Greek Inspired Meal Prep!

For meal prep this week, my partner and I made Let’s Dish Recipes’ Greek Turkey Meatballs with Spinach and Feta. These meatballs were a great way to add some variety to our weekly meal plan. These Greek inspired meatballs packed a lot of flavor and were pretty easy to make! We paired the meal with a Greek style salad, buttered sugar snap peas from our winter garden, and tzatziki sauce (recipe from The Mediterranean Dish here). 

Meal prepped turkey, spinach, & feta meatballs with butter sugar snap peas.

I made a few changes to the preparation of the meatballs including adding some garlic powder to the meatball mixture. I also baked the meatballs in two batches on a sheet pan, and I cut down the baking time to 18 mins. The baking time may depend on your oven, but they will be done when a meat thermometer registers at 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meatball mixture and the cookie scoop I used to measure them out.

We harvested, blanched, and sautéed in butter sugar snap peas from our winter garden to serve as a yummy vegetable side dish to these zesty meatballs. 

One pound of sugar snap peas we harvested from our winter garden!

We also made a Greek style salad with red leaf romaine, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, feta crumbles and toasted pine nuts with lemon vinaigrette. This salad would also be great with Kalamata olives, however, my partner doesn’t care for olives, so we left them out!

Greek salad we made as a side dish to our Greek-inspired meatballs.

Easy and tasty meal prep ideas! Let me know if you try any of the recipes out. We will definitely be making these recipes again!

Sausage, Kale, & Butternut Squash Soup

In Sacramento we had our first freeze of the year last night. Tonight the wind is blowing hard and rain is pounding the roof and the windows. The cold and stormy weather is the perfect excuse to make this warm, cozy, and nutritious soup! It is full of savory Italian sausage, hardy kale, and melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash. If you are looking for a comforting and healthy meal, give this one a try! 

Honestly, this soup is so beautiful! I wish this picture did it more justice, but alas, we started eating before I could take more pictures. That tells you how good it is!

Note: I adapted my recipe from this one from The Lemon Bowl. The main difference is that I took out the beans and reduced the amount of liquid accordingly. I also roasted the squash before adding it to the soup, and I replaced a cup of stock with a cup of white wine to deglaze the pan and for extra flavor.

Ingredients

1 lb. (about 3 links) of Italian sausage, out of the casing

1 medium sized butternut squash, skinned, roasted, and cut into cubes

1 bunch of kale, de-ribbed and cut into bite size pieces

1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

1 white or yellow onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

5 cups of chicken stock

1 cup of white wine

½ tsp dried thyme

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp red chili flakes (optional)

2 tbsp olive oil, divided

Salt & Pepper

2-3 oz grated parmigiano reggiano 

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. While your oven is preheating, remove the skin and stem from your butternut squash. Then cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise. Remove the seeds and cut squash into 1 inch cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roast the squash on a baking sheet in the oven for 15-20 mins or until they are fork tender (can be pierced easily with a fork with light pressure). 
  2. While your squash is roasting, prepare your other ingredients. Then while squash is out of the oven cooling, remove the Italian sausage from its casings (if you bought links) and brown your Italian sausage in a high-walled pan or pot (at least 5 qts) over medium heat. This should take about 5-7 mins. Remove the sausage from the pan and set aside in a separate container. 
  3. Add 1 tbsp of olive oil and the diced onion to the pan that you cooked the sausage in, and cook the onion for 2-3 mins, scraping up the browned sausage bits as you go. Next, add the red bell pepper and the garlic. Saute for another minute or so, then add your dried thyme, oregano, and chili flakes, salt & pepper. Once fragrant, add the cup of white wine and simmer until reduced by about half and you can no longer smell the alcohol (about 3-4 mins). 
  4. Once the wine has cooked off, add the sausage and roasted butternut squash cubes back into the pot. Next add the 5 cups of chicken stock (it should just cover all of the ingredients). Bring up to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Lastly, add the kale and simmer for about 5 more minutes to let the kale wilt down a bit. 
  5. Ladle into bowls, top with parmesan cheese, and serve hot! Could be served with a nice slice of rustic bread or croutons to really put it over the top. Enjoy! 

