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As a first-time gardener, it's been fun watching our yard transform over the year. In the spirit of one of those trashy but oh-so-addictive makeover shows, I thought I'd share some before, during, and after photos.

I took this photo right after one of our big snowstorms, pre-garden. To make room for the raised bed, we pulled up the nearly-dead rhododendron, moved the holly bush (lower right corner, next to the tree) to another location in the yard, and then moved the other bushy bush where the holly was previously.

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I took this photo right after Haven and our neighbor John constructed the raised bed, right around Memorial Day weekend:

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And I took this one just a few minutes ago. Up at the top of the bed you can see the sprawling leaves of a cucumber plant. Sadly, this one didn't generate any edible cukes, though a couple of plants located in another spot gave us plenty. Right next to it is a potted mini eggplant, but our resident squirrels got to the eggplants before they were ready for human consumption. The mass of green at the top of the bed is a bunch of different chilis: jalapenos, habaneros, hungarian wax, and cherry. Below that we've got some carrots and swiss chard, and earlier in the summer we also had arugula and several different types of lettuce. The yellow flowers around the perimeter are marigolds, a natural pest repellent we were told, but we didn't realize when we planted them that they were GIANT marigolds -- about 2 feet tall! -- and they've kind of taken over the garden at this point!

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We also have a couple of other planters with tomatoes, and these plants have produced some of the most delicious tomato specimens I've ever had. Check out these gorgeous yellow and purple heirlooms -- yum! And the juicy, sweet cherry toms have become a staple in my morning eggs. From on-the-plant to in-my-stomach in less than 15 minutes! This is eating locally at its best.

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Winter veg coleslaw

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Here's a great coleslaw recipe that's in season during the winter, but will have you feeling like summer's right around the corner. We nabbed this recipe from the new Food Network show Jamie at Home, but apparently the show's producers only permit 2 recipes per episode to be posted on foodnetwork.com (dinosaurs) and this one didn't make the cut. Honestly, this dish is so easy that you hardly even need a recipe, but I thought a few words would round out the pictorial.

Get some of these veggies:
Red cabbage
White cabbage
Shallots
Fennel
Beets (yellow, so they don't stain the rest of the veggies)
Turnips
Carrots
Radishes

How much of each? Oh, use your judgment. The idea is to have roughly equal parts of the cabbage and the other veggies. Keep in mind that the slaw will only keep a few days once dressed, so it's probably better to make two smaller batches than to make one huge one.

Put the slicer attachment on your food processor and slice up the red cabbage, white cabbage, shallots, and fennel. Now put the fine grater attachment on and grate the beets, turnips, carrots, and radishes.

Chop some herbs (like chervil, fennel, mint, and/or parsley) and add them to the veggies.

Add plain yogurt (just enough to cover the veggies), salt and pepper to taste, the juice from 1 and half lemons, 4 - 5 tablespoons of olive oil, and a tablespoon or so of whole grain mustard.

Now mix it all up with your clean hands and serve it with, oh, say, some grilled ribs.

I paired some of the leftover slaw with shredded cheddar in a whole wheat pita for lunch the next day.  Yum!

It's March!  I admit, I've got my sights set on my still non-existent snow-covered garden and soon-to-be in-season spring veggies. But let's face it: it's still winter.  And instead of being a cold hater, I've gone on a mission to embrace the last of seasonal winter greens. 

It's not difficult with the help of Jamie Oliver, host of the new Food Network show Jamie at Home, who cooks up really simple, delicious recipes while confusing US viewers with metric measurements and words like "pukka."  His recent show on winter vegetables inspired me to make Italian bread and cabbage soup with sage butter.  It was seriously one of best things I've made this winter, and we have enough left over to serve an army.  I hope it freezes well! 

Here's the recipe, which you can also find [sans my comments and photos] over at the Food Network website:

This scrumptious, thick bread soup is about playing up the cabbage family - the king of winter veg. It's layered like lasagna, with grilled bread and cabbage in stock, and as it cooks it plumps up a bit like bread-and-butter pudding. Fontina cheese is available in good supermarkets or cheese shops [I found ours at Whole Foods on River Street in Cambridge], but you can substitute good-quality Cheddar or Gruyere.

