December is filled with shopping and even stressing over ideas for gifts. But I’ve got a few ideas and links to some great gifts courtesy of me and my partners at Southwest Gardening Blog. If you have co-workers, friends, or family members who love plants, we’ve got some great ideas, many of them based on gifts we’ve received or wished for, or products we’ve tested.
Some of my favorite gifts have included cactus-themed containers or office supplies, Olla watering pots and gardening gloves. For links to some of these and other gift ideas, head over to our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide (which also has a link to last year’s guide) for more ideas. You should be able to link directly from our gift ideas to online purchases.
Speaking as a plant geek, I can tell you that anyone who loves houseplants or outdoor gardening also loves plant-related gifts. My daughter has given me so many thoughtful gifts with a plant theme, some of which are included in the Holiday Gift Guide.
Still unsure? We also have a great gift for anyone who either loves gardening or just has to maintain their Southwest yard. Our 2020 Southwest Gardening calendar has photos from throughout the Southwest and gardening tips or tasks by month.
Since New Mexico and nearby states vary so much in climate and conditions, we’ve divided these tips by region: low and middle desert, high desert and mountain regions, and Texas. It’s a practical and pretty gift full of great Southwest gardening information.
The end of the growing season can get a little depressing. Ours usually comes suddenly, and this year was no exception. The weather turned cool, cloudy and damp. It was time to start garden cleanup and final harvests. A week earlier, we made homemade margherita pizza with some of our last fresh tomatoes and basil. But time was running out for fresh tomatoes (and pizza, darn it).
A couple of our tomato plants still were covered in fruit. But most of the fruit was not quite ripe. And tomatoes need temperatures of about 68 to 77 degrees to ripen. Our high the other day was lower than 68!
So, I grabbed my garden trug tub (a favorite gift from my daughter via Gardeners Supply) and set about gathering all the tomatoes I could before the weather turned. Most of the tomatoes left were snack-sized, between cherry and cocktail. And they were in varying states of ripeness. It really was a fun activity, and a good way to end the growing season.
Sort and Save
So, my next task was to sort the fruit I had gathered. Green and semi-green tomatoes went on a plate in a sunny window to finish ripening. Softer and ready-to-eat fruit went on the plate I keep on the kitchen counter all season so we can eat them soon. A few had holes or other problems; they went to trash or compost.
Finally, I collected all that were ripe, nearly ripe and even a little soft to make sauce. I then modified a recipe from my canning book, changing it to use what I had in my pantry and to more closely match the homemade sauce I make from canned tomatoes. You can do the same or turn to a site such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your local cooperative extension office.
A Few Tips
It’s essential to wash all tomatoes you preserve and check them for signs of damage, disease or pests.
After washing, we cut the fruit in half, removed the stem scar and scooped out the core and seeds. We didn’t bother to blanch and peel because our tomatoes were so small. This activity was a little messy but fun.
Preserved sauce needs a balance of sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice) to preserve the fruit and flavor. We also added chopped onions and celery, Italian spices and garlic.
Fresh tomatoes don’t always form the thick, pasty sort of sauce you get from recipes using canned. I cooked mine a little longer than suggested (about 45 minutes once tomatoes were added) to adjust for altitude, better loosen the peels and soak up flavor. If desired, you can add some sauce or paste when you use the sauce later, but not so much you disguise the fresh tomato flavor. I took my immersion blender and pulsed the cooked sauce. The blender also picked up some of the peels, making the sauce a bit smoother.
I chose to freeze my sauce. To do so, be sure to cool your sauce and place it in plastic containers (not bags). The reusable sealed containers from the store would work great. Be aware that some of the spices in a sauce lose their flavor after freezing. However, we already ate one batch of frozen sauce and it was delicious.
Frozen tomatoes in any form become mushy, so they’ll only be good for sauces, soups or stews. They typically keep about eight months in the freezer.
I’m so glad we took the time to use as many tomatoes from our garden as possible. And I wish we had tomatoes year-round because this is my new favorite sauce!
If you’re like me, you cook way more turkey than you need for the number of family or guests. But turkey is a delicious leftover. I love turkey sandwiches, but in New Mexico, we’re all about growing and eating chile. So I’ve substituted turkey in my favorite chicken enchilada recipe several times. That way, we can eat up all the leftovers without feeling like we’re, well, eating leftovers!
