Seasonal Gardening & Preserving in Central Texas for Beginners

A lot of my friends have seen my posts over the years and expressed some version of “oh, I’d love to try to plant my own food garden, but I don’t even know how to start.”

For me, I think the easiest “starter” veggies for the central Texas and Austin region are tomatoes, onions, strawberries, peppers, and basil.  If you plant just these five crops, you’ll be able to regularly harvest from about March to November without break, and without having to know too much about soils or pests.

So, I figured I’d give you a cheat-sheet for each plant, helping you to get started as well. Enjoy!

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Tomatoes

I’ve written about tomatoes before, but here are the essentials:

  • Plant your seedlings around March.
  • I’d recommend at least two plants: a cherry variety that will continue to produce through the hottest summer months, and a full-size variety that will give you two big harvests (first in May, second in November).
  • Look for “indeterminate” varietals, which means they’ll bloom multiple times.
  • Remove “suckers”
  • Stake your plants early and often.
  • Try to keep a consistent water level, and plan to water at least daily from June-September.
  • Things to Watch For:
    • Blossom End Rot looks like big brown rotten spots on nearly-ripe fruit. Solution: add some fish bone meal to your soil.
    • Birds and squirrels eating your plants.  Solution: bird netting.
    • Insects eating holes in leaves.  Solution: make a neem oil/dish soap spray and spray your plant leaves in the early morning.
    • Cracked fruit.  Solution: be more consistent in watering; pull any near-ripe fruit before rainstorms.
  • Preservation Ideas:
    • Tomatoes freeze very well – lots of recipes for that here.
    • Fresh salsa will last in the fridge for about 2 weeks

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Onions

  • Plant “onion sets” in mid-January. Break sets apart to give proper growing room or you’ll have small onions.
  • Once green tops begin popping up in mid-February or so, you can cut the tops off for use in any recipe calling for green onions or chives.
  • In late May/June, watch for onion tops starting to turn yellow and fall over.  Once this occurs, you’ll know it’s time to harvest.
  • Things to watch for:
    • Grubs in the soil will eat on your plant roots.  Solution: If you see a grub anytime you’re digging, remove it from the garden.  If you see lots of grubs, treat with milky spore powder before planting and beneficial nematodes every few months.
  • Preservation Ideas:
    • Braid them and story in a cool, dry place to dry.  They’ll last for 6 months or so, just keep an eye out for blackish mold or soft spots.

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Peppers

  • Plant your seedlings around March
  • I think serrano does best in Central Texas, but jalapenos, habaneros, and poblanos will grow here as well.
  • You’ll know they’re ready to harvest when they start to change color and are easy to pull from the vine. The more they change color, the hotter they’ll be.
  • Plan on getting peppers from about May – October.
  • Things to Watch For:
    • Aphids.  These look like little green dots on the leaves of your plant.  Left untreated, they’ll keep your plant from fruiting.  Solution: release ladybugs, after sundown.
  • Preservation Ideas:
    • Peppers respond great to pickling.
    • Can a pepper jelly (just make sure to use lots of pectin.)
    • Use a food dehydrator to dry them, then store in a plastic bag in the pantry.

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Strawberries

  • Plant seeds or seedlings around mid-February, after freezing weather ends.
  • You’ll need more plants than you think.  8 is a good number to start with; 15+ if you’re actually hoping to make jellies or jams.
  • These plants are perennials, so as long as you keep watering them through the year, they’ll come back and fruit for you year after year.
  • They spread on runners, so give them plenty of space away from other plants in your garden and they’ll continue to expand.
  • Harvest when the fruit is red. You’ll get largest harvest from late-March into June, but some “everbearing” varieties will continue to pump out stragglers even in the summer.
  • Things to Watch For:
    • Aphids.  These look like little green dots on the leaves of your plant.  Left untreated, they’ll keep your plant from fruiting.  Solution: release ladybugs, after sundown.
    • Sugar ants.  These guys will burrow into near-ripe fruit and eat it from the inside out. The problem is that some ants also eat aphids, so it’s sort of a toss up over whether to do anything or not.  Solution: add mulch under plants to keep fruit elevated, and don’t worry too much about the ants taking their cut.
  • Preservation Ideas:
    • Any number of jam and jelly recipes you can find online…that is, if you can avoid eating them fresh!

