Vacation Walks… The Plants

San Diego Vacation:  Cont’d From: Vacation Food Continued… Breakfast & Dessert


Thanks to my love of plants and gardening, I have fun checking out what grows in other areas and seeing if there’s anything new I should be adding to my collection in my home garden.  We walked more than 10 miles in the short time we were there so we there was a lot to see.  The coolest thing in San Diego is that Bird of Paradise, which is a gorgeous plant, just grows on the street.

If I wanted to grow it at home, I’d have to take it inside and baby it and be very kind in order for it to grow.  They have it growing on the street as if it’s no big deal.  I realize I could go on for days about all the plants I saw like the Datura, Ice Plants, etc., but I’m just going to go into two of them: Nasturtiums & Castor Bean Plant.



Nasturtiums are one of those odd plants that grow in “poor soil.”

If you are not a plant person, then Nasturtiums may be the ideal plant for you.  Actually, if you take too much care of them, they won’t grow well.  In San Diego, Nasturtiums grow on the hillsides that line the highway.  The leaves which are generally pretty small look like dinner plates where they are growing on the hillsides.  It makes a gorgeous picture to see the green nasturtium leaves cascading down the hills with dots of orange and yellow flowers surrounded by all the other colorful flowering plants.  I just loved the contrast to the plants that grow along the highways by us.  Probably the coolest thing about nasturtiums other than the fact that they don’t like to be babied is that they’re edible.  So, you can grab the leaves and/or the flowers of the no-nonsense plants and toss them in your salad bowl.  I’ve also heard that the seeds are edible which makes sense, but I’ve never tried them.


The other plant I saw a lot  during the Murray Lake walk (that I’ve grown in my backyard) was the castor bean plant.

The thing about the castor bean plant that I think is pretty cool is that if you see them growing in the wild, they tend to be scattered since the seeds explode out of the seed pod which I suppose that is there way of avoiding the overcrowding problem so many plants seem to dislike so much.  Now that I have a kid, my days of growing castor bean plant are over for a while.  Even though everyone has heard of drinking castor oil, the castor bean seeds actually contain a toxin.  Well, it makes sense since a couple tablespoons can start your intestines spasming.  Depending on the source, there are mixed messages about whether the plants should be added to compost piles.  I don’t know how serious it is since the toxin is found in the seeds, but since the seeds also look like flavored jelly beans so I think I’ll just take a few seasons off from it so the kid doesn’t make the mistake.

I like to cook up meals that remind me of vacations and I think I’m going to have to do something similar in the garden too.  This year, I’m going to have to plant a bunch of nasturtiums in the garden as a reminder of the San Diego trip.  Thanks to all the compost The Hubs has helped me haul into the yard, they’re going to have to grow in pots to keep the soil richness down.  Hopefully mine will approach the size of dinner plates like the San Diego ones.  There are different kinds of nasturtiums: vining and mounding so the ones in the pots are likely going to have to be the mounding types.  Since they’re edible, it should keep our salad bowl interesting.  I am curious if I’ll be able to convince the kid to eat a flower.

The Secret of a Green Thumb…

I’ve been growing plants for a long time thanks to my mom’s influence.  When I was little, she told me, “We’re Jamaican. We grow things.”  I had a strawberry patch (which was eaten by squirrels, to my infuriation) when I was little and I’ve grown something almost every year since then.  My list of plantings includes so many things on the continuum of everyday vegetables to exotic flowers in my mom’s and then my garden.  The total plants over my lifetime could probably fill a huge farm.  So, believe me when I say that there really is no such thing as a “green thumb.”  While I’ve had decades of experience with growing, I’ve also killed more things that could fill a farm.  My list of failures far exceeds my list of successes.  The difference with people who think they have a “black thumb” is they don’t hide their mistakes.  The secret of a “green thumb” gardener is a compost heap filled with things that didn’t go right the first or first few hundred times.  They use their old mistakes (buried in the compost heap) to feed their future successes (which is all you see).

