• Beverages

    The Complete Guide to Chai Tea

    What is Chai Tea?

    With so many different types of tea on the market today, the concoction of ingredients used to make chai tea certainly isn’t common knowledge. Even the most avid tea drinkers may not be able to offer a full description of what exactly goes into the drink.
    Chai tea has four main elements: black tea, milk, sweetener and spices. The spices, however, vary between countries and across regions, which means that chai tea won’t necessarily taste the same in one part of India as it does in another. Some spices are used widely across Asia, such as cinnamon, ginger and cardamom. Fennel seeds, black peppercorns and nutmeg are other examples of what you might taste in a warm cup of chai tea.
    Chai tea is also known as ‘masala tea’ in some parts of the world. ‘Masala’ means ‘spiced’, giving the translation ‘spiced tea’. However, the Western world has adopted the phrase ‘chai tea’, even though this literally translates to ‘tea tea’.

    The Origins of Chai

    It is thought that chai tea originated around 5,000 years ago. India and Siam (now known as Thailand) were the founding countries of the drink which is now enjoyed all over the world. According to a popular legend, a king wanted to create a healing potion and used various ingredients to develop the popular ‘chai tea’. After this, local people began using the beverage to heal the sick, often combining it with yoga, massage and herbs. It was particularly popular as a healing method from 1500 BC to 500 BC, during the Vedic period in India. The recipe soon spread beyond India and Siam, until the whole of South Asia had made this drink a part of their everyday diet. Today, there are many varieties of chai tea which are produced, bought and sold all around the globe.

    The Benefits of Chai Tea

    As the legend above suggests, chai tea is regarded as a healing beverage. While it doesn’t promise to heal its recipients of every illness under the sun, there are certainly many benefits to drinking it. The natural herbs and spices which are found in chai tea will help your body in various ways, including speeding up weight loss and helping your cardiovascular system to work better.

    Black tea, even without spices, can benefit your body. It is able to reduce the amount of stress you feel, helping you to sleep better, snack less and have fewer mood swings. A study was carried out in 2007 to prove that those who drank black tea could manage their stress levels more efficiently than those who drank other drinks.

    Ginger is a popular spice used in chai tea, and is also able to relax your muscles after a gruelling workout. Full of antioxidants, this spice can even help to prevent cancer and get rid of arthritic pain.

    Cardamom is low in calories, meaning it’s a great spice for those who are looking to cut down and shed some pounds. It is also loaded with fiber and has been known to help control cholesterol levels. Those suffering from dental problems could experience relief from pain as a result of this spice, and it is often recommended as a potential cure for infections such as cystitis and gonorrhoea.

    Chai tea isn’t quite complete without cinnamon, as many tea experts will tell you. One of the main benefits is its ability to control blood sugar levels. People who suffer from Type 2 Diabetes are often keen to add cinnamon to their meals, but it’s a great ingredient for those without the condition too.

    Fennel seeds are packed to the brim with vitamins and other elements which can work wonders for your heart. Whether you’re worried about your heart condition, you have high cholesterol or you’re low on vitamins, fennel has got something to benefit your body. Vitamin B6 helps with brain development and your general body clock, while potassium will keep your heart at a steady rate and balance the amount of water in your body.
    Clove oil is a popular natural treatment for bad toothache, so it’s no wonder that cloves found their way into chai tea. Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, they will add a lovely aromatic scent to your tea, as well as feeding your body with calcium, iron, magnesium and vitamin K.

    Black pepper is often used in chai tea to give it an added spicy kick. It was first found in India, so it’s no surprise that it is used as a common ingredient. Peppercorns can help fat cells to break down, as well as aiding digestion. Cases of vitiligo, a condition which causes a loss of pigment in the skin, have been cured as a result of a combination of peppercorns and other treatment. Asthma, ear ache, gangrene and tooth decay can also be prevented or relieved through black peppercorns.

    Chai Tea Recipe

    Adapted from Sodamakerclub.com

    While there are many varieties of chai tea and various combinations of spices which can be used in the drink, the basic recipe remains the same. If you want to make an authentic Indian chai tea drink, here are the steps.

    You will need the following items:

    • Tea strainer
    • Pot or pan
    • Milk
    • Chai tea leaves
    • Sugar or sweetener (optional)
    • Spices (you can use either a spice mix or buy the individual spices of your choice)

    Step 1:

    Prepare your spices if you have bought individual items. Crush small pieces of ginger. Crack open your cardamom pods and crush them to make smaller pieces. Use one or two pieces of ‘real’ cinnamon. A quarter to a half teaspoon of fennel seeds is plenty if you want to add some of these too. Don’t add too many black peppercorns to your chai tea (no more than 2-3).

    Step 2:

    Add a cup of milk and your prepared spices to the pan and slowly boil on a low heat. Boiling the milk quicker and on a high heat won’t give you the desired taste, so take your time with this step.

    Step 3:

    When the milk and spices are boiling, add a tablespoon of tea leaves to the pan. This will cause the milk to change color and you may also see skin forming on it. Simply stir the mixture to get rid of this. You should allow the milk, spices and tea leaves to boil together for around 3-4 minutes (the longer you leave them, the stronger your tea will be).

    Step 4:

    Strain the mixture into your cup. Add sweetener or sugar if you like, sit back and enjoy!

  • Salads

    Warm Winter Whole Grain Salad

    Winter, for me, is a season of cleansing and stark beauty. The simplicity of the silhouettes of bare branches against a steely grey sky speaks softly to my heart, also in need of a restful moment or two. Snow is a constant wonder to me, though not in the same way it was when I was a kid barreling down the long steep hill behind our farmhouse on a wooden sled that surely was dangerous with its rusty metal rails. In fact, a new unblemished blanket of white has just fallen overnight and my current home’s window frames a comforting innocence, the usually busy city street out front muffled. Soon a gaggle of neighborhood kids will be sliding down the gentle slopes of the school yard next door. I suppose the wonderment I have for winter white is that it is a great equalizer. An eyesore and a masterpiece look nearly the same under a mantle of snowflakes. Neighbors who may do no more than nod hello in every other season gather together with shovels on shoulders to clear the alleyway connecting all their homes, shouting stories about their kids or the city’s sports teams over the scrape of shovels against asphalt. For at least a few hours, everyone in the world seems a little more considerate. A little more wholesome.

