Gardening – Zester Daily Zester Daily Fri, 05 Jan 2018 10:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Preserving Secrets: Canning And Pickling Like A Pro /cooking/technique-cooking/preserving-tips-wont-find-books/ /cooking/technique-cooking/preserving-tips-wont-find-books/#respond Wed, 13 Sep 2017 09:00:42 +0000 /?p=75455 Mise en place for a pickle recipe. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

I have a whole shelf’s worth of books on the art of preserving — from the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving” to Sandor Katz’s “Wild Fermentation.” All of them attentively detail the equipment, ingredients, safety measures and mechanics of food preservation. But not one of them reveals how an everyday cook can reasonably manage the workload of canning in the home kitchen.

After 15 years as a devoted food preservationist, I can tell you that things can very quickly get out of hand, even small-batch canning. What with washing and sanitizing jars, peeling and cutting fruits and vegetables, and timing the steady boil in the giant cauldron called a canner, it’s always more involved than I remember. So what’s a beginner to do?

Two preservation approaches

A load of tomatoes in the canner. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

A load of tomatoes in the canner. Credit: Copyright 2017 Lynne Curry

One method is to enlist a willing and capable friend, commandeer the kitchen and invest an entire weekend in a task like canning salsa, applesauce or jalapeño jelly. I used this full-court-press approach for years and put up a lot of food in jars, but it left me exhausted, and even the kitchen took days to recover.

If you want to have the endurance to preserve the best local foods from June’s cherry season all the way through the last of the fall tomatoes, there’s a different way. It’s a practical, slow-and-steady, small-batch approach I’ve adopted for all of my solo canning endeavors.

You won’t find any of these five simple practices on the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation (the authority to reference for tutorials, tested recipes and food-safety guidelines), but I’ve found them essential for keeping me happily productive over the long haul of the growing season. The collection of filled food jars you amass is its own reward — one that feels as good as money in the bank.

Best practices for preserving

Half-sour pickles in the crock. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Half-sour pickles in the crock. Credit: Copyright 2017 Lynne Curry

Adopt the correct mind-set: Preserving food occurs in the kitchen, but do not mistake it for cooking. It is a mechanical procedure that requires tight organization, cleanliness and precision (for example, the instructions to leave half an inch of headspace in a pickle jar exist for good reason). So clear off your countertops (you are going to need a lot of space!) and follow all the established and time-tested procedures of your chosen recipe and canning guide to the letter. Put on a great playlist and embrace the labors of the project.

Create a command center: The equipment and tools for canning are not everyday cookware. So gather the canner, jar lifter, lid rings and other paraphernalia into one designated area of your kitchen or in a box or milk crate. Then, when the tomatoes or peaches arrive at peak ripeness, you’re ready for them. In addition to the ordinary supplies, I recommend having a set of nesting mixing bowls, extra measuring spoons, a sheet pan for loading and transporting hot jars and paper towels for wiping jar rims.

Prep in advance: Did I mention to clear off your counters? Having an uncluttered workspace is priority number one for not only practicality but your enjoyment of the process. In addition, there are lots of tasks you can tackle in advance, like scrubbing and trimming vegetables, preparing brine for pickles and gathering ingredients so they’re at your fingertips. Read through your recipe in advance to identify all of the small details that will make everything go smoother and quicker on canning day.

Choose your most productive time of day: When my kids were little, I canned only after bedtime. Now I prefer to wake up early, pour myself a cup of coffee and get a canner load boiling before the kids wake up. A weekend afternoon, an evening — whenever you’re at your most energetic — is when you’ll enjoy this project the most. Be sure to free up a block of time with no other demands to distract you from the work at hand. For instance, two hours is my minimum for pickling, which is pretty quick.

Make a washing station: No preserving book I’ve ever read reveals the fact that canning involves rounds of hand washing from start-up to clean-up. (Sure, you can wash and sanitize your canning jars in the dishwasher.) The single biggest labor-saving task I’ve found is to set up a dedicated washing station. If you don’t have a second separate sink as I do, fill two dishpans — one for washing, one for rinsing — on an area of your tidy countertop. Place a dish rack on the side and stock plenty of clean dish towels. Now you’re ready to begin!

A bonus tip

Put those tomatoes up in the summer; enjoy in the winter. Credit: Copyright 2016 Lynne Curry

Put those tomatoes up in the summer; enjoy in the winter. Credit: Copyright 2017 Lynne Curry

It’s ironic that on the very day that I’m striving to prepare healthy local foods for my family in the long run is also the day my kids eat hot dogs for dinner. The truth is that you cannot simultaneously preserve foods and cook a meal, no matter how simple. With stove and sink space at a premium and your energies tapped out, plan to serve yourself and your family a ready-made or take-out dinner that requires no cooking or dishwashing at all. You’ll be thankful in more ways than one!

Main photo: Mise en place for a pickle recipe. Credit: Copyright 2017 Lynne Curry

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25 Insider Tips For Navigating Your Farmers Market /agriculture/26-insider-tips-to-your-local-farmers-market/ /agriculture/26-insider-tips-to-your-local-farmers-market/#comments Fri, 28 Jul 2017 09:00:07 +0000 /?p=68145 A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media

Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?

Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.

More from Zester Daily:

» Shopping for a farmer at the farmers market
» Hey growers, be honest with your farmers market customers
» Changing farmers markets
» How to cook up your own romance in a French market

Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2017 Zester Media

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Summer Sweet Corn: 14 New Ways To Love It /cooking/summer-sweet-corn-14-new-ways-love/ /cooking/summer-sweet-corn-14-new-ways-love/#respond Thu, 06 Jul 2017 09:00:28 +0000 /?p=68142 Jerk Lamb Corn and Fruit Kebabs. Jamaican jerk spices rubbed into the lamb add a Caribbean punch to any grilling. The allspice -- key to Jamaican food -- unexpectedly highlights the juicy fruit and sweet corn. Serve with a rum punch. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tami Weiser

Right now, farmers market corn is as sweet as it gets. Soaked in the husk for a few hours and then thrown onto the grill to steam until tender, the corn is salted and a bit of heaven is revealed. It’s summer, and fresh corn on the cob is what everyone wants to eat.

