Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., my family had a garden on 1.5 acres of land. It was a serious garden. So, I’ve always laughed a bit at my partner Rita’s little backyard garden here in St. Petersburg.
A little more than two years ago, cancer treatment left her with little energy to do anything. But her one excitement was to dig a small hole in the dirt and drop in a few seeds from a tomato or squash that I had cut up for dinner the night before.
At the time, I just thought it was cute. I’d sneak out and water the seeds so she could watch them slowly grow.
Now, after doing it for two years, we have a small but fruitful garden.
This spring, she grew a spaghetti squash plant, a grape tomato bush, beefsteak tomato plants and fresh basil. She even cut the tops off green onions, stuck the roots in water and made them re-grow in one week in the window.
This has come in handy with the COVID-19 pandemic upon us. We are afraid to go out to shop at the grocery store since Rita may still be immuno-compromised from chemotherapy treatments.
So I became creative with meals. On a quick trip to a local drive-through market, I got a pound of ground turkey and a log of fresh mozzarella. That, plus our pantry staples and the vegetables from her garden, fed us for a week.
Here are a few things I made, and how I did it.
Rita is feeling a lot better these days and is able to enjoy her garden. Seeing how much the fruits of her labors have helped us get by, she happily spends her social distancing time replanting seeds I reserve from her vegetables, and she is coming up with creative ways to grow others. She’s working on a gazebo with drip irrigation now. I wonder what she’ll plant.
Fresh tomato and mozzarella salad
Rita’s grape tomato bush yielded more than 200 little tomatoes. I washed and chopped those up into thirds. Then, I chopped up and added two of her fresh green onion sprigs (I saved the roots to re-grow again, of course), added six fresh basil leaves and one third of the mozzarella log. I poured ⅓ cup of Garlic Expressions Classic Vinaigrette from the pantry over that, then stirred it all together and chilled it. We had lunch for five days.
We really had to get creative for this one. We poured an 11.5-ounce can of chili beans into an 8-quart pot. We blanched three beefsteak tomatoes, peeled them and chopped them up. We added them — along with three 12-ounce cans of V-8 vegetable juice, a couple of shakes of cumin and one shake of chili powder — to the chili sauce and stirred it together. We washed 1 cup of dry mixed beans and added them to the pot. We left it all to simmer on medium low for one hour, while stirring occasionally. Then, we browned one half of the package of ground turkey with another third of her homegrown sweet onion. We poured that into the chili pot and simmered it for another hour. We served it over rice from the pantry. The beans were a little bit chewy the first time we ate it, but after we microwaved it to reheat it, it was perfect for three more meals.
It turns out, spaghetti squash really is delicious for spaghetti. And it’s super easy to cook in the microwave. I cut two of her squashes into quarters, removed the seeds (reserving them for replanting), put them on a plate covered in plastic wrap and microwaved for 15 minutes. I cooked all the squash like that in two batches. While that was cooking, I browned the other half of the ground turkey in a wok with ⅓ sweet onion, four chopped fresh basil leaves and oregano, garlic and a jar of tomato sauce from the pantry. When the spaghetti squash was done and cooled enough to touch, we used forks to break it up into strings. We put however much we each wanted to eat on plates, covered it with the turkey-sauce mixture and topped it with a small chunk of the remaining fresh mozzarella log. We had that for dinner three times, and one lunch.
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