We’ve been enjoying glorious spring weather here in Houston.  Cultivated bluebonnets are appearing in neighboring yards:


Frilly azaleas are in full bloom (on the heels of the redbuds, lorapetalum, and Japanese magnolias).  It’s almost as if the city were spray painted with big splotches of pink, purple, and white:

Those are what I call azaleas!

These huge azaleas tend to be found on older homes.  Landscapers today tend to favor Encore azaleas, which grow in tidier formations not much more than about 16 inches tall, and promise to bloom year round.  (The “bloom year round” thing, unfortunately, is kind of a joke.  They manage to choke out a few blossoms in the warmer weather, but they are decidedly not spectacular.)


  Encore azaleas

I came across a tree that was filled with birds that I didn’t instantly recognize.  There must have been 30 of them, flitting about, eating the berries on the tree.  I sat and watched them for a while, completely mesmerized.  I later learned that they were Cedar Waxwings.



Cedar Waxwings

The farmers market was packed this weekend, with people coming from all over to enjoy the great weather.  I came home with some beautiful produce, including tender broccoli side shoots (we love these):


Green onions in bud (I think these look like baby leeks, but am always told they are green onions):

And never-cease-to-delight-me candy-striped Chioggia beets:

IMG_2495 Don’t be fooled by their plain exterior

The beauty within

Most of the produce came from Atkinson Farms, one of my favorite vendors.  As I completed my purchase and started to walk away, I noticed something on a back table, a sort of Land of Misfit Vegetables.  Beep, beep, beep — I backed up to get a better look.  Wait.  Was that . . . .   Could it be . . . ?  Cardoons?

Mr. Atkinson confirmed that they were, in fact, cardoons.  Up until then, I had only read about cardoons, and at this point, my nose was probably twitching with excitement.  I asked him what do you do with them, and he answered with the same answer I get whenever I ask him about any vegetable he sells — “eat them.”  I told him I figured that out, and he kind of smiled and very patiently explained to me how to prepare them.  Turns out, they are a bit of work, which is why, he said, people don’t like to buy them.  Silly people.  He handed me a bunch, told me they were on him, and to let him know what I thought of them.  Oh, Joy is my new middle name!

Cardoons, like artichokes, are thistle-like members of the sunflower family.   Mr. Atkinson was right, they are a bit of work.  You first have to strip the leaves, which are bitter, and trim the outside layer, which is stringy.  I’m not sure how to describe the inside of the stalk — it looks like a series of tubes.  As the stalks mature, they become hollow and more stringy.

Next, the prepared cardoons need to be simmered in salted water for about 30 minutes until they’re tender.  Then they’re ready to be used in any number of ways — sliced and added to pasta, breaded and fried, gratineed, etc.


I topped my cardoons with a mixture of 1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, then dotted it with about a tablespoon of butter and baked at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the topping was browned.

IMG_2574Looking at cardoons, you might expect them to taste like celery.  You would be wrong, and really, why would you want to go to all that trouble for something that tastes like celery, when you could just eat celery?  You may have heard that they taste like artichokes.  More accurately, they taste EXACTLY like artichoke hearts.  And for that, the hassle is worth it.


You were going to do it, weren’t you?  You were going to let me be the only blogger that didn’t post a recipe for pickled something or other.  Nice.  Just for that, no twine around the jar for you.  And no stripey straws either.

Living in Houston, the only thing I’m growing this time of year is dried herbs.  So unlike those of you who have so many cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes overflowing from your garden that you don’t know what to do with them, I have to buy mine.  And when I see fat little Kirby cucumbers at the farmers market, I am compelled to pickle.  Did you know (or care) that “Kirby cucumber” is a generic term used to describe small (6-7 inches) cucumbers?  Once upon a time, however, there was such a thing as actual Kirby cucumbers, which were varieties developed by Norval E. Kirby in the 1920s.   Kirby cucumbers are unwaxed to prevent interference with pickling.  They tend to be crisper and have fewer seeds than other cucumbers, which also makes them good for pickling.

This recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles was passed on to me by my Dad, who said it came from the New York Times a few decades ago.  It’s easy to make, and the pickles are especially good on sandwiches.

Recipe type: Vegetable, Vegetarian
  • 6 medium Kirby cucumbers, sliced ¼" thick
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seed
  • ¼ teaspoon celery seed
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  1. Place cucumbers and onion in a large bowl and toss with salt. Add enough water to cover, and soak for 30 minutes. Drain, but do not rinse. Pack cucumbers and onions into a quart jar.
  2. Place sugar, vinegar, 3 tablespoons water, mustard seed, celery seed, and turmeric in a small saucepan over high heat, and heat until boiling. Carefully pour over cucumbers. Set jar aside to cool, then refrigerate.

