Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Seasonal Sourdough Pizza

Pizza is an all-weather food. Whether dining poolside in the dog days of summer, or pounding a pie in a cozy café in the dead of winter, pizza is always in style. Gourmet pizza joints are popping up all over the country, but old standards remain as popular as ever. Pizza is so readily available that it may seem unnecessary to attempt making it at home. However, once you try it, you may just find that nothing quite compares. Top it with seasonal ingredients, and infinite possibilities emerge.

The first step in making a great pizza is mastering the dough. Sourdough crust isn’t essential, but it’s simple to make and adds abundant texture and flavor. There are as many recipes for sourdough starter as there are for pizza toppings. My favorite is a simple buttermilk and flour concoction, though beer-based sourdough starter would also be delicious.

Quick and Easy Buttermilk Sourdough Starter


1 cup flour
1 1/8 cup buttermilk
1 t. yeast
 ½ t. sugar


  1. A day or two prior to making the pizza, combine the flour, buttermilk, yeast, and sugar. 
  2. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel, and let it sit for 24 hours.
  3. After 24 hours, add ¼ cup flour and ¼ buttermilk.
  4. Stir, cover, and allow to sit on a countertop for another 24 hours.
  5. The sourdough will continue to ferment, as long as you feed it in this way every day. Liquid may form on top.  This is the byproduct of fermentation. It’s fine to stir it in, unless it turns black. If there is any sign of dark-hued liquid or mold, discard the sourdough and start over. Store leftover sourdough starter in the refrigerator. Do not use an airtight lid. I store it in a mason jar, covered with a paper towel secured with a rubberband.

After fiddling with the King Arthur Sourdough Pizza Crust recipe, I believe I’ve arrived at a near perfect pie.

Here’s the dough recipe I use:

Brenda's Sourdough Pizza Crust


1 cup buttermilk sourdough starter, preferably at room temperature
1 ½ cups white baking flour
½ semolina flour
½ t. yeast
1 t. salt
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. onion powder
1 t. Italian herb mix
1 t. dried rosemary


  1. Using a stand mixer with a dough hook, knead the dough for about 7 minutes. Alternately, knead by hand until the dough is firm and stretchy, but not sticky. 
  2. Place the dough in a nonreactive bowl and cover it with a dishtowel or cheesecloth. 
  3. Allow it to double in size, which may take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, depending on the warmth of the room (dough rises more quickly in warmer environments).
There are a few tricks to keep in mind when preparing the dough. First, the longer the sourdough ferments, the more flavorful it becomes. Second, unless you have a pizza oven, the crust will probably be doughier than in a commercial pizzeria. Using a pizza stone in the oven and pre-heating the oven to 475 degrees for about 45 minutes before baking will ensure a crispier crust. Finally, rolling the dough will depend on your personal skillz.

I’ve always marveled at professional pizza workers’ ability to toss dough in the air without ripping or dropping it. I have yet to achieve such agility. In the absence of pizza tossing credentials, roll out the dough on a countertop, or press it from the center outward with your fingertips until it is uniformly ¼- ½ inch thick. Either circular or rectangular shapes are fine. The dough should fit snugly in the baking pan. Though I keep a baking stone in my oven to retain and evenly distribute heat, I prefer to cook the pizza in either a cast iron pizza skillet, or simple, rectangular baking pan. Create a slightly elevated ridge around the outer edge of the dough to catch any drippings as the pizza cooks. Because I like a crispy crust, I bake the crust alone until it browns and begins to puff (about 15-20 minutes). Then, I remove it from the oven and flip it over in the pan before adding the toppings.

Now for the fun part – toppings! Take advantage of seasonal ingredients and experiment with flavor combinations. In colder weather, I combine sautéed onions and garlic, fresh spinach, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, olives, and pecorino cheese. Layer the pizza so that moisture-rich ingredients are on top. Otherwise, they’ll soak into the crust, creating a soggy sponge.

