Not Your Mother's Rum Balls!

My mother was renowned for her homemade sweets. One of her most popular holiday confections was Bourbon Balls, made with crushed vanilla wafer cookies, corn syrup, confectioner's sugar, and a lot of other ingredients which are not in my kitchen! In her memory, I've come up with my healthier version, and invite you to try these sweet treats with your own favorite alcoholic flavoring. The photo above shows them ready for my holiday buffet, along with some chocolate peppermint bark I also made.

Spiked Chocolate Balls
Recipe type: Candy Treat
Cuisine: Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Makes: About 2 dozen
NOTE: Ingredients in red type are detailed on the "Ingredients" page of this blog

3/4 c raw hulled sunflower seeds
1/2 c unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 c almond flour
2 T coconut oil, softened
1/4 c coconut palm sugar
1/4 t salt
1/4 c alcoholic beverage*
Coating suggestions:  powdered sugar, sweetened cocoa powder, finely chopped almonds (about 2 T)

* Use your choice: rum, bourbon, scotch, creme de menthe, coffee/orange or other liqueur, etc.

Put all ingredients except the coating into a food processor. Process until sunflower seeds are chopped into small pieces and the mixture sticks together. Remove to a covered container and refrigerate until the chilled coconut oil hardens the dough. Scoop with a small spoon and roll in your palms to form 24 balls, each about 3/4" in diameter... the warmth of your hands will soften the dough. If making ahead, refrigerate these balls in single layers between wax paper sheets. Before serving, put your choice of coating into a small zipper bag and shake a few balls at a time to coat them. If you roll the coating on too far in advance, it sort of melts into the dough and disappears. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

As my mother always did, I decided to coat mine with powdered sugar. I don't keep 10X sugar on my shelves, and didn't want to buy a box for such a small amount. I stock regular white sugar for my hummingbird feeders. So I put about 2 T of white sugar into a clean coffee grinder and whirled it into just the right amount of white powder. This also works with sweeteners like coconut palm sugar (making a light brown powder) or types of raw sugar.


Fruit Flies Be Gone!

This is probably the most practical recipe I've posted on this blog... a solution which will help attract and eliminate fruit flies in the house. They always become a problem for me at this time of year, likely from the fresh tomatoes on the windowsill, the ripe melons from the farm market, the bouquets of fresh flowers from the garden, and even fruit from the store.

The recipe is simple, just water with 3 ingredients commonly found in most kitchens. This is my slight variation of the recipe which my friend Pam gave me. I didn't want to post a photo of cups of dead bugs, so just take it from me that this really works!

Fruit Fly Catcher Solution

1 T vinegar
1-1/2 t white sugar
drop of liquid dish soap
2 cups (1 pt) of water

Mix all 4 ingredient in a 2-cup measuring cup, a bowl, or a pint jar. Mix well. Using small pottery cups, fill each about 1/2" deep with the solution. NOTE: clear glass containers don't seem to work as well in attracting the insects. I use little oriental tea cups which have no handles. I pour any remaining solution into a pint canning jar and cover it, keeping it in the refrigerator until I need to clean out and replenish the little cups.

Position the uncovered filled cups where you see the fruit flies most often, like on the kitchen counter where you cut fresh produce or near the bowl of bananas. Placing them under a light source seems to help attract the bugs. After a few days check the cups and you'll likely see signs of success!

I've also used this solution to re-fill some commercial apple-shaped fruit fly catchers after the liquid they come with has expired, and it seems to catch more. 'Hope it works for you too!


The Best Springtime Ever

Wild blackberries are abundant this year, and I ate these two plump sweet ripe berries just after taking this photo!
This is one of several elderberries in my edible front yard, full of flower clusters
Lemon scented Yellow Trillium grow by the hundreds in my woods
Wild crested Iris has magnificent flowers
As we approach the official start of summer and the wild blackberries begin to ripen, I declare Spring '16 as one of the best ever for gardening here in East Tennessee. The mild winter, with regular rainfall, seemed to provide ideal conditions for all the spring flowering plants, shrubs and trees to produce maximum flowers. In addition, our spring weather has been comfortable, not as hot as usual, and fairly regular with rain.

All those spring flowers mean loads of berries this year. I harvested a bumper crop of luscious sweet strawberries. Just as they were winding down, the blueberries began to turn dark blue. Last December I had worried about my blueberries, since they began to flower due to the unseasonable warmth. I was afraid I'd lose this year's crop, but my concerns proved to be unfounded. Clumps of blueberries have grown like bunches of grapes, and I am picking them every day now. My thornless hybrid blackberries are also ripening with the biggest crop ever, and the elderberry bushes are healthy and covered with huge white flower clusters which will ripen to dark blue berries later in the summer.