So, here’s the thing… I’m a huge fan of compost for several reasons.  One is, that it takes all the stuff you have and want to get rid of and gives you free fertilizer that works a lot better than the chemical crap.  (Oh and less on the garbage bill) Early warning… I stick to all organic plant food and fertilizer in my garden.  I have a serious issue with chemical herbicides and fertilizers since there are so many easier, cheaper, and healthier ways to do the same thing with organic treatments and garden gadgets.  There are tons of studies out that show that chemical herbicides act as endocrine disruptors and can affect human and animal fertility.  To be fair, there are studies that dispute this… but why chance it if you can just use something natural (and did I mention compost is free)?  As my mom says, “Why bother growing your own food if you’re just going to use the same chemicals as the ones you’re buying in the store?  Your home produce should be special.”

There are tons of ways to make compost and most of them involve things you’re paying someone else to haul away.  There are compost purists who closely regulate what goes into the pile.  Our bins are more of a little bit of this, little bit of that balancing act.  I toss in just about everything in the yard and most things from the kitchen.  I added some composting redworms to my piles when I started them and they’re in charge of eating most of the kitchen scraps.  If you’re squeamish about worms.  I can tell you that I never see them.  There have been a few times over the years when I had to ask the hubs if I needed to buy some more to put in there because I didn’t see any.  They hate light so unless you’re really digging around, they’ll hide from you, but they can eat their weight in food scraps and weeds so I think they’re a good addition to the pile.   Pretty much anything in the kitchen that isn’t fat/animal can go in (well, it can go in, but the smell will likely attract scavenging animals which is why I avoid it).  Here are some of the kitchen things that go into mine:

  • veggie scraps (carrot shavings, cucumber skins, the hard end of the celery, onion skins, garlic skins, etc.)
  • dead veggies (the mixed salad greens that never seem to last more than 2 days in the fridge, the cucumber you forgot you bought, etc.)
  • tea bags
  • coffee grounds and the filter (coffee grounds from Starbucks are a good way to get extra [they’re more than happy to give it to you so they don’t have to pay the garbage company to take it away])
  • leftover coffee without any cream in it (sugar is fine)
  • egg shells (rinse them in really hot water before you put them in)
  • vegetarian meals that have no cheese

There are some things that I put in that some compost purists do not agree with (clearly… I don’t care).  My pile… my rules:

  • shredded paper/newspaper (if junk mail has my name/info on it, I drop it in the “secure disposal” pile [I figure if someone wants to dig through rotten veggies and worms and then piece the cross cut shreds together, they probably earned the information])
  • little pieces of cardboard
  • old bread (anything with yeast in it isn’t technically supposed to go in…)

You can also throw just about anything from the garden in there:

  • Shredded leaves (and I’ve been known to take the shredded leaves my neighbors put out on the street for the township to pick up)
  • Cuttings and trimmings from plants throughout the season
  • End of season plants without disease
  • Weeds without flowers/seeds showing

About the weeds: I weed selectively.  I either do it in separate rounds or use separate containers for the weeds that have seeds or flowers showing vs. the ones that don’t.   It’s possible for seeds to hibernate in a compost pile so I apply some unkind treatment to the ones with seeds and seal them in a 5 gallon bucket with some comfrey and a little water and stick it where it can heat up in the sun.  The purpose is to get these seeds to either cook and die or germinate in a closed environment and then kill the resulting plants with extreme heat before I add them to hibernate in my compost pile.  It may be possible for this method to kill the disease in some plants, but I wouldn’t risk it so I throw those in the garbage.

The thing most people ask about compost is… Does it smell?  If it smells, then something is wrong, but it’s easily fixed.  The balance of compost is brown material and green material.  Brown material is dry.  Green material is wet.  If it smells, it’s probably too wet, add some dried leaves or shredded newspaper or pieces of cardboard (Brown material).  If it looks kind of dry, more food or fresh weeds or clippings from plants go in (Green material).  If it doesn’t look like it’s breaking down, add some grass clippings or comfrey to heat it up.

