This summer marked the planting of our first garden. As a long-time city girl, I never envisioned that I’d be planting a garden, nurturing the plants, and feasting on the bounty. However, living and eating in both country and city over the years has changed my vision of how we cook and eat. Both my fiancé and I wanted to grow our own organic produce and eat food that we oversaw the production of.
And it was fun! Each day, we inspected the garden, marveling at new growth and daily changes. We grew cucumbers, green peppers, two varieties of tomatoes, basil, cilantro, parsley, chives, corn, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, watermelon, and cantaloupe.
During our first gardening adventure, we also learned many lessons. We called our first garden “The Experiment” and wanted this experience to be one that both yielded delicious fruits and vegetables but also lessons on what we should do differently next year. With the heavy rains that we’ve had in our region of the country, our gardening season is quickly rolling to a close, and we’re now reflecting on what lessons and successes we had this year. I wanted to share our gardening reflections of the year.
Research plant yields and plant what you need. We were incredibly enthusiastic about our garden, and we purchased and planted numerous organic plants and seeds. The results: In some cases, we grew too much! We had more cucumbers, for example, than we could reasonably eat and give away. Our little family can only consume so many cucumber laden salads and sandwiches. Next year, we’re going to just plant what we need with some extra to share.
Berries grow together. We learned that if you plan to plant berries, plant multiple plants together. We grew blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. We had one raspberry bush and two blueberry bushes, and we found the pollinating works best when multiple bushes are grouped together for cross-pollination. In other words, berry bushes like to grow with friends. With only two blueberry bushes and one raspberry bush, we lacked the advantage of cross-pollinating. Next year, we plan to add some more bushes.
Share the bounty. We didn’t grow all the vegetables we love. In our first year of gardening, for example, we decided to avoid root vegetables. We wanted to start with produce that we could see and easily gauge the growth of. We’re fortunate that our neighbors garden as well, and we found that sharing the bounty was a big part of having a great gardening year. We gave neighbors cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, and tomatoes, and in return, we receiving zucchini, squash, carrots, and other tomato varieties. Gardening is only made better with a communal approach, and both the sharing and receiving of vegetables and fruits made this year even better.
Plant some flowers. Flowers are beautiful and add color to the garden. In the case of marigolds, they have an added benefit. The pungent scent of marigolds detract from animal presence in the garden. In our area, there’s an abundance of deer, and deer love some good garden munchies. We, like our neighbors, planted marigolds near and around the garden area, and we found no evidence of animal meandering in our garden. Plus, marigold seed is incredibly inexpensive.
Love the bees. We learned quickly not to do anything in the pursuit of insect elimination that would detract from bees hanging out in our garden. We learned that our garden needed to be an area frequently visited by bees. Initially, we applied a natural Chrysanthemum solution to detract from the other insects and realized that we were chasing away the bees. Without bees, your garden is doing to be disappointing in terms of its vegetable and fruit yield. We quickly changed our ways.
Plants need space. We scoffed at the notion that we should plant various plants with certain space between them. Space was a premium in the way we chose to organize our garden. So, we planted as we chose, casting aside this advice. While this served us well in some cases, it didn’t in others. For example, our melons should have had more space, and we wonder if perhaps our melons would have grown larger if greater space had been given.
Above all, have fun! Our first garden was a team effort that we both enjoyed. Sure, some of first watermelons were the size of baseballs, but we remained positive and diligent in nurturing our garden. This was an experiment in learning, and we took any plunders in stride. We enjoyed watching the growth and learning what to do differently next year. It was a project that we gained perspective from, with lots of joy and frustrations along the way. Planting and maintaining was fun for us, and we plan to do this year after year, learning lessons along the way.
When I watched the movement to grow your own food grow, I always thought it was a nice idea. I made conscious efforts to seek out more farmer’s markets and local sources for my produce, but I admit that I always discounted the idea of growing my own food. Until this summer. I found that the garden was incredibly rewarding, and there was something incredibly satisfying about putting my own homegrown basil in my pesto, my own watermelon on my tongue. It’s been an incredible experience.