Bake the pizza until the outer crust begins to brown, greens are wilted, and the cheese is melted on top. Serve piping hot, with chili pepper flakes for sprinkling. For full atmosphere, we like to play Pandora’s Mambo Italiano in the background and add a choice beverage. A nice Chianti is my preference, while my husband goes with a Belgian beer. Just remember:

"When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's amore..."
                                                         Dean Martin

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Plant Virginia Native Trees and Shrubs This Spring

A snowy landscape is the perfect setting for a new spring vision. While trees are bare and perennials invisible, take a long, hard look at bare areas of your yard. Imagine it filled with beautiful spring buds that not only spruce up the scenery, but also feed native pollinators. Now is the time to decide where there are gaps in your landscape and begin planning for spring planting. 

Each year, the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District offers very affordable native trees and shrubs to the public. Because the trees are more saplings, there are several things to consider before planting:

1. mature size of the tree
2. necessary light conditions
3. soil conditions
4. bloom time

Ideally, the landscape will offer four-season interest, with bloom times stretching from early March through November. This year, they are offering:

Tree Package (6 Seedlings for $11.95)

2 River birch (Betula nigra)

River birch
Mature size of 70-80 feet. Attractive native ornamental tree tolerates a wide range of conditions, flourishes in rich soils. Only birch native to the Coastal Plain in the southeastern United States. Full to partial sun.

2 Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata)

Shortleaf pine
Reaches a mature size of 50 to 60 feet in height. This conifer has attractive reddish-brown bark in scaly plates on mature trees and provides habitat and food for a variety of birds. It prefers sandy loams but is also easily grown in a wide range of average, dry to medium, well-drained soils in full sun and tolerates some light shade. Deep taproot; one of the few pines that can sprout from the root collar if the stem is damaged.
Photo credit: Franklin Bonner, USFS (ret.), Bugwood.org

2 Willow oak (Quercus phellos)

Willow oak
Reaches a mature size of 50 to 80 feet. Excellent wildlife food source and landscape tree. Full to partial sun. Thrives in a range of conditions, from lowlands, river and swamp border to rich, sandy uplands.

Shrub and Small Tree Package (10 Seedlings for $16.95)

2 Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Inconspicuous green to white flowers especially valued by honey bees and nectar insects. Scarlet red to orange berries often remain into midwinter. Grows 6-12 feet in full sun to shade.

2 Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)

Silky dogwood
This shrub's bright blue berries have high wildlife value. Prefers well-drained, moist soil and sunny or part-sun conditions. Good for streambanks. Fast-growing, 6-10 feet tall.

2 Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Large, multi-stemmed; grows to 20 feet. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves. Clusters of pink, pea-like blooms appear in early spring. Sun to part shade.

2 Red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia)

Red chokeberry
Delicate white blossoms in spring, brilliant red fall foliage and rich scarlet berry clusters in winter make this deciduous shrub and all-season favorite. Will sucker and spread, grows to 10 feet. Prefers sun to part shade.

2 Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Arrowwood viburnum
Five to eight foot shrub grows vigorously in sun to partial shade. Flat clusters of creamy white flowers in June. Bluish-black berries against glossy red foliage in fall. Birds love the fruits and seeds. Excellent as a hedge.
Photo credit: James H. Miller & Ted Bodner, Southern Weed Science Society, Bugwood.org

Here are the details for ordering:

2015 Seedling Sale
This year's seedling sale features shrubs and trees from the Plant NOVA Natives guide and campaign, a regional effort to promote native plants. For more information and to download a copy of the guide, see www.plantnovanatives.org<http://www.plantnovanatives.org>. These trees and shrubs help provide valuable habitat and add beauty to your landscape.
The 2015 Shrub and Small Tree Package<http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/nvswcd/seedlingsale.htm#shrubs> features 10 seedlings for $16.95. The Tree Package<http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/nvswcd/seedlingsale.htm#trees> includes 6 seedlings for $11.95. A full, nonrefundable payment must accompany your order by Wednesday, April 22, or until supplies run out.
New in 2015! Help us streamline our operations by paying online with a credit card, debit card or e-check. Please follow this link to our online seedling sale store.
Place Your 2015 Seedling Sale Order Online: http://nvswcd-velocitypayment-com.3dcartstores.com/<http://nvswcd-velocitypayment-com.3dcartstores.com/>
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at 703-324-1460, TTY 711 or ConservationDistrict@fairfaxcounty.gov<mailto:ConservationDistrict@fairfaxcounty.gov>.