    The food of winter is also wholesome, in a way delicate spring lettuces and indulgent summer fruits can’t be. Winter fare should fill you up and stay with you to warm your belly through that cold jaunt to the car or train. I’ve been rediscovering the joy of cooking this winter, after having burnt out my inner creative cook during the heat and hubbub of summer. I’ve been taking my time in the kitchen, no longer reaching in the freezer to pull out a pre-made this or that because it would be fast and easy. I’ve been cooking to make myself happy; to treat my tastebuds; to eat more winter vegetables.

    This Warm Winter Whole Grain Salad has become a staple in my diet the past month or two. And, while I can’t claim it to be a miracle cure, it certainly seems to have contributed to my happier and healthier state of being this winter. On Saturday night I soak the wheat berries and then spend a relaxed Sunday afternoon making the rest so I have a delicious dish for lunch every day that week. I have as yet to get bored with it, the wheat berries and barely so chewy and nutty. The butternut squash is sweet, especially with that hint of nutmeg, contrasting with the salty feta. The beans, rich in protein, add a creamy quality to each bite. This salad can be your main dish or an unexpected side to a winter feast.

    Don’t be put off by the length of the recipe or that it appears to take up a good deal of time. While this salad does require you to be a bit organized, it requires surprisingly little hands-on time once you have the butternut squash peeled and cubed. The first bite will make it all worthwhile and your winter a little more wholesome.

    Ready to Eat

    Warm Winter Whole Grain Salad
    A Straight from the Farm original

    Part I

    2 C. wheat berries (available at Whole Foods)
    1 butternut squash
    1 T. extra virgin olive oil
    1 t. freshly ground nutmeg
    salt and pepper to taste

    Part II

    6 cups water*
    1 C. pearl barley
    1 red onion
    5 T. extra virgin olive oil, divided
    1 can (14oz) cannellini beans
    4 T. orange muscat champagne vinegar (available at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods)**
    2 T. balsamic vinegar
    salt and pepper to taste
    8 oz. lite feta cheese
    cooked chicken/soy chicken (optional)
    dried cranberries (optional)

    * You may need more than 6 cups of liquid. I sometimes use a cup of vegetable stock to give it a bit more flavor.
    ** If you can’t find the orange muscat champagne vinegar, a high quality balsamic will work just fine on its own.

    Part I

    Place your wheat berries in a bowl and cover with cool water. Cover bowl and allow to sit for at least 4 hours; overnight usually works best. When you are ready to use the wheat berries, drain and rinse before proceeding with the recipe.

    Preheat the oven to 350 F. Peel and cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise (I usually also cut the “neck” from the “bulge” to make for more efficient chopping). Scoop out the seeds. Dice the orange flesh into rough half inch cubes and place on a foil lined baking sheet. Drizzle with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and season with the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Toss to combine and place in the hot oven. Roast until cubes are tender but not mushy, about 20-30 minutes. Set cubes aside to cool. They can be stored overnight in the fridge.

    Part II

    Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add a little salt like you would to pasta water. Carefully slide the drained wheat berried into the water. Return water to a boil and then reduce heat to a high simmer, leaving the pot uncovered. Cook for about 35 minutes and begin testing by chewing a grain or two. When wheat berries are tender enough to chew but not soft yet (usually 35-45 minutes of cooking), add the pearl barley (you may wish to rinse the barley first to remove any dusty debris). Continue to simmer until both the pearl barley and wheat berries are tender but not mushy, about another 15-20 minutes. If liquid is getting low, add another half cup at a time of hot water. When done, drain off any remaining liquid and transfer to a large bowl.

    Peel and finely dice the red onion. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet. When hot, add the diced onion and cook over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, rinse and drain the cannellini beans. Add to the onions and toss to heat through. Reduce heat to low and move all the beans and onion to one side of the skillet. On the empty side of the skillet, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil and the vinegar(s). It helps to tilt the skillet a bit to collect the liquid so you can whisk it. Taste and add more vinegar if desired.

    Once you have the vinegar and oil to your liking, gently toss the beans and onion with it and remove from the heat. Season generously with salt and pepper and pour over the bowl of cooked wheat berries and barely. Toss gently to combine. Now add the roasted butternut squash and toss again. Allow salad to sit for at least 30 minutes to soak up the dressing.

    Salad can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to a week. It can be served at room temperature or hot (a minute in the microwave does the trick). Top each serving with a crumble of feta cheese and some cooked chicken if desired. A handful of cranberries are also a nice addition.

    (serves 12)

  • Recipes

    Perfect Pumpkin Risotto

    Well, hello there! Great news…SFTF is featured on Design*Sponge today! Welcome, all D*S readers! If you’re an SFTF reader (not to drive home any ideas of “camps” here among you all) who has yet to stumble upon D*S, it is a site full of amazing inspirational posts from some of the most creative minds in the world. The topics and projects featured there never cease to amaze me! And I’m addicted, checking in on the D*S divas at least twice a day.

    My recipe on D*S for Perfect Pumpkin Risotto is one that I conjured up many months ago, and I’ve been biting my nails ever since, anxious to share this heavenly and comforting winter dish with you. Unfortunately, the season for buying local pumpkins is likely passed in most parts at this point. But perhaps you’ve been holding on to one or two in your cellar, hoping to carry memories of glowing autumn days just a little deeper into the pale dimness of winter. Or, as you all are probably well-aware of by now (am I driving this point home too much?), pumpkin puree is a miracle ingredient and if you’ve got a stash, this risotto is well worth a cup or two. To replicate the “chunks” without any fresh pumpkin on hand here in the depths of winter, you could cube and roast sweet potatoes instead.