But don’t stop there. The in-season bounty demands experimentation. Fresh sweet corn is crunchy, sweet, light and versatile. Cut fresh from the cob, corn brightens up salads, stews … even ice cream.

We’ve pulled together 14 fresh dishes that will surprise and delight your family. This is the beginning of your corn adventure. Buy a bushel and let the fun begin!

More from Zester Daily:

» Roasted tomato and corn salad, all-American for the holiday

» Have fresh corn all year? Freeze it!

» The secret for velvety corn soup without the cream

» This year, try a corn dish from the first Thanksgiving

Main photo: Jerk Lamb Corn and Fruit Kebabs. Credit: Copyright 2017 Tami Weiser

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6 Garden-Starting Tips To Give Your Kids Green Thumbs /gardening-3/6-garden-starting-tips-give-kids-green-thumbs/ /gardening-3/6-garden-starting-tips-give-kids-green-thumbs/#comments Tue, 09 May 2017 09:00:02 +0000 /?p=64988 Six tips that will help your kids have fun with gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Spring has finally come to our neck of the woods, and we’re beginning to take the tiny shoots from our mini-greenhouse in our basement out into the world. I want my daughters to know where their food comes from, but growing a kid-friendly garden means more than just planting kid-friendly plants.

If you want to get kids to actually eat their veggies, it helps if you get them invested in the process and care of the garden. If your kids see the backyard vegetable garden as “theirs,” they are far more likely to embrace the products: happily eating radishes and arugula that they’ve grown on their own. Here are six tips — tested in our home — to get your kids to embrace gardening and become active agents in creating their own food.

1. Get dirty

Susan Lutz - 6 Quick Garden Tips for Kids

Kids need to dig into the earth and get their hands dirty. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Forget the image of white-frocked children basking in a pristine flower bed; that image gets in the way of real gardening. Get your kids dirty as fast as possible. Ask them to dig with hand trowels, sticks or bare fingers, and they will leap at the opportunity. When watering, “accidentally” drench them with a good hosing. They’ll squeal, then beg for more — and watering is no longer a chore but a family frolic. Make mud and get them in it. Over-plant in anticipation of grubby little fingers pulling out the extraneous shoots. A garden shouldn’t be too precious. Good gardening demands some filth, and when kids realize this, they embrace it.

2. Get gross

If your garden doesn't have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, buy some. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love gross, and a garden has it in spades. Ask your kids to find worms, then take the opportunity to discuss their impact on the soil. If your garden doesn’t have enough worms, go buy them and let the kids play with their new “pets” while you’re putting them into the garden. If you want to step it up a notch, create a vermiculture bin and let your kids be in charge of the worm farm. Look for beneficial insects such as ladybug larvae and lacewings. Explain that the reason you wash food that comes from the garden comes down to two words: bird poop. Some kids may react negatively to grossness, but that’s part of the charm. Gross things are both attractive and repulsive to young ones, and finding that fine line where attraction and repulsion equal each other out keeps the kids coming back to the garden.

3. Get creative

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children name their plants and processes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Encourage your kids to rename the plants in the garden. Our girls have dubbed our sage bush as “Hairy Bigfoot Plant.” That name has made the humble herb extremely attractive to our girls and to the neighbor kids — especially after we cut out pieces from a milk jug and made markers for our newly named plants. In fact, our two girls and the neighbor boy run to this plant every morning as they walk to school and actually eat a leaf of Hairy Bigfoot Plant. Without that name, I suspect elementary school kids would not be eating raw sage leaves every morning on the way to school. Have your kids play The Name Game, and they are suddenly personally invested in growing and eating mummy peas (snap peas) and bloody spice balls (radishes).

4. Get a kit

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Organize tools, tote bags and buckets into a kit. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Kids love kits, so create an easily portable garden set for each child. You can buy them ready-made at the nursery or dollar store … but where’s the fun in that? Ask your kids to choose cheap tools for themselves, or gather the tools you already have and put them in specific kits. We turned milk jugs into garden kits, but a tote bag or plastic bucket works just as well. Add more than just a trowel rake and gloves. Put in a magnifying glass, eyedroppers, specimen jars and other “scientific” tools to deploy in the garden. When it’s time to do some weeding, tell your kids to grab their kits and you suddenly have an eager workforce.

5. Get experimental

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Do a few scientific experiments along the way. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Make your garden a laboratory, not a display. Ask your kids to experiment with the dirt, the compost, the layout and the results of your planting. Turn gardening into a science experiment. When the plants are coming up, try taste experiments — is this bitter? Sour? Sweet? This type of hands-on discovery helps kids understand that “good” doesn’t always mean “familiar” — so that when your crop is ready for the kitchen, your kids will beg to try to results. This may require you to set aside a part of your garden to be devoted to the kids’ experiments (so that you don’t ruin your entire crop) but their creative/destructive explorations will personalize your garden… and its results.

6. Get dramatic

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Let children style their garden pickings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Learn a lesson from molecular gastronomy: Presentation and entertainment are part of the full experience of food. When it was time to thin the new shoots of butter crunch lettuce and arugula, we had our girls wash the tiny shoots and arrange them attractively on a platter with small chunks of string cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. A garden chore suddenly becomes an art project, then a dish of Farm-To-Table Micro-Greens. In the garden itself, use the “experimental” area for play as well as work: Set up scenes, fairy gardens or Lego cities beneath the plants. The “forest” of carrots grows more lush around the tiny family that lives beneath it … then Godzilla descends at harvest time, pulling the trees by the roots as the dolls run and scream in horror. The garden becomes a playground, and the plate becomes a stage, turning the concept of “playing with your food” into a deeper understanding of the earth, growing plants and the process of creating and eating food.