For more information, contact: 
Kory Kreiseder
Administrative and Technical Assistant
Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District
12055 Government Center Parkway, Suite 905
Fairfax, VA 22035-5512
703-324-1421 fax

Friday, February 20, 2015

Neonics in the News

Earlier this week, the Maryland legislators moved to protect bees and other pollinators through the Pollinator Protection Act. Landscape industry lobbyists quickly moved to dismiss arguments that honey bee decline is largely impacted by the use of pesticides. Many homeowners may not even be aware that the weed killers so readily available on garden center shelves are in fact destroying their carefully cultivated yards and gardens. Perhaps with a ban on neonics, homeowners and professional landscapers will start to think outside the box. Like using native plants and natural mulches. That's probably wishful thinking, but in the meantime we can lean on legislators on this side of the pond (Virginia) in the hope that they'll be as forward thinking as their MD counterparts.

For a succinct argument on on why neonics are indeed harmful, and how agro-chem companies deny their products' role in honey bee demise, check out Clement Kent's open letter to Canadians. Here are his comments on the issue:

"People not living in Ontario, Canada may not know that the provincial government has proposed banning neonicotinoid-treated corn and soy seed. Coincident with a period of public comment on the proposed ban, full page ads purporting to be from farmers groups but paid for by agro-chem companies appeared in most Ontario newspapers. The ads claimed everything was fine for bees in Ontario and that there was no proof of harm to pollinators by neonics.

I was one of a number of people who tried to correct the record. Attached to this message is a summary I did of the timeline of neonic introduction and honey bee colony and honey production losses. I also analyzed some studies paid for by Bayer which claimed no harm to bees from neonics. The Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) has published this summary to their members, and I offer it to any other group wishing to pass it along to members or the public."

Finally, to take it really local and make it personal, here's a link to a great webinar:
Habitat Restoration Fundamentals (Webinar) Listen

This webinar will examine the step-by-step procedures for designing,
installing, and managing native plant communities specifically designed for
monarch breeding. Among the topics to be explored are initial planning
considerations, formulating seed mixes, site preparation and weed
abatement, and long-term land management practices. Real world case studies
will be provided, and successful approaches in multiple eco-regions will be

Eric Lee-Mäder is the Pollinator Conservation Program Co-Director at the
Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (www.xerces.org). In this role
Eric works across the world with farmers, gardeners, land managers and the
agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organization to restore native habitat in working
agricultural lands.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How To Grow MicroGreens Indoors

On cold, winter days, there's nothing like a little green to spruce up you palate. Unfortunately, fresh greens are hard to come by in cold weather. No matter how quickly they're shipped around the country, leafy vegetables begin to wilt and lose nutritional value as soon as they're harvested. Why buy expensive, days-old salad greens when you can grow fresh micro-greens right in your windowsill? Simple to grow and packed with nutrition, microgreens are a valuable alternative to store-bought lettuce.

Microgreens are the young sprouts that emerge from cool-season vegetable and herb seeds, notably radish, kale, beets, mustard, cilantro, broccoli, and cabbage. They are typically harvested when they reach 2-3 inches in height. It's nice to plant a mixture of seeds, in order to reap the greatest range of flavors. From peppery radish to sweet baby pak choi, micro-greens brighten eggs, sandwiches, soups, and salads. Though referred to as "greens," microgreen seedlings emerge in various shades of purple, green, and yellow. Best of all, planting and harvesting requires minimal effort. Microgreens grow quickly in a sunny windowsill, or under fluorescent plant lights.

Though I use row covers to grow greens outdoors year round, it's no fun harvest anything on icy-cold, wet days.
View of my covered, raised beds on a cold, wet winter day.
Cabin fever? Take some time to do a little indoor gardening, and soon you'll be rewarded with a cut-and-come again salad garden. There are many sprouting kits available, but it's just as easy to start with recycled plastic containers and good potting mix. Recycled plastic salad containers from the grocery store are perfect for starting micro-greens indoors. Purchase a packet of mixed micro-green seeds, or mix your own using a combination of your favorite herbs, lettuce, beets, and brassicas. Mix 1/2 t. of each seed variety, until you have about 1/4 c. of seeds. This will be enough to cover multiple seed flats.