Despite the fact that we live in a more rural area, we executed our garden in a more urban farm style. We used lots of containers and only small areas of the yard for planting. So, whether you live in an area where cows and deer are aplenty or a concrete jungle, you, too, can grow your food and taste the bounty of your nurturing in every bite. I recommend this for anyone, whether you’re growing in the yard or in pots on the porch. Growing your food is a rewarding project that is fun and a better alternative to the grocery. A garden allows you to connect your food from seed to salad, and there’s something beautiful in that process that is missed when you grab the cellophane version at the corner market.
We’ve been spending lots of time in our garden this summer. If you follow my Instagram feed, you’ve been seeing lots of green and a variety of colored, lush bounty. This is our first year as urban farmers, and we’re having so much fun! And with all the fresh, organic produce filling our freezer and refrigerator, I’ve been making more smoothie concoctions than I ever thought possible. (Cucumbers in a smoothie? Yum!)
We planted and have grown a number of berries, including blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. In the field behind our home, blackberries grow wild along the treelines on either side, and it’s been a longstanding tradition for us to gather them in mass, filling the freezer with bags of dark purple. Last year, I was baking pies mostly with these beautiful berries, but this year, I’m focusing on making cool, refreshing drinks with them instead.
With four different types of berries in my freezer, the decision was simple – use them all! And the combination of these four berries with almond milk is a treat not to be missed. This smoothie has a strong fruity flavor not overpowered by the inclusion of almond milk. I’ve found in other smoothies I’ve sipped that the flavor of the fruit is overpowered by the creaminess of the milk included, making it more like a milkshake than a smoothie.
In this smoothie, however, it’s all about the fruit.
Aside from creating fun drinks from my seemingly endless stream of berries, I like making my own smoothies because I get to control the amount of sugar in them. When you drop by your favorite cafe to get a cool smoothie, you’re likely taking in more than 30 grams of added sugar. However, when you make your own, you get to make that decision for yourself. Personally, I enjoy my smoothies with just a bit of honey and allowing the fruit to add the rest of the sweetness. Fruit is naturally sweet, and I like it served that way.
Whether you get your fruit from the garden, the farmer’s market, or the grocery, I highly recommend organic produce. My argument doesn’t center around pesticides or health. I make this statement purely on the basis of taste. Organic fruit just tastes better. Try a conventionally grown strawberry and an organic strawberry. That’s all the proof you need of what adds up to a better, sweeter berry. And this smoothie is far more flavorful and sweet with organic fruit. You’ll need far less sweetener when you opt for organic.
Enjoy my berry bounty smoothies for two – a sweet and refreshing celebration of the four best summer berries all in one glass!
Berry Bounty Smoothies
Makes two smoothies
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- 1 cup frozen blackberries
- 1/2 cup frozen blueberries
- 1/4 cup frozen raspberries
- 1 tablespoon flax seeds
- 1 cup chilled almond milk
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Combine all the ingredients in your blender. Pulse until fully combined and smooth. Use a spatula to redistribute the mixture as necessary for a perfect blend.
- Serve in chilled glasses with a straw and a smile.
Summer is here, folks.
I doubt that’s any sort of news flash for you. Your T-shirt has already begun to stick to your body; the beach is beckoning your name. Hello, summer. We missed you. Kind of.
I’m always looking for new ways to cool off during the hot Virginia summer days in the 80 and 90 degree range. One of my favorites: pops! They are cool, refreshing, fruity, and for me, they make a great way to use sliced melon and berries.
We’ve been busy, busy in the garden over the past few weeks, and one of my favorite crops from our urban farm is the raspberries. Juicy, sweet – in a word, perfect. I eagerly awaited the debut of the berries, and now, they’re here and ready for cool classics and new recipes. Muffins, smoothies, pops – I use berries in all my kitchen adventures.
