Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A laid-back family fish fry

Last night we had an old-fashioned fish fry. It wasn't really that old-fashioned but the concept of having a fish fry is old fashioned. You could say it was also our second annual fish fry because we had a very similar one last year about this time and we were all looking forward to it.

It was so nice. I think it would make a wonderful July 4th event -- a nice departure from grilled burgers.

My husband and sister caught all the fish. We used vegetables from our garden to make it extra tasty and we just had so much fun.

I think the thing I really enjoyed was that we really didn't even try to make it fancy. We just got everything together, cooked it and spent most of our time savoring the food and enjoying each others company.

This was our menu:

Fish, of course. Ours was mostly bass, and fried up golden brown in a fish fryer.

We also had grilled fish. That wasn't exactly old fashioned but sometimes my mom has problems with her digestive tract and fried fish can cause problems. My husband, "the family griller," put down tin foil, sprayed it with PAM and then grilled the fish on top of the foil. He then added salt and pepper. It was quick and easy.

Hush puppies are a must. My sister mixes this up and uses slaw in the batter to give it a great flavor.

We made oven fries. Always good, less fat. Pan fried okra was also a big hit. It is one of the best treats of summer, in my opinion.

And of course, corn, the first corn from our garden this year. We grilled it and it was very tasty.

Perhaps the best thing was the slaw.

We used cabbage, carrots and onions from our garden and used my sister's special ingredients: Duke's mayonnaise, vinegar, sweetener, salt and pepper. She makes the best slaw.

I also served sliced tomatoes and onions and forgot to get out the cucumbers, but no one complained.

We had ice cream and lemon bars for dessert but who could eat dessert with so much good food around.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Digging new potatoes

Before we could plant our new squash seeds, we had to do a little housecleaning in our garden. One of those chores was digging up some of our potatoes. The vines have all but completely died down on our red potatoes and digging them up to make room for the squash seeds was the logical step to free up space that wasn't begin utilized for something else. The hot weather caused the potato vines to wilt pretty quickly.

Don't you just love how the potatoes cluster around the plant's roots? I don't see many plants that have that feature.

We have been digging potatoes, one vine at a time, to cook the with our vegetables. Digging them up isn't a hard thing to do. Just dig straight down around the potato "hills" and use the shovel as a lever to "pry" the potatoes out of the ground. You can then come behind and pick up the potatoes. If you dig too close, you will probably dig right into a tender potato.

It's not hard to do and I think it is nice to gather your potatoes, wash them and store them in a nice cool place.

I don't know exactly how many potatoes we grew. We kept around thirty pounds, my sister kept some and we gave some away, too.  Potatoes store well in a dark, dry environment. Mine are still sitting in the bucket waiting for me to clean them. That is one thing I like about growing potatoes. They need attention, but not immediately. You can leave them in the ground for awhile and dig them up as you need them. If you dig them, they are easily stored.

Our first meal with the new potatoes -- delicious oven fries, but they are good baked or boiled on food, like green beans. Looks like I might have to come up with a few more recipes for red potatoes, though.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Squash and pests

Last week was quite a week in the garden. Besides not getting any rain, we have had a fungus on our squash and an invasion of squash vine borers. I guess problems of this kind seem to creep up on you. The fungus we found we could handle pretty easily. The squash vine borers have really taken their toll.

We sprayed for the fungus with Organicide and the fungus is much better. It became a problem because of the hot and humid weather and that seemed to be getting better. Then we noticed a different problem. Some of the vines seemed to be just turning over and wilting.

At first, we decided it was just the fungus but as we read more about the problem, we realized that while the fungus was a problem, the real problem was squash vine borers. Many of the vines had small holes, cracks and sometimes a brown crusty substance that I later found was the waste of the vine borer as they traveled through the hollow stems. It was kind of horrible, and fascinating, at the same time. I felt like it was invasion of the body snatchers, but in the insect world.

So, my sister and I sat in the garden slitting the vines with a sharp knife and pulling out the invading worms. I will tell you that every worm I pulled from the vines didn't make it out alive. I wasn't about to give them the opportunity to go back to the vines or form a cocoon to come back and attack my next year's crop.

It took me hours, and some of the plants look pretty good, and then others look almost dead.

