La Diva's Victory Garden Plot

 Darlings!  Welcome to La Diva's Victory Garden on South Beach!  Well, it's not really MY garden but the City of Miami Beach and all the wonderful volunteers and neighbors in my community that want to grow their own vegetables, fruit, herbs and plants!



This is a close up of some of the cool, hand painted tiles on the fence.



Come on in and I'll show you around! 

I decided for my plot that I wanted to grow herbs and things I can't get easily at the store like Asian herbs.   Also included would be herbs I use in my class, like rosemary and Italian parsley.  They are $3 a bunch, and that adds up when you only need a sprig or two!  I was told that tomatoes are challenging to grow, so I am not bothering with them.  Nor am I bothering with cilantro, which I always find bolts too quickly, and which I can get for  only 99 cents a bunch.  Hey, this plot is precious real estate, I'm not wasting it on stuff I can buy easily and inexpensively!



 The garden is divided into plots and stretches back to the alleyway.  We have a huge tank of rain water to use, a sprinkler system that goes on twice a day, a tool shed, compost bin, a seedling table, storage for extra pots and things,  picnic table and a shaded bench.  My plot is the one in the middle next to the wooden trellis with the small green pots with seedlings.


I've been a gardener since I was a very little girl of about five, when I used to follow my mom around our yard picking her beautiful roses, lilacs and forsythias.  These are coral bells, dainty little pink bells on long stems and we had clumps of them scattered about in our back yard.  They always remind me of my mother and my time in the garden with her.  As we'd walk around the garden, weeding and clipping off dead flower heads, bees would buzz, butterflies would flutter by and I remember smelling the sun on the cotton sheets drying on the line!  Such sweet memories!
In my life as a gardener, I've gardened in the suburbs of Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, California, and now in Southern Florida, all with different growing zones and conditions.   Michigan and Illinois were the same with a very short growing season and extremely hot and humid summers, while Sydney was sub-temperate with severe sun and a climate that favored drought resistant plants.  My favorite place to grow was Southern California where I had window boxes filled with hummingbird attracting fuschia and coloured coleus and a dwarf lemon tree with violas.  So healthy, bright and beautiful were my plants that I actually sold all of the boxes when we were packing to move to Miami!

It's been challenging to learn what will and will not grow in all of these different zones as well as what time of year to plant!   I don't think I've even seen coral bells down here in the South.  Further, this plot is about a block from the beach so salt and wind could very well be something to consider!



Don't let his friendly wave fool you!  Bears can be found in gardens all over the States,  but you have to be careful, they will steal your shit.  Never leave a plate of food or an alcoholic drink unattended around a bear!  (they favor bbq chicken,  anything with alcohol and especially leftover steak and honey, naturally!)  Some have been known to be tame and helpful, but again, you can't take your eyes off of them for a second!



Peppermint is put into a pot to prevent spreading and taking over my plot.   One never knows when La Diva could crave a mojito and the grocery doesn't always have it on hand, it's quite the popular herb in Miami!


 Chile the dog helps supervise the DJ with La Diva (when he's not guarding his precious ball.)




Up top you can see the poor basil seedlings that have been fried.  I'll go back today to see if they made it.  The sorrel is above the Vietnamese mint in the pot. Red sorrel is a very popular herb prevalent in the Caribbean and the dishes of the region.  I know it's used in other country's cuisines but it seems to have fallen out of fashion here in the States. However, I remember my Polish great aunt telling me about how delicious sorrel soup was and that always intrigues me.  Seeing as I don't ever see it in the store, I've decided to put it in and see what I can make with it as I love being inspired with flavors I'm not familiar with.  The Vietnamese mint in the pot (or Vietnamese coriander) was wilted too but sprang back to life once it got a nice drink of cool water. 