The recipe I’m featuring today is one of my summer favorites. It’s essentially a smoothie on a stick. Made up of whole milk, fresh melon and berries, and sugar, it’s delicious, refreshing, and packed with nutrients and some protein. Sure, it has sugar, but the amount is far less than you would find in a supermarket popsicle or a smoothie from your favorite drink spot. My fella even loves these, and he is not a raspberry fan as a general rule. I couldn’t pry this pop from his fingers!
The combination of honeydew and raspberries is sheer perfection. Honeydew is sweet with a mild flavor, and the combination of raspberries brings a bold tang. Fruity harmony. And the beauty of an urban garden like mine is that you can combine your favorites from the garden with organic fruits at the local grocery.
These pops are incredibly easy to make. Popsicle molds, a food processor or blender, four ingredients, and you’re ready to go.
Honeydew + Raspberry Smoothie Pops
Makes six, 4-ounce pops
- 2 1/2 cups honeydew, sliced
- 2 1/2 cups raspberries
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- Place 1/2 cup of raspberries aside. Combine all other ingredients in your blender or food processor and pulse for one minute.
- Using your popsicle molds, fill each mold with mixture to 1/3 full. Then, drop two to three raspberries into the mold. Fill another third and repeat. Then, fill to the top with the mixture.
- Insert popsicle sticks and place in freezer for a minimum of four to six hours. Once thoroughly frozen, enjoy!
Tip: Depending on the size of your mold, you may have some of the mixture left. It makes a delicious smoothie to enjoy while you wait on your pops to freeze! Also, another trick, to get your pops free from the mold, run the mold under warm water for approximately 20 seconds. That should loosen your pop and make it easy to remove.
Ice cream is the edible staple of summer.
At my house, we’ve been toiling away at our first organic garden. And like any adventure we embark on, we went all in. We are growing a plethora of fruits and vegetables, tending them daily and watching the bountiful magic happen. With the garden variety of plants we’re growing, one crop is the most plentiful: strawberries. So many strawberry plants and so many berries! With each pint, I grow more astounded – and more inspired.
From the onset of our organic gardening adventure, I knew one sweet fate of the strawberries: ice cream.
I make ice cream every summer. As I always say, anything made at home versus in commercial production is always best, and ice cream is no exception. The combination of my homegrown, organic strawberries with local cream and milk yields a final result that is nothing short of heavenly.
Cream is foundation of any ice cream, and I always look for the best, local dairy products I can find. In the western portion of Virginia, there’s none better than Homestead Creamery. The milk and cream come from two local farms and is always free of antibiotics and hormones. It’s also sold in glass bottles that keep the product fresher longer and makes me feel like I’m experiencing an age long gone when milk wasn’t packaged in plastic or cardboard. The inclusion of this locally sourced milk and cream means that I get a fresher, more robust ice cream, and I can take pride in supporting my local economy.
When locally sourced ingredients combine with fruit fresh from the garden, magic happens.
This ice cream is best when you hit the farmer’s market or your garden for the ingredients. However, where you choose to grab your berries and cream is up to you. That’s the beauty of making your own food in the kitchen – you’re in control!
Making ice cream from your kitchen is fun and rewarding. This recipe is simple, and with a few steps, you have ice cream that you can share – or keep all for yourself! – that truly has your stamp on it. Strawberry ice cream is the taste that spells summer to me, far more than any other flavor. No chocolate or tropical flavors could better usher in summer than a big bowl of strawberry ice cream. Enjoy this cool taste of summer from my kitchen to yours.
Sweet Strawberry Ice Cream
Makes four servings
- 1 1/2 pints frozen strawberries, thawed
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup sugar or granulated sweetener
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- First, remove any stems from your thawed strawberries. Place them in a food processor and pulse for 30 – 45 seconds. The mixture should be smooth and yield 1 1/2 cups. Cover and place in the refrigerator.