Main photo: Keep the fun factor high when enticing children to do gardening this summer. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Former Child Soldier Turns To Farming, Sows Peace In Africa /world/politics-world/vegetable-garden-helps-heal-former-child-soldier/ /world/politics-world/vegetable-garden-helps-heal-former-child-soldier/#respond Tue, 14 Feb 2017 10:00:57 +0000 /?p=76966 Ibrahim Soriba Mansaray, a former child soldier, became a farmer and food activist after turning his life around. Copyright: 2017 Carla Capalbo

It’s rare that growing vegetables is an antidote to the atrocities of war, but Ibrahim Soriba Mansaray’s story is extraordinary. Ibrahim, as he likes to be called, was “9 or 10 years old” when he was kidnapped, like thousands of other children, by the rebel army in his native Sierra Leone, west Africa.

“In 1997 I was with my uncle when we were attacked and I was captured,” he says. “I was only a little kid, but I was with them for a very long time, eight or nine years. It was hell and my childhood was stolen from me.”

From soldier to food activist

Ibrahim breaks down as he recounts being plied with drugs and alcohol and made to burn houses and kill, even in his own village. When he finally escaped, his community would not accept him and he found himself alone in the streets of Kenema District, southeastern Sierra Leone’s largest city.

“I was still addicted to drugs and alcohol, but I soon realized I needed to get an education, as the rebels had denied me that right.” Ibrahim enrolled in a sponsored course for former child soldiers, and within a few years had earned a diploma in agriculture.

“I always felt close to the land, as my mother is a peasant farmer. But I belonged nowhere if I couldn’t go home,” he says. “One day I heard an announcement about Slow Food’s 10,000 Gardens in Africa project on the radio. It changed my life. With their help I was able to propose creating community and school vegetable and fruit gardens in my own district. Slow Food’s people helped my village elders and members understand that, as children, we had no choice and control over what the rebels made us do. I’m overjoyed that they allowed me home and gave me another chance to make up for my terrible deeds.”

Today Ibrahim runs several gardens in his area and teaches children in the village about the importance of good nutrition and self-sufficiency. His dream is to establish other gardens to help rescue the many ex-soldiers who have been unable to find a way off the streets.

Forging links

Participants from many countries gather for opening ceremonies of Terra Madre, held in Italy. Copyright: 2017 Carla Capalbo

Participants from many countries gather for opening ceremonies of Terra Madre, held in Italy. Copyright: 2017 Carla Capalbo

Like other food activists and producers, he came to Terra Madre, Slow Food’s event in Turin, Italy, to tell his story. This biennial global get-together was launched by the Italian-based international organization in 2004 and has helped forge links among food-producing communities around the world. The African vegetable garden is just one of Slow Food’s many projects. Others include saving endangered foods and food traditions in the Ark of Taste that are in danger of dying out; highlighting the rights of indigenous communities and the threats of land- and ocean- grabbing; and promoting good, clean and fair food for all.

Terra Madre, which is open to the public, was held this past October. It was a joyous affair. A colorful musical procession through the stately streets of Italy’s former capital opened the five-day festival. If many guests came to experience new foods or taste specialties from far-flung continents, there was serious discussion taking place in conferences held throughout the city. Historians, activists and grassroots community workers shared their concerns and experiences.

Wine is an important part of Slow Food’s DNA. After all, the movement began in the Langhe, one of Italy’s premium wine-producing areas. Winemaker Nicolas Joly, a champion for biodynamic viticulture, was on hand to recount his long fight against chemicals in the vineyards and cellars. Organic and biodynamic wines are ever on the increase, thanks to his example.

Education is key

Richard McCarthy, head of Slow Food USA, bottom left, is shown at a Terra Madre presentation on dry farming. Education is key to the group’s work, he says. Copyright: 2017 Carla Capalbo

Richard McCarthy, head of Slow Food USA, bottom left, is shown at a Terra Madre presentation on dry farming. Education is key to the group’s work, he says. Copyright: 2017 Carla Capalbo

“Education is a key part of Slow Food’s work,” Richard McCarthy, head of Slow Food USA, explains as we peruse stalls showcasing rare ingredients from South America. “Big food industry would like us to believe that genetically modified food is the answer to feeding the world, but the truth is far from that.”

Indeed, 80% of the world’s food is currently produced by small farmers using traditional polyculture of mixed crops. “Monoculture requires 50% more land than those traditional models, and uses far more primary resources, like water. Despite their claims, most genetically modified crops go to feeding animals, not people,” McCarthy says.

Slow Food organizes several international biennial events in Italy that are open to the public: Slow Fish, Cheese and Terra Madre. Other events are held in countries throughout the world. For more information, visit their website at

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Napa Winery’s Garden, A Year-Round Place Of Culinary Inspiration /drinking/napa-winerys-garden-a-year-round-place-of-culinary-inspiration/ /drinking/napa-winerys-garden-a-year-round-place-of-culinary-inspiration/#respond Wed, 30 Nov 2016 10:00:54 +0000 /?p=76247 Hailey Trefethen works in Katie's Garden at the Trefethen Family Vineyards. The garden was started by Hailey's grandmother and she has become the caretaker. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

In the midst of Napa Valley’s palatial wineries, Katie’s Garden, at Trefethen Family Vineyards, is a sanctuary. Among the maze of shrubs, trees and green patches, the garden is a fascinating symphony of organized chaos: bushes and bursts of flowers dot the vegetable patches and wind around the orchard.

Visitors who come to taste Trefethen’s signature Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon at the Villa Trefethen visitor center find themselves in this hidden gem, a calming alternative to the usual trappings of wine country tours and tastings.

Third-generation vintner Hailey Trefethen is the dedicated keeper of the garden, named after her late grandmother. Nothing sat on the land when her grandparents Gene and Katie Trefethen purchased it in 1968, Hailey said. “She planted redwoods,” she said in awe of her grandmother, an avid horticulturist who referred to her garden as a painter’s canvas. Katie left her touch by planting desert cypresses, an assortment of fruit trees, vegetable patches and a rose garden.