Clockwise:  Rosemary, lemon thyme and sweet marjoram.  The DJ found some extra wood boards to separate the Mediterranean herbs so they don't spread too much.  In the far right are two basil plants, Sweet Dani, a lemon basil and Queen of Siam, a Thai basil.  I brought the seedlings to the garden on Friday but was ill on Saturday so didn't make it.   When I came by on Sunday, they were very wilted.  Let's hope they make it!  (you can click on the photo to enlarge)

Behind them is lemongrass, some marigolds sprouting (to keep away bugs) and sorrel.   In the corner in the pot is Vietnamese mint and then across the bottom, Italian parsley, habanero chile (Scotch bonnet) and Thai chile, then garlic chives and back to the peppermint.  Then a few more marigold and one little arugula!  I'm thinking of putting salad greens in the middle!  How lovely would that be?!

The garden is in a bit of shade now at 2pm with sun all day but as the summer progresses and the sun moves further north, the shade will go.  The shade is good for now, otherwise the plants could fry and I was told to put the chiles in the shady spots so that they would bear more fruit.

Darlings, especially my dear readers in the cold tundras of the north, are you going to be gardening this year?  What will YOU plant?  What do YOU see success with?  Tell La Diva all about it!  Ciao for now!

Don't forget, darlings, THIS SATURDAY, La Diva is doing TWO DEMOS at the Pinecrest Gardens "Backyard Paradise & Garden Festival."  I will show guests how to make a cool and refreshing green papaya slaw and a divine and succulent lemongrass chile chicken on the barbecue!  More details by clicking HERE!

Break away from BOREDOM!


 Are you bored of the meat and two veg dinner?

Darlings!  So many cooks lately have told me that they are in a COOKING RUT!  To be honest, it happens to the best of us, even to La Diva.  Sometimes, you've made an old stand by meal one time too many, the same boring meat and two veg day after day!

So, for inspiration, La Diva thought she'd share with you what I've prepared in the last week.  True to form, my culinary style is heavily influenced by Asian and Mediterranean flavor profiles as well as "what's in season" at the farmer's market and also what is in my pantry!  I think you'll be delighted with the variety of choices.


PROTEIN-RICH:

La Diva is cutting calories and has begun a work out program (eek!)  Some experts say that the key to building muscle is through eating high protein foods.  Super grain quinoa has more protein than any other whole grain and paired with black lentils and tuna, this meal packs a high protein punch and is low in fat and carbs.  Oh, and VERY TASTY TOO!!!



Seared tuna is spread with a thin layer of Meyer lemon tapenade and served over quinoa and black lentil salad with arugula and feta cheese garnished with fresh, diced tomatoes.

SPICY:

La Diva was surfing the Internet for savory Meyer lemon uses and found this spicy recipe for shrimp piri piri with quick preserved Meyer lemon.  This recipe and photo comes courtesy of the L.A. Times and Chef Marcus Samuelsson.  I modified the recipe somewhat by changing the chile type (I used green jalapeno, red Fresno and one baby habanero) and used regular preserved lemons instead of Meyer.  I did use Meyer lemon juice though, and served the lot over organic Florida-grown brown rice.  The result was spicy, succulent, DIVINE!  Click HERE for the recipe.

 Shrimp piri piri with quick preserved Meyer lemon

FAST:

This dinner of mussels and rice can be made and on the table within 15 minutes!  Simply saute a paste of minced shallot, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and chile for a few minutes until fragrant.  Then, add a half a cup of coconut milk and a dash of fish sauce and simmer for a couple of minutes.  Add the mussels, cover and cook until they just being to open.  Remove mussels and plate with jasmine rice in serving bowls. Then reduce the sauce a bit and pour over the mussels.  Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately. 

This dish is so true to its Thai roots that you couldn't get any it better at a restaurant!   The mussels were small and sweet with the bite of lemongrass and chile was "just right."  The jasmine rice soaks up all the broth and is eaten using the shell  as a spoon and with a mussel, a heavenly bite full of flavor!


  Lemongrass chile mussels with coconut milk over jasmine rice.


ELEGANT:

Good enough for compn'y, this dish of chicken involtini over lemon risotto is packed with flavor and easy to prepare.  I pounded a couple of chicken breasts, spread with the tapenade (same as I used for the tuna!), then put in a bit of cooked, blotted spinach and then feta.  Rolled it up, secured it with a small skewer and baked them at 350 for 30 minutes and served over risotto.  I made a regular risotto with chicken broth and added Meyer lemon juice and zest to create the lemony flavor, easy peasy and tres elegant!  I finished it with a bit of butter and parmigiano cheese then plated up.