    Perfect Pumpkin Risotto

    A Straight from the Farm Original

    Pumpkin

    • 1 large or 2 small eating pumpkins
    • 2 t. extra virgin olive oil
    • 1/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
    • 1/2 t. coarse sea salt
    • 1/4 t. cinnamon
    • 1/4 t. finely minced fresh rosemary
    • pinch of white pepper
    • 1 firm ripe pear

    Risotto

    • 3 C. vegetable stock
    • 3 T. butter
    • 1/2 C. diced onion
    • 1 1/2 C. aborrio rice
    • 1/2 C. white wine or sherry cooking wine
    • 1/2 t. finely minced fresh rosemary
    • 1/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
    • 1 1/2 C. pumpkin puree (above)
    • 1 C. roasted pumpkin cubes (above)
    • 1/2 C. freshly grated parmesan cheese
    • 1/4 C. heavy cream
    • freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
    • sprigs of rosemary to garnish

    * The pumpkin portion of this recipe can be prepared in advance and stored in sealed containers in the fridge for 2-3 days before making the risotto or frozen for several months. Just thaw completely before making the risotto.

    Begin with making the pumpkin puree and roasted cubes. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut the pumpkin(s) in half with a very sharp knife (be careful!) and scoop out the seeds with a large spoon. Place one half of the pumpkin cut side down in a baking dish and put about a half inch of water in the bottom. Place in oven and bake until a fork slides through the skin easily and the flesh is very soft, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and use tongs to place the pumpkin cut side up on a cool surface to let off some of the heat. When pumpkin can be handle (use a dish towel if you’re in a hurry), scoop out the soft flesh with a spoon and place in a food processor or blender. Process until smooth. Set aside. You can freeze any extras in a freezer bag for use later.

    While the first pumpkin half is baking, prepare the second half of the pumpkin by using a good vegetable peeler to remove the skin and cutting the uncooked flesh into small cubes. Line a baking sheet with foil and place pumpkin cubes on it. Drizzle with oil and toss to coat evenly. Add the nutmeg, salt, cinnamon, rosemary, and white pepper. Wash the pear but do not peel it. Halve, core and dice the pear into smaller pieces than the pumpkin. Add the pear to the pumpkin on the sheet and toss everything with your hands to combine all the ingredients. Place in the oven and bake until tender and golden at the edges, about 25 minutes.

    Once the pumpkin is well on its way to being done, begin to work on the risotto. Put the vegetable stock in a medium saucepan over low heat to come to a simmer.

    Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. When it is melted, add the onion and cook until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the rice and stir for about two minutes so it can absorb the butter and toast a bit. Add the wine and let everything simmer for another minute or two until the wine is absorbed.

    Set a timer for 18 minutes. Add about half a cup of hot stock to the risotto and stir constantly until it is absorbed. Add another half cup of stock and repeat this process until 18 minutes is up. Add the pumpkin puree, nutmeg, rosemary and a final half cup of stock and stir vigorously to combine. When risotto has once again become thick and creamy, add the roasted pumpkin cubes and grated cheese and stir again to combine. Finally, finish the risotto by stirring in the heavy cream and adding pepper and salt to taste.

    Serve immediately while hot, garnishing with addition grated cheese and a sprig of rosemary on each plate.

  • Recipes

    Canning Pears

    I hinted in the last post that I’d been doing a lot of canning recently. I grew up with canning, helping my mom put up all sorts of fruits and vegetables for our family’s winter eating. Sadly, I didn’t always appreciate the font of knowledge that was before me at the time. Nor did I really embrace canning again until last year. This autumn I’ve been a woman on a mission, intent on returning to the traditions of putting up plenty of jars to “keep on keepin’ on” with the local eating long after the garden is in its wintery bed.

    The recipe I’m giving you today isn’t exactly the one my mom uses because I like to add a few bits of warm spices to mine, but the concept is very much the same. I used pears from the same tree in the side yard of our family farm that my grandmother used when she was my age. I also happen to use the same canning kettle and jar rack as my grandmother. She gave them to me at Christmas last year. I was extremely sad when she did, because it meant that she herself would never use them again (she’s 90 and unable to see well enough to can anymore) . Once I got started using the kettle though, I felt incredibly grateful to her and to my mom for passing down both the tools and know-how to preserve my own food. As I lifted the heavy jars full of ripe pears into the kettle to be processed, I couldn’t help but feel deeply connected to my family and its heritage as my hands were holding the same handles as my grandmother’s had so many times over so many years.

    What follows is a guide to canning pears with the recipe at the end.

    • Get ripe but still firm local pears. Do not use mushy fruit.
    • Set yourself up with two chairs, a large dish pan, a large bowl and a sharp knife. You sit on the side of the dish pan.
    • Put the whole pears into the dish pan, leaving a corner empty.
    • Peel and core pears, putting scraps in the empty corner of the dish pan and the clean pear halves into the big bowl.
    • Set up your stove to work efficiently: one burner for simmering lids, one burner for the canning kettle, one burner for making your syrup, and one burner for keeping some extra water simmering in case you need to add it any of the other three. Keep ladle and jar lifter close at hand.
    • Pack sterilized jars with pear halves using a fork and keeping the round side up.
    • Put one jar at a time in a bowl to catch spills and use a ladle to fill with hot syrup.
    • Thoroughly clean rims of filled jars with a damp paper towel.
    • Use magnet or tongs to carefully lift hot lids out of simmering water and place immediately on jars.
    • Fill rack with seven filled and capped jars.
    • Temper jars by placing them half way into the hot kettle for 10 seconds and then lift them back out. Repeat. Finally carefully submerge completely and put lid on the kettle.

    Spiced Canned Pears

    A Straight from the Farm Original

    • 1 bushel of firm, but ripe pears
    • 2 C. sugar
    • 6 C. water
    • 2 cinnamon sticks
    • 1/4 t. ground cinnamon
    • 1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
    • 2 whole star anise
    • 14-16 quart jars
    • lids and rings
    • canning kettle
    • jar lifter
    • large ladle

    Begin by filling the canning kettle with water and placing 7 jars at a time in it, also filled with water. Place kettle on high heat to come to a boil while you prepare the pears.