A garden for the generations

Katie's Garden includes a variety of fruit trees as well as a multitude of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Katie’s Garden includes a variety of fruit trees as well as a multitude of vegetables. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Hailey feels connected to the garden, reminiscing about picking vegetables with her grandmother after school. “When she got older we would take her in a golf cart and she would work on her bonsai,” Hailey recalled.

As an executive vice president at the winery, Hailey’s duties go far beyond tending the garden, including managing the winery’s sustainability efforts — recycling water for irrigation, turning waste into compost and planting cover crops in the vineyards to enhance soil health.

When the senior Trefethens purchased the run-down property, it came with an abandoned 19th-century winery. At the time, Napa Valley had more prune and walnut orchards than vineyards, with fewer than 25 wineries. In 1973, the Trefethens’ son John and his wife, Janet — Hailey’s parents — began restoration of the winery in the valley’s Oak Knoll District. Over time, Trefethen Family Vineyard’s distinctive wines have found a firm footing on Napa’s wine map. These are not your snob-value Napa Valley wines, but instead affordable, food-friendly wines crafted from estate vineyards ranging in price from $25 to $60.

The garden sits near the Craftsman-style house Gene and Katie lived in. After their deaths, Hailey and her brother Loren — also an executive vice president at the winery — moved in, and Hailey got more connected to the garden. Hailey and Loren have both since moved out of the house, which now functions as Villa Trefethen.

The Villa, open daily by appointment, was created as an interim visitor center to replace the original tasting room. The historic winery building, constructed in 1886, is undergoing an extensive reconstruction following the 2014 earthquake. The Villa, with its alcoves, nooks and flower-filled terraces, has proved so popular it will continue as a visitor center.

In the garden, Hailey digs into the potato patch planted with assorted varieties, pulling out a handful. “In a couple of weeks we will have carrots, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, beets and Bilko cabbage,” she said.  “So lots of goodies for everyone to take home now and throughout winter.” Come February, oranges will be in season, she said.

Sharing the garden produce with the staff has been the practice for years, Hailey explained. “The main focus is to distribute the produce,” she said. “We had the privilege of growing up enjoying fresh fruit, so we want to be able to share with our employees.”

Employees occasionally prepare lunch at the professional kitchen, known as The Villetta, but more often the produce is taken home. “Today we picked over 100 pounds of apples, which we distributed,” Hailey said. At times, employees use the fruits and vegetables to make pies and other dishes that they then bring to the winery to share.

The Villetta concept was Janet’s. “In the 1970s, Napa was a culinary wasteland,” Hailey said. “There weren’t many restaurants here.”

Janet, who was quite a force in Napa Valley, corralled the support of Katie –her mother-in-law and herself an accomplished cook — along with other female vintners, including the late Margrit Mondavi, with a mission to promote the art of wine with food. In 1973, she founded The Villetta as a groundbreaking Napa Valley cooking class.

“They invited chefs to come and cook,” Hailey said. Renowned chefs such as Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Tropp have dropped by, and Napa chef Michael Chiarello filmed his television show, “Easy Entertaining,” at The Villetta.

On a recent visit, the staff prepared a lunch straight from the garden. The tomato and zucchini salad was paired with the 2014 Trefethen Chardonnay, layered with citrus and tropical fruits, and the stuffed bell peppers were served with the 2013 Merlot, ripe with cherry and plum notes. Both dishes can be enjoyed as sides in the holiday menus.

Sitting on the tree-shaded patio overlooking Katie’s garden, the tourist mecca that is today’s Napa Valley seems — if only for a moment — a million miles away.

Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers

Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Stuffed Baby Bell Peppers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Recipe by Robin Schneider, graphic designer at Trefethen Family Vineyards

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

1/2 pound mild Italian sausage

1/2 cup zucchini, diced small, or 1 cup chopped spinach

1 garlic clove, pressed or finely minced

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1/2 cup cooked jasmine rice

1/2 cup cooked three-lentil medley or your favorite lentil

1/2 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese

1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided

Salt to taste

18 to 20 baby bell peppers, raw

2 cups Michael Chiarello’s Marinara Sauce (see recipe below)


1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 350 F.

2. Heat olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the sausage, breaking it up into smaller pieces and cooking until almost done. Next add the zucchini and cook until just soft, then stir in the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds.

3. Remove skillet from the heat and add parsley, rice, lentils, Monterey jack cheese and half the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss lightly until well mixed, then add salt to taste.

4. Cut the tops off the peppers and remove the membranes and seeds. Stuff the peppers lightly to the top with the rice and sausage mixture.

5. Place a small amount of marinara sauce on the bottom of a 10-inch casserole dish, and place the peppers side by side in one layer. Top with remaining marinara sauce. Cover and place in oven.

6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Check the softness of the peppers with a sharp knife. When they are just getting soft, uncover and cook another 5 to 10 minutes.

7. Remove from the oven and top the peppers with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Tip: These taste even better when reheated the next day.

Michael Chiarello’s Marinara Sauce

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 45 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 cups


2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup onion, minced

Half a bunch of fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped

1 large garlic clove, minced

4 cups fresh tomato puree

1 large fresh basil stem with leaves removed

Sea salt, preferably gray salt

Pinch of baking soda or sugar, if needed


1. Heat the olive oil in a large, non-reactive pot over moderate heat.

2. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the parsley and garlic and cook briefly to release their fragrance. Add the tomatoes, basil and salt.

3. Simmer briskly until reduced to a sauce-like consistency, stirring occasionally so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot. The timing will depend on the ripeness and meatiness of your tomatoes and the size of your pot. If the sauce thickens too much before the flavors have developed, add a little water and continue cooking.

4. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If the sauce tastes too acidic, add a pinch of baking soda and cook for 5 more minutes. If it needs a touch of sweetness, add a pinch of sugar and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove the basil stem before serving.

Tip: You can triple this recipe and stash it in the freezer to have on hand for quick meals.

