Stories from middle America

garden

Growing my own food has always been a part of my life.

As a child, my father kept an impressive vegetable garden in our back yard, complete with rows of green beans, patches of cucumbers, tomato plants, pepper plants, onions, radishes, potatoes, and on the rare occasion, a few stalks of sweet corn. There was an asparagus patch in the way back, which happily shared space with a veritable forest of dill. At one point we had rhubarb growing in the corner of the garden and a tiny patch of strawberries. You name it and my dad probably grew it at one time or another.

Nowadays, the garden is much smaller, as my brother and I no longer live at home; though I haven’t helped my dad in the garden in quite some time, the memory of doing so is still as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Digging in the dirt, planting seeds and starter plants, watering, and picking weeds were all a part of my childhood. The rewards came in the shape of softball-sized tomatoes, crunchy bell peppers, and the best kosher dill pickles this side of the Missouri River.

I wanted to continue the tradition of backyard gardening at my own home; unfortunately, the space simply wasn’t available for a garden the size of my dad’s. Thankfully, my husband is quite handy and built for me a series of raised garden boxes which line the fence on the northern side of our yard.

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We’ve been enjoying the boxes for several years now, and each year we try a few new things as well as our “garden staples.” You see, growing up in the Midwest means being faced with a relatively short growing season, so careful consideration is of the utmost importance when planning a summer garden.

We always plant three to four different tomatoes, a couple of pepper plants (one hot, one not), some sort of leafy green like kale or Swiss chard, and lots of herbs. I love cooking with fresh herbs and luckily, they are ready to use quite soon after planting. I should explain that we usually purchase seedlings or young plants from the farmers market; starting everything from seed is a great way to go if you have the time and space for that sort of thing.

We tried it once and didn’t have the best of luck. These days we leave it up to the farmers we know and see every year at the market to provide for us the best vegetables and herbs. We know that the plants we buy from them are free from herbicides and pesticides, which is important to us.

This year we decided on thyme, rosemary, chives, chocolate mint, parsley, oregano, and sweet basil. In fact, we’re growing two basil plants; I love pesto and I absolutely love caprese salads. There is something so perfectly summery about the combination of basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese.

Most of the time, herbs are used for savory dishes, but I like to include fresh herbs in desserts, as well. Recently I baked a plum tart and decided that the addition of fresh thyme might pair well with the walnut crust and sweet, yet tart, plums. Sure enough, the lemony flavor of fresh thyme worked quite nicely. Fruit tarts are a great way to incorporate herbs such as basil, thyme, and mint.

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Speaking of mint, if you’re into making your own ice cream like I am, consider churning a batch of homemade mint chip with mint from your own back yard! Steeping mint leaves in warm milk and cream imparts a perfectly delightful flavor, and is only slightly green.

Oregano can be easily dried and saved for soups, stews, and your favorite marinara sauce. Chives are quick growers and are a lovely addition to any salad, vinaigrette, or omelet.  Rosemary is one of my favorites and can be tossed with garlic, potatoes, and brussels sprouts before roasting. It is also a nice addition when roasting a chicken; a few sprigs of rosemary and perhaps a halved lemon inside the cavity of a chicken will make for a lovely-smelling house and a delicious chicken.

As for the rest of our garden, we enjoy eating fresh tomatoes with a sprinkling of sea salt, a crack of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. We love to sauté Swiss chard with a little bacon for a quick and easy side dish. The peppers will be either pickled or made into salsa. Most peppers freeze quite well, so saving them for chili in the winter months is a must.

My husband and I find tending a garden to be one of the most enjoyable activities of the summer months; it takes effort, patience, and a lot of TLC, but the rewards are abundant in both food and peace of mind. Whatever your garden situation is, from a big plot of land to a few pots on your balcony, just get out there and get your hands dirty. Grow something and enjoy the dishes you prepare with food from your own back yard.

plum tart

Plum Tart with Walnut Crust and Thyme

Prepare the filling:
2 pounds firm, ripe plums (or other stone fruit), pitted and chopped into chunks
⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced

In a medium bowl, combine ⅓ cup sugar with the next four ingredients. Add chopped plums and gently toss to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.

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For the tart shell:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
¾ dark brown sugar, packed
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoon apricot preserves

Lightly butter (or spray with cooking spray) the bottom and sides of a 9-½-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar, salt, and fresh thyme in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly and mealy. Add vanilla extract and egg yolk. Using long pulses, blend just until it forms a moist, crumbly mass.

Press the crumb mixture in an even layer into the bottom and sides of tart pan (sides should measure about ¼-inch thick). You may need to use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to press the dough out evenly. Flour the bottom of the measuring cup if the dough sticks to it.

