Sunday, March 29, 2015

Spring at an Urban Homestead; A Soup for the Season

It's all about keeping warm right now!
It's a busy time of the year here at our Homestead.  In order to have the kind of yields we want to provide a good portion of our produce for the coming months, we have had to get growing, late Spring be damned!  I can't say enough about the value of having a cold frame or a similar structure - it does allow you to get an early start, especially on spring crops like lettuces, hearty greens, parsley, arugula, carrots and radishes.  We grow almost everything from seed - many of those seeds are Heirloom so they take a bit of time to get going.  Plus, around our home, salads fresh from our garden are at the top of the favorites list.  So what if we have to wait awhile to add our tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers?  Great mixed greens, sliced radishes, peppery arugula, and sliced carrots with a delicious vinaigrette and maybe a fresh cheese make an outstanding Spring meal. Thus, we very motivated to get 'em growing!

We use a number of growing bed techniques, the planter pictured above will serve as the "official" cold frame and, as the weather warms, those lids will come off and be stored for the summer.  Along with the early crops that are in there now, there will be lots of eggplants and a mix of hot and sweet peppers planted there. Then there are our two small standing planters, pictured below.  The covered one holds our garlic (which will be harvested in July) and, as of last week, this planter has also been seeded with Swiss Chard.  The upper planter - slightly visible - will be the growing spot for two kinds of cucumbers - both eating and pickling.  The mesh is helpful in keeping local city critters from sampling seeds, digging, burying, etc.

Small Standing Planters
In addition to the standing planters we have a good sized built in herb garden where we grow, not only herbs (I've scaled down over the years to putting in lots of the herbs we really use, like basil, parsley, chives, mint, thyme, rosemary and sage instead of a wide array of herbs) but also snow peas, celery and sorrel.  This provides a nice balance in these particular beds and gives us fresh herbs for months, well into the Fall.

A section of the herb garden
As shown in the photo to the left, we are also using a mesh covering over our recently planted snow peas - just to be sure they don't get poached!  We had used two "potato growing sacks" (see below) for a couple of years for growing potatoes, but we have decided that we have access to great potatoes from local growers and that we would use the sacks for carrots and two kinds of radishes instead - at least in the early part of the season.  Now that they are seeded, we have been covering the sacks over night to hold some heat in, but carrots and radishes are early seeds that will germinate as low as 40 degrees. This year our Spring has been late to consistently show its face so, in my opinion, better to be safe than sorry and risk a successful crop.

Former Potato Sacks of Carrots & Radishes

We are currently putting in two new planters and, as we finish them up, and get them started,  I will show them in another Blog post.  I am very excited about even more growing room, of course. And, of course, there are large tomato pots with cages to be set up, and peppers, eggplants, okra and squash to be planted.  For most growers I know it's hard to have patience, but this recent weather is really testing the limits of that patience!

So, right now.  We are working hard - more with cleaning and covering and uncovering and building and moving things around.  Right now, there's no end of the work day "hanging out in the garden" and enjoying it - It's too cold by the time we get the work done.  But we know we'll be doing just that very soon! 

In my next Blog I will also report about our experiences having a Rain Barrel installed by a great project in our city!  Very proud of the program, our participation in it,  and the fact that we will be getting some watering and cleaning water directly from our roof!

Recipe:  Swiss Chard and Egg Soup (Adapted from a recipe in Fine Cooking Feb/March 2015)

If you love Chard and, especially if you also grow it, you know how prolific it is and how you are always looking for ways to use it.  This soup is deceptively rich, but not too rich for a first course at a Spring dinner.  The combination of the greens, fresh lemon juice, stock & eggs, topped off by some really good croutons will have you coming back for a second bowl.  As always, we played with the original recipe.  We had a big bunch of Swiss Chard; the original recipe used Escarole.  The original also used sun dried tomatoes as an optional garnish.  We left those out. And, in addition, we invented something we are calling "Dry Pesto", which we sprinkled over each bowl at service - much like a gremolata.  Playing with your food is what makes it fun, so make this recipe yours.


3 slices of a good rustic bread, cut into 3/4 inch cubes, about 3 cups (I used our leftover homemade bread)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 good sized shallots, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
4 cups Swiss Chard, stems included, coarsely chopped
1 quart low salt chicken stock
3 large eggs
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (none of the bottled stuff here!)

