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Archive for the ‘Edibles’ Category


Za’atar – The All Purpose Middle Eastern Spice Mix

Friday, May 18th, 2012

I’m preparing a talk for this weekend on Jewish Gardening at Spavuot, a Jewish health and wellness retreat at the Shalom Institute in Malibu.

Few people realize that Judaism is firmly rooted in agriculture.  Many Jewish holidays have agricultural roots:  Passover at  planting, Sukkot at harvest, Tu b’shvat marks bud break in spring, and so on.  Plants and trees, fruits and nuts are woven throughout the Torah, both literally and figuratively.

Oreganum syraca, Za'atar Oregano, a key ingredient in the Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name

Many Jewish traditions incorporate planting and respect for nature, particularly for fruit trees.  Pomegranate, fig, grape, etc. translate directly  from ancient agriculture to modern gardening practices, many of which I will cover on Sunday, as I talk about how to grow these same fruits and vegetables in home gardens.

I always like to send people home from my talks with something in-hand to inspire their gardening spirits.  At the end of this talk, everyone will go home with a Za’atar plant.  Za’atar is a special variety of oregano (some people refer to it as a marjoram) used in the all-purpose Middle Eastern spice mix of the same name.  Za’atar mixture is typically sprinkled onto olive oil-slathered pita, roasted chicken, fresh vegetables, hummus, and many other foods.

Za’atar mixes sold at specialty markets are made from dried herbs, but it can be made from fresh herbs, too.  In fact, its even more flavorful with fresh herbs.

Fresh or dried, Za’atar is simple to make.

Za’atar from dried herbs

2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons marjoram
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup sumac

Store-bought Za'atar spice mix

Grind  sesame seeds in food processor or with mortar and pestle. Combine with the rest of the herbs.

Dried Za’atar will keep in an airtight container for several months.

Za’atar from fresh herbs is far more potent so the proportions need some adjusting, based on your taste preferences.  Store the fresh mixture in the refrigerator. Its best to mix small batches as it keeps only a week or two.

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There’s still time to sign up for Spavuot which is being held Sunday, May 20th, at The Shalom Institute in Malibu. Click here to register

Spavuot is a project of The Big Jewish Tent, an organization headed by my childhood friend Craig Taubman and co sponsored by the Shalom Institute.



The Year’s First Seed Starting Workshop is a Big Success

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

it was cold and rainy, but that didn’t’ stop anyone from showing up for the year’s first seed starting workshop one evening last week at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant in Old Town San Diego.

We all knew that spring is just around the corner and with it, spring and summer vegetable gardens.

Nan Sterman with host and Cosmopolitan Hotel proprietress, Catherine Miller

I panicked a bit when the rain began, but Cosmo proprietress Catherine Miller knew just what to do.  Rather than have us work on the patio under the stars, Catherine had her fabulous staff set up tables, chairs, and lights on a covered walkway alongside one of the Cosmo’s historic dining rooms.

The group was small and very enthusiastic.  Several people were new to seed starting, others had tried seeds but with mixed results. All were eager to learn.

I began with a discussion about how seeds work, how to know which seeds to start at what time of year, and how to read a seed package.  We compared seed packets from Renee’s

Garden, Nichols Garden Seed, and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, three of my favorite seed companies.

We planted more than a dozen types of seeds

The best containers are those that support each plant from seed to transplant size

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I introduced the group to my favorite seed starting strategy, one honed by years of trial and error growing my own vegetables  and testing seeds for Organic Gardening Magazine.

My best success, I explained, comes from using containers that can support each seedling from sprout to transplant size without having to separate and repot tiny seedlings.

Then, we got busy.  I had set up big trays of seed starting mix, containers for starting seeds, and a huge array of seeds to plant.  Each person planted four or five types of tomatoes, several types of pepper, two eggplants, basil, squashes, cucumbers, pumpkin, watermelon, cilantro, chard and more.

Containers are filled with seed starting mix

Gettin' down and dirty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part way through the evening, Cosmo’s Executive Chef Andrew Sasloe decided we needed some nourishment.  He had prepared small bites using the same kinds of vegetables we were planting.

We swooned over eggplant carbonara on crusty bread, an eggplant, squash, and tomato lasagna, and a tomatoey bruschetta,.  For dessert, there were steamed lemon custards.  These dishes that aren’t usually on the menu but they certainly should be – they were absolutely delicious.  I’m drooling at the memory.

As we got back to work I listened to the excited chatter.  No one was in a hurry, they were simply enjoying the process and taking their time.

By the end of the night, everyone had a smile on their face and big tray of pots seeded and ready to sprout.

 

Done! Seeds started and ready to go

One of the participants left me a voice mail message the next day.  “It was amazing and wonderful,” she said, “lots and lots of wonderful information.”  That’s music to my ears!

I’m holding six more workshops just like this one between now and the end of March.   Workshops are scheduled all over the county, including a daytime workshop at the Cosmopolitan Hotel on March 18th.

You can find a list of dates and locations  on my homepage, www.PlantSoup.com.  Space is limited to only 15 or 20 people per workshop.  If you are thinking of signing up, I suggest doing it soon.

Happy seed starting!


The Last Harvest of Summer

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Pumpkins, just in time for Thanksgiving

Sorta sweet, sorta sad… the last harvest of summer.


Blades of Glory: Whether catching morning dew or in your morning brew, lemon grass has it covered

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

It’s summertime and the living is easy, as long as I have a tall glass of lemon grass and mint iced tea to cut the heat. Fortunately, I grow both mint and lemon grass, so I can make ice tea whenever I want — and you can, too.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) gets its fresh, lemony scent from citral oil, the same oil that is found in lemon verbena, lemon balm and, of course, lemons! Thai and Vietnamese cooks harvest sheaths of lemon grass, chop up the tender bases and add them to soups, salads and curries. Lemon grass citral oil is even used in cosmetics like soaps, creams and deodorants.

This evergreen perennial grass comes from India and Ceylon. In our gardens, lemon grass makes a 4- to 6-foot mound of inch-wide, bright green leaves that sometimes take on a purple tinge in the cooler days of winter.

Lemon grass is beautiful and adaptable to almost any garden style: tropical, Asian, Mediterranean or modern. Plants prefer full sun or bright shade, and soil that drains reasonably well. Along the coast, lemon grass is fairly low-water. Inland, though, more water keeps plants looking their best.

Site lemon grass plants with enough room to reach their natural height and width. Fertilize only sparingly if at all, to keep growth under control. These are two key strategies of low-maintenance gardening.

Over time, older leaves turn brown. Simply comb them out by hand (wear gloves; the leaf edges are sharp). If the mound starts to separate in the center, simply dig it up and divide the plant into three or four sections, then replant each one (or give some away).

If you don’t have enough room in the ground, lemon grass does very well in a large container. You might even add some colorful variegated coleus and red- or orange-flowering canna for color. Water regularly through summer.

To harvest lemon grass, find the base of the mound, where you’ll see leaves arranged in bundles. Cut a bundle just below the rounded bottom edge and just above the roots. That tender, fleshy, ivory-colored, rounded base is the part used for cooling. Whatever you don’t cook with, simply steep in boiled water, along with fresh mint leaves, to make aromatic lemonade.

East Indian lemon grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) also contains the citrusy citral oil but tends to be used in the perfume industry rather than for cooking. Mosquito repelling citronella oil comes from lemon grass cousins, Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus.