Caprese Sandwich With Fresh Basil

I have a forest of basil growing in my AeroGarden and am always looking for ways to use it. So far, I’ve used it in pasta sauce and on pizzas. Today, I used it fresh in a caprese sandwich – one of my favorite sandwiches. I was not disappointed!

To make this sandwich, you will need a loaf of crusty bread, a beefy tomato, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, a drizzle of olive oil, and a little salt and pepper.

Previous AeroGarden posts…
This is where it all began.
My AeroGarden after the first month.
My AeroGarden after 40 days!

Goat and Chicken Cams – LIVE!

Have you ever wondered what goats and chickens do when no one is looking? You haven’t? It’s just me?! Well, I discovered theeee cutest goat and chicken cams today. You might have to sit through a brief commercial before the live feed starts on a couple of them, but it’s worth the wait. At least I think it’s worth the wait. Perhaps I am too easily amused. Or, more likely, you are the one with the problem. Patience is a virtue, friends.

This live cam is my favorite. It’s a goat cam. Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Goat Cam! The goat noises are adorable and the hopping kids are precious. Awww…
Goat Cam

Here’s another goat cam. Nick and Molly aren’t as active as the goats in the previous goat cam. Maybe they are an old married couple and are simply bored with each other. Would it kill Nick to pick a few flowers for Molly once in a while? Good intentions are not enough, Nick darling!
Nick and Molly Cam

The last time I checked this cam, the baby chicks were nowhere to be found. I hope they’re okay.

(Hey! I just checked again. They’re back. Whew.)
Chick Cam

You must check out this chicken cam. The chicken yard is… um… whimsical. It includes Gumby and Pokey figures, whirly gigs, tree faces, and wind chimes. These chickens are livin’ the life! It’s even interactive. There is a button that allows viewers to feed the chickens. I’m not making this up. When I tried it, I was asked to wait five minutes because someone had already hit the button. To prevent overfeeding, they can only be fed once every 10 minutes and only 1 gallon of feed per day.
Chicken Cam

Made ya look 😉

Organic Garden Catalogs

It’s that time of the year again. That’s right; it’s time to curl up by the fireplace with either a stack of garden catalogs or a laptop with a wireless connection. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best garden catalogs available… specifically, organic garden catalogs. Most can be viewed online, but if you insist on the old-fashioned paper version, most companies will send you one upon request. Browsing garden catalogs online isn’t as romantic as thumbing through a paper catalog, but it is better for the planet. Most of the following websites offer both an online and a paper catalog.

1. Seeds of Change – 100% certified organic vegetable, flower, and herb seeds.

2. Burpee – Includes helpful reference information on organic gardening.

3. Gardeners Supply Company – This is one of my favorites because I love their cool gardening gadgets.

4. Grow Organic – Has a wonderful homestead section that includes organic chicken feed, food processing and preserving supplies, harvesting equipment, and more.

5. Planet Natural – Offers organic fertilizers, natural pest control, and organic gardening equipment.

6. Gardens Alive – Dedicated to biological control of garden pests.

7. Park Seed – This Carolina favorite is celebrating its 143rd year in business.

8. Organic Growing Catalogue – Promotes growing a healthy, “living” garden.

9. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds – Pure heirloom seeds.

10. High Mowing Organic Seeds (online catalog only) – 100% certified organic seeds.

11. Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Slick, easy to use online catalog.

12. John Sheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds – Includes a nice collection of recipes.

13. Nichol’s Garden Nursery – A family owned business that’s been around for 60 years.

14. Renee’s Garden (online catalog only) – Showcases unusual seed choices of time-tested heirlooms.

15. Seed Savers Exchange – A member supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds.

16. Territorial Seed Company -Their catalog and seed packet art were created by a local artist. Very nice.

17. The Cook’s Garden – Another one of my favorite catalogs. It is dedicated to cooks who love to garden and gardeners who love to cook.

