Monthly Archives: January 2014

It May be Freezing Out But Start Thinking about the Garden!

I don’t know about you, but here, outside of Philadelphia, we’ve been getting slammed this winter.  We’ve had tons of snow, crazy wind and wind chills, and even the polar vortex, whatever that is!?!?  But, in the midst of the snow, ice, and frozen limbs, the winter is a great time to start thinking about your garden!

Martha Stewart GardeningWhen I was in my early twenties, I was thrilled to get my first gardening book.  I had always loved to garden, having spent tons of time with my grandmother, helping her care for her immaculate roses (I still can’t get mine, or even hers, to perform as amazing as she did), and I took over my parents’ landscaping when I was in high school.  But I needed to better understand design, when to do certain things, and even what type of flowers were available.  So, for my 21st birthday, my parents gave me Martha Stewart’s Gardening: Month by Month, an absolutely beautiful book that shows month by month what Martha does in, and can expect from, her garden.  And right away, I was hooked.  I know what you’re thinking, what 21 year old boy wants a gardening book, let alone Martha Stewart’s, but I was, am, and always will be a huge fan.  What can I say, “it’s a good thing!”

There were so many great ideas in that book.  I think my favorite part was the sources section in the back, where I now had the names, addresses, and phone numbers (remember, we’re talking 1996, sadly there were no websites) of amazing providers of mail order plants, trees, and seeds.  I immediately called those companies and got on the mailing lists, and I’ve been on their mailing lists ever since.  The beautiful thing is, usually around late December, early January, they send you these wonderful catalogs and you can get lost dreaming about the garden, even with a foot of snow outside.  The catalogs have proven to be invaluable for inspiration on different varieties, and often times, the plants are incredibly cost effective.  They have so much more than your local Home Depot (I can only have so many black eyed susans, daisies, and standard hydrangeas).  Below are a few links to some of my favorite companies, but really, if you haven’t yet, look online, find some good suppliers, and give it a try.

My Garden LogOne other thing I did, taking direction from Martha of course, was I started to keep a garden log, noting how things were progressing in the garden.  This proved to be invaluable.  So many years, I’ll remember I planted the pumpkins too early, or the frost took those tender annuals, but I can’t remember exactly when I planted them and how I should adjust.  Keeping a quick log is so helpful to plan for the following year.  If you don’t do it, you should try.  It doesn’t have to be time consuming or difficult.  Just jot down some notes, and date it.  I’ll admit, I haven’t done it in years, but this year, I’m starting again (thanks to a little encouragement from Grow Tend Cook Eat).

Martha's Garden SketchSo, grab some catalogs, or your tablet/laptop, curl up with a blanket, maybe a drink, dream about the garden, and start planning.  And if you happen to have Martha’s book, or come across it, definitely take a look at the inside cover.  I fell in love with the sketches of her amazing property…and I have to admit, I still try to create similar sketches of my garden today, although mine are no where near as beautiful as hers.  Of course, I don’t have half a billion dollars to support it and a staff of who knows how many, but I can dream!

Ceramic Knives-A Cut Above the Rest

Tuscan Cooking ClassThis spring, I had the amazing opportunity to go to Italy for 10 days.  It was a great trip, we saw a ton, and had a phenomenal time.  And one of the highlights of the trip was taking a cooking class in Tuscany.  The class was in this wonderful old villa with a huge olive grove and rosemary plants that looked more like landscape bushes then herbs.  We cooked and drank wine and ate and cooked some more.  Boy did we cook…I think it was an 8 hour experience!  But it was a great one.  The food that we prepared was excellent, and I learned a ton.

One of the most shocking revelations for me though was concerning the knives.  While in the class, our instructor talked about why you need to use ceramic knives to cut tomatoes.  Apparently there is some chemical reaction that occurs when theRosemary tomato comes in contact with the metal, and it alters the taste…who knew???  I was blown away. This was all news to me.  In all of my cookbook reading, food magazine perusing, food and cooking show watching, I had never heard this!  So, I knew as soon as I got back to the states, I had to get a ceramic knife.  I just had to have one.  As God as my witness, I will never cut a tomato with a metal knife again!  And, true to form, I got back…and…I sort of forgot about it!  I didn’t get the ceramic knife.  I cut tomatoes with my handy dandy METAL chef knife, and, well, things were fine.  That is, until Christmas.

Hampton ForgeOut of the blue, without ever mentioning the whole tarnished tomato thing, on Christmas Day someone got us not only a ceramic knife, but a whole set.  It’s the Hampton Forge Duraceramica 10 piece set, and it’s awesome!  Needless to say, I was shocked.  Really shocked because it reminded me that I never got that ceramic knife over the last seven months.  But it was a perfect gift, so appropriate.