Shaved Zucchini with Burrata Cheese and Calabrian Chili Paste

Shaved Zucchini with Burrata Cheese and Calabrian Chili Paste. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Shaved Zucchini with Burrata Cheese and Calabrian Chili Paste. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt

Recipe by chefs Nate Smith and Chef Itamar Abramovitch, Blossom Catering, Napa Valley, California

Prep time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes

Yield: 6 servings


4 medium zucchinis (for presentation, select green, yellow and multicolor)

1 teaspoon Calabrian chili paste (see preparation instructions below)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the cheese

Sea salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Half a bunch of basil

6 small balls of Burrata cheese


1. Trim the ends from the zucchinis and very carefully slice the zucchinis lengthwise into thin ribbons, using a mandolin.

2. Place the zucchini slices in a large mixing bowl and smear a thumbnail-sized dollop of Calabrian chili paste in the bowl, then drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil.

3. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Tear a few fresh basil leaves from the bunch and place them in the bowl. Using your hands, gently mix everything together without snapping the zucchini ribbons. (They will become flexible and succulent after seasoning). Let the zucchini marinate for a few moments while you prepare the cheese.

5. Place a piece of Burrata onto a bowl or platter and then sprinkle the cheese with some sea salt and fresh black pepper and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

6. Carefully twist and place the zucchini on top of the Burrata so the cheese is enrobed in a tangle of the freshly marinated zucchini.

7. Pour any liquid remaining in the bowl over the zucchini and garnish with freshly chopped basil.

Calabrian chili paste

To make the paste, remove the chilies from a 10-ounce package from the oil. Remove the chili stems, then blend the chilies and oil in a food processor for about 1 minute, until a thick paste is formed. Place the paste in the chili jar and store it in the refrigerator.

Tip: Calabrian chilies are available in many gourmet groceries and can also be purchased on Amazon.

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Spinach Loves Company: 3 Perfect Pairings /vegetables-wrecipe/spinach-loves-company-3-perfect-pairings/ /vegetables-wrecipe/spinach-loves-company-3-perfect-pairings/#respond Tue, 07 Jun 2016 09:00:46 +0000 /?p=73957 Fresh spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

At a certain point in many people’s lives, something magical occurs. Your blind, blinkered, unreasoned, gut-churning hatred of spinach — you’ve never even tasted it, but you just KNOW you loathe it — is transformed, like Cinderella’s pumpkin, into a thing of joy and beauty. That might be overstating things, but you get the point.

Perhaps the widespread childhood revulsion to spinach is due to the brutal treatment so much spinach has suffered at the hands of careless cooks over the years. A slimy mound of battle-dress greens on a plate is never going to tempt youthful taste buds, especially when promoted with the dreaded tagline: “And, it’s GOOD for you.” Yeah, right.

But once you get hooked on a pile of buttery, emerald-green leaves, there’s no turning back. Soon you become a full-fledged spinach eater, even to the point of loving it raw, when the crisp leaves have a fresh flavor and a pleasantly astringent aftertaste. When cooked, it reduces astonishingly quickly to a tiny, glossy puddle.

Thousands of recipes exist for spinach. Chameleon-like, it can be eaten raw with nuts, cheese, oranges, fennel and the like, but also appears in tarts, curries, soups, pasta, dumplings, omelets and more egg dishes than you can count. Dairy products moderate any residual sharpness, so spinach melds beautifully with butter and cream and never fails as an accompaniment to fish dishes.

And now, a little secret about spinach: Although spinach is an excellent source of vitamin A and folic acid, according to Tom Stobart, author of The Cook’s Encyclopaedia, the iron it contains is canceled out by the oxalic acid content, which means we cannot absorb the minerals effectively before they are excreted. So according to the contrary laws of childhood, if parents in future tell their children spinach is really not that good for them, a lot more may be eaten!

Luscious Lemon Chicken and Spinach Curry

Luscious Lemon Chicken and Spinach Curry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Luscious Lemon Chicken and Spinach Curry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The words “healthy eating” are normally as welcome as rain at Wimbledon, but unlike the curry-house norm, this is surprisingly light. Plus, it’s quick, easy to make and looks, well, good enough to eat. Serve with naan or basmati rice.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


2 tablespoons light vegetable oil, divided

4 to 5 cups boneless, skinless chicken thighs, diced (Thighs provide more flavor than breast meat.)

1 large onion, finely sliced

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

A piece of fresh ginger the length of your thumb, peeled and finely chopped

1 to 2 fresh red chilies, finely chopped

1 tablespoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon turmeric

8 cardamom pods

Juice of 2 large lemons

2 cups vegetable or chicken stock

5 cups fresh spinach, tough stalks  removed (Chop the leaves roughly if very large.)

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Heat at 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the chicken pieces and fry over a high heat until golden brown on all sides. Cook in several batches, so you don’t overcrowd the pan. Transfer to a plate.

2. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan and fry the onion gently for 10 minutes until soft. Add the garlic, ginger, chilies, cumin, coriander, turmeric and cardamom and fry, stirring, for a couple of minutes.

3. Return the chicken to the pan with the lemon juice and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Stir in the spinach and allow to wilt for a few minutes before checking the seasoning and adding salt and pepper to taste. Warn the diners about the cardamom pods — they are best removed delicately from the mouth as if they were lemon pips.

Something for Everyone Spinach and Bacon Salad

Something for Everyone Spinach and Bacon Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Something for Everyone Spinach and Bacon Salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

I think the croutons are the best bit, but thanks to the spinach this easy-peasy salad contains all the major food groups.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


For the salad:

4 cups young spinach leaves

3 slices bacon, cut into squares

1 cup crumbled blue cheese

A handful of fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced

A handful of fresh chives, snipped

For the croutons:

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 thick slices of white bread, cubed

For finishing:

Vinaigrette dressing


1. Tear up the spinach leaves and place in a salad bowl.

2. Fry the bacon squares until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

3. Heat the butter and oil in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until the aroma rises. Add the bread cubes and fry, stirring frequently, until they are crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper.

