Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tiptoe through the Tulips

Tiptoe through the window

By the window, that is where I'll be
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me

Oh, tiptoe from the garden
By the garden of the willow tree
And tiptoe through the tulips with me

Knee deep in flowers we'll stray
We'll keep the showers away
And if I kiss you in the garden, in the moonlight
Will you pardon me?
And tiptoe through the tulips with me

Tiny Tim’s song from the 20’s is perfectly apropos to introduce a mainstay and headliner of the Spring Garden stage – TULIPS!

Mistakenly dubbed “tulip” by Europeans centuries ago, tulips were worn in turbans of Turkish and Persian citizens for years, whereas the Europeans confused the words “turban” and “tulip.” Now quintessential with the Holland and the Low Countries of Europe, tulips represent a gamut of meanings from truest love to forgiveness to beautiful eyes.

Yet, here in the Deep South and across many parts of these Untied States, tulips have gained and gleaned popularity from our founding to today. Successful tulip planting for us in Zones 8 and 9 require weeks of preparation via chilling in a refrigerator, but success nonetheless.

Zones to our north can plant the bulbs in the fall and have them magically pop up and bloom the following spring. In this Farmer’s garden, and other here, a bit of coaxing will ensure bountiful blossoms to herald the coming of spring!

When thinking about spring, remember all the labor needs to be done in fall. Put the garden to bed for winter and then watch with amazement the truly astounding thing that is spring. Clean out and cut back your beds and prepare your flower plots accordingly, stuffing every inch you can with bulbs, covering them with several inches of soil, and then planting a foundation of pansies and violas on top for a stellar cornerstone for the tulip mania to come!

After the bulbs have chilled in a sterile refrigerated space for about four weeks or so, the tulips can be planted in the garden in late fall (November-ish) and enjoyed from late February through March and into April, depending on bloom times and an array of different specimens. Purchase good quality bulbs, those that are firm, not moldy or mushy, and truly bulbaceous in shape…somewhat of a squatty pear shape. Plant the bulbs tip side up at a depth of about six inches in rich garden soil. Bulbs love a bed enriched with compost, bone meal, and organic material to feed off of and push through easily. The magic and simply miraculous nature that is germination from a seed or bulb is stunning and sincerely fascinating.

There are thousands of varieties, cultivars, and species of the Tulipa genus and finding the right ones for your garden is an assignment worth gaining high marks on. Tulips have early, mid, and late bloomers, and a hearty mix of the three will ensure a delightful bloom time for your garden. Plus, these are fantastic cut flowers, lasting nearly a week indoors and adding a spark of color and pizzazz to any tableau. I love the double late blooming varieties that look like peonies when in full bloom…absolutely gorgeous in the garden or in a vase! The Darwin Hybrids work well in the Deep South too.

Tackling tulips is a ordeal that requires proper planning. Plan your timing and these gorgeous blossoms will dazzle you and your garden scene for weeks. Here are some tips to tulip planning, planting, harvesting, and cutting.

· Plan a color scheme and planting schematic as well. Imagine your garden in full bloom with all white or pink or a combo! Do salmons and oranges make you happy or would a primary color scheme set off your house? A massive mix might be your trick too. Bulb catalogues and garden centers often carry mixed bags that are super successful. Don’t forget to coordinate your pansy and violas into your scheme as well. Make a plan and stick to it.

· Remember anything planted en masse is spectacular. Cram as many bulbs per square foot, inch, or in pots that you can. Pots are awesome arenas for tulip displays.

· Purchase or order your bulbs in late August or September…reputable bulb companies will send you the bulbs at the proper planting time, and then I prefer to chill them for about four weeks in a sterilized refrigerator. Keep an eye on them as to the temperature (40 degrees F) and watch for any mold or moisture. Plant your bulbs in late fall…Thanksgiving, give or take a week or so, is ideal in the Deep South.

· Plant your bulbs in prepared beds that are amended with fine organic material, bone meal, and good soil conditioning. I like to plant pansies and violas on top of the tulips bulbs for a tapestry of blossoms throughout spring. Dianthus and parsley make for beautiful mats for tulips to burst forth, too! Mulch your beds with plenty of finely graded mulch, such as Nature’s Helper, for a finished look and added layer of protection. Don’t worry: the bulbs will definitely be able to pop out of the pansy roots…don’t ask me how it’s possible, but it is and it is astonishingly beautiful this phenomena of nature!

· Cut your blossoms for bouquets when the blooms are tight. Tulips will still grow a bit cut and arranged in water, so be sure to allocate plenty of space and water. Keeping the water clean with a drop of bleach is helpful to the longevity or your arrangement.

