Monthly Archives: March 2011

Garden to Table: Chickpea Salad & Sweet-Sour Coleslaw

It’s the second to last day of March (a month that was more lion than lamb) and I’m kicking off my Garden to Table series with two delicious side dishes.  I have, in fact, harvested some parsley and basil from my indoor garden.  While they are a drop in the bucket of what will inevitably be an herb filled growing season, they are so very welcome!  I’m thrilled to share this dish with you as it is absolutely delicious. 

Simple and delicious.

Bon Appetit readers will recognize this recipe from the most current issue of the magazine, April 2011.  I couldn’t resist such a simple but satisfying example of how even the most meager use of fresh herbs can dress up something like a chickpea in way that makes it sing.

Basil leaves of the bush basil plant I started in February.

Parsley, plants are still small but there are enough leaves to add flavor to this dish.

Who knew chickpeas could be so satisfying? Notice how the fresh herbs punctuate this dish.


Here is where you can find the chickpea recipe:  Chickpea Salad with Lemon, Parmesan and Fresh Herbs.

The second item I used today from my garden was carrots.  Carrots?  In March?  Why, yes.  It’s a fact that carrots, if stored properly, can remain sweet, crispy and fresh for months… in this case half a year.  I only had a few left so I shredded them and put them into a crunchy Asian style coleslaw.  I learned to make this coleslaw using a Betty Crocker cookbook.  It works every time, even when I’m missing an ingredient here or there.  Today I was short the green pepper, so I just left that out.

Carrots harvested in September become March's coleslaw.

These two side dishes will be served tonight alongside some grilled Italian sausages.  It’s pretty cold outside–mid-30’s!–but that doesn’t stop a true Wisconsinite from grilling sausages.  It wouldn’t stop me from grilling veggies either! 

There’s no reason a gardener can’t infuse dishes with homegrown goodness year round.  It requires planning, but not so much to be an inconvenience.  And sometimes serendipity plays a role as well.  Things just fall into place once in a while and an ingredient presents itself at just the right time.  (I didn’t remember I had those carrots!  But I was sure happy to find them this morning when trying to figure out what to do with half of a cabbage.)

Since Betty doesn’t share her coleslaw recipe online, I’ve typed it out for you here.  It’s so good!

Sweet-and-Sour Coleslaw
Betty Crocker’s Cookbook Bridal Edition 2001

1/2 medium head cabbage, finely shredded (4 cups)
1 large carrot, finely shredded (1 cup)
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped (1 cup)
4 medium green onions, thinly sliced (1/4 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine, white vinegar or cider vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Place cabbage, carrot, bell pepper and onions in large glass or plastic bowl.
2. Shake remaining ingredients in tightly covered container.  Pour over vegetables; stir.  Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours, stirring several times, until chilled.  Serve with slotted spoon.  Store covered in refrigerator.

Happy Cooking!  And don’t be shy if you have recipes or ideas to share throughout the season.  I welcome links to recipes in the comments area or at my Twitter account @AGraciousGarden.

My Mary Year

Remember Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus?  Siblings who welcomed Jesus to their home for a visit.  Martha was very busy indeed providing hospitality to Jesus, making sure all physical needs were being met–perhaps cleaning, preparing a meal, making beds–the usual things we hostesses do when a special guest arrives. 

Mary on the other hand dropped what she was doing and sat down at Jesus’ feet to hear what he had to say.  She set aside her housework and focused fully on the message being shared by her Lord and Savior.

2010 was my “Mary” year.  I “unplugged” myself from most commitments, I put down the phone, I shut down the email, I didn’t sign up for anything or even invite too many people over. It was a year to be like Mary. I  let go of many things in order to open myself up to God’s will for me at this time in my life.

During this time, one thing (other than my family) thrived beyond my expectations. My garden became my sanctuary, my work and my expression of what I wanted to do.

I didn’t plan it this way. But gardens have a way of becoming something more than a garden. And somewhere in those rows of radishes and towers of tomatoes I found what I loved, I found something I could share. I think I might have found God’s message to me–here is something for you to do!

That is why I’m blogging in this way.  I want to share my photos, write down my thoughts, outwardly express what has been stirring inwardly for a while.  By taking a year to listen to what God might say to me, I’ve discovered that faith and love for God can have many varied outlets.  I’ve been absorbing His grace, letting it seep in while pushing other so-called priorities aside and now I’ve found my outlet to be a patch of dirt in my backyard.