Cutting TomatoesI have to admit, I was a little nervous using a ceramic knife.  For some reason, I kept envisioning this delicate knife that would just break on me.  From what I understand, you do need to be careful.  You shouldn’t use them to chop through bones or anything like that.  But I happily tested them out while making a salad, and they did an awesome job.  I chopped the lettuce, tomato, fresh mozzarella, and even the chicken, and the knife was great.  Cut through everything “like butta”.

Slicing ChickenSo, if you need to get a new knife…perhaps your brother used your good paring knife to pry open a stapler and broke it (true story, just this past November, and I’ll admit, I’m still a little bitter) or you just want to add to your collection, consider a ceramic knife.  It really is a great addition, and oh, those tomatoes!!!

Amazing Boeuf Bourguignon, the Julia Child Way Of Course

I have to tell you, as a child I LOVED cooking shows.  Actually, who am I kidding, I still love cooking shows, I watch them ALL THE TIME!  But, it wasn’t as easy to watch them back then (ok, I’m not THAT old, but, in the 80s there was nothing like the Food Network or Cooking Channel).  I had to hope to catch Jacques Pepin or Martin Yan (oh how I loved Yan Can Cook) on Saturday afternoons on PBS.  And every once in a while, I was fortunate enough to catch her!  With her crazy voice and care free approach to cooking, there was just no one like Julia Child.  And on a cold, holiday weekend in January, there is just nothing like her Boeuf Bourguignon.

Boeuf BourguignonI will admit, when it comes to cooking, I rarely walk away from a challenge.  Sometimes I search out the complicated, time consuming recipe, just to tackle it.  And, Julia’s boef bourguignon is one of those recipes.  Not terribly complicated, but there are a lot of steps, and it does take time, but boy does it taste amazing.  The beef is so tender, the sauce so good…it’s just awesome (and I’ve made it for other people, trust me, I’m not the only one that thinks this way)!

Bacon!The first thing you need to do is saute over medium heat about 6 oz of bacon that’s been cut in 1/4 inch strips (referred to as lardons if you want to impress your friends) in 1 T of olive oil.  Use a dutch oven or similar pot that you can eventually put in the oven.  Once browned, remove the bacon from the pot.

The next step Julia is adamant about.  Make sure you dry your beef on paper towels before browning it in the oil and bacon fat.  She says it’s the only way to get that brown color, so I follow her rules.  You’ll need 3 lbs of beef cut into 2 inch cubes (although I think my measuring skills are off as many of mine were a lot smaller) and use a medium-high heat.  Turn them as they cook so you get a nice brown on all sides.  And you’ll probably have to do this in batches, which is fine.  Don’t overcrowd the pot.  Once browned, remove them from the pot too.  They won’t be cooked through, but they’ll be finished off in the oven.

the beefNext, brown 1 sliced carrot and 1 sliced onion in the same pan.  Once they get some color, add the beef, bacon, 1 t salt, and 1/4 t pepper back to the pot.  Then add 2 T of flour and toss to coat.  Put the pot in the oven set at 450 for 4 minutes, then stir and put back in the oven for another 4 minutes.  This will brown the flour.  Then remove the pot from the oven and reduce the temperature to 325.

Add 3 cups of red wine to the beef and veggies.  I used Chianti, but I’m sure any red will do.  Then add enough beef stock (and I just used the box here, but if you’re a superstar, by all means, make your own) to just cover the meat.  It should be about 2 to 3 cups of stock.  Add 1 T of tomato paste, 2 cloves of mashed garlic, 1/2 t thyme, and 1 crumbled bay leaf.  Cover and put the whole thing in the lower third of the oven for about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.  You want the meat to be tender.

OnionsWhile that’s cooking, you want to prepare the other vegetables.  For this, Julia directs you to her recipes for brown-braised onions and sauteed mushrooms.  I sauteed 1 small bag of frozen pearl onions that were defrosted with 1 1/2 T of butter, 1 1/2 T olive oil, and 1/2 cup of beef stock over medium-low heat.  Cover and simmer slowly for 40 minutes until tender and most of the liquid evaporated.  Julia suggests using an herb bouquet for this one, but I skipped it.

mushroomsFor the mushroom recipe, I just quartered 1/2 lb of button mushrooms and sauteed them in 2 T butter and 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat.  This took about 6-8 minutes for them to get some color.

When the beef is ready, strain it, and save the sauce of course.  Julia suggests washing the casserole, which I did, as you can see from the lovely, clean pot below, but you don’t need to.  Add the beef back to the casserole with the onions and mushrooms.  Put the sauce in a saucepan and skim off the fat.  Then boil for a few minutes to thicken.  Then just pour it over the meat and veggies, and you have an amazing meal.  Julia suggests serving with potatoes, noodles, or rice, but I just need a loaf of crusty bread to soak up that amazing sauce!