    Place lids in a shallow skillet and cover with water. Set over low heat to simmer until ready to use. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, cinnamon, nutmeg, and anise, stirring well to get the sugar to start dissolving. Leave the saucepan sit on the counter while you peel half the pears. When you’re about half way done with peeling, put the saucepan on high heat to come to a boil. If it starts boiling before you are done peeling, just lower the heat so it is simmering.

    Set up a peeling station with two large dish pans or bowls. Fill one with whole pears, leaving a small space at one side empty. Use a sharp paring knife to peel and core the pears, putting the peelings into the empty spot you left in the bowl/pan with the whole pears and placing the cleaned pear halves in the other bowl/pan. Work as quickly as you can and peel only as many pears as you’ll need to fill the 7 jars so that the prepared pears don’t sit around too long and discolor.

    Use the jar lifter to carefully lift the jars out of the boiling kettle. Leave the kettle on the stove to continue boiling with the lid on. Very carefully dump the hot water out of the jars and set them on a folded dish towel on the counter. Use a fork to spear each pear half with its rounded side facing up (the cavity facing down). Lower pear halves into each jar, packing them tightly and leaving at least a half inch of head space at the top of the jar.

    Take the hot syrup off the heat. Place a jar of pears in a bowl to catch any spills and use the ladle to pour syrup into the jar, covering the pears. Repeat until all the jars have syrup. If you should find yourself running low on syrup, you can add about a half cup of hot water to the saucepan to make it stretch.

    Use a damp paper towel to carefully wipe the rim of each jar clean, running your finger over it after cleaning to be sure there are no residues or chips in the glass that will interfere with the seal. Using tongs or a magnetic wand, fish out one lid from the simmering skillet at a time and put on a jar and secure with a ring twisted on tightly. Repeat on all jars.

    When all jars are ready, place in jar rack/lifter and carefully lower half way into the boiling kettle and then pull them back out. This helps make sure the jars won’t crack at the sudden exposure to high heat. Repeat lowering-lifting again before placing the jars entirely in the kettle. Make sure the water covers the jars by at least an inch. If it doesn’t, top off the kettle with more boiling water from a tea kettle or the water the lids had been simmering in. Keep the kettle over high heat and process the jars for 20 minutes.

    Using the jar rack/lifter, carefully remove the jars from the kettle. Set on the folded dish towel, dabbing off any water that lingers on the lids. Place another towel over the jars and allow them to sit for at least 4-5 hours without being disturbed, ideally overnight. The lids should start popping (sealing) in an hour or two after coming out of the kettle, but don’t fret if a few haven’t as some take much longer to get a good seal. Test the seal when the jars are completely cool. If the lid is firm, it’s sealed. If it has a spring in it still, it hasn’t sealed and you’ll need to store that jar in the fridge.

    Use a permanent marker to label the jars and store in a cool dark place until ready to use. Properly sealed and processed jars can last over a year though it’s best to try to eat them before the next pear season comes around.

    (makes about approximately 14 quarts or 28 pints)

  • Deserts

    From the Archives: Beet Cake

    I’ve been horrified lately by the pictures on some of my oldest post, many of which feature outstanding recipes that get many hits from the search engines. My food photography skills have decidedly improved over the past two+ years, and so I’m dusting off a few old favorites as time permits to have a digital makeover for your viewing pleasure. This Chocolate Beet Cake was just as delicious as I remembered. It is very chocolaty and yet has a hint of something most folks can’t quite put their finger on unless you divulge the secret ingredient. Packed with vitamins and minerals, the beets not only add nutritional value to an otherwise indulgent dessert, but they also make it extremely moist.

    But now you’ll get the full beauty of this decadent cake with the new photos featured here.

    CHOCOLATE BEET CAKE

    • 1 C. margarine or butter, softened, divided
    • 1 1/2 C. packed dark brown sugar
    • 3 eggs at room temp
    • 2-3 oz. dark chocolate
    • 5 medium beets (2 C. pureed)
    • 1 t. vanilla extract
    • 2 C. all-purpose flour
    • 2 t. baking soda
    • 1/4 t. salt
    • 1/2 t. cinnamon
    • 1/4 t. nutmeg
    • confectioners’ sugar for dusting

    To make beet puree, trim stems and roots off beets and quarter them. Place in heavy sauce pan filled with water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 50 mins or until the beets are tender. Drain off remaining liquid and rinse beets in cold water as they’ll be too hot to handle otherwise. Slide skins off and place beets in blender. Process until a smooth puree forms. Let cool slightly before using in cake. I like to make the puree ahead and store it in the fridge, sometimes up to several days in advance.

    In a mixing bowl, cream 3/4 cup margarine and brown sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Melt chocolate with remaining butter in the microwave on high in 20 second intervals, stirring each time until smooth. Cool slightly. Blend chocolate mixture, beets and vanilla into the creamed mixture. The batter will appear separated so don’t fret.

    Combine flour, baking soda , salt, cinnamon and nutmeg; add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Pour into a greased and floured 10-in. spring form pan. Bake at 375 degrees F for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes before removing to a wire rack. Cool completely before dusting with confectioners’ sugar.

  • Garden

    10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch

    One last gardening post and then I swear we’ll be back to food full time, at least for a few months until my garden starts doing very cool things that I’d be remiss in not sharing them with you. I have been hearing from friends and readers (who really are friends too) alike that they are thinking of starting a garden for the first time this year due to either the economy or a desire to be more involved with their food or both. Since I’m a horticulturist by trade, I wanted to take the piecemeal advice I give them and compile it into a post so anyone interested in starting a garden for the first time could have a look. These 10 steps are best applied to a garden being created from scratch. However, a few of them are good to repeat with an established garden once in awhile.

    It’s only fair to add a bit of a disclaimer here too: these steps are a tad idealistic and presume you all have plenty of time and resources on your hands. Reality may not allow you to take all of these steps. Don’t let that discourage you. These steps are just what I’d do if I were starting over from scratch. Use the ones that make sense for you and learn what you can from the others.

    #1 ~ Get a soil test.