To 'fancy up the plating' for company, I would serve it on a plate and garnish with more lemon zest and a bit of green, like microgreens or Italian parsley.

Man!  Tom Colicchio would be patting me on the back for this perfecto risotto that yes, DID SPREAD OUT ON THE PLATE!  The lemon risotto added the right tang and was perfect to go up against the strong olive and feta flavors, what a combo.  The chicken came out juicy and tender but I still spooned just a bit of the chicken's juices onto each piece for added flavor.

Chicken involtini with tapenade of Meyer lemon and chile, spinach and feta cheese over creamy Meyer lemon risotto.


CHEAP:

Bucatini all'amatriciana:  A a good chunk of Italian bacon (pancetta or guanciale, if you can get it) = $3.50, box of bucatini pasta = $1.69, 8 Florida plum tomatoes = $4, white onion = $1, Total = $10.19. What better way for you to feed four  hungry people for about $10 than with a big ol' bowl of hearty pasta?   And if you already have the red pepper flakes and pecorino cheese to top it, well, you are GOLDEN.

This classic Italian dish is simple and spicy and darlings, don't even THINK of leaving out the chile.  Even with a whole teaspoon of chile flakes, the heat is distributed throughout a pound of pasta, so really instead of intense heat, adds just the right lil' KICK.   Go ahead and google this and take a look at the many recipes for it on the Internet, as long as it has these basic ingredients, it's the REAL DEAL.

Bucatini alla'amtriciana with onions, pancetta, Florida plum tomatoes, chile flakes and bucatini pasta topped with freshly grated pecorino, a tangy Italian sheep's milk cheese!

It's interesting to note that THIS week, La Diva enjoyed rice three times!  But, each time a different rice was used:  arborio for the risotto, jasmine for the mussels and organic brown rice for the shrimp.   So, something as simple as stocking your pantry with a few different rices or grains can also add interest to your weekly meals.   Also, THIS week, I didn't eat any red meat but mostly seafood.  It just goes to show that you can serve interesting, satisfying meals with variety without the standard meat and two veg.

So, darlings, La Diva wants to know:  Did I inspire you?  Did this post get you thinking of different flavor combos?  Well, I certainly HOPE so!  Even if you try just ONE of these dishes that are out of the ordinary for you, you are BREAKING OUT of your BORING food rut!  Now get cookin', baby, and tell La Diva all about it! 

Ciao, darlings!


La Diva will be demonstrating at the Backyard Paradise Home and Garden Festival at the Pinecrest Gardens, Saturday April 2.  I will be doing two demos at 11 am and 1 pm, click HERE for more info!

La Diva's Liberty City Adventure

Address for the market is now:   African Heritage Cultural Arts Center 6161 NW 22nd Ave.
Miami, Florida 33142 and runs til the end of May.


Darlings!  Well, as you know, winter is prime time for southern Florida's growing season and we are  already more than half way through.  This year we've seen a fresh spurt of new farmer's markets which makes supporting our local farmers even more convenient.  Now if I want to have a sleep in on Sunday, I can always go to the Overtown Market for Roots in the City on Wednesdays OR the Liberty City farmer's market on Thursdays.   And you know La Diva likes choice!

The market is located in Liberty City,  one of the city's predominate African American communities and was named after a 1930's housing project, the second of its kind in the South. I had been to the Thursday market once and it was so convenient, I was in and out faster than you can say "crap chain grocery store!"

To help support the market, I posted the link to it via Urban Oasis Project on Facebook and next thing you know, a couple of friends decided to join me, Bradshaw and Corinna, two intelligent, urban hipsters who are incredibly dedicated to the betterment of the city of Miami and its extended community.  But wouldn't you know it, no sooner did I hang up the phone, a fierce and fast storm blew in with hurricane force!  I called and the market was still on!   La Diva wasn't worried and fully expected to keep my plans.  As a Miamian, one gets used to these formidable storms that seem to give us their all at once and then quickly spent, quietly go away. After about 20 minutes or so,  it stopped raining sideways, and I got into my car and headed over there to meet my friends, stock up on farm fresh produce and prove once again that Facebook really DOES connect people!