18. Tomato Growers Supply Company – They have every tomato under the sun!

19. Stark Brothers – A fine collection of berry plants and fruit and nut trees.

Interested in starting and maintaining an organic garden – My Organic Food Garden

Homemade Pizza with Fresh Basil

By now, many of you know that I am slightly obsessed with my AeroGarden. Now that the basil is ready to be harvested, I’ve been using it as often as possible. Last night, I used some of the Genovese basil on a homemade pizza. Wow! There is nothing like fresh, homegrown basil on a pizza. Its flavor is bright and distinct, but not overpowering. Had my AeroGarden tomatoes been ready, I would have used them on the pizza as well. Instead, I settled for Roma tomatoes from the grocery store. Blah. (By the way, my AeroGarden tomato has tiny blooms. Very cute.) I topped the pie off with a blend of mozzarella, parmesan and Romano cheese.

Ahhhhh, and the crust…
I believe I have found the best crust solution yet. I’ve been experimenting with pizza dough for several years and almost achieved the perfect crust a couple of times. The crust I used last night wasn’t 100% homemade, which seems a little bit like cheating, BUT it works. I used a loaf of frozen bread dough and let it thaw and rise just as if I was making a loaf of bread. Then, I removed it from the bread pan and shaped it into a rough circle. Looks very rugged and artisan, doesn’t it? Actually, this wasn’t my intention. I planned on making a heart shaped pizza. Yeah, I know, I’m corny. When the heart shape failed, I tried to make it round again. You see how that worked out. I recently learned how to toss pizza dough. It’s quite fun and is not as difficult as it looks. However, at this stage in the dough shaping process, tossing was completely out of the question. Next, I sprinkled a little cornmeal on a sheet of parchment paper, set the dough on it, brushed it with olive oil, and perforated it with a fork about twenty times. Since this is bread dough, it tends to get puffy. The fork holes help calm it down. After ten minutes, I removed the crust from the oven and added the sauce and toppings. Then, I slid pizza off of the parchment paper and onto the hot pizza stone in the oven. Ten minutes later, the pizza was ready and I was in heaven.

My Genovese basil in its infancy.

Forcing Branches to Bloom Indoors

I walked through the yard and woods today and collected branches from flowering shrubs and trees for the purpose of forcing them to bloom early indoors. I ended up with a large stack of saucer magnolia, redbud, flowering dogwood, and forsythia branches. Most likely, the forsythia will be the first to bloom. The other branches will follow over the next several weeks. The closer the plant is to blooming when you cut it, the earlier it will bloom. Makes sense.

Forcing branches to bloom indoors is a very simple, rewarding experience. All you need is a pruning shears, branches from flowering shrubs and trees, and a vase. One to eight weeks later you will have a gorgeous bouquet of blooming twigs.

This is how you do it:
1. Collect branches on a day when the temperature is above freezing and after the tree or shrub is out of dormancy. Depending on where you live, this could be as early as January or as late as March. You’ll know the plant is ready if it has swelling buds.

2. Using a pruning shears, cut bud-filled branches at lengths of 12-24 inches.

3. Cut off any lower twigs that will be below the water line after placed in a vase.

4. Fill a vase with 4-6 inches of very warm water.

5. Make a fresh, new cut at the ends of the branches. Cut at an angle to allow for the best water absorption. Some people like to smash the ends with a hammer or make slits at the bottom of the stem.

6. Place the branches in the warm water and arrange as desired.

7. To prevent bacteria, add 1/2 teaspoon of bleach or a flower preservative. You should also change the water every few days.