4. Add the bacon, cheese, mushrooms and chives to the spinach and dress with vinaigrette, then top with croutons.

Beautiful Baltic Summer Soup

Beautiful Baltic Summer Soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Beautiful Baltic Summer Soup. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

This cold soup is authentically made with green beetroot tops, but spinach might be easier to source. The soup also contains sour cream, a favorite ingredient. In my world, everything tastes better with sour cream.

Prep time: 3 to 4 hours, which includes chilling time but not the cooking time for the beetroot or spinach

Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes

Total time: 3 to 4 hours

Yield: 6 servings


2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and white pepper to taste

1 cup cooked cubed beetroot

8 cups trimmed spinach leaves, cooked and chopped

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup sour cream

2 cucumbers, peeled and chopped

6 green onions, chopped

6 radishes, thinly sliced

Chopped fresh dill to taste

3 cups boiled, peeled shrimp


1. Simmer the stock for 10 minutes, adding salt and white pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and add the spinach and beetroot. Chill until very cold, about 3 or 4 hours.

2. Just before serving in chilled bowls, stir in the lemon juice and sour cream and add the cucumbers, green onions, radishes, dill and shrimp. Either mix well before serving or allow everyone to add the choice of garnish themselves.

Main photo: Fresh spinach. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

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Celebrate Spring Asparagus With 3 New Ideas /vegetables-wrecipe/celebrate-spring-asparagus-with-3-new-ideas/ /vegetables-wrecipe/celebrate-spring-asparagus-with-3-new-ideas/#respond Thu, 05 May 2016 09:00:40 +0000 /?p=73552 Freshly cut asparagus. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

One of the things I love best about living in deepest southern Alsace, France, is that we have proper seasons. Each season brings its own special treat: In fall we get gorgeous ceps and chanterelles, freshly foraged or sourced at the farmers market. During winter it’s the turn of a whole range of seasonal sausages, recalling a time when by tradition the family pig was slaughtered and sausages were freshly made.

Early spring brings lamb’s lettuce (aka mâche), which grows wild throughout the vineyards, and wild garlic (ramps or ramsons) from damp corners of the forest. Morels, those delectable, sponge-like mushrooms that point their wrinkled noses up through the newly green pastures (or, if you’re lucky, among the wood chippings in your newly planted rose bed), are another seasonal delicacy. A little later comes rhubarb, which finds its way into sublime, meringue-topped tarts. Right now, as spring gets fully into its stride, asparagus is having a moment.

For anyone who has never visited Alsace in May or June, it’s difficult to convey the almost religious fervor associated with this wonderful vegetable. During its brief but intense season, some restaurants give themselves over entirely to serving nothing but great, steaming mounds of asparagus. (The standard portion is about 2 pounds per person.) Huge trestle tables and long wooden benches are the order of the day; napkins are tucked into collars in time-honored French fashion and the feast gets underway. The mighty white spears are served naked and unadorned save for thin slices of ham (cooked, cured and smoked) and a choice of mayonnaise, Hollandaise or vinaigrette sauces.

Here are three recipes that make much of both the green and white kinds.

Salad With Asparagus, Ham and Soft-Boiled Eggs

Salad With Asparagus, Ham and Soft-Boiled Eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Salad With Asparagus, Ham and Soft-Boiled Eggs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 2 servings


8 ounces green asparagus (about 10 spears)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Sea salt

2 eggs

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon mild mustard

6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

A pinch of sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped herbs in season (parsley, tarragon, mint, chives, lovage

Salt and pepper to taste

For the salad:

2 good handfuls mixed salad leaves (iceberg, Little Gem, lamb’s lettuce, arugula, etc.)

4 slices cooked or cured ham, cut in thin strips

Thinly sliced radishes (optional)


1. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and lay the trimmed spears in a small roasting pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast in a hot oven (400 F, 200 C) for 10 to 15 minutes until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife (timing will depend on thickness). Shake the pan once or twice so they roll around and cook evenly. Alternately, cook in a ridged grill pan over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife, shaking once or twice. Set asparagus aside.

2. Put two eggs in a small pan of cold water, bring to a boil and count 3 minutes from when the water starts to boil. Drain the eggs, place them in cold water until cool, then peel. Leave them whole.

3. For the dressing, place the mustard, olive oil, vinegar, sugar, chopped herbs and salt and pepper in a jam jar, cover with a lid and shake vigorously until emulsified.

4. To assemble the salads, place a selection of salad leaves on plates, arrange asparagus spears on top, scatter with ham strips and optional radishes and place an egg on top of each one. Drizzle with some dressing.

Green and White Asparagus Stacks With Herby Vinaigrette and Prosciutto or Smoked Salmon

Green and White Asparagus Stacks With Herby Vinaigrette and Prosciutto or Smoked Salmon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Green and White Asparagus Stacks With Herby Vinaigrette and Prosciutto or Smoked Salmon. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 10 minutes to assemble the stacks

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Yield: 6 servings


1 pound each of white and green asparagus

A sprinkling of sea salt, plus a pinch more for boiling water

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

A good handful of mixed tender herbs (flat-leaf parsley, lovage, chives, tarragon)

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon vinegar (use sherry, white wine or cider vinegar)

Salt and pepper to taste

10 ounces soft fresh goat’s cheese

6 thin slices prosciutto or smoked salmon

Flat-leaf parsley to garnish


1. Peel the white asparagus, making sure not to leave any tough strips of peel, and trim the green asparagus.

2. Put all peelings and trimmings in a saucepan with the stalks from the herbs, cover with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Strain this herby stock, put it back into the pan, bring to a boil and reduce to about a cup by fast boiling.

4. Lay both sorts of asparagus in one layer in a roasting pan, sprinkle with a little olive oil and coarse salt and roast for 10-15 minutes in a 425 F (220 C) oven or until a knife inserted in the thickest part feels tender. You can also boil or steam the asparagus 10 to 15 minutes if you prefer.