· Frogs, rocks, and woody branches all help support floppy tulip stems and add some dimension to the arrangement. Since the stems are so fleshy, oasis can be tough to use with tulips. If you need to stick individual tulip blooms into a bouquet, use water picks and tubes. Though, there is hardly anything as stunning and simple as a bouquet of tulips in a pretty container.

· I replant my bulbs every year rather than harvesting and storing them. Here in the Deep South, tulips are not perennial, so treat them as annual endeavor for best results. Since our warm season is so long, the bulbs simply rot, so just plan on these dynamos as an annual tradition.

· A few varieties I love and have had great luck with are: Angelique, Salmon and Pink Impression, Ivory Floradale, Swan Wings Apeldoorn Hybrids, Darwin Hybrids, and WestPoint. There are literally thousands of others, but these have tested well in my neck of woods and I wish the same success for your garden.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sausage and Black Bean Soup

I love soups and stews…previously stated in other posts, I know, but I truly do. This soup is a derivative of fresh, previously fresh, and local flavors that all meld together in a literal melting pot of culinary delight.

Sausage from M&T Meats in Hawkinsville mixed with Conecuh Sausage from Evergreen, Alabama add a layer of savory, smoky flavor as well as depth to this soup. Stewed tomatoes, put up from last summer, and black beans all swirl around in a big ol’ pot with cumin, cayenne, and a Vidalia roux.

Rouxs rule! A roux, or a cooked mixture of fat and flour, is the flavor foundation for this soup. A roux is the classical thickener for the French mother sauces, yet a Cajun roux is a bit different from its classical cousin. The roux for this soup is more so of a Cajun roux, though not totally authentic…a Cajun roux takes a long time to properly make – this one not so much. I also did not use flour since I used onion powder and cumin, thus making up the starch portion of the roux’s makeup. Typically a one to one ratio fat to starch is called for in a roux…this combo works just fine!

Some good olive oil and a medium high heat start browning the translucent Vidalia’s. Salt and pepper of course flavor the onions while they to continue to brown. Once the onions begin to show some color, add half a stick of butter, then onion powder, cumin, and cayenne. Vigorously stirring the spices into the browning onions and butter will create your roux and, thus, your soup’s cornerstone.

Now, as for the sausage, I used the combo of a mild smoked one from M&T I had on hand and another mild one - Conecuh sausage. This super sausage is available in most grocery stores and is produced in Evergreen, Alabama – isn’t that grand!

I sliced the sausages into thin rounds and roasted them in the oven until the little bits were crisps rounds of amazing flavor. These sausage lardoons add a bite and breadth of flavor to the soup that is simply amazing. What are lardoons? Just cooking gold! Strips or cubes of pork fat and meat used to flavor a dish or “lard” a lean piece of meat. Whether sausage or bacon or other cured pork, lardoons are a fantastic asset and vehicle to a marvelous depth of flavor. I also browned some ground beef for added texture and heartiness. No doubt, though, the lardoons and Vidalia roux are the powerhouse flavors of this dish!

Holy frijoles! Last but not least are the black beans. I can eat black beans salted with a bit of sour cream any time, and these richen up this dish as well as thicken it too. Thus, a dollop of sour cream or some sharp white cheddar cheese garnishes this soup as perfect complements. Since I am always a goner for a sweet and salty combo, I whipped up some honey cornbread to balance the savory nature of the soup. Whether you are making some homemade cornbread or a quick box (Jiffy and Krusteaz are always easy breezy), heat some oil in your iron skillet or cooking dish first so the edges will be crispy.

Whenever I can cook an entire meal in one pot, serve it right off the stove, and keep it for a couple of days, I am a happy camper. This soup ranks high in this Farmer’s kitchen and I hope ya’ll love it too!

Sausage and Black Bean Soup

· One package of Conecuh Sausage cut into thin rounds…I used the mild…there’s still plenty of heat.

· 2 medium Vidalia Onions finely chopped... Invest in a Vidalia Chop Wizard!!! It is awesome!

· Heaping tablespoon of minced garlic

· One package of lean ground beef…about a pound

· 2 tablespoons of onion powder

· 2 tablespoons of cumin

· 1 tablespoon of garlic salt

· 1 teaspoon of cayenne…more if you like it spicy!

· Half a stick of unsalted butter

· 2 tablespoons of good olive oil

· 2 jars of “put up” summer tomatoes or 2 cans of stewed tomatoes

· 2 cans of black beans with the “bean juice”…don’t drain the liquid

· 1 can of tomato paste

Slice sausage into rounds and scatter the sausage onto a baking sheet. Bake at 350F until crispy around the edges. Remove and drain any excess oil. Try to resist eating all the little lardoons now, but one or two bites won’t hurt!