I think so many people get discouraged when something like this happens and just give up. I am disappointed, but I think planting more squash and watching them more carefully and washing with insecticidal soap. I know we need more squash so I have no choice but to keep on trying.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Layered salads = a nice, healthy lunch

Since I have been getting plenty of nice summer vegetables I have enjoyed making layered salads to take to work for lunch. They are filling, taste good, not to mention they are pretty.

My recipe is pretty simple: Chop up the fresh vegetables, layer them and a little balsamic vinegar on top and enjoy.

My favorite? Layer is with the following: Rice, beans (any kind but my favorite is either lentils or white kidney beans, over this I put salt and pepper, a layer of tomatoes, onions, chopped kale or spinach, chopped yellow squash and finally lots of chopped cucumbers, top with a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (I only used the kind that is imported from Italy). I often add a little more salt and pepper on top.

I like to put this in a bag that has a lining to keep foods cool with an ice pack and I am ready to travel. I also like to put in a "real" fork and spoon, paper towels and a wet wipe to clean my hands. If you want, freeze a bottle of water and put that in the bag. By lunchtime, the water will melt and you will have cold water and a cold salad! Be sure to put the water into a plastic baggie first or you will have wet paper towels in the bag. Add a piece of fruit and you have a healthy feast.

What do you think?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Octopus cake sculpture directions

Because my computer is finally fixed, I can post the directions for the recent octopus cake, as I promised. The photo above shows the finished project. It takes three recipes of frosting (recipe follows the cake directions) to make this cake.

I mixed up a double batch of cake batter, baking a 12 inch round and an 8 inch round. I added more batter than usual so that the 8 inch round was thicker than usual. Cake is easier to work with when it is baked at least a day ahead. I didn't give a recipe for this cake. I used a yellow cake recipe.

I centered a nine inch cake pan on top of the 12 inch round, then cut two inches from the 12 inch layer, using a sharp knife. I am left with a ten inch round. The dotted line illustrates how to cut the outside of the ring. Set the "ring" of cake aside. It will be used later. Place the 9 inch round on a cake base. I purchased a large round cake base, but you could make one from several pieces of cardboard stacked together and covered over with tin foil. Place the 9 inch round on the center of the cake base. Use frosting to frost this layer and set aside.

Make a double recipe of frosting. This will make plenty to cover the entire cake and use for "mortar."  I never add food coloring in the first layer of frosting. It is always white. I just hate all the food coloring so I save it for the top layer of frosting.

Cut the 8 inch round in half, diagonally. You will have two 8 inch rounds. One of the rounds is the base for the octopus and the other will be used to complete the head. Place the base on top of the frosted 9 inch layer and frost that layer, then set aside.

Slice the remaining 8 inch cake half horizontally.

Set the pieces up as shown above, then slice off the sides. You will have two center pieces that will make up the center of the cake and four pieces that you will use to put together on each side. This will be centered on top of the layers that are frosted and set aside. See the diagram below.

Frost the top of the cake. Use the frosting like mortar. Use the frosting to "stick" everything together. Then frost the top of the cake. It will just look like a mound. See the top photo.

Cut the leftover round cut from the 12 inch cake to make the legs. Cut eight equal pieces and then cut those pieces in half.

Assemble the legs as shown above spacing the legs equally around the sides. I did leave a little space on the front of the cake. It would be easier to place the bottom of the legs first around the cake, frost and then put the tops of the legs on. Ideally the bottom parts of the legs will help to support the legs. You may also need to insert small dowels into each leg at a 45 degree angle. I used small skewers in this cake. You will have to take care when cutting the cake but the dowels really help to hold the cake together, especially if you need to move the cake.

I hope the diagram, above, is useful. Use the frosting as mortar and cover everything on the cake. If you have trouble with the frosting, consider piping the frosting on and then smoothing with a spatula.

Make sure all of the cake is covered well with frosting.

Crush vanilla wafers for the sand. You can also use graham crackers for sand but the vanilla wafers really taste better, according to my husband.

Make another batch of frosting. Put some of the frosting aside to use for the orange mouth and suction cups and the white eyes. The pupils of the eyes are purple.

You will use vanilla wafers for the sand. Carefully pour spoonfuls of "sand" onto the spaces between the legs and press the crumbs in. Do this before piping on the purple frosting so you can cover over any "sand" mistakes.

Add purple food coloring to the remaining frosting. Pipe the frosting on with a decorators bag and large round tip. Smooth on the frosting, covering over the white, with a spatula. Dip the spatula into cold water if the frosting sticks to the spatula.