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Basil

  • Plant a seedling starting in March
  • Works well in a container as well as in the ground
  • Needs near-daily watering or will start to look droopy
  • Pinch off the flowers whenever they appear.  This keeps the basil growing, and prevents the basil from turning bitter.
  • Things to Watch For:
    • Snails – you’ll know you have them if you see streaky, whitish paths on your low-to-the-ground leaves.  Solution: add coffee grounds to your dirt, and pluck off any snails that you see.
    • Spittle bugs – these look like little pockets of foam right that the base of the leaves. Solution: remove any affected leaves, as this is actually the “bubble nest” of the pupal stage of the insect.  Solution: burn the removed leaves and/or seal them in a plastic bag before throwing away.
  • Preservation Ideas:
    • Basil pesto freezes well. You can also freeze loose basil leaves.
    • Dry them, either by hanging in a dry place or in a food deyhrdator

When Points & Miles Bookings Don’t Work Out

So I talk a LOT on this blog about all the travel we do as a result of travel hacking, otherwise known as using credit cards and other means to acquire lots of airline miles and hotel points and explore the world on the cheap.

Well, we were in the midst of planning our BIGGEST TRIP EVER. We had acquired around 130k points on our Citi Thank You account, 85k points on our Chase Ultimate Rewards account, and about 75k IHG points. And thanks to the fact that all of those currencies can transfer to Singapore Airlines, we were planning to book a First Class trip from Houston to Moscow, and spend 10 days exploring Moscow and St. Petersburg next May.

For those uninitiated, Singapore Airlines has regularly been named the best airline IN THE WORLD. Their first class cabins are legendary. And if you’re not using points, you should be prepared to shell out roughly $12k a ticket just for the honor. But we were going to get to do it, a $24k value round trip flight, for roughly $750 or so in taxes only, and nothing else. It was ultimate bucket list for me.

I had done the research, we had the points, and the first class saver awards were available on several dates that we could take advantage of. I was so excited, y’all.  I took a deep breath, set the points transfers in motion, and then started the impatient process of waiting for them to post to our Singapore Airlines account.

And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more. The Citi and Chase transfers occurred within a few days, but the IHG points took nearly 3 weeks to post to my account. But once they were finally in the account…

…the award availability was no longer there.

Disappointed but undeterred, I “waitlisted” six different round trip options on different dates that I was interested in, to see if anything opened up.  And then I started the process of checking the website and calling the U.S. Singapore Airlines office daily, to see if anything could be done.

Until today. Today, I read that as a result of lower oil prices drying up the business between Russia and Houston, Singapore is canceling the route entirely as of October.

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Heartbreak.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a happy ending to this story, or at least not yet. Our points are now all stuck in the Singapore Airlines bucket, so I’ll have to hunt and peck to try to find some availability on another route or partner airline…perhaps Manchester or Frankfort in Europe.  Or, we can double-down, transfer even MORE points over to Singapore Airlines, and try to book a trip to Singapore, Seoul, or Tokyo.

I share this, though, because it’s good to know the risks of this hobby — to share the heartbreaks as well as the insane wins.  We very well may have just wasted 2+ years of points hoarding on a gamble that didn’t work out.  But, if that’s the case; c’est la vie.  We won’t stop travel hacking, we’ll just get started building our next points surplus.  It’s what you do.

Updates to come, hopefully. :-/

Trip Report: A Long Weekend in Nashville, Part 2

Author’s Note: Don’t miss out on the first part of our Nashville shenanigans, here!

Once the sun on day 2 started to dip in the Nashville skyline, we decided it was once again time to head out to explore the city. We caught an Uber over to Centennial Park, a gorgeous green space just Northeast of the Vanderbilt campus in the area of midtown. And wow – this park was seriously gorgeous!

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The front of the Parthenon in Nashville.

Probably the most unique feature at the park was the scale-model of the Parthenon.  And this thing is no joke, size-wise. While we were too late in the day to check out the art gallery and sculptures inside, we did spy another breed of entertainment: Pokemon hunters!

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People playing Pokemon Go in Centennial Park in Nashville.

We joined in the fun and caught a Squirtle or two, before our stomachs told us it was time for dinner. Luckily, close by was Hattie B’s, one of Nashville’s famous “hot chicken” establishments. Undeterred by the line wrapping around the block, we joined the crowds and prepared to have our taste buds scalded.

 

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The menu board at Hattie B’s Midtown

The chicken here comes in six levels of hotness, ranging from “Southern” to “Shut The Cluck Up”.  We ended up ordering a 1/2 chicken plus a tender at the “Hot!” level as well as cole slaw, baked beans, and pimento mac and cheese as well.

 

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“Hot!” means pretty dang hot, y’all. At Hattie B’s in Nashville.

And the hubby loved it – already somewhat of a fried chicken connoisseur, he proclaimed this one of the best meals he’d eaten in months. (Pretty impressive, considering we ate at a Joel Robuchon restaurant recently…)  As for me…well…let’s just say I might have been better off with “Medium”.