Heat olive oil over medium high heat…add chopped onions and salt and pepper to taste. Once the onions begin to show some color, add the butter, onion powder, and cumin. Stir vigorously so you have a pot o’ gold forming… a gold/brown roux full of flavor!

After stirring for about a minute, add the ground beef, garlic, garlic salt, and cayenne pepper. Stir to incorporate everything together. Continue to cook the meat until fully brown.

Once the meat is totally cooked, add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, and black beans and bring to a boil, adding water if needed for desired consistency.

Toss in roasted sausage, stir the pot and serve! Serve with cornbread, dollops of sour cream or shredded sharp white cheddar. How easy it that?!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Sucker for Succulents

I am a sucker for succulents. From their color combos, textures, and awesome survival skills, to their ease of care and more readily availability, these little domes and nests of water retaining plants are dynamos of the plant world. Here in the Deep South, we can use members of this plant family year round in the garden and inside for pizzazz! Aloes, some cacti, jades, hen and chicks, some sedums, and agaves are all succulent plants and must haves for the garden and home décor.

By definition, succulent plants store and retain water in their leaves, stems, and roots. Some are covered in pubescence, fuzz, and even spines – all of which are devices and methods on retaining water. Waxy and juicy looking, the leaves are chocked full of water and other natural chemistry phenomena to help with water conservation. Native to subtropics, steppes, salt flats, sea coasts, and deserts, the wide range of these plants’ habitat is fascinating. With the advent of modern transportation, heating, air conditioning, and other modern technologies, even the home gardener can enjoy growing these magnificent little (and some very large) species of flora.

Now as for my home and garden, I love using jades, agaves, and aloes in containers in the garden as tropical and lush accents…bringing them in or covering them if it gets too cold. This must be a hereditary thing, since both of my great-grandmothers adorned their porches with succulents, and my great-great-grandmother Bates (Mimi’s Big Mama) had “two of the largest jade plants in urns on her front steps” according to Mimi. Sounds divine for an entrance!

Sedums, such as ‘Autumn Joy,’ even make fantastic cut flowers and add gorgeous texture in the perennial beds with their foliage and flowers. Hen and chicks are a common type of succulent plant seen in many older gardens around the South, perennially popping up in cracks and crevices faithfully for years.

The “Big Box” retailers have even hitched onto the succulent band wagon, offering little compositions already planted and individual plants alike…much to my delight! I have used succulents as wreaths, tablescapes, centerpieces, and decorative accents for many clients and selfishly for years! My big lavender platter mounded with lavender hued, gray tone, acidic greens, and ghostly silvers is just eye catching and aesthetically pleasing and I savor any chance I can have a mound of these little jewels gracing my tabletop or garden.

Back in second grade, we had to make terrariums for a science project…I was already a “pro” at terrariums by this point in life, and simply relished in that assignment. Some things never change! I still love making terrariums and use them in the décor for friends, family, and clients alike for events and everyday enjoyment. Part of the fun of terrariums is somewhat akin to a trifle for dessert – yummy layers of complementing textures for our indulgence!

I found some filler stones in shades of salmon, gray, cream, jade green, and burnt sienna (the 64 count Crayola box was and is a favorite color name source) and layered them as the foundation for my terrarium. A thick glass planter/vase suited my fancy for the terrarium proper and allows me to see the layers of moss, stones, and succulents as I would cake, cream, and fruit in a trifle dish…the latter probably tasting better though!

Mounding these shallow rooted plants in a good quality potting soil is parallel to arranging flowers. Arrange concentrically and fill in any gaps with more flowers or, in this case, smaller plants or mood moss. I could verse for eons on moss, but I’ll spare you until another post. Moss does, however, cover a multitude of sins, so a dab or two here and there fills in any gaps or pockets the succulents didn’t cover. Plus, it is a gorgeous layer in your horticultural trifle!

Other fun containers to try with succulents are galvanized buckets, shell encrusted pots, or shells themselves! I have a couple ‘Burrito’ sedums in my sunroom that have been trooping along for a couple years…now that’s an interior plant of choice in my book! Explore your options with the wide array that succulent plants can offer your home and garden. Simply researching them is quite entertaining and informing as well. Gracing your garden and décor with succulent succulents is the way to go! Just don’t overwater…allow them to dry out between watering (which should be light) and plenty of light indoors is a recipe for success with these vibrant specimens. I’m sure you’ll be sucker for succulents before too long!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mexican Stew

So any dish that I can make one day, eat it the next two or so, and enjoy it every time is a winner in my book. Soups and stews are most always better once they have “set” and allowed their flavors to thoroughly combine. This stew slash thick soup is of no exception. Delicious right out of the pot and just as good the next day, my Mexican Stew is an easy winner.