This is such an easy recipe, and it’s simple to adapt for areas of the country where you can’t grow or buy fresh green chile. Use canned chile (New Mexico grown if you can find it, of course!) and make it as hot as you like. I’ve even made a small chile-free version of it in a tiny casserole dish for my daughter when she was younger and wouldn’t eat hot, spicy foods.
Typically, chicken enchiladas are layered like a casserole, at least in my experience throughout New Mexico and Arizona. If you prefer to put the tortillas in oil and then roll them with the chicken and onion inside, you can make them that way. I like mine layered, plus I believe these are a tiny bit healthier because I dip the tortillas in low-sodium chicken broth instead of frying them. At the least, I can trade those calories for more cheese!
And if you live in a climate that’s warm enough to grow your own chile peppers, I highly recommend it. We realized when eating the dish pictured that ours lacked a little flavor this year, but we had a cool summer and live a few zones colder than optimal for chiles as it is. I’m going to try a few tricks next year to keep the chile plants warmer.
Check out the recipe for Turkey Green Chile Enchiladas below, and note that I used chicken in the photos only because I had some leftover roasted chicken in my refrigerator. We’ll be eating plenty of turkey next week!
3 to 4 fresh roasted green chiles or 1 to 2 cans (4 oz each) New Mexico green chile, chopped, to taste
1 can low-sodium chicken broth
1 (10 oz) can cream of chicken soup
1/2 (10 oz) can cream of mushroom soup
1 dozen corn tortillas
2 to 3 cups shredded cheddar or jack and Colby (Mexican blend) cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop or shred cooked turkey into bite-sized pieces. Chop onion. Peel, rinse and seed green chiles before chopping to desired size.
Mix chopped onion and turkey together; add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Mix canned soups and 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Add chopped green chile to soup mixture and stir. Pour remaining chicken broth into a shallow bowl.
Dip a corn tortilla into chicken broth and place it into the bottom of a casserole dish, preferably a 9 x 12 rectangular pan. Repeat with another tortilla and a third as necessary, tearing the third tortilla in half as needed after dipping to adequately cover the bottom of the pan.
Sprinkle chicken/onion mixture evenly over tortillas, followed by about one-third of soup/green chile mixture. Sprinkle evenly with some cheese.
Repeat the layering process two more times, being sure to reserve a small portion of soup mixture and cheese for the top layer.
Dip and place the final three tortillas on the top layer. Add remaining soup and green chile mixture and top with cheese as desired. Bake uncovered in center of oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until mixture appears bubbly toward the center of pan. Cut into squares and serve with desired toppings, such as salsa, lettuce and tomato, sour cream or guacamole.
When we purchased more than a dozen lavender plants last spring, we chose one that was touted as a superb culinary lavender (Lavandula angustiolia Buena Vista) and placed it in a container, the way I usually prefer to grow herbs. The stems are not as long, but the buds are supposed to have better flavor. I love having it near the patio table, where it still looks pretty and I can walk by and rub my fingers on the leaves or buds anytime to enjoy the scent.
I’ve seen plenty of recipes for lavender, usually in pastries. The only one I’ve tried so far (and loved!) is a lavender potato salad I’ve adapted from the book “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb” (Stackpole Books) by Ellen Spector Platt. By the way, this is our go-to source for growing and harvesting lavender. We combine some of the book’s information with local sources because of our differences in zone and water. Other than that, Ellen knows lavender! And the book has several recipes I plan to try.
To me, lavender is the most versatile of all herbs, right up there with its close relative, rosemary. If you don’t have one of the culinary varieties, it’s a great plant to add to your garden. But I made this recipe several times before we got this plant, and it tasted great! So try it with any lavender.
My basil isn’t perfect; I think I can blame mostly grasshoppers. But with all of the bugs around here and the cloudy, damp weather of late, it’s really a toss-up. I’ll stick with grasshoppers and snails for now, because I dislike them the most. Next year, I will definitely cover the basil plants with white row fabric.