IMG_5172Toss the cucumbers and onion with Kosher salt 


Cover with water and let soak for a bit


 Stuff them in a quart jar





I found this 1940s produce crate label for Dominator Tomatoes, used by the T.O. Tomasello Company of Watsonville, California, on ebay.  It features a U.S. fighter plane.  I got it along with several other labels featuring airplanes, thinking it would be cute to frame them for my then-young son’s airplane-themed room.

I never did get around to framing those labels.  Never finished collecting all of the state quarters with him either, but somehow we’ve managed to carry on.

This time of year, tomatoes do indeed dominate.  The tomato season in Houston is short, and the tomatoes are not pretty, but they taste great.  These heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market a few weeks ago were wonderful with sliced red onions and kirby cucumbers, drizzled with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.


Although the Houston tomato season is pretty much over, we’re enjoying vine-ripened tomatoes from other parts of the U.S.  My research indicates that Florida is the largest producer of fresh market tomatoes, whereas California produces almost all of the tomatoes processed in the U.S.  The USDA says that we eat between 22-24 pounds of tomatoes per person annually, with more than half of those tomatoes used in ketchup and tomato sauce.  And according to one survey, 93% of U.S. gardening households grow tomatoes.

The scientific name for tomatoes is lycopersicum (technically, either lycopersicon lycopersicum or solanum lycopersicum, depending on who you think is correct — oh, the controversies that arise in the plant-naming world!), which means “wolf peach,” and has its origins in German werewolf myths.  According to legend, the nightshade plant (tomatoes are in the nightshade family) was used in potions by witches and sorcerers to change themselves into werewolves.  When the similar, but larger tomato arrived in Europe, it was called “wolf peach.”

Tomatoes are believed to have originated in the Andes.  The word tomato comes from the Aztec “xitomate,” which means “plump thing with a navel.”  So the next time your loved one refers to you as a hot tomato, don’t be so flattered.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.  For culinary purposes, which, let’s face it, are far more important than botanical purposes, a tomato is considered a vegetable.  As I told my son, when he was studying for his theology final and trying to explain the difference between knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; 

Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad
Well, they may not be great in fruit salad, but tomatoes — especially ripe summer tomatoes — are wonderful in vegetable salads.  Inspired by the Dominator tomato crate label, this recipe for Pomodoro Basilico Salad makes great use of the season’s fresh tomatoes, and really allows the tomato to be the star of this salad.  For the very best results, use a good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Recipe type: Salad, Vegetable, Vegetarian
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • 12 calamata olives, sliced
  • 6 large basil leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons
  • ½ of a small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Place tomatoes, olives, basil, and onion in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together oil and vinegars, and pour over tomato mixture. Stir gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.




You say to-may-to, I say delicious


Ever since I attended the Herb Symposium last month, I’ve been on the lookout for herbs to add to my collection.  The other day I found this Mexican Oregano, with its pretty orchid-colored blossoms:


I’ve always had a pot of oregano among my herbs, but it was either Greek or Mediterranean.  This was the first time I had seen, or at least noticed, Mexican oregano. Unlike the grayish-green rounded leaves of the other varieties, this one had bright green, pointed leaves:

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I can’t wait to use it in a recipe, and those flowers are going to make a pretty garnish.

Oregano is used frequently in Mexican recipes, and one that we really love is Ninfa’s Carrot Relish.  These pickled carrots were always on the table at Ninfa’s, along with the restaurant’s legendary red and green salsas.  The recipe appeared in the Houston Chronicle years ago, and I’ve made it many times since.  One time, my Dad threw some leftover cauliflower into the warm brine, and it was so good, that he declared, “I don’t know why you would ever make it any other way.”  Gotta agree with you, Dad — it is even better with the cauliflower!

5.0 from 1 reviews
Recipe type: Vegetables
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups white vinegar
  • 12 chiles de arbol
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled, diagonally sliced ⅛" thick
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced onion
  • 3 ounces canned pickled jalapenos
  1. Place water, oil, and vinegar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add chiles, reduce heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add oregano, cumin, pepper, salt, and sugar and simmer 5 minutes longer. Add carrots, onion, cauliflower, and jalapenos, and simmer approximately 10 minutes, or until carrots have reached desired consistency (they should be relatively firm). Transfer to jar, allow to cool, then refrigerate.

CHIEX_014b430(3)[1]Chiles de arbol add just the right kick

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Why would you ever make it without cauliflower?



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I found this Japanese bronze bonsai planter on ebay.  It has a crisp pattern and interesting   animal handles:

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It is signed, although I have no idea by whom.

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Bonsai is defined as “a tree or shrub that has been dwarfed, as by pruning the roots and pinching, and is grown in a pot or other container and trained to produce a desired shape or effect.”  Or, as defined on Urban Dictionary:  “A small shrub that resembles a tree.  So small yet so full of treeness.”