Don’t get me wrong, I love soups and food in general, but condiments, sides, garnishes, and flavor savors make a dish! Sour cream and Monterey Pepper Jack cheese in this case. Now, about this cheese…oh my! The Monterey Jack or Pepper Jack I love is from our local meat market, M&T Meats in Hawkinsville. It IS a cheese among cheeses. Very creamy, plenty of pepper warmth but not fiery, and melts in a jiffy…this is a cheese for me! The ones at the grocery are just fine, but if you have the chance to buy a local cheese, pounce on the opportunity…it is well worth it!

I digress, back on to the Mexican Stew. Meaty, hearty, and full of flavor, this stew was born out of what I had on hand – sometimes making the best dishes. A leaner ground beef and little bit of ground sausage (plain ol’ good sausage, no flavorings…mine again was from M&T) make for a textural background flavor and also provide the right amount of cooking fat for the whole stew. Browning onions first, then browning the beef and sausage with the onions and using their renderings, gives substance and flavor layering to this stew. If you think there is too much fat or oil in the pan, skim some out…save it for cooking veggies or another dish. I then flavor the meat with cumin, diced green chilies, a little bit of garlic, some cayenne and chopped green onion for some zest. To really get this stew south of the border, add a package of mild chili mix and kick the whole dish up a notch. Taste as you cook, and remember you can always add more seasoning but not remove!

After the meats have cooked thoroughly and the flavor have begun to set in (onions brown and translucent, garlic soft, spices and chilies homogenized throughout the meat), it is time for the liquids. I use a small can of salsa, canned tomatoes (if you’ve put some up from the summer, use these), Northern beans, black beans, whole kernel corn, and V8 juice make up the liquid portion. Depending on how much tomato juice you employ will determine your soup or stew status…I like a thicker soup, so I am dubbing this a stew.

Tomato sauce or paste can be a great flavor depth as well as thickener. Besides, what is better than a one pot dump all in dish, right? I tore up tortilla shells at the end to serve as “dumplings” and a marvelous addition they were. Plus, I served Pepper Jack Quesadillas with the soup, since I had tortillas on hand. This stew is very simple and delicious. It can feed an army and be stored or frozen easily. If you like super hot food, add some heat with more peppers or cayenne (I used a scant bit of cayenne for kick).

On top of being easy, this stew is simply elegant…a well ladled bowl full garnish with sour cream and Pepper Jack cheese crumbled or shredded on top is awesome. Cornbread works well too if quesadillas aren’t your thing or as an added bonus! Good year round and especially during the cold winter months, my Mexican Stew is a mainstay around this kitchen, and I hope it will be for yours! Enjoy!


v One package of ground beef, fairly lean…about a pound plus.

v One package of ground pork sausage (turkey or chicken is fine too)…about a pound.

v Cumin…about a tablespoon

v Cayenne Pepper…to taste…

v One medium Vidalia onion finely chopped (brown in butter and olive oil)

v One Green Onion…green and white portion chopped

v Tablespoon of minced garlic

v Salt and Black pepper to taste

v One package of mild chili seasoning

v One can (about 4oz) of mild green chilies

v 2-3 cans of crushed or stewed tomatoes…depends on how chunky you want the stew

v 2 cans of whole kernel corn

v 2 cans of northern beans

v 2 cans of black beans

v V8 to thin add needed

v One can of salsa…a smaller jar…you can also use it as a condiment instead of an ingredient.

v Torn tortilla shells as dumplings…they puff up and add a great texture.

v Pepper Jack cheese and sour cream as condiments and garnish…green onion nice too!

· Begin browning your chopped Vidalia or sweet onion in a preheated skillet with a couple tablespoons of butter and olive oil respectively…remember, butter for flavor, oil for temperature! Medium heat is perfect.

· Once your onions are showing some softness and browning, add your ground beef and sausage…stirring them all together. Add garlic once the meat begins to brown. Just before the meet is totally cooked, add the spices, green onion, and chili seasoning. This is really your flavor roux for the whole stew.

· Start adding your canned veggies…don’t drain them too much if at all. The bean “juice” or liquid is a great thickener and flavor layer. Add the salsa as well.

· Bring the soup or stew to a low boil or good simmer…throw in the torn tortilla strips and watch them puff…this part is fun to me! Serve once the tortillas are puffed or keep it on low for as long as you need. Part of the beauty of this dish is its flexibility of when and how to serve.