Add the eyes, mouth and suckers around the bottom of the legs.

I hope you enjoy this cake sculpture. Email me at if you need to ask questions.

Whipped cream frosting for decorating

2-1/2 sticks of butter
1/4 cup whipping cream, add more (or less) until icing is the correct consistency, think mortar
3 boxes confectioner's sugar
2 tsp. vanilla flavoring
2 boxes Confectioner's sugar
Gel food colors (I use Wilton.)

Cream butter and add the flavoring. Slowly add confectioner's sugar and then the whipping cream in small bits until it is well mixed. If it gets too stiff, add more whipping cream and mix until it is smooth and creamy. (Don't add too much. On a humid day, less whipping cream will be needed. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Canning dill pickles for some very picky people

I have been looking at the piles of cucumbers in my refrigerator for days, just knowing they would not pickle themselves -- no matter how hard I wished for it. Yesterday, I finally got myself together enough to pickle fourteen quarts of dill pickles. 

I don't think you could put a lazy label on me, because I have been shopping since Saturday for dill seed and I have only found dill weed. I am just not happy with that. I finally broke down and bought some easy dill pickle spice packages. The only kind I found that I thought would please my picky family was Mrs. Wages Dill Pickles. It is a short cut but it has the turmeric, ground dill and other spices in it and all I add is vinegar and water.

I tried a packaged mix like this years ago and my family LOVED it. They really love dills. My husband also likes sweet pickles so I think I will try to make some of those, too. The only thing I don't like about sweet pickle recipes is having to soak the cucumbers for days in brine -- but at least these dills are easy, a one evening project.

I mixed white vinegar, water and the package of dill pickle spice mix, according to the package directions and brought it to a boil.

While I was doing this, I got my pan ready for the hot water bath. I didn't show it but there is a base inside to keep the glass  jars off the bottom. I don't fill the pan totally with water because I need room for adding the jars.

After the mix or brine boils, I ladle it into the jars, wash off the top, put a sterilized lid on the top and then cap with a ring.

I am then ready to put the jars in the hot water bath and cover with the lid. After it came to a boil, I timed it for 15 minutes.

Now I have dill pickles. I like slices. My husband likes whole pickles. My children don't care, just don't serve them a sweet pickle. I still have a pile of cucumbers, but it's not so large anymore and I think I feel a little better about myself.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Food preserving for dummies? I hope so.

Last weekend I made a trip to the store for some canning supplies. I bought some jars, lids, a funnel, a jar lifter, some Sure Jell and this book.

I really liked it because I haven't seen a good, up-to-date book on canning. I am sure they are out there but I haven't seen them. I really like all the color and the step-by-step directions -- with photos. I will admit, I am a visual person and I like to "see" something and not just have directions to follow, or figure out. For something like preserving food it is really important to know what you are doing because I want to feed my family healthy, canned food free from bacteria.

It is also filled with recipes for everything from tomato juice to fruit butters to savory spreads and relishes. I particularly like the section on jams and jellies.

It goes a little farther than just canning. There is a section on freezing,  dehydrating and also a trouble-shooting section that I may look at closely before I start to help prevent common mistakes.

All in all, I think I got my money's worth. I think I will get $5.95 worth of information. I also think it will give me some good ideas.

Of course it is a book produced by a company that makes and sells canning jars, so I know it will recommend  its products, but I think I am fine with that. I think it will make my canning more productive.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Easy cucumber soup

Have you ever been in your cucumber patch and found a cucumber that had been overlooked because it was hiding behind a big leaf or amidst tangled vines and only appeared after it was HUGE -- and pretty ugly, with large seeds and yellow skin? You know you can't use it as a slicer and it will make mushy pickles, so your only choice it to throw it away? Well I have time and again, but now I won't be so frustrated when I find the big ugly cucumber that looks to be past its prime.

I will turn that ugly cucumbers into cucumber soup. Perfect on a hot day, like the days we have recently experienced. This recipe is creamy and cool. It can make a great appetizer or a great accompaniment for a sandwich -- especially a tomato sandwich.

It's really easy, just take the ugly cucumber, peel it with a vegetable peeler, cut it into quarters. 

Take out the big seeds (they are probably bitter, and hard). 

Then, put it in the blender with a few ingredients. Whiz it until it is smooth, chill and enjoy it. I think it is yummy.