 

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The neon lights of Lower Broadway in Nashville.

Once our tummies were full, it was time to quench the burn of that hot chicken with some DRANKS. So we headed off to “Lower Broadway”, aka NashVegas, aka the Bourbon Street of Nashville, aka Tourist Row. The street itself is lined on both sides with multi-level bars and clubs cranking out live music that is roughly 95% country and classic rock cover songs.

 

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A rockabilly band at the Full Moon Saloon on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
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The famous Tootsies was probably the most crowded of all the Lower Broadway bars.

Down on Lower Broadway, the cheap drinks are flowing, the bachelorette parties are omnipresent, and the bars are literally packed. We visited a number of bars up and down the row, before finally stumbling back to the hotel around 1am.

 

The next morning, we were up at a very cruel 11am for our next adventure, a ride on the Tennessee Whiskey Tours.  Once onboard, we visited three local distilleries, partaking of tours and tastings at each stop. Only problem? We never actually got to try any official Tennessee whiskey – all the distilleries we visited were too new.

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The H Clark Distillery made White Whiskey, Bourbon, and Gin, but not actual Tennessee Whiskey, which would have required charcoal filtering and barrel aging.
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The Nelson Greenbriar Distillery were in the process of making a Tennessee Whiskey, but it hadn’t finished aging yet.  Instead we tried their white whiskey and cask bourbons.
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Our final distillery didn’t make whiskey either. They made a distilled sorghum spirit called Naked Biscuit.

We also visited what the tour guide claimed was “one of the best barbecue spots in Nashville,” which…if that’s true…I feel really sorry for any Nashvillians out there. Y’all come on down to Austin some time, let us show you how that’s actually supposed to be done.

 

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Pork shoulder, mac & cheese, creamed corn, and an assortment of barbecue sauce at Jack ‘s BBQ. I’d give this place like a 3.5 out of 10. Our worst meal in Nashville, for sure.

After completing the whiskey tours, we got cleaned up and presentable for our dinner reservation at Bastion. This restaurant is somewhat new to the Nashville scene, having opened originally as a bar. Now, however, the restaurant functions as a reverse-speakeasy. The main space is a raucous bar in an old warehouse, but make it past a series of hidden doors and rude hostess and you’ll find a posh 24-seat, open-kitchen restaurant, helmed by Chef Josh Habiger of Catbird Seat fame.

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The bar space at Bastion, where the cocktails flow and the music is loud.
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The hidden restaurant area at Bastion, where everyone has a front row seat on the kitchen.

Here, we were treated to a six-course feast of innovative and meticulously plated dishes. You order from a slip of paper resembling a bingo card, X-ing out the dish you want for each course.  The course descriptions are left intentionally vague so as to “maintain an element of surprise” but highly shareable for a couple looking to explore.

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Some of our favorites from the meal at Bastion, clockwise from top left: mushrooms and barley in a rosemary broth, raw oysters with a watermelon mignonette, raw beef tartare covered with nasturium leaves with grated gouda, squab with local blueberries, a dessert of gelatos made with chocolate mint and chartreuse, and a custard made of uni with scallops and shiso broth.

When we pointed out the amount of foraged ingredients and flowers topping our first couple courses, we asked the chef (who was mere feet away from us through the entire experience) if he considered his style part of the New Nordic trend.  He chuckled then replied, “Nah, it’s new Nashville.”

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The brunch crowd at Biscuit Love.

The next day, after our fancy-pants dinner, our final day in Nasvhille got underway, and we decided to brave yet another wrap-around-the-block line to try out brunch at Biscuit Love. The shop specialized in — you guessed it — biscuit based dishes.  And since I couldn’t leave Nashville having only tried hot chicken just once, I ordered “The Princess”, a piece of hot chicken on a biscuit, served with honey, dijon mustard, and pickles.  It was a great way to start the day, though the chicken at Hattie B’s pretty much blew this version out of the water.
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After brunch, we headed out to explore East Nasvhille, and specifically the Five Points Neighborhood.  Apparently Sunday = 2-for-1s in Music City, so we soon found ourselves in a friendly (and surprisingly lively, for a Sunday) bar called the Three Crow Bar. Each drink you ordered came with a token that could then be applied to your next drink; a pretty good system!

We explored the area a bit more, checking out the local shops and galleries, before ultimately stopping in for one final Nashville meal at the much raved about Five Points Pizza. Upon entering, we noticed our waitress was rocking a Hoek’s Death Metal Pizza t-shirt, one of our hometown Austin favorites.  She then divulged that Five Points was based in both concept, style, and even recipes, upon Austin’s Home Slice Pizza.