I’ve never grown a bonsai in my bonsai planter, because I don’t have enough light for one in my house, but every winter I use it to force narcissus, also known as paperwhites.  First I fill the planter with gravel (which I purchase at the pet store in the fish tank aisle):

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Then I nestle 8 bulbs on top of the gravel.  I add water to just below the surface of the gravel:


Within a few days, roots appear on the bulbs:


And leaves shoot up:

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About a week later, buds start to appear:

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And a few days later I am treated to fragrant, delicate white flowers:

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I look forward to forcing the bulbs every year, and wonder what else I could force using my bonsai planter.  Maybe I could use it to force my kids to do the laundry.

One thing I don’t have to force my kids to do is eat Spinach with Sesame Soy Dressing.  We first tried something similar to this on our one and only trip to Disneyworld.  We went during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, or as Disney calls it, “the most magical time of the year (“magical” being a euphemism for expensive or crowded, or maybe both).  I DO NOT recommend going to Disneyworld at that time of year.  The Magic Kingdom was so crowded that they closed the gates periodically throughout the day.  It was a challenge just to find a place to eat.  (Take my advice and DO NOT eat at the Tomorrowland Noodle House.)  One day at Epcot we did not manage to sit down for breakfast until 3 p.m., and my caffeine headache was so bad that all I wanted to do was bang my head against a wall.   In desperation, we wound up having dinner at Todd English’s Blue Zoo, in the Swan and Dolphin Hotel.  It is off the beaten path, took about 30 minutes to shuttle there from our hotel, and was so great that we ate there twice.  A tasty little mound of sesame spinach accompanied some of the entrees, which the kids quickly scarfed down.

Inspired by the bonsai planter, I finally got around to trying this recipe for Spinach with Sesame Soy Dressing.  The recipe from which this is adapted was originally published in Gourmet magazine in 1963, but was republished in 2006.  According to my family, it has definitely withstood the test of time.

  • 1 pound baby spinach
  • 4 teaspoons sesame seeds, divided use
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce (shoyu, if you can find it)
  • ¼ teaspoon sesame oil
  • Pinch of salt
  1. Rinse spinach and drain lightly. With water still clinging to leaves, cook in 2 batches in a large pot over moderately high heat, covered, turning occasionally with tongs, until wilted and bright green, 2 to 3 minutes per batch. Transfer cooked spinach to a colander, then rinse under cold water until cool and drain well. Squeeze small handfuls of spinach to remove as much moisture as possible, then in 2 batches wrap spinach in several layers of paper towels and squeeze to remove more moisture. Coarsely chop spinach. Divide spinach among 4 small custard cups or timbales.
  2. Finely grind 2 teaspoons sesame seeds in a blender, then add peanut oil, vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, sesame oil, and salt and blend until combined well.
  3. To serve, unmound spinach onto plate. Spoon 1 teaspoon dressing over each spinach mound, stirring dressing occasionally. Sprinkle mounds with remaining 2 teaspoons sesame seeds. Serve at room temperature.

 Chop chop, dinner will be ready soon

 So small yet so full of spinachness


At the farmers market this weekend, I found some really beautiful purple and green kale, which will probably find their way into some soup later this week:

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There was also an abundance of broccoli — giant heads of it, and buckets of tender florets:

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I received an email newsletter from one of the farmers market vendors raving about Ina Garten’s recipe for roasted broccoli.  He wasn’t kidding — this is one of the best ways to prepare broccoli that I have ever tried.  I never really thought of broccoli as addictive, but this put broccoli in a whole new light. The recipe below is adapted slightly from Ina’s recipe for Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli.

  • 8 cups broccoli florets (from 2 large heads broccoli)
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • Juice of 1 small lemon
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Place the broccoli florets in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Sprinkle the garlic over the broccoli, drizzle with the olive oil, and toss together. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp-tender and the tips of some of the florets are browned.
  3. Remove the broccoli from the oven and transfer to a large serving bowl. Toss the broccoli with the Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and pine nuts, and serve.


 Tossed with garlic and olive oil and ready to go in the oven


Nicely browned


A squeeze of lemon, grated Parmesan, sprinkle of pine nuts, and voila!


For more than 1500 years, people have been eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck, and I am no exception.  I don’t, however, particularly care for Hoppin’ John,  a popular Southern dish made with black-eyed peas and rice, because I think it’s bad luck to start the New Year’s diet with a double dose of carbs.  Instead, one of my favorite ways to prepare black-eyed peas is to simmer them with some broth, vegetables, a smidgen of bacon, and a little Cajun spice for kick.  I hope this batch will bring me luck in 2013!  Happy New Year!

Recipe type: Vegetable
  • 1 slice bacon, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 pound fresh black-eyed peas
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or Creole spice
  • 2 dried cayenne peppers
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  1. Place bacon in a large stockpot over medium high heat and saute until browned and fat is rendered. Add onion, garlic, carrots, and celery, and saute until vegetables are soft. Add black-eyed peas, broth, spice mix, and cayenne peppers, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until peas are tender, approximately 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm and feel lucky.

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Feelin’ lucky!