Fixing grits

Home fries, grits, or hashbrowns?  For me, it’s always grits and always will be – even though I like home fries a little better.  The reason for this came home to me a few months ago when I was ordering breakfast with my brother.  We both chose grits and then surprised each other by admitting that we ordered them due to love, not taste. Dad loved grits.

He was a mid-20th century boy, raised in the South (about 45 miles from Gainesville). My best early memory of grits is at the yellow laminate kitchen table of his parents’ kitchen, the smell of Nettles sausage vying with the reek of chewing tobacco, the deep yellow, scrambled eggs cooked barely solid, butter melting over the speckled grits, and the country music station playing on the radio on the shelf above the fridge.

If your grits don’t have speckles and don’t take 20-30 minutes to cook, they are processed “quick grits.” Lawdy, don’t do that if you can help it. Real grits have more of the “stick-to-your-ribs" quality,and are worth the wait. My dad’s childhood took place during the heyday of grits, and all over the South people could carry their own dent corn to the local mill to have it ground for cheap.  The fine grounds became cornmeal and went into cornbread, another staple. The grittier grounds were… grits. Hardy grits got many southern families through the Civil War and the Depression, and were a staple for native people long before Europeans arrived.

Their long history and the fact that they haven’t really caught on in the rest of the country renders them even more precious to Southerners. You can get  organically-grown, local grits - the kind my grandmother bought - from Greenway Farms in Alachua. 

HOW TO FIX SOME GRITS:  To prepare them the traditional way, simply pour one cup of grits and ½ teaspoon salt into  to 4 cups of boiling water. Whisk as the water returns to a boil, to keep them from lumping together.  Simmer for 20-30 minutes (this makes enough for a grits-loving family of four).

If you are new to grits, and want to make them a little richer and fancier, substitute milk for half, or even all, the water.  These are creamy and delicious even to neophytes.

IMPORTANT: However you cook them, a visible dollop of butter melting on the top is a must. 

Winter citrus and ginger tea

Fridge drawer 1.5
Opening the fridge drawer today reminded me of how lucky we are to live in Florida in the winter. It's citrus season right at the perfect time. Every other person I know has a cold right now and, even if there is no actual proof that Vitamin C cures them, the bright colos and zingy taste makes me feel better.  

Meyers lemons, by the way, are our local variety. They're bigger than store-bought and a little less mouth-puckering. They are super-juicy compared to the smaller ones, and you can freeze the juice for summer lemonade and iced tea; they also make incredible lemon bars and lemon meringue pie. Calamondins are tiny citrus that remain sour as they ripen. We've sweetened them up into marmalade and pie, but they can substitute for lemons in lemonade and tea as well. 

On a chilly day like today, a cup of ginger tea is warming and healthy whether you have a cold or are just plain cold. Meyers lemons and/or calamondins add the tang, ginger spices it up, and honey just feels good going down. We bought the ginger at the co-op, but the lemon and honey we got from local farmers. Thank you Hendersons and Chacko-Allens! 

Ginger Tea

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Honey to taste

Place all ingedients in a small pot, add one cup water and bring to a boil. Steep for about five minutes. Poor through strainer into cup.  If you make more, you can store it in the fridge; it's good cold, too. 

End of Summer - Roselle and Malabar Spinach

Roselle zen sm

It's supposed to dip down into the 30s tomorrow night, with a possibility of frost that will put an end to a couple of summer survivors: roselle and Malabar spinach.

We harvested a basketful of roselle last weekend and dried it in a borrowed dehydrator. Roselle - also called Jamaica sorrel is a relative of hibiscus, okra, cotton, and responsible for the red zing in "Red Zinger" tea. A basketful created a jar of dried calyxes for making a beautiful vitamin-C-ful tea during winter with some hopefully left over for authentic Jamaica for the Christmas season (the one with rum). 

Roselle sepals sm
A friend brought by bags full of Malabar Spinach - a heat-hardy climbing vine that is not related to spinach at all. It has many of the same nutrients though and is a good source of calcium and iron as well as Vitamins A and C. And IT GROWS IN THE SUMMER in north Florida, which makes me want to love it in spite of its slightly mucilaginous quality. In fact, I really do like it more each time I try it.

And, let me repeat: IT GROWS IN THE SUMMER. 

Malabar spinach
We served it at the cafe this week in quiche, and folks really liked it. We also added it to some newly-harvested lettuce in salad.  I blanched and froze three gallons of it, which will be greening up soups and casseroles for months to come. 

Goodbye summer! 

{malibar spinach photo found here - with more info about this glorious summer vegetable}

Finally, fall

I love autumn
Too bad fall is not as dramatic here as it is in other places. After this extreme summer of record breaking heat, little rain, and wafting smoke from regional forest fires (a veritable hell on some days), I want it to swoop in like a super-hero to save the day!  But even without the vibrant colors and the dramatic weather changes, it quietly tiptoes in, and things begin to - finally - change: the slant of sunlight as the sun moves its way south, the clearer blue skies as the humidity falls, and the drop in temperature which, while slight, is a welcome relief. High eighties is notably different than high nineties I tell you, and cool sixties weather at night makes me want to sit out on the front steps again. 

I still envy apple-picking northerners and westerners, and real (orange) pumpkins ripening, the blazing trees and the first flurries. But we have some truly good stuff here too: 

  • Magnificent fall gardening. You can grow just about anything in the fall, provided you get warm weather transplants in the ground soon. Many cool weather plants will produce all the way through spring. 
  • Deciduous trees shedding their leaves and providing more sun to gardens and welcome sunlight to our homes (which we tend to shrink from in the summer).
  • Windows open at last. The first day we open the windows and leave them open is such a relief. I love hearing the doves in the morning, the owls at night. The hoopla after  football games downtown not so much…
  • Along with the good gardening comes good eating. Fresh vegetables start rolling in by mid-October and go through till next summer! This is the season for Autumn Salad, Baked Bean Soup, Greens and Beans, Pumpkin Soup, Roasted Autumn Veggies with Polenta, Sweet Potato Chili and Sweet Potato Quesadillas.

Even though it's barely perceptible today, it's FALL. Celebrate!

Mango fever

Mangoes are not technically a local food, growing outside the 100-mile boundary most locavores embrace. But the fact that it is possible to grow them north of the Okechobee, along the coast, close to the house, against a south facing wall, with a plan to cover in case of frost - makes me want to excuse how many I eat in the summer. Most are grown south of Lake Okechobee. 

They are beautiful to look at, delicious to eat, difficult to prepare. Fortunatly, many years ago, I came across the "hedgehog" method of mango preparation. The hedgehogs make a fine snack or dessert in themselves, but cubing them offers up more possibilities. We rarely make black beans and rice without mango salsa, for instance. And this time of year, they're in the bean salad and the watermelon and blueberry summer salad, as well as on top of cereal and even cake. One of my many summer goals was to have a mango ripening on the shelf or waiting in the fridge at all times. This may be my one success. 

{photo: succulent mango photo from "mobiletechworld."}

The Food Underground

Eggs 1 sm
Each week they're in production, we have eggs and goat cheese delivered to the house by our farming friends: beautiful, colorful, eggs in different shapes and sizes to boil for the Breakfast Brigade, and mild, tasty goat cheese for the cafe (among other things).  

We're happy to pay a fair price for this local food offered by people we know well. We know that by buying from them rather than from a national chain - even one that offers organic produce - we're keeping money circulating in our local economy. We also trust the care both of these suppliers put into their particular operation; their animals are well-loved and healthy, they pay attention to sanitation because they eat this food themselves, and they are careful with the environment ramifications of animal ownership because they live on the land where the animals are kept. Kelley (the goatherd) has been able to expand her clientele by having our house be a pick-up location for others buying the cheese. One other buyer referred to the whole operation as the "underground cheese railroad." 

I love being able to participate in something so homegrown, healthy, and basically good. Fear has often been the basis of our overly complicated food system - where complex methods of sanitation have been required to guard against bacteria and disease resulting from overcrowded animal quarters and mechanized production. Many of these safeguards have been made into laws that keep small producers from making a living selling food that is healthier for the environment, for the animals, and for us. Our friends, Susan and Kelly, living on the land with their animals and eating the same food they're selling to us offer real food security.  

