Straw Garden Madness

Since 2012, I have been mad for Straw Bale gardens.  It gets rid of many of the past issues I’ve had growing a veggie garden which are
A Guaranteed Successful Harvest
Water Control
Pest Control
Weed Control
Composting
In the past, before the straw bale gardens, my harvest would be irregular – poor tomatoes, little or no beans and we can forget the cucumbers and peas.  Now it is a verdant delight and sometimes out of control.  And it works even if all you have is a cement slab. So I’d like to share with you my system.

1. Step one: Find the area to put in the garden Buy landscaping cloth, gopher wire and garden staples.  If you don’t have a rodent problem, skip the gopher wire and if you are putting this on concrete – you don’t have to worry about any of this.

Make sure if you are cutting the gopher wire and the landscape cloth that you have scissors and wire cutters nearby – You’ll need them.

Step 2:  Have a nice strong person bring the straw bales to the planting area (don’t wreck your own back) and put them in your placing arrangement.  Then make holes in the straw bales and start putting lots of regular lawn fertilizer (nitrogen) on the bales.  Organic fertilizer is great but you’ll need tons of it.  Then put some compost on top and for the next 2 – 3 weeks water and re-fertilize every 3 days.  I use a soaker drip system that works really well, but initially I just water with a hose.

Step 3:  Start planting.  You’ll feel the heat coming up from the bales, so you can plant once the frost freeze is over.  I also put in fence stakes (the green ones) so that the vines and the tomatoes grow upright.  For fun, I found a garden umbrella which I trained my bean vines to climb.  It looked beautiful and was easy for the picking.  I run wire between the fence stakes and start putting in my plants.  This method is so successful that you can easily turn the area in to a garden jungle by planting TOO MUCH.  So my rule of thumb is 1 tomato plant per bale.

Step 4:  Set up the watering timer and enjoy.  In several months you will have an amazing veggie garden with no weeding or work, just enjoying the fruits of the easy picking labor.  The bales will last you for 2 years, and at the end, you’ll have amazing compost to put in the other gardens on your property.
For more info about Straw Bale gardening, go to http://strawbalegardens.com/
Don’t forget that when you garden, put some Elixer Arnica cream to avoid joint and muscle stiffness and soreness.

And for fool-proof vinaigrette and salad dressing, tryhttp://saladsuccess.com/. You’ll shake your way to perfect vinaigrette every day.

Have you noticed the price at the decent bakeries for pies and cakes?  Two weeks ago I choked when I paid for a cherry pie – $26.  To add insult to injury, some bakeries are charging more than $40 for a strawberry short cake.  Even though the cherry pie was excellent, I can’t afford to continue in this direction.

Last week was my mother’s birthday (the big 85), and sitting on my counter was a bag of Key limes that I purchased for $3.  Now my mother loves lemon meringue pies, and never had the courage to make them so when I offered to make her a Key lime pie, she jumped at the offer.

These pies are easy, spectacular and very affordable.  Plus you can use this recipe for Key limes, regular limes and lemons.  Key limes are about ½ the size of regular limes (or lemons), so you will need at least double the amount of fruit.  Don’t mess around making a traditional pie crust but try a simple graham cracker crust.  For the meringue topping, put the meringue in a pastry bag (get a real big one – mine is a 20”).

I’m lucky that I even got a picture of the pie before it went into the oven to cook the meringue.  When I brought it to the table, my group of lime lovers devoured the pie.  And it cost me so little to make – probably under $5.

KEY LIME MERINGUE PIE– give yourself time, about 2 hours before serving, to start the pie.  It is a 3-step process; crust, filling and meringue topping.

Crust – 10 minutes active time, 10 minutes baking time

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs (10 crackers)

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 stick of melted unsalted butter

Preheat oven at 350 degrees.  In a large bowl combine sugar and graham crackers.  Add melted butter and mix well.  Press mixture into a pie pan – I used a fluted, ceramic tart pan.  Bake for 10 minutes and cool.

Filling – 15 minutes active time, 1 hour cooling time

1 cup of sugar

¼ cup flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ tsp salt

2 cups water

3 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon butter

¼ cup fresh lime juice – approx 10 – 12 Key limes or 5-6 limes/ lemons

Grated rind of 1 lime (2 key limes)

Combine sugar, flour cornstarch and salt in a saucepan and gradually stir in water.  Cool, stirring constantly, until thickened.  Gradually stir the mixture into the beaten egg yolks, return to low heat and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.

Stir in the butter, lime juice and rind and cool slightly.  Pour into the baked graham cracker shell and cool. Put in refrigerator

Meringue Topping – 15 minutes active time, 1 hour cool down.

3 egg whites

¼ tsp cream of tartar

6 tablespoons sugar

Preheated oven at 425 degrees. Beat the egg whites until lift and frothy.  Add cream of tartar and continue beating until the whites are stiff enough to hold a peak.

Gradually beat in sugar and beat until meringue is stiff and glossy (or stand up a spoon).

Pile meringue lightly on cooled pie filling, spreading it until it touches the edges of the crust to prevent the meringue from shrinking.  If you prefer (I do), put meringue into a pastry bag with a large tip and twist down the top of the bag so that the meringue is forced to squeeze out. Decorate the top of the pie, always making sure the meringue touches the edges of the crust. Bake for 5 to six minutes until top is brown.  Let pie cool down and refrigerator.

Graham cracker crust recipe courtesy of Ina Garten

Filling and meringue topping recipes courtesy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne

Somehow coming back from the Kaua’i vacation just didn’t turn on my cooking button and creative juices.  I’ve been plodding away at cooking without anything grabbing my imagination.  But that will change soon.  Strawberries are out in the local markets, and I just bought a 6 pint box from my local veggie stand.  This weekend the organic stand may have some of their delicious berries for sale and we’ll be elbow deep in strawberries.

I just love those red berries and they are great for snacking and munching – low in calories, high in fiber.  It is time for strawberry-rhubarb pie, fruit crumbles, and jam.  But most important, fresh spring fruit snacking.  Mix cut-up berries in your yogurt with a little flaxseed and oat bran and you have a wonderful dessert/breakfast that will hold through to lunch time.

As for the cheating heart bit, you’ve probably noticed that pizza prices are now starting to head toward the $30 level.  Sorry, but that is too expensive for dough, cheese and tomato sauce.  We have found an economic alternative.  Buy pre-made dough and put in your own toppings.

I am truly uncoordinated when shaping the pizza dough.  Trader Joe’s makes a good dough but my pizzas are always weird looking when I have to form my own pie.  So now, I go do Safeway and buy their large Safeway Select fresh pizza.  Those pizzas are usually found on the end isle, are about 42 ounces, come with sauce and several types of topping which suck.  I get their 5 cheese pie and use my own toppings.  Sunday, we were in the mood for a Greek Pizza and it was excellent. Eat this with  steam spring asparagus and a green salad (don’t forget your SaladSuccess shaker to make the dressing).

Greek Pizza Topping

6 ounces baked and cut up (I use scissors) bacon or pancetta

20 Kalamata olives halved and pitted

Feta Cheese

½ can artichokes – I get them from Trader Joe’s

Pesto

1 Italian sausage – get it from the Butcher’s section of the grocery store – take off the skin

1 cup grated fresh Mozzarella cheese – don’t use that rubbery crap but try to find a softer cheese.  Trader Joe makes an excellent Mozzerella cheese.

DIRECTIONS

Spread ingredients evenly over pie.  Bake for 23  minutes in an oven set at 425 degrees.

It’s unanimous.  Kaua’i is ruled by roosters who announce the day starting at 5 am.  I don’t understand why food is so expensive on this island since it is ruled by chickens that are beyond range-fee.  They are everywhere: side of public highways, parks and resorts.  Watching them makes me hungry.

After a 23 year hiatus, Warren, I and the kids are on the lovely island of Kaua’i at the Kiahuna Outrigger Plantation.  In a moment of rain weather weakness, we decided to get out of Dodge (Santa Cruz) and head off to the tropics during spring break.  Kaua’i is as breathtaking as we once remembered and the resort is excellent.   We booked the vacation thru Costco (cheap bitch) and so far we are delighted with the accommodations.  If you are interested, we are staying in condo #100 which is a 2 bedroom/2 bath unit with a small and delightful view of the ocean from our living room balcony.  The unit has been recently upgraded and looks better than my house.  Beware, though, if you are an air-conditioner addict, this is not the place.  Many units use the tropical breezes to cool off the rooms.

The wild rooster of Kaua'i

Now about the important stuff.  Since it is now 8:30 am, and we got to the condo last night, I’ve had no time to check out local food, except the Safeway and Foodland.  Foodland does carry organics and local produce but I am shocked at the prices, except for Japanese cucumbers and papaya.  So for breakfast, papaya with lime and Hawaii’s excellent coffee is a treat.

Since we had no time to make dinner last night when we arrived, I grabbed a rotisserie chicken at Foodland.  Usually these are fatty and overdone with sauce, but this was succulent.  The sauce was Huli-Huli and it is brain-dead to make.  Use it to marinate or barbeque on chicken, fish, beef or pork.

Huli Huli Sauce – prepare this in the morning

1 cup of soy sauce

3 heaping tablespoon of  brown sugar

1 teaspoon of finely chopped ginger

Salt and Pepper to taste.

Mix well soy, 2 heaping tablespoons of brown sugar, ginger.  Pour mixture over meat ready to marinate in a glass or ceramic container (I use my lasagna pyrex dish).  Put remaining brown sugar on top of meat and refrigerate. Turn over meat occasionally.  After 3 – 8 hours of marinating, roast, bake or barbeque meat.

Aloha. Pictures to be up as soon as I can find editing software.

You know it is not the healthiest thing to serve, but everyone loves it – Fish Fry.  For years I’ve been frying away different white fish – Dover Sole, Pacific Cod, Tilapia, and Skai – and have finally perfected the recipe.  Eat this with something healthy like steam asparagus and a green salad (don’t forget your SaladSuccess shaker to make the dressing).  Since we are coming into spring, perhaps a strawberry and rhubarb cobbler to top off the meal.  The two tricks to this recipe are using baking powder and beer.  I’ve tried all beers from Coors Light to weird lagers that my husband has collected in the fridge and the result is similar – great beer batter.  Anyway, enjoy and don’t feel too guilty.  Use vegetable oil to fry to fish – it is lighter and less expensive than olive oil.

Best Beer Batter for Fish Fry Bonanza – Prep time: 5 minutes, cooking time: 15 minutes.  Makes enough batter for 2 lbs of fish.

INGREDIENTS

2 lbs or less of white fish such as cod, sole, tilapia, skai

½ cup flour

½ tbsp baking powder

1 – 2 lemons, grated for lemon zest, quarter the remaining lemon

½ cup beer

1 large – extra large egg

1 tsp (or less) Kosher salt

½ tsp freshly grounded pepper

DIRECTIONS

In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda, lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Whisk in beer and egg until mixture is smooth.  Add fish and gently mix so that fish is covered with mixture.

In a large frying pan (medium high to high heat) pour enough oil to cover bottom by approximately ¼ inch.  When oil is really hot (add a couple droplets of water to oil and see if it sizzles and evaporates) carefully add pieces of fish.  Cook fish for 3 to 4 minutes on each side until golden brown. Sprinkle with salt and serve with lemon quarters and tartar sauce (mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce or Dijon mustard couple finely chopped pickles or relish, salt & pepper).

When I moved out from Colorado to California, Warren – he who should be king – sneaked in his favorite plant, a flowering clover that would test any green thumb with its finicky and sensitive nature.  Quickly in California we discovered that our delicate hothouse exotic was considered a common weed called oxalis or sour grass, and it’s the bane of every gardener.  I now spend hours in the garden carefully extracting this nuisance and its horrid seeds from the rich earth.

So you can imagine my surprise, while reading Point de Vue (an idiotic French weekly about the European royals and their social calendars, balls, gowns and jewels) I came upon an article titled “Oeufs Coque Mousseuse de Muscade Piqure d’Oxalis.  And there in the picture, was my little hated weed.  Zut alors, there is something you can do with this infernal weed and I am Queen of the Crop.  So, amuse-toi bien (go have a blast) and try this number that I’ve just finished translating, especially if you have oxalis in your backyard.  I’m going to check it out too.

Coddled Eggs with Nutmeg Mousse and a Shot of Oxalis – This is a 3 part recipe: preparing the yolks, making the cream and boiling an extract of oxalis.  Plan a good hour to test this thing.

4 eggs

8 grains of Salt from Guerande or grey French sea salt

½ grated nutmeg nut

2 ounces of vegetable bouillon

5 ounces of heavy cream

Salt & Pepper

50 stems and 15 leaves of Oxalis

DIRECTIONS

Preparing the Yolks

Decalotter (Nice word, means to take off the top) of the eggs with an egg topper (oh no, a new tool to buy)

Clarify and separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and reintroduce each yolk back to an egg shell

Heat the eggs (obviously with shells standing up) in a bain-marie for 3 minutes.  Water should not boil but should slowly cook the eggs.

When the yolks are lukewarm add Guerande salt to the  measuring cup of cream.  Now fill each egg with the cream (but leave a little space at the top).  Using a syringe filled with the oxalis and bouillon extract, pierce through the whipped cream and yolks and inject the extract of oxalis at the bottom of the shell filling the little opening that you’ve made. (Oh yes, this is definitely a recipe for beginners)

Preparing the Nutmeg Mousse

In a small pot, boil 1 ounce of the vegetable bouillon, take pot of off the fire and add the nutmeg. Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes. Mix and put it thru a coffee filter so all you get is the essence of the nutmeg.

Whip heavy cream until stiff, then add cream to nutmeg essence and salt & pepper to taste.  Put it in a pastry bag  in the refrigerator.

Extract of Oxalis

Boil the remaining ounce of bouillon, add the 50 stems and 15 leaves of oxalis, couple pinches of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cover and heat for a minute, then mix well and filter (coffee filter once again unless you have a fine sieve).  Fill the syringe and follow the instructions on the last paragraph of Preparing the Yolks section.

That’s it.  All that work for 4 eggs, you’ve got to be crazy.  On the other hands, what a great use for the oxalis.

Today David Lebovitz sent out a new blog about Cahors, France, that was so rich and loaded with mouthwatering pictures, I almost left my computer inebriated from the thought of the superb wine and food.  Then I saw the picture of Cahors menu and read it; Joue de Boeuf.  This doesn’t mean “game of beef” but refers to the cheek of an ox.  And the French don’t make up silly marketing names to enhance the sale of meat, but tell it like it is.  Concerning food, the French have no sense of whimsy.  I am quite sure that average Americans would reel away from a dish made from the check of a cow, brains or kidneys.

Which reminds me of a time my husband, Warren, and I spent a month in France.  Now I don’t just speak French, I’m fluent (thank you Mommy for being French) and I always pride myself to try anything as long as it doesn’t wiggle.  We had dumped my five year old daughter with Grandmere in Paris, and had three days to tour through the Chateaux de la Loire countryside drinking, sightseeing, smooching and most importantly, eating.

While spending time in Amboise, I saw a little sign for menu fixe that looked charming.  I had given up on the tour book restaurant suggestions since it seems that place listed required reservations and that is not my style of traveling light and cheap.  My main criteria for choosing a restaurant is that air must smell good, the restaurant must be populated by locals and it needs to be crowded.  This little place in Amboise fit the bill and into the abyss we went.