Honey Sage Old Fashioned

Based off the recipe from The Farmhouse Project: (https://www.thefarmhouseproject.com/honey-sage-bourbon-cocktail/)

One of my other creative pursuits is participating in a friendly Instagram “Plate Off” competition (@plate.off). This was my entry for December’s competition themed Holiday Cocktail Hour. The poppyseed bread pictured was baked by my future mother-in-law. 

Honey Sage Old Fashioned and Poppyseed Bread.

Sage Simple Syrup

1 cup cold water

1 cup white sugar

Two sprigs of sage (10-15 leaves)

Honey Sage Old Fashioned

1 shot Bourbon

Sage Simple Syrup to taste

1 tsp honey

Dash of angostura bitters

Orange peels and sage leaves for garnish

Instructions

  1. To make the sage simple syrup, combine the sugar, water, and sage leaves in a saucepan on the stove. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 5 mins. Cool before using. Can be stored in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks.
  2. Combine Bourbon, sage simple syrup, honey, and bitters over ice in a shaker. Shake gently to combine and serve. (We added the honey at this step. In the Farmhouse Project recipe they made their sage simple syrup with honey instead of white sugar. See their recipe for more information.)

House plants

House plants are a great way to bring nature inside. Living greenery can add a touch of warmth and relaxation to a room in a way that other decorative elements can’t quite match. I think we can all agree that we can use some additional stress relief this year. House plants are great for this.

There are many different kinds of house plants and several key factors to consider when choosing a houseplant. Some are considered low light, however, plants with brightly colored leaves often need bright light because the exposure to light keeps their colors vivid. Some house plants will produce flowers, and those may require more specific care to encourage flower production. Other house plants are nearly foolproof (I say nearly because I’ve killed some of the “foolproof” plants *sigh*). Most house plants have low water requirements, and this is because homes are temperature controlled environments with minimal exposure to wind and sun. 

One other factor to consider when choosing or caring for current house plants is keeping potentially toxic plants out of reach of pets and children. Having adopted two kittens this year, I know first hand that this can be a challenge. 

Here are some of my top picks for easy-to-care for houseplants: 

ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

Light: Low 

Water: Very Low

Toxic to pets: Yes

Highlights: Easiest plant I’ve ever grown! Happy in pretty much any spot and with barely any water. ZZ plants are very forgiving. Note: if given plenty of light, they can grow quite large. 

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

Light: Very Low

Water: Low

Toxic to pets: Yes

Highlights: Pothos (sometimes called “Devil’s Ivy”) is a vining house plant known for its attractive foliage and ease of care. Very low light and low water requirements makes this another good choice for those who forget to water. Pothos is a good hanging plant because of its vining nature. Hanging your pothos will also help keep it away from curious kids and critters. 

Nerve Plant (Fittonia spp.)

Light: Bright, indirect

Water: Moderate

Toxic to pets: No

Highlights: Such a beautiful plant that comes in several fun colors. The veins on the leaves can be white, pink, orange, or dark red. Water needs are moderate, and the plant will droop quite dramatically if it is thirsty. 

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata

Light: Low

Water: Low

Toxic to pets: Yes

Highlights: Snake plant (a.k.a. Mother-in-law’s tongue) is a great starter houseplant. Hardy and easy to care for with upright, slightly succulent leaves. Some grow (like the one pictured above) grow in a rosette pattern.

Polka Dot Plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Light: Bright, indirect

Water: Moderate

Toxic to pets: No

Highlights: Such a pretty plant, but it can be very delicate! Not toxic to pets, but it does not hold up well to being nibbled, sat on, etc. Keep in bright, indirect light to ensure the leaves keep their beautiful polka-dot patterns. Take care not to let the plant dry out too much because the thin, papery leaves will wilt and crumble rather easily. 