The market has recently moved to the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center and was almost blown away during the gale.  Storm troopers all, the vendors stayed til closing, soaked and with a few tents less, but eager to sell their produce none-the-less.  

Antonio and Art man the Urban Oasis table which has organic and non-organic local Florida fruits and vegetables.  I even bought a bag of organic brown rice grown in Florida!

The smiling lad on the end was following me around the market for a while, eager and curious.  I asked him his name and when he told me Giovanni, I quickly quipped, "Ah, you're Italian," which sent him into gales of gleeful laughter.



From the Urban Oasis tables and all local:  cucumbers, squash, organic beets, kale and tender romaine lettuce.  Also, there were tropical fruits of papaya, loquat strawberries, coconut, sugarcane, passion fruit and banana.  Seen here are the caramel-like sopadilla!  (more on that in a bit!)



Sam the plant man from Urban Paradise Guild was hawking seedlings for tropical and native plants including mustard greens, peanut, sorrel, Scotch bonnet peppers, bird's eye chiles and papaya!




Black man, brown man, white man, BUNCH.  Daylight come and me wan' go home!  These guys are from Garden of Troy.   Brad, on the far right gets help with the garden from the students of Troy Academy.




Clive de Nature Boyz's juice mon!  Antonio came by for a refreshing pick me up.  I get my sugarcane from Clive and he takes out his machete and cuts a huge piece to order....for two bucks!  There is nothing like sucking on a rum-soaked sugar cane spike after your mojito is gone!




Clive cuts open a sopadilla for La Diva to try.  Super sweet, yep, looks and TASTES like brown sugar, I can see why people describe the taste as "caramel."  La Diva is hooked!




An international crowd was flogging food at the market this day!  We have Eva selling her most DIVINE AND SPICY Indonesian food she described as "nusantara."  And the lovely Vivian and her husband Jonas were pushing Ghanian doughnuts and other flavorful African fare.  At Bradshaw's insistence, we could only partake in small samples, as he promised plates of Southern Florida's best "fried scrimpy" for lunch.  We headed to Jumbo's in anticipation, stomachs rumbling.




A Miami institution since 1955 and known for their fried shrimp, third-generation Miamian Bradshaw told me his parents used to come to Jumbo's for their dates back in the day!  I was surprised to find this joint was a James Beard award winner AND has it's own day issued by the mayor of Miami!  (That would be January 8!)  Take a look at this really interesting video about the restaurant by clicking HERE.

I was SO HAPPY that Bradshaw introduced me to this classic fish shack!  And Corinna was pretty excited too!  If you want some kitschy atmosphere to go along with your fried shrimp and soul food, head over to Jumbo's in da hood.



Ya gots to love these signs, Jumbos just SCREAMS character!




Black-eyed peas, collard greens and battered, fried conch on the back plate and macaroni and cheese, rice and beans and Jumbo's classic fried shrimp with a beet salad for Brad.  The fried fare came with two sides each so we ordered two plates and had plenty for three people and at $24, it was a BARGAIN.  Bradshaw brought his own Jamaican hot sauce for the fried conch and both were delicious.   

Stuffed with the crunchy, fried goodness that is known as Jumbos and satiated by great conversation, a happy, produce-laden La Diva made her way home, grateful for the cultural diversity in Miami and my good friends that shared it with me! Ciao for now, darlings!

When bears cook: Baked chicken thighs with Meyer lemons and rainbow carrots


Darlings!  Well, Spring pollen is in the air and wouldn'tcha know it, La Diva is illin'.  Boo!  The season of sinus infections has begun!  Hiss!  While I was down on the couch the other night struggling to breathe, I asked my Big Bear Man, DJ Nevah L8, if he'd make dinner and...wait for it....write a blog post about it too?  Amazingly, he agreed.