· As for the Pepper Jack quesadillas…take a tortilla shell, fill the middle with shredded or crumbled cheese, and grill them on a griddle, bake in an oven, or even microwave…the cheese melts in seconds and if your grill or bake them, a light coat of butter or olive oil won’t hurt…sunscreen in a sense! Ha!

· Cut the quesadillas into wedges and serve…these are highly addictive and delicious to boot! Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It’s like buttuh…

“So I’ve been eating butter.” I said this to some friends in Alexandria, Virginia the other weekend and they stared and laughed at me when I revealed this fact. Yes, I’ve been eating butter. I’ve sampled it plain, cold, room temp, melted, salted and unsalted, cooked and clarified. I have also scheduled an EKG, stat!

Growing up enthralled with all things pertaining to food, I have instinctively and educationally been instilled with the how’s, when’s, and why’s concerning butter. True, it IS a Southern staple, but every region and culture has a form of this delectable condiment and ingredient. The Brits, the French, the Danes and Italians all boast their own better butter and in my lovely corner of the world, I wanted to very well understand and comprehend why I like the butters I use.

I have watched Mimi, Mrs. Mary, and Mama throw in butter here and there, melt it down, dice and cube it for pie crust, garnish biscuits with pats of it, and even top off filets with a dab just before removing them from the iron skillet or grill. I have listened to Granddaddy’s stories from his childhood on milking the cows and churning said milk into butter. Butter “back in the good ol’ days” was moreover a country family’s chore or farming family’s answer to “what to do with all this fresh milk?” Cows had to be milked and nothing was wasted…butter could be consumed and stored for a bit. City and townsfolk had to buy their butter –those living in bucolical settings made it!

I love the line from Little Women when Amy says, “Butter! Oh, isn’t butter divinity?!” I concur, Amy! I know what butter tastes like and I know what GOOD butter tastes like and BAD butter tastes like. After all, a stick of butter IS the difference between a good cook and a bad cook! Allow me to further digress, regress, or simply divulge into my butter fascination.

Virginia Willis, a culinary idol of mine, explains it best in her book Bon Appetit, Y’all. “Butter is simply over-whipped cream. In cream, the fat floats around in a water suspension. When the cream is whipped, the fat coagulates and the remaining liquid is buttermilk. Whereas cream is an oil-in-water emulsion, after churning, the butter is a water-in-oil emulsion. This emulsion, butter, is a complex combination of milk fat, milk solids, and water. American butter contains at least 80 percent milk fat; some European or European-style butters contain between 82 and 88 percent milk fat.”

Fascinating! Truly fascinating! Good gardeners, cooks, and decorators alike all have an instinctive know how in their field. Not that I am good per say, at any of these, I do feel as if I understand the methodology of these as opposed to, say Calculus or math in general! It makes total sense to me why cold butter is needed in pastries and biscuits - the cold butter lets out a burst of steam when hit by heat, creating a puff of air, thus fluffy biscuits, crusts, pastry. I can grasp that fact all day long, but don’t try to get me to understand anything concerning trig!

I understand cooking chemistry, but not the chemistry I “learned” at Auburn…plant chemistry, yes, general chemistry, NO! Anyways, I have come to this understanding of butter… of what it is and how to employ it in the kitchen. Here are some of the points this cook has gathered in my own measly culinary endeavors, and I wish them to be sufficiently helpful for your expeditions in the kitchen. And remember, butter in moderation is fine…one does not have to bathe in butter…just enjoy and employ it!

· Butter is a condiment AND an ingredient. When eating it directly, say on toast, pound cake, or biscuits, you need to be eating a complement to your dish, not just a dollop of dairy disillusionment. Butter should taste good when ingested. Creamy, delicate yet certain, and slightly sweet… I do prefer a bit of salt thus salted butter hits said palette portion perfectly - this a personal palette opinion mind you.

I can remember my first trip to Europe and being amazed about how good the bread and butter were! It tasted like butter! I have eaten my way across Europe totally satisfied with sampling bread and butter…it is that good. Read Julia Child’s My Life in France and you’ll feel the same way about French butter!

The same goes for butter as an ingredient. As an ingredient, butter is enhancing, building upon, and sometimes emulsifying or blending other flavors and elements together. Here, the butter should be good and dependable, for it is a workhouse in your batter, dough, or sauce.

· Butter is a tool. Butter can truly make or break your dish. Too much, too little…employ butter correctly and it will reward you. Room temperature butter beats better, creams better, and blends better with other foodstuffs. If the recipe calls for cold butter, use cold butter…room temp, melted, clarified, or browned…work your butter correctly as the awesome tool it is for your kitchen.