Hand Tool Maintenance

Taking care of your gardening tools is important for food safety, plant health, and tool longevity. Some of the key maintenance tasks for gardening tools include sanitizing, oiling, and sharpening. Sanitizing your tools helps protect against spreading plant diseases from plant to plant and from contracting a food illness if being used on food plants. Oiling and sharpening go hand-in-hand. These practices help your tools stay moving fluidly and sharp. Maintaining your tools will make your gardening safer, more efficient, and more effective. 

Sanitizing

To prevent spreading plant diseases and pests, it is ideal to sanitize your cutting tools in between plants, especially when a plant you are working on has any visible signs of infection. Visible signs of infection include mold and dark spots or rot. Signs of pest infection include chew holes, clusters of small insects or eggs, and insect droppings. In practice, it is not always practical or efficient to wash tools between plants; however, take special care if there are any signs of plant pests or diseases. 

Sanitation Station

It is also a good idea to do a seasonal cleaning and sanitizing of all of your gardening tools, especially, if you’re like me and you often neglect to sanitize your tools during the growing season. An easy way to sanitize your tools is to follow these three steps: 

  1. Wash off soil and large debris (leaves, roots, rocks, etc.)
  2. Sanitize your tools in a 10% bleach solution 
  3. Dry thoroughly

To clean my tools, I hosed everything down to wash off soil, slugs, leaves and whatever else was clinging to the tools. Then I prepared a 10% bleach solution in a bucket. I dipped each tool into the solution and swished them around for 10-30 seconds, lightly scrubbing as necessary. Then I put everything out to dry, and, if needed, finished drying the tools off with a towel before storing away again. I then disposed of the bleach solution in our backyard. The chlorine from the bleach will evaporate, so this should not affect anything in the environment. 

Hanging out to Dry

Oiling and Sharpening

Some brands of pruners, such as Felco, sell specific oil for treating hand tools. I usually use WD-40 on my tools, as needed. Occasionally hand tools will get a little rusty either from improper storage or heavy usage in wet conditions- it happens. I usually need to oil the joints and springs on my hand tools about once a year. Typically, I will do this in the late winter or early spring. 

Sharpening may need to happen more often if you are using your tools often. Tools are more dangerous and not as effective when dull. Sharpening files are readily available at hardware stores and nurseries, and these files could be used on a per-use basis. If you have very expensive hand tools, it may be worth getting your tools professionally sharpened from time to time. If your hand tools are fairly inexpensive, regular sharpening should help extend your tools’ lifetimes; however, there may be a point where it makes more sense to replace the tool if it gets overly dull or rusted.

Playing with Pumpkins

‘Tis the season for pumpkin spice, pumpkin pie, and decorating our porches with this marvelous orange gourd! Though I did not grow any pumpkins this year, my boyfriend and I did buy a couple of these seasonal squash for carving. In a year that’s been far from usual, it’s been nice to turn to some traditional fall activities to celebrate the new season.

Feeling like fall in Sacramento!

Pumpkins are for sale everywhere from grocery stores and big box stores to independent garden centers this time of year. We went to the Green Acres in Sacramento to find ours. They have a fun selection of large carving pumpkins, gourds with various shapes and colors, and tiny table-topper squash. We had our hearts set on carving pumpkins.

Picking out our pumpkins at Green Acres.

After some cliche pumpkin patch photos, we took our pumpkins home and set to work! I decided on a Harry Potter themed jack-o-lantern while my boyfriend went the Pokemon route. We rocked out to a Halloween playlist on Spotify while we sculpted our spooky squash cut outs. I am pretty pleased with how they turned out! 

Gengar and Harry Potter jack-o-lanterns.