Still, the plants grew, and some of the stalks were about to flower. Time to harvest! A neighbor, who shares a portion of her land to host a wonderful community garden, pointed us to some information on harvesting basil. I realized I have always been too shy about harvesting, taking too few leaves. Instead, it’s best to take the top few sets of leaves, above the second set of leaves from the soil. That assumes, of course, that the plant has at least three to five sets of leaves. If so, the sturdy topping should help the plant generate new growth.
I picked off and rinsed the leaves and dried them in a salad spinner and then on paper towels, choosing not to use some that were really chewed up. Then, I chilled them in the refrigerator until that evening. Even with some bug destruction, I got a good cup of basil leaves from one larger plant and two small ones. Then, I made pesto. And it was really easy. I modified a recipe I found online a few years ago and then used it right away to make dinner.
Take a look at the recipe below, and feel free to print or Pin it. And adjust it as necessary. I didn’t use a lot of garlic, so it’s all a matter of personal taste. After making the pesto, I whipped up a quick dinner of pasta with a chopped chicken breast and our first zucchini of the season, sautéing both in olive oil. I just added about a cup (measured raw) of cooked pasta to the skillet and a heaping tablespoon or so of pesto. The rest of the pesto went in the freezer!
Place washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse ingredients until coarsely chopped. Add a portion of the olive oil, processing the mixture until all ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Season as desired with salt and pepper.
If using the pesto immediately, add the remaining oil and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape into a serving bowl and add parmesan cheese.
If freezing, do not add the Parmesan cheese. Place in an airtight container and pour remaining oil over top of pesto. It will freeze for up to three months. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese after thawing.
Red chile can make just about anything better. And one of my favorite quick lunches is a fried egg with red chile and melted cheese with a side of lettuce. So simple, but so New Mexican. My red chile recipe also is simple and vegetarian. Depending on where you live, the hardest part might be finding the dried chile pods. But check out the Resources page for more information.
I use mild red chile mostly because I am a wimp. But to me, there is just as much flavor in a mild chile as in a hot one. It’s a matter of choice, as is the choice to use spices such as oregano in the recipe. I just want chile flavor. First, rinse your red chile pods and twist off the stem. As you pull it out, you can also run your fingers around inside to loosen seeds. The more you can rinse out, the less you’ll have to deal with later. Place the chiles in water and boil – I use about eight or nine pods per batch.
Once they have boiled for a few minutes, take them off the heat. The time isn’t critical. Some people don’t even bother with the boiling step, but it makes me feel better from a food safety aspect and softens the dried chiles a bit for blending. Don’t drain the water off; simply carry the pot over to your blender (I start right away, but do this step once you’re comfortable working with the heated water and peppers). Remove the chile peppers with a spoon or scoop and place in the blender, along with a heaping teaspoon or so of fresh minced garlic.
Add a few scoops of the retained boiled water to the blender and blend on a high speed. Stop and check the consistency. It’s personal preference, but I like my chile thick enough to rest on food and spread slightly, if that helps you picture the texture. Adding water slowly keeps you from making it look and run like tomato soup! Continue to add a little water at a time and blend until husks and seeds are liquefied as much as possible and consistency is rich. Next, pour out remaining water from the pot and pour blended chile into the pot. Cook on low to medium heat, reducing heat to simmer once it begins to boil (which is quickly and at a low temperature), usually for about five minutes. Let cool slightly.
If you don’t want any bits of seed or pulp in your chile, you can run it through a fine strainer before or after cooking the batch. I have done this and it results in a smoother chile, but you lose quite a bit in volume. Pour the chile in a little at a time, and work it through with a spoon. Refrigerate your chile or use it soon after cooking. One batch should make about enough to freeze in an ice cube tray overnight. Usually, I let the tray sit just for a few minutes to soften slightly (not enough to thaw) and pop the cubes out of the tray, placing them in a gallon freezer bag. I thaw single or multiple cubes as needed in the microwave (covering the bowl with wax paper or a paper towel) or throw them right into the crock pot for some recipes.