You can also get a compost thermometer and check the heat of the pile.  I haven’t gone there yet.  The pile is best between 135 and 160 degrees and so I figure that if there’s steam coming off of it, then it’s hot enough.  If it’s not moving quickly enough, I add a layer of freshly cut grass or comfrey (more about comfrey in another post) or compost accelerator to heat it up.  There is a garden gadget out there for every task you can think of.  I love gadgets and when I’ve bought all the rest of them, I will probably end up with a compost thermometer.

Now, before I go any further (and I warn you this will not be my last post on compost [lol]), I should let you know that there seems to be a strange phenomenon when it comes to compost.  While I was the one who went out to the store and bought the three massive compost bins on a Sunday morning so long ago, it is now my husband who has claimed the compost as his.  I started it because when we moved in, the previous owners were “kind enough” to leave us all the unraked leaves and weeds from several seasons.  I will never forget one day when we were out getting the outrageous cleanup job started, one of the neighbors came out to give us some background about the previous owners… “He never was one for the yard…  He’d come out at the beginning of the season and pick up a stick or two, but that’s about it.”  And from the state of the yard, I believe it.  But my husband is now the one who turns the pile and adds all the different ingredients.  It seems that the idea of crap turning into garden gold was what did it for him.  I’ve also heard from other gardening wives that this is not uncommon.  Something about making dirt brings out the kid in husbands and one day you hear, “Are you sure that should go in my compost?”

Bean of the Week – Garbanzos

I think part of the reason I fell in love with cooking is that it’s not nearly as hard as it seems.  While I love trying new things, I’ve found that many of the things that sound complicated are actually pretty easy.  But, if you buy the finished product you get charged A LOT for it.  One of my favorite cheap eats is beans.   I used to stock up on canned beans for quick meals, and unless I got a really good sale, it was not cheap and the selection was mediocre at best.  Thanks to the dried beans, I’ve tried beans that I didn’t even know existed like Peruvian Beans/Yellow Canary beans.  I’ve found beans that I have never seen in a can like Mung beans.  I even found Adzuki beans at Whole Foods which apparently are really high in protein (and BTW: the bean paste that is used in many Asian pastries) and gave them to the kid who LOVED them.  Now, I buy dried beans for quite a savings in comparison and less need for storage space.  I gave up on the canned beans when I realized that even though the cost is pretty similar for a can of beans and a pound of dried beans, the resulting amount is VERY different.  A 1-pound pack of dried beans makes up to 6 cups of beans.  The canned beans only give you a little less than 2 cups of beans.  If you get the dried beans, you can infuse them with flavor.  Canned beans… not as much.  Depending on the dried beans you buy, they can cost less than $1.00 a pound and bulk buying can be even better priced.  And carrying tons of cans out of a supermarket will test even the best of reusable bags.

It’s surprisingly easy to make beans from a dried state and it requires very little actual cooking time.  Garbanzo beans take the most time of all of the beans I’ve tried so far, but it’s still not actual standing over the stove time so it’s still worth it.  Once I realized how easy this was, I haven’t gone back.

BTW: If you’re looking for cheap garden seed, you can use some of the dried beans to grow in your garden.  It’s worth a try and if it doesn’t work, you don’t lose a lot of money for the effort.

Part 1: Soaking

  • Get a big glass measuring cup/bowl that can hold at least two quarts.  If you bought the 1 pound pack of beans, just dump the whole bag into the cup/bowl.  If you bought in bulk, put the bowl on a kitchen scale and measure out 1 pound.  You can spread the beans out on a sheet pan to look for stones or you can just look through them in the bowl.
  • Fill up the bowl with water and put the bowl in a corner of the kitchen.  (Go do anything else.)
  • Check the beans after about 4-8 hours (Small beans like mung beans soak faster than large beans).  I leave garbanzos for 12 hours or more if i’m busy (I’ve left them up to a day and they turn out fine).
  • If the beans have soaked up the water and look plump, pour out the beans into a sieve and rinse the beans.  Do a double check for any dark or funky looking beans or anything that isn’t a bean.  (If a bean doesn’t look good, toss it)

