Simple Gifts From The Garden

Take Tender Care Of Skin & Hair

If family and friends complain of winter dry skin, take heart. You can quickly and easily create soothing skin and hair care products that make lovely, welcome gifts for the sufferers. Dry, over-heated air is the usual culprit, especially where heat is provided by forced air. However, those of us who keep gardening despite the weather can also develop chapped faces and hands as well as dry hair. Since our skin is our largest organ and the first line of defense against all manner of environmental challenges, it’s both wise and kind to keep it as healthy as possible.

Fortunately, our gardens and kitchens contain natural ingredients that can ease discomfort and help heal dried out hair and skin. These easily made body care items are pleasant to use and far better for our precious bodies than most commercial products, many of which contain actively harmful elements. (Isn’t that kind of amazing, really?). Package them in squeeze bottles or small canning jar with screw-on tops for ease of use (the tiny quarter- or half-cup ones are great for skin creams and conditioners). These are fun to make with kids as well, and make lovely gifts from a child to a relative or friend.

What’s In That Shampoo and Conditioner?

The distressing truth is that many common ingredients in shampoos and conditioners are genuinely harmful to our health. Since our skin is also our most absorbent organ, whatever we put on our skin and scalp is taken into the body very efficiently. Read a few labels closely (a horrifying experience, sadly) and you’ll quickly see the benefit and value of organic skin and hair care products.

If you still prefer to purchase hair care products rather than make your own, always read the label carefully. Choose products made only with organic ingredients and avoid products that contain known carcinogens such as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), parabens, formaldehyde, and DEA, MEA or TEA, as well as hazardous materials such as polyethylene glycol.

Healing Kitchen Cupboard Ingredients

The good news is that some of the wholesome, healing ingredients in your pantry work equally well for food and body care. Virgin olive oil is not only anti-inflammatory and cholesterol lowering, it can also do wonders for your skin and hair. After soaking your feet in warm water, massage them with virgin olive oil, then slip on warm socks. Olive oil smoothes rough skin on hands and elbows and makes an enriching conditioner for dry hair.

Rich in antioxidants, virgin coconut oil is similarly healing for skin, melting quickly at body temperature to make a light, easily absorbed oil that can be used on your face and body. Rub some on your hands, then run your fingers through your hair to give it a healthy sheen and combat dryness. Virgin coconut oil can also be used in this paraben-free deodorant that can be lightly scented with essential oils.

Coconut Oil Deodorant

1/2 cup virgin coconut oil (solid)
1/3 cup organic tapioca starch
2 tablespoons baking soda
4-6 drop pure essential oil (optional)

Warm oil in a glass bowl over hot water until it melts, then stir in other ingredients until well blended. Pour into a small jar (I use half-cup canning jars), let cool and cover tightly. To use, lightly massage 1 teaspoonful into each armpit after bathing.

Super Natural Hair Care

Winter dry hair can feel stiff and look dull and brittle. To revitalize it, use this mild, castile-based shampoo and rinse hair well. Wet hair completely before adding shampoo, and rinse for several minutes after shampooing. Gently massage your scalp (fingertips only; no nails) as you wash and rinse your hair. This increases blood circulation and unclogs sebaceous glands, both of which improves hair health and appearance. Gently towel hair dry, then let air dry completely. Use an olive oil conditioner weekly until hair luster is restored, then monthly or as needed.

This super-soft shampoo does wonders for dry hair, eliminating dandruff and itchy scalps. It also adds body to thin hair and is especially helpful during and after chemo treatments.

Lovely Homemade Shampoo

1 cup liquid castile soap (I use Dr. Bronner’s)
1 tablespoon organic cider vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup water

Combine in a bottle with a flip-top or squirt nozzle. Shake gently, apply 1-2 teaspoons to wet hair and work in well; mixture will be rich and very lathery. Rinse thoroughly while massaging scalp. Hair will not be “squeaky clean” because the natural oils will not be stripped out (so you may not need to use conditioner as often). Don’t worry; when toweled dry, hair feels soft and is not at all sticky.

