Monthly Archives: March 2014

An Update on the Garden and Seeds!

Today was finally the kind of day I’ve been waiting for.  It was beautiful, the sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid-60s, the grass was turning green, and everything outside seemed to be green and growing.  It finally feels like spring, so I took the opportunity to check things out in the yard.  I also wanted to provide some updates on the seeds I planted a few weeks ago.

Bearded IrisAs I wander through the yard, it’s always nice to see mother nature in action, sending up new shoots.  I spotted some of my bearded irises first.  They have such beautiful blooms, even though they are short-lived, but the spikes of leaves last longer and really add contrast to the garden.  The other great things about bearded iris is that they multiply fast.  What starts out as just 1 small rhizome quickly spreads.  You can divide them also to have more and also spread them out.  I’ve found that after the clump gets too big, you really need to divide or the flowers aren’t as big.

PeonySome of my favorites, especially in the spring, are peonies.  I love the big flowers.  They put on quite a show.  I have both tree peonies and herbaceous peonies.  The tree peonies are interesting in shape, but I think I lean towards the good, old-fashioned herbaceous ones.  Thankfully both are starting to show growth in the garden.  The herbaceous ones always send up these amazing red shoots.  They are easy to spot in the spring soil.  They will be bursting with color in May.

Tree PeonyThe tree peony is a very interesting specimen.  As the name suggests, it grows as a tree, and it sends out new shoots every year.  These shoots will include the buds that will also put on quite a show in a few months.  The one very nice thing about the tree peony is that the flowers don’t weigh the plant down.  Often times, towards the end of the blooming season, especially if we get a good rain, the herbaceous blooms will end up on the ground because they weigh the delicate branches down.  The tree peony comes with its own built-in support!

DayliliesDaylilies are just starting to burst through the soil.  The bright green shoots are coming up in a number of places.  They prefer a little bit of shade and do really well, growing into very substantial clumps, sending up big, colorful blooms.

20140331_161038Even though many people think of mums in the fall, they do start to sprout now if you have them in the garden.  They are a hardy perennial, and I’m always lecturing people about how they can plant their fall potted ones in the ground.  The good news is a bunch of friends have no desire to do it, so I get their leftovers!  These will need a cutting back before July 4th to make sure they don’t bloom too early.  Any later than that, and they won’t have time to bloom at all this season.

Probably the favorite plant in my garden as far as my Strawberryniece and nephews are concerned, the strawberry plants are doing well already.  They will have sweet, delicious berries in a few months.  One thing to note, they spread like crazy.  I have a few sections on the side of my house where there are beds that are surrounded by sidewalk.  They have done great in this location, and also can’t take over anything!  It’s a win/win.

TulipsI have a number of bulbs that I’ve planted over the years.  Some of my favorites are daffodils and tulips.  I love that the daffodils are one of the first to bloom in the spring.  They are such a welcome sight, and they multiply and create full clusters in the garden.  Tulips are another favorite, and you can really spread out their bloom time with the different varieties available today.  They are just starting to poke through, although they will take a little while to send up buds.  Even so, they are always such a welcome sight in the early summer garden.

As for the seeds I wrote about a few weeks ago, I’m happy to report that I have seedlings for all of them.  Some have definitely done better than others, but I’m not loosing hope.  There is still time for a few to come through.  Here is what’s growing so far:

Cucumbers

Cucumbers

Eggplant

Eggplant…small, but coming along.

Kale...I've gotta thin these!

Kale…I’ve gotta thin these!

Tomatoes...these are both the San Marzano and Brandywine varieties.

Tomatoes…these are both the San Marzano and Brandywine varieties.

Beets...you can't miss these...I love the red color.

Beets…you can’t miss these…I love the red color.

Fava Beans...these are growing like crazy!

Fava Beans…these are growing like crazy!

Sage

Sage

Chives...these are also so tiny.

Chives…these are also so tiny.

Taragon

Tarragon

Squash

Squash

With Easter Around the Corner I’m Making Easter Bread!

Loaves of Easter BreadSome of my favorite things about holidays are the customs and traditions that people keep.  They may be very new, or they can go back for generations.  They can involve any number of different rituals, but, thankfully, many of the traditions center around one of my favorite topics, food!  That is certainly the case in my family…it’s all about the food.  For Christmas, there is the fish dinner (Feast of the Seven Fishes), for Thanksgiving, there’s holiday soup (Italian Wedding), and for Easter, there is always Easter bread (spianata)!

