The Rain Dance

Three days of no rain.

And to top that off, the truck that is normally full of water parked next to the garden...

Empty.  Not a drop coming out of it.  We are very grateful to the City of Mason for leaving the truck there for our convenience.  But today, I felt like I was in Nevada:  no water anywhere around. 

There certainly wasn't any coming from the sky. We stood next to our plants and did our best to summon some rain clouds.  My rain dance looked a bit like I was walking like an Egyptian and Tim's was somewhere in the vicinity of the twist.  I guess it almost worked because we had a sprinkle of rain around 5:00pm today, but then it stopped as quickly as it started.  There is still hope for some rain this evening, but until then I will work on my rain dancing and let you know if I find one that works.


The Secret to Stir Fry at Home

If you prefer to pick up beef with broccoli or kung pao chicken from your local Chinese take-out rather than spend the time in the kitchen to make your own, I can't fault you.  It will take time to prepare a fantastic stir fry at home, but when you add the first clove of garlic to the hot skillet and experience cooking this dish with all of your senses--it will be so worth it

There are some essentials you will need to keep around the house to create the perfect stir fry flavor profile.  Soy sauce, for one, is a key ingredient in homemade stir fry.  The salty flavor acts as a base for the sauce and  silky texture gives it body.  Rice vinegar is an Asian staple that can either be found in the International aisle or with the oils in your local store.  Vinegar will give a fresh acidic flavor to the sauce.  To round out the flavor profile, we need two more things--sweet and spicy!  I used regular white granulated sugar in this recipe, but brown sugar, fruit (like pineapple), hoisin sauce, and sweet chili sauce are also commonly used in stir fry to add a touch of sweetness.

Now let's discuss spiciness.  I know not everyone loves spicy foods (as much as my husband does), but I think that without even the touch of spice, stir fry can be a bit...bland.  On the rare occassions that we do dine out, we generally choose our favorite Cincinnati Thai restaurant, Wild Ginger.  If you've dined at Thai restaurants before, you'd know that they are similar to Chinese restaurants in fare, but in my experience the food is of higher quality and the dining experience is more enjoyable.  (There's also the addition of curry on Thai menus, but that's another post, another day!) Usually your server will ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how spicy would you like your stir fry?"  No matter how spicy you enjoy your food, I would not suggest going higher than a 5 or 6!  In Asian cooking, very spicy ingredients such as sriracha , spicy chili sauce, and chili oil can be added to make your dishes increase on the spiciness scale.  A little bit of these spicy ingredients goes a very long way

So I'd suggest, as you ponder making a stir fry in your own kitchen, that you consider adding as little as a hint up to a copious amount of spiciness.  Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of that range.  (I'm a 3 in Thai restaurants, in case you want to order like me.)

The actual stir frying doesn't take very long, but you need to make sure you have everything prepared before you heat up the oil in the skillet.  As soon as you start cooking, the process goes fast. 

Don't forget to start the rice!  I like to bring the rice to a boil before I even start on the stir fry, and nights when I miss this step, it is pure torture waiting for it to finish while my formerly crisp veggies sit in the warm skillet and begin to get a little rubbery.  You will thank me for this reminder when you are sitting down to sensational dinner! 

You may never pick up take-out again.  

Beef and Snap Pea Stir Fry
Recipe adapted from Everday Food Magazine
serves 4

1 tbsp low sodium soy sauce
1 tsp rice vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp spicy chili garlic sauce
12 oz boneless New York strip steak, trimmed and thinly sliced across the grain
1/4 cup green onions, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 oz snap peas
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high.  In a small bowl combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, and spicy chili garlic sauce.   Season the steak with salt and lay in a single layer in the hot oil.  Use tongs to set the steak in the oil to avoid being splashed by the sizzling steak.  Cook for 2 minutes on one side until browned, then turn and cook for 30 more seconds until cooked through.  Remove steak from skillet and set aside in a bowl.