- In a large saucepan, combine milk and vanilla paste. Bring to a simmer. Stir frequently for 10 minutes or until the vanilla paste is fully incorporated and remove from heat.
- In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar or sweetener. Mix until thick and pale. Slowly stir the mixture into the saucepan of warm milk. On low heat, cook while stirring constantly. The mixture is ready to be removed when it coats the spoon or when your cooking thermometer reads 185 degrees.
- Remove the sauce pot from heat. Using a sieve, drain the liquid mixture into a separate container. Allow the custard mixture to cool completely, stirring occasionally. Once it reaches room temperature, cover and place in the refrigerator for a minimum of three hours and thoroughly chilled.
- Once your custard is chilled, combine with heavy cream and your processed strawberries. Mix well.
- Pour the mixture into your ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. Place in the freezer in an airtight container for a minimum of two hours additional freezing.
I often use Splenda in this recipe in place of sugar and have found that I achieve perfect results. Also, fresh strawberries can also be used in this recipe – simply refrigerate longer after processing. I have found, however, that using frozen berries improves the overall texture.
I’ve never visited a home that didn’t have a jar of peanut butter hidden in the cupboard. Peanut butter is as rooted in Americana as hot dogs and hamburgers. That creamy, peanut-packed taste has long had its grips on our nation.
And my home is no exception with one significant difference – I don’t buy peanut butter.
Sure, the national brands of mass produced peanut butter make a tasty product that was the basis of many PB&J sandwiches in my childhood, but it doesn’t compare to the taste and texture of homemade peanut butter. This nut spread when made at home has a pleasant, whipped texture and an essence of freshness all its own. Not to mention the absence of weird additives that are difficult to pronounce and added sugar. Diglycerides?
The best part: Making peanut butter at home is simple. It’s almost as simple as reaching for it on the shelf at the grocery store. It is little more than grinding the nuts in your food processor. Making your own peanut butter puts you in command! Not only do you get to decide if you want added sugar – it tastes great without it, if you ask me – but you also get to choose everything that goes in.
Honey adds the perfect note of delicious, natural sweetness to this spread. The honey adds enough sweetness that I tend to skip the jellies and jams. (Maple syrup is a great sweetener here, too! I love using it instead of honey during the fall months.) I use this peanut butter in my recipes, too. Remember my Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Doughnuts? Homemade peanut butter really gave these doughnuts a delectable flavor.
So, how do you make your own peanut butter? Simple. Start with your food processor and add your peanuts. I use organic peanuts I pick up at the local specialty grocery because I find the flavor to be richer using them. (And I still end up spending less than I would on a jar of peanut butter!) Process the peanuts for about two to three minutes until smooth. Peanuts are a very soft nut, making the process a quick one. It will look like this:
I use around three cups of peanuts, which yields approximately eight ounces of peanut butter. Once your peanuts have formed that creamy spread we all know and love, add your honey. Two tablespoons will do the trick. Also, add 1/4 teaspoon sea salt.
Using a spatula, incorporate the honey and sea salt thoroughly into the peanut butter. You can also pulse for 15 seconds more to blend.
And there you have it: rich, sweet peanut butter ready for your favorite recipe, on crackers, or in a sandwich. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it is on wheat bread with some fresh blueberries.
Creamy Honey Peanut Butter
Makes approximately eight ounces
- 3 cups organic peanuts
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons organic honey
- Place peanuts in your food processor. Pulse for two to three minutes or until smooth. Stop once during the process and stir any excess from the sides.
- Once smooth, add the honey. Then, using a spatula or wooden spoon, mix the honey thoroughly into the peanut butter. If needed, pulse for an additional 15 seconds to incorporate.
- Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container. The peanut butter will stay fresh for an average of three months. Remove from refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature before spreading.