Not ones to waste, we saved the pumpkin seeds to roast into a salty snack. I cleaned the goo off the seeds in a bowl of water, and then drained them. While preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, I spread the pumpkin seeds out on a cookie sheet and doused them with avocado oil and a generous sprinkling of Kosher salt. They went into the oven for about 20 minutes, and when they were nice and golden in color, I took them out too cool. 

Roasted pumpkin seeds.

Well worth the effort for a day of fun pumpkin carving and fantastic porch decorations. Though the festivities may be more subdued this year, there are still ways to safely have fun and enjoy the holiday! Happy Halloween! 

Winter Veggies

As fall approaches, you may have noticed some of your garden veggies have slowed down. The leaves may look a little crispy or droopy or they’re starting to yellow. At this point in the season, it probably doesn’t have to do with watering. Plants that went into the ground back in May or June are reaching the natural end of their life. Most summer vegetables that we love such as eggplant, melons, and zucchini are annual plants that only live for one season, and then they naturally expire. Although, I always feel sad pulling out my plants at the end of a season, the good news is that there are still plenty of veggies that like to grow in California’s fall and winter. September through mid-October is a great time to plant leafy greens, root vegetables, and cruciferous crops (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts). Plant soon, so that you can enjoy garden fresh veggies throughout fall and winter as well!

Garden Bed Turnover

Compost from the pile we built in our backyard.

In between your summer and fall crop, it is good to give your planting bed a bit of a refresh. After harvesting the last of your summer crop and pulling out the spent plants, you’ll want to add some nutrients (in the form of fertilizer or compost) and soil back to your garden bed. If you are planting in containers, you may need to change out the soil, or at the very least, add more potting soil to your container. The reason for this is two-fold. First, most summer vegetables are known as ‘heavy feeders.’ Tomatoes, in particular, fall into this category. That means they need to take up a lot of nutrients from the soil in order to fuel their fast, fruit-laden growth. Those nutrients need to be replaced in your garden bed before the next round of crops, so your new plants don’t starve. The second reason to replace soil in your garden bed is simply because the soil level has likely dropped several inches since the beginning of last season. You’ll want to add in some new soil and/or compost and mix it into the existing soil. 

Leafy Greens

Lacinato kale, red sails lettuce, and green bunching onions freshly transplanted!

Leafy greens are a great cold-tolerant crop that can thrive in the cooler temperatures of fall and winter. Some are hardier than others, so be sure to read the seed packets and plant tags to know how low your plants can go. Certain crops such as lettuce and spinach want to be protected from frosty nights with protective cloth. Other favorites such as chard and kale stand up to frosty nights and even taste better because of them. Other examples of leafy greens you can plant include mustard greens, collards, and arugula. Leafy greens are great to sautė, add to eggs and salads, as well as winter soups and stews. 

Root Vegetables

Rooting for root vegetables! This tasty group includes beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes, and turnips. These are wonderful, hearty, starchy foods that grow well in the cooler weather. Beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips grow best when planted directly from seed into the garden bed. It is possible to transplant them, but sometimes they don’t take as well. With carrots especially, you will want to make sure you have nice loose soil to plant in. When carrots hit a hard pan of soil or a rock, they can stop growing downward and result in very short carrots and/or oddly shaped carrots. Admittedly, seeing the variations in carrot shapes is one of the fun things about growing them yourself. All of the atypical shaped carrots usually don’t make it to the grocery store! 

Planting red potatoes which have sprouted “eyes” from my pantry.

Potatoes are a slightly different story. You don’t grow them by seed, you actually grow them from planting other potatoes! Most garden centers will carry something called “seed” potatoes. This means that they are potatoes which are ready to be planted and make you more potatoes. I often just plant the odd potato that has sat too long in my pantry and has begun to sprout. It has worked pretty well for me so far. 