    Before starting any growing project, it’s advisable to get information about the pH of the soil, the mineral levels, and something called CEC which has to do with how much your soil leaches out the fertilizers you’ll be applying. Usually soil testing is done through a local extension office, which is part of a state university. Information on how to contact these offices can be found in a phone book or online by googling your state + “extension office”. You can get detailed instruction from that office on how to collect a soil sample. The nuts and bolts are as follows: go around your proposed growing space with a trowel when the soil is dry and dig about 5-10 samples at least six inches deep, scoop a bit from the bottom of each hole you dig and put it in one bag. When you have all your sample, shake that bag up well to combine all the soil. Using the bag you’ll get from the extension office and the form they usually include, submit one collective sample (about a cup’s worth) for your garden. Test’s are either free or very reasonably priced. When you get the results back, it will tell you if you need to change the pH (by adding either lime or sulfur) and add any amendments (i.e., lots of compost versus just some or minerals like nitrogen and potassium). Click here to see a scan of the test results I got back for a test I did on my garden last year.

    #2 ~ Start a compost bin or pile ASAP.

    If you’re reading this article with any real interest, you’re probably already well aware of the benefits of composting for environmental reasons. Composting your kitchen waste, newspaper, grass clippings and leaves keeps tons of garbage out of our landfills and provides a natural fertilizer for your garden. What you might not realize and what I personally can attest to is the tremendous impact adding compost to your garden has on soil structure. Even if you have no intentions of growing an organic garden, you’ll want a boat load of compost the first few years to fluff up the soil to make planting and cultivating easier and to improve drainage. If you have sandy soil, the compost will add much needed humus (carbon-rich)matter and water retention. If you have clay soil like I do, the compost will do worlds of good for loosening up those clods so water can percolate through it. Improving your soil structure is a long and slow process so it’s best to get a pile of compost going right away so you can start adding it as soon as you turn the soil in your garden for the first time. Having your own compost source is best as it will get costly to go to the garden center and buy the quantities you’ll need to add in the first couple years in your garden. Plus you have more control over the quality of the final product. Quick rule of thumb for compost: it’s ready to use when you can no longer identify singular objects in it like a leaf or a twig.

    #3 ~ Apply sheet mulching.

    This application is best done under certain circumstances, but I’m including it because it’s a great way to prep a new garden space if you’re turning a patch of lawn into new beds and you have the luxury of time on your side. It’s also another reason for why you should start your composting efforts as soon as possible. Sheet mulching simply involves layering first manure, and then cardboard and newspaper over the area you intend to cultivate, soaking it, and then piling on unfinished compost, leaves, straw, etc. Let the whole thing sit for several months, during which time the existing grass and weeds will be killed for lack of light while the cardboard and compost breakdown further and provide you with a wonderful layer of super rich soil by the time you do put in your first plants. I’ve also heard that sheet mulching can be used on concrete to create a layer of soil for growing, but I think that would take several applications and years to accomplish. Still, if you plan on sticking around your current site for a long time, sheet mulching is a handy way to turn just about any ground into a suitable plot for gardening. That being said, it’s not very handy if you want to plant right now this spring. To learn more about sheet mulching, click here.

    #4 ~ Plan in advance.

    The first three steps are ideally done at least six months before you actually plant anything. Believe me, I know how hard it is to put off getting your first vegetables and herbs into the ground. As I look back now at my first year with my own garden, which I started on a balmy April day with no substantial forethought, I wish I had taken the time to really think out a few things. For starters, it’s important to really consider the layout and your purposes in the garden. Once you start digging your beds and establishing your paths, you won’t want to start over when you realize it would have been better if you’d just… Long straight raised beds about three feet wide are preferable for vegetable production and you’ll want your paths at least two feet wide so you can use a wheelbarrow or bucket or even just drag the hose around without wreaking havoc. Draw a basic overhead view and pencil in where you think things might go (like this). If it’s the end of summer or early fall, it’s a great time to buy some of your basic equipment on sale as stores clear out their inventory for the winter holidays. Items like hoses, rakes, shovels, landscape fabric, trowels, gardening gloves, pots, pre-made trellising, tomato cages, and so forth are good for stocking up. Get online and start browsing some seed sites such as Johnny’s, Renee’s or Burpee’s. Don’t buy anything yet! What you’re looking to do is educate yourself the stuff you’d like to grow: how many days to harvest (longer means it’ll take up space in your garden all summer), is it best to sow the seed straight into the ground or grow it in a pot inside first to be transplanted to the garden later, and how big do these plants get generally (to help you eyeball how much space to give them on your plan).

    #5 ~ Talk to a seasoned gardener and visit a farmers market.

    If you’ve never had your own garden before, chances are you will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of variety in the plant world. If you’re buying transplants from a local garden center, which might be the best strategy the first year if you’re a bit timid, there won’t be too many choices. However, if you go to buy, say, tomato seeds, you’ll find yourself swimming in options: red, yellow, orange, green, heirloom, hybrid, determinate, indeterminate, cherry, grape, plum, big beef… See? The best thing you can do for yourself is find a seasoned grower, be it a gardening friend or a local farmer. Ask them what they grow and what they’d recommend for just starting out. If you have a specific vegetable in mind, ask questions about what bugs it gets, is it easy to grow, what variety is tastiest. Try to discover if a plant you want in your garden has special requirements that may affect where you put it. For example, eggplant likes it very hot and very sunny. You might think your whole garden is in the sun, but there might be spots that get more or less sun. Make a note to put the eggplant in the sunniest spot of all if you want a good harvest. And to go back to our tomato dilemma example, buy several types of tomatoes and have an at-home taste test to see which you’d like to have in large quantities. Try to get that plant next year. If you know you want to grow heirloom varieties of vegetables but don’t like the idea of starting your own seeds just yet, it’s worth mentioning to your local farmer(s) that you would like to buy transplants next spring as they very well may agree to bring some with them to market for you.

