Archive for the ‘Herbs’ Category

I previously wrote about how growing anything, no matter how small the scale, can get a kid engaged with what they eat.  Some folks insist they have a black thumb.  Bah!  The trick is to take on a project certain to succeed because it assumes failure.  Consider how expensive fresh cut herbs are at the market.  Then take a look at how much a small little 2” x 2” herblette is at the nursery.  Often they are about the same.  Lower your expectations.  Recalibrate success to mean, “Will this last longer in the pot I bought it in than the cut herbs will last packaged in the fridge?”  The answer is yes, for even the blackest of thumbs.

No-Gardening Herb Garden

•    Pick a sunny spot, inside or out

•    Assume there will be an attempt #2

•    Take a trip to the nursery center and find a shallow pot.  Then head to the herb section and pick a few out, placing them in your pot to make sure they fit.  Then pick up a bag of moss.

•    Drive home knowing the plants will die, but you will get a few meals out of them.  Some of them may last only a week.  Some of them may last months.

•    The assembly is really difficult:
Put plastic pots in big pot
Make sure you have a saucer under it if you need to protect your surface.
Surround with moss to hide plastic pots.
Ta-DA! Pour a glass of celebratory wine after a hard day in the garden.

•    Most herbs like to be abused.  Let them go dry between watering and use a scissors or kitchen shears to cut what you need as you need it.

•    Some will die quickly, and others might survive a while. I find chives work very well, while cilantro always croaks the fastest on me and I never bother with it anymore. When a plant dies, just swap it out for a new one.  The nursery may take the old container back to reuse, or your local community college horticulture program might like it.

In any case, much like making sure you have decent spices, having herbs in your arsenal makes basic pantry staples taste better.  When we include The Child in the selection and harvest, she is more curious to try things.  And if it all fails miserably, there is always more wine.


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Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year to plant a garden.  But look at it this way, now that the winter solstice has passed, the days can only get longer.  As a kid, on wintry Wisconsin Saturday mornings we watched Roger Swain and his Victory Garden ilk tour gardens around the world in climates more hospitable than ours.  It was somehow more cozy to dream of spring and gardens I’d plant someday.

Now I live in one of those warmer places, and do I have my garden?  Not really.  I have a rich library of books in botany, gardening, and design, but no proper garden.  Condo living means I have had to adapt childhood expectations somewhat.

I garden in pots on a balcony.  It’s not the most conducive spot.  It’s only seven by eight feet, and all supplies need to be tromped up a flight of stairs and through the living room.  There is electricity but no water source, so I schlep water from the kitchen sink.  The epoxy-coated floor is delicate and severely canted, providing good drainage, but that rules out outdoor furniture.  Besides, everything needs to be mobile to allow for homeowner’s association dictated maintenance issues.

My tiny kitchen garden in November 2009

So my balcony garden has become a collection of succulents gifted by friends, and a few edible things in pots.  Our little collection of edibles consists of some lettuce, spinach, and herbs.  The stand, originally sold with a Big Green Egg smoker, was salvaged from a neighbor’s truck bed providing The Child a valuable lesson in the lost art of dumpster diving.  The casters help optimize sunlight exposure, and the tiered plantings mean the herbs on the bottom are watered by runoff from the lettuce planted above.  Some basil and spinach are planted in smaller pots, and volunteer nasturtiums appeared shortly after plunking the basil into the pot.

I experimented this year and added watercress to the garden. I can highly recommend setting up a “water feature” like ours.  Our local vector control office provides free mosquitofish, and a simple siphon means I have my own fish emulsion to fertilize our little container garden.

The Child approaches harvesting with reverence.  And while it’s not much of a harvest, the fun of picking a few pieces of lettuce for a sandwich, or taking a scissors out to cut some chives for her morning eggs, instills an understanding of her food independent of the scale of our little operation.  Chives in particular work well.  They are simple to grow and harvest.  If you let them go to seed by mistake, their purple flowers are also edible.  And the easiest way to chop them is to use a scissors to cut them into small pieces, a great way to put The Child to work in the kitchen.