Alliums

Alliums are a group of plants which includes onions, garlic, leeks, and shallots. I did not include them in the root vegetable section because technically they are not roots! The parts of these plants that we eat are actually modified leaves and stems. You can use their leaves while they grow (i.e. scallions, garlic scapes, green onion), and at the end of the season harvest the bulb! For cured garlic and onions, let the leaves dry down completely (become brown and dry) before harvesting. By letting them cure in the ground, they will store longer in the pantry or root storage.

Crucifers

Pac choy is another member of the brassica family.

Crucifers (a.k.a. Brassicas a.k.a. Cole crops). Yes, that is a lot of different names for one single group of plants. These terms are all referring to a very familiar plant group which includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and brussel sprouts. Kale, mustard greens, collards, and bok choy are all brassicas, too. You may have noticed while eating these vegetables they all share some degree of sulfur tasting compounds. This is one of their shared characteristics. They all also happen to be rather cold hardy. Many crucifers actually taste better/sweeter after a cold snap because the plants are adapted to store their energy (a.k.a. sugar) during a freeze, resulting in a sweeter tasting harvest afterwards. Kale and broccoli can also sometimes look a little bit purple after a freeze, and this is also part of their reaction. This is a versatile plant group, and in my opinion, tastes best when grown in cold weather! 

Other

Sugar snap pea ready to climb up a repurposed tomato cage.

Some other cool weather crops include certain herbs, members of the pea family, and more. Parsley, cilantro, and chives can all stand some cold weather. Perennial herbs such as thyme, oregano, and sage may slow down over winter, but might still be producing some new leaves. Fennel is an herb which is grown for its bulb, leaves, and seeds. It does great in cold weather. Celery is another one which is infinitely useful for soups, stews, sauces, salads, snacks, and more. Awesome cool weather staple. Last, but not least, peas such as sugar snap peas and snow peas can be grown in fall and winter. Although once the rains begin, peas tend to be prone to powdery mildew. Harvest before mildew sets in to enjoy these yummy vegetables as snacks or in a stir fry! 

Our winter garden post-planting and straw-mulched.

Sheet Mulching

So you want to ditch your lawn? We decided to ditch ours this summer (well, most of it). It was one of numerous projects we had planned for our yard this year, and if possible, we wanted to keep the cost of the project lower by doing the labor ourselves. After a little research and a little convincing, we decided to sheet mulch over our existing lawn. The result is a lower maintenance, lower cost, and more environmentally friendly yard. 

What is sheet mulching?

While there are variations in approach, sheet mulching boils down to a technique of layering cardboard and mulch to kill weeds and lawn by depriving them of sunlight. Some people substitute newspaper or paper bags for cardboard, and I think this could work for a smaller space. However, with newspaper or paper bags, you would want to put multiple layers of paper down for complete coverage. Cardboard is great because it is already decently thick. In some tricky spots, however, you may need to have multiple cardboard layers. Mulch can include a combination of compost and shredded bark. Some guides suggest adding a layer of compost between the cardboard and bark layers, however, others do not mention it. For cost saving purposes, we chose to skip the layer of compost in between. 

Why would you want to sheet mulch?

There are many benefits to sheet mulching. They include water savings, lower maintenance, and enriching the soil (e.g. carbon sequestering). The lawn and cardboard will break down under the bark over time adding carbon and nutrients to the soil. Additionally, the plants you choose to install in place of the lawn are an opportunity to add wildlife and pollinator friendly plants. There are also a number of attractive low-water and drought resistant plants that can thrive in your yard and reduce water use and costs. 

How did we do our sheet mulching? 