8. Place the vase of branches in a spot that is 60 to 70 degrees and away from direct sunlight.

9. You will have flowering branches in one to eight weeks!

The following is a list of common flowering shrubs and trees you can force to bloom indoors:
• Redbud
• Quince
• Dogwood
• Witch Hazel
• Forsythia
• Hawthorn
• Honeysuckle
• Saucer Magnolia
• Apple
• Flowering fruit trees
• Pussy Willow
• Spirea
• Lilac
• Viburnum

Homemade Caramels

My mom makes the most delicious homemade caramels. I’d like to share her caramel recipe with you and show just how easy it is to make these sugary, buttery treats. If you’ve never had homemade caramels, you don’t know what you’re missing! These caramels make store bought “caramels” taste, and feel, like vinyl.  It’s like the difference between homemade bread fresh from the oven and Wonder bread.

By the way, none of the ingredients in this recipe are good for you. That, my friends, is what makes these caramels so darn tasty.

1 Can Sweetened Condensed Milk
4 Cups Brown Sugar
2 Cups White Syrup
2 Cups Butter
1 Tsp. Salt
2 Tsp. Vanilla
1 Cup of Nuts (optional)
You will also need an accurate candy thermometer.

1. Generously butter a sheet of parchment paper and place it in a 9” x 13” pan or glass baking dish. Be sure that the paper goes up the sides of the pan.

2. Melt butter on low heat.

3. Add white syrup and salt. Stir constantly over medium heat.

4. Add brown sugar and stir until it dissolves.

5. Add sweetened condensed milk and continue to stir.

6. Insert candy thermometer into caramel sauce. Be sure to keep the end from touching the bottom of the pan as this will give you a false reading.

7. Stir caramel until thermometer reaches 240 degrees.

8. Add vanilla and stir.

9. Pour caramel into buttered parchment paper lined baking dish.

10. Cool overnight on a wire rack.

11. The next day, lift parchment paper and caramel from pan.

12. Using a pizza cutter or sharp knife, cut a row from the caramel. Then, cut the row into bite size pieces. Set the pieces on parchment paper.

13. Cut parchment paper into approximately 4” squares.

14. Wrap each caramel in a parchment square and twist ends.

15. Continue to wrap caramels for the next 1.5 hours. Ha!

16. Share with your friends.

Makes about 14 dozen caramels. That’s a lot!

AeroGarden Day 40

My AeroGarden is on fire! No, really, it is on fire. One of my basil plants grew so tall overnight that its leaves burned where they touched the grow lights. Time to do a little pruning, I guess. Pesto, anyone? The mint isn’t far behind. Mojitos?

The cherry tomato definitely needs pruning. It’s a monster. Then again, I don’t care if it crowds out the mint. Tomatoes are more versatile than mint… unless you enjoy mojitos, that is.

The roots fascinate me almost as much as the foliage. Look at those things! Traditional soil gardening doesn’t offer many opportunities to view the “veins” of the plant. If the roots look like this after 40 days, what will they look like in another 40? Remember those wicked, grabby trees in The Wizard of Oz? If a couple of weeks go by and you don’t hear from me, send in the top county extension office agents with machetes.

Previous AeroGarden posts…
This is where it all began.
My AeroGarden after the first month.

Signs of Spring

I took a stroll around the yard this morning in search of signs of spring. Even though it is still winter, with a chance of snow in a day or two, I have noticed a lot of new growth in my garden beds lately.

Unlike many parts of the U.S., we’ve had a fairly mild winter in South Carolina. Our white Christmas (which hasn’t happened here in 50 years) made a lot of people smile. The next snowfall did not. It was by no means a blizzard, but it did shut things down for 2-3 days. Six to eight inches of snow is devastating when you don’t have the equipment or manpower to remove it. Our winter dread is ice. Ice storms can knock out the power for days on end, create harrowing driving conditions, and cause major property damage (trees falling on houses!). Give me snow any day.

I have to admit that I’m not quite ready for spring. I’d like to see at least one more snowfall this season. Nothing is as peaceful as watching the snow fall from the front porch with a hot peppermint patty warming my palms. So, why the search for signs of spring? I did it for the people who are sick of winter and need a little hope.