Good Extra Virgin Olive Oil for swirling onto the soup at service

"Dry Pesto" - mix equal parts chopped fresh basil and grated parmesan cheese tossed with about half as much chopped pine nuts and one large chopped garlic clove


Heat the oven to 450 degrees and on a rimmed baking sheet toss the bread cubes with 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread the cubes into a single layer and bake until the croutons are golden - about 8 minutes.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a 4 quart sauce pan over medium high heat.

Add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown about 4 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook, stirring until fragrant, just about 30 seconds
Add the chopped swiss chard - first the chopped stems for about 3 minutes and then the rest of the chopped Swiss Chard leaves and cook, stirring until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the chicken stock, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil
Remove the sauce pan from the heat.
Whisk the eggs with the lemon juice and whisk the mixture into the hot soup

At service, top each bowl with some of the Dry Pesto, 3 - 4 Croutons and a swirl of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Swiss Chard & Egg Soup

Enjoy! And plant something!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Great Tomato Products and a Family Owned Business! Recipe: Cream of Tomato Soup

Repack Whole Tomatoes

As anyone who's been reading these posts know I am continually promoting cooking and eating local, well raised, chemical free products.  And you've also seen often my support for family owned small farms and other businesses vs. big agriculture and factory farming.  I am very happy to present for your consideration one of those family businesses.

A little bit of background is in order. We "put up"/can tomatoes every Fall.  We make a lot of red gravy - as it's called in our neighborhood - as well as soups, and other dishes using flavorful tomatoes.  To supplement our larder, we have been buying canned tomatoes and paste from Italy.  Nothing wrong with them; they are fine tomatoes, but I have recently been introduced to great tomato products from a family owned and operated business just a few states over from my own - Red Gold.

Selita Reichart is the matriarch of the Red Gold company.  The company was founded in 1942. Selita  and her husband are the third generation owners of Red Gold and their two sons are being groomed to take over as the fourth generation.   The company's employee created mission statement is:  "To produce the freshest, best tasting tomato products in the world".

I have had the pleasure over the past few months to try Red Gold's products in a number of my favorite tomato based recipes and I am definitely going to be using them - as opposed to the imported tomato products - from now on.  I made red gravy, stewed tomatoes, chicken cacciatore, and cream of tomato soup (see recipe below) and I am very happy to recommend the Red Gold line of products.  The consumer brands from Red Gold include:  Red Gold, Redpak, Tuttorosso; and Sacramento.  For those of us on the east coast Tuttorosso and Redpak are very easy to find.  Their website is worth visiting, as well.  It is well maintained, friendly, interactive, and includes lots of recipes.  Check it out:, and please give the Red Gold products a try; I know that you will enjoy the tomatoes as much as you will enjoy supporting a family owned business!

Ready for Grilled Cheese!

Recipe:  Cream of Tomato Soup (Better than the red and white can!)


1 tablespoon of unsalted butter
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
Kosher Salt
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 pinch of red pepper flakes (optional, but it doesn't really impart "heat" as much as pick up the flavor)
1 Lg. can (28 ounces) of Redpak whole tomatoes, in their juices
1 1/2 cups of low salt chicken stock
1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Optional garnishes:  basil leaves, thyme, grated parmesan cheese


Over medium low heat, melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium saucepan
Add the diced onions and a large pinch of salt
Cook - and stir occasionally - until the onions soften, about 15 minutes (don't brown the onions)
Add the minced garlic and the red pepper flakes and cook for 5 - 7 minutes more, stir occasionally

Increase the heat to medium and add the can of whole tomatoes and their juices to the pan.  (TIP:  I use kitchen shears to chop the tomatoes a bit while they are still in the can - it gives you a bit of a head start on getting the tomatoes to break down. )
Crush the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon as you stir them around a bit.
Cook until the tomatoes are hot and are beginning to soften; about 10 - 15 minutes
Add the chicken stock to the pan, stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer
Cook at a medium simmer (not a boil) until the tomatoes are beginning to fall apart; about 15 minutes

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool slightly - for about 10 minutes
Using an immersion blender, puree' the soup until smooth. You can also blend the soup in batches in a blender, just be very careful - the liquid will still be hot.

(NOTE: some folks like a bit of a chunk, which is fine, but I like the soup to be as smooth as I can get it.  Memories of the red and white can!)

Return the pureed soup to low heat and gradually stir in the cream.  Add freshly ground black pepper and taste to adjust the seasonings.   Serve with your garnish of choice.  (NOTE:  I never use any garnish; I usually have this with a basic grilled cheese sandwich, which I occasionally dip into the soup.  Just like my Grannie used to make it for me!)