lola rugula deli style medium rare roast beef

In the Veggie Garden 2017

Autumn has arrived yet again and I want to share with you some of the wonderful things I grew in my veggie garden this year. I wish that I could have featured all of these in recipes but in a gardening and cooking blogger’s life, everything in one’s head (and garden) doesn’t always make it to print. I know you’ll recognize some of these though, so I wasn’t a total slacker.

While it may sometimes sound like I’m a paid spokesperson for certain seed companies, I assure you I’m not. One of my favorite seed companies, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They have a fantastic selection of heirloom and unusual seeds and I typically have very good luck with growing their vegetables.

Early in the spring, I started with planting their Garden Pea Desiree Dwarf Blauwschokkers (say that 3 times fast!). These are gorgeous purple peas that can be harvested young and eaten like snow peas or left to mature and eaten as regular peas. The packet states they don’t require staking, as they’re a dwarf variety, but I think mine appreciated the fence support I gave them.  Even their blooms are beautiful.

lola rugula purple snow peas photo

Here’s a shot of the peas on the vine after a rainfall:

lola rugula purple snow peas 2 photo

And here’s my first harvest of them:

lola rugula purple snow peas 3 photo

My first few harvests, I picked them young and then my last I let them go to regular pea size. Here in zone 5, I planted them in early May and they were done by early July.

Early spring I also planted their Aurora Mixed Orach which, if you’ve never grown or seen it, is simply gorgeous. I’ve read where some people plant it strictly as an ornamental which, in my opinion, is a waste of a delicious green.

lola rugula orach photo

Orach is also called “saltbush” and “mountain spinach” and one the great things about it is that it’s slow to bolt, unlike real spinach. It’s very versatile, as you can enjoy it raw as a green (or purple, if you will) or cook it like you would spinach or Swiss chard. (Here’s my easy Swiss Chard Recipe, which works great with Orach)

Some other greens I grew this year were spicy mustard greens and my usual microgreens for fresh salads. Mustard greens have some serious kick when eaten raw, but it mostly disappears when you cook them.

lola rugula garden greens photo

My husband and I love beets just about any way you can serve them.  Roasted is our favorite and easiest way to enjoy them, but I also make a Grated Beet and Carrot Slaw and Refrigerator Pickled Beets out of them when I have an overload and want to preserve them. I like to grow the rainbow variety, for their beautiful colors.

lola rugula pickled beets small batch recipe

Fennel is another early summer favorite; it’s delicious raw and roasted and easy to grow. Be careful of planting them too close together though, as they won’t form a nice bulb if you do. I still always pick some early, because I’m too impatient to wait until they’re all fully mature.

We toss our fennel right on the grill or pop it under the broiler to roast it. Raw, we enjoy it in salads or by itself.

My simple Fennel, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad is a favorite in our house. Cool and crisp, it’s an easy summertime salad.

lola rugula fennel tomato and cucumber salad

lola rugula tomato fennel and cucumber salad recipe

Even I’m willing to admit that I went a little bean crazy this year, but Bakers Creek had such a nice variety that I got a little carried away. Pictured below from left to right are Red Swan beans, Green Bush beans, and French Velour beans. As a side note, the Red Swan and French Velour all turn green once cooked but their flavors are distinctive. The Red Swan beans are very buttery if picked while young and the French Velour beans have a sharper, grassier flavor. They all worked well in my Sesame Green Bean Recipe, which I made quite often this summer.

lola rugula garden beans photo

If you’re a fan of peppers with a little heat, shishito peppers will not disappoint. They mature quickly and continue to produce all season, turning red (and hotter) as the season winds down.

lola rugula how to grow shishito peppers

Roasting or charring them is the easiest way to prepare them – check out my recipe for Charred Shishito Peppers for the full scoop on making them.

lola rugula how to cook shishito peppers

This year was one of the best tomato seasons that I’ve had for a number of years, despite the cooler-than-normal August temperatures and very dry end of summer.

My selection this year was Roma-style Corleone tomatoes, smaller Black Vernissage, big, beefy Paul Robeson’s and Blue Gold Berries cherry variety.

Here’s a photo of the first three:

lola rugula garden heirloom tomatoes photo

And here’s a shot of the Blue Gold Cherries:

lola rugula golden gazpacho

And here’s a photo of the gorgeous Golden Gazpacho I made with them:

lola rugula garden gazpacho

What do you do with a ton of tomatoes? Well, if you’re a regular follower of mine, you already know some of the easy ways I like to enjoy and also preserve them. Here are my current top 10 tomato recipes:

  1. Homemade tomato sauce recipe
  2. Easy, no-cook tomato sauce recipe
  3. Garden fresh gazpacho recipe
  4. Golden yellow heirloom gazpacho recipe
  5. Roasted tomato and garlic soup and gazpacho recipe
  6. Fried green tomatoes with fresh tomato salsa recipe
  7. Trinidad scorpion pepper salsa recipe
  8. Chunky canned tomato salsa recipe
  9. My famous ghost chili salsa recipe
  10. Pasta with shrimp, fresh tomatoes, and basil

Whew! See, I know what it’s like to have an overabundance of tomatoes.

