Monday, April 29, 2013

The motherhood of gardening

Cucumber vines

I've never been much of a gardener. It just seemed like too much work.When my sons were little, even a simple houseplant felt overwhelming - just another mouth to feed, another living creature to keep an eye on and make sure it didn't die.When the boys were older, we had a little bit of success with a small raised bed in the backyard. We harvested a handful of purple beans, ate yellow pear tomatoes straight from the vine and picked fresh basil for our pizza. The results were rewarding, but far from stellar. Spokane's short growing season combined with my limited time and energy yielded lackluster results. I was both thankful for and slightly envious of my neighbor, whose garden produced a bounty that he generously shared. 

Fast forward a few years. My sons are 7 and 9. They dress themselves, brush their own teeth, and get a drink when they are thirsty. I no longer hold my breath with each step that they take, certain they will tumble down the stairs or impale themselves on a sharp object. And we moved to Central Florida, where the average high temperature in April is 83 degrees. In Spokane, there's still frost at night. The perpetual sunshine of our new home and my children's increased independence have combined to form just the right climate to stir my desire to give gardening another try.

Mike and the boys building the raised beds

Like everything else, I've thrown myself into my garden with full force. With the help of our sons, my husband built two 30-square foot raised beds that I have filled with okra, cantaloupe, bush beans, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, squash, herbs and flowers.
Rainbow chard, cucumbers and flowers
Whatever little I learned about gardening in Spokane is irrelevant here. Summer, with brutally hot temperatures and dripping humidity, is the equivalent to winter back home - nothing grows. So planted my garden on April 1st, hoping to harvest my vegetables before the summer rains begin.
Eggplant blossom
I wake up each morning, excited to see what new things are happening in my garden. The anticipation reminds me of when my sons were little. I'd open the door to their room each day and wonder what the day held in store. Some days I could hear the sweet angel voice of a toddler singing "Jesus loves me" in his crib; other times it was the cranky cry of a hungry baby. The garden is equally unpredictable. Some days it's worms attacking the basil and leafminers on the green beans. Other days it's the discovery of the first tiny green tomato or a squash flower that has blossomed into fruit.
Tomatoes are on the way

 I share the news about my budding pepper plant with anyone who will listen just as proudly as I bragged about my oldest's first tooth. I worry about the stunted growth of my green beans  in the same way I worried about whether my picky toddler was getting enough to eat. Perhaps it's the inner desire that every mother has to tend to her young, and now that my kids don't let me fuss over them as much I've transferred my nurturing tendencies to my garden.

I take delight in watching my garden grow. My goals are pretty simply. I want to enjoy the time I spend working on it and I hope what I produce will bless others. Pretty similar to motherhood I'd say.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cuban Sandwiches

Cubano fixings: Roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles.
A Cuban sandwich, sometimes called a Cubano, is a Latin version of a grilled ham and cheese, popular at roadside restaurants and food trucks in Florida. I’d never tasted one until we moved to Orlando, and was reluctant at first. I’m more of a veggie-delight kind of girl than a meat-lover special when it comes to sandwiches, and the Cubano is packed with pork. Roasted pork and sliced ham are layered with mustard, Swiss cheese and dill pickles. Some versions include salami.

After trying one of these popular sandwiches from Orlando's  Twisted Cuban food truck last summer along with some Yucca fries, I became a believer. What's not to like about a crispy, warm, smoky sandwich packed with melting cheese?
After watching Guy Fieri grill up some Cubanos on a recent Food Network episode, my 9-year old asked if we could have some for dinner. Here's our version:

Start with a loaf of Cuban sandwich bread cut into 6-inch pieces. It is a simple loaf of white bread, airy in the middle and crunchy on top. La Segunda Bakery in Tampa has been baking Cuban loaves since 1915, each baked with a palm frond on top to give the loaf its signature indentation. You can read more about Cuban bread on their web site.

Look for Cuban bread or substitute French bread
You can also use French bread or Hoagie rolls if Cuban bread is not available. The bread will crisp up when it is grilled, so don't start with something too crunchy like a baguette or the sandwich will be too hard.

Spread each sandwich with yellow mustard and then layer on pickels, ham, pork and Swiss cheese. I cooked a pork roast in the crock pot with citrus juices, garlic, cumin and smoked paprika. (see recipe below) and shredded the pork.
Cook the sandwiches on a table-top grill or in a frying pan weighted down with a lid and heavy pot
I grilled the sandwiches in my George Foreman grill and served them for dinner with watermelon slices and red wine (we'll, not for the kids). The smoked paprika adds an extra element of flavor, and the pork makes this sandwich filling enough for an evening meal. The only thing missing was a short, strong Cuban coffee to finish things off. 