    #6 ~ Determine your plant list.

    in conjunction with talking to other growers, it’s wise to start jotting down what you think you’ll be growing and answer a few questions. What vegetables do you eat the most? What herbs to you most often throw into the pot? Are you interested in canning or freezing? Will your neighbors be happy to get bags of surplus squash from you? Would you enjoy having some bouquets of fresh garden flowers in the house? Do you adore pesto? If not, don’t be tempted to put in more than one basil plant. Are you going to make your own spaghetti sauce? If not, you’ll really not need more than one or two tomato plants per person in your household. Would you like space to try things you’ve never heard of, like ground cherries and logion berries? Like packing for a trip, make a list of everything you want to have and then slash that list in half. You’ll thank yourself later. After the first few years in your garden, you’ll start to get a feel for what works in the space and how much you really use of what, but this first season it’s going to be far easier to limit yourself from the outset so you can enjoy gardening instead of feeling guilty about the literal bushels of tomatoes you’re throwing into the compost bin each week (not that I’ve ever done that…).

    #7 ~ Amend your soil as determined by the soil test.

    By this point you’ll have your soil test results. From it you should be able to tell if you need to raise or lower your pH. Generally, the ideal range for vegetable production is 6.5-7.0, but certain plants like it higher or lower (information you can get from the seed supplier or tag in the transplant). If your pH is lower than 6.5, you might consider adding some lime to it to raise it up a bit. If the pH is over 7.0, you’ll likely want to add some sulfur to tip it back down. In most soils, pH will naturally lower over time so it’s more likely you’ll need to add lime than sulfur. When adding either, be extremely careful not to add too much as this can be toxic to plants. The soil test should also tell you if you are lacking in any macro or micronutrients, the “food” of plants. If these are lower than the recommended levels, visit your local garden center or ag supply store and ask for help of finding the right fertilizer to address these deficiencies. There are organic amendments you can apply too, such as fish emulsion, bone meal, pot ash, and, of course, compost. If your nutrient levels are only slightly lower than desired, just adding compost from your bin is likely to correct the problem. In all cases, it’s wise to add at least a 2 inch thick layer of compost to your garden plot when you turn it over each spring to bulk up the organic matter and improve drainage.

    #8 ~ Measure out and dig your beds.

    Don’t just go into your garden with a shovel and start hacking out beds willy-nilly. Start by consulting your plan overview and use a tape measure to mark out the beds accurately. Then use a piece of string attached to two stakes and stretched along the to-be-dug beds and paths to guide you as you dig. This careful approach ensure you’ll have nice straight lines in your garden that not only help make it look tidy, but also assists with easier weeding with a hoe, covering the rows with fabric, or using soaker hoses or other irrigation. If you take the time to layout your garden right the first year, you’ll have a lot less work to do in subsequent seasons.

    #9 ~ Mulch now and later.

    At this point you’ll want to think about what mulch(es) you’ll want to use in your garden. First off, let’s establish that you will want mulch of some kind as it greatly enhances moisture retention and weed suppression in your garden, making your life a heck of a lot easier. There are several options in the way of mulch: plastic sheeting (black, white, etc.), straw, landscape fabric, leaf mold (decayed leaves), wood chips, and even compost, to name some of the more common ones. Black plastic warms up the soil fast in the spring and let’s you plant earlier than might otherwise be advisable. It also does a great job with weed suppression and retaining moisture. However, it’s not very good for the environment since it can’t generally be recycled and it can stress your plants out in really hot summers by absorbing too much of the sun’s heat. The mulches consisting of plant material (straw, leaves, etc) are great for the environment and break down in time to add to the organic matter in your soil. However, they aren’t always so successful at weed suppression since sunlight does get through it. I personally favor black landscape fabric because the kind I use is biodegradable (though I remove it from my garden each fall to avoid retaining any pests seeking shelter under it) and it does a comparable job in weed suppression and moisture retention as black plastic does. Plus it’s a heck of a lot easier to handle than the plastic. Since I add so much compost to my garden anyway, I don’t really need to additional organic matter that a plant-based mulch would supply. I do use wood chips in my paths though to keep the weeds and mud at bay. I lay soaker hoses down first on the beds I’m covering in fabric as I like to water plants at their roots, rather than overhead. When you have your beds established, apply your chosen mulch to the beds in which you’ll be planting transplants. If you are sowing seeds in a bed, you may wish to leave it bare for the time being to give the seeds a start and then mulch later when they have a few inches of growth on them. I’ve had moderate success with sowing seeds through wide slits in my fabric mulch.

    #10 ~ Start Planting!

    Finally you can start growing things in your garden! It’s been a bit of a process to get to this point, but now that you’re here you should have a fantastic garden space in which you’ll harvest the right amounts of the stuff you’ll really use and enjoy. After a year or two, you’ll be an old pro and hopefully you can pass along your knowledge to another new gardener.

  • Soups

    Celeriac and Ginger Soup

    Hey, would you look at this! There’s a food post on SFTF again! And here you’d thought it had become a gardening blog. Truth of the matter is that the local food pickin’s are slim here in March when we’re just shy of getting the season’s first lettuce and baby greens. I’ve had to look to my shrinking stash of root vegetables to carry us through the last few weeks of “winter”. Even if it is 70 degrees outside my front door today here in Philadelphia, it’ll be awhile yet until there’s much fresh eating to be had from the garden and at the farmers markets.

    See that ugly duckling up there? The one in the upper left? I swear it’s quite tasty, even if it’s not pretty! Celeriac root became a favorite over the course of this winter. I’ve recently been converted to mild anise flavors in my food and tea even though I hated, to the point of gagging, the taste of black licorice when I was a kid. Since I was so repulsed by anise in the past, I really hadn’t give celeriac much of a shot since I’d heard it tasted a bit like licorice.

    Once I gave it a try, celeriac (also called celery root because it’s celery family member grown for its root, not stalks) turned out to have very little anise flavor (at least the ones grown at the farm). Instead I find it rather nutty and a little biting like celery sometimes is. I’m muddling up describing it for you, I know, but I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to grab one of these scruffy roots next time you see it to give celeriac a chance to prove it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

    Celeriac is almost synonymous with soup. It’s good for adding that little “something” to the flavor and for thickening it up. This Celeriac and Ginger Soup has a lovely silken texture and a complex taste thanks to the celeriac and ginger flavors playing so nicely together. It’s very warming and has some unexplainable hint of spring in its fresh aroma.