Rosemary & Lavender Shampoo

1/3 cup boiling water
2 tablespoons dried lavender blossoms
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary sprigs
1 cup liquid castile soap (I use Dr. Bronner’s)
1 tablespoon organic cider vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Pour boiling water into a glass bowl with herbs and steep, covered with a plate, until cool. Strain liquid, adding water if needed to make 1/3 cup, and proceed as above.

Olive Oil and Honey Conditioner

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons honey

Combine ingredients in a glass bowl and warm gently over hot water, stirring well to blend. Work into through damp hair, gently massaging your scalp. Wrap your head with a hot (old) towel or wear a shower cap  while you relax or take a bath for 20-30 minutes. Wash with gentle shampoo and rinse well.

Olive Oil Conditioner With Lavender and Rosemary

2 tablespoons rosemary, snipped
2 tablespoons lavender (fresh or dried)
1 cup virgin olive oil

In a saucepan, combine rosemary and lavender with 1/2 cup water, bring to a boil, remove from heat and steep for 15-30 minutes. Strain liquid, pressing herbs firmly, combine in a food processor or blender with olive oil and blend well. To use, shake mixture well, then put 1/4 cup of it in a glass bowl over hot water and warm to wrist temperature. Comb through damp hair, wrap head with a hot (old) towel or shower cap and relax for 20-30 minutes. Shampoo hair with gentle shampoo and rinse well.

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Homemade Gnocchi

Italian Potato Dumplings

A millions years ago, I studied cooking in Italy with a fantastic cook called Signora Savino. Her kitchen was extremely simple but she turned out an incredible range of delicacies, including hand rolled pasta you could read through. Her long, narrow work table had a built-in slot for her rolling pin, exactly as wide as the table, and she rolled each blob of pasta into a perfect rectangle before cutting it into shapes with various ancient-looking tools.

One of my favorite Savino dishes is gnocchi, a delectable Italian potato dumpling. Light, fluffy and adorably curly, gnocchi are also the perfect foil for many savory sauces. There are quite a few gnocchi recipes that use flour only, but I find the potato-based kind the most tender and flavorful. To get the texture right, it’s important to use baking potatoes, not waxy fingerlings or little boilers.

Potato Gnocchi

4 pounds Russet or any baking potatoes
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/3-1/2 cup unbleached white flour

Boil the potatoes whole and unpeeled in salted water until fork tender (about 30 minutes). Drain them, peel them, and mash gently with the salt until smooth. When room temperature, stir in the egg, then add flour 1-2 tablespoons at a time until a soft dough forms. Take pieces the size of a satsuma and roll them into sticks about as wide as your pointer finger. Chop the sticks into inch-long bits, then working on a lightly floured surface, give each one a tiny tug, pressing down while pulling forward with a flick of your finger, which makes them curl just a bit. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and drop in gnocchi a handful at a time. First they sink, then they bob up to the top, when you scoop them out with a slotted spoon and put them into a buttered dish in a warm oven. When all are cooked, serve them with sauce and grated cheese. Bliss! Serves 4.

Pronto Pasta Sauce

Easy and quickly made, this full bodied sauce tastes like it simmered all day. Rich with chopped olives, it’s bold enough to satisfy hearty eaters even when your main dish is meatless. Serve over gnocchi, ravioli, or penne, garnished with fresh parsley and grated Pecorino cheese. To give sauces extra depth and richness, add a spoonful of minced olives to sautéing onions, garlic, shallots or leeks.

Signora Savino also taught me that REAL olives–not the nasty black-dyed ones sold in cans–add immeasurable richness to a zillion dishes. For extra zing, garnish pasta dishes with whole, garlic-stuffed olives. Slice a few brine-cured nicoise olives into mushroom dishes for a delicious flavor boost. Sliver bold kalamatas lengthwise and toss with roasted Brussels sprouts and cranberries…ahhh!