Cooler spring weather with ample moisture also made it possible to do lots of transplanting. For the last few years I have been creating a Wildflower Specimen Garden, on one of our woodland trails less than 100 feet from the house. I have become passionate about spring wildflowers, since the woods surrounding our house are amazingly lush and varied. I decided to have a "cultivated" wildflower garden near my house, to showcase these beauties to visitors who are not up for bushwhacking down a slope far from the house and/or are not familiar with the beauty Mother Nature displays in springtime. One year some purple flowering Lunaria (aka Money Plant or Silver Dollars, due to the papery circular seedpods it produces after flowering) seeded itself on the edge of one of our trails. I walk by this spot daily on my morning walk with the dogs, and I thought it would be wonderful to see what was flowering elsewhere without traipsing through the woods. This gave me the idea to move some of my most abundant spring wildflowers from other places in my woods, so during the last few years I have carefully transplanted Bloodroot, Myrtle, Yellow Trillium, Rue Anemone, Blue Phlox, Jack In The Pulpit, Foam Flower, Solomon's Seal, Blue-Eyed Grass, Little Brown Jugs, Doll's Eyes, Yellow Fairybells, many varieties of Violets, and one successfully transplanted Pink Lady's Slipper.

I took this photo in April in a lush hollow we call Dee Spring - some of the wildflowers growing in one little section are labelled
The soil were I've moved them is rich humus, and the area is under a canopy of hardwood trees. Several friends have shared their wildflowers with me, adding Crested Iris, Bird's Foot Violets, Sweet Woodruff, maroon Toadshade Trillium and Nodding Cateby's Trillium to my specimen garden. I have purchased many others from wildflower nurseries which Rick wonderfully scouted-out for my May birthday mystery dates, adding Black Cohosh, Grandiflora Trillium, Prairie Trillium, Blue Cohosh, Wild Ginger, Yellow Root, Green Dragon, and Bleeding Hearts. One of the first springs I walked the trails of this land, I spotted magnificent Showy Orchis, but I've never been able to find it again. So this year I broke down and bought some roots on eBay. They initially showed growth, but soon died back, so I am not sure I'll see them again.

Foam flowers now grow in my specimen garden
This spring I also added many more discoveries from my own woods, including Canadian Violets, Hearts-A-Bustin', Mayapple, Wild Geraniums, White Milkweed, Golden Groundsel, Wild Oats, Solomon's Plume, Fire Pinks, Pink Wood Sorrel, Mountain Laurel, and more wild Violets. All of these grow naturally in the dappled sunlight of the spring forest, so they have done wonderfully along my trail. I've counted over 50 wildflower specimen on display now, all with labels. Many sun-loving spring wildflowers, not suitable for the conditions in my Specimen Garden, are in my cultivated gardens just outside the house, including Columbine, Showy Evening Primrose, St. John's Wort, Yucca, Salsify, Coneflower, Garden Phlox, Liatris, Lily of the Valley, Wild Poppies, Larkspur, Oxeye Daisies, Brown Eyed Susans, Daylilies, Butterfly Weed, False Indigo, Foxglove, Irises and probably those I've forgotten! On the outskirts of my planted gardens grow spring flowering Venus's Looking Glass, Japanese Honeysuckle and Multiflora Roses which can be invasive, Clovers, Chickweed, Thistle,
This gorgeous Lady's Slipper was especially pink this year!
Cranesbill, Horsetail, Fleabane, Wild Lettuce, Poke, Common Dandelion, Queen Anne's Lace, and many others. And there are many others in my woods which I haven't transplanted, like Squaw Root which grows as a parasite from roots of trees like oak, and a new discovery I've identified as Scorpion Grass. Some others grow in sunny spring locations, so my woodland setting with partial shade is not suitable. I have many summer and autumn wildflowers too, but the wonder of discovering gorgeous flowers after the dullness of winter is probably what makes those my favorites. As you can tell, I've been busy documenting my wildflowers with photos, and I've amassed quite a large reference file. Be sure to ask me for a tour of my wildflower specimen garden if you visit me in the springtime. I love flowers!

Since this is a Good Food blog, I should add that many wildflowers are edible. Of course, you have to make positive ID's before picking any plants to eat, pick only what is abundant and vibrant. It's best that what you pick isn't subject to chemical sprays and roadside auto exhaust. You also need to harvest sustainable, so you don't kill the plant. Some of the wildflowers growing on my property which I harvest as edibles are Chickweed (a fabulous winter green), Jerusalem Artichoke tubers, Daylily shoots/buds/flowers, Violets, Trillium young leaves, Dandelion flowers/leaves/roots, Lamb's Quarters, Muscadine leaves, Watercress, Wild Onions, and oodles of Wild Blackberries will be eaten this year! Let me know what wild edibles you've had in your diet.