· Find a consistent brand and stick with it, pun intended. Virginia Willis uses Land o Lakes for simplicity and consistency, and I have found interesting factoids about my own butter experiments. One of my favorite finds is that Smart Balance tastes great on bread, toast, biscuits, and even pasta. Good success with baking too, though I prefer “real” butter for baking. As for butter in general, the good ol’ Publix brand works just fine. I cook and bake with and find it has quite a satisfactory flavor.

Now, though, if you wish to bring your butter desires up a notch, play with the “across the pond” big guns such as Kerry Gold, Plugra, and Lespak. The latter is “slightly salted” which I found just dandy in my kitchen. Kerry Gold is always highly recommended by cooks I respect, and I think it is fantastic for buttered pecans and butter cream or cream cheese icings. Plugra, somewhat the Dom Perignon of butters, is quite delicious.

All three of these are packaged well and aesthetically pleasing, and I feel that these fair better for clarifying or browning butter proper. It’s the water to cream ratio that makes these butters better for clarifying I feel, for these have a higher cream percentage. When clarifying butter, you are removing the water, breaking down the solids, and, thus, making a by product of an elucidated or clarified butter proper. In general cooking, though, Pubilx’s butter, Land o Lakes, and Smart Balance work quite well in this kitchen. Blue Bonnet for margarine, Breakstone, and several of the organic varieties all had good marks. I prefer organic milk, thus organic butter is super! I can get totally overwhelmed with brands, so my mainstays are Publix and Kerry Gold.

· It is YOUR kitchen, so be confident in YOUR dishes. I have found that I prefer a slightly saltier, creamy, and mildly sweet butter. Most professional cooks and chef tend to stick with and cook with unsalted butter, because of the control on salt content –adding the salt as the palette prefers. Yet, salted butter is unexpectedly great for cookies and sweets – something about that sweet/salty combo is yummy. Unless you have to watch your salt intake, salted butter is totally fine in my opinion. The amount of salt in the butter isn’t really enough to drastically alter the recipe of cooking chemistry. If you use salted butter, maybe don’t use as much salt as called for…always tasting always trying!

Research butter and experiment with different brands. If you have access to local butter and other dairy products and eggs, use them! You can even whip up and churn your own butter with a hand held mixer and some cream! However if you prefer to empower your culinary skills with butter, know something about its general makeup and why we use it where we do. “It’s like buttuh…” Actually, nothing but butter is like butter, and butter IS divinity!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Carrot Cake…more so DIVINITY in this case!

So, we had this awesome carrot cake down on Cumberland Island last November for our father’s birthday…the cake was baked and smuggled onto the island by Julie, Daddy’s wife and our new personal gourmet chef! This cake is unbelievably good and it is one of those dishes that lingers in your mind long after the last crumbs have been eaten. Obviously so, since I had the cake back in November and I was still reeling about it come February. I had to make the cake…I had to make the cake Julie’s way, so, I did. I followed her tweaks and tips for a successful cake and boy oh boy was it!

One of her tweaks on the traditional carrot cake recipe is to soak the carrots in cinnamon for three days…THREE DAYS!!! I thought this was crazy, but I wasn’t going to improve upon such a phenomenal dessert. Four cups of shredded, cinnamon soaked carrots, along with oil, flour, sugar, soda, eggs, additional cinnamon and salt constitute this cake. It is easy breezy to make, but takes some thoughtful culinary twists to enhance this dish to the next level.

Another tweak is the garnish…toasted and salted pecans. Now I could eat my weight in pecans, but toasting these and any nut for that matter brings out the flavor and enhances anything they complement. Butter and salt…good butter and sea salt mind you. No skimping there. The sweetness of the cake matched with the salty pecans is delectable. Yet, the cake’s sweetness isn’t so much of a sugary sweet, but an earthy sweet brought on by the carrot and cinnamon love fest created three days prior! What else could this cake need…well, the perfect icing…a frosting of cream cheese lightly sweetened and buttery to perfection.

I am not a huge icing or frosting person…more of a purist when it comes to cake. I like cake. Pound cake, angel food, chocolate…plain, UNLESS the icing or frosting is something so good that it ENHANCES the cake, not fighting it. Cream cheese icing takes the cake here…pun intended.

Good butter (I have a whole post on butter coming up soon), cream cheese and just enough confectioners’ sugar, to make it slightly sweet, make up this frosting. Vanilla – enough for slight color and flavor – melds perfectly with the aforementioned trio. From first bite to last, this cake hits the pallet in all the right spots…sweet, salty, moist, crunchy, smooth, and creamy…all at the same time. It invites to the other senses to play as well, since it smells lovely and is quite beautiful to look at too!

