straying from your commitment to organic gardening.
      Our natural predators include dragonflies and lady bugs (above) as well as birds, frogs, wasps, and assassin bugs.  Above is a wasp nest (made out of mud) with two pupa inside.  Unfortunately, this nest was built right above our kitchen door and the wasps got a little too aggressive every time we entered or left the house, so we knocked down the nest.  The wasps returned to the spot of the nest for several days before building a new one under our roof overhang.

      Reading about Tomatoes

      If we have sparked an urge to read and learn more about tomatoes, there are several excellent books that we recommend.   Smith and Hawken has published a nice guide to heirloom tomato varieties, and Amy Goldman's book on heirloom tomatoes is full of gorgeous pictures that will make it almost impossible for you to choose only one variety.  We also recommend Elioit Coleman and Edward Smith for good, basic tomato growing advice.  Online, Urban Harvest has several excellent articles and lots of useful advice for growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Houston (or similar climates).

      Other posts in the Get Growing Series