This is what I discovered during my stroll…

1.       My hydrangeas don’t seem to realize that their attempts to leaf out will most likely be foiled before spring rolls around. Still, they insist on sending out a few leaves from their base. I call these brave souls The Infantry. Do they think the cold weather won’t notice them tucked in under the old growth?

2.       The same is true for my Autumn Joy sedum. I have five clumps of it and every single one has an impressive amount of fleshy new growth. Unlike the hydrangeas, the new growth of the sedum isn’t prone to cold weather damage. If you’re looking for a low care, showy perennial with winter interest, I highly recommend this plant. They are also extremely easy to propagate from cuttings.

3.       Along my walkway, is a little drift of snowdrops. The leaves started showing themselves about six weeks ago. In March, I will have a micro snowstorm of dainty, precious snowdrops.

4.       The dogwoods are among the first trees to bloom in the spring. The specks of pink and white scattered throughout the otherwise brown woods and yard makes my heart sing.

5.       The Tulip, or Saucer, magnolia is probably my favorite flowering tree. It’s hard to believe that such large, stunning blooms emerge from the tiny pussy willow-like buds. This tree blooms before its leaves even think about coming out. A Tulip magnolia in full bloom is an amazing sight. It’s like a giant cone of cotton candy.

6.       When you enter my driveway, the gorgeous blooms of the bearded irises are the first to greet you. They came with the house, which we bought it six years ago. They haven’t declined a bit over the years. The previous owners told us that the irises came from the home of a friend’s deceased grandmother. It’s nice to carry on her legacy in the form of a living thing. As I admire their blooms, I often wonder about the woman who first planted them. I think she would be pleased that I am watching over them and enjoying their beauty.

AeroGarden Day 29

Wow! What a difference four days makes. It’s hard to believe that these plants were seeds just 29 days ago. What in the world do the AeroGarden folks put in those nutrient packs? I’ve never seen plants grow so fast. In fact, the basil is ready to be snipped. I think the first thing I will use it for is a Caprese sandwich (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, and a drizzle of olive oil) on crusty artisan bread. Delicious!

Now, what in the world am I going to do with the mint? Looks like I’ll be googling “mint” soon. Mint ice cream anyone? Recipe ideas? Help!

My previous AeroGarden post…

Holy Hydroponics!

After several failed attempts at growing an indoor herb garden, I started to give up on the idea that I would have fresh herbs growing in my kitchen during the winter months. My spindly herbs just were not getting enough sunlight. I had two choices; I could set up a grow light system or try a hydroponics system. I went for the hydroponics system – a method of growing plants in water, using mineral supplements, and no soil.

The system I chose was the AeroGarden. Oh, I suppose I could have labored over a more complicated set-up… something involving huge bins of water, hoses, a pump, grow lights, etc., but why? Setting up the AeroGarden was ridiculously simple! This blog is about simplicity. Right? Besides, the thought of my kitchen looking like Dr. Frankenstein’s la-borah-tory gives me the shivers. The AeroGarden is compact, not too ugly, unobtrusive, and works like a dream. Upkeep is minimal. The only thing I have to do is add water and nutrients every two weeks. I don’t even have to mark it on my calendar. The system tells me when it is time to add them. Another nice feature is that the lights automatically turn on and off at the same time every day. Later, as the plants grow, I will have to raise the lights and prune the plants. That’s not a problem, since I will use the clippings for cooking. I’m telling you, this thing practically runs itself!

I seeded my first garden with a cherry tomato, lemon mint, regular mint, Red Rubin basil, globe basil, and Genovese basil. I was apprehensive about growing the tomato alongside the basil and mint because I knew the tomato would grow so much faster. I worried about raising the lights to accommodate the tomato at the risk of denying light to the smaller plants. Even after only 25 days, the tomato is considerably larger than the other plants. I could have waited until the next planting, but my impatience won out. Besides, had I not tried it, I would have wished that I had tried it. So, you see, this whole thing is out of my hands. The tomato is strong and beautiful, by the way. It’s roots are about a foot long and float freely in the reservoir… very cool.