5. For the herby vinaigrette, place the chopped shallot, herbs, reduced stock, oil and vinegar in the blender and blend until smooth — seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

6. To assemble the dish, cut the soft fresh goat’s cheese in very thin slices and arrange on each plate to make a base on which to set the asparagus stacks.

7. Cut each asparagus spear in three pieces — if fat, slice in half lengthwise as well.

8. Arrange a layer of white asparagus on top of the goat’s cheese, then green (laid at right angles to them), then white (at right angles) and finally green (at right angles again).

9. Cut the prosciutto or smoked salmon in thin strips, then arrange over the asparagus stacks and drizzle herby vinaigrette around. Garnish with parsley.

Stir-fried Asparagus and Mushrooms With Toasted Sesame Seeds

Stir-fried Asparagus and Mushrooms With Toasted Sesame Seeds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Stir-fried Asparagus and Mushrooms With Toasted Sesame Seeds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings


2 pounds green asparagus

8 ounces mushrooms

3 teaspoons sesame seeds

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 garlic clove, chopped

A walnut-sized piece of ginger, peeled, grated


1. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and cut the spears on a slant in 2-inch (5-centimeter) pieces. Trim the mushrooms and slice or quarter them.

2. Put the sesame seeds in a small frying pan and heat till nicely toasted and fragrant — don’t let them burn! Tip them onto a plate to cool.

3. Mix together the soy sauce and sugar and reserve.

4. When you’re ready to start the stir-fry (it takes barely 10 minutes), warm some soup plates in a lightly warmed oven.

5. Heat 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil in a wok or paella pan and fry the garlic and ginger very briefly till golden — keep tossing and turning it so it doesn’t burn.

6. Add the trimmed asparagus and mushrooms and fry briskly, lifting and turning with two wooden spoons for about 10 minutes or until asparagus is just tender but with a bit of bite — keep the vegetables on the move and keep tasting until done to your liking. Stir in the reserved soy sauce and sugar and cook another 1 to 2 minutes.

7. Serve the vegetables over rice and scatter toasted sesame seeds on top.

Main photo: Freshly cut asparagus. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Get Growing This Spring With Helpful Garden Critters /agriculture/get-growing-this-spring-with-helpful-garden-critters/ /agriculture/get-growing-this-spring-with-helpful-garden-critters/#respond Mon, 04 Apr 2016 09:00:53 +0000 /?p=72600 This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

The garden is bursting just now with unopened blooms, with thousands of peonies, irises and poppies, all swelling in their bloom buds on the eve of spring’s main riot. And the gardener’s mind is teeming with thoughts of what needs to be done in the vegetable garden to get ready for the explosive growth of spring. So this is the perfect moment to think what we can do to help the great helpers of the garden: birds and bees, toads and bats.

In our rambling old house with its maze of attics, we have a strong colony of bees that live with us. Every spring, a huge swarm emerges and forms on the north eaves at the top of the house outside the kids’ playroom, before flying off to begin a new colony. It is much larger than a basketball and very dense, with great gobs of honey dripping all over the patio. It is quite a mess but we love the free honey, which doesn’t get any more organic and local than that.

Be kind to bees

It's simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

It’s simple to buy or build habitats for bees that require no attention from the gardener. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

Global crops pollinated by bees are worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. But all over the world, bee colonies are under stress and many are suffering from the devastating phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees disappear and leave behind only the queen, some food and a few nurse bees.

CCD has doubled the normal rate of colony loss in recent years and is causing drastic agricultural impacts. Imagine a world without bees or merely where they are rare — it’s unthinkable, really. Experts are not sure what is causing CCD, but heavily implicated are a class of powerful insecticides called neonicotinoids.

What can we do to help? Well, a great place to start would be with the American Beekeeping Federation. For people willing to explore beekeeping, you can learn there how to go about it. Short of becoming a beekeeper, there are many things you can do to help. If you have space in your garden, you can let a local beekeeper install and care for a beehive; you get all the benefits of the busy bees in the garden, and the beekeeper gets a place for his hive. It’s also very simple to build or buy habitats for orchard mason bees that require no attention from the gardener, and you can get them from sources like Gardener’s Supply Company.

Going to bat for creatures of the night

Bats are also a great help as a pollinator and as a voracious insectivore. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest, Inc.

Bats are also a great help as pollinators and as voracious insectivores. Credit: Courtesy of BestNest Inc.

Bats are also a great help to the gardener, both as pollinators and as voracious insectivores, though many people are squeamish about them. They also live in some of our attic spaces and we benignly look the other way, for all the good they do in the garden; what a joy it is to see them swooping through the evening garden, ridding us of all manner of nuisance bugs. Each bat eats a third of its body weight in insects every night, and several hundred insects in just a few hours. If bats were ever to become extinct, our planet would be overrun with insect pests and we would live in a nightmare world.

It is easy and interesting to have bats live in your garden, and you do not have to have them in your attic as we do. All you need to do is hang a handsome cedar bat shelter in a quiet part of the garden and let these helpful creatures do the rest. A good source is, and there are many others.

Make your garden toad-friendly

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener's Supply Company

Toads may not be cute, but they will eat thousands of pests in one summer. Credit: Courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

"The Garden Interior: A Year of Inspired Beauty"

By David Jensen

Morgan James Publishing, 2016, 282 pages

» Click here to buy the book

Have you seen any toads in your garden lately? Toads do not have many friends, though it is hard to see why, but for an unreasoning prejudice against their appearance and thousands of years of superstition against them. Just one ordinary toad can devour thousands and thousands of garden pests in a single summer. If you are plagued by slugs and cutworms, as so many gardeners are, this is the helpmate for you.

They should be part of every healthy garden, and if you do not have friendly toads around the place, you can also provide a habitat that will attract them. Any sort of covered shelter will do, and you can certainly improvise your own but there are also good commercial providers, like Gardener’s Supply Company, and the National Wildlife Federation is a good source for general information about these great helpers and how to make your garden toad-friendly.