We sit down in this charming restaurant and the first thing that hits my eyes is lamb.  Lamb is taboo our house when my husband is around.  He hates the stuff and I love it, so I’m always a lamb sucker.  Warren probably ordered some chicken dish and when the two plates came out, we were delighted.  Truly a menu fix dream that we moaned and groaned over.  At the end of the meal, I asked the server about my lamb plate, since I’ve never had lamb before made in that manner.  The server went into great detail about the type of GLAND and its secretions that were used in the meal and at this point, I decided not to understand French.  So when in France, don’t try to understand too much when ordering a meal.

Being a cheap and reluctant cook makes me always want to economize on the amount of cooking I do, the complexity of recipes and the number of dishes to clean.  So three nights ago I roasted 2 chickens, one for the dinner and one to go.  Yesterday night I cubed ¾ of all the chicken and made Chicken Pot Pie with Sherry and Leeks.  Warm and delicious, it was the perfect meal accompanied by a glass of white wine and a mesclun and avocado salad topped with shallot vinaigrette.   This recipe is based on Ina Garten’s Chicken Pot Pie but with less work and with a French twist.

Chicken Pot Pie with Sherry and Leeks – Courtesy to Ina Garten

Ingredients Serves about 8 people, Prep time: 1 hour, Cooking time: 1 hour, remember you’ll need at least ½ hour to chill the dough

  • ¾ of a cooked chicken or 3 whole (6 split) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
  • Olive oil
  • Salt &  ground black pepper (I use Costco)
  • 5 cups water or chicken stock.  Using water I add 3 heaping tablespoons of “Better than Bouillon
  • About 10 sliced mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 4 medium-diced carrots, blanched for 2 minutes
  • 2 leeks – cleaned and sliced
  • 1 bag – 10 to 14 oz. frozen small whole (pearled) onions
  • 1/2 cup of sherry – don’t use the expensive stuff

For the pastry: – This only makes enough for a top which is enough for use.  If you want a top and bottom, make the pastry recipe 2 times (don’t just double, it will break the food processor)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash – optional

Directions

For the pastry, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the shortening and butter and mix quickly with your fingers until each piece is coated with flour. Pulse 10 times, or until the fat is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water; process only enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

In a medium saucepan, heat the water and add the “Better than Bouillon (or just heat up your chicken stock).

In a large pot or Dutch oven with enough olive oil to cover the bottom, sauté the mushroom over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the liquid is reduced. Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the hot chicken bouillon and sherry to the sauce. Simmer over low heat for 1 more minute, stirring, until thick. Add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and heavy cream. Add the cubed chicken, carrots, leeks, onions and parsley. Mix well.  If mixture is a little too thin, add a little more flour.

In a deep oven-safe casserole dish, pour in the mixture (remember, if you want to have a bottom crust, you need to roll and prepare the dough. Place the rolled dough on top and trim to 1/2-inch larger than the top of the casserole. Crimp the dough to fold over the side, pressing it to make it stick. Brush the dough with egg wash (optional) and make 3 slits in the top. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.


One of my most favorite children’s books is Farmer’s Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  When my children were young I use to read to them the entire series, and always looked forward to Farmer’s Boy, the story of Almanzo Wilder who grew up on a wealthy farm in upper New York State.  Not only did Almanzo have a wonderful childhood playing and raising animals, but he also had a ferocious appetite and the book goes in great details about his meals.  One that often comes to my mind is his love for fried onions and applies.

For years I thought that was an odd combination, until out of total cooking boredom, I decided to expand my dinner repertoire and start experimenting.  Yes, apples and onions go well together and so does fennel and pork.  Add a bit of Calvados (apple brandy – you can also substitute with brandy or cognac) and voila – a gourmet meal on the cheap.  Don’t forget a glass of wine with your meal and of, course a salad using the SaladSuccess shaker to make your dressing.