RecipeSweet breads are very common around the holidays.  Many cultures have their own versions, but this one is an Italian Easter bread.  Flavored with vanilla and anise seeds, it’s a great breakfast treat.  There are many different recipes, some more light and bread like, others more dense and cake like, but they are all delicious.  For this one, I used my Mommom Phil’s recipe.  As you can imagine, in my Mom’s recipe box, she has a ton of different recipes (Mommom Phil, or Philomena, being my Dad’s Mom), and this one is more cake like and makes about 6 loaves.

ProofingTo start, mix 1 envelope yeast with 1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon of sugar.  Let this proof for a few minutes while you mix everything else.  Using a mixer, cream together 1 stick softened butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar.  Add 6 eggs and continue to mix.  Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 3/4 cup warm milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon anise seeds, and the yeast mixture (make sure that the yeast mixture has bubbled up and you no longer see the individual yeast seeds).  Mix everything until combined, then add about 2 1/2 lbs flour (about 9 cups).  Mix until a dough Mixing Doughforms.  You may need to add an extra cup or two of flour so that you have a dough that you can knead.

Dump the whole thing on a floured surface and start to knead.  You want the dough to be smooth and consistent.  This won’t take long.  Once it’s ready, pour a little bit of oil in a large bowl and swirl the ball of dough in the oil, then turn it over.  This way the dough is covered in oil, including the top.  Cover the dough with a piece of plastic and a towel (because that’s how my Mom and RisingMommom do it), and set the bowl in a warm place to rise.  I put mine right next to the radiator.

After a few hours, the dough should have doubled in size.  Take it out of the bowl and divide it into 6 equal portions.  This is always the tough part for me…equal portions.  Shape the pieces into loaves and place in greased loaf pans.  You’ll want to again cover these and set them in a warm place to rise.  I let them rise another hour or two.

Loaves RisingThese loaves bake at a very low temperature, 250 degrees.  They’ll take about 50 minutes to an hour.  You want them to be very light in color, but just cooked through.  You can tap on them to see if they sound hallow, or just use a toothpick to make sure they’re cooked all the way through.

This Easter bread, or spianata, is perfect smothered with butter, or you can do it the old school way like my Aunt Elvira and pour a little bit of olive oil on it.  Either way, it makes a great breakfast, especially on Easter Sunday!

An Italian Grilled Chicken Salad…a Quick and Easy Lunch

For the last several months, I’ve been working for a new company, and, because the company is based in Boston, I’m working from home.  I was originally nervous about the prospect of working from home full-time, but I’m loving it.  One of the best perks is having access to the kitchen all day.  I can run downstairs and grab a snack, or take a quick break to start dinner, or, and this is my favorite, actually make my lunch everyday.  I’ll admit, when I was going into an office, I was never on top of lunch. I usually had to run out.  But now, I’m making lunches, and one of my favorites, that is also quick and delicious, is an Italian grilled chicken salad.

ChickenIn my effort to eat healthier, I’m trying to have more vegetables, and I find a hearty salad is a great way to do this.  For this salad, I grill a chicken breast I’ve pounded thin, which cooks quick and is a great addition, making the salad a meal.

To start, prepare the chicken.  Just take 1 chicken breast and remove any chunks of fat.  Place the cleaned chicken breast on a cutting board that’s covered with a piece of wax paper big enough to be folded to cover the chicken.  The wax paper helps you not make Poundinga huge mess when you’re pounding, but also makes clean up a breeze.  Take a sharp knife and cut partially through some of the thick parts of the breast to make it as flat as possible.  Then cover the top with the other side of the wax paper.  Take a meat cleaver, or something you can pound with, like a saucepan.  Use the smooth side, and just pound that chicken breast until it’s all the same size.  You’ll end up with a nice cutlet.  You could always buy the cutlets at the store and skip this step, but I usually don’t have them at home, and with the wax paper, it’s a Grilled Chickenpretty easy step.

Lightly season the chicken with salt and pepper, and cook the chicken over medium heat.  I use a non-stick grill pan to do this.  I have the Cuisinart 12″ Non-Stick Round Grill Pan, but you don’t need it.  If you don’t have one, you can use a saute pan.  I like to use the non-stick so I don’t have to use any fat, but you could use a regular stainless pan, just spray it with some non-stick cooking spray.  After just a few minutes, you’ll see the top portion of the chicken start to cook around the edges.  Turn the cutlet at this point to cook the other Dijon and Balsamicside.  If the chicken resists at all when you try to turn it, give it more time.  It will release when it’s cooked.  The other side should take about another minute or two, and then, your chicken is done.  Because you pounded that chicken so thin, it really does cook quick.

