Thursday, February 27, 2014

Far too productive: a gardening post in winter

Well, I have a few days off here, and naturally, instead of relaxing, we decided to ... get a head start on the gardening. Because, you know, the ground will thaw. Someday.

(I mean, it has to stop being winter at some point. I'm almost 98 percent sure.)

You wouldn't know spring is coming. Usually, we grill all winter and cook on the fire, and nothing stops us from laughing in the face of snow. Unless, perhaps, it's negative temps and wind and all this other nonsense. This year, we dragged the grill to the garage in a huge storm, after the wind stole our grill cover and sent it sailing to Chicago, and the fire pit is covered in snow and ice, never to be unearthed in this tundra.

But today was a step in the right direction.

We've read and checked and we think we have a plan for the garden. It involves large planting boxes, yet to be built, and seasonal planting and a whole host of things yet to be discovered. Not to mention more weeding – another skill we lack entirely are working on.

So, if you'd like to experiment with us, and perhaps have a bit of cabin fever, feel free to join in. We bought most of the supplies at Farm & Fleet, and our seeds at the local Corn Crib store, which looked closed, but was, in fact, open for crazy people like us. We took our cues on what to plant from Better Homes & Gardens, Modern Farmer and our general experience hereabouts. For instance, we planted beets, but not tomatoes, as we have better luck with actual tomato plants.

(Although, I'm really thinking about getting seeds for a specific kind of sauce tomato. It's like a Roma tomato on steroids. If you are a canning geek, you know what I mean. Totally awesome, right?)

Currently, we have: Kale, peas, cucumbers, beets, leeks, spinach, Brussels sprouts and chile peppers. Oh, and some basil. I'm determined to get it to grow!

Here's what we used:

Two paper trays, about 2 in. by 8 in. by 20 in.
Two plastic trays, about the same size
1 8 qt. bag spaghum peat moss
1 8 qt. bag potting soil
1 large bucket
1 scoop or old wooden spoon
Small watering can or pitcher
stick-on labels

What I did:

I put the paper trays into the plastic trays, for drainage, and set them up on our windowsill area. Then I poured half the peat moss and half the potting soil into the bucket, and mixed it up.

I poured half the mixture into each tray and patted it out flat. Don't pack it in, but do make it level.

Now check your seeds. Most of mine said to plant about 1/2 in. deep. So, take a look at your pencil. The top metal part should be about 1/2 in. If not, measure 1/2 in. from the end and mark with a pen.

Take the pencil and make small holes 1/2 in. deep in rows down and across for the seeds.

The paper trays I bought have indents to indicate rows. If yours don't, that's okay. Mark the rows with a pen on the tray, and try to keep the holes about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 in. apart.

Now, put a few seeds into each hole. I had enough room for 12 rows across and six rows deep, so I used four different types of seeds in each tray.

I'd recommend dedicating either one whole short row or one long row to one type of plant. It's easier to label, that way.

After dropping the seeds in, lightly pinch the top of the hole and cover gently with soil. Repeat with one type of seed, and then label. I used sticky labels and put them on clothespins that I attached to the side of the tray.

Once your tray is planted, take your small pitcher or watering can, and water each row lightly. Then place the tray in a sunny, warm spot.

You can also get plastic covers for some of these trays. We've had problems with mold in the past, so we're not doing that this year. We'll see how it goes!

Our plan is to water every 2-3 days, depending on how dry the soil gets. You definitely don't want it soaked (see mold, above). Hopefully, in three to four weeks, we'll see some kind of progress!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Chopped salad with chickpeas

It's a humble thing, salad. Barely makes onto the "Who's Who" of recipes. What is it, anyway? A mishmash of veggies, sometimes meat or beans, thrown into a bowl, tossed with some sort of dressing. It begs the question, do we really need a recipe for this?

I find myself terrible at salads. I need the recipe -- any recipe. I want some sort of legend with which to map this seemingly easy territory.

I couldn't tell you where this one came from, except that it's a combination of a wealth of salad recipes I've read recently, in addition to some faintly remembered advice on healthy foods, etc. I was hoping to sort of detox after a week or two of being on a tight schedule with little to no sleep, too much caffeine, too few vegetables and generally, at the end of the night, a beer or two. 

Basically, I needed something to take to work that was fairly easy to make, saladish in nature without relying on tons of lettuce, and filling without being heavy. Sluggish arrives at 2:30 p.m. whether I've had pasta or not, so we don't need any help there. 

So, here we are. I usually pair a bowl of this with a cup of soup, and  few crackers.

Chopped salad

The basic mix

2-3 stalks celery, diced
3 carrots, sliced thin or roughly shredded
1 cucumber, peeled, quartered and diced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2-3 leaves kale, torn into small pieces, rinds removed

Optional add-ins:

1 mango, peeled and diced
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 red onion, diced
1 cup diced asparagus
1 cup frozen peas

Last week's salad included the pepper and asparagus. This week, it's mango and asparagus. Use whatever you have on hand.

The dressing

Juice of half a lemon
1-2 T. olive oil
1 T. red wine vinegar
1/2 t. Greek seasoning
Cracked black pepper

Optional: 1/2 T. parmesan cheese

The chickpeas do a lot of work here, providing protein and bulk, so you feel full after eating. I would say to add two optional ingredients at least to each mix. The dressing will lightly coat all of one recipe, but I'm not a dressing person. I'd double it if you want a dousing. I usually divide this into two containers, and eat a bit every day. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Southwest chicken soup

Over the past week, I was traveling for work. After a week of packaged and takeout food, we ended up at Chile's for lunch one day. They had a Southwest chicken soup that was incredible. Served with a flatbread pizza with chicken and avocado, it was the perfect end to a long tour.

I decided to re-create it when I got home, and I used The Pioneer Woman's Chicken Tortilla Soup as a starting point. I knew I wanted a thicker and smoother soup, so I eliminated some of the water, added sweet potatoes and used an immersion blender. The result? Pretty good!

I served this with cheese quesadillas and roasted veggies on the side. See what you think!

Southwest Chicken soup

What you'll need:

1 t. ground cumin
1 t. chili powder
1 t. garlic powder
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 t. minced onion
ground black pepper
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 T. canola oil
5 garlic cloves
1 green bell pepper
1 yellow or red bell pepper
1 sweet potato
1/2 onion, optional
2-3 T. all-purpose flour
4 cups chicken broth (I used Better than Boullion)
1 10-oz. can diced tomatoes and green chiles
1 cup tomato juice
3 T. tomato paste
1 can black beans, drained
1 can chili beans
Cheddar cheese

All you need to do:

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Mix cumin, chili powder, garlic powder, salt, minced onion and pepper. Brush chicken breasts with oil, and sprinkle with half the seasoning mixture. Bake chicken for 25-35 minutes on a wire rack set inside a cookie sheet.

While the chicken is cooking, heat remaining oil in a Dutch oven. Chop garlic, peppers, sweet potato and onion, if using. Add to pan. Add in remaining spice mixture, and cook vegetables until soft, about five minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir well. Add chicken broth, tomatoes and chiles, tomato juice and tomato paste. Bring to a boil, and stir well. Reduce to a simmer.

Once chicken is done, take out of oven, and slice thinly or shred. I used only half the chicken for the soup.

Once the soup has cooled, blend with an immersion blender. Then add sliced chicken, and beans. Bring to a boil again, and reduce to a simmer. Serve warm, topped with shredded cheddar cheese.