Strawberry Spice Cakes

This is my variation on strawberry shortcakes, bursting with flavor. Instead of plain biscuit-type "cakes," I make mine as spiced muffins. Freshly picked ripe strawberries are naturally sweet, and are wonderfully accented with these ingredients. You can also make this recipe for spiced cakes as a sweet bread, and use slices for the final presentation:

If an ingredient is in red type, look for details on my "Ingredients" page, linking from the top of any page in this blog.
For the Cakes (makes about 18 muffins or 6 muffins and 3 mini loaves):
2 eggs, beaten
1 c honey
1/2 c sorghum syrup or molasses
1/2 c coconut oil, warmed to liquid
1 can pumpkin puree (about 1-1/4 c)
2 c all purpose gluten free flour *
1/2 c sorghum flour
1 T chai spices or pumpkin pie spices
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 c chopped fresh strawberries
(* If not concerned with making this dessert gluten-free, use 2-1/2c white wheat flour in place of the two gluten-free flours in my recipe.)

Whipped Coconut Cream (see the recipe here)

3 c sliced fresh strawberries
1 t ground cinnamon
2 t lemon juice
sweetener to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease large muffin tins or mini bread pans. Mix eggs, honey, sorghum, coconut oil and pumpkin puree well. Separately mix the flours, spices, baking soda and salt. Stir the chopped strawberries into the dry mix to coat them. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until well mixed. Spoon into the muffin cups, filling them just half way. Bake for 30 minutes for muffins or 50 minutes for mini bread loaves. Remove to a rack and cool.

Mix the sliced strawberries with the cinnamon and lemon juice. If they need sweetening, I use my own homemade vanilla/stevia extract. Alternately, sweeten with a little local honey. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, and the berries will release juices.

Mix the coconut cream topping, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just as delicious on slices of spiced bread
To serve, split 4 muffins in half (top and bottom) and place them open in an individual serving bowl. I switch the order of the toppings from a conventional strawberry shortcake: top muffin halves with a big dollop of cream, then spoon the strawberries on top, with all their sweet juices, flavoring the cream and the cake. This tastes just as scrumptious on a slice of the spiced bread - for breakfast, dessert or anytime snack.

P.S. Thanks to my special friend Sandra for my lovely personalized dish cloth; she is an extraordinary quilter and master of machine embroidery, as you can see.


The Easy Way to Grow Onions

I've been planting onion sets in my spring and winter gardens for years, but last year I learned a new, easy method. Two of my gardening friends, Kathy and Carol, recommended that the best way to plant onion sets is not to bury them in the soil (which I had been doing). Their method couldn't be easier, and my harvest proved it works!

Here's how: Just soften up the dirt with a hand rake in the area you've prepared for your onion bed. Place each onion set right on top of the soil, root side down. Push each one down into the dirt very slightly, just enough to keep it stable, upright, and in place.  Put the next one in, about 3-6" away. That's it! The onion set's roots will quickly make their way down into the soil, and green tops will start growing quickly. Any rain will probably push the dirt up around the growing bulb a bit, and that's fine. The top of the onion will stay visible as it grows, which actually makes it easy to see how big it is for harvesting.

Onions are cold hardy, so I plant my spring crop in February and March in my zone 7 garden. In fact, onions don't like heat when in the early growth stages. I've tried growing onions from seed, but the thin blades - like grass - require more time for weeding than I'm willing to invest, and they grow very slowly. Onion sets, which are immature bulbs and look like tiny onions, give a bit of a head start on growth vs. seeds or transplants, and they are less prone to disease. You can usually find them for sweet, red, yellow or white onions; I've grown all types successfully. I've seen them sold in small sacks or sold loose, by the pound. No matter what color onion I plant, they all seem to have a good strong flavor; I once heard that the stronger the onion, the long it keeps. My onions don't store really well, so I use them fresh, or peel/chop/freeze, or cut up and dehydrate. Onions like regular watering during growth; dry weather can cause the bulbs to split. Mulching the onion bed keeps down weeds and holds in moisture. I've never had any bugs or diseases on my onions, which makes them very easy to grow organically.

During the growing season, I harvest onion tops as scallions (as I do with the green tops of garlic), selecting one or two green leaves from each plant rather than cutting the entire top from any one onion. This way the growth of the onion bulb is not affected. You can also dig the bulb up at any time, or wait until the plant tells you it is ready to harvest. Mine are usually ready to dig up in June or July.