Wrap pan in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Blind bake the shell:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F. Unwrap the tart shell and prick the bottom several times with a fork. Spray one side of a piece of parchment or foil with cooking spray. Line the shell with the sprayed side down and fill the lined shell with pie weights or dry beans.

Set the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the liner and pie weights. Should any dough stick to the liner, peel it off and patch it back into the shell. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue baking until the sides and bottom of the shell are golden brown and dry, 10 to 15 minutes more. Cool on a rack for about 20 minutes.

plum tart | COOP

Assembling and finishing tart:
Drain plums in a colander set over a medium bowl. Pour juice into small saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until very thick, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in apricot preserves until melted. Let cool for 10 minutes or so.

Pour juice/preserve mixture into tart shell and evenly spread over bottom and sides (use a pastry brush to get the sides, if necessary). Arrange plums skin side down in tart pan. Don’t go crazy trying to make concentric circles or anything, just cram them in there! Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over plums.

Bake the tart directly on the oven rack until plums are tender when poked with paring knife and caramelized along the edges. Don’t worry if a few blacken, it’s fine – total baking time should be between 40 and 50 minutes. Cool tart in its pan for at least 2 hours before unmolding and slicing with sharp knife.

 

Last weekend Jessica, Ginger, and I braved the Great Outdoors (it is November in Nebraska, after all) with a stay at Slattery Vintage Estates Vineyard and Tasting Room about an hour from our homes in Omaha. We planned the trip as a working retreat for COOP, but also as an opportunity to drink wine, eat good food, and just relax.

What we found upon arriving at Slattery Vintage Estates was nothing short of breathtaking. The scenery alone was satisfaction enough for me, even if all we did was sit outdoors and take it all in.

Gently rolling hills. Wide open sky. Crisp fall air. And silence. Silence so overwhelming it was a gift. No traffic. No sirens. Nary a ringing cell phone within ear shot.

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It was wonderful.

Following a little brainstorming for COOP and a walk around the estate, we happened upon a proposal. The owners tipped us off, so we were certain to watch from afar. The proposal happened among the rows of Slattery’s wine vineyards. The day’s weather was picture perfect, creating the ideal setting for this memorable experience.

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That evening, Slattery hosted its first trivia night. Teams of three or four competed in eight rounds. And wouldn’t you know it: the more we drank, the more creative our answers! The delicious chili and meatball sandwiches — all homemade, mind you — provided the perfect dinner.

We then retreated to our adorable bungalows for the night. Of course it was cold, around 30 degrees. But nestled under the covers, space heater humming and electric blanket toasty, I quickly drifted off to sleep.

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I find few experiences more gratifying than waking up in the country, just as the sun begins to rise. Sunday morning, around 6:30, was no different. The first few peeks of sunlight, the fresh air, the endless views. The drive home, surrounded by fall’s colorful display, was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend. Jessica, Ginger, and I agreed to return to Slattery sometime next year.

{Jessica says … }
Our mini retreat is a perfect example of COOP’s focus: accessible and sustainable luxuries. The cost per night to rent a bungalow is between $50 and $65, which I can easily manage even in my tight budget. There is a focus on local wines, family-style entertainment, and even sustainability, with their solar-powered showers.

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I would suggest going earlier in the season than we did. November was quite chilly even though we had a space heater and electric blanket. (Ginger and Wendy seemed to stay warm during the night, but my face and hands were freezing.) I’d also recommend bringing your own snacks to munch on after the tasting room closes for the night.

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My favorite part of the whole experience? Seeing so many stars in the sky. I never consider Omaha a city large enough to dim the night’s sky, but clearly I was wrong. The expansive sky above Slattery Vintage Estates was so crisp and clear. For the first time in a long time, I really stopped to stare at something beautiful.

{Ginger says … }
Oh sure, Jessica and I are becoming pretty fond of each other. With our new venture in a partnership at Birdhouse, countless hours together building our brand, and now with a glamping weekend under our belts, there is a whole new meaning to the word “fond.”

Only two tents available out of four, Jessica and I were happy to share one tent giving Wendy, our early bird, the last tent to herself. With a double bed built for two and my unfortunate bout with brown bottled flu midway through the night, I think Jessica quickly decided she bunked with the wrong COOP teammate.

Slattery Vintage Estates rests in a quiet little valley off a gravel road in southeastern Nebraska. The area brought back a flood of childhood memories. Farmers parked their trucks along the road to visit with other farmers and neighbors who live nearby. Drivers greeted one another with the unmistakable one-finger wave.

