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Aug 17 11

The Power of Handmade Pesto

by Margaret

 

If you grow basil, you most likely make pesto.

By late August, I’ve made pesto almost weekly. That’s because the younger, brighter basil leaves make better tasting pesto.

Last night’s pesto was just so-so as much of my basil just isn’t as…well, young as it was in early June.

Even as I pick the flower buds off the plants every day, the leaves have begun to pale. Some shrivel.

Before the threat of cooler evenings finally zap the taste from the leaves, I will continue to harvest my crop with the understanding that the basil may not be perfect, but they are still aromatic and flavorful.

 

 

And, honestly, pesto is the kind of sauce that can be made by altering methods and switching up simple ingredients according to availability and mood. So the basil doesn’t need to be perfect.

You can add a tad more garlic, a bit more fresh Parmesan,  cut small, young basil leaves.

Pesto is delicious for:

spreading onto sandwiches;

plopping atop crackers;

topping off a vegetable or bean soup;

stuffing in lasagna;

coating on boiled potatoes;

applying to blanched, fresh string beans;

grilling a crusty layer on chicken, pork or seafood;

mixing with rice and loading into fresh tomatoes before baking;

adding flavor to brushetta;

whipping into mashed potatoes;

capping off that burger;

drizzling over cheese dips;

mixing into pasta salad;

seasoning your brick oven pizza; and of course,

stirring into warm, salted pasta.

There are just so many uses for a good, homemade pesto sauce, the list could go on and on.

But, when it comes making pesto, perhaps the biggest difference you’ll find in the flavor and consistency is when you make it by hand, either with pestle in a mortar, which seems to be the preferred, rustic method that guarantees delicious results (the name “pesto” comes from “pestle”), or by chopping your ingredients with a sharp knife, mezzaluna, or a pizza cutter.

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Aug 12 11

Farmers’ Markets Week + Corn Salad

by Margaret

 

The number of farmers markets has grown 150% since 2000 when the USDA first declared National Farmers Market Week.

 

And, according to a recent report in the Chicago Tribune, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recorded over 1,000 new farmers’ markets opening across the country in 2011.

California is currently the leader establishing the most new markets, rolling out 729 this year; Pennsylvania (where I live) is 6th on the list of the top ten states with 266 farmers’ markets setting up across the fertile region.

You can see the top ten states ranking by clicking here.

 

 

Since this is National Farmers Market Week (8/7 – 8/13), markets celebrated the occasion by hosting food fests with a parade of cooking demos and tastings, live music and events where farm fresh goodness took center stage.

 

 

The rise in this weekly grower’s ritual is good news for those of us who buy directly from farmers. It means that every week you can:

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Aug 2 11

Tomato, Basil, Mozzarella: 2 Ways

by Margaret

 

I bet by now you are drowning in tomatoes.

Isn’t it great?

Ripe tomatoes from your garden, or tons of colorful, succulent varieties from your local farmers’ market or farm stand.

 

 

With so many tomatoes now in-season, it’s time to you get your fill.

You don’t want to get a tomato craving mid-winter and think about visiting Tomatoland where the green, tasteless “fruit” grows in Florida.

Here are two simple sides that take little time to put together, and make a great presentation if you’re headed to a summer gathering. In these salads vine-ripened tomatoes and just-picked, fresh basil rule.

The trick to these salads is to use a reduced balsamic vinegar, which you can buy at a gourmet food market, or make your own by heating aged balsamic in a small skillet over medium heat.

 

Here’s a great link that explains how to do this: Reduce balsamic vinegar.

If you’re in the mood for something extra special, check out Lidia’s Italy, she adds a bay leaf and a little honey to her balsamic reduction.

Either way, the thicker your balsamic, the better the flavor.

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Jul 27 11

Field Notes: Two Farmers On Effects of Hot/Dry

by Margaret

 

It’s hot as the tropics and dry as the dessert here in the northeast.

Maybe I’m being a bit extreme.

But we’ve had extreme weather this summer. Record temperatures hit 103 degrees last week with thick, soupy air dragging you to a crawl when faced with the outdoors.

From the NYT: “The sizzling weather suffocating much of the country is also noteworthy for its extraordinary mugginess. That high humidity makes it even more difficult for the body to cool off.”

Finally, much needed rain pounded the ground Monday night.

The heat, the cracked earth, the sudden downpour. I wondered how local farmers are handling the sultriness, and how crops are faring.

 

 

So I asked two friends/farmers: Tim Mountz (Happy Cat Farm), seed saver extraordinaire who specializes in heirlooms and organic farming, and Claire Murray (Inverbrook Farm) whose approach to farm-work is a purist’s ideal: It’s all back-to-basics, a sustainable road to mindful agriculture.

