Celebrating Spring Greens


From Salads To Sauces And Soups

Though my winter greens are leggy and flopping, with fluffy flowerheads pulling in the busy bees, my spring greens are hustling to take their place. One of my favorite activities is wandering my deck with salad spinner insert in hand, plucking a little of this and a tad of that. I plunge my pickings in cold water, drain, spin and taste in mere minutes, so the greens have that lively, crisp, just-picked quality and flavor.

Beet_BlsBloodMy winter mix had dwindled down to kale, Bulls Blood beet greens (really red), and chard. Now I’ve got lovely freshets of Italian parsley, thyme, and mint from perennial herbs, as well as beautiful babies that are stretching and growing as fast as they can. My new favorite lettuce is Dancine Mountain, a mini butterhead with lush, almost sweet leaves. I wrote Dancing Mountain on the tags, and now that’s what we call these little cuties, which shape up to a grapefruit-sized head. If you gently remove the inner leaves, the outer ones make a perfect cup for tuna or egg salad (great Easter brunch entree!).

Butterheads and Bulls Blood

Butterhead leaves make a perfect contrast for old favorites like Hyper Red Rumple and Marshall’s Red romaine, which are my daily staples. I’m especially taken with Pomegranate Crunch, a mini red romaine that’s super crisp. The foliage is almost painterly, tinted with russet and plum and burgundy and bright with flashes of chartreuse, the color of spring.

I’m putting in more Bulls Blood beets because those glowing red greens are so tasty and the beets are amazingly productive. I pick a few at a time and they just keep coming. Even when elderly in late winter, they are meltingly tender when steamed or stir fried in coconut oil with a lot of garlic and some chickpeas. Yow!

Infant Peas & Tangled Tendrils

My peas are twining up their twiggy trellises, and there are always plenty of curly, springy tendrils to spare for salads and stir fries. I’m crazy about red podded peas, and am delighted with Sugar Magnolia, which was reportedly Jerry Garcia’s favorite snap pea. It’s gorgeous, with plump purple pods packed with sweet, tender peas. So is Blauschokker, a purple podded shelling pea bred by Belgian monks in the 1500s (they liked red pea pods too). The red and purple flowers are pretty enough to eat, which of course you can, and the peas are tasty fresh or dried (mine never last long enough to dry).

Both of those peas need support, but Spring Blush snap peas don’t, since they are hypertendrils, plants that produce more tendrils than foliage. The dense masses of frilly tendrils create enough support that these peas don’t need staking. They are also fabulous for people like me who eat lots of pea tendrils. Spring Blush boasts beautiful flowers with lavender ruffles and violet skirts, followed by soft green pods blushed with rose. Not super sweet, they offer more protein and less sugar along with an intense flavor that’s terrific in Risi e Bisi, Pasta Primavera, and other classic spring dishes.

Vegan Versions Of Spring Favorites

Risi e Bisi is traditionally made with cream, butter and cheese as well as rice and peas, so a vegan version is not going to be especially similar. Mine is more like risotto with fresh peas added at the last minute, so they are barely cooked, just long enough to remove the tannic bitterness

Vegan Risi e Bisi

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and palest green parts only)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup short grain brown rice (or arborio rice)
3-4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used Pinot Grigio)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups freshly shelled peas
1 cup pea tendrils
2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

In a saucepan, combine oil, garlic, onion, leeks and 1/4 teaspoon salt over medium high heat and cook until fragrant (1-2 minutes). Reduce heat to medium and cook until onions and leeks are lightly golden (15-20 minutes). Add rice, stir to coat and cook for 1 minute. Add 1 cup broth and cook, stirring a few times, until absorbed (2-3 minutes). Continue adding broth 1 cup at a time until rice is as tender as you like it (30-40 minutes). Add wine and stir until absorbed. Remove from heat, add salt and pepper to taste, stir in peas, cover pan and let sit for 5 minutes. Serve hot, garnished with pea tendrils and parsley.

Quinoa With Spring Greens

Fluffy, protein-rich quinoa is the perfect foil for the lively greens of spring. Rinse it well, then shake dry (in a very fine sieve) before toasting with seeds.