The grounds provided a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of my current schedule. My favorite part of the visit was definitely the tents. They are cozy and charming. Plus, since it was the middle of November, the electricity was a nice perk considering the cold overnight temperatures. Without the heated blankets or space heaters, the evening would not have been as pleasant.  The staff at Slattery was so warm and welcoming; they made our stay even more special.

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Editor’s note: This blog post was published in collaboration with Slattery Vintage Estates.

As Jessica mentioned last week, a few of us from the COOP crew are headed to rural Nebraska for an overnight’s stay. The reason, you ask?

Glamping.

A girls-only glamping, to be specific. We have read about the trend of “glamorous camping” for quite some time and were curious about options near our homes in Omaha.

Ginger, Jessica, and I enjoy the outdoors year-round. But rouging it? Not quite. Which is why glamping seemed like the ideal outing before the onset of the hectic holiday season.

After a few searches online, we landed on Slattery Vintage Estates for our upcoming stay. Pour yourself a glass of wine (any kind will do) and learn more about this Nehawka, Nebraska gem from founder Barb Slattery.

COOP: Let’s start with your background. How did you come to the business of winery and outdoor lodging in Nebraska?

Barb Slattery: Slattery Vintage Estates Vineyard and Tasting Room (SVE) is a sprawling, 164-acre beauty spot in the middle of southern Cass County, Nebraska, in the scenic Weeping Water Valley. The Weeping Water Creek cuts a hilly, wooded swath as it makes its way to the Missouri River east of our place. My husband Mike and I bought the land for hunting and as an investment in the middle 1990s, and decided to plant grapes for fun in 2001. In learning how to grow grapes and make wine through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln viticulture program and the Nebraska Wine and Grape Growers conference every year, we met all the newbies in the business as well as those who had been doing it since the late 1980s. Growing grapes in Nebraska was fairly uncharted territory at that time.

After planting about 1,000 grapevines over the next three years, it became evident that we wanted to build a house and move to the beautiful valley. (We had been living in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in the same house for the past 20 years.) The kids were grown and gone, and we were free to pursue another venture.

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Mike is a successful lawyer and the Cass County public defender with an office in Plattsmouth. I was working as a grant writer, instructor, and adviser at Creighton University in Omaha. Moving to the country meant a lifestyle change. Grocery stores weren’t located at the end of the block, so excursions to Lincoln and Omaha became consolidated trips to save on gas. But the perks outweighed the downside: waking up every morning to the sights and sounds of nature, fresh air, and quiet. (Almost too quiet.) Soon, we decided to share what we found, opened our wine tasting room, and hosted music events (eight the first summer). Having written a grant to the State Department of Tourism, we were better able to finance our marketing plan for the second summer’s concert series. The concerts blossomed from eight the first year, to 21 this past summer.

Second on our to-do list was to build an outdoor kitchen and wood fired pizza oven. The concerts were about to get better with offerings of special pizzas every weekend, depending on the seasonal garden fresh ingredients. Our daughter Sarah helped; she’s a chef who trained at Metropolitan College’s culinary institute.

As the concerts became more popular, people began asking for lodging.

Our third adventure came with the addition of our bungalows, which we found out later are called glamour camping (or “glamping”). They are 12×14 tents on decks, with electricity and all the amenities: antique furniture, coffee pots, electric blankets, and fans. Breakfast is served in each morning in our tasting room.

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The fourth addition to our property came as a banquet hall to host larger events: weddings, corporate outings, dinners, and reunions. Our weddings have increased to 21 this past summer, and the quality of the experience is guaranteed with a weatherproof indoor area and an outdoor veranda. The banquet hall was finished just eight weeks ago, and already has seen five weddings and four other events.

COOP: What have visitors said about SVE since you opened your doors?

Barb: The response of our visitors has been very positive. Some comment that it reminds them of Europe, (French County is our style) and it’s been pretty common for folks to bring back other friends and relatives for many more visits. We have started a Vintage Club wine club that rewards return visitors with discounts and special treatment.

COOP: What services/attractions/outings do you offer?

Barb: Services include restaurant-style food: from pizzas and sandwiches in the summer to our signature French Onion soups, baked brie, and other gourmet snacks in the winter months. Five-course wine dinners are commonly held in the slower months (fall through spring). Other amenities include a fireplace, duck pond, waterfall, elegant landscaping and friendly servers. We frequently host bus tours, special private dinners, Christmas parties, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, and more.

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COOP: Why are Americans so enamored with the wine culture?

Barb: The wine culture is an age-old thing, dating back to the Bible. Wine has been a staple of existence for many generations, making its presence known at the dinner table to the cocktail party, from celebrations to cooking. Wine drinkers, in my opinion, are not the same as those who prefer beer or other spirits. They have an appreciation for the beverage — sip, not chug — and don’t drink to feel the effects of the alcohol, but to savor and hold on to the experience.