Part 2: Cooking

  • Get a pot big enough to boil pasta.  Toss in the beans.  Fill it up with water.  (DO NOT ADD SALT!!!) Now, add the flavorings of your choice.  I like to add a bay leaf, a garlic clove, a quarter or a half of a yellow onion, half of a large carrot, half of a celery stalk, and whole peppercorns.  You can add any fresh herbs you want here.  Savory & Thyme are generally my favorites.  [If you want to use dried herbs or don’t want to fish the peppercorns out when you’re done, I recommend getting one of the large tea balls made with tiny mesh and putting your herbs in there and wrapping it around the pot handle or hanging it on the side of the pot.] (See, your beans are already going to taste better than canned beans)
  • When I’m doing this in small batches for the kid, I don’t add a lot of flavorings.  At most, I’ll add half of a carrot, but I’m working him up to adding everything else slowly.  For now, I’m just letting him taste all the different beans on their own.  And most importantly, I cook the beans much softer for the kid than I do for the adults.  This way the beans crack open and are easily smashed so he doesn’t choke on them, even though he has top and bottom teeth that he likes trying out on various foods.
  • Turn the heat on a back burner up to high to bring the pot up to a boil.  There will be some white foam on the top of the water.  Skim it off and turn the heat down to medium to let the beans simmer.  This can take about an hour depending on the bean.  Set a timer to go back and check it at regular intervals after 30 minutes.  If you’re doing garbanzos, save the effort and start checking after an hour.  They take a long time to cook through.  Test a few beans to see if they’re soft enough.  If they’re not soft enough and the water has fallen below the beans, add more water and let it keep cooking.  When they’re done, turn off the burner and let the beans cool down in the water.

Part 3: Packaging

  • For The Kid: I haven’t given the kid garbanzos yet.  I stick to the softer, smushable beans.  I fill up his food containers with the beans and add enough of the water the beans cooked in to cover the beans.  I rinse the beans to remove the cooking water before giving the beans to the kid.  I rinse them off before I send them to daycare so they don’t have to.  He likes to eat the beans as finger food.  For the larger beans, I smush them a little so their soft, but he can still grab them.  It’s hilarious to watch him gobble them up.
  • For the Adults: Grab a container or containers, fill it up with the beans, add enough of the water the beans cooked in to cover the beans.  I add a pinch of salt for the sake of preservation.  Toss it in the fridge.  After about a day in the fridge, I rinse the beans in a sieve and they’re fine to store in the fridge without the water.

I rinse off the water I store the beans in before I cook with them or toss them in salads just like I would if they were canned, but storing them in water just seems to work better.  I keep the beans in the fridge for about a week or two.  If I don’t end up using them in the Meatless Monday dinner, then I just use them to toss in salads.  I try to do a different bean each time.  When I do garbanzo beans and it’s getting close to the end of the week or second week, I just roast them.  I just adjust the recipe according to how many beans I actually have left and eat the roasted garbanzo beans as snack food or for tossing in salads for crunch.


Roasted Garbanzo Beans

1 cup Garbanzo Beans
1 Tablespoon Flavoring of choice (dried herbs, ground spices, crushed red pepper flakes)
1 Tablespoons Olive Oil (or garlic oil)
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Toss the garbanzo beans, oil and your flavoring of choice in a bowl.   Toss everything around until the garbanzo beans are coated with the oil and flavorings and spread out on a sheet pan.  Every 15 minutes or so, shake the pan to help the beans brown evenly.  Roast for about 45 minutes or until the beans are crunchy and brown (not burnt).

BTW: This works great in a toaster oven.  If I’m doing it in the toaster oven, I turn down the heat to 325 degrees.