While the chicken is cooking, you can prepare the salad.  I make a simple vinaigrette in a bowl big enough to hold the dressing.  I just use about 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, and whisk those two together until combined.  Then add about 2 teaspoons of olive oil.  Whisk until everything is Emulsifiedemulsified, and taste to see how it is.  You can always add a little more of this or that to adjust the flavors.  For the lettuce, I use hearts of romaine, just chopped and added to the bowl.  I also use 1 roasted red pepper.  You could always roast these yourself, but you can also get them jarred at the grocery store, and the jarred ones are good.  If you’re going for speed here, definitely get the jarred.  Add those to the bowl with 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, and toss everything together.  I don’t add salt, but I do add pepper.  I find the dressing has enough salt for me, but you can add it if you’d like.Roasted PeppersTo serve, I put the chicken on a plate and top with the salad.  You can sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on top if you prefer, and dig in!Romaine and Roasted Peppers

It’s Finally Spring and I’m Planting!

I think we can all agree, it’s been a long winter, or at least those of you not in sunny, warm locations that don’t really have to deal with winter.  Even though I know there is more cold weather in the forecast, it was a great first day of spring yesterday.  The temperature hit the mid-50s, the sun was shining, and I took the opportunity to plant my seeds.

SuppliesThere were a number of seeds in my order that required early planting, and yesterday was the perfect day for it.  I received my order from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company a few weeks ago, and I purchased my supplies, pots and soil, so I was ready.

The last few years, I’ve used biodegradable peat pots for planting seeds.  It works out really well.  They soak up the water and stay moist, and you can plant the whole thing when you’re ready to plant outside, great for those tender transplants.  This year I Stripspurchased Jiffy Strips from the Home Depot.  They are cheap, $2.49 for a 5 pack, which can hold 50 plants.  The other great thing is, you can write directly on them.  Instead of needing popsicle sticks or some other way to mark which seedling is which, I just use a Sharpie and write on the outside of the strips.  It’s that simple.

For this planting, I like to use an all-purpose potting soil.  It’s full of nutrients and stays moist.  VIgoro All-Purpose Potting Mix was the brand of choice this year, because it’s what I Strps Filledhad left over from the fall.  And a side note about potting soil, make sure you keep the bag closed once it’s opened.  I like to twist the top of the bag and fold it over itself.  Even if it’s a resealable bag, it never seems to stay closed for me. If it’s left open, the soil will dry out.  If that happens, before using the soil, just dump a few cups of water into the bag, toss it around, and leave it sit for a day or so.  The soil usually perks right back up.  I know you’re probably thinking that you can do the same thing in the pot, but you really can’t.  The water drains too quickly and it can’t hold the moisture, so it never perks up.  Throwing some water in the bag before using it definitely works better.

Fava SeedsSo once I have my strips labeled, I start planting.  I follow a pretty simple process.  For seeds that need to be planted deep, like the fava beans, I fill the strips with soil, then drop the seeds on top.  I always plant multiple seeds, at least 2-3, just to be sure that something comes up.  Then I push the seeds down deep into the dirt.  These need to go 1-2 inches down.  I top them off with soil and pat everything down a bit so there isn’t any loose soil.  Done!

TarragonFor finer seeds, like the tarragon, which didn’t need to be planted that deep, I fill the strips with soil, then I push down the soil first.  I spread the seeds then sprinkle some additional soil, but only a very light layer.  Press down again to smooth the tops.  Done again!

Once I had all of the strips planted, I started watering.  I don’t like to pour water on top.  Some of the seeds are so fine, the water can carry them away.  Instead, and this is another great reason to use the peat strips, I soak Tubthem in a tub for just a minute or two.  I fill a tub with a few inches of warm water, but not enough to cover the strips.  Then I soak the strips until the soil is moist.  Once they’re moist, I pick them up to drain, then set them on a big tray.  For this, I use a huge sheet pan that was my grandmothers, covered in foil to cut down on clean up later.