I’m not ready to give up my hummus-and-lentil wraps just yet, but sometimes a sandwich that you can really sink your teeth into is a nice change.

Cubano sandwiches
 1 loaf Cuban bread (or French or Hoagie rolls) cut into 6-inch sections
Roast pork (see below)
Sliced ham
Swiss cheese or smoked provolone
Yellow mustard
Dill pickles

For the roast pork:
1 three to five pound pork roast (Boston butt or pork shoulder). Trim off excess fat and place in crockpot with:
1 cup orange juice
Juice of one lime
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Cook on low for 7-8 hours or until pork is tender and falling apart. Remove from liquid and shred into small chunks. Cool. Pork can be prepared one or two days in advance.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Candied Orange Peel

I'm really not big on candy, but when Christmas rolls around, there are a few things I just have to make. One of them is candied orange peels. These little sparkly sticks are filled with orange flavor, and just sweet enough for a little pick-me-up without any post-indulgence sugar crash.

This year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the candy I made with the thin-skinned rough-looking navel oranges I found in my local Florida grocery store had more flavor than the perfect looking ones I used last year in Washington. The skin seemed to have more oil, therefore more flavor to the candy. Fresher equals better. Big surprise there.

This candy is really very simple to make, but give yourself a few hours. Turn on some Christmas music, pour yourself a cup of coffee or hot chocolate and roll up your sleeves. Your kitchen will smell fantastic.

For an extra special treat, dip the candied orange peels in melted chocolate once dried

Candied Orange Peel

From “Brittles, Barks and Bonbons,” by Charity Ferreira.

5 medium oranges

2 cups sugar, divided

1 ½ cups water

Wash the oranges thoroughly. To remove the peels without tearing, slice off the stem end of the fruit, then make vertical cuts about one inch apart through the peel. Carefully peel off the scored sections of the rind. With a sharp paring knife, trim away as much of the white pith from the peel as possible. Cut the peel length-wise into ¼-inch-wide strips.

In a small pan, cover the peels with water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving peels. In the same pan, stir together 1 ½ cups of the sugar and the water over medium-low heat until sugar is dissolved. Add the peels and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 40 minutes. Place a cooling rack over a baking sheet and use a slotted spoon to transfer peels to rack. Let them stand for about an hour, until almost dry.

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Place the remaining ½ cup sugar in a bowl. Roll the peels in the sugar to coat, shaking off excess. Place the peels on waxed paper and let them dry completely, about 4 hours. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one month. Yield: 8 ounces of candied peels.


Monday, December 17, 2012

It's cookie time

Chocolate Gingerbread Drops

I have a few go-to cookie recipes that I like to make at this time of year. You know the ones - cookies that aren't fussy to make, turn out perfectly every time and taste delicious.The recipe is usually either on a worn out index card or a wrinkled page torn from a magazine.

I made a batch of these Chocolate Gingerbread drops this morning and remembered why I like them so much. They're chewy, spicy-sweet, chocolaty and go really well with a cup of coffee.

The original recipe includes dried tart cherries, but I like them better without.

This recipe makes about 36-40 small cookies. They freeze well too (if you can make them last that long).

1 stick butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dried tart cherries or cranberries (optional)
3 ounces chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream together butter and brown sugar in large bowl. Add baking soda, ginger, allspice and salt and mix well. Beat in egg and molasses. Mix in flour in batches until well incorporated. Stir in chips and dried cherries if using.

Drop by rounded teaspoon onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for about 8 minutes or until bottoms are lightly brown. Cool on wire rack. From Better Homes and Gardens December 2007.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Gleaning for Good

Just a fraction of the oranges gleaned last weekend at a Central Florida orange grove

It will be a few days before I'm ready for another orange. On Saturday we joined about 150 other volunteers from local churches to glean oranges in a Central Florida orange grove near Mt. Dora. If you're not familiar with the term, gleaning is gathering the leftover produce after a harvest. The practice is thousands of years old, taking roots in the Biblical commands that God gave to Moses in the book of Leviticus. Farmers were instructed to leave the edges of their fields to the poor, and let them gather any remaining fruit missed during the first harvest.
In just a few hours, we gleaned about 11,000 pounds of oranges that were loaded on to a truck bound for a Second Harvest food bank. The fresh oranges would make their way to Floridians' tables within the next day or two.