Italian Rich Pasta Sauce

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seed
6-8 pitted Kalamata or Italian olives, finely chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
5 cups (2 cans) diced fire roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
4 cups tomato sauce

In a large pan, combine oil, garlic, and fennel seed and cook over medium high heat to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). Add olives and cook for 2 minutes. Add onions and celery and cook until soft (5-7 minutes). Add diced tomatoes, red wine, and tomato sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve over ravioli, gnocchi, or spaghetti, with grated cheese on the side. Serves 4-6.

Brilliant Squash Boats

This is an amazing dish for all its simplicity. The hot tangerine sections burst into bright sweetness, offsetting the tart cranberries, along with the lush Delicata squash, so tender, you can eat them skins and all. This makes a perfect counterpoint for savory dishes of almost any kind.

Sweet-Tart Winter Squash

2 Delicata squash
1 cup cranberries
1 cup fennel, finely chopped
1 large tangerine or 2 satsumas, sectioned
pinch smoked Malden sea salt (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut each squash in half lengthwise, scoop out seeds. Place squash cut-side-up in a baking pan. Fill each squash cavity with 1/4 cup each of cranberries and fennel. Add tangerine or satsuma sections, sprinkle with salt and bake, uncovered at 350 degrees until soft (40-50 minutes). Serve hot. Serves four.

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Illuminating The Winter Garden

Ice Blossoms & Snow Candles

The recent ice, wind, and snow left many gardens looking battered and worn. I spent several days removing large broken branches from my home garden and at the library gardens, which were both deeply littered with fallen limbs. The good news is that some of what blew down will make wonderful holiday wreaths and swags. Many of the evergreen branches were heavy with cones, which give holiday decor an appealingly natural look.

I also found lots of mossy twigs, some with several kinds of lichens woven in. On my birthday, a small piece fell just in front of my as I was walking in the woods, and it was so beautiful I had to bring it home. About two inches long, it has no fewer than six distinct kinds of lichen and moss, all in soft browns and silvery grey-greens. After a few days, it tarted to dry up, so I put it on my back porch and it bounced back into lushness. I’d love to make a fiber-arts version, and am sorting scraps of fabric and yarn to play with during winter break.

Winter In Willow

I’m also playing with ice flowers, since the cold just keeps on coming. A dear gardening friend who lives in Willow, Alaska is an incredible gardener and garden artist who revels in his plants. In deep winter, In winter, his garden lies under a deep blanket of snow that can reach six or eight or ten feet. Indoors, Les gets ready for spring by covering every available surface with seed trays of delphiniums and hollyhocks and dozens of vivid annuals. By February, he sometimes can’t even find the table top anymore and every meal becomes a picnic.

Outside, Les makes ice flowers. He carves and sculpts slabs of colored ice into floral shapes, some simple, some intricate. Many are tinted with food coloring in vivid or subtle colors. All are lit from within by candles and small flashlights, giving them a soft glow that lit up the dark Alaskan day like stars. The result is sheer magic. Now, Les opens the winter garden to tours to benefit the local library and several organizations that help kids in need. As the days grew darker and longer, more and more people come to see the lovely lights and revel in the transformational experience.

Smoke And Mirrors

It’s rarely cold enough for ice flowers around here, yet the idea of bringing light and reflections into the winter garden is an excellent one. One of my favorite holiday gifts was a set of Mexican red clay lanterns that hold fat, long burning candles. Set about the garden, these provide a soft, flickering illumination that glimmers off the glossy surfaces of glazed pots and containers.

Garden mirrors also bounce light into dark places beautifully. I like to use them in  unexpected places, where they surprise us with a glimpse of light that pierces the winter gloom. In a former garden, a battered old thrift shop mirror hung from a tree in a dim woodland part of the garden, where it shimmered like lost water amid the shadows. Another in a marvelously tacky gilded frame was tastefully tucked under the porch steps, where turned the deep recess into a grotto and illuminated a collection of weird rocks and glass baubles.

Water Of Life

Real water reflects light best of all and has the power of a natural force as well. Hollow stones full of water bring birds for daily bathing and capture the flow of clouds across the ragged sky when not in active use. Water jars do the same thing, of course, but because they are vulnerable to winter frosts, ceramic pots and containers are best saved for summer.