I’m so glad that God led me to make a conscious decision to listen in this new way.  I feel like I have an enhanced life in many ways.  Becoming like Mary was just the thing needed to get me from where I was to where He wanted me to be, and I don’t believe the journey is anywhere near over.  God has a way of planting seeds and then raising them up at just the right time.  Praise to Him who is the Gardener of all!

Photos from the fourth week of March.

The first garlic bravely pokes through the ground in 30 degree temperatures.


Chives are up, but have sustained some frost damage. Temperatures are forecasted to be below freezing for the next several days.

Teach a man to fish.

Here’s the thing about cooking that people who don’t cook won’t believe: it’s not that hard.  Really. 

I generally cook from scratch, using very few “cheats” or “shortcuts” and even fewer processed ingredients.  Why?  Because I don’t have to.  There was a time when most housewives could bake a loaf of bread, roast a chicken or make a batch of spaghetti sauce without a recipe.  And there are many folks cooking today who can do the same thing.  The secret is to learn the technique, not a recipe.

Makes me think of the Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Indeed.  Learning a technique is like learning to fish.  The technique can be applied in an infinite number of ways, feeding you for a lifetime.  And unlike a recipe with all of its technicalities, a technique is based more on feel and experience, which by my estimation is far more trustworthy than measurements and cooking times.

When I was first learning to cook for myself I had very little to go on.  My skill set was small.  I had to piece together a culinary education on my own, figuring out not only what to cook (what did I like, what could I afford, what was healthy) but how to cook it.  I didn’t know how to bake a potato or grill a hamburger.  I had never attended a home economics class because that was never offered.  I never really learned to cook at home because I was involved with sports, music, friends, school.  A Gen-Xer like me didn’t have time for learning the basics in the kitchen.  I was going to college!  They had microwaves there.

And so when college ended here I was, a single gal needing to eat.  With a tiny apartment-for-one kitchen and some hand-me-down kitchen wares.  I got to work on my self-education and before long I realized–I like to cook! 

But with so few cooking skills I hit the books, and the websites, and the cooking shows.  Anywhere I could find some information.  I borrowed cookbook after cookbook at the library.  I called my mom!  I got recipes from my aunt.  I spent some time at the grocery store and explored every section, discovering all the ingredients and imagining how I might use them.

As I cooked, my skill set started to grow.  I learned how to chop an onion, how to braise a roast, when to boil vs when to simmer.  I had some flops.  A lot of flops!  But the best thing about making mistakes is that they are so easy to learn from.  And so I pressed on.

The real revelation came to me years later, as a new mom cooking for a small family.  I didn’t always have all the ingredients I needed for recipes.  I had to improvise.  Necessity was–as it always is–the mother of invention.  And pretty soon old recipes became new recipes.  Then those recipes multiplied–out of necessity or creativity.  I didn’t even need the recipes anymore, I had learned the technique.  As if to say to the recipes: “Thanks a lot fellas, but I’ll it from here.”

Since then I save myself quite a bit of time by learning techniques rather than recipes.  Pan sauces, roasts, marinades, risotto, pastas, pancakes, fish, salad dressing, grilling… so many things come to mind.

This growing season, as I’m sharing the many ways I prepare my harvest for our table and share those meals with you, you might be wondering where in the world are the measurements–and how long did I cook that.  I might not know.  Just think of me as your Italian grandmother throwing in a dash of this or a palmful of that.

I can’t wait to share the many ways I’ve turned my garden produce into meals with you.  And when there is a recipe to share, I’ll be sure to do that–either providing a link or typing it out in the post.

Until then, I’m going to brush up on a few techniques and dig out some ideas.  When the first items–chives–are ready to be picked I’ll be ready to go with  some great ideas.  Likewise, when the season closes with sage, kale, swiss chard and maybe spinach, I’ll be ready for them too.  Learning a few tricks of the trade has served me well year after year.

Photos from the third week of March.

Sidewalk chalk outside with the kids.


Tulips continue their ascent.

More tulips, a welcome sign of spring.


Rising temperatures made for a very pleasant week.


New life on old wood--this is the honeysuckle.

Meanwhile, indoors the lemon tree has set a few tiny buds.


More seed starts--tomatoes, eggplants, a few flowers, many peppers, fennel and cabbages. Filled another 72-cell tray... we will have plenty of plants this year.

Artful Animation

Remember Walt Disney’s orginal Fantasia?  What a beautiful work of art!  Music and animation combine in a fanciful and inspiring way. 