Nebraska had the most grapes in production at the turn of the century, until prohibition and 24-D cut it to almost nothing. It is coming back with a vengeance, and it is owed in part to the U.S. becoming more educated on the nuances of wine, how it’s made, and the different grapes and processes it takes to make it. Wine is very dependent on the terroir (or soil), climate, rainfall, and other factors that impact each vintage.

Even though you think you know what wine you may like, it changes every year. Since there is only one harvest, it runs out, and it will never be the exact same again. Therefore, people are drawn to taste wine since it may taste different the next year. They are more likely to buy a wine they like, since it may be gone soon. It’s a challenge to even the most avid wine drinker to get to know the current wines, since it is always changing. That is why tasting wine is of value.

COOP: What types of wine do you offer? Anything else that’s special on your menu?

Barb: SVE has a Class C liquor license from the State of Nebraska, so we are able to serve any kind of wine, beer, or other alcohol. We don’t choose to be a “bar,” but rather a wine tasting room that specializes in Nebraska-made wines and beers. We have about 60 wines on our menu, but the majority are from Nebraska. We offer a small selection of non-Nebraska wines and a few beers. We offer wines from as far away as Lewellen (near Ogallala) to Brownville to Hartington. About 14 Nebraska wineries are featured.

We also feature beers from La Vista, Cortland, Lincoln, Kearney, and Pawnee City (all in Nebraska). Besides the wood-fired pizza and French Onion soup, we offer seasonal garden fresh specials throughout the year.

COOP: Why has the trend of “glamorous camping” become so popular?

Barb: Glamping is popular mostly because you don’t have to pack a thing. A person just has to bring a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Everything else is available, including food and beverages. Food is allowed at SVE, so some folks bring in a smorgasboard of food, as well.

The appeal, I think, is that it’s fun to watch a concert and spend the night without driving. And during the week, it’s quiet and peaceful, back to nature away from the city. Couples celebrating anywhere from one day married to 40 years come for their anniversary.  It’s good to have uninterrupted bonding time.  We’ve had six marriage proposals, and countless anniversary celebrations.

Photos courtesy of Slattery Vintage Estates via Facebook.

Just a little FYI to everyone, gardening takes work and sometimes it isn’t successful. I’m talking from veggies to flowers. Of course you’re thinking to yourself, “way to state the obvious”. I only have one rebuttal to that which is I honestly didn’t realize it would take me several tries to start getting things right. I seem to keep learning the hard way.

My inspiration for the backyard was (and still is) Ina Garten’s culinary and flower gardens. These ridiculously manicured and perfectly television-ready outdoor spaces might be some of the reason that I’m not quite living up to my backyard expectations. Perhaps I set the bar too high.

Case in point:
ina garten garden

Via: WSJ.com

I want to live in her shed while she serves me cheese boards full of delectable treats.

On the design front, she has rows of boxwoods that creates a bit of organized chaos. They allow for the other plants to grow wilder, since the boxwoods are trimmed in a more orderly manner. I like that type of juxtaposition and am trying to have a little of that going on in my own space.

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The beginning attempts to get a similar vibe in my yard.

The boxwood are still little guys. They are more of a ball shape which is a little less formal. It takes time–or a lot of money–to create a more finished look because all the plants need several years to grow enough to fill out and take good shape. Eventually they will grow together and create a stronger border around the raised beds. (The back strawberry bed got overtaken by hungry rabbits, hence the sad, empty box.)

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Russian Sage in bunches at Ina’s. (Of course we’re on a first name basis. I am going to live in her shed after all.)

russian sage

Surrounding my backyard vegetable garden. (Obviously need to reseed for a new lettuce harvest. Poor empty bed.)

This plant is super hearty and pretty much impossible to mess up. It brings in a lot of color and grows really fast. Be sure to use several of them in order to have a real impact.

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Finally, she has beautifully kept arbor vitae for height.

Hers look great. Mine got spider mites and look like this.

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Gross.

This is what I learned for the mite experience; if you notice any discoloration then immediately check for those gross little creatures. You can take a white piece of paper and shake the base of the plant. If mites are the problem, you will see them on the paper. Trim the dead pieces off and get something to kill the mites. I’m not going to lie, nothing organic worked well for me. Check again in a day or two to see if your treatment worked and then be diligent about spraying the plant with water to keep them from re-infesting.

With another summer under my belt I know a little more of the upkeep, what to look for and what to wait on, while trying to create a lovely backyard garden.

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