But when it came time to actually write, the big guy got all shy and protested that his paws were "too big for the keys, it will take me forever to write" and besides "I am a boring writer.  I tend to write like a strung out literary professor on crack; too flowery, wordy and quasi-academic." 

Well, I guess he's right.  The boy does tend to ramble, and succinct is NOT a word the lad knows the meaning of.  So, three days into antibiotics, I guess I'll have to do my Diva job and write my own dang post.


 From Snail's Tales blog, this photo of the Meyer lemon with kitty in the background made me giggle!

As you all know, it's CITRUS SEASON and lemony brightness is always so welcome to many living in the colder climes this time of year.   Even though La Diva lives in the Sunshine State, I too, look forward to the season each winter.  After begging and pleading and DEMANDING to the produce manager to get some coveted Meyer lemons on their shelves, I bought several bags of my fave fruit.  And because La Diva is dieting, I decided that I'd have to pass on the usual Meyer lemon meringue pie and try my hand at a savory application instead.  Like most people, when I'm ill and medicated, my brain does not work too efficiently, so lemon chicken was the easiest method I could think of for the DJ to prepare!

DJ Nevah L8's Baked Chicken Thighs with Meyer Lemon (and divine rainbow carrots!)




Heat a medium skillet with olive oil and when very hot, put chicken thighs in skin side down.  Why?  We are going to brown the chicken so it crisps up the skin, looks deelish and appetizing and not gray and rubbery!




After a nice sear and the skin is brown, remove the thighs and put aside onto a plate and remove pan from heat.  Then add rainbow carrots halved and quartered.  Spread out so there is one even layer and season lightly with salt.



Here is what to add to the chicken:  dried thyme and marjoram, a few finely sliced garlic cloves and one thinly sliced Meyer lemon.  We forgot to take the seeds out but do so now, so you don't have to pick them out later.



Put the thighs back into the pan, skin side up and season with salt, pepper, garlic and the herbs.  Carefully place lemon slices over all of the chicken pieces.



Pop into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through completely.  (EEEEK!  Time to clean the oven again!)



Mmmmmmm....doesn't that look DIVINE? 



RESULT:  Well done, DJ!!!  Nestled under the chicken, the carrots were cooked to perfection and were a tender, sweet side.  The DJ was tempted to add wine to the chicken but I advised against it as we wanted the carrots to caramelize and release their sugars NOT steam or boil in the wine.  The chicken was succulent, juicy and tender with a light lemony taste which was not enough for either of us.  We greedily cut into the lemon slices and for each bite of chicken paired it with a piece of the zesty lemon.  Dee-licious, dee-lighful, dee-groovy!

And the best part?  ONE PAN TO WASH.  The DJ steamed the green beans in a microwave steamer bag and was left with only the frying pan.  Now that's a happy DJ!

So, darlings, have YOU ever tried a Meyer lemon?  What did you do with it?  Tell Diva all about it!  And if you want to 'ave a go at preparing the unique and tasty Meyer lemon, but are not sure where to start, check out the L.A. Times article for "100 things to do with a Meyer lemon" by clicking HERE.

Ciao for now, darlings!

La Diva does Sobe Food & Wine Festival with Tony Abou-Ganim

 Master Mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin and La Diva enjoy a classic daiquiri cocktail.

 Darlings!  Last weekend the South Beach Food & Wine Festival was in town and throngs of well-heeled and well-fed foodies were everywhere, crowding up Diva's streets and taking over my beach!  It was only a few days before the shindig started when I got the call from my lovely agent Peggi asking me to join her for an event at the W Hotel South Beach:

" Chasing Ernest Hemingway with Tony Abou-Ganim"

 Ernest Hemingway was not only a great writer, bull fighting aficionado, big game hunter and sport fisherman but he was also a notoriously famous imbiber. Join Tony Abou-Ganim as he takes you on a journey to some of Hemingway’s most famous haunts. From the classic Daiquiri’s at the El Floridita to his Mojito at the Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba. Next you’ll follow Hemingway as he makes a stop at Harry’s Bar in Venice to enjoy a Bellini before arriving in Paris for Absinthe Drips at Clos Des Lilas, a Bloody Mary at Harry’s New York Bar and a final stop for a Death in the Afternoon at his namesake bar inside the Ritz. This is sure to be an educational and entertaining look into some of the world’s most famous libations and the man who made them legendary!