Add snap peas, green onion, garlic, and ginger to the skillet.  While stirring constantly for one minute to allow the vegetables to slightly brown and then add 1/4 cup of water and cover.  Cook for 2 minutes, remove the lid, and cook until the water has evaporated, about 1 minute. 

Add the soy mixture and cook until fragrant, only about 10 seconds.  Remove from heat, add the lemon juice, and toss the beef back into the skillet.  Serve over rice. 


The Perfect Sunday

Sunday was not a day of rest for us.  We were up early, ate a big breakfast, and headed out to the community garden to finally put our plants in the ground.  I was thinking that we might be the only people out there who still hadn't planted but I was happily surprised to see many other families already there!

We brought with us an assortment of plants that we had purchased from Funke's Greenhouse and some seed packets.  Perhaps we went overboard in the tomato department?  You tell me. 

We planted 12 tomato plants.

Don't gasp.

Is that too many?

I couldn't help myself.   If you are in the Cincinnati area and planning to plant over Memorials Day weekend, go to Funke's.  I would not lead you astray, I promise. You can visit their website and find the list of all of their tomato varietals available.  While perhaps the selection isn't as strong now as it was when we went two weeks ago, they had so many plants that I imagine there will still be many types for purchase. 

We chose our plants based on the descriptions on the website as well as any emotional pull we might have to the name of the plant.  

For example, I could not stop thinking about White Wonders.  From Funke's website:  Medium size white fruit inside and out. Thick flesh with very little gel. Fruits can last up to two months after picking. 

White fruit!  How could I resist?  And Tim chose Mr. Stripey for a similar reason--they are red and yellow striped!  The pure entertainment factor of growing and eating something that seems unusual was enough to seal the deal.  We also chose a few others and purchased 2 of each type of heirloom varietal.  

When we went out to the garden to plant on Sunday morning, it was a beautiful sunny day, but the ground was still very wet from a week of rain.  We did our best to stake out our rows for plant and follow the grid we had created, but even the best laid plans have the potential to be flawed! 

We really tried to plant each row in a straight line, but digging holes in muddy dirt is really difficult.  With every step our feet were sinking down deeper!  Tim manned the shovel while Melissa and I were responsible for plant placement.  Melissa was really the most helpful garden assistant I could have ever asked for.  She had no qualms about throwing down her gardening gloves and getting her fingers into the dirt.  I'm just not really a get-into-the-mud girl.  I admit I might have done a bit more directing than planting as the morning wore on, but I think we were all working in our areas of strength.


Tim likes to dig holes (man stuff) and Melissa likes details (she is her father's daughter!).  

We also planted 6 pepper plants, 2 eggplants, 2 butternut squash plants, and 2 watermelon plants.  We had the best of intentions to plant several different things from seed, but frankly we just ran out of room!  We decided to prioritize.  From seed we planted carrots, green onions, and cantaloupe.

Melissa had a really great system of poking holes in the ground with her finger and then dropping a little seed in.  And she was not afraid of a little dirt under the fingernails as you can see in this photo!

We learned a lot about plants just from reading the tags.  For example, we had no idea that you have to create a little hill to plant butternut squash, watermelon, and cantaloupe.  Also, several of our plants "run," meaning they grow sideways across the dirt and the suggested distance between each of these plants was six feet!  We are lucky that our garden plot is on the end of an aisle, because we are going to be directing our watermelon plant to grow out of our garden into the empty unused field.  Our cantelope and butternut squash should have enough room to mature inside of our plot.  

I can barely sleep at night dreaming up recipes.  I hope you have similarly exciting things to look forward to this summer!


Not All Mushrooms are Created Equal

I spoke too soon and jinxed it.  The rain did not go away.  In fact, we had been enjoying warm, sunny weather for most of April and the beginning of May until I decided I wanted to actually do something outdoors, and Mother Nature really showed me who's boss.  Saturday and Sunday's forecasts are looking promising though. 

So instead of sitting around on my behind, I took matters into my own hands.  I could show Mother Nature who was really boss of my house.  I could cook up a storm and serve it to my husband, inside our warm, dry home, while she had to stay outside alone with her watering cans. 