1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 cup quinoa, rinsed and shaken dry
2 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon bittersweet or hot smoked paprika
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 leeks, thinly sliced (white and palest green parts only)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups red mustard greens, finely shredded
2 cups pea tendrils
2 cups red kale, finely shredded
4 green onions, chopped

In a saucepan, dry toast fennel seeds over medium high heat for 1 minute. Add quinoa and toast, stirring for 2-3 minutes. Add broth, bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low and simmer over low heat until tender (15 minutes). Fluff with a fork, let stand 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a wide, shallow pan, heat oil, paprika, garlic, leeks, and salt over medium high heat  and cook for 2 minutes. Add greens, cover pan and cook until barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Serve over hot quinoa, garnished with green onions. Serves 4.

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Giving Tomatoes A Terrific Head Start

Great Plants Deserve Great Soil

Like most people, I love tomatoes. Even though my garden lives largely in containers on my back deck, I grow as many kinds of tomatoes as I can find room for. I also pamper them, since these heat lovers would rather be further South than in coastal Washington. In this part of the world, until night temperatures reach the mid 50s, soil temperatures are likewise too chilly to please tropicals like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

Since cold nights can retard plant growth, I pot up my tomatoes and give them a snug home in my sunporch. Though unheated, it stays quite warm, capturing all available sunshine. When the nights warm up, my plants move outside. Since tomatoes are gross feeders, I give them a rich planting medium. Recently, I’ve been mightily impressed with an organic potting soil blend called 420, made by E.B. Stone. This venerable company has been family-run since 1916, providing a very full range of organic fertilizers, soil mixtures, and supplements.

Stoner Soup?

E.B. Stone’s Recipe 420 Potting Soil is pretty amazing stuff. The name may not have anything to do with the fact that ‘420’ is police code for active cannabis use. It may be pure coincidence that this potent soil blend is reportedly beloved by growers of that formerly (in Washington, anyway) controlled substance. The company itself says the blend was formulated for professional flower growers. While I personally have no interest in becoming a professional grower of anything, I sure am loving what this soil blend does for container-grown plants.

In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time and money blending fertilizers and adjusting soil mixtures to keep my potted plants happy. Instead of emptying my big barrels and tubs completely, I usually remove the top 12 or so inches and add a variety of amendments. When I’m ready to plant, I top it all off with fresh potting soil. This year, I just loosened the bottom soil, mixed in some compost, and did the topping off with E.B. Stone’s Recipe 420 Potting Soil. Despite the crazy swings of spring weather, everything responded very quickly with healthy, strong new growth.

Keep That Graft High, Naturally

When I repot my tomato plants, I place the ungrafted ones deep in their new homes and covered their necks with the soil mix. In my unheated sun room, they grow rapidly into sturdy plants with beautiful, firm foliage and plenty of buds. When I repot grafted tomatoes, I make sure they are placed exactly as they were in the original pot. Deep planting will destroy the benefits of grafting, which relies on special root stock to lend the top stock vigor and disease resistance, among other blessings.

My favorite grafted tomatoes are the INDIGO kids, a crop of super foods that are naturally hand bred, not GMO creations. They get their dusky tints from wild tomato species found in the Galapagos Islands and parts of South America. It comes from anthocyanins, those power-packed antioxidants that offer significant health benefits to the plant and to the people who delight in the purple-tinged fruit. All that and they taste amazing, so what’s not to love?

About That Potting Soil

Everything I’ve planted so far is lapping up the goodies in that 420 potting soil. So what’s in it? The E.B. Stone folks call it the Emerald Triangle blend, combining aged fir bark, coir, sphagnum moss, pumice, earthworm castings, seabird guano, crab meal, and humic acids. Enhanced with mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial soil bacteria, the blend might be a tad rich for perennials and woodies, but seems likely to please annuals in any setting, including containers and hanging baskets.

A Blaze Of Blossoms

Since I’m growing some brand new flowers this year, I’m trying the 420 mix on them too. Called Digiplexis Illumination Flame, this new lovely is a cross between European foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)  and Canary Island foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis). Bred for England’s Thompson & Morgan seed company, Illumination Flame is exceptionally vigorous, with vivid apricot and flame colored flowers that look rather like chest-high gladiolas on a spree.

Though perennial, Illumination Flame is a sterile hybrid, so it doesn’t set seed. You are most likely to find potted plants at independent nurseries rather than box stores, and be prepared to have your socks blown off. Big, sturdy stalks boast large, lush foliage, each stem studded with masses of boldly beautiful florets. Because they are sterile, they bloom for most of the summer, with side shoots that keep the show going after the main bloom stalks is spent. Their Mediterranean background makes them susceptible to cold snaps, so come fall, I’ll mulch mine generously with loose, airy straw and leaves to keep them cozy all winter.