Pork Loin Roll with Apples, Onions, Fennel and Calvados – feeds 4-6:  Prep Time-20 minutes, Inactive Cooking Time – 1 to 1.5 hours

1 ½ – 2 lbs of pork loin (you can also use chops, shoulder etc)

6 cored and sliced apples – granny smith, pippin, mix of what’s in your fruit bin, just don’t use red delicious

2 sliced onions

2 cored and sliced fennel bulbs

1 shallot

½ cup of Calvados

½ cup of water

½ tsp of fine cinnamon – I use Costco’s Saigon Cinnamon or go to Penzey’s

½ tsp of freshly grounded nutmeg

Olive oil

Salt & Grounded Pepper to taste

In a BIG Dutch oven or cocotte (I’ve got 30 year old favorite from Le Creuset), pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Using a med-high heat, sear the pork on all sides, thus trapping in the juices – 1 to 3 minutes per side.  Add water & Calvados and cover firmly with a lid.  About 10 minutes later, add apples, onions, fennel, shallots, cinnamon, nutmeg and lightly salt and pepper.  Cover and wait 10 minutes, then reduce heat to low.  Cook for about 1 hour – 1 ½ hours.

Before serving, I’ll garnish the veggies with cranberries and perhaps some chopped nuts.  It adds a little color and texture to the meal.

Enjoy and hugs………………………Nadine

We are in the middle of the rainy season here in central California and sniffing the air has become an art form.  I was driving my little daughter to a play date and just as I pulled into the driveway, I smelled it everywhere.  What was that delectable odor, what was that perfume?”  Finally, it dawned on me; and field of bay leaf trees growing wild.  So, as a good little cheap bitch, I quickly tore off a few branches, thus saving myself a small fortune in bay leaf purchases.

There are other freebies that are located in my garden and grow all year ‘round; parsley, mint, oregano, thyme and rosemary. Rocket (arugula,rockette, roquette), mache (rapunzel, field salad, or lamb’s lettuce), and chives are free too, since they reseed themselves.  We call them volunteers.  When I am in the grocery stores I’m stunned how much they are charging for a small packet of herbs and forget buying mache, it’s exorbitant.  And they are all so easy to grow.  So the next thing I am putting on my gardening list, is to buy a bay tree starter.  Just think of the years of enjoyment we’ll get from this one small purchase.  And it’s a real cheap bitch purchase.

Now talking about cheap, white fishes such as Dover sole, tilapia and skai are very inexpensive at the moment.  I found both skai and tilapia on sale at my market for $3.99 a pound and decided that for under $8 dollars we would eat regally, all 5 of us.  So instead of pan frying, I want this delicate white fish to be cooked in its juices with wine, lemons, onions and herbs.  To do that, and to have an easy cleanup, I cooked the fish “en papillote” or less elegantly, in parchment paper.  This is the best and healthiest way to cook a fish other than grilling which can dry out a low fat fish.  Parchment paper from the grocery store is expensive, but a large roll (don’t worry, it’s no larger than the 200 ft of aluminum foil at the grocery store) is cost-effective and I found it at Costco.

I also made a chicken and rosemary flavored polenta which is so more exciting than rice and once again, cheap.  Polenta is one of the simplest grains to cook, but if your cupboard is bare, okay, bring out the rice.  Of course don’t forget a nice salad – greens, rocket, mache, feta crumbles with a shallot vinaigrette and a glass of Reisling (if you want to go nuts, spend the wad on Jos. Meyer’s family of Reisling wines – they are from the Alsace region of France and totally to die for).

Poisson Blanc en Papillote (White Fish cooked in Parchment Paper – sounds better in French):  Prep – 5 minutes: Cooking time: ½ hour:  Serves 4-6

2 lbs of a white fish – Tilapia, Skai, Dover Sole

¼ cup of white wine – I use 2 buck Chuck from Trade Joe’s

¼ cup chicken broth

3 -4 bay leaves

1 -2 lemons

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Set oven to 375 degrees. Place fish on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cut a similar sized piece of parchment paper.  Pour chicken broth and white wine over fish, place onion slices, lemons and bay leaves on fish.  Sprinkle salt and pepper.