But the problem was, I hadn't really planned on cooking a feast.  Our fridge was filled with an assortments of bits and pieces of previous meals.  I considered leftovers--there were some from my husband's favorite meal (aka meatloaf).  But with my renewed energy to fight back against the dreary weather, I'd have to make do with what we had.  

Pork chops, fresh rosemary, Parmesan cheese, and cremini mushrooms practically raised their hands to volunteer for dinner.  Eat me today while I'm still fresh!  

I'm not a huge "mushroom" person, but I can appreciate the complexities that the rich flavor of mushroom can add to a dish.  Tim on the other hand--HUGE mushroom person.  Loves them on and in everything.  But I will be the first to admit that not all mushrooms are created equal, and I will take cremini's over white button mushrooms any day of the week.  

Cremini mushrooms have many aliases including crimini, baby bellas, and portabellinis (because they are in fact immature portabella mushrooms), but by any name, they are equally as delicious.
To go along side our rosemary pork chops, I whipped up this Parmesan Orzo with Cremini Mushrooms, and trust me, you won't ever think all mushrooms are the same again! 

Parmesan Orzo with Cremini Mushrooms
serves 4

Note:  This side dish was definitely enhanced by the drippings already in the pan from frying our entrĂ©e, rosemary pork chops, but if you are the type who preserves bacon drippings, that would be a good option as well.  Otherwise, additional butter or olive oil will still do the trick, but you will definitely be missing out on a little "something."  I suggest additional seasoning or tossing in some herbs like rosemary if you start without drippings.

1 tbsp fat drippings
1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, diced
2 cups of cremini onions, rinsed, patted dry, and halved
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup uncooked orzo
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

Cook orzo according to the directions on the box until al dente.  Drain and toss with 1 tbsp olive oil and set aside.  In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and drippings.  When the butter is melted and just begins to simmer, add the diced onion.  Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occassionally, and then add the mushrooms.  Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, careful to continue to stir and adjust heat so as not to burn the onions.  Turn up the heat to medium-high and add the wine, scraping the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon to remove any accumulated bits.  Allow the wine to reduce down to 2 tbsp.  Add the orzo and Parmesan, tossing together.  Salt & pepper to taste. 


We still have to eat

The sun has finally peeked out from behind the clouds today!  

Say it with me:  Hallelujah!  

I have never felt so in tune with my surroundings, so interested in weather patterns, so thrilled by green leaves and budding flowers.  The prospect of not only knowing where my food comes from, but taking part in planting, weeding, pruning and harvesting has caused me to really stop and think about what I feed myself and my family.  I hope my garden adventure might inspire you as well.

While I pass the time today before we are able to go to the garden, I have been mentally planning different dishes that I intend to prepare from our future harvest.  Fresh tomato sauce with basil and rosemary.  Stir fry with kung pao peppers.  Grilled eggplant with crumbled feta.  The list goes on and on.  I imagine the food will taste better knowing that I cultivated it all the way to my dinner table.  

In the meantime, we still have to eat.  If you ask my husband what dinner is like at our house, he would very likely (I'm sure of it actually) tell you that dinner is always an experiment.  Very rarely do I make the same thing in a month.  On the weekends when we make our weekly meal plan and grocery list, I always ask him what he wants to eat this week.  Without fail, he answers:  

Meat loaf.

Mac and cheese. 

Poor Tim.  He has such simple dinner desires.  Don't pity him too much though, because we never go hungry.  I even made him meat loaf this week.  Just because I love him.

But one of my latest food obsessions is polenta.  Tim cannot quite wrap his head around it, and pretends to enjoy it when I serve it for dinner.  Finally he admitted that it was just weird to him to be eating something with such an odd texture.  I will agree that it does have an odd texture.  Sort of a mix between mashed potatoes and oatmeal, but very thick and sticky.  So polenta has been removed from the side dish rotation, but that does not mean it has left my life.  I just have to eat it for lunches, snacks, breakfast, or any other time when we aren't eating together.  Stll it's never just boring old polenta for me, trust me, I find a way to keep it interesting.  

