Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An herb garden in the making

An experiment in the making: my first herb garden.

I mentioned in my last post that I have a handful of different herbs growing (or attempting to grow) in pots on my deck. I don't have much experience with growing potted plants (heck, I don't have a lot of experience growing plants in the ground, either!), so I'm learning as I go.

I took a cooking class at Kiss Z Cook earlier this spring called "Cooking with Fresh Herbs," in the hopes that it would inspire me and teach me something about how to use my coming crops.

I'll just say that it didn't meet my expectations. If I'd been out to just cook some recipes in a group setting, I'd have considered it a successful evening. But I was looking for more educational, informational instruction, and I didn't get that at all.

The good news: I paid for the class with a Groupon that saved me more than 50%, so that helped to lessen my disappointment.

Ironically, just a couple weeks later, I went to a free (magic word) gardening fair at the county fairgrounds, hosted by the local Master Gardener's association, and I specifically went at a time when they were presenting a 30-minute session on growing, preserving, and using fresh herbs. This free session knocked the socks off the expensive cooking class. The presenter spoke completely without notes, purely from years of experience, and I took several pages of notes on her recommendations.

Fast forward to mid June, and my basil and oregano look great, but the cilantro and parsley aren't flourishing quite as much. I do love walking past them every day on my way to and from work, checking in to see how things are doing. I've especially enjoyed seeing the pattern in which the basil leaves grow. Leaves appear in 180° pairs, then the next pair grows on top of the previous pair -- but at a perfect 90° angle. I love the order and symmetry of it.

This is actually the basil pot where my toad couple spent the evening last week. I haven't seen the two of them together again (hope they're not on the outs), but their visit doesn't seem to have hampered this basil!

Finally, this cilantro seedling is s-l-o-w-l-y making progress. I like how delicate it is at this stage, yet completely recognizable.

I'm going to keep coaxing these along, and I can't wait to use some. I want to make pesto, salsa...

Are you growing any herbs? What are your favorite ways to use them?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Unexpected garden visitors

Four-legged visitors are usually unwelcome guests in a garden, but I have one that I have to admit I'm enjoying having around.

I've started my first herb garden this year, in pots on my deck. I'm growing oregano, basil, flat-leaf parsley, and cilantro. I tried starting some from seeds indoors, but I've since learned that my house just doesn't quite get enough light to nurture hearty growth. The basil was the only start worth keeping.

Seeds are cheap, though, and it was a fun learning experience, even if it essentially failed. I got a start of oregano from my aunt's massive plant, and I bought new basil, cilantro and parsley plants at area farmer's markets and garden centers. The still-living basil starts got transplanted into a couple pots (which, if they all take off, will end up giving me enough basil to last for about five years).

Not 48 hours after I'd potted all my herbs and settled them into their new homes on my deck, I noticed that something had been digging in the dirt around the cilantro. Thinking, at first, that it was a chipmunk (grrr), I was pleasantly surprised when I went to water the plants the next day and discovered what it was: a toad! He was buried in the dirt up to his eyeballs. It didn't look like he'd disturbed the roots, though, so I left him alone (hoping he'd feast on more than his share of mosquitoes).

After some further research into how much sunlight each plant enjoys, I shifted the pots around to better maximize the sunlight in this space. It seemed to have disturbed my toad, though, because I didn't see him again for a week or so (and he'd been nestled into his cilantro home each morning and evening).

Not to fear, though, because apparently it takes more than that to scare my toad away from his new home. Tonight, I got home from a bike ride and found him in a new pot -- a pot that is essentially in the same place as his old cilantro home.

And he'd brought a friend. Don't they look cozy?

He probably feels like he's been downsized, since this pot is in the same place, and it's smaller than the previous one. Unfortunately this couple has now definitely disturbed the roots of my basil seedlings... but since I have two others doing fine, I'm thinking I'll just leave them be.

My other surprise find tonight was this:

It's a squash plant. Growing in my compost heap. And I did not plant it there on purpose.

Actually, let me clarify: it's closer to 50 squash plants growing in my compost heap.