And The Winner IS….

Winner of the Best New Plant Award at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show in 2012, Illumination Flame won the Greenhouse Grower’s Award of Excellence in 2013. I can’t wait to see what happens when this already lusty creature discovers the delights of the 420 culture, ooops, I mean potting soil….

To learn more about this handsome new hybrid, check out these links:




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The Power Of Purple


Growing Colorful Health Benefits

purpleWhat an exciting time to be a gardener and a cook. Everywhere we look, from seed catalogs and plant nurseries to farmers markets and our own vegetable beds, we find edibles in every color and shade. They sure are pretty, but that’s not really the point. Good looks get attention for everything from plants to people, but these beautiful new (and old) food crops offer a lot more than a pretty face.

Ongoing research turns up more health benefits for colorful food every day. Along with natural fiber, lots of minerals, and vitamins, colorful vegetables offer powerful antioxidants such as bioflavonoids, plant metabolites that promote plant and human health in dozens of ways. Each kind and color of edible creates its own range of bioflavonoids, and all have somewhat different effects on living systems, whether human or animal.

Potent Purples

The rapid proliferation of colorful food is largely encouraged by what we are learning about their nutritional values. As an example, that’s why naturally purple foods are increasingly popular. Above and beyond their novelty value, all these dusky edibles from purple carrots and potatoes to purple tomatoes, purple sweet potatoes, purple broccoli, purple cauliflower, purple cabbage, purple kale and purple lettuce, pack an extra nutritional wallop.

In addition to the usual fiber, vitamins and minerals that make fruits and vegetables healthy foods, these purple beauties contain purple and blue anthocyanins. In plants, these potent antioxiants act as sunscreen, protecting foliage and fruit from intense heat and light. In humans, anthocyanins help control blood cholesterol levels and keep our blood vessels supple. In combination with vitamin C or A,  anthocyanins improve visual acuity, bolster blood circulation to the eyes, and protect retinal tissue.

Living Lycopene Paints Plants

The best known antioxidant may be lycopene, which creates red and purple colors in tomatoes, peppers, cherries, pomegranates, blueberries and other naturally red and purple foods, from apples to watermelon. Lycopene improves both short term and long term memory (make mine a double, please). It also helps cleanse toxins from our blood, reduces cholesterol buildup, and nourishes and protects the heart. As many folks now know, lycopene helps fight certain cancers, notably those affecting the prostate, testicles, breasts, cervix, and skin.

One interesting study showed that ketchup made form organic tomatoes contained up to 4 times as much lycopene as regular brands. A number of studies have indicated that organically grown foods create and retain more nutrients of all kinds than similar crops raised by conventional methods. Still more studies show that these potent antioxidants are most effective as naturally occurring compounds rather than synthesized chemicals. Thus, we benefit more by eating organically raised foods, lightly processed or not at all, than by taking artificial supplements.

Pile On The Purples (Non-GMO, Naturally)

This year, I’m planning to grow my own All Blue potatoes and purple Peruvian sweet potatoes as well as Purple Haze carrots, purple Rosalind broccoli, Redbor kale, Ruby Ball cabbage, Red Chidori kale, purple Sugar Magnolia peas and Violet Podded snap beans. I’ve also got plans for those luscious, purple-tinged INDIGO family tomatoes, which are especially rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidants that make blueberries a superfood. In most tomatoes, the anthocyanins are restricted to the foliage. In the hand-bred INDIGO tomatoes, anthocyanins are expressed in the fruit, where they partner with lycopene and other phytonutrients to create a nutritional matrix of complex compounds that make these tomatoes exceptionally flavorful and nutritious.

In contrast, the GMO purple tomatoes recently introduced as juice in England owe their anthocyanins to snapdragon genes that were artificially introduced by gene splicing. The result is indeed an increase in anthocyanin production, but it is not yet known whether unintended side effects may also be present…. In any case, I’m sticking to the INDIGO girls!

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Sweet & Savory Vegan Comfort Food

Gluten-Free Crusts And Vegan Fillings

Given the number of requests I’ve gotten for gluten-free and vegan crusts, a lot of folks miss pie crust when they eliminate wheat and butter. Fortunately, there are many ways to create comfortingly delicious pies, both sweet and savory, while keeping the ingredients vegan. One fellow asked me about potato pie crusts, saying he’d tried one and it was horrible. The version he used involved grated potatoes, onions, and eggs, resulting in a gluey mess.

Here are a couple of potato skin crusts that are definitely more crisp than gloopy, neither involving eggs.