Every garden is livelier for the presence of water. The easiest way to bring water into the garden is to add a winter-proof birdbath. This also attracts the birds, of course, which can make for a lot of exciting action in a previously quiet corner of the yard. If the birds don’t find their new bath right away, try scattering a handful of apples around its base. Many birds love to eat apples and will flock to the food en route to the water. It’s especially important to give birds water in freezing weather, when I often change the water bowl several time a day.

Snow Balls And Glow Balls

My grandson is just learning about Christmas and loves for me to read holiday books. One family favorite is Christmas in Noisy Village, one of several Noisy Village books by Astrid Lindgren. The wonderful illustrations show children putting out fat sheaves of wheat for the birds, and heaping little pyramids of snowballs over candles to shine softly as they sing carols at night. Whenever it snows enough, I make a snowball pyramid on my garden bird table, with a little battery-powered “candle” tucked inside. It remains an enchanting sight to me and I hope Granny’s snowlights will be part of my grandson’s fondly recollections as well.

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A Vegan & Gluten-free Thanksgiving

Joyful Food To Share With Family & Friends

This year, I decided to mix up the traditional Thanksgiving menu and make a vegan feast. Tradition can be a heartening anchor from the present to the past, but it can also feel like a dead weight. As I understand it, the real idea behind thanksgiving is sharing gratitude and celebrating belonging–to family, community, or the fellowship of humanity–not spending most of a day (or more) making a heavy, rich meal that will be over in the blink of an eye.

Although I actually enjoy making the traditional foods, my extended family now flows into others, presenting an interwoven net of connection and sometimes obligation. As my sons reached adulthood, I made a clear decision that I did not ever want being with me to be an obligation for my family or friends. That sometimes means that on the actual day of certain events, I am cooking for just two, which requires some imaginative adaptation.

Changing Patterns

There is an art to changing up long standing patterns, and I find that new ways to celebrate can be best introduced as intriguing innovation, not some sorrowful second best. My mother, who is increasingly housebound, no longer enjoys the friendly chaos of large gatherings and does much better when there are just a few guests at our table. Thus, we now have a new tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving and other major family holidays with a light brunch, since that is the easiest time for at least some of us to gather.

Brunch is already a swing-time meal, leaning toward breakfast or dinner according to what best suits your guests. That makes it easy to introduce new or different foods that are not associated with the specific holiday, and easy to focus on simple enjoyment of good company. This year’s thanksgiving brunch will be a vegan feast that meets a wide range of dietary needs while still feeling festive.

Something Old, Something New

If you are planning a more traditional meal with vegans in attendance, it’s good to know that some favorites don’t need much help to be satisfying, despite replacing the usual dairy ingredients. Mashed potatoes with gravy are fortunately easy to reinvent for vegans, especially if you add some buttery-tasting avocado oil. Another helpful technique is to reserve some potato water (the cloudy stuff at the bottom of the pan) for the gravy, adding thickening starch as well as robust flavor. Recycle any extra mashed potatoes as potato cakes or shepherd’s pie topping.

Vegan Garlic Mashed Potatoes

10-12 ounces silken tofu
2 teaspoons chopped chives
4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2-3 tablespoons avocado oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor, puree tofu with chives, set aside. Thickly peel potatoes, reserving peels for broth (see below). Chop potatoes, cover with cold water, set aside. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil, add drained potatoes, garlic, and half the salt and cook until tender (12-15 minutes). Drain, reserving cooking liquid, and mash or put through a ricer (it gives a lighter texture). Thin to desired thickness with avocado oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with a dollop of tofu mixture and mushroom gravy (see below).

Great Gravy Starts With Fresh Broth

Ready-made broth often tastes flat, heavy, and stale. Happily, it’s a snap to make your own, since meal making usually results in at least a few cups of vegetable scraps that can be recycled into a sturdy, flavorful broth. Depending on the end use, combine scraps and/or chunks of onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, carrots, celery, and/or fennel. Use the resulting broth in soups or stews or as the basis for a satisfyingly rich vegan gravy.