With the 2nd piece of parchment paper, place over fish and fold 2x both edges of parchment papers together and staple edges so that it makes a sealed package.  When complete, pop into the oven for 30 minutes.

Chicken and Rosemary Infused Polenta: Prep – 5 minutes,  Cooking time – 20 minutes, Serves 4 – 6

4 cups water

1 cup polenta

1 tsp. of chicken broth –  Better than Bouillon found at Costco or better grocery stores. (If you have liquid broth, substitute 2 cups of the water for 2 cups of the chicken broth).

1 sprig of rosemary

Boil 4 cups of water (or 2 cups with 2 cups of chicken broth, bouillon, or stock) with “Better than Bouillon” in a medium size pot.  At full boil, gently add polenta, lower heat to a simmer and whisk mixture until there are no lumps.  Add sprig of rosemary. Serve in 20 minutes.

Last night, while making Dover Sole en Papillote, I reached far back into my herbs, and brought out a huge bag of dried Herbes de Provence.  I open the bag and took a whiff – Yuck, dead herbs.  As per my rule of cooking thumb:  If it don’t smell, it don’t taste!

Years ago I was invited, along with my mother and Aunt Jessie, to a wedding shower, which is not where I shine brilliantly.  My sister-in-law grabbed me by the arm and told me to behave, and being a good woman, I quietly sat in the back while the dome of boredom surrounded my body.  We were at the worst part of the party; the party games.

Why in the hell do 20-something year old women and their mothers like these stupid games? And to make it worse, I’m suppose to join in and pretend I am having a great time.  What makes it really bad, is that if I really concentrate and play, I win EVERYTHING.  Then everyone hates me more.  So there I am, on a couch, wasting another beautiful California Saturday playing children’s games.  Then the hostess announces that the next game is Guess the Spices.  My spirits rally, I have a little fun playing this game since I know spices, and I have a great nose.

Proudly, the hostess brings out the unmarked bowls which were then passed around. In the corner, I start to hear the sounds of shock and low snickering.  The sound started to get louder and louder, and suddenly a large outburst of laughter came out of my mother, followed by my aunt (a very gentle and kind person), who said indignantly “How old are these herbs!  They’re dead.  Is this game a joke?”  Needless to say, the hostess, her daughter and my sister-in-law’s faces turned red.  They were terrible cooks who rarely used spices, let alone fresh ones. Well, all of a sudden the party got interesting and for once, I wasn’t in the hot seat.

So if you don’t want a red face or to be known as a terrible cook, throw out those dead spices and herbs and buy some new ones.  Spring is coming, plan an herb garden, and if you need herbs for the winter (mine grow year round), dry them or have fresh herbs growing by a window sill.  There are great on-line sites such as Penzey’s that sell wonderful spices, herbs and mixes.  There is no excuse for putting that dead crap in your wonderful meals.

Here’s Broccoli Soup – low fat, low cal, inexpensive and will satisfy most the picky eaters

BROCCOLI SOUP

6 large sprays of broccoli

2 quarts of water, chicken broth ($$) or chicken stock ($$$$)

2 heaping tablespoons of Better Than Bouillon (don’t use if you are using broth or stock)

4 potatoes – if you want a thicker soup

Salt and pepper to taste

Creme Fraiche, sour cream or parmesan cheese to garnish with a tab of butter

DIRECTIONS

In a large soup pot boil water with bouillon/water/stock, potatoes, and broccoli. Once soup has boiled, cover pot with a lid and reduce to a low flame for 45 minutes.  Once the potatoes are cooked, take out cooked and pulse thru the food processor, then return to soup.  Salt & pepper to taste. Garnish with a tab of butter and crème fraiche, parmesan cheese, or sour cream if available.