When I think of fun, quick breads, I typically think of fall, but recently, I’ve been working on recipes for breads that have a distinctively spring and summer taste. More and more, I have occasions to share foods with others – potlucks, birthdays, and other special events – and it’s always wonderful to have more than a pumpkin loaf or banana bread recipe on hand (although I do have and love those – here and here) for those moments when neither seems to fit.
Enter my Blueberry Vanilla Bread. It combines that warm, full taste of a great quick bread with the sweet, fruity taste we associate with the warmer months.
I take recipe inspiration from everywhere I go. A couple of weekends ago, my fella and I took the dogs to the lake, a last visit to a beloved spot for our older dog, Doggie, who has now passed away from cancer. During that trip, as the dogs rested from a big day romping in the lake, we stopped by an old country store. When I entered, my nostrils were immediately filled with the scent of baked goods fresh from the oven. I beheld pies aplenty, fried hand pies, and breads. I began looking around, asking the in-house baker about her bounty and admiring her breads. Chocolate, cherry, blueberry – she had it all. And I thought, “I want to make a berry bread!”
The idea was remained freshly in my mind for days afterword as I began testing recipe ideas. Fortunately, quick breads are one of my favorites and something I’ve always found myself at ease with baking. After a couple of attempts, I nailed the recipe – a bread bursting with blueberries and rich vanilla flavor.
The following weekend, we took a loaf as part of a picnic by a stream. It was perfect – warm bread wrapped tightly in a cloth with just a hint of butter smeared over its berry bursting exterior. Perfection. I had to share this one with you so that you, too, could have a slab of perfection.
If blueberries aren’t your forte, I suggest using blackberries instead. Raspberries, however, tend to get just a bit too broken down by the baking of this bread. Also, I included one of my favorite and frequently used ingredients in this recipe: vanilla paste. It delivers a rich vanilla flavor that far exceeds that of vanilla extract. You can find it at your local speciality grocery (think Whole Foods or The Fresh Market) or order online. It will really amp up the flavor of breads, cookies, and cupcakes.
Blueberry Vanilla Bread
Makes one 9×5 inch loaf
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed and leveled
- 1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla paste
- 2 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
- Baking spray
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Using a sifter, combine and sift flour, baking powder, sea salt, and sugar. Pour sifted dry mixture into the bowl of your standing mixer.
- Using your paddle attachment on a low setting, combine butter pieces into the dry mixture until well combined. You should see small pieces of butter in the mixture.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, and vanilla paste until well combined. Add blueberries.
- Add the mixture to the dry ingredients on a medium setting. Blend until just combined.
- Spray your 9×5 loaf pan thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the pan, ensuring that it evenly covers the cavity.
- Bake for approximately 70 minutes or until a toothpick can be inserted and removed clean.
Spring is a time for gardening, outdoor picnics, and, of course, honey. Lots and lots of honey.
Tupelo Honey Cafe is one of my top five favorite restaurants. I’ve visited their cafes in Asheville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, and each time I have a meal at one of these locations, I fall in love more and more. During a visit to the Knoxville cafe, I picked up a bottle of their signature Tupelo honey. Sweet, rich – it is impossible to resist. I had one mission in mind: I want to bake something delicious using this honey.
Weeks went by, and I hadn’t quite identified what I wanted to do with this honey. Sure, I’d slathered it over biscuits, but what would I bake with it? And soon, I found inspiration in one of my most recently acquired cookbooks, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book.
This cookbook debuted in October 2013, and I ordered a copy around the holidays. The book, written by the baking sisters behind the much renowned Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Shop, is incredibly unique, with innovative, seasonally centered pie recipes and beautiful photography. There is no pie book out there quite like this one in terms of beauty, originality, and adaptiveness to the at-home baker. It is a gem. Seeking inspiration, I consulted this book and came across the spring recipe for Lavender Honey Custard Pie. I was immediately hooked and set in my mission – to adapt this pie recipe into two tarts using my own crust and nixing the lavender. (We aren’t lavender folk here.) Also, I didn’t want to use a floral honey, such as orange blossom or linden. I wanted Tupelo honey taking center stage in my tart.