Duck Confit & Mushroom Pasta

This isn’t actually a recipe from today, but the hubs requested that I save this one since he really liked it. I made it last Saturday after a trip to my local produce place. I can’t resist buying when I see piles and piles of fresh fruit and veggies so, needless to say, when I walked in the house with two big boxes of fruit and veggies there wasn’t enough room in the fridge. (Okay, so the hubs carried the big boxes in the house, but you get the idea.) Fortunately, it was lunchtime and I had to put something together before the hubs left to meet with his grad school group and my parents came over to see the kid. Spinach and mushrooms don’t seem to like to sit in a refrigerator so I try and make meals with them as soon as I get them home, so they went to the top of the list. I checked the pantry for pasta, but I finished the last of the whole grain short pastas and just had tri-color rotini. If I make this again, I’m definitely using the whole grain pasta. Then, I figured I’d empty the fridge to make room for the new stuff. I found goat cheese and duck confit in the fridge and started experimenting. (I will explain how I ended up with duck confit in the fridge in another post.) Leftover Roasted Chicken or Rotisserie Chicken works just as well in the recipe, but I had duck so that’s what I used. BTW: The hubs recommended eating this with a good glass of wine (my parents agreed). He actually said it felt wrong to eat it without a glass of wine.

FYI: The Poinsettia Chile Pepper looks like an ornamental, but is actually edible. They grow fairly easily and when they ripen up, you can dry them (either in a dehydrator or spread out in a layer in a dry spot in the kitchen). Then, just throw them in the food processor to break them up. Be careful, it’s a hot pepper so you’ll want to make sure you do this with either the windows open or the ventilation on. Then you can fill up your spice jar with it. It’s a bit hotter than the regular crushed red pepper flakes but I grew up with Jamaican food and I like things a little hotter. Adjust the red pepper flakes to your taste.

Duck Confit, Mushroom & Spinach Pasta

Duck Confit Pasta

8 oz portabella mushrooms, ribs scraped off & sliced
1 spanish onion, diced
1 large long hot chili pepper, cut into rings
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried tarragon or 1 tbsp fresh tarragon
1 tsp dried thyme or 2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry sherry
1 lb baby spinach
12 oz. tricolor rotini
1-1/2 cup duck confit
4 oz chevre/goat cheese
1 tsp crushed poinsettia pepper flakes (or crushed red pepper flakes)

Cook the pasta according to the package instructions. In a medium hot large skillet, add olive oil and butter. When the butter melts, add the mushrooms. Don’t move them around the pan. The mushrooms need time to develop some color. If you’re not sure, turn over one of the mushrooms and if it looks caramel colored or seared on one side, then you’re ready for the next step. Start moving the mushrooms around the pan and add the onions, chili pepper, tarragon and thyme. Leave the mushroom-onion mixture to sweat in the pan for about 5 -8 minutes or until the onions are soft. When you start to see the liquid evaporating, add the garlic and move around the pan until you start to smell the garlic (about 1 minute). Add the dry sherry and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the fond (the caramelized bits stuck to the pan). When the liquid has reduced by half, cover the pan and turn the heat to low for about 5-8 more minutes. Turn the heat back up to medium and add the spinach. Add the hot pasta on top of the spinach and stir to mix everything together. Add two ladles of the pasta cooking water to the pan to moisten everything. Add the duck confit and cover the pan to allow the duck confit to warm through. It should take about a minute to get ready. Add the goat cheese and stir the pasta. Top with 1 tsp of crushed red pepper flakes and serve.

Black Quinoa… where it all started

The idea of this blog came about because of Black Quinoa.  I was leaving work and trying to think of something interesting to make for Meatless Monday.  Back Story: I started participating in Meatless Monday because it seemed like a good challenge.  Could I make vegetarian food for the hubs without hearing the old Wendy’s tag-line: “Where’s the beef?”  I ran the idea by the husband and he was all for it.  He’s a runner and he was up for the challenge of finding vegetarian food that he liked.  I’m not a fan of the meat substitutes so I generally avoid them.  I tend to use a lot of beans and whole grains and veggies for the Meatless Monday fair.  I’m not fanatical about it which helps me check if I’ve accomplished the goal.  There have been occasions when we’ve finished the entire meal and the hubs said, “Wait, there wasn’t any meat in there!  Nice!”  So, when I sent the recipe to a friend, she suggested I start a food blog.  Blogging seemed unlikely for me, since I was just messing around and trying to make quick and healthy for the hubs.  Then in the next two days I was talking to people about the meals I make for the kid and two more people suggested I write a blog ‘cos they wanted to know what else I was giving the kid to eat.