The proverb "many hand make light work" is so true. We talked and joked as we worked. Hungry? Have an orange! Thirsty? Have an orange! There were plenty of jobs for all skill levels and sizes.
Picking and bagging oranges for those in need

One of the most important jobs of the day was to test the fruit from each tree we gleaned. We quickly learned not to judge an orange by its peel: the small picture-perfect tangerines were puckery-sour, and some of the oranges with brown, mottled peels were the sweetest. This young taster took the job very seriously.
Hmm....not too bad

We learned the proper technique for harvesting oranges: twist, don't pull or part of the peel might come off.


It's estimated that 40 million Americans go hungry every day, and millions of pounds of food end up in the garbage each year because farmers either can't harvest it all, it's not "perfect" enough to sell, or it spoils before it is consumed. The Society of St. Andrew ( works with churches throughout America and generous farmers to glean and salvage that food, helping to bridge the gap between nutritious food and those who need it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Grab some Goobers

One of best things about my move to Florida has been the opportunity to experience a new culinary landscape. I'm amazed at the diversity, and I've barely scratched the surface. Gulf shrimp, grouper, Florida avocados, oranges, mangoes, melons - even alligator - are just a few of our discoveries.

On a family bike ride last weekend we came across this roadside stand.
Mid-bike ride snack break. Just follow the smell!
I'm a sucker for new foods, and I'd never had a boiled peanut. Now I'm addicted. Fresh out of the ground, the peanuts (shell and all) are boiled in a salty or spicy brine for hours until the nut inside turns soft and creamy.

It turns out that roadside stands dishing up boiled or roasted peanuts are popular throughout Northern Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia when they're in season May through November. There's some speculation that snacking on these high-protein legumes became popular during the Civil War when meat and bread were scarce. Peanuts were boiled or roasted over a campfire and carried by soldiers who were sometimes called "Goober Grabbers."

Boiling peanuts in salty water until tender makes a delicious snack

The peanut season is coming to an end, but I was able to get my hands on a pound of green Florida-grown peanuts at the farmer's market the other day. With a few straggling roots and a bit of dirt attached, the peanuts have an earthy, nutty smell.

I washed them until the water ran clear. I found some smoked salt in my cupboard which I figured might lend a smoky, campfire flavor to the boiled nuts. I covered them in water, added a good amount of sea salt, some minced garlic, a dash of hot sauce and set the burner on high. After about an hour, they were tender and ready to eat. The warm, creamy, salty-smoky nuts were unlike any peanut I'd ever eaten. They were delicious and exceptional with an ice cold beer. I stored the few leftovers in a little bit of brine and they were even better warmed up the second day.

If you are lucky enough to live in a part of the country where fresh peanuts (also called green or raw) are avaible, here's an easy way to prepare boiled peanuts:

1 pound fresh peanuts in the shell (not roasted)
2 tablespoons sea salt
1 teaspoon smoked salt (available at gourmet or spice markets)
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
hot sauce to taste

Wash peanuts and place in large stockpot. Add add remaining ingredients and cover with water. Bring to a rolling boil and then reduce heat to a constant simmer, adding more water so pot doesn't run dry. Check peanuts after about 45 minutes for desired degree of tenderness and flavor. Eat warm with plenty of napkins and a cold beverage.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

If I had know that Key lime pie was so easy to make, I wouldn't have waited so long to make one. Growing up in Washington, this dessert was a favorite of mine when dining out because it sounded exotic, like a little slice of tropical vacation on a plate. I loved the combination of tart, intense citrus flavor offset by super sweet creamy condensed milk.

A recent move to Florida was the only excuse I needed to learn how to make one, so I picked up a bag of Key limes in the grocery store the other day. These little walnut-sized limes are more yellow than green, and have a pronounced floral aroma which reminds me of Kaffir lime leaves often used in Thai cooking.

 This recipe is a snap, especially since I took a short-cut by using a pre-made graham cracker crust. It's easy enough to make the crust from scratch, and I've included the recipe below.The only thing that took any time at all was juicing the limes, which I did by hand because they are so small. One bag of 12-14 limes was the perfect amount for one pie.

Tart, tangy, creamy and delicious

Classic Key Lime Pie
From Field to Feast cookbook, by Brandon, Farmand and McPherson

For one 8-inch Pie:

1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

(or use an already prepared crust)

4 egg yolks
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh Key lime juice (about 12-14 limes)

3/4 cup heavy cream

Make the crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a bowl with fork until combined. Press onto bottom and sides of pie pan. Bake on middle rack of oven for 10 minutes. Cool completely.

Prepare the pie:
Whisk together egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk. Add lime juice and whisk until mixture thickens slightly. Pour filling into crust and bake on middle rack of oven for 15 minutes. Cool completely, then cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

To serve:
Just before serving, whip the cream with electric mixer until stiff. Serve pie topped with whipped cream.