The next trick is critical for me.  I cover the whole thing with plastic wrap.  This basically creates the same environment as if you got one of those kits in the store that comes with the clear plastic cover.  You’re creating a little greenhouse to start the seeds off right.  The plastic will start to get little drops of water, and that’s how you know it’s working.  The water is staying in and not evaporating.  This also should Seeds Donekeep you from having to water for a little while.  That also is a good thing.  Once the seedlings emerge, you have to be careful with watering to not disrupt the tender plant or create any kind of mold or fungus that could kill the very delicate seedlings.  Once the plastic is covering them, I set the whole thing in a warm, sunny spot and wait for the growth!

Before you know it, it will be time to plant outside!

Garden Clean Up Under Way!

Even though there are some flurries falling, and there is a light coating of snow on the ground, I’m choosing to ignore it.  I’m focused, instead, on the nice weather we had last week.  The sun was finally shining, and the snow was melting.  I took this opportunity to go outside and start my garden clean up!

Beds BeforeFor me, March always means garden clean up.  I get excited knowing that the nice weather is approaching.  This year, with all of the snow we’ve had, I had to wait a bit longer, but I was able to get outside last week and clean up some of the beds.  It’s always great to pull out the old leaves and junk that filled the garden during the winter and see what’s starting to emerge underneath.

RakingThe first thing I do when I’m cleaning up after the winter is cut anything back that I didn’t cut in the fall.  I do go through and cut back in the fall, but often times, there are some plans that have interesting leaves or even the dried blooms have enough appeal that I want to keep them into the winter.  And my mums were blooming well into December, so I just let them go.  Cutting back now just cleans up the garden and gets everything ready for new growth.

DaffodilsThe next thing I do is rake.  This is really the biggest part of the spring cleaning in the garden.  I have a metal rake that is pretty flexible, so it won’t do too much damage, especially since I do rake rigorously.  I’m trying to clear out all of the dead leaves and branches that have fallen into the garden and gotten matted down from the snow.  The important thing to remember, though, if you’re taking this approach, is you need to do it early in the season.  As the plants start to grow, if you’re raking through them, you could do some damage.  Here, I had some Plants Emergedaffodils starting to emerge, and some chrysanthemums, but that was really it.  Both were small enough, so the rake didn’t do any damage.  But in some of the areas, I did reach in and remove the leaves and other debris with my hands, just to be sure.

Once the dead stuff is removed, you really have a better view into how things are progressing.  You may see a plant emerging that you didn’t want in a particular spot, or maybe you had forgotten about a bulb when you planted something else during the Clean Up Donesummer.  This is a good time to inspect and move things around if it’s early enough to do so.  I also love to just see what has made it through the winter.  The spring blooms are some of my favorite, especially since there haven’t been any blooms all winter.  It’s always so nice to see everything starting back up again.

The other thing I do while I’m doing the clean up is I inspect any of the bigger bushes or trees.  Some of these branches will need to be cut back because they are crossing another or just growing in the wrong spot.  This is a good time to do some of that pruning, early enough so that you aren’t impacting the growth.

DebrisFinally, this is a great time to take a look at any supports or hardscaping.  This year, as I was cleaning, I noticed my wrought iron supports around the porch that have roses, clematis, and wisteria growing on them are rusting.  I’ll need to sand and paint them this year.  Because I have plants that grow up these support, I’ll need to take care of this project soon, before the plants are covering them.  Hopefully in a week or so it will stay warm enough to get this done.

Ready for Compost PileOne thing that I want to stress about the clean up is please, don’t just trash all of the leaves and debris that you’ve raked and pulled from the garden.  This already decomposing plant material is perfect for the compost pile.  If you have one, definitely add it to the pile.  It’s already on its way to becoming amazingly rich food for your plants.  If you don’t have a pile yet, consider starting one, especially since you have this great material to start with.  It really is easy, just pile up the organic matter (get rid of any trash, plastic, or other material that may have blown into the beds) at this point…but don’t throw it away!  It’s good stuff.

I’m very excited that I have started the yard work.  I think my next project this week will be to start the seeds indoors.  Spring is almost here, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

Getting Ready for St. Patrick’s Day with Irish Potatoes

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m not Irish.  My last name is D’Addezio, and, well, you can’t get much more Italian than that.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that none of my ancestors ever came from the Emerald Isle.  But I can’t pass up a St. Patrick’s Day staple…Irish Potatoes!  If you’ve never had them, they are a sugary sweet, coconuty (it could be a word), dripping in cinnamon little candy, and they are delicious.  They’re also very easy to make!