The Finished ProductAs I said, not terribly difficult, definitely time consuming.  But it is just SO GOOD!  If you decide to give it a try, let me know how it turns out.  It’s warm and comforting and cozy, and please, don’t forget that bread!  That sauce is amazing, you need to sop it all up!


The Oven Thermometer-My Favorite Kitchen Device!

Ancient OvenSo, I’ll admit, my oven is old!  No, it’s ancient!  I guess one could say it’s retro.  But it’s an old, brown, Frigidaire wall oven, and it still works.  And, with it, I’ve pumped out countless meals, awesome baked goods, and even a bunch of Thanksgivings.  So, I thought things were great, that is, until I started making bread (more on the actual bread making in a later post).

In my quest to make homemade bread, last year, for Christmas, I asked for the book “Flour Water Salt Year” by Ken Forkish.  The book is fantastic if you’re a beginner bread maker.  And, in the very thorough instructions, Ken suggests getting an oven thermometer to check your oven.  Actually, I’m not sure that he really suggests…I think it was a demand.  But anyway, I had to do it.  And, sure enough, my oven was off.  Not just a little off, it was WAY OFF…by between 50 and 75 degrees.  Crazy, right?  I was shocked, SHOCKED! And that totally explains why my “little too golden” pie crusts occurred on occasion (see last year’s Thanksgiving pie pictures…so sad).Last Year's Pies

So, I know what you’re thinking, of course my caveman oven would be way off.  It is ancient after all.  And yes, you’re probably right, I should have checked ages ago, but I didn’t.  I had to be scolded in a book.  But I learned something, and now I’m imparting that wisdom on to you.

And even though I have that ancient oven, I did a little experiment.  I checked other ovens of friends and loved ones, and, sure enough, even newer ovens were off a bit.  So there! 🙂

Moral of the story, do yourself a favor, and just get an oven thermometer.  They are really cheap.  Amazon has a bunch of them for under $10.  The lovely TruTemp that I have was only $6.35 from Target.  And even though they make more expensive ones, you just don’t need to get them.  Get a cheap one, hang it in your oven, and go!

This Year's Pies!Trust me, you’ll thank me when your baked goods turn out amazing…well…assuming you make baked good.  I do (and just look at that perfectly golden crust from this year’s Thanksgiving pies)!

Oh, and a word of advice, DO NOT leave the oven thermometer in when you use the self-cleaning function.  I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve gone through 2 thermometers already.  They just don’t survive!

Simple Holiday Decorating Idea…in January!?!

OrnamentI know, I know, it’s January 10th, why am I talking about holiday decorations?  But as I think about taking down the Christmas decorations (and yes, I said “think about” not “start” or even “remember” because I keep delaying and delaying, I hate the take down part), I wanted to share a simple decorating idea I did last year.  I think it’s really easy, but I can’t tell you how many people commented and complimented!

The first thing I did was search for the branches.  Even though I thought this would be the easy part, this actually took some work.  The yard failed me…nothing was right.  I wanted something think to showcase the ornaments, and it had to be stripped of leaves.  So then I thought I would just buy them, but after going to Michaels, A.C. Moore, and Jo-Ann Fabric, with no luck, I was starting to give up. Finally, a neighbor cut down a huge old tree, so I snipped some branches off the top and was all set.  Honestly, I think finding the branches was the most difficult part.

SuppliesThe next hunt was for a vase. I needed something that would hold the branches in place.  I settled on an old vase that was my grandmothers.  You can see how small the opening tapers to from the picture.

For the balls, I had these 24 ornaments for years.  I used to put them on the tree, but figured I’d try something different.  And I felt like I had too many ornaments for the tree anyway!  I like the matted finish of these too.  But use whatever you have or whatever you like.  And if you are like me and think 24 is way too many…you’re wrong.  In the end it was barely enough.

Bare BranchesOnce the supplies were together, the tricky part was getting the sticks in place.  It took some trial and error, and probably cursing, but in the end, it worked. Then just get those ornaments up and you’re set!

Like I said, pretty easy and great results.  You could even spray paint the branches white, or use ribbon instead of the hooks to hang the ornaments, but hey, I went for easy!

So…January 10th with a tree up, lights, everything.  I guess I should start taking things down.  I mean it is after the Feast of the Epiphany…the official end to the Christmas season…or at least that’s what I remember from my 12 years of Catholic school!  When do you take you’re stuff down? Or did you already…don’t judge me!