A Crispy Potato Peel Crust

Crisp on the bottom and gently puffed on top, this simple crust can be filled with anything savory. Try a toothsome blend of mashed potatoes, turnips, and carrots with green onions, or layer in fresh tomatoes and thinly sliced red onions, or sauteed mushrooms, onions, and zucchini… so many options!

Crispy Potato Peel Crust

1 tablespoon safflower or olive oil
1 teaspoon stemmed rosemary, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 medium organic baking potatoes (or any kind you like)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine oil with rosemary, salt, and pepper, set aside. Peel potatoes with a vegetable peeler. Lightly oil a pie dish, then gently rub oil over potato peels and press them thickly into the dish, covering the bottom and sides completely. Bake at 400 F until crisp and browned (20-25 minutes).

A Softer Potato Peel Crust

1 pound organic fingerling potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

With a paring knife, trim tops and bottoms off potatoes then cut off thick peels (you end up with rectangular potatoes). Pour oil into a pie dish and add the peels as you cut them. Toss with the oil to coat well and press them to cover the bottom and sides of the pan thickly, pressing a bit as needed. Bake at 400 F until crisp and browned (20-25 minutes). Meanwhile, cook peeled potatoes in water to cover with salt and garlic, then mash to desired consistency using cooking water. Pile into baked crust or use in potato pancakes or try this….

Vegan Potato Mushroom Pie

1 potato crust (see above)
4 peeled potatoes (from crispy crust above), chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cups sliced Crimini or any mushrooms
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Boil chopped potatoes in water to cover with 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon chopped garlic until tender and drain, reserving liquid (you can do this while the crust bakes). Mash potatoes, using cooking liquid to thin to desired consistency. In a wide, shallow pan, heat oil, remaining garlic, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt over medium high heat until soft (6-8 minutes). Add mushrooms, sprinkle with remaining salt, cover pan, reduce heat to low and cook until limp (8-10 minutes). Stir into mashed potatoes, then spoon mixture into the baked pie crust (it’s ok it it’s still hot), sprinkle with paprika and bake at 400 degrees F until lightly browned (10-15 minutes. Serves 6.

Sweeter Crusts To Try

For dessert pies and tarts, I often use a nut-based crust like this one, which can be modified in several ways. If you don’t like coconut oil, use safflower or walnut oil. For a sweeter crust, add some maple syrup or coconut sugar. Just be very careful if you try this with peanuts; it’s all too easy to make peanut butter!

Basic Nut Crust

1-1/2 cups almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon coconut oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a food processor, grind nuts to a coarse meal (not all the way to butter). Add salt and coconut oil and process for a few seconds to blend. Pat into a pie dish, covering bottom and sides evenly, and bake at 350 F until lightly browned (20-25 minutes). Let cool/set up for 15 minutes before filling.

A Dream Come True

This amazing pudding or pie filling tastes totally indulgent but is entirely vegan, and takes less than five minutes to make. Adjust cocoa powder, vanilla, salt and maple syrup to taste  to make it truly your dream pie!

Vegan Chocolate Dream Pie

1 package (14-16 ounces) organic extra firm tofu
1/4-1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2-4 tablespoons maple syrup
1 nut crust (see above)

In a food processor, puree tofu with cocoa powder, vanilla, sea salt, and maple syrup to taste. Pour into a cooled crust and chill for at least an hour before serving. Mixture will set up as it chills. Most people can’t tell that this is not a full-fat dairy pudding!

Sweet Potato Pie With A Self-Crust

To make a crisp, vegan, gluten-and-nut free crust for a sweet potato pie, try this:

2 large organic sweet potatoes, well scrubbed
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1/8 teaspoon sea salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Coarsely grate sweet potato peel, then rub a little coconut oil into a pie dish, then gently rub oil over sweet potato peels and press them into the dish to cover the bottom and sides completely and sprinkle with salt. Bake at 400 F until crisp and browned (20-25 minutes).

Sweet Potato Pie Filling

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled (from crust above)
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 organic orange, juiced, rind grated
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 sweet potato pie crust (see above)
1/2 cup coarse unsweetened flaked coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Chop sweet potato and simmer in water to cover until tender (10-15 minutes. Drain and mash while still hot with coconut oil, ginger, coriander, and vanilla. Heap into a cooked crust, sprinkle with coconut flakes and bake at 350 F until coconut is browned (8-10 minutes). Serve warm or cold. Serves 6-8.

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