Let's start with the basics first.  

To make polenta, you need 3 things:

6 cups water
1.5 cups corn meal

In a dutch oven, bring the water to a boil.  When it has reached a rolling boil, reduce heat as low as it will go.  While continuously stirring with a whisk, pour the corn meal into the pot slowly.  When it is well stirred, cover.  Every 5 minutes for up to 30 minutes, check the corn meal and stir 5-10 stirs, and then recover.  After 30 minutes, check consistency.  The polenta should be smooth and creamy and will be slightly sticky to the touch.  


So you made polenta.   Now what?  Well, I have a few suggestions.  You could serve it just as is with a little butter on top.  It's a great way to appreciate the simple flavors.  You could do what I did for lunch--strip the leaves from a few sprigs of fresh thyme and stir it into the hot polenta.  Sprinkle with goat cheese.  

This was really delicious because the cold goat cheese was like a little burst of creaminess in each bite.  Yum.  

Or, eat a little bit for a light lunch like I did and save the rest in a loaf pan.  Just line a loaf pan (glass, aluminum, doesn't matter what type) with some cling wrap and spoon in the leftover polenta.  

What will you do with this polenta loaf?  Well, you will slice it!  I don't have pics of a final product because this is for my breakfast this upcoming weekend, but if you try to purchase ready-made polenta at the grocery it often comes in a loaf or tube.  It will really thicken and slices very easily.  You can just warm it up and serve it under some delicious bolognese sauce in place of a pasta.  I prefer to pan fry it and eat it for breakfast with a drizzle of syrup.  I know, you may say, "That's the way old people eat it."  

Maybe we should think of them as wise from now on. 


The Perfect Mix of Ingredients

April showers are intended to bring May flowers, but there is no catchy saying to give the novice gardener a clue about what to do when there are May showers.  Due to this rain, our modest contribution to the community garden has not gone into the ground.  In fact, I'm fairly certain that our plot hasn't been properly tilled, but I'm not sure exactly what that means.  The organizers of the garden assured us that they would get to it as soon as there was enough sun to dry out the muddy dirt, and with sunshine in the forecast for the next two days, I'm hopeful that we will be able to plant our vegetables by Thursday evening.

What do we do while we wait?  We bake.  Well, Tim bakes.  I just...stir the batter?  Or just take pictures.  Whatever is most helpful and doesn't ruin anything!

One of our (and when I say "our," I mean Tim's) most recent projects was perfecting the bundt cake.  I suppose the idea of a Vanilla Sparkling Wine Pound Cake came from me, but he is never one to object to copious amounts of sugar (just ask his mother--he gets it from her)!  And I also can't help it that my grandmother gives loads of women's magazines to my mother each month, and then I steal borrow them from my parent's house.  It gives me something to read on the drives back and forth!

Flipping through this variety of magazines centered on home, family, and food, I wondered if I had just woken up one day and these "grown-up" magazines suddenly were relevant to me.

But then again, the topics in these magazines really do interest me, and in many ways always have.  I suppose this change didn't just happen to me overnight. Many friends in college referred to me as the "mom" because I was always cooking family dinners and organizing group events.  It's a natural progression to do the same within my family--planning weekly menus, instituting family game nights (where I still dominate everyone in dominoes), and investing time into making our house a home.

Mastering the perfect bundt cake is really just an extension of what we are trying to accomplish in our home, our marriage, and our family.  The perfect mix of ingredients that we are able to savor together.

Vanilla Sparkling Wine Pound Cake
Recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

Ingredients for the Cake
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sparkling wine (I used Pink Champagne)
3 tbsp sour cream
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup canola oil
5 cold eggs
2 tbsp vanilla extract

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and flour a 10-inch bundt cake pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Sift mixture and set aside.  In a separate bowl, stir together sour cream and sparkling wine and set aside.