Both locals tend small farms in Chester County, Pa. They offer CSAs and access to their produce and other local goods through a farm stand or farmers’ market. Tim sells his seeds, plants and garden supplies online. You should check it out.

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Jul 20 11

Bi-Colored Basil & Pasta Salad

by Margaret

 

I planted several varieties of basil from seed this year:

Aton, Sweet, Rosie and Lime.

As they grew, I pinched the buds from each plant when the flower threatened to appeared, and clipped stems to place in a jar of water on my kitchen window. This way I can smell the basil as I cook, and pick leaves as I need them. It also encourages my outdoor plants to branch out and sprout new growth.

So far I have tried the Sweet and the Aton basil, green varieties with great flavor. I didn’t believe that there was a cultivar that could be better tasting than my all-time favorite Italian Sweet, the traditional large-leafed, mild-flavored variety, until I tried Aton.

 

 

Aton’s leaves are greener, wider and more aromatic than Sweet. It’s delicious. I love mixing both green varieties for a zippy pesto.

Last night, though, was the first night I cooked with Rosie, a gorgeous, deep purple variety with leaves edged in a thin lime green.

After a busy day I had little time for planning a meal, so I decided to toss up a simple pasta salad that maybe you’ve made when you need something last minute:

Pasta, tomato, basil and feta cheese.

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Jul 12 11

July Is For Daylilies

by Margaret

 

I used to live in a house where daylilies (hem-er-o-kal-is) lined a long driveway so by the end of June and into July a tall, dense rug of orange flowers bordered the gravel road guiding me to my front door.

Now a row of daylilies outline the backside of my picket fence to create a similar effect and a reminder of an entryway swept by the color of apricots.

Back then it was that orange-hue that caught my eye. But then I met Carolyn, a friend’s neighbor. Carolyn’s one-acre plot is home to over four-dozen daylily varieties.

 

 

Local daylily lovers know that Carolyn’s selection is far from ordinary, and if you happen to catch Carolyn after she’s split a bunch, you’ll most certainly go home with a clump of your own. She loves sharing her daylilies.

In fact, Carolyn told me that most of her collection came from friends and family members who divided a flower or two for Carolyn, and from trips to nurseries where a new breed got her attention.

After 45 years of this plant-and-share tradition, her landscape is infused with lilies in varying heights, hues and textures. There’s double salmon, ruffled peach and bi-colored red.

You’ll find lavender, chartreuse and brown too, with names that include “Stella de Oro” (yellow-gold), “Softly Spoken” (ruffled pale-pink) and “First Glance” (apricot-persimmon).

One of Carolyn’s favorites is “Happy Returns,” a cheerful repeat-bloomer just 18 inches tall. Some bloom as early as late-June, others wait until mid-July, and a few spike near July’s end.

 

 

In Greek Hemerocallis (daylily) means “beauty for a day.” 
 There are more than 35,000 daylilies that have been named and officially registered, and each plant produces a bunch of flower buds that will open for one day only. The following morning a new bloom will appear.

There are some varieties that yawn open in the evening and remain that way until nightfall the following day. And most daylilies are all show with no scent, although there are a few fragrant cultivars available.

These one-day flowering wonders originated in Asia and made their way to North America by the 17th century—an ideal perennial that needed little care, multiplied easily and offered great color in almost any type of soil.

 

 

As it turns out, ease of growing daylilies isn’t what got Carolyn hooked, it was more the sentimental mind-set: they remind her of the time her mother gave Carolyn her first cultivar.

She also followed the now-retired Dr. Darryl Apps, the daylily expert from Longwood Gardens who opened his own specialized nursery—Woodside Nursery—years ago in New Jersey. There he became nationally recognized for hybridizing and breeding gorgeous cultivars. Woodside Nursery carries a stock of hundreds and thousands of daylilies and now only sells online.

I like Carolyn’s idea of snipping a multi-colored bouquet of daylilies from her garden to create a centerpiece for a dinner party: By the time the flowers close up, it’s usually time for everyone to go home.

Many nurseries sell daylilies half-price by August 1. Stop in, select just one, and you too could have an impressive collection in a few years.

Sources: University of Minnesota Extension, Tranquil Lake Nursery, The American Hemerocallis Society, Inc. (AHS)

 

Jul 8 11

In Bloom: Queen Anne’s Lace

by Margaret

 

It’s mid-summer when you see her dancing along the roadside and making her way through meadows.

She’ll sway at will in my garden where the zinnias, by then just as tall, forge upward in a rigid pose beside this free-spirited wildflower.

Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), also called wild carrot and bird’s nest, is actually a wild carrot, the ancestor of our garden carrots.

The taproot is edible, though nothing I’ve read has encouraged me to give it a try.