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Garlic knots at Five Points Pizza. These were indeed very similar to Home Slice.
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The “Zeus” pie at Five Points.  Tasty, but not nearly as good as the crispy crusts at Home Slice.

We tried the garlic knots and the “Zeus” pie, but in the end, Austin wins this pizza battle, hands down. Five Points was tasty and filling, but the crust was just too thick and the ingredients didn’t ever seem to meld. Still, even mediocre pizza is pretty good, so with that, we headed off to the airport, likely about 10 lbs heavier than we arrived, after a great weekend in the country music capital of the world.

What are your favorite spots in Nashville? Tell us in the comments!

Trip Report: Long Weekend in Nashville, Part 1

Howdy, y’all! Wanna hear a little country ditty I just wrote about our weekend in Music City? Ok, then!

Nah, just kidding. I don’t write country songs, I blog. But I am going to tell you about Nashville, and our recent trip there including where we stayed, what we ate, and all the things we did. Cool? Cool.

So first off, Nashville is yet another destination that we got to see primarily thanks to our Southwest Companion Pass, which allows you to redeem a free ticket anytime the pass-holder has a ticket on any Southwest flight. As such, we transferred some points over to Southwest from our Chase Ultimate Rewards account, and were able to book nonstop, roundtrip flights that would have normally cost $736+ for the two of us, for free instead.

Then, we took a look at our hotel options. We knew we wanted to stay downtown to minimize the need for ground transportation costs, and so combined with the fact that we had plenty of Chase points that would also transfer to Hyatt (and that I currently have Diamond status on Hyatt) and it was an easy decision to book at the Hyatt Place Downtown Nashville.

And what a wonderful decision that was! I have stayed at Hyatt’s all over the country — the Andaz Maui, the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, the Hyatt Olive 8 in Seattle, the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio — and yet I think I can say that this was my favorite Hyatt property to date.

First of all, the property is in a great location. Walking distance to most of the major attractions like Lower Broadway, the Ryman Auditorum, and the Country Music Hall of Fame, but also just a short cab or Uber (usually under $10) from the trendy Midtown and East Nashville areas. Plus, since we booked using points, we were able to stay for free – saving us another roughly $900, and meaning we’d only need to pay out of pocket for any activities we did on our trip. Winning!

Upon checkin, we were informed that as a result of my Diamond status, our standard room had been upgraded to a Deluxe King Room. It was spacious, well-appointed, and had a fantastic view of the Seigenthaler bridge and the Ascend Amphitheater.

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Our spacious corner room at the Hyatt Place
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The comfy King bed at the Hyatt Place, with a cupcake and wine on the nightstand!
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A spacious bathroom at the Hyatt Place,  though sadly no tub.

Our checkin agent also retrieved a welcome gift for us, two bottles of water and two local candies – Goo Goo Clusters. But when we made it up to our room we got yet another surprise: we’d been chosen as “guest of the day” and received a free cupcake and mini-bottle of wine.  Thanks, Hyatt!

IMG_0981Once we’d unpacked and gotten settled into our room, it was time to go seek out some nourishment. So we walked over to the nearby Pinewood Social, a combo restaurant-bar-bowling alley-plunge pool spot in a former warehouse building.

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Pinewood Social’s large central bar, with plenty of bearded bartenders.
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Pinewood Social’s bowling alley

There, we tried an assortment of appetizers, including the specialty toasts, pork rinds, elotes (Mexican street corn for the yankees…which the restaurant described as something totally different, but it was just elotes with chorizo on it…), and tempura fried pickles. It was all….ok.  Nothing special.  Not great, not terrible, just middling.

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The apps we ordered at Pinewood Social were average, at best.

After dinner, we were pretty tired from our trip (and the hubby’s birthday shenanigans the night before), so headed home fairly early in order to get a jump on the next day.  We kicked off Day 2 with a tour: the Music City Rollin’ Jamboree, which billed itself as a “singalong city tour and comedy show.” It was entertaining, and we certainly did do some singing along, but I wouldn’t really call it a city tour.

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Our chariot for the “tour” was named Francis, the big red bus
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The performers/”tour guides “on the Rollin’ Jamboree

Still, we had a good time, and by early afternoon, we had worked up a pretty good appetite. So we headed over to the much lauded Arnold’s Country Kitchen for a plate of one of Nashville’s famed meat-and-three cafeteria style meals.

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At Arnold’s, I got the fried catfish with green beans, mac and cheese, fried green tomatoes, and a slice of strawberry pie.

This was a great choice, and we stuffed ourselves super full of great Southern classics like fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, mac and cheese, and slices of pie.  My personal favorite were the fried green tomatoes, which were some of the best I’ve ever had.  Excellent food!