bread soup ingredients.jpg
  • 3 quarts good-quality chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 Savoy cabbage, stalks removed, outer leaves separated, washed and roughly chopped
  • 2 big handfuls cavolo nero and/or kale, stalks removed, leaves washed and roughly chopped [Cavolo nero??  I used a bunch of red kale and the top greens from three yellow beets.]
  • About 16 slices stale country-style or sourdough bread [I used a large Francese loaf from Iggy's.]
  • 1 clove garlic, unpeeled, cut in 1/2
  • Olive oil [I completely forgot to use the oil, but with all the bacon fat and cheese, the dish really didn't need it.]
  • 12 to 14 slices pancetta or bacon [I used thick cut bacon, and I'd cut this in half next time or get something thinner.]
  • 1 (4-ounce) can anchovy fillets, in oil [Don't be scared of our little fishy friends!]
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked
  • 7 ounces fontina cheese, grated
  • 5 ounces freshly grated Parmesan, plus a little for serving
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Couple large knobs butter [A single pat would have been sufficient.]
  • Small bunch fresh sage, leaves picked

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Bring the stock to the boil in a large saucepan and add the cabbage, cavolo nero and/or kale. Cook for a few minutes until softened (you may have to do this in 2 batches). Remove the cabbage to a large bowl, leaving the stock in the pan.

bread soup - step 1.jpgToast all but 5 of the bread slices on a hot griddle pan or in a toaster, then rub them on 1 side with the garlic halves, and set aside. [I forgot this part and toasted it all -- it turned out fine.]

Next, heat a large 4-inch-deep ovenproof casserole-type pan on the stove top, pour in a couple of glugs of olive oil and add your pancetta and anchovies. When the pancetta is golden brown and sizzling, add the rosemary and cooked cabbage and toss to coat the greens in all the lovely flavors. Put the mixture and all the juices back into the large bowl.

bread soup - step 2.jpgPlace 4 of the toasted slices in the casserole-type pan, in 1 layer. Spread over 1/3 of the cabbage leaves, sprinkle over a 1/4 of the grated fontina and Parmesan and add a drizzle of olive oil.

bread soup - step 4.jpgRepeat this twice, but don't stress if your pan's only big enough to take two layers - that's fine.

bread soup - step 5.jpgJust pour in all the juices remaining in the bowl and end with a layer of untoasted bread on top. [I ended with a layer of the cabbage and it worked out fine.]  Push down on the layers with your hands.

Pour the stock gently over the top until it just comes up to the top layer. Push down again and sprinkle over the remaining fontina and Parmesan. Add a good pinch of salt and pepper and drizzle over some good-quality olive oil. Bake in the preheated oven for around 30 minutes, or until crispy and golden on top.

bread soup - done.jpgWhen the soup is ready, divide it between your bowls. Melt the butter in a frying pan and quickly fry the sage leaves until they're just crisp and the butter is lightly golden (not burned!). Spoon a bit of the flavored butter and sage leaves over the soup and add another grating of Parmesan. Such a great combo! [Agreed!]

Chavez at Sunset salsa

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Having lived in San Francisco for about six years, one of the hardest adjustments of moving to New England has been the dearth of authentic Mexican food.  It's tough having to rely on jarred salsa from far away places -- and the fresh one's we seen in the supermarkets just haven't overly excited our taste buds.

But we no longer need to fret.  Culinary help is on the way!  Larry Hernendez, a Los Angeles native and current Dorchester resident, has started selling his homemade Chavez at Sunset salsa at the Whole Foods in Hingham and on River Road in Cambridge.  (Look for the retro black and white labels.)

Chock full of tomatoes, onions, and Larry's secret blend of chilies and spices, the Red Chile Salsa is one of the freshest, tastiest salsas you'll find east of the Mississippi.  We paired ours with some homemade guac and organic blue chips.

salsa.jpgWhen he's not making salsa, Larry works as a chef at Ashmont Grill and teaches cooking classes through the Boston Center For Adult Education and at Bullfinch's restaurant in Sudbury.

Scary food #1:  Kale 

When I opened our recent Boston Organics box and saw kale I was both excited and scared.  Excited because I knew it was a great winter veggie and I'm trying my best to eat more seasonally.  (Er... ignore the tomato in the photo.)  Scared because I really had no idea how to cook kale and I had some preconceptions that it would be tough and bitter. (Wrong.)

kale - raw.jpgbest recipe.jpgAs it has on many other occasions, my Best Recipe cookbook saved the day.  (Apparently kale is an "assertive green."  Who knew?)  Best Recipe's "kale with bacon and onions" was excellent and the dish even stood up to reheating the next day.

1.5 teaspoons salt
2 pounds assertive greens, such as kale or collard, mustard, or turnip greens, stemmed, washed in 2 or 3 changes of cold water, and chopped coarse

Bring two quarts water to a boil in a large, deep saute pan. Add the salt and greens and stir until wilted. Cover and cook until the greens are just tender, about 7 minutes. Drain into a colander. Rinse the pan with cold water to cool, then refill with cold water. Pour the greens into the cold water to stop the cooking process. Gather a handful of greens, lift out of the water, and squeeze dry. Repeat with the remaining greens.