Actually, it’s said to have rather unpleasant flavor, unless you’re lucky enough to find first year roots that are supposedly more tender than the following year’s.

In fact, cattle that graze on a lot of Queen Anne’s Lace produce an unwelcome, carrot-flavored milk.

 

 

The plant is sometimes referred to as bird’s nest because its delicate, white flowers enfold the seeds, forming a protective lair from hungry birds when the bees and butterflies are through fertilizing.

This Queen, appreciated more for her beauty than for her bounty, is a member of the Apiaceae family, a large plant group known for its aromatic, savory members with hollow stems including caraway, fennel, dill, cilantro and celery.

 

At the center of most of Queen Anne Lace’s flat-topped, flower cluster is dark purple floret that looks a bit like a black dot.

Or is that a drop of blood?

Depends upon what you believe, I suppose.

 

However, just like in most families, not all relatives have similar qualities. In this one, Queen Anne’s Lace chose to flower white florets like those in her kindred clan, but her fragrance isn’t meant to entice. In fact, she produces an unpleasant, turpentine odor that keeps mice and other pests away.

 

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Jul 5 11

Jam of Love + Peach Blackberry Vinaigrette

by Margaret

 

Last week I got a taste of Georgia. And I have never stepped foot in the state, even though I’d love to.

You see, my son is in Auburn, AL for the summer—Georgia’s neighbor—and he sent me a jar of homemade jam for my birthday: Emily G’s Jam of Love.

He bought my gift from a store that sells only locally made goods.

 

 

Emily G’s is hand-poured, all natural jam created by two moms living in Georgia who picked too many strawberries one spring, cooked up some jam with all the extra berries, and started a business selling their delicious, small-batch jars made with in-season ingredients.

 

 

As an added touch to my gift (accompanying my Jam of Love), I discovered a card made from eco-friendly material (wood) handmade by Night Owl Paper Goods, a company that prints and packages all their letterpress stationery in the USA.

I love handcrafted, one-of-a-kind gifts. My son knows this, of course.

And, by buying locally to support small businesses and artisans, you help to generate 70-percent more economic impact per square foot to your community than you would if you made your purchases from chain stores. That’s just one reason to buy locally. Read more here.

 

 

With my Jar of Love, I decided to make the vinaigrette that is on the flip side of the label. The farmstand down the road is still selling fresh greens, so I grabbed a bag of mixed lettuce and planned my salad.

I don’t purchase commercially made dressing because I can whip up all-natural Dijon vinaigrette in about the same time it takes to pour a dollop from a commercially made brand that usually contains preservatives, food coloring and/or a sweetener I can do without.

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Jun 30 11

Grilling: Soy & Sherry Veggie Skewers

by Margaret

 

If you like sweet and salty mixed with slightly charred and smoky, this meal is for you.

The flavors in this simple, grilled combination make for a delicious summertime meal. It’s perfect for a gathering of friends because it’s easy to prepare and you can put just about anything you want on your skewers.

 

 

A few of the skewers can include marinated pork tenderloin, or you can replace the pork with mushrooms (or in July, eggplant) if you prefer meatless.

 

Live music Saturday mornings at West Chester Growers Market

 

Either way, it’s nearing mid-summer and in-season vegetables abound.  At your local farmers’ market or farm stand you can pick up potatoes, squash, baby carrots, sugar snaps and snow peas, along with a huge variety of onions, scallions, and some early tomatoes (and lettuce, radishes, beets…).

 

 

Lucky me: my friend Cate, who blogs about eating locally for $100 a week (yes, it is possible), dropped off just-harvested snow peas from her bountiful garden.

And I picked up sugar snaps (eat shell and all) and spicy radishes at the West Chester Grower’s Market (PA) to serve guests when they arrived.

I included a selection of cheese and homemade bread.

The skewers included: marinated pork, red potatoes, snow peas, tomatoes and onions.

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Jun 21 11

Hot Summer Days: Grapefruit Juice + Mint (The “Chose”)

by Margaret

 

To celebrate the first and longest day of summer, how about an icy, thirst-quenching drink to cool you down? After all, the season is just beginning to percolate, and we have many warm days ahead.

I can’t wait.

 

 

The “Chose,” which is French for “thing,” is a summertime beverage popular in Belgium, where my sister Sylvia, who is visiting this week, spent over two years.

 

 

Sylvia likes to golf and many days after a round on a Belgium course, the Chose is served at the 19th hole.

 

 

I don’t play golf, but I imagine after a long hike (or, substitute one: run, bike ride, tennis match, day hitting the waves, stint in your garden), this refreshment hits the spot.

So, yesterday, Sylvia and I made a batch. After all, my mint garden was calling.

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