Here is the process we used, step-by-step: 

  1. Cap off sprinklers which will no longer be in use. Alternatively, use a sprinkler-to-drip conversion kit if you are going to be modifying your irrigation system. If you plan to use your current irrigation system, you can skip this step. 
  2. Mow & edge your grass as low as you can. This will make it easier to evenly layer the cardboard and mulch. 
  3. Lay out cardboard and wet it down completely. 
    • We did a combination of collecting cardboard boxes at home and from family and friends and buying a roll of cardboard. Buying the cardboard added to the project’s overall expense, but towards the end we were in a time crunch, so we decided to make the purchase. 
  4. Spread bark 3-4 inches thick.
    • We purchased shredded cedar bark from a local soil yard and had it delivered. We borrowed a wheelbarrow, so we could bring loads of bark from the front to the backyard. We then spread out the remaining bark in an even layer in our front yard.  
    • Some articles suggest contacting tree removal companies in your area to see if they will deliver wood chips to you for free. No guarantees, but it could be worth a call! 

We spread the work out over a few weekends. We spent at least one whole weekend prepping the area- capping sprinklers, laying out cardboard boxes, and ordering supplies.

The next weekend, we had the bark delivered. We were able to get a good chunk of it moved in one day. We had two wheelbarrows and two rakes (3 would have been better). One person loaded the wheelbarrows, while the other ran and dumped them.

Putting down the cardboard layer over the freshly mowed lawn.
Thick layer of cardboard boxes wetted down and temporarily weighted by rocks and stepping stones so it stays in place.
Bark delivery. 13.5 cubic yards was enough bark for a 3 inch thick layer in both the front and backyard.
Finished spreading mulch in the backyard.
Finished spreading mulch in the front yard.

What’s next?

In the backyard, the plan is to add a second garden box next to the first! Then in the front yard, we will be planting later this fall. I have an idea of some of the plants I want and have a rough drawing sketched out. I will post an update once the new plants go in!

Happy sheet mulching! 

References:

https://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/news/break-up-with-your-lawn-using-cardboard

https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=18225

http://www.lawntogarden.org/how-to-sheet-mulch

Garden Fresh Pico de Gallo

Making your own pico de gallo salsa is an easy way to spice up your Taco Tuesday! With ripe tomatoes and jalapenos from your garden, the freshness and flavor of this salsa will out shine any store bought pico. If you grow your own onions and cilantro, even better! 

Pico de Gallo

3-4 ripe tomatoes

1-2 jalapenos (add more if you like it spicy!)

½  white onion

1 juiced lime 

½ cup of cilantro

Remove stems and cut tomatoes into quarters. Cut jalapenos in half and remove seeds. Wash and remove stems from cilantro. Juice one lime. Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until everything is in small chunks. Alternatively, dice everything by hand and then combine with lime juice and cilantro in a medium mixing bowl. Eat with tortilla chips, on a taco, or as an accompaniment to a quesadilla!

Enjoy!

Caprese Salad

Even as our summer garden wilts in the current heat wave, we are enjoying the last fruits of our labor and savoring each ounce of it! One of my favorite ways we’ve been enjoying our late summer produce is in caprese salads. By itself or on a crostini (really toasty bread), this is a delicious treat made that much better by using home grown tomatoes and basil and a deliciously simple homemade balsamic vinaigrette. 

Beefsteak tomatoes, Italian basil, and low-moisture mozzarella with homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

Caprese Salad 

(2 Servings)

3-4 ripe tomatoes of your choice

½ cup of chopped basil

4 oz. of mozzarella (fresh or low moisture, depending on preference)

Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing

6 oz. extra virgin olive oil

2 oz. Balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

Salt & Pepper to taste

Pinch of dried oregano, basil, and/or Herbs de Provence (optional)

Assembly

Slice tomatoes into thin rounds and slice mozzarella into equivalently sized pieces. Layer mozzarella and tomato slices in an alternating pattern. Sprinkle chopped basil evenly over the tomato and mozzarella, and drizzle balsamic vinaigrette over the salad.

Optionally, you can toast some slices of a nice Italian bread such as Puglisese, Focaccia, or Ciabatta, and serve the Caprese salad atop the toasted bread slices for an amazing homemade bruschetta. Be sure to drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette.

Enjoy! 

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