the lazy person’s guide to growing spinach

Plant seed in the early days of lovely September
when you need a break from canning tomatoes.

Pinch off baby leaves in October, November, December
Stir them with lemon in buttered potatoes.

Mulch with straw and hope for a mild winter.

I have tons of favorite spinach recipes. I was the kid in elementary school who took everyone’s spinach. Remember in 3rd grade when you had to clean your plate and Mrs. Gray checked every tray to make sure it was empty of food? Hmm…. that might be proof that I’m old….

I would rather eat spanakopita than brownies.

I’m a sucker for any meal that ends in Florentine.

When forced to buy greens, whether for cooking or salads, I always choose spinach, because, raw or cooked, chopped or whole, in eggs, on sandwiches, in dips, or just sautéed with onions or mushrooms… It’s always delicious.

But the curly Bloomsdale spinach that you can only get these days by growing your own is far superior to grocery store flat-leaved spinach.

Tonight we are just having it sautéed in olive oil and drizzled with lemon saba and salt and pepper. Simplicity at its finest.

But since you already know how to sauté spinach, I will give you one of my favorite easy recipes to take along somewhere. A potluck, a mom who just had a baby, or an easy meal for everyday — company or not. The next time I make it I’ll be sure to come back and post some pictures; in the meantime you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s one of the best most hassle-free dinners you can make. Here’s what you need:

  • Spinach
  • Chicken, boneless (I cut boneless breasts in half, thighs I leave whole)
  • some tomatoes (The real recipe calls for sliced Romas, but I have halved cherry tomatoes, sliced regular tomatoes, and even reconstituted and chopped dried tomatoes)
  • your favorite kind of vinaigrette or Italian dressing — not Ranch!
  • parmesan cheese

Fill a 9×13 baking dish with spinach (one bag usually works).

Place chicken pieces on top of spinach. Place tomato slices on top of chicken. Pour some vinaigrette over the whole thing. (The original recipe called for a bottle of dressing, but I never use that much. Just make sure the chicken is nicely slathered  with the vinaigrette.) Sprinkle grated fresh parmesan cheese over all. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Uncover it for the last 5 minutes to brown up the cheese a bit. Depending on the size of the chicken cooking times vary — smaller pieces take less time to cook. (Mine usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I always use a meat thermometer to be sure.)

While the chicken is baking, make some rice or cook some pasta or egg noodles because it makes its own lovely sauce that is yummy over rice.

And just in case you get the wrong opinion from this post, I am not a master gardener. I have done Absolutely Nothing in the garden yet this spring, except pick some kale and pick some spinach, and throw in some radish seeds on an 80 degree day in February… Potatoes? Not planted. Onions? Still in bags. Greens? Still in the seed packets. Partly I can blame the rainy weather: we still have a small pond where the onions are supposed to grow. But I got my bales of mulch today, and I’m ready. As soon as it stops raining…


Kale, again?

I thought I had settled the whole kale issue in the fall with The Trouble with Kale.

Turns out, I didn’t because last week, on the eleventh of February, I walked down to check out the garden. I discovered both spinach and kale cheerfully surviving the Pennsylvania winter with just a light layer of straw mulch. Today, February 18th, I went down with my scissors and harvested both kale and spinach for a salad. The kale had new growth; there were a few larger frost bitten leaves around the edges, but the inside of the plant was actually growing.

Now admittedly we have had a very mild winter. But the temperatures have dropped to 8-10 degrees several times and one week in particular it was that cold all week.

The best thing about this is Fresh Greens. In. February. So for those of you who live in a year round warm climate, excuse me while I SHOUT IN JOY!

I’ve been trying an experiment this winter in trying to cook as much as I can with what’s on hand. (Note the word trying used twice…) That means potatoes, onions, garlic, beef, eggs, frozen peppers, canned green beans, beets, frozen squash/pumpkin, applesauce, salsa, frozen okra, canned and stewed tomatoes, and pickles/relish/ketchup.

The only vegetables I’ve been buying are mushrooms and carrots and an occasional red pepper. I had beautiful peppers last year, but none of them turned red (even though one variety was specifically a red bell pepper). I hope to remedy that this year — the frozen peppers are very acceptable.

But not in salads. I used the last of our onions two weeks ago. I’ve got ten potatoes left and two of them look like this:

We haven’t been having many salads this winter. So it was particularly exciting to discover the growing kale and spinach. If you remember the one drawback to kale was the cabbage worms. But guess what? There’s NO cabbage worms in winter.

So I’m rethinking the kale issue. If I plant it in September, I could have some greens in the fall and winter with no worries about cabbage worms. And this mild winter has me thinking of a hoop house to extend the season on both sides. Just a small one, maybe?

You Tube Video from BuddyClub Gardening. Click on the photo and it will take you to the DIY cheap hoop house video

Hoop House or not, I planted another row of spinach today and threw in some radishes for good measure. (They were just short rows…) It only took me ten minutes; it was last year’s leftover seeds and it still could snow in April;  but I couldn’t resist planting something on Feb. 18th. Just because I could!

And since I only harvested enough for two kale and spinach salads, I’ll just have to give you one of my favorite salad dressing recipes.

Tomato Vinaigrette (The basic recipe is from the Hay Day Country Market Cookbook, but I changed it a bit.)