When the green tops begin to turn tan, fall over, and die back, withholding water will help the onion cure and increase the storage life once harvested. I wait until a dry spell to dig the onions up. Once dug, I let them dry outside, making it easier to brush off any dirt from the outer skin. Usually I'll lay them on sheets of newspaper in a single layer, shaded from the sun on a table on my porch.

Clumps of potato onions, planted last fall
I've grown two other types of onions in my gardens, each considered to be perennial onions. "Walking Onions" will grow little bulblets at the top of the green leaves. These make the green stalk top-heavy, so it falls over, setting its babies on the soil so they will start to root new plants. This type is best harvested for its green tops vs. the root. Last fall I planted "Potato Onions" (aka Multiplier Onions). They looked like small onion sets when I planted them, and each one planted is supposed to produce a cluster of 10-12 bulbs, ranging in size from 3/4" to 4". When harvesting, the smaller ones are replanted to begin the growing cycle again. I haven't had a harvest yet, but they are supposed to have a great mild flavor and good storage.Remember to plant these 'forever' types of onions where they can remain year-round; not in your vegetable garden if you till the soil.

Try some onions in your garden this year!


Spicy Cheese Bites

  These are not your mother's thumbprint cookies! Spiced up with the hot pepper powder I make by grinding my dehydrated home-grown jalapenos and filled with hot pepper jelly, these are crispy, zesty and satisfying. They were a hit with my Christmas guests who were my guinea pigs for this new creation.
    This is my variation of a recipe from my friend Sandra, who shows my paintings in her art gallery. The original recipe called for crispy rice cereal, which typically includes sugar, salt, vitamins, and other ingredients I don't want added to my food. Substituting rice crackers which have just 3 ingredients: rice, oil and salt, makes for a healthier treat. Next time, I'll go one step further... instead of the crackers I'll try using brown rice flour and a small amount of coconut oil - and eliminate the salt, since the cheese provides plenty. I make these gluten-free by using GF flour also, but regular wheat flour can be used. I used a hot pepper jelly made by the nearby Menonnite community and it is yummy!

Hot Pepper Cheese Crackers {Gluten-free}
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Gluten Free, Vegetarian
Makes: About 3 dozen
NOTE: Ingredients in red type are detailed on the "Ingredients" page of this blog

rice crackers*, enough to make 2c of crushed cracker crumbs
4 c grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 c all purpose gluten-free flour
1 c softened unsalted butter
1/2 t ground pepper
1 t paprika
1 t hot pepper powder or chile powder (adjust to your taste)
hot pepper jelly

To crush the crackers, place them in a zipper bag and roll with a rolling pin until crushed into small pieces. Whirl the cheese in a food processor to make it finer then gradually add all other ingredients except the cracker crumbs and jelly. Dump into a bowl so you can mix in the cracker crumbs - I found my hands to be the best tool for this step.

Shape dough into 1" balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet lined with baking parchment, placing them 2" apart. Press to flatten slightly, then push your thumb into the center just enough to make a small indent.

Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, and spoon a small dollop of hot pepper jelly in the center of each. Bake an additional 10-13 minutes, until crispy and golden.

Alternately, if you don't want the hot pepper jelly filling, you can flatten the balls of dough with a fork before baking, then bake for a total of 25-28 minutes... see the photo below.

Remove to a rack to cool.

* I used Nabisco Poppy & Sesame Seed Rice Thins, whose ingredients include: white rice flour, safflower oil, millet, poppy seeds, salt, mustard flour and sesame seeds. The poppy seeds show up as the black specs in my photos of the dough and baked crackers. You can use Nabisco GF Original Rice Thins for fewer ingredients. Watch out for added sugar in other brands of rice crackers. It took a little less than 2 boxes to make 2 c of crumbs.


Eat Real Food

Just by chance, we caught the premier of a PBS documentary titled "In Defense of Food" at the end of December. It came at the perfect time - just as we were feeling the negative effects of holiday overeating and too much of the wrong foods. So the message really hit home!

The program is based on a book by the same name by journalist Michael Pollan. If you too are trying to get onto a healthier eating regiment as this new year begins, I highly recommend you watch this show. If you can't find being repeated on your local PBS station, you can watch the whole program online. The messages and tips are simple, easy to adopt, and make sense.

The bottom line, as summarized into 7 words by Pollan, is "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." The program has good tips like "Eat plants, not food made in plants," and "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother would not have eaten." Pollan suggests ways to help us all get back to eating "real food," versus the highly processed offerings so prominent in the contemporary Western diet. He shows how people automatically eat less simply by using smaller plates, without feeling like they've reduced their portions. The messages are great, and the presentation is excellent.

For continued good advice from Pollan, like the In Defense of Food Facebook page and start your own path to getting eating healthier today!