Adulterated Ramen

1 package ramen noodles

Homemade stock, any variety

Miso paste

Soy sauce

1 carrot

A few spinach leaves

Prepare the ramen noodles as directed in just enough boiling stock to cover the noodles, and throw away the flavor packet.  Put The Child to work with a carrot and a vegetable peeler peeling irregular strips.  While noodles are boiling put some miso paste and a splash of soy sauce in the bottom of two individual serving bowls.  Dissolve miso with some of the boiling stock.  Divide carrot bits between the bowls.  Send The Child out to pick a few spinach leaves.  Divide finished noodles to miso and soy.  Chiffonade spinach and divide between bowls.  (To chiffonade:  lay leaves flat on top of each other, roll the long way and make thin slices down the length of the roll.)  Top off each bowl with hot stock.

Additions of frozen gyoza, leftover steak, or fishcake slices make this a more serious meal.  The Child loves to sprinkle oomoriya shirasu furikake on top because she likes to eat the little dried fishies (a Japanese seasoning with dried sardines, seaweed, sesame seed, dried egg, salt and sugar).  Sesame seeds are an accessible alternative for kids learning to season their own food.  Now break out the chopsticks and practice slurping.

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I Heart Penzeys

When I discovered Penzeys Spices, I was living in Southern California, learning to cook Indian food, on the hunt for spices beyond the grocery store.  Finding out the company is family-run and near my childhood home was just an added plus – the quality of their product and service has made me a loyal customer for over a decade.

While they do sell their products online, and that is typically how I order them, I would recommend getting a copy of their catalog anyway.  Much like a favorite magazine, it’s the kind of publication you can curl up with and get lost in.

I’ve never been one for gimmicks, and to me the “spice blend” has always been just that, a gimmick.  Why mix salt, garlic, and parsley together on your own, when you can pay Lawry’s extra for the modified food starch, sugar, and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil too?

But the folks at Penzeys have tweaked that worldview a bit.  They don’t put any of that junk in their blends.  And they employ a clever but ancient marketing strategy… free samples.  That first shipment came, and the little bottle of English Prime Rib Rub was an instant success.  Over the next few years, their Apple Pie Spice, Pizza Seasoning, Turkish Seasoning, Italian Herb Mix, Pork Chop Seasoning, and Barbeque Of The Americas have hit our table like a new street drug hits the corner.

Okay.  Maybe that’s laying it on a bit thick.  But seriously, there has not been a visiting picky kid who doesn’t like the Pizza Seasoning.  The 4-year old who didn’t want more than a box of the orange stuff and a hot dog, ate all his peas when they were covered in butter and Pizza Seasoning.  Some warier older kids eyed a pasta salad with suspicion once, but they cleaned their plates and asked for more. I don’t know if it works because it has pizza in the title, or because the kids are at someone else’s house, or because I’m not their parent.  It works.  I don’t question the magic.  It does a wonderful job on pizza too, whether working from scratch or just customizing a frozen store-bought thing with your own goodness.

I use Penzeys stacking jars for storage and purchasing spice refills as needed.  They fit perfectly double stacked in the Kraftmaid full-extension drawer we chose 7 years ago.  I’m enough of a details freak to have printed some removable adhesive labels with the name, date of purchase, country of origin, Scoville units, etc.  Occasionally I even make sure they are alphabetized in my drawer.  I can let the laundry go for a week, but I’ll spend hours obsessing over the spice drawer.  It’s sad but true.  I’m not proud.

…except that I am!!  Look!  See how pretty??

I like tossing Penzeys a few extra bucks and buy my jars from them.  But if your current storage method would prefer a different sized jar, I recommend soil-sampling jars sold by your friendly, local environmental testing lab.  You know, the place you should go take a sample of your drinking water on occasion if you have your own well??  The brilliance of soil-sampling jars for spices is that they all have a Teflon disk inset in the lid.  Think about it.  They are designed not to let any vapor transfer in or out in between the sample collection location and the lab.  Use these jars in a cool and dark place and your spice investment will last a very long time.

So get yourself a copy of the latest Penzeys Spices catalog and see where it takes you.  Maybe you needed a few things anyway?  Especially the Pizza Seasoning.

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