Fresh Vegetable Broth

2-8 cups vegetable scraps or more (see above)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2-3 tablespoons nutritional yeast

Put reserved potato peelings (see above) any scraps and skins from onions, leeks, garlic, mushrooms stems, and celery in a soup pot. Add salt and water to cover, bring to a simmer, cover pot and simmer for 30 minutes or more (to taste). Strain out vegetables and season broth to taste with nutritional yeast. Makes 2-8 cups.

Rich Vegan Gravy

To give plant-based gravy a fuller, richer flavor, use fresh broth (see above), buttery avocado oil, and umami-rich mushrooms, adding a little nutritional yeast to round it out. Use your favorite mushrooms, or a mixture of white buttons (highest in antioxidants) and tasty brown field mushrooms, or chanterelles or shaggy manes, or whatever you like best.

Vegan Leek & Mushroom Gravy

1/4 cup avocado oil
1 large brown or yellow onion, chopped
4 medium leeks, chopped (white and palest green parts only)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2-4 cups fresh vegetable broth or red wine
2-3 teaspoons nutritional yeast

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, onion, leeks and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (10-15 minutes). Add mushrooms, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes to sweat mushrooms. Add broth or red wine and simmer until mushrooms are tender (20-30 minutes). Puree with an immersion blender to desired consistency and serve hot. Serves 4-8.

A Splendid Gluten-Free Vegan Lasagna

Tender brown rice noodles meet creamy tofu pesto, red sauce, and layers of fennel and winter greens in this luscious entree. Use your favorite jarred marinara sauce or make your own, and try any combination of greens you prefer. Brown rice noodles make any lasagna easy to put together, since they don’t need to be precooked. Our current favorite lasagna noodle is made by Tinkyada, but there are several good kinds available these days.

Vegan Lasagna With Winter Greens

1 box (10-12 ounces) brown rice lasagna noodles
6 cups marinara sauce or any favorite vegan kind

For the creamy layer:

10-12 ounces firm tofu, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated organic lemon zest
2 cups fresh basil, with stems
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Combine in a food processor, puree to a smooth paste, set aside.

For the greens layer:

2 tablespoons avocado oil
1 large brown or yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bulbs fennel, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 big bunch kale, thinly sliced
1 pound young spinach

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, onions, garlic, fennel and salt over medium high heat and cook until barely soft (10-15 minutes). Add kale and spinach, reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and sweat until vegetables are lightly wilted (5-8 minutes). Stir well and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.


3 cups raw cashews
1/2 cup nutritional yeast

Combine in a food processor and grind to coarse crumbles (just a few seconds). Set aside.

To assemble:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pour 1-2 cups of sauce into a lasagna pan and spread to cover evenly. Add a layer of lasagna noodles and spread with tofu mixture. Add a layer of noodles and cover with 2 cups sauce. Layer on greens and top with noodles. Cover with remaining sauce, sprinkle with cashew crumbles and bake until bubbly (an hour or more). Serves 8-12.

A Truly Yummy Vegan, Gluten Free Pumpkin Pie

If pumpkin pie is important to a happy holiday, try this delectable version, which combines a crunchy nut-based crust with a silky, rich-tasting filling that’s bright with ginger and sweet with pomegranate molasses and maple syrup. For best texture, use boxed silken tofu (other kinds can be grainy).

Vegan Gluten Free Pumpkin Silk Pie

10-12 ounces silken tofu
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, coriander and ginger
2 cups (15-ounce can) cooked pumpkin pulp
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 pre-baked nut crust (see below)

In a food processor, combine tofu, spices, and fresh ginger and puree until smooth. Pour into a bowl and stir in pumpkin and vanilla, adding molasses and salt to taste. Spoon into unbaked nut crust, top with maple syrup, and chill until ready to serve. Serves at least one.

Crunchy Gluten Free Crust

2 cups raw almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 tablespoon dark molasses or maple syrup
few grains sea salt

In a food processor, grind nuts coarsely. Add remaining ingredients and process briefly to blend. Pat into a pie dish. For chilled filling, prebake at 350 degrees F until golden (20-25 minutes), cool before filling.

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