And we all like birds, right? They will strip your garden of insect pests faster than anything. What all these helpers have in common is that they will come to you if your garden is free or nearly free of insecticides and other chemicals. This spring, consider ending or at least curbing your reliance on chemicals in the garden. Let your garden heal, and enjoy the delightful, diverse company of these healthy garden helpers.

Main photo: This spring, be kind to the bats, bees, birds and toads that help your garden. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Jensen

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Tasty Flowers Bring Spring’s Beauty To The Plate /cooking/tasty-flowers-bring-springs-beauty-to-the-plate/ /cooking/tasty-flowers-bring-springs-beauty-to-the-plate/#respond Thu, 16 Apr 2015 09:00:34 +0000 /?p=64028 Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

Flowers have crept into our diets almost unnoticed, and now it seems they are blooming everywhere: nasturtiums in salads; courgette (zucchini) flowers, stuffed and fried; elderflower cordial; and violet creams. Many more flowers than you might imagine can be used to add flavor and color to sweet and savory dishes.

Many of the flowers we now grow as ornamentals were originally valued as herbs. In addition, all the flowers of the herbs we use are edible, along with roses, fuchsias and day lilies, to name but a few. Now is the perfect time to plant many of them. Edible flowers don’t need much room and even if you only have a couple of window boxes, you will still get a good, long harvest.

Edible annuals such as cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), sunflowers (Helianthus annus), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and pot or English marigolds (Calendula) can be sown now. Only some Tagetes marigolds are edible, in particular T. patula, T. lucida and T. tenuifolium. If in any doubt, stick to calendulas. Simply sow the seeds in trays, pots or in situ, and you will be rewarded with a summerlong harvest. All these plants are “cut-and-come-again,” which means that the more flowers you pick, the more the plant will produce, usually right up to the first frosts.

The petals of cornflowers, which have little flavor, are a wonderful blue and look particularly good on creamy or yellow dishes such as custards, cheese and egg dishes and cakes; and with yellow and orange peppers. Even plain old macaroni cheese looks spectacular with a garnish of blue petals.

Marigolds have a subtle peppery taste and give food a rich yellow color, earning them the name of “poor man’s saffron.” Cut away the bitter ends of the petals and cook in oil to bring out the best flavor; fish, rice, pasta, eggs, potatoes, cream and butter are all good companions. Dried petals are a great addition to winter soups.

Tasty nasturtiums

Peppery-sweet nasturtiums are easy to grow from seed and are great to grow up sunflowers. Just wait till the sunflower is about 30 centimeters (11 inches) tall and then plant two to three nasturtium seeds around the base of the plant. Tie them in as they grow up and you will have two crops in the space of one. Nasturtiums are good in salads, but they also go well with fish, chicken, cream cheese, goat’s cheese, risotto or pasta and make great fritters. The young leaves are also tasty.

Sunflower petals have a slightly nutty taste. You can eat the young stems and flower buds, but this seems a bit of a waste as you lose the flowers. Better to enjoy the flowers, use the petals and leave the seeds to ripen on the plants. Sunflower bread is wonderful, using the seeds and petals. You can add the petals to pastas and soups; they go especially well with any onion-based dishes.

Plants you can buy now include hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). They are biennials, so they take two years to grow. But if you collect seeds and plant them toward the end of the summer, you will have a continuous supply of the plants and their beautiful flowers, which make perfect garnishes.

Pansies, Johnny jump-ups or violets (Viola) are also good plants to buy. As well as livening up green salads they go well with fish, potatoes, carrots and fruit salads. Violets are daintier and have a sweeter taste; perfect for cakes and scones. Do not be tempted to use African violets (Saintpaulia) as they are not edible.

All Dianthus (carnations, pinks and sweet Williams) have edible petals. They have a sweet clove-like flavor, which is strongest in the most fragrant flowers. They are one of the many ingredients in chartreuse, and complement egg- or cream-based puddings, salmon and cakes and biscuits.

Tulips make spectacular containers for ice cream. Simply prepare them as described below, prop them upright in a small glass or egg cup and add a scoop of ice cream. The petals taste mildly of cucumber; the paler flowers have a better flavor, but the more flamboyant ones make more striking containers.

Preparing edible flowers

While using flowers in your cooking is a wonderful thing, there are one or two cautions. Just because a flower smells good it follows that it will be good to eat — a vast number of flowers are highly poisonous. The Latin name enables you to tell exactly what you are growing and eating. Local names of flowers vary widely and can even refer to different plants.

Day lilies look like lilies and are delicious to eat, but they are Hemerocallis, not really lilies at all. Most true lilies (Lilium) are not edible. All marigolds belonging to the Calendula genus are great to eat, but only some of the Tagetes marigolds (see above) can be eaten safely. Secondly, if you suffer from pollen allergies you should introduce any flowers into your diet very gradually.

As well as knowing exactly which flower you are eating, it is important that they have not been treated with chemicals. The best way to ensure this is to pick them from your own garden. Most flowers are best picked early, on a dry day, once any dew has dried, but before the sun dries their oils. Pick unblemished, freshly opened flowers, give them a shake to remove any lurking bugs or dust, and then wash carefully in a bowl of cold water. Pat dry or spin gently in a salad spinner and place on paper towels to dry completely.

Nasturtiums, day lilies and fuchsias can be eaten whole, but with most other flowers it is best to remove the pistils and stamens (the bits in the middle). Flowers such as roses, marigolds and dianthus have a white heel at the bottom of their petals. This can be bitter, so snip it away if necessary. Make sure all the pollen is removed, especially from flowers such as hollyhocks, which have a lot. This is easiest done with a paintbrush.

If you aren’t going to use them within a few hours, store the prepared flowers on paper towels in an airtight container in the bottom of the fridge. Flowers can also be stored in sugar (violet-, pink- and rose-infused sugars are particularly good), crystallized, added to oils and vinegars, or mixed in butter (primrose or pot marigold butters are pretty and delicious).

Feel free to experiment, and you will find your dishes prettier and more flavorful.

Main photo: Sweet William flowers. Credit: Copyright 2015 J.M. Hunter

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