    What are you subsisting off of in these last few weeks of winter?

    Celeriac and Ginger Soup

    Adapted from Totally Vegetarian

    • 1 medium celeriac bulb, peeled and diced
    • 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
    • 1 medium potato, scrubbed and diced
    • 1 large head of garlic, peeled and cloves left whole
    • 2 inch piece of ginger, grated
    • 6 cups vegetable broth
    • Salt to taste
    • ½ cup milk
    • ½ teaspoon dried marjoram or cilantro
    • Pinch of cumin
    • Freshly ground black pepper

    Combine the celeriac, carrot, potato, garlic and ginger in a large heavy saucepan. Cover with the vegetable stock and add a sprinkle of salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer for about 30 minutes or until all the vegetables are soft when pierced with a fork. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.

    Puree the soup in a blender or food processor until it is smooth and creamy. An immersion blender works great for this. Return soup to the saucepan over low heat. Stir in the milk (if it is thicker than you’d like, you may add more milk or a little water to thin the soup as desired) and season with dried herb, cumin and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve hot.

    (serves 4)

  • Deserts

    Cranberry Champagne Sorbet

    Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear readers! This is my love letter to you…a bright pink scoop of Cranberry Champagne Sorbet. This is a truly over-the-top and colorful dessert that is made with couples in mind, but it certainly could be shared among friends too. Perhaps it’s not the best option for the kiddies though.

    Thanks to the alcohol in the champagne, the consistency of this frozen treat is silky smooth and not the least bit crystallized like many sorbets. But don’t worry; while you may get intoxicated by the fun of sharing spoonfuls with your sweetie, there’s not enough alcohol left in the mix after cooking to do any real harm. Do make sure to use a high quality champagne though as the flavor of the bubbly is rather prominent in the final dish. If you don’t like the taste of the champagne before it goes into the sorbet, you won’t like afterwards either.

    Now I realize some of you might not be as huge a fan of cranberries as I am. If that’s the case, you will want to be very generous with the sugar. Or you can try using strawberries instead if they are in season around you or you have some frozen from last year’s crop. I don’t recommend buying out-of-season berries as they are usual white and tasteless, really rather disappointing in the end. I personally adore the tart zing of this particular cranberry combination with a hint of cinnamon. It really gets my engines revving, if you know what I mean!

    It’s even more fun when a small rounded scoop is gently dropped into a glass of champagne and slowly sipped as the bubbles work their way into the frozen sphere. Really, it’s all rather very sexy.

    Love,
    Jennie

    Cranberry Champagne Sorbet

    Loosely adapted from Simply Recipes

    • 1 ½ C. champagne or sparkling wine
    • 2 C. white granulated sugar*
    • 1 T. light corn syrup
    • 3 C. fresh or frozen cranberries
    • 1 t. of lemon and or grapefruit zest
    • 1 whole cinnamon stick

    * If you are not overly fond of tart flavors, you may want to increase the sugar by a quarter cup.

    Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan. Bring to a vigorous boil so that the sugar completely dissolves and the cranberries burst. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick.

    Using a food processor or blender, carefully blend the mixture for 30 seconds. Using a fine mesh strainer, press the mixture through into a chilled stainless steel bowl. Chill completely in the fridge (will take several hours so you may wish to make the mixture the day before).

    Process the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacture’s directions. Transfer mixture to a storage container and freeze in your freezer until firm, at least 6 hours. If it’s not hardening up at this point, turn your freezer onto the coldest setting and it should quickly set.

  • Deserts

    Cranberry Heart Tarts

    Hum-a-na, hum-a-na, hum-a-na! Be still my beating heart! Indeed, Cranberry Heart Tarts garnished with Chocolate Covered Cranberries are worthy of much adoration and attention. This luxurious tart, in the perfect shape and color for serving up to your sweetie on Valentine’s Day, is perhaps the easiest dessert I’ve ever made. Assuming you’ve got some frozen cranberries on hand (they are not in season in February), I have to practically insist you make this tart.

    Back in college, I worked at the Allentown Farmers Market, a great under-cover year-round market that brought in lots of farmers and specialty food purveyors. I happened to help out at one of those specialty food stands and distinctly remember the onslaught of customers the weekend before Valentine’s Day desperately seeking boxes of our plump delicious chocolate covered strawberries. Mind you, they cost over a dollar a piece, a price this then poor college student who happened to know how to make her own at home for pennies thought was outrageous! Still, for the three years that I worked there, we sold out every single time.

    Chocolate and fruit do epitomize the food that might be served at a lovers’ tryst. Not wanting to ignore that association in my current quest for local seasonal sweet treats but lacking any strawberries, I decided I’d give coating cranberries in chocolate a go. They are wonderful – the sweet rich chocolate coating breaks over a burst of tart juice in your mouth. Like any perfect union, these two flavors compliment each other flawlessly.

    The wonderful thing about both the tart and the chocolate covering for cranberries is that the frozen ones work just as well as fresh, proving yet again that it’s only in your best interest to buy up pints and pints of the little red jewels when you see them at the market, even if you notice everyone around you starting to point and stare. Not that that’s ever happened to me. No, never. Although I think a few people might have noticed when I push, er, nudged that older woman to the side in order to reach the last pint on the back of the table…perhaps that was going just a bit too far.

    But in all seriousness, buying up loads of cranberries to freeze for later use during the cold dark days of winter is perfectly commendable. Just bring them home, wash and sort them (toss out the squishy ones), dry them and then lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet to freeze for an hour or so before bagging them up in sturdy bags to stash in the freezer until you need them. Frozen cranberries will store for up to a year and are best used frozen, not thawed, when you put them in a recipe.