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Afterwards, we decided we needed to wash down all that food, so we walked a couple blocks over to the Yazoo Brewery & Taproom.  We tried a tasting of the local Yazoo beers, and then full of good food and good drink, decided we should head back to the hotel to wait out a bit of the afternoon heat before setting out on our next adventure.

Stay tuned for part two to see all the other great places we visited during our Nashville excursion!

How Do I #CaptureVegas? With Garth, Elton, and Britney, of course!

Author’s Note: The folks at Vegas.com have invited me to share some of my #CaptureVegas moments. Check out their deals page to start planning your Vegas vacation.

It’s no surprise to anyone around here that I’m a big fan of Las Vegas.  I’m lucky enough to visit Sin City 2-3 times per year, like my most recent trip there just last month. So you might wonder — what keeps me going back?

For me, it’s the entertainment. When it comes to great shows with “first-name-only” stars, there’s no better place than Las Vegas to see living legends do what they do best.

Most recently, that meant seeing Garth Brooks rock the house at the brand new T-Mobile Arena. Earlier this year, I got to see Britney Spears absolutely own in her show Britney: Pieces of Me at Planet Hollywood. And I could never forget the entire crowd swaying and singing along with Elton John to “Candle in the Wind” during his show, The Million Dollar Piano, at Caesar’s Palace last fall.

The best part is really the variety of entertainment available.  Even going to Vegas multiple times of year, I’ve never run out of new things to see, shows to watch, or headliners to visit. I wonder who I’ll get to see on my next visit!

So how do you like to #CaptureVegas?  Share with us in the comments below. 

Recipe: Wine Spritzers for Summer

So it’s like…a million degrees outside right now. We need something to help cool things down, stat. As such, I’ve been really into homemade wine spritzers lately.  They’re just so refreshing!

Now before you start reminiscing about the syrupy-sweet wine coolers you snuck from the fridge when you were in high school, these are a little different. They have just a hint of fruity taste, and are otherwise delicious, delicious alcohol.

Recipe:

  • 1 bottle white wine (a wine on the sweeter side is recommended – the Cupcake Chardonnay is a good choice for this.)
  • 1/2 cup of vodka
  • 2 tbsp triple sec (I used my homemade stuff!)
  • 2-3 cans of grapefruit soda (I’ve tried a few different varieties and they all seem to work.  For those in Texas, the H-E-B grapefruit peach soda is my favorite, but those in the rest of the country can seek out Izze brand. Adjust the amount you include to taste, based on the sweetness level you prefer.)
  • Slices of any fruit you happen to have lying around

There’s really not a lot to the preparation.  You just pour everything into one big pitcher, mix it up, and then serve over ice.  And then you repeat.  And repeat. And repeat.  Because we’ve still got another 2.5 months of summer to go, y’all. Drink up.

Recipe: Delicious Summer Corn & Tomato Salad

It’s the 4th of July weekend, and chances are, you’re invited to a pot luck this weekend.  Well never fear — I just threw together the BEST summer salad, full of stuff that’s fresh and in season right now.

Ingredients:

  • 3 ears corn
  • 20-30 cherry tomatoes, halved*
  • 4 oz cotija cheese, crumbled
  • 3 serrano peppers, de-seeded, and finely chopped*
  • 1-2 small onions, chopped*
  • 1 handful of cilantro, chopped*
  • 1 tbsp bacon grease (we collect bacon grease whenever we cook bacon, so that we have it for cooking needs like these…if you don’t have bacon grease available, try cooking about 1/2 packet of bacon, dice the bacon, and pour the bacon & grease into this salad)
  • 1 tbsp zesty Italian dressing
  • Salt and pepper to taste

(The ingredients with asterisks are things I grew in my own raised bed garden!)

Directions:

  1. Remove husks and thread from corn, and place in boiling water for 8 minutes
  2. While corn is cooking, cut/dice other ingredients per above instructions, and place in a large bowl.
  3. Remove corn from water and let cool for about 10 minutes.  Using a knife, slice corn kernels off the ears, adding the to the bowl. Discard the remaining cores.
  4. Add the bacon grease and salad dressing, and toss the salad together.

You can serve it warm, or refrigerate after tossing, and it will still taste great. It’s really the bacon grease that makes it – I know it sounds a bit strange, but it gives it a savory, smoky  flavor that you just won’t get otherwise. Totally makes the difference. Really, you could add bacon or even chopped shrimp, and turn this dish into a main course as well.

I may eat this salad, and nothing but this salad, the entire rest of the summer.  Enjoy!