6 sun-dried tomatoes soaked in 1/3 cup almost boiling water for about a half-hour.
Drain the tomatoes, save the liquid, and coarsely chop the tomatoes.
Mix the tomatoes with 3 T. mixed vinegars–balsamic, red wine, white wine, cider, or lemon juice.
Add a clove of minced or pressed garlic and 1 T. whatever fresh herbs you have. Basil is good, Rosemary is good, Thyme is good, Dill is wonderful in the summer…
Add 1/2 t. salt and some fresh pepper.
Put all the above in a blender or small food processor and pulse five or six times.
While the blender is still running, add the liquid from the tomatoes, and then 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil in a thin slow stream and blend until all the oil is mixed in.

This is a thick, spoonable dressing. Dress it up with capers or chopped olives if you are serving it immediately; or you can add a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise or Greek yogurt to make it creamier.

(We had our spinach and kale salads with cheeseburgers from the grill. Outside. In February. Really.)

The back porch smells like garlic…

This is the first year either of us has ever grown garlic. So it seems kind of silly to do a DIY post on how to grow it, but I’m telling you, if all you’ve ever had is store bought cured garlic? Oh my. There is nothing like fresh garlic — it is mellower, tastier, and just all-round better.
fresh garlic harvest

We planted the cloves last fall in mid-October. Fall 2015, was incredibly mild for SW Pennsylvania. We didn’t even have a frost until mid-November (at least up here on our ridge — the valleys got it earlier). So the garlic grew. It was almost six inches tall and  overwintered at that height. It made me nervous, and we mulched the plants heavily with straw, just in case. All the experts say not to worry, that garlic will overwinter fine, and it did.

In retrospect, I should have fertilized it more this spring. I added a light top dressing of mushroom manure, but I think I should have been heavier with it, because the outer leaves never did green up. The bottom couple of leaves always had yellow tips.

I planted a pound each of two different varieties of hardneck garlic — Polish White and Siberian — ordered from The Garlic Store. They sell organic seeds and they send your order just about when you should be planting it for your area. I think I should have ordered another pound; two pounds made for four eight-foot rows. I wanted more…

About early June the center stalk (called a scape) starts curling around. I cut them out — everything I read said the bulbs will get bigger if the plant doesn’t have to put energy into producing the scapes. I started poking around in the soil the last week of June, and the bulb I dug up wasn’t quite ready — it didn’t have nicely formed cloves yet, but I used it anyway by pressing chunks through my garlic press.

Turns out I was digging in the wrong section… The two rows of Siberian garlic had a shorter growing season. Yesterday, on July 3rd, I dug most all of those two rows up. They are huge and beautiful. The Polish Whites are not quite ready yet. (The experts say to dig the garlic when the lower third to half of the outer leaves have started to dry and turn brown.)

garlic and onions drying on the back porch

garlic and onions drying on the back porch

We are drying these beauties on a drying rack on an out-of-the-way spot on the back porch because we had the drying rack and we might as well use it. (It was originally made for onions and winter squash). Most folks braid the garlic and hang it. It is supposed to dry for 3-4 weeks before winter storage. This rack is full with the Siberian garlic, so I’m going to try braiding the next batch when I harvest it in a couple of weeks.

And it would be a sad garlic post without a recipe…

Roasted Garlic and Beets with Walnut/Rosemary Pesto

Beets. garlic, rosemary & walnutsIngredients: 6-8 beets
8 unshelled walnuts, or 1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts
1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 sliced onion
1 head of garlic
olive oil, salt & pepper (This recipe serves 6-8)

Choose a nice large garlic and slice the top of the end off so you can see the cloves inside. Also slice off the back root end if necessary. Peel back as much of the  papery skin as you can, so you just have the cloves. Brush the top with olive oil, and wrap in a small piece of foil.

Put in the oven at 400 degrees for approximately 25-30 minutes. While the garlic is roasting, chop the walnuts, dice up the fresh rosemary, and peel the beets and chop them.

When chopping the beets, the key is to keep the pieces uniform in size so they will all be done at the same time.

roasted whole garlicWhen the garlic has five minutes left, put the walnuts in and let them roast with the garlic for the remaining five minutes. The garlic should be aromatic and soft and starting to brown when you open the packets of foil. Let the garlic cool while you slice an onion, and toss the beets and onion with some olive oil and kosher salt. Place on baking sheet and put in the 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.

roasted beets

Chop the walnuts finely. You should have about 1/2 cup.

Using a cocktail fork, separate the garlic cloves and remove the meaty garlic cloves from the skins. Discard the skins and put the cloves in a small bowl and mash them with the fork. Add the chopped rosemary, and mash together. Stir in the chopped walnuts. Add a teaspoon or so of olive oil and a dash of kosher salt.

When the timer rings at 15 minutes, take out the beets and stir them around well. Put them back in the oven for another 15 minutes. When they are fork tender, stir into a serving bowl and toss with the roasted garlic-walnut-rosemary mixture.

roasted garlic, beets, and walnuts

Looks like dessert, doesn’t it?

Some people might say this recipe begs for some goat cheese, but it absolutely doesn’t need it. Besides I was going for an all-home-grown side dish; and there are no plans to get a goat. But there are plans to try a pound of another type of garlic for this fall…