herbgarden

Friends, I’m writing to you from a very special place. It was a journey to get here, taking nearly 20 years, and 4 separate apartments across 3 cities and 2 states. To be fair, it’s more of a group than a place. As distinctive and special as the other groups that I’ve wanted to join but haven’t had the guts…..“those who have run marathons”, or “those who have jumped out of planes”.

And why? Minimal training is required. Cost is low, value is high. You can do it in your spare time, and if you kill them, others are for sale.

I’m not talking about adopting a family of hamsters. I’m talking about growing your own herbs.

After the early and tragic deaths of one too many sickly Whole Foods basil plants, I finally got my act together and bought a new breed of houseplant. A set of hardier herbs in actual pots that I tend to with regularity. Whole Foods, as much as I love you, those twiggy little basil plants that offer the promise of pesto by the batch, they’ve let me down. They wither the minute I get them home; all the sunlight in the world, a garden to graze and an emerald green thumb wouldn’t keep them alive.

It’s only been a week, but I’m proud to report back that early signs suggest that my real, authentic, farmers’ market herbs are in fact growing. All three! The apple mint, the rosemary, and the forest parsley, which looks like your garden variety curly parsley but with a more intense parsley taste.

I’ve seen graphic images floating around the Internet that compare a brain on cocaine to a brain on sugar. Apparently our body chemistry responds the same way, which isn’t surprising, we all know that sugar is addictive. I may suggest a third category of addiction: brain on herbs. Fresh herbs, not marijuana. That would be the inverse chart. Pure conjecture, but reflecting on my college days, the pot smokers weren’t leaping from the couch, breaking out a Mandoline and thinly slicing radishes. Nor were they following it up immediately by muddling herbs and lime for a sparkling Spring cocktail. That, my friends, is herb addiction.

Herb addiction touches everyone in a family. I’ve had to caution the kids against overwatering because their red toy watering bucket has made the trek across our hardwood floors a few too many times. Not to mention the residual spillage on our couch, which to be honest, knew better days before we owned a dog. But still. It has a few good years left, preferably without mildew and water marks.

Take a trip down memory lane with me. It’s only been a week, but putting down the chef knife was hard with freshly-grown herbs at my fingertips.

breakfast

Six minute egg with tomato & watermelon radish salad with mint and parsley

lamb

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IMG_5608 - Version 2

I once told a horrible tale about suffering through month after month of vegetarian lasagna.

This is not entirely accurate.

Yes, it was the summer when I was pregnant and deluged with weekly deliveries of vegetable-filled CSA boxes. It was exhausting, but it was also thrilling – each week opening a box to something new, something fresh, plucked from the ground only a day or two before.

I don’t know how much vegetarian lasagna I made that summer but it was enough to put a spare freezer on my Amazon Wishlist. Never mind the lack of space in my apartment. Details…Throw an afghan over it and there you go, instant coffee table.

What I really should have done is gotten a food manufacturing license and started to sell them at the local Walmart. They would have flown out the door, especially given the competing options which are full of cultured Dextrose and other unmentionables.

My technique is simple – I make a quick tomato sauce – in a pinch you can use a good jarred version. But it takes three minutes to sautee an onion & carrot, add a can or two of tomato puree, season, and let it simmer while you tend to the rest.

With the sauce simmering, I cook (most often grill on my indoor grill pan) the vegetables and prepare the remaining ingredients.

Although I’ve made lasagna with fresh pasta before, it can be time consuming, and you can get great results with no boil noodles. When you’re using no boil, or oven ready noodles, you definitely need a filling that has some heft – this isn’t the time for an airy cream sauce. I cut my vegetables into thick slices, drizzle some olive oil, season, and grill then until they’re nice and charred. No indoor grill pan? Slice them the same way, and roast them in the oven instead. They’ll still pack plenty of flavor.

When the vegetables are done, all I have left to do is to mix an egg into the ricotta, and I’m ready to assemble.

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The layering is pretty simple. Here’s my rule – don’t sweat it. Even after layering countless lasagnas, I still lose track of what goes where. It’s hard to remember the order – was it noodle, sauce, ricotta, veg? Or noodle, sauce, veg, ricotta? Don’t panic! This is not life or death. As long as you have some sauce on the bottom, and leave enough sauce for the top, it will be….just….fine….

I only say this because I was once that person – the lasagna novice who was overly concerned about having the layers in the right order; I would dart back and forth from the recipe, reading the instructions once, twice, thrice. Child’s play! Now you know my secret – that with homemade tomato sauce, fresh ricotta, and grilled vegetables, you really can’t go wrong. Just do me a favor- season it well- those plain noodles need to be salted and if you’re just seasoning the fillings, the noodles will be bland.

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Baked-Minestrone-Soup

Can we talk about soup? Old man winter has overstayed his welcome; the only benefit being that we have carte blanche to continue those stewing, braising and baking activities that have kept us busy all winter.