Here is the recipe:

Easy Cucumber Soup

2 large "ugly" cucumbers (peeled, seeds removed)
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup of raw spinach or kale
1/2 cup soy milk
1/2 large or 1 small tomato, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Put all into blender and whiz until all it smooth. Chill and serve.

It's the first day of summer! I hope you have a blessed day.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wild flowers

I sure do appreciate all the beautiful plants people plant each year in order to enhance the beauty of their property. It is a delight when I pass by and see them in all their splendor. I also appreciate the plants that just pop up with no planning (or work) -- the wild flowers and volunteer plants. These little beauties sprout up along roadsides and in empty fields and I get to enjoy them if I take the time to pay attention.

This butterfly weed is so bright and beautiful. I am glad I saw it. It was hiding among bushes and vines but the bright orange, showy flowers drew me over to take a look. I think it is actually a wild flower and relative of the milkweed but I also think there is a relative of this wild flower that is sold in nurseries. I can understand why a butterfly would be drawn to it. The color is brilliant.

I also enjoyed taking a closer look at these wild blackberry bushes. The blooms are gone and the berries are beginning to get ripe. I think there might have been a ripe blackberry, too, but I took the liberty of tasting it -- just to make sure it was good. I think I will have to start picking them next week. 

I think they are ripe a little early this year. I have noticed that the blackberries really do "hide" behind other bushes. They also have some of the worst briers I have ever seen. It is almost not worth picking them. If I didn't love them so much I wouldn't bother because they certainly do "bite" if you get tangled up in the branches. I love them when they are bright red -- the color of raspberries before they turn a rich black and become ripe and sweet. Birds will sometimes eat these berries but I think the briers are a deterrent to them, too.

There are so many other wild flowers I would love to see but I will have to wait until I have the time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Corn, hope and Hepburn

During this past week, our corn has grown exponentially. It was barely there, then it was sparse. We had to fill in with fresh seed and, finally, it began to grow. Now it is getting tall and doing much better. If it continues, our lower garden will be a huge success (at least compared to last year). You can see at the left that we also have a little squash there, too. We are so pleased. After last year, anything we harvest there would be a small improvement. This is a huge improvement. 

We have certainly tried, but I don't think we can take all the credit. I think the weather has been favorable. I think corn likes the recent warm weather, also the watering and nitrogen. See, it is "tasseling out" -- not a good technical term, but that is all I know to say about the stage it is in now.

You can see above, the little ears of corn that are beginning to form. Corn is probably every one's favorite summer garden vegetable, besides tomatoes. I can't wait until we grill it. It is the perfect way to serve corn -- on the cob, a little butter -- with dental floss handy for anyone who needs it.

I once read that Katherine Hepburn -- reportedly a great garden enthusiast -- was known to go into a corn field, pick, shuck and eat corn straight out of the garden. She said she loved it warm from the sun. I don't know if that story is true, but I love it and hope it is true. I don't think eating it raw is the best idea, but I can understand her enthusiasm for a good ear of corn.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Okra, a southern treat

We are beginning to have okra. I think it is coming in earlier than usual and I hope we have plenty of it. Most of our family members really love okra -- except for my son who really, really hates it -- but that must be an anomaly. It is a staple of the southern diet. 

I have rarely eaten at a "meat and three" in a southern town where one of the choices was not fried okra and fried okra is often served at our family reunions. One of my favorite vacation-spot resturants in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Lambert's, serves up dishes of fried okra as an appetizer. It is really good. I don't think people in the North have an appreciation for okra, but I think they don't know what they are missing.

Okra is from the mallow family and is a relative of cotton, cocoa and hibiscus. The flowers of the okra plant resemble a hibiscus flower and a long slender pod develops after the flower fades. These pods are often called Lady Fingers in other countries. Okra was introduced in the United States from Africa, most likely brought by slaves and has since been a favorite in the south.

Okra grows well in warm climates and is perfect for southern gardens. It can grow up to six feet in height and needs a good bit of room. We planted our okra in rows because it does tend to be a large plant. I have always planted Clemson Spineless okra because I have read it grows well in our climate, but there is a red variety that is supposed to turn green when cooked. I have never tried it.

Last year we, at first, didn't have a fence around our garden and found quickly that deer dearly love to eat okra plants. After we put up the fence, our okra did produce, but never looked as good as our okra looks this year. We are hoping to have a record crop. (Anything more than a little will be a record for us.)