Early Summer Dinner

May day dinner
It's hot for early May, but very good for vegetables, judging by all the fresh produce we've been receiving (and growing)! We're really enjoying the fresh, simple meals we can create from this abundance, and I wanted to share one of them with you. 

Last Sunday's Dinner: 

Tabouli - minty and fresh, it made great use of the first of our windowbox cherry tomatoes and potted mint. The bulgher wheat requires no cooking - just an equal amount of boiling water poured over and a 30 minute rest before serving. We had no lemons, so I used rice vinegar for spark. 

Refrigerator pickles - We have fresh dill growing and we got some absolutely beautiful, fresh, sweet onions from the 441 Market on Saturday - so sweet you can eat them out of hand and chop them without crying. Our own cucumbers are just beginning to come in, and we received several varieties from the market. All delicious. 

Salad - The lettuce we planted in the shade under a tree is still tender, and we added it to some delicious market spinach. Sliced strawberries and oranges, pecans, goat cheese, and boiled eggs left from the Breakfast Brigade made this salad seem like a dessert. We dressed it with equal parts rice vinegar and vegetable oil shaken up with a little salt.

I think May might be the best time of the year for fresh produce; everything we can grow is growing - from winter kale and oranges, to spring chard and lettuce, to summer tomatoes! Hope you are finding ways to enjoy it all too!

Yay! It's [Corporate] Snack Food Month! (Lemon Bars instead)

Apparently, snack food consumption is down in February, and the "Snack Food Association" is doing something about it! I don't think most people pay attention to these things anyway, but it does have a contrary effect on me. I just want to do the opposite - no snacking! no ready-made junk food!  There are so many good things out there to grow, prepare, and enjoy together. 


We're pretty good about this as a household, but  sometimes the desire to pop a treat into a lunchbox at the last minute or to eat something sweet without going to any more trouble than tearing open a bag overwhelms. Not having it in the pantry in the first place helps a lot. 

When the urge strikes, we have to at least pause and consider whether we have the raw ingredients and enough time to fulfill it. We did last night. We had a drawer full of gift lemons (large, Florida-type) that needed juicing and the basic ingredients needed to make old-fashioned lemon bars. These don't have any more nutrients than a box of Oreos or a bag of Cheetos - but they fun to make and a lot tastier. In fact, they truly melt in your mouth...


Short Bread Crust:
1/2 cup sweet butter, room temperature (or grated)
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
a pinch of cinnamon

Grease an 8 inch square pan with butter and line with parchment (a roll of parchment is definitely worth its cost if you bake often).
Preheat oven to 350 degree F.

For the Crust: Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Mix in flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon forming a light dough. Press dough into greased pan and bake for about 15 minutes, should be light brown. Remove from oven and cool in pan.

Lemon Filling:
3/4 cup granulated sugar 
2 eggs
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice 
1 Tablespoon grated lemon zest 
2 Tablespoon all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pinch salt

For the Lemon Filling: Mix with a wire whisk the sugar, flour, salt, and eggs until dissolved. Add fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla just until combined. Do not over mix or too much air will affect filling. Pour the filling over the cooled shortbread crust and bake for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the filling is set. 

Remove from oven and cool. After cooling at room temperature, refrigerate. To serve, cut into squares and dust with powdered sugar. Chill lemon squares until ready to serve.


More Beans and Greens

Beans and greens
'Tis the season! It seems it can't get cold enough in Gainesville to do serious damage to greens. This week we received mustards, collards, bok choy, tatsoi, and mizuna from generous farmers after the market - so we turned them into our favorite beans and greens for the cafe today. When cooking a variety of greens like this, it's good to know the relative cooking time of each so you can add them in the right order (in this case - mustards and collards, bok choy and tatsoi, then mizuna) We cooked them like we always do and served them up on rice with a side of oatmeal-flax bread. Oranges on the side help with iron absorption, and add nutrients and deliciousness of their own. It was a cold day, but the combination of sweet volunteers, gracious guests and a fire in the fireplace helped create a warm place to be in every way.