 Tony's demonstration table complete with absinthe drip and other bartender accoutrement.

 Actually, I'd heard about Tony before and knew that for the past few years he demonstrated at a cocktail event for the festival, so La Diva was more than intrigued.   Over the years, I've seen my share of wanker "mixologists" full of "attitude" and "flair."  (I LOATHE flair bartending, just make my drink already fer Chrissakes.)  So, yes, I'll admit it, I did wonder if Tony would be in that genre of bartending egomaniacs that La Diva cannot stomach?

 The place mat set before me was titillating!  Would we be drinking ALL of these?!  Diva hoped so!

Tony came out and before his demo, I asked for a photo and without hesitation, he put his arm around me and with a big smile, planted a kiss on my cheek.  I was taken by his immediate warmth and friendliness, the signs of a great bartender.  "I think I'm going to enjoy this!"

Tony began telling stories of Hemingway and the drinks Papa invented and enjoyed.  Engaging and funny, Tony not only kept my attention but actually taught me a few things as well!  We went through making of a classic lime daquiri and then he talked all about absinthe.  Charming and informative, he was more than happy to take questions.  When I made a comment about loving champagne, he gave me the absinthe champers cocktail in his hand.   It was unique and delicious!


 The next thing you know, Tony had asked if anyone made mojitos at home?  Well, of course, La Diva has made a few and he asked me up on "stage" to help him.  When I got up to the demo table, I was aghast to see a GIANT WOODEN MUDDLER next to the ice tub. Being the joker I am, La Diva COULD NOT resist saying, 

"Hey, Tony, I like your big muddler."

Well, that was it.  We were OFF!  Tony "went with it" and the double entendres flew,  we had a great time!  What a great sense of humor Tony had and also was a very good sport.  (La Diva is certain that others performing at this festival just would not tolerate anyone stealing their thunder!)  Just like Diva at her demos, Tony worked off the vibe from his audience and we had everyone laughing!  It was a blast!




Yep, there is TONY'S BIG MUDDLER!  I mean, c'mon, it WAS a bit rude, ya know?!  But all jokes aside, Tony and La Diva take our cocktail making quite seriously.

Seeing that I've worked as a cocktail bartender for YEARS, I was curious to find out if I'd learn anything new from this event.  Indeed I did.  Tony had me using a Lewis bag to crush the ice for the mojito.  Apparently back before ice crushers were invented, bartenders would use this heavy canvas bag to beat their ice into lovely little pieces, perfect for the mojito and DIVINE after a long, stressful day.  And yes, that MOJITO WAS DAMN GOOD.  I might just have to introduce this old school technique to my class!



Of course, Tony was flogging his own mixology book and both La Diva and Peggi felt compelled to buy it.  Ok, I know, I KNOW!  I have SO MANY cookbooks from the last two years, I didn't really need ONE MORE.  But, I am not in possession of a quality BAR book of cocktails and I thought Tony to be so interesting and educated, I was happy to support him by purchasing his book. 



Tony told me he almost signed it "MY" muddler but didn't want to get me in trouble with my husband! Wise man.  Haha!

When I got home I took a look at his book.  Thorough, educational and beautiful, it covers the history of certain cocktails, bar tools and what they are used for and original cocktail recipes as well as Tony's take on some classic libations.  The book also covers garnishes, flavored syrups and what fruit goes best with what spirit in what season, very useful indeed.  I would highly recommend it for the home bartender or any cocktail aficionado.  If you'd like to purchase "The Modern Mixologist," click HERE.  And for a great interview with Tony talking about his tome, click HERE.


La Diva, Tony and his Big Muddler, God love 'im.  Ciao for now, darlings!

If YOU'D like to learn more about how to make cocktails and have a ball with La Diva, come to my "small bites, BIG DRINKS" cooking and cocktail classes!  More info HERE!