From one Farmer’s kitchen to another Farmer’s kitchen, Julie’s carrot cake was a hit all around. I’ve had it for breakfast, for dessert, and for a snack…sadly watching it dwindle down to a few measly crumbs on the cake plate. Don’t worry; they’ll be eaten too…

Carrot Cake

2 cups sugar

4 eggs…I use extra large eggs…always at room temperature for baking.

1 cup cooking oil

2 cups plain flour…White Lily…stay tuned as for a post on flour and as to why White Lily…

2 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp salt

2 tsp baking soda

4 cups grated carrots

· Beat eggs and add sugar until blended…add oil and continue to beat.

· Mix flour, cinnamon, salt and soda with a fork in a separate bowl then add to the wet ingredients.

· Fold in grated carrots.

· Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F…I did for 27 minutes since I feel my oven cooks fast…use the clean toothpick in the center method for best results after 25 minutes to gage doneness.

· Cool for a few minutes and remove from the pans and allow the cakes to totally adjust and be brought to room temperature.

Cream Cheese Frosting

½ box of confectioners’ sugar

2 blocks of 8 oz cream cheese…room temperature cream cheese.

¾ to 1 stick buttergo on and use the whole stick and use GOOD butter!

2 tsp vanilla…good vanilla

Toasted Pecans…coated in melted butter and used for garnish…I used halves.

The tweaks that make this DIVINE:

Four cups of carrots. Grate and stir in cinnamon three days prior to baking the cake. Use enough cinnamon to be able to smell it, and give it a brownish color.

Toasted pecans… I used an Irish (Kerry Gold) unsalted butter that I melted then adding coarse salt. Plus, the coarse salt is pretty too! Single layer the nuts on an oven pan or baking sheet and toast on 350. Keep watch as they will burn…once they have begun to smell they’re bout ready! They should be slightly darker than their original color. Nothing better than the smell of toasted pecans!


One stick (or equal) of quality butter – Julie likes the Italian one best, that comes from the Reggiano region. Kerry Gold, Land o Lakes, and Publix brand work well too. Don't forget to add a little salt when using unsalted.

Two boxes of cream cheeseAnd powdered sugar to taste. A whole box is way too sweet. Vanilla, just enough to smell and color should be slight...you don't want it too runny. I made the frosting the day before I frosted the cake so it would stiffen up a little, refrigerating it over night. The next day, I placed it on the counter for an hour or so before frosting the cake…just so everything and everyone is at room temperature. It will work fine too if your mix it and then frost the cake…just don’t frost a warm cake!

I made extra frosting with the increased butter and cream cheese for a three layer. If you are making the cake in a 13 X 9 pan, you won't need this much, so just use what is listed....unless of course, you just want to eat it on the side! Enjoy!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Prim and Proper…the Skinny on Primroses Proper

Primula vulgaris or the Common Primrose is a garden accent that can grace Southern gardens in late winter and early spring. “The first rose” or prima rosa in Medieval Latin is where the name stems from, and the formal Latin name denotes its genus and species commonality. In Europe, these are often the first flowers of spring, the prima roses, and thus the name.

Coastal gardens in the Deep South can grow these throughout the cool season, and zones 7 and 8 gardens in the Deep South can plant these burst of color and fragrance late in the winter season and enjoy them right into spring. February is a fantastic time for primroses in the Deep South; Garden centers and big box stores usually have a great supply of these classic little bloomers this time of year… making primroses fairly accessible.

One thing this Farmer loves to do with primroses is to plant them in containers for indoor enjoyment and then transplant to the garden once they have served their time indoors. I have some majolica birds and tole containers that pair well with primrose color scheme, and yet these phenoms of the plant world look great in blue and white jardinières, julep cups, or good old terra cotta. Find a fun container, and chock it full of these little dynamos. Tabletops, sideboards, and cocktail tables fair well with the addition of primroses.

As in the garden, primroses prefer rich soil, so plant the flowers in a hearty potting soil for your indoor containers as well. While inside, make sure your little showstoppers receive great light and adequate water…don’t drown them…just keep them damp. After serving time for a few days inside, spring your flowers to the garden or potager for a proper planting.

Though, pansies are the quintessential winter bedding flower, primroses can make splash on the garden scene too. Tolerant of some cold, primroses will bloom off and on throughout the winter’s last hours and into spring. Pinching off spent blossoms will encourage more flowers to come as well as keep the plants neat and tidy. I love to plant primroses in pots near door or entrance as heralds of the coming vernal season.