So, back to the quinoa, I remembered that I purchased Black Quinoa a couple weeks ago, but hadn’t made anything with it yet.  I had regular quinoa and red quinoa already, but the black quinoa provided some visual benefits since it looks pretty similar to ground beef.  By some truly odd coincidence, I decided I was going to try to make Southwestern wraps with the Black Quinoa substituting ground beef then I was looking at the hubs’ Facebook post where one of his friends said he should eat quinoa.  I stopped in the supermarket on the way home and all they had was the small wraps so the plan was amended to Southwestern Black Quinoa Quesadillas.

I’ve been putting quinoa flour in some of the kid’s food to add protein and figured the whole quinoa was small enough that he should be able to eat it now without issue so I made the quinoa without any salt so I could set some aside for his food.  I’ve incorporated the Black Quinoa in two different things of food for him since that time: Butternut Squash, Kale & Black Quinoa and then Butternut Squash, Chayote Squash & Black Quinoa.  I steamed about two cups of the Butternut Squash and Chayote Squash in his baby food cooker and mixed it in with about 1 cup of the quinoa.  I didn’t cook the kale since it was already blanched and just mixed it in with everything and covered the pan to let it all warm through before packaging it up.

The kale was actually from my mom’s garden last year.  She grew massive (almost 3 foot tall) kale plants and we had so much that we were giving away whole plants to friends just so her other plants didn’t get crowded out.  At the end of the season when we figured we’d eaten and juiced it and given so much away that people were just accepting it to be polite, my parents started pulling up the whole plants and blanching and freezing the leaves.  My dad minced some and left some cut larger.  I packaged them in 8 oz. portions in freezer bags (yes, I weighed them) and threw them in my freezer and my parents freezer for the winter.  Oddly enough, my parents and I still  have kale left over despite eating it through the winter.  Needless to say there was a ton of it.  My mom grew it in her front yard in between her ornamental plants and apparently it was the talk of the neighborhood since most people didn’t realize she was growing food.  They were sure it was an ornamental plant, but no one could find it in the garden centers.

So, for the adults, the Quesadilla was surprisingly good and went something like this.  (Early warning, this makes a lot of filling so you can throw it in the fridge and save it for later.  I actually added it to a brothy chicken soup for lunch one day in the week.):

Southwestern Black Quinoa Quesadilla

1 cup black quinoa
2 cups water/chicken stock
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 red onion, minced
1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
½ large red chili, minced
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp chipotle powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 ½ cup minced blanched kale
1 ½ cup salsa
1 cup arugula leaves
Mozzarella (or any melting cheese)

Make quinoa according to package instructions.  (If you buy it in bulk, then rinse it first until the water runs clear to make sure you get rid of the soapy coating.)

In a medium-hot pan, add olive oil and the whole cumin, coriander and mustard seeds.  When the spices start dancing in the pan, add the red onion, beans and chili pepper.  While they are heating up, add the rest of the spices.  Stir the bean and spice mixture then add the garlic.  When you can smell the garlic, add the frozen corn kernels and kale and cover the pan and turn down to medium-low.  When the quinoa is ready, add it to the pan and stir to combine.  Add the salsa (more if needed) to ensure the mixture is moist and turn up the heat to medium for a short time to make sure everything is heated through, then turn back down to low.

In a medium hot frying pan, toast the tortillas individually without oil.  When it begins to bubble slightly, flip the tortilla and add just enough cheese to cover the tortilla leaving a 1-inch border.  Add a few arugula leaves and about a ½ cup of the quinoa mixture then fold the tortilla in half and press to toast.