Be sure to wash your hands frequently while handling red chile, and still be careful rubbing your eyes. Word to the wise: If you find your chile too hot, avoid downing a glass of water with the meal. I won’t go all scientific on the properties of capsaicin, but you can fact-check me online or just do your own test if you’re adventurous. One reason you usually get a yummy flour tortilla or sopaipilla on the side is that bread (and milk) help ease the burn. Fats and oils mix best with capsaicin. That’s too bad, really. But I fry my eggs in olive oil, so there’s that…
Ingredients: 8-9 dried red chile pods a few quarts of water 1 heaping tsp. of minced garlic Rinse chiles, removing stem and as many seeds as possible. Place chiles and a few quarts of water in a saucepan and boil for about five minutes. Remove from heat, retaining chiles and water. Place cooked chiles in a blender, along with garlic and up to 1/2 cup of water from pot. Blend until mixed well. Check consistency. Continue to add water from the pot in small amounts until blended well and desired consistency. Discard remaining boiled water and return pureed chile to pot. Cook on low to medium heat about five minutes. Serve immediately or cool slightly for straining of pulp, refrigerating or freezing.
If only we could grow avocados in the high desert. Aside from their water needs, we just have too cold a climate. But the good news is that unlike many fruits, avocados are pretty good whether they’re not quite ripe or going soft. You just have to be flexible and force the issue with them a little.
About the Avocado
So nutritious, so delicious! Avocados are fatty, but it’s the good fat. And the avocado has no sodium or cholesterol. I recently learned that I should pop mine in the fridge so they don’t ripen too fast, especially on our warmer summer days. And I can keep them there until ready to make my favorite avocado dish – guacamole.
This Gringa’s Guacamole
There are lots of variations on guacamole, but I keep mine simple (skip to a short and printable version below, but miss my amusing musings). I make it to taste and with no raw onions that add that smacky aftertaste. I want the full effect of the fruit to shine through on my palate on my plate!
Start with an avocado that’s a little soft and not too green. If the peel is starting to wrinkle, it’s probably too ripe. I usually make my guac a few hours before we plan to eat it. Too soon and it might turn a little.
Slice it in half, and here’s a tip for speeding things up: Take your knife (not a giant one, but one with some stabbing power) and pop the seed in the middle with the long blade. This usually grabs the seed so you can easily twist it out of the half, leaving the seed whole. Hang on to that seed!
Then use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. If you’ve got the right amount of ripe, it works great. After scooping the flesh from a few medium avocados in a bowl, use a fork (or a potato masher) to mush it up – to the consistency you like. One of my fruits today was a little hard, so I cut it with a knife (or you can use the two-knife method, like cutting pastry dough) until I got the pieces small enough to mash.
Add a Few Ingredients
Like I said, I keep it simple. I add some light sour cream, which makes your dip go further and gives it a creamy texture and a pretty light green color. Next, I drop in some salsa or pico de gallo to spice it up and give it a little bit of onion flavor without adding raw onions. Personally, I think they ruin a good guacamole, but if you like them, throw them in. If I’m coming over to your house, please refrain. Or make me my own serving. I’m not a princess; I just don’t like raw onions.
Next, I sprinkle in some garlic salt. Use powder if you prefer, but the salt brings out the flavor. Or use real garlic. I’m all about easy and retaining the avocado flavor, so I like the salt.
Finally – you have to put in some lime juice, or lemon if you prefer or only have it. I love fresh lime juice, but often use lemon juice from a jar, and it works fine. Squeeze just a little, probably a teaspoon or less, for your taste. The juice adds some tartness, but also helps prevent browning of the avocado. Stir it up.
Now, remember those seeds you stabbed? Place them back into your stirred dip, cover it, and pop it back into the fridge until serving time. The oil on the seeds helps keep your guac from browning. You can take them out before serving, but don’t set the dip out until right before you’re ready to enjoy!
Two ripe avocados
Light sour cream, maybe a quarter cup or so
Some of your favorite salsa or pico de gallo
Lime (or lemon) juice – a half fruit ought to do it
Cut avocados in half. Retain the seeds. Spoon flesh into mixing bowl. Cut and mash flesh to desired consistency. Add sour cream, salsa, garlic salt and lime juice to taste and stir. Add ingredients as needed after tasting on a chip. Or having a friend or family member taste on a chip. Try it again on a chip. Try not to eat it all before you put it in the refrigerator, placing retained seeds gently into dip and covering. Remove seeds just before serving. May be kept in refrigerator overnight with seeds back in dip and light spray of cooking spray over top, but best served within a few hours of making.