Now as for style, these little firecrackers are quite en vogue members of the plant kingdom. Violet, blues, yellows, oranges, reds, creams, and whites with bands and shades of everything in between. Ruffled petals, hearty green leaves, and a fragrance that is the essence of spring itself makes primroses the a la mode style mavens of flora fashion. The pale yellow specimens boast the strongest perfume…sweet yet crisp and fresh to boot!

And you know those things in life that look so you could just eat them with a spoon? Well, try a fork with primroses! Their flavor is somewhere between lettuce and a bitter salad greens. The flowers too are edible and the young blossoms are used to make primrose wine. Of course, tea can be made with these plants as well. You can garnish a salad or dust a dessert with these little flowers, thus proving the style these flower fashionistas can lend to a meal.

A nominal expense at the nursery, primroses are worth a try inside and outside your home. Just a couple planted and enjoyed for a few days is worth the investment, for these stellar plants will provide a glimpse of spring during a bleak winter’s day and fill the home and garden with amazing fragrance. If all this isn’t enough for you, research the medicinal benefits of primrose oil. Simply put, this Farmer’s psyche is well attended with the sight and experience of primroses, and I wish the same for all my fellow gardeners.

“O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted,
Soft silken primrose fading timelessly.”

John Milton.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Greens and Things

Eat your veggies…grow them first!

Here in the Deep South, mild winter days and even those minute by minute longer days of the Lenten Season can be wonderful times for gardening. Planting greens especially!

Lettuces, spinach, herbs, and some root vegetables thrive at this time and should be planted now to ensure a healthy spring crop. Baby lettuces and spinaches are tasty, full of amazing nutrients, and ever-rejuvenating from each harvest. A salad of these mixed greens is easily accomplished in your own garden and even in containers.

Baby Spinach

Baby Romaine

Red Leaf lettuce


Lots of light, good soil and water, and a sharp eye will give you greens during the winter and well into spring. If you are interested in organic gardening and why it is so good for you, just test your growing skills with these leafy greens. I bet that you’ll be wary to spray down the infant leaves of the salad you are about to ingest! Sun, water, and good dirt, like an organic potting mix, is all you’ll need for a successful crop. Wintertime pests are fairly few and far between, but a mild solution of dish soap and water can clean your crops and rid off any unwanted creatures from your leaves.

When you are the one growing it, the whole premise of garden to table can dynamically change. Start out with healthy plants or even sew your own seeds. I like to get a head start with plugs and plants from somewhere like Bonnie’s (garden centers, big box and hardware stores carry their plants). Think about your favorite salad combos…I love the texture of spinach, the smoothness and crunch of lettuces, and fresh pop from parsley. Of course, rosemary is my standby and planting it all throughout the year ensures a revolving crop of this powerhouse herb.

Many lettuces will bounce right back after harvesting, making these dependable crops for the garden. Planning and planting your garden in phases and stages also provides your table with a good supply of crops, rather than an “all at once harvest.”

When dressing your salad, simplicity is key. A simple vinaigrette can liven any salad and complement the fresh tastes of your garden’s greens. Olive oil, a crisp vinegar (champagne or white wine), salt, pepper, and a touch of Dijon mustard is a recipe for a great, easy, and elegant vinaigrette. This dressing is a classic base, so feel free to enhance with herbs, garlic, lemon and other citruses or onion (recipe below).

If growing your own greens is a bit intimidating, start small with a container or two or tiny plot. Gardening is all about timing…when to plant, when to harvest, etc. Just catch the gardening bug at the right time and you’ll be growing your own salads, sides, and suppers before long.

Here is a list of some late winter herbs to grow for bountiful salads and savories well into spring…

· Red Lettuce

· Romaine Lettuce

· Arugula

· Spinach

· Cabbages

· Collards

· Onions, shallots, chives, etc.

· Broccoli

· Brussels Sprouts

· Parsley

· Rosemary

This Farmer’s Basic Vinaigrette Salad Dressing:

This serves a full salad for about 4-6…you can double this very easily and add flavor to taste.

· About ¾ cup of good olive oil…I like Spanish, Californian, and extra virgin Italian…Greek too if you can find it! I just like olive oil in general! Remember, you are actually eating this oil, so make sure it tastes good!

· A heaping splash of vinegar…champagne or white wine…depending on how vinegary you want the dressing – I usually stick to a quarter cup or so.

· A weighty teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Mustard emulsifies the oil and vinegar or brings the two together. A peace maker in the mix.

· Salt and pepper…a fine salt mixes well and fresh cracked pepper.

· Whisk, shake, or stir feverishly to fully blend. This is the basic of all basics…lemon, herbs, garlic…you name and the list can go on and on to add to this. Sometimes, though, the most basic hits the spot!

· Lasts about a week in the fridge if you don’t eat it all immediately!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...