Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grow Your Own Herbs - Do's and Don'ts

For as long as I've been cooking for myself (20 plus years) cookbook authors have extolled the virtues of using fresh herbs. And I heartily agree with them. But it wasn't until recently that food writers of all stripes have started urging their audiences to grow their own herbs, which is really the best policy.

Not only is there a pleasure (and self-satisfaction) beyond words in sauntering out to the yard to clip fresh herbs, but their flavor, newly warmed by the sun, is incomparable to any other means of acquiring them (even the farmers' market). On top of that, in these frugal times, buying an herb plant for $1-2 is the best bargain you will find on almost anything. The real trick is ensuring their longevity, which is not difficult since the basic herbs such as Rosemary, Thyme, Oregano and Sage truly grow like weeds. These Mediterranean herbs like hot, dry conditions, and are not fussy about soil.

WARNING: (Heavy Footsteps heard as writer climbs up on her soapbox)

But PLEASE do not be seduced by the cute "herb gardens" that showcase 4-5 herb plants in a little pot. Trying to grow these wildly exuberant plants in such a tiny container is akin to Chinese foot binding, only worse. Your herbs will die in such a confined space. Take the time (and a few extra dollars) to get individual pots for each plant and provide for them properly and they will reward your efforts with abundance for years to come.

- Use equal mix of potting soil and compost for soil
- Place gravel, broken clay pot pieces, or stones in bottom of pot to ensure drainage
- Plant in container that is at least 12 inches wide (all of the plants will take up that space, except the rosemary, which will love the space for its roots)
- Only water every other day in the summer heat, and once a week in the winter when you bring them inside. These herbs (rosemary, oregano and sage especially) do best when dry; it concentrates the flavorful oils in their leaves.

- Plant in smaller pots; the plants will grow exponentially (really, it's true)
- Skimp on soil (without good soil, your plant will stagnate and your efforts are wasted)
- Skip the drainage stones/rocks/gravel. You don't have to buy stones, ask a nursery for broken pots, or visit garage sales for cheap pots and break with a hammer. Drainage is everything for these herbs.

Allow your herbs to get established before you begin harvesting from them; I usually let them double in size or leaves before I begin to pick them. But once they're establish, use them generously; this "pruning" only makes them grow faster!

One other note is that Oregano is the one herb that is best used dried, not fresh. However, growing your own oregano and then drying it (place in a brown bag in a hot room that gets plenty of sunshine) will produce the most flavorful oregano you have ever tasted!

Simple Herb Potato Salad

1/2 lb baby potatoes (your choice, I like reds)
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 teaspoons cider vinegar
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
selection of fresh herbs, chopped (I used rosemary, basil, thyme, parsley, sage and fresh bay)
1 stalk celery, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
black pepper to taste

Bring potatoes to boil and cook until tender. Drain, and cut into bite size pieces as soon as able to handle; toss with vinegar and salt and set aside. Chop fresh herbs, and add with celery and red onion to warm potatoes. Add olive oil and pepper and additional salt as needed. Toss well. Serve immediately or chilled.


Drink Your Summer with Gazpacho

Sunday morning is the Farmers' Market in Ojai and for a small town (pop. 8,200) we are blessed with tremendous farmers and incredible variety, ranging from local olive oil and fresh caught fish to citrus fruits and the traditional summer veggies. Inspired and in awe of the gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and fragrant green peppers I decided to make an old favorite, Gazpacho.

For those of you who think you don't like Gazpacho, you need to bolster your courage and give it another chance because, like so many other things, nothing compares to your own homemade version. This is especially true with Gazpacho because you can tailor it to your taste or that of your family. For instance, I love my Gazpacho chunky, spicy and full of cilantro. Others may opt for the "smoothie" consistency with basil or parsley. That's what makes this summer recipe so much fun to make.

It goes without saying that this is especially great on a hot day. It's a garden in your mouth!