I’ve seen the restaurants waving their bundles spring vegetables in the air chanting “we have ramps!” My answer: too soon! I’m not ready for ramps, or fiddleheads, or even asparagus. If it’s below freezing, I don’t want to see any of those tender shoots. What good does it do me to devour a lightly dressed spring salad when I’m wearing two sweaters and a pair of mocs?

Back to that soup.  I’ve waxed poetic on this blog about my days as a ski racer, growing up on Canadian slopes from the mountains of BC, to the Laurentians of Quebec. Our home base was Ontario, so we spent the bulk of our time racing in Quebec.

Our trips happened frequently throughout the winter months. In the hours before dawn, we’d load our skis and poles into storage boxes built on top of our vans and start our slow trek East. My preference was to ride in the red van that we fondly referred to as The Big Cheese. It had modern day conveniences, notably a reliable radio station and a functioning heater.

The Big Cheese was named after our head ski coach, a man by the name of Jurg Gfeller, a former skier on the National Swiss Team who’d started our school in tiny Collingwood, Ontario.

Rodney had the chance to meet Jurg last year when for the first time in 20 years, I returned to Collingwood for a friend’s wedding. We stopped by the Ski Academy so that I could show Rodney a little of my roots including the dorm room where I’d ingest late night brownies and the words to every Indigo Girls song.

As luck would have it, Jurg was at the house that day, just as I’d left him 20 years before. Despite a lack of ski conditions (this was October), he was dressed for the season in a snug Descente vest.

He gave me a teasing but hard punch on the shoulder: “Vee gonna get you out on da slopes dis year Jesseeca?”

I was too ashamed to admit that I’d only been on skis a handful of times since I’d quit the sport in 2000.

“That’s the plan” I responded. I then launched into a lengthy description of my present-day nightmares, which are entirely skiing-related. Skis that won’t carve a turn; a pole dropped from the chairlift right before my start, and the most frightening of all: slipping off the chairlift and spending the remainder of the ride clutching the base for dear life.

Rodney shot me a look that suggested that I was barreling out of control into my gray zone of unproductive tangents. I’m working on it. No stranger needs to learn about my insomnia, and Jurg certainly didn’t need to know that my days as a skier under his tutelage contributed to some sort of athletics-related PTSD.

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There were fond memories too. Yes, the trips were long; 8 hours in a crowded van to get us to Mont Tremblant or Mont Sainte-Anne – with limited stops for food. But when we did stop, if it wasn’t a hit & run at a roadside McDonald’s, it was real food. French food.

Anticipation would build as we neared Montreal. The Pirelli Pneus billboard was my signal, answering that crucial “are we there yet?” question. Finally, I could visualize stretching cramped legs and indulging in some stick-to-your ribs Quebecois cooking.

One of my favorite dishes was, soupe a l’oignon au fromage, French onion soup. Onions slowly-cooked in a hearty beef stock, served in a crock with a thick layer of melted Gruyere cheese. Not to be confused with the gimmicky versions you’ll find in nondescript cafeterias, delis and dives. This stuff was the real deal – real beef bones, authentic French cheese.

I don’t think I’ve had soup that good since.

We were experiencing another cold snap last week, and I was digging around my fridge for inspiration. It was Saturday, and I was on a comfort food mission, but lacking a solid plan.

In one of those scenarios presented on cooking competitions, I faced an odd yet promising bag of mystery ingredients: a package of Sunday bacon, some collard greens, an onion, canned tomatoes, a sack of dried chickpeas. Minestrone? The wheels were turning.

As it was early in the day, I figured I’d put my slow cooker to work so that I could lazily attend to other things, namely lying flat on the couch, coffee in hand, dog curled and wedged into my crotch.

Jack

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Fall cooking

I’m equally sad and excited when Fall rolls around. Fortunately I love to cook, which keeps the cold weather blues at bay. I love summer, our weekend trips to the lake complete with an endless supply of popsicles and watersports.

But something about turning on the stove and simmering soups, stocks, and stews for hours on end is so comforting. I love the smell of Fall cooking. The earthy vegetables, the slow-roasted meats. It’s a smell that permeates your house, and makes it feel like home.

It’s a completely different kind of cooking from the meals I tend to make in the summer. And especially this summer – I was on a huge raw kick – tomato salads of every kind (see my tomato concern from this week’s Wordless Wednesday post), diced fruit with honey and mint, and raw vegetables marinated in olive oil, vinegar and herbs.

But I’m ready to re-embrace my stove.

People tend to gripe about Fall cooking. They say it’s less healthy, full of butter and bacon. And it takes time. Which is often true.

But it doesn’t have to be. Especially the part about it taking time – I’ll keep my rich Fall dishes, thank you very much. There are over 200 days until I wear a bikini again, and I’m fine with putting a little meat on my bones.

Quick Fall Cooking_FeedMeDearly

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