MixingTo start, beat 4 tablespoons butter (half a stick) with 4 oz cream cheese (half a block) until fluffy.  Make sure both the butter and cream cheese are at room temperature so they combine easily.  Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and mix until combined.  Next, add 4 cups powdered sugar, about 1 cup at a time, and mix thoroughly after each addition.  Finally, add 2 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut and keep the mixer going until it’s all mixed together.  Cover the bowl with plastic and stick it in the fridge for about an hour or so to make the rolling easier.

RollingAfter about an hour, or even overnight if you have time, take out the mixture.  In a dish, sprinkle 3 tablespoons cinnamon.  Take about a teaspoon of the coconut mixture and form it into a little potato, then roll it in the cinnamon to cover completely.  Lay the potatoes on a parchment lined cookie sheet and continue until you’re finished the whole mix.  I made 44, but I’d say you’ll make between 40 and 50 small potatoes.  You don’t want these too big, as they are sweet and rich, but also delicious.  Once you’re finished, store them in the refrigerator so they stay firm.

Even though the recipe is pretty easy, I seemed to make a mess with the powdered sugar.  Make sure you turn the mixer on LOW when you’re adding the powdered sugar!

Good luck and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!Mess

I’m a Sucker for Ice Cream…Cinnamon Ice Cream

I am pretty much addicted to ice cream.  I love it.  When my brothers and sister and I were younger, it was a ritual.  Every night, we had a bowl of ice cream.  In the summer, when we’re down the shore, one of my favorite things to do is go out for ice cream.  While I don’t still indulge as much, at any given point, I have some in the freezer.  Recently, I’ve been experimenting with different flavors and making my own.  Last week, I tried out cinnamon ice cream, and it was awesome!

Egg MixtureI came across an ice cream base that works really well with different flavorings.  Sure, you could just add vanilla (which I always do) and have some of the best vanilla ice cream you’ve ever had, but it’s also a great base for adding other flavors.  The one thing you need, though, is an ice cream maker.  I have to admit, I hate appliances.  While I love the tools, and I love making different things at home, I hate having another piece of equipment I have to store.  Since I have the KitchenAid Stand Mixer, I gave the ice cream maker attachment a try.  Instead of having a whole machine, it’s just the bowl and the paddle that you have to store when not in use.  I’ve been very happy with that, but, I’m sure there are other great ice cream makers out there.

CombineTo start, mix 1 cup heavy cream with 3 cups half and half in a large saucepan.  Place it over medium-low heat and stir occasionally until it’s simmering.  You don’t want it to boil.  Once it’s simmering, turn off the heat.

Meanwhile, whisk together 8 egg yolks, 1 cup sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a bowl large enough to hold the egg mixture and cream mixture.  Slowly pour some of the cream mixture into the egg mixture (about a half cup).  Whisk to combine, then add a little more.  Keep doing this until all of the cream is combined.  You want to be careful because if you add too much of the hot cream, and don’t whisk, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs in your ice cream base.

Coat Back of SpoonOnce it’s all combined, add it back to the saucepan and put it back on the stove, on a medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened.  This takes about 5-8 minutes.  You want it thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and, if you’re not familiar with that test, you literally dip a spoon in the mixture, run your finger over the back, and see if the line stays.  If the mixture is thick enough to keep the line you made with your finger, you’re good.  Once it’s done, pour it into a bowl.  At this point, I add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, and, because I was making cinnamon ice cream, 2 teaspoons cinnamon.  Let the mixture cool before chilling in the refrigerator overnight.

MixerMake the ice cream according to your ice cream maker instructions.  For the KitchenAid, you start the mixer on low and slowly pour the base into the bowl.  Keep it running for 15-20 minutes until thick, then pour into a freezer safe container and freeze for 2 hours.

As I mentioned, I used this base with cinnamon, but you could use any number of flavors.  You could add fruit puree, Almost Readychocolate, espresso powder, chunks like chocolate chips or crushed cookies.  You get the idea.  Just keep in mind, if you’re adding something sweet, you may want to reduce some of the sugar in this base, as it has enough to be sweet on its own.

If you haven’t tried making ice cream, or eating homemade ice cream, it really is superior (not that I ever turned down store-bought, but it really is good).  And since it was cinnamon, I made oatmeal cookies to go with it.  If you’re going to indulge, you might as well indulge!