Here is the Nutcracker Suite, brought to life by Disney artists.  It’s beautiful and gardening enthuiasts will love the themes used in this delightful piece.  Enjoy!

Seed Starting

March is here and with it comes the task of transforming tiny seeds into herbs, vegetables and flowers for my (slowly) thawing garden.

But first, a confession.  I’ve been struggling for a week to write this post.  I think that writing from an instructional point of view isn’t working for me.  Since there are so many resources available on seed starting, I’ve decided that rather than give instructions I’m just going to report my experience and forget a step by step analysis.  It just isn’t my style. 

Whew!  Now I feel free to write.

Being a visual person, I like to map my garden, I also like to map my seed trays.  This seems to work better for me than using seed markers, and it feels like less work to me.  I especially like color coding my seed tray map!

I use a different color for each type of seed.

My kids' crayons come in handy for this project.

As it turned out, the above map–while lovely–did not have the correct layout for the 72-cell trays I am using.  So I had to redo it.  Such is life. 

For this tray, I’m starting some random things that seem like they need more time than others.  This works out well because by the time these seedlings are done with this tray I’ll be ready to start some more seeds.  I have two trays and will probably use each one twice this season.  I’m growing some flowers from seed this year, and they’ll take up at least one tray on their own.

I use a standard plastic 72-cell tray.  These trays come with a drip tray that the cell insert sits in, and a lid.  It’s easy to purchase extra cell inserts as needed from my local garden center.

I always read the seed packets before starting seeds.  Here is where I can find out when to start the seeds, any special information such as planting depth, sunlight needs, etc.  Seed packets contain all the information I need to be successful. 

Seed packets for Impatiens.

The back of the seed packet is loaded with information for seed starting, transplanting, growing and harvesting.

This seed starting mix came from Gardens Alive.  I had a coupon for $25 off (I believe every catalog they send has a coupon of some sort) so I used that to order some trays and seed starting mix.  It’s just as easy to visit a local garden center or hardware store and pick up needed materials.

My seeds have come from many different sources this year.   I purchased some at the garden center, others I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  I wanted to try several sources to compare, and also just because it’s fun to collect seeds from various sources.  I like the different seed packets.    It’s been fun going through the catalogs as well and receiving orders in the mail. 

Using my map I carefully put the seeds into each cell after the soaked seed starting mix was in place.

Seed starting mix works well.


We added water to the mix and spooned it into the tray.


Alternatively, you can put dry mix in the tray and then add water.


Once the seeds are in, the tray goes to either a sunny place or a warm place out of direct sunlight. I had one tray of each, this information is on the back of the seed packets.


I either put the tray in my bathroom, where it is always very warm, or if the seeds require light for germination they go next to the patio door where it is warm and sunny.  Trays in the bathroom are moved to the patio door once the sprouts emerge.

Current setup--my mini greenhouse.


My son and I love to peek at the seed trays every day to see what has poked through.  It’s amazing how quickly they change, sometimes they can grow an inch or more in less than 25 hours.

Here's something coming up!


It’s not hard to start seeds.  I’ve been doing it for a few years now and have always been pleased with the results.  It’s much more affordable than buying plants at the garden center, and there is no limit to the varieties I can grow when I start the seeds myself.  I’m not limited by what a store may have in stock.

It’s certainly possible to be a lot more scientific about this process.  That’s just not me though.  I do this by look and feel and rarely consult the numbers.  I don’t really know what the temperature is in my bathroom or how many days it takes for seeds to germinate.  I don’t really care.  (Sorry!)  If they come up, I’m happy.  I move them to bigger pots as needed and when the weather feels good, I put them outside.  I guess this goes to prove that it’s really not that complicated to grow things at home!  I just follow the directions and that seems to work.

Now, I can’t wait to get everything outside and out of my dining area.  But for at least the next 6 weeks, the seedlings and I will just be hanging out waiting for the earth outside to come alive again. 

I just finished reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and want to share this passage in which Dickon describes Spring:

“Just listen to them birds—th’ world seems full of ’em—all whistlin’ an’ pipin’,” he said. “Look at ’em dartin’ about, an’ hearken at ’em callin’ to each other. Come springtime seems like as if all th’ world’s callin’. The leaves is uncurlin’ so you can see ’em—an’, my word, th’ nice smells there is about!” sniffing with his happy turned-up nose.”

Now isn’t that nice?  It’s almost here!