Janet Weiblen is culinarily connected to nature. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ for 20 years and a master gardener for the past three, Weiblen witnesses the interconnectedness of life in her garden and kitchen.
She says the only real expectation her grown daughter, Lisa, has of her is to ensure the safe shipment of filled cookie tins before the holiday season. But more than spending time in her Merriam kitchen baking sweet treats, Weiblen enjoys cultivating her gardens for bees, butterflies and passers-by.
Q: How does your garden grow?
A: This has been a tough summer for gardening, especially vegetable gardens. I work as a volunteer by taking calls with the Johnson County Extension Office’s master gardener hotline. A wet, wet spring and prolonged heat have been especially hard on tomatoes. Poor fruit set occurs when night-time temperatures are above 75 degrees and day-time temperatures are above 95 degrees.
I try to be a faithful gardener and put down at least one inch of water a week on my gardens. I grow herbs — different varieties of basil, oregano, sage, lavender, rosemary, parsley, chives, thyme and mint, which I always grow in pots so that it doesn’t take over my garden. I use these herbs to infuse both tea and water and for baking.
Q: When one thinks of rosemary, it is often used in the main course, not in a dessert.
A: I love this Orange Cornmeal Cake with rosemary, which is a recipe I worked to duplicate after I sampled a piece at an extension master gardener advanced training meeting. I enjoy the edibles I grow in my garden. I also like to make pesto using herbs from my garden and infuse oils and vinegars to give as gifts.
I have fun entertaining friends on occasion and often cook something Italian since, where I grew up and lived in New Jersey, I had friends from both northern and southern Italy who taught me how to cook some of their dishes. I also make my own spaghetti sauce each year for the freezer.
Q: You can take a girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl.
A: I grew up in Palisades Park, New Jersey, 5 miles from the George Washington Bridge, watching my mother, Augusta Weiblen, cooking. Both she and my father, Alfred, were also gardeners, and I was inspired and learned so much from them.
Because of my New Jersey accent and the way I speak with my hands, people think I’m Italian, but I have German-English heritage. My cooking style is very eclectic, probably because I was raised in such a diverse neighborhood.
If there’s one thing I’m known for — more than my gardens — it’s my Christmas cookies. I often say that my daughter wouldn’t mind not getting any presents, just as long as she receives her Christmas cookies. I have made the same cookies for more than 50 years, based on my children’s favorites when they were growing up. Some of these tried-and-true cookies are: Pecan Shortbread, Choco-nut Butter Cookie, Butternut Crescents and Nana’s Candy Cookie.
Q: Do you find that your garden grounds you?
A: Gardening is in my blood, and tending it forces one to appreciate the miracle of life. You can’t rush plants; you must love and nurture them, and that is a lesson easily applied to people.
The same is true of baking. Hardly anyone bakes anymore. People think that life is too busy and chaotic to be able to bake something, then savor it with others. I have always said that gardening clears the cobwebs from my mind, and the same is true when I’m cooking.
As humans, we are but a link in this chain of life. Our very existence is dependent on the industriousness of the tiny bee. We need to be judicious in our use of insecticides. No more bees, no more pollination. No pollination, no more plants. No more plants, no more humans.
Instead of a bleak picture, I choose to look at how interconnected we all are. We need to not only be connected to the natural world, but to each other, as human-to-human. Maybe people can start by baking this cake and sharing it with others.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate a cook.
Fresh Rosemary Orange Cornmeal Cake
Makes 9 servings
1/2 cup light-tasting olive oil, plus more for pan
1 1/2 tablespoons crushed rosemary leaves
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup dried cranberries (optional)
1 orange, zested
1/3 cup turbinado or raw sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Brush bottom and sides of a 9-inch-square cake pan with oil and line with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, stir rosemary and sugar together and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk oil, rosemary-infused sugar, eggs and orange juice together until smooth. Set aside.
In a separate mixing bowl, sift flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt together. Add optional cranberries to dry ingredients to coat. Gently whisk dry ingredients and orange zest into wet ingredients until just combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle top with raw sugar. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cake begins to pull away from sides of pan and a tester inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 20 minutes, before running a knife around edge of cake. Invert cake gently onto a large, flat platter and remove parchment paper from bottom. Invert cake, again, onto a cake stand or serving dish, so the sugared side is up.
Chef’s note: Use a mortar and pestle to crush rosemary leaves.
Per serving: 342 calories (35 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 52 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 362 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.