Kirsten's Gazpacho

2-3 large ripe tomatoes, cored, quartered (I love using heirlooms like purple cherokee and a few really red ones to keep the color ruby red)
1 stalk celery, chopped (inner stalks are sweetest)
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1/2 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 cup water (or natural tomato juice if you have it on hand)
1-2 large garlic cloves
1/2 onion, peeled, quartered
2 tablespoons cilantro
1-2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
dash of hot sauce like Tobasco

(if you like it chunky as I do, set aside some diced celery, pepper, and cucumber to add after blending rest of ingredients)

If possible, use blender since a food processor tends to liquefy everything too fine (at least for my taste). Blend garlic, onion and half of water; add remaining vegetables and water and pulse to blend completely. When blended to desired consistency, add vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and stir in olive oil and tobasco. Serve chilled (makes approximately 1 blender pitcher full).

Other variations:
substitute red pepper for green pepper for sweeter taste
substitute basil for cilantro (omit hot sauce)

Let me know if you have other additions you enjoy!


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Psychic or Cliche? Your Choice

I'm either ahead of the curve or us foodie bloggers are just lazy (or maybe simply overwhelmed with summer produce) but Mark Bitten's article in today's New York Times is 101 Summer salads! Crazy I tell you, just crazy!
(cut and paste into a browser window)


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Garden Salads - The Refresher Course

Salad in the summer, is there another food topic more cliched or expounded upon? However, as a rabid salad lover, I wanted to nudge people in the direction of freeing their mind when it comes to what put into a general garden salad.

Unless you've grown your own, most people don't know that lettuces actually do very poorly in the summer heat. They bolt. Not for the door but to seed and become very bitter very quickly. So what is a salad lover to do?

As an avid lover of parsley and cilantro, quite often I will use a mix of these two herbs with summer vegetables to make a hearty meal of my salad. But today I remembered the French/Italian trick of really bolstering a summer salad: quick croutons. French and Italian peasants used up everything in the house, and frying up leftover old bread is where we get croutons.

Remember when croutons were all the rage in salads back in the mid 1980s? My family would fight over which seasoning we bought: Cesar, garlic or Italian herbs, and since we ate salad with every evening meal, we went through a lot of croutons. With the advent of the no-carb diet craze, croutons have disappeared faster than ice in July.

But in surveying my refrigerator today in search of items to bulk up my salad I spied some week old bread and realized I could make some quick croutons that would add some crunch and heft to my lunch. I sauteed them in some garlic and oil and as my dad would say, they were "just the ticket" to make my salad a meal!

Garden Salad with Quick Croutons

1/4 bunch cilantro, chopped
1/4 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
handful basil leaves (from garden)
2 slices red onion, halved
1/2 zucchini, chopped
3-4 small tomatoes, quartered
1/2 avocado, diced
marinated artichokes (my own homemade from baby artichokes!)
4-5 black oil cured olives
2-3 slices peasant bread, toasted lightly, cubed
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper

Combine vegetables and herbs and set aside. Since I added marinated artichokes I used the marinade as the dressing and added salt and pepper to taste.

Heat skillet or wok, add oil and swirl to coat. Add chopped garlic and cook 1 minute until it begins to brown. (You can remove the garlic at this point if you like. I like it crunchy, but it can burn while the croutons fry). Add toasted bread and stir fry 2-3 minutes. The bread will soak up the oil and the garlic flavor. When they're done to your satisfaction, add to salad and toss to distribute evenly. Swirl additional oil on salad as desired.

NOTE: I love Mediterranean flavors, hence the olives and marinated artichokes. But people with more of a sweet tooth could add fresh berries or sections of fruit (oranges, peaches, plums) which would go better with cilantro and mint as opposed to parsley. Instead of raw zucchini or other squash, leftover roasted squash or eggplant is wonderful in this type of salad as well.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Living the Ojai Life

Yikes! It's been nearly a month since my last post. Well there's a good reason, I've moved. I arrived in Ojai, CA last Monday and have been "living on the edge" as my horoscope instructed, which means me and Rudy the cat are in temporary housing for a month as we look for a permanent place. So I guess I'll have to retitle this blog...

I am also waiting on a new computer (new to me) to arrive, so posts will be sporadic until the dust all settles. However, I am storing up ideas for the food blog (and am accepting ideas for a new title if anyone is so inclined).

Currently, I'm enjoying the southern California citrus bounty, eating grapefruits like oranges and murcots like there was no tomorrow! Of course the price for such abundance is heat and lots of sun, so I'm working on staying cool as much as possible.

Hope your summer is going swimmingly as well!