Sometimes, when I pick the okra and rub up against the leaves, I break out in a mild, itchy rash that goes away as soon as I take a bath. I don't think I am allergic to it, I am just a little sensitive.

Pods should be picked while they are tender. If you wait until the pods are tough, they can be inedible and if you keep picking the pods while they are tender, you can have okra until frost.

One of the common complaints of okra-haters, like my son, is that it can be slimy. That can be true, especially if it is stewed in a little water. I think it is a texture issue and I am not bothered by okra even when stewed. I think when fried, it isn't slimy and in stews, I don't really think it is slimy. I think that the taste overcomes other objections.

We love to make a number of dishes that include okra. The first would, of course be the southern favorite, fried okra. It is simple to make. Just take sliced okra -- salt and pepper it -- then dredge it in flour. Some people like to use all-purpose, wheat flour and some a mixture of corn meal and wheat flour. I have used millet flower and that works really well. I was surprised it was good -- but happy to be able to use a gluten-free flour in my pan-fried okra. I use about a quarter cup of oil in the bottom of the pan and turn it pretty often until on medium high it is golden brown. It is more commonly deep fried, but I don't like that much oil in my okra.

Okra is great in soups and stews and I hope to have plenty of okra this year for just that purpose. I also would like to have enough okra to pickle.

At least I am not having to compete with the deer for the plants this year.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monogrammed gifts are a great idea

I apologize, but I have to postpone the cake sculpture diagram and recipe until tomorrow because of computer problems. My computer will be back from the shop any day now (It was supposed to be today!) and I will continue sharing my cake recipe and diagram. Instead I want to share about a nice gift I received.

My favorite "padfolio" was a gift I received for Mother's Day from my son, his wife and daughter. It is embroidered with my initial on the cloth cover surrounded by colorful polka dots. Inside it holds a nice legal pad, perfect for a person like me who loves to jot down notes. I just love this gift. In fact, I just love things that are monogrammed. I guess you can take it too far, but I wish I would think to give monogrammed gifts more often.

I can see this notebook for a small gift for the graduate or most anyone who needs to take notes or make lists. Isn't that everyone? OK, I can't see my husband liking this one, it might be a little too feminine, but he would like one with a simple (or no) pattern. He might even like a monogram. I don't know. But this is one of those great ideas I rarely think of in time to order it!

There are dozens of websites that feature monogrammed gifts and there are local stores that will monogram almost anything. You don't even have to buy it from them. Last year, I bought my mother a Vera Bradley bag and had it monogrammed. It was very pretty.

Have your college student's towels monogrammed so they will be easier to identify when they pack up to come home. It is hard to argue with someone if the towel obviously has your initials on it and I know towels make great monogrammed gifts.

I like to buy gym bags for students and have their initials monogrammed on. It is easier to identify the bags and it does add a certain value to almost any gift. It says you thought enough of someone to do a little extra. You might also think about buying monogrammed water bottles or backpacks.

The most unusual gift I have had monogrammed was golf balls. They add a little something extra and most companies do them for very little or for free. You can't confuse your ball with someone else's when your name it on it.

Note cards are always a good gift and you can find some beautifully monogrammed ones at almost any gift shop or online. The list could go on.

I hope to keep this in mind from now on. I owe my son and his family a big thank you for the idea.

Monday, June 14, 2010

An octopus cake for Eli

This weekend I attended a family birthday party for Eli, 5, who has quite an imagination. When we asked what kind of birthday cake he wanted, he said, "A purple octopus cake with an orange smile, because orange is my favorite color, and purple eyes with white behind them." My job was to make sure he got what he wanted.

I usually check on the Internet so I can get an idea about what I would like to do before beginning a cake sculpture like this one. I am not trying to create an original piece of art, but something a five year old will appreciate.

I decided to make a 3D octopus and let him rest on a cake sand dune made from icing topped with crushed vanilla wafers. I used graham crackers before for sand but find that vanilla wafers have a better flavor on a cake.

Eli was very excited about his cake and he helped with many parts of the project. It took a long time and he was tired at times, but when it was done, he put on the candles and really, really loved the cake. He couldn't wait to blow out the candles.

Tomorrow, I will give you the recipe and a diagram with more information on how to make this cake sculpture.