    Cranberry Heart Tarts

    Adapted from Eat Feed Autumn Winter

    • 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry (1/2 a package)
    • 2 C. fresh or frozen cranberries
    • 1 T. cornstarch
    • 3/4 C. plus 2 T. sugar
    • 1 whole star anise
    • 3/4 C. heavy whipping cream

    Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

    Using a large heart-shaped cookie cutter (or you can free-hand it with a sharp knife), cut out 6 hearts. Use a sharp knife to score the pastry to create a heart within the heart, about a half inch from the outside edge. Place on the cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes or until the hearts are puffed up and golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

    Turn the oven temperature down to 275 F. In a shallow baking dish, toss together the cranberries, cornstarch, and 3/4 cup of sugar. Bake for 35 minutes, stirring half way through to get the juice mixed with the sugar. Remove from oven and used a slotted spoon to seperate the cranberries from the juice.

    Place the juice and the star anise in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil for one minute and then remove from heat. Allow the juice to sit for about 10 minutes so the star anise can impart its flavor. Then remove the star and mix the cranberries and juice together again. Allow to cool completely. If you are preparing this recipe ahead of time, this is where you will stop for now.

    When ready to serve, combine the cream and remaining sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until it forms medium stiff peaks. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut around the inner heart of the pastry shells and lift it out, revealing a cavity within. Divide the cream among the hearts and top wtih the cranberries. If desired, garnish with chocolate covered cranberries (see below).

    (serves 6)

    To make chocolate covered cranberries, simply melt a few squares of high quality chocolate in the microwave on high for 1 minutes. Stir and microwave for another 15 seconds. Chocolate should be smooth and fluid. Be careful not to overcook it as it will become coarse and dry.

    Using a fork, quickly dip frozen or fresh cranberries in the chocolate. Place on a sheet of wax paper and allow the chocolate to harden. Store in the fridge in an airtight container.

  • Recipes

    Roasted Root Vegetable Stew

    This week finally felt like winter around here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly been frigid for several weeks now, but the skies were gray and the ground dull brown. The epitome of winter, at least in my mind, is brilliant blue skies with blinding sunlight streaming down that makes a generous blanket of snow glisten as it crunches under your feet. That’s what this week has been in southeastern Pennsylvania. And the sunsets…ah, the winter sunsets are the most beautiful with hues of violet, crimson and orange that cut through the leafless trees. There’s another stunning one developing right this very minute as I type. I love that my window looks west!

    I won’t bore you with a tired line like “winter’s the perfect season to snuggle up with a bowl of soup”. You know that already. What you might not think about though is making soup out of whatever is lying around your kitchen, rather than trooping off to the store to buy ingredients, or – gasp! – a can. Before we get to discussing today’s recipe for Roasted Root Vegetable Stew, I’m going to take the liberty to reprint here the soup “blueprint” I posted last January.

    The Soup Blueprint

    1. Heat your fat (oil or butter or lard) in a large soup pot
    2. Sauté any combination of garlic and onions (add more of whichever you like)
    3. Add pinches of salt and pepper with each addition of ingredients in order to build your flavor
    4. Add any combination of vegetables and continue sautéing
    5. Add your dried herbs and spices and continue sautéing
    6. Add your stock, at least enough to let the vegetables swim freely
    7. Bring to a boil
    8. If you want any pastas or grains, add them now (be very generous with your stock if using these)
    9. Reduce to a simmer and cook until everything’s soft and happy – usually about 30 minutes
    10. Add fresh herbs during the last ten minutes of cooking
    11. Blend if you want a smooth soup and/or add cream if you want
    12. Taste and season with more salt and pepper
    13. Taste again!
    14. If you wanted meat in there somewhere, depending on if it’s cooked or raw, add it in either step two (to brown beef), eight (to cook chicken), or ten (for cooked anything)

    Capiche?

    So there I was, in the mood for a thick hearty soup, staring into my pantry and brainstorming. The only substantial local ingredients in there right now are a diverse assortment of root vegetables: parsnips, rutabagas, celeriac root, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, onions and carrots. How I love roasted vegetables, particularly any of the root variety! It wasn’t a big mental leap then to think of roasting the roots first before putting them in some broth for a stew. Added a few chick peas from the cupboard and pinches of herbs, and I had just what I was craving. Perhaps it’s precisely what you’re craving too?

    Huh, would you look at that? I just realized this picture has the exact same colors as that sunset outside my window! How perfect!

    Roasted Root Vegetable Stew

    A Straight from the Farm Original

    • 1 large rutabaga
    • 2 medium russet potatoes
    • 1 large or several small parsnips
    • 1 large carrot
    • 1 large sweet potato
    • 1 small celeriac root
    • 1 medium onion
    • 1 can (14 oz) of chic peas, drained
    • 1 T. olive oil
    • Salt & freshly ground black pepper
    • 1 t. dried marjoram or thyme
    • 1 t. freshly finely chopped rosemary (optional)
    • 3-4 C. vegetable broth

    *Note: Since vegetable sizes are somewhat arbitrary, just be sure to have roughly one cup’s worth of each of the above vegetables.

    Scrub and trim ends and any bad spots off of all the root vegetables. I did not peel mine, but you may wish to peel some or all of the root vegetables. The celeriac in particular could benefit from a quick “haircut” to get rid of some of the rougher outer edges.

    Preheat your oven to 450 F. To prep the vegetables for roasting, cut everything, including the onion, into 1 inch cubes. Place on a foil-lined cookie sheet or in a roasting pan. Add the chic peas to the chopped vegetables. Drizzle with oil and toss with your hands so everything is evenly coated. Rinse your hands and season the vegetables with a generous pinch each of salt and pepper and the teaspoon of herb. Toss again with your hands and spread into a single layer.

    Roast vegetables in the oven for 30-40 minutes or until they are browning at the edges, but still fairly juicy. Just before the vegetables are ready, bring 3 cups of vegetable broth to a boil in a large saucepan. When vegetables are done roasting, carefully add to the hot broth. If desired, add the additional cup of broth. Let soup simmer on medium heat for 10 minutes. Using the back of your stirring spoon, press some of the vegetables up against the side of the saucepan until they are smashed to help thicken the soup. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

    Serve piping hot with hunks of homemade bread.

    (serves 4)