I'm not sure what it is yet, but it's blooming! I tossed some gourds out there at the end of last fall, so we'll see if that's the winner! Last year I found a bundle of tomato plants in this same spot.

This may be the easiest kind of gardening around.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Homemade granola

Meet my latest cooking kick: homemade granola.

Like so many other foods, once you've tasted the wonder of your own, personally customized, homemade granola, you'll find it hard to return to the boxed packages on the grocery shelf.

This isn't the first time I've had homemade granola, but it's my first attempt of making it myself. The process started in 2008 when Mom and I ventured to Colorado to visit Chase during his summer outside of Steamboat Springs. On our one full day with him, he took us to his favorite restaurant in Steamboat, Freshies, a place that offered house-made granola on the menu.

It was incredible. When we returned from that trip, Mom spent quite a bit of time researching recipes and tweaking multiple batches, trying to replicate the wonder of the Freshies granola. She's passed the recipe on to me, but this summer is the first time I've tried making it myself.

I honestly had forgotten that I already had the recipe in my possession, so I pored over several recipes before jumping in. One thing that makes Mom's granola unique is the fact that it's cooked in the crock pot. You'll find many recipes out there for crockpot granola, but it's more common to find recipes carried out in the oven.

But for as many recipes that there are, you'll find just as many stories of, "Woe is me, you won't believe how many batches of granola I've burned before finally figuring out how to do it in my own oven." I wanted to avoid this learning curve as much as I could, and having seen how easy it is to do in the crockpot (even though the whole process takes longer), that's what I wanted to do.

Alas, woe is me, it's still easy to burn granola in the crockpot.


If you search for crockpot granola recipes, you'll find widely varying temperature and cooking time recommendations (Some will tell you 5-7 hours on high. Huh?!). After having made about four complete batches in the last month (two in one weekend), I can tell you that when it comes to my crockpot, two hours on low is all it takes.

Once you know that, this is an incredibly easy thing to make, and the recipe is entirely flexible. Dump everything in, stir it up, cook it on low, and stir it every 30 minutes. That's it. The result is a looser granola than you might be used to; it's not clumpy, though there may be a way to do it. The flavor is great, though, so I don't really miss the clusters.

I made a batch this past weekend that has been my best yet. This version was loosely based on a recipe from Smitten Kitchen (great cooking blog, by the way), with some of Mom's tried-and-true flair thrown in. Here's my latest version:

Homemade Granola
Loosely based on Smitten Kitchen and Mom's Amazing Personal Recipe
Serving size: 1/2 cup

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup flaked coconut (I used unsweetened)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Approximately 1 cup of your choice mix of chopped nuts and seeds (this version used almonds, walnuts, pecans, and sunflower seeds)
1/4 cup maple syrup (or honey)
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 Tablespoon frozen OJ concentrate

I sprayed the inside of my crockpot with cooking spray first, but I'm not sure that it really did anything.

Dump everything into your crockpot. Stir to mix well and distribute the wet ingredients.

Cover, placing a paper towel across the top between the crock and the lid to catch condensation and keep it from getting back into your granola. Cook on low for two hours or so, depending on your crockpot, stirring every 30 minutes.

It's done when the granola is fragrant and golden brown. After you've turned off the crock pot, it will continue to dry and crisp up, getting a little bit darker (so it's okay to think you may have slightly undercooked it). Let it cool, then store in an airtight container at room temperature for a couple weeks or in the freezer indefinitely.

As you can see from these photos, the pre-cooking and post-cooking visual difference isn't huge.

Many recipes call for adding dried fruit after the granola has cooled, but I haven't done that yet. It doesn't really need it, though I know it would be wonderful, and honestly, I find myself forgetting to add it!

I love having this for breakfast with Greek yogurt and fresh fruit. We've had some unseasonably hot weather recently, so I've been enjoying more cold smoothies for breakfast -- and I've found that pouring the smoothie into a bowl (a very basic, bare-bones fruit smoothie), topping it with granola and eating it with a spoon is wonderful. You can also eat it like cold cereal with your favorite milk, or add some milk and warm it up in the microwave.

Now I just have to eat through this batch so I can start making some more...