A new favorite pepper of ours is the ajvarski pepper. I don’t always have great luck with my peppers turning red in large quantities but these sure did. Large, heavy-skinned and extremely fragrant, I’ll be growing these for years to come.

lola rugula ajvar bulls horn peppers

My husband and I have fallen in love with making ajvar from these and, since we also grow our own eggplant, it’s an easy dish to make fresh from the garden.  Roasted peppers, eggplant, and garlic, blended together with vinegar and olive oil is a healthy, easy spread to enjoy with a loaf of crusty bread and a glass of wine.

lola rugula ajvar

Another Baker Creek pepper I had great luck with this year are these Sweet Yellow Stuffing Peppers:

lola rugula sweet peppers photo

Yes, my peppers are orange and not yellow, but I’m not complaining. As you can see in the photo, they go from green to pale yellow to bright orange, which is when I harvest mine. I’m not sure why they’re called “stuffing peppers”, as they’re only a few inches tall but they’re very sweet and ripen very quickly – a definite garden win, in my book!

Also, a note on my peppers and tomatoes – I start my pepper plants indoors in mid-February and my tomatoes in mid-March. This way, I have a headstart on the growing season.

So now, we’re almost to October and some plants are being pulled as the growing season winds down. My tomato and pepper plants are always my last holdouts, as I’ll take whatever I can harvest before the first frost.

Soon enough, I’ll be planning next year’s garden and seeing what new vegetables I can find.

Happy Autumn everyone!

lola rugula deli style medium rare roast beef

easy lamb recipes

Quite often I am awed and inspired by what my followers deem my most popular recipes because, quite often, they are not the recipes (nor the accompanying photos) that I aspire to be popular. A few people take the time to comment here on my site but many more share my recipes over and over again, particularly on Pinterest. If you’ve ever searched Pinterest for lamb recipes, chances are good you’ve seen one of mine. The fact that people search for how to cook lamb does not surprise me – a lot of people aren’t really comfortable preparing it.

My first attempt at cooking lamb many (many) moons ago went horribly wrong. It was an attempt to cook some sort of thin lamb chops – probably blade or shoulder chops – which seemed simple enough until I cooked them to an angel hair’s breath of dryness and toughness. They were flavorless and disappointing, to say the least. I swore I’d never make lamb again.

Flash forward just a year or two after that to me enjoying an Easter celebration in Connecticut, where I lived at the time. A good friend there, as luck would have it, is Greek. Her mother had a huge lamb roast cooking in the oven that day and the smell was enough to make me drop to my knees and send up a prayer. Rubbed with garlic, oil and spices and slow roasted to medium rare, I realized that I had no idea the real beauty of lamb or its possibilities.

So, how do you cook lamb shoulder or blade chops? These cuts are less expensive than a loin cut, so ideally you should involve a marinade and then a quick cook at a moderate to high temperature. The marinade helps break down the toughness of cut but the final cook should be fast and simple. You can also braise these (brown and then simmer slowly in liquid) but watch them closely so as not to overcook. Larger cuts of lamb shoulder can be braised for longer.

Here’s the photo of my most popular lamb recipe on Pinterest:

lemon oregano lamb shoulder chops recipe lola rugula

Not an incredibly staged photo, is it? But it’s still quite popular and I believe that’s because of its simplicity and, yes, it’s lack of photographic staging. We all like recipes that are somewhat simple and approachable and this easy lamb recipe is both. Lamb shoulder chops also make this recipe affordable, which we can all appreciate. What’s better than lamb with garlic, lemon, and oregano? Not much, I tell you.

Mint is also a traditional herb for lamb and once you’ve tasted the pairing you’ll understand why. My second most popular lamb recipe is lamb loin chops on the grill, made with mint, oregano and lemon:

lola rugula grilled lamb loin chops with garlic, oregano and mint recipeLoin chops are a more pricey cut of lamb but they don’t require marinating and they’re like any good loin chop – lean and tender.

One day I’ll feature my leg of lamb recipe but I can tell you this: it involves lots of herbs, olive oil and garlic, just like that long ago Easter lamb. I have, however, shared what I love to do with my leftover leg of lamb and that’s to make lamb stew.

easy lamb stew recipe

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than a big bowl of this, along with a good book and a glass of red wine. A little crusty bread doesn’t hurt either.

I hope that if you’ve had a failed attempt at cooking lamb like I have, you’ll be willing to try these and give it another go. I promise you that lamb can be easy and flavorful with just a little bit of effort.

Happy spring everyone!

lola rugula deli style medium rare roast beef

hello March

Hallelujah, it’s finally March. It’s still snowing here in Northern Illinois but March is here and with it the knowledge that spring is just around the corner. I admit that I tend to hibernate a bit in the cold winter months but now, as the days grow a little longer and the sun shines a little brighter, I can feel my energy level rising.