2 ounces (about 2 slices) bacon, cut crosswise into thin strips
vegetable oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped fine
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 recipe Blanched Assertive Greens
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
salt

1. Fry the bacon in a large saute pan over medium heat until crisp, about 5 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a plate lined with paper towels.
2. If necessary, add oil to the bacon drippings in the pan to make 2 tablespoons. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add the greens and stir to coat them with the fat. Add the broth, cover, and cook until the greens are heated through, about 2 minutes.  If any excess liquid remains, remove the lid and continue to simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly, about 1 minute longer. Sprinkle the greens with the vinegar and bacon bits and season with salt to taste.  Serve immediately.

kale - cooked.jpgScary food #2: Aloo gobhi 

Not scary to eat - I love this stuff! - but scary to cook.  I've had an Indian food cooking phobia for about 15 years because I once spent what seemed to be that same amount of time in the kitchen slaving over what I thought would be a relatively simple Indian meal.

For this dish, Boston Organics came to rescue with one of the consistently good recipes that they include with each delivery.  As my brother Tom likes to say, I have just five words for this dish: mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm.  And, aside from all the chopping, it was quick to prepare.

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 onion finely chopped
5 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs chopped ginger root
3 medium potatoes (1 lb.), peeled and cubed
1 head of cauliflower
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbs ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon fround turmeric
1/4 - 1 cup water
1 - 2 tomatoes chopped

1. Heat oil in wok or 3 quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add cumin seed, sizzle 30 seconds.
2. Add onion, garlic and ginger root; stir-fry about 5 minutes or until onion is golden brown. Add potatoes; stir-fry 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook 5 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients except water and tomatoes; stir-fry two minutes. Stir in water to desired consistency. Cover and cook about 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
4. Stir in tomatoes, cook 2 to 3 minutes or until tomatoes are hot.

Serves two to four.

Real Pickles

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While perusing the list of food options available from Boston Organics, we found Real Pickles based in Montague, MA. Their dill pickles are naturally fermented -- and boy, do they taste like it!  They've got a solid bite to them that couldn't be mistaken for anything else but fermentation.  On the first bite, it's a bit shocking, but these pickles are really, really good!

real pickles.jpg(It's funny -- as we've been systematically replacing our industrialized food-like products with local, natural foods, we've often buy surprised by the tastes of the more traditional items. While a lot of these natural items taste different, we're finding that they're different in a good and flavory way.)

Dan and Addie Rose, Real Pickles founders, say on their website, "In support of a regional food system, we buy all of our vegetables from family farms in the Northeast and sell our products only within the Northeast."

In our first Boston Organics delivery a couple weeks back, we got a package of sprouts from Jonathan's Organics in Rochester, MA

jonathans sprouts.jpgSince the sell by date was January 16th, I figured I better get a move on and do something with them, so I hopped on Jonathan's site and found a recipe for bean sprout and spinach squares. I took a few liberties, substituting wheat flour for regular, dropping the amount of butter, and using raw spinach instead of cooked (hey, I was in a rush).  The results?  A flavory savory snack that is, as Jonathan's web site says, tasty both hot and cold.

I like it a bit more toasty than it is in this picture, but it's in the perfect state here for reheating in the toaster oven without getting dried out.  Next time, I'll take the time to precook the spinach.
We received our first order from Boston Organics this week.  In the box: grapefruit, oranges, apples, pears, bananas, broccoli, spinach, sprouts, a butternut squash, a bell pepper, a tomato, and an avocado. Right now we're getting their smallest box, half fruit and half veg, every other week -- though we may change this to every week if we live up to our plans to cook more in the new year.

I'm excited by the prospect of not knowing exactly what's going to show up at the door with each delivery. It's almost like a little Iron Chef show right in my own kitchen: "Secret ingredient is... butternut squash!"  To make things easier, Boston Organics includes several recipes for the items in the box. On this week's menu? Spiced squash stew with couscous, spiced sweet potato fries (people ordering larger boxes received yams), and tangy broccoli.  We decided to take the stew for a test drive.

The raw materials from Boston Organics:

squash stew raw materials.jpgAnd the final product:

squash stew.jpgThe recipe definitely lived up to our expectations, so we'll be game to try the others.

The low down on Boston Organic's goods: "We buy locally as much as possible. During the late spring, summer, and fall, alot of the produce comes from Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. However, because of a limited growing season, difficult growing conditions, scarce labor pool, and suburban development, the organic wholesale market in New England is limited. As a result, a large portion comes from California. Tropical fruit, such as bananas and mangoes, comes from organic farms in Central and South America."

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