Seed catalogs and nurseries are good sources for mixed micro-green seeds, but they may not stock individual vegetable seeds in mid-winter. Stock up in fall or early spring, and store the seed packets in the freezer until you're ready to use them.  

Use a commercial potting mix for vegetables, or create your own. In the interest of time, I store a small bag of organic potting mix in the basement. This enables me to start new seed trays whenever I have a spare 10 minutes. 

Eight Easy Steps For Growing MicroGreens

1. Whether using a garden-variety seed palate, or a recycled plastic container, drainage holes are vital. Score the bottom of the plastic container (this can be a berry tray, yogurt cup, milk jug, soda bottle, or anything else made of plastic, clay, or resin) so that there are about three drainage holes.

2. Moisten the soil mix before placing it in the seed tray or pots. The seeds are tiny, and watering from above right after planting will only wash them away. The moist soil should form a loose ball when squeezed. It should not feel muddy.

3. Sprinkle the seed mixture on top of the moistened soil. Cover with another 1/4 inch of soil.

4. Place the containers in a sunny window, or under grow lights. In this case, I am using grow lights to make use of my grow stand, and because I have no more space on my windowsill. I set a timer so that the plants receive 12 hours of light. The lights hover about 6 inches above the containers. 

Remember to label seed trays that are contain only one variety of plant.

5. Cover the growing containers loosely with plastic wrap, or with the lid that came with the container. This forms a mini-greenhouse, in which water is captured on the top surfaced and recycled thorough the soil.

6. Place the containers in an enclosed flat, or on a saucer. Pour a little water onto the base to allow the plants to wick the water up through the soil. 

7. Seedlings will emerge in 3-7 days. As soon as green sprouts appear, remove the plastic wrap and/or plastic lids. 

8. Harvest the micro-greens when they are 2-3 inches tall and the first leaves, or cotyledons, appear. Use scissors to snip the top inch, or pinch them off with your fingers. 

Recent research suggests that pl ants harvested as microgreens contain up to five times more vitamins and carotenoids than their mature counterparts. They are extremely delicate and perishable. Growing them at home ensures they're fresh and chemical-free. Sprinkle them on just about anything, and call yourself a garden-to-table gourmet! 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to Make Cottage Cheese, by Accident

What do you do when yogurt doesn't properly ferment? Such was the question I posed to google one cold day last week, after discovering the sad pot of soupy milk that failed to coagulate despite having following my tried-and-true yogurt recipe. Normally, the light bulb in my oven heats up enough to fully ferment the milk; however, I hadn't taken into account the considerably cooler temperature outside the oven. It simply wasn't warm enough for the yogurt to take shape. Rather than taking the time to reheat the mixture and let it sit for another lengthy night, I decided to convert it to cottage cheese.

Unlike making yogurt, which can be a somewhat temperamental and time-consuming process, making cottage cheese is as easy as 1,2,3. Normally, all you need is one quart of milk, six tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice, a warm stove-top, and about 30 minutes. Alton Brown explains it well on the Food Network.

In this case, I was starting with milk that already contained yogurt starter, so there was no need to add  an acid. I slowly reheated the mixture to about 120 degrees. The whey quickly separated from the curds. I stirred it gently to encourage separation.
Gently reheat milk containing yogurt starter.
Separating curds and whey is kind of like a science experiment. When an acid is added to milk, the casein protein found in the milk coagulates, forming solid curds. Heat encourages further separation, allowing liquid whey to rise, as the curds settle:

Next, I poured the mixture into a colander lined with cheese cloth, allowing the whey to drain into a larger bowl placed beneath. Whey is a versatile ingredient in its own right, so I wanted to be sure to save it.

Whey can be stored for several months in the refrigerator. Use it to soak grains and beans, as a substitute in baking, or for lacto-fermentation. A half-gallon of milk yields about a quart of whey and 2 cups of cottage cheese.

Add about 1/2 t. kosher salt to the strained cottage cheese and store it in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. Add herbs, or pepper, according to your taste.

When life hands  you a pot of uncoagulated, fermented milk, make cottage cheese!