From this book, I applied the Elsen sisters’ technique for pre-baking crust for a liquid filling (so helpful!) and the custard recipe, with a few minor changes. I did not use their crust recipe but employed my own, self-developed, tried-and-true crust. The buttery crust I know and love. The crust that’s following be through Blueberry-Blackberry Pie, Apple Pear Tartlets, and Dark Chocolate Pecan Pie Tarts.
And the result: a sweet celebration for your mouth! Sweet, rich honey custard meets a buttery pie crust in perfect harmony. This recipe makes two 5-inch tarts. Each tart will create four small servings or a large serving for two.
This tart truly is an ode to spring. It’s light and creamy, and when I took my first bite, I was immediately transported to my younger years of gathering honeysuckles in the backyard. And as I always say, the best baking involves just a hint of nostalgia. This tart delivers that – perfect to serve to family and friends or serve at a potluck or picnic. Since these tarts are perfect for a large, indulgent dessert for two, I served one with a spring night grilled dinner outside and another on a picnic at the lake.
Tupelo Honey Custard Tart
Inspired and adapted from The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, Lavender Honey Custard Pie
Makes two, 5-inch tarts; serves four to eight
- 2 1/2 cups organic flour
- 1 1/4 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
- 1/2 cup ice water
- 1 cup unsalted butter – should be well chilled and and cut into small squares
- Egg wash – one beaten egg white with one teaspoon water
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 tablespoon white cornmeal
- 1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2/3 cup Tupelo honey
- 3 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- Combine flour, salt, and butter in your standing mixer using the paddle attachment. Mix until well blended, approximately one minute. Gradually add the ice water until just combined. Be careful not to over mix. You will see small dots of butter in the mixture.
- Remove dough from mixer. Blend together with your hands. Separate the dough into two balls – one for each tart. Prepare two 4-inch tart pans by spraying inner cavity with baking spray. Use your fingers to spread the spray around the cavity and be sure the the surface is fully covered.
- One at a time, roll each ball into a circular shape. The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick. Place each area of rolled dough into the two prepared tart pans. Press in firmly. Remove and discard any excess dough.
- Place the tart pans in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
- Once the crusts are chilled, move to the freezer for 10 minutes. Then, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and place a baking sheet in the oven through the preheating.
- Once the tart pans are frozen, remove from the freezer and apply a single sheet of aluminum foil over the top of each pan. Press the foil in around all areas of the crust, ensuring that it adheres. Be sure the edges are also covered. Then, fill the aluminum covered crusts with pie weights, focusing on the edges of the crust. (If you don’t have pie weights, I recommend using dry pinto beans instead.) This weight simulates the presence of the pie filling for the pre-baking of the crust.
- Place the tart pans on the preheated baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. The crust should be set but not browned.
- Remove the crust from the oven and remove the aluminum foil and pie weights or beans. Allow the crust to cool for two minutes. Then, return to the oven for two minutes uncovered. After time has elapsed, remove the crust from the oven and allow to cool completely.
- While the crust is cooling, begin your custard. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, salt, and cornmeal. Whisk the melted butter into the dry ingredients and follow with the honey. Once these ingredients are well combined, the eggs and egg yolk should be added one at a time and whisking well with each addition. Add heavy cream and lemon juice. Combine well.
- Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the mixture directly into the cooled tart crusts, filling until almost full, leaving very little room at the top. (No need to account for expansion.) Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 30 – 40 minutes. The pie is finished when the edges are set and slightly puffy. The center will not longer be liquid but will have a wobbly effect.
- Allow the tarts to cool for approximately one hour. Then, gently remove from the tart pans and allow additional cooling. This pie can be served slightly warm or cool. I recommend fully cooled for the best taste and texture.