2.  Using an electric mixer, mix together sugar, melted butter, and oil until well combined.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each.  Beat in vanilla extract and continue to beat on medium-high for 3 to 5 minutes until the batter is thicker and lighter in color.  Stop mixing and add 1/3 the flour mixture.  Beat on low until just combined, and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Add half of the wine mixture, beat until just combined.  Repeat with 1/3 of the flour mixture, the remaining wine mixture, and the final 1/3 of the flour mixture.  Be careful not to over mix!  Scrape the batter into the prepared pan with a rubber spatula.

3.  Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, and then turn the cake out on the rack and cool completely.

Ingredients for the Sparkling Glaze
1 cup powdered sugar
1 tbsp sparkling wine + additional wine if needed

In a small bowl combine the powdered sugar with 1 tbsp sparkling wine.  Add additional wine, 1 tbsp at a time, until you reach drizzling consistency.  Drizzle glaze over cooled cake.

This was really heavenly.  I hope you give it a try!


This Blessed Land

We are officially farmers.

Alright, I concede that we are less farmers and more gardeners (and novice gardeners at that), but aren't we just farming on a small scale?  A farm is land where plants or animals are raised.  A garden is a plot where plants can be cultivated.  Can you see how I am drawing similar conclusions here?

On Saturday, May 15, the Mason Community Garden officially opened for business.  We submitted our application a few days prior but still felt very unsure of exactly what we were getting into when we pulled up to the location.  

Having not purchased a single plant, we showed up with lots of questions.  There seemed to be a large area plowed for the community garden, but we were one of the first cars to arrive.  With 15 short minutes until the blessing of the land, I was a bit concerned that no one else from Mason was as crazy as we were to commit a chunk our summer to this project.  

Sure enough, many more people arrived.  In fact, some people filled out the paperwork upon arrival.  The friendly crowd began chatting amongst themselves about the different types of vegetables they were planting, how to deep to put the seeds for corn, how much rain was expected for the upcoming week, and how all of these factors were going to play into their garden plots.  I quickly realized that everyone else seemed calm, relaxed, and experienced with gardening.  It was only me who was standing in the field thinking what a big job this would be and how unprepared I felt.  Their smiles to me and hand shakes showed me that if I had questions, these were the right people to ask.  If I needed guidance, they wouldn't hesitate to offer their help.  This is not a competition.  Our community benefits from this garden being a success.  

After the future garden was blessed by a local pastor, we wandered over to our plot.  We knew that it would be ten feet by fifteen feet, but it's really hard to imagine what that really looks like until you see it.  

As we stood by our plot trying to imagine what it might look like with actual plants in it, we enviously spotted others in the garden beginning to dig trenches and readying a few tomato plants for their new homes.  We needed to go shopping.  I had already done some online research and picked the perfect locally owned nursery to visit, Funke's Greenhouse.  More on that place in another post.  But trust me, if you are looking for plants for your garden, it's the right place to go.

It wasn't until I spoke to my mom on the phone that I realized before we actually put plants in the ground, we might need to have a plan.  If you know me at all, organization is not my strong point (creative minds always do better on the fly, don't we?), but I"m lucky to have a husband who prefers to approach all things with a specific goal.  And like every nerd planner, he even has graphing paper.  I learn something new about him every day.

The goal for the next few days is to draw out our garden on paper.  My mom suggested that we figure out how many rows we need through the garden so that we can reach the plants for weeding, pruning, and harvesting.  It hadn't even occurred to me that we would need places to walk through, but that's why I surround myself with people who have more sense than me.  Tim read in our second-hand gardening book, Organic Gardening , that we should measure the distance between each row and put a steak at each end.  Then run a string from each steak so that we keep our rows straight and equal distance apart.  Such common sense, but if we hadn't purchased that book, I'm not sure we would have been so thorough. 

Wish us luck (or pray for us, whichever you think is more appropriate) and I will be sure to track our successes and failures throughout the summer.