Also rising are all of my seedlings that I planted in early February. This was the earliest I could start them this year, due to an incredible birthday trip to the French Quarter that my husband surprised me with for my birthday.

Though I used to try and start a number of plants indoors, now I just start tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. New this year, I also started some Imperial Star artichokes, which I’m really hoping gives us some of my favorite veggies this summer. We didn’t have much luck with these the last time we tried, but this time we got an early start. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Here’s one of my beautiful tomato plants:

lola-rugula-how-to-start-tomato-plants-indoors

That’s just a little piece of heaven in my book. A lot of my seeds this year are from Sustainable Seed Company and they germinated quite nicely. I don’t usually start my seeds in Jiffy pots but my mom gave me a bunch of them and I think we all know how I hate for things to go to waste. So this year, I’m back to Jiffy pots and everything is looking good.

Here’s a shot of one of my artichoke plants:

lola-rugula-how-to-start-artichoke-plants-indoors

I also started some purple Violetta artichokes, which I ordered from Reimer Seeds, but the first batch failed to sprout so I just planted my second round. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for those.

If you’ve not seen any of my previous posts on seed starting, I plant mine in pots with a base of potting soil and then a 2-inch topping of seed starter. This way, the seed starter is light enough to help the seeds sprout well but the base gives the roots something to really latch onto as they grow.

Also, I have a smallish, portable 3-shelf greenhouse with a cover that I use for starting my seeds. This helps hold in the heat and moisture until everything has sprouted. Lastly, I’m very lucky to have tons of windows to provide lots of sunshine and warmth for my seedlings.

It won’t be long now before we’re tilling up the garden and planting leeks – these will be another “first attempt”, so wish me luck. Man, I love leeks! Then come radishes, beets, peas, lettuce, greens and onions – I ordered some cool black radishes this year that I’m very excited about. Finally, typically in mid-May, everything else will go in – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, beans, fennel, carrots, etc.

I can’t wait! Are you growing veggies this year? What’s on your garden planner? I’d love to talk veggies, flowers, herbs and dirt…let me know what you’re looking forward to the most.

lola rugula deli style medium rare roast beef

please excuse my mess

If you’ve been a previous visitor to my site, then you can see I’ve made some big changes recently. With a desire to have more control over my content and design, I decided to make the move to a self-hosted site and, with that decision, have thrown my site into a bit of upheaval in the past few days.

I just want to say a big “Thank You” to all my friends and followers for putting up with these changes and I hope you’ll stick with me as I redesign and configure my new “home” here.

I also want to wish you all a very Happy Holiday, no matter what holiday it is you celebrate. I celebrate Christmas and am looking forward to a wonderful time spent with family and friends. Our Christmas tree is up, our lights are out, our home is decorated (well, as much as I decorate anyway) and my fridge and pantry are packed to the gills. I’m truly blessed.

sidecar cocktail lola rugula

 

Thanks for being a part of my journey here. Cheers!

lola rugula deli style medium rare roast beef

preparing for the summer garden

Well, the tomatoes and peppers for my summer garden are on their way. I started my seeds about 2 weeks ago and just thinned them down to 2 plants per pot. I like to start mine in 3 to 4 inch pots  because, in my personal experience, transplanting the seedlings only stunts their growth.

how-to-start-tomato-and-pepper-seeds-indoors-lola-rugula

I start them in pots with a base of potting soil, topped off with a good 2 inches of seed starter mix. Seed Starter is a lighter soil mix that’s perfect for starting seeds. I have a little 4-level greenhouse with a zipper cover that I place the trays of pots in and place them by one of our huge sets of sunny windows.

Once the seeds have sprouted and reached about 2 inches in height, I thin them them down to 2-3 plants per pot. Once they’ve really reached a size and strength I’m comfortable with, then I thin them down to 1.  I also then unzip the cover and let them get regular air, as this helps strengthen the plants.

I admit I tend to do a mix of heirloom plants and hybrid plants since we live in a pretty wooded area and sometimes my plants need a little more stability than just the heirloom varieties provide.  As much as I’d love to do all heirloom plants, I’ve discovered through many years of gardening, a mix usually provides me with the best results. I do, however, try and make sure that the seeds I purchase are non-GMO. I try not to support Monsanto whenever possible.

When the springtime finally arrives and, believe me, I can’t wait, I take the entire greenhouse outside and, leaving the cover on, but unzipped, let it sit for another week or two. Then, I remover the cover and let it sit another 2 weeks before finally transplanting into the ground. This process is called “hardening off” and helps make your plants more resilient to real elements they’re going to encounter outside.

Just a side note – make sure you always put a marker with the plant name in your pots so, if one or more of them doesn’t sprout, you know what you need to re-plant. Also, I do recycle a lot of my old pots, but only after washing them really well and then letting them soak, fully immersed, in a solution of bleach and water. You have to be really careful when reusing pots, as you can transfer diseases to your newly-sprouted plants.

Is anyone else starting their garden seeds? I also have some peppers, eggplants and herbs going. This time of year always gets me excited for my summer gardens.

Have I mentioned how much I love digging in the dirt?