Category Archives: food

On the nearly forgotten feast

Really, it’s just a jelly donut

We came home laden with a box of paczki today.

I’d completely forgotten about these sweet pre-Lenten treats until I moved back to the area.  Twenty-odd years of living a paczki-free existence:  don’t you pity me?  Well, you shouldn’t; they’re fairly nasty, and even as a kid I don’t remember eating them but once or twice.  But buying them and bringing them home, well, this is a little something I can give to my daughter as a bit of local food history.  And…we’re not even Polish.

I do swear if I lived to be 200 and could have 5 or 6 job paths along the way, “food ethnologist” would be one of the careers I would love to have.  Wouldn’t that be fascinating?  Limning the fact from the fiction, the tradition from the myth from the actual reason a food was eaten?  I have always been interested in that great Venn diagram of intersection between land, people, and religion/myth/culture:  there can be a fun mash-up when it comes to food.

And participating in eating that food can be fun:  kind of like world travel without the burdensome passports and vaccines and pesky TSA involved.  And:  there’s something SO unifying to me when you know a whole bunch of other someones are doing the same thing as you (i.e., bringing home a box of paczki), at the same time.

Even if the food is gross.  (The chickens, though, disagreed.)

On gardening for the pantry

Spooky dark basement storage

A big part of garden planning involves, for me, checking the State of the Stored.  Here it is, the first week of February:  how are my supplies doing downstairs?  Do I have enough tomato sauce to last me until this year’s harvest?  Salsa, chutneys?  How are the dried and canned beans doing?  How about popcorn, frozen green beans, jams, canned peaches?  How about pickles?  Applesauce, veggie broth, canned chicken broth?  Frozen fruits?  Ketchup, barbecue sauce, garlic jelly?  And the all-important apples, onions, garlic, shallots, potatoes, winter squash?  A quick check of my stash tells me what I need to plant this year, and what holes need to be patched.

All seems swell downstairs:  my general approach of “put away more than you can eat in two years” has worked well.  Not that I am a pessimist, but better gardeners than me tend to make a big harvest as insurance against a bad year.   Had the late blight hit my tomatoes last year (it did not, but took out half the school garden’s crop), I would still be in pretty good shape, except for ketchup and barbecue sauce.  As it is, canning twice the normal year’s amount frees me, somewhat, from the drudgery of canning every crop every year.  (This doesn’t work for frozen things, but canned goods:  check!)  And pressure-canned stuff is “good” for a long time.

Calico popcorn

Always, though, there are certain experimental things that I wish I had made more of (apple/pear moutarde, green apple/tomato chutney) but this can backfire too if I make a lot of something and it’s not quite so tasty (gooseberry jam).  But even failures can have second lives.  My calico popcorn, which I adore, is not the best at popping (hardly any homegrown one is: it has to do with moisture in the kernels and timing harvests perfectly…which requires a hydrometer, not something I am willing to spring for) but ground-up as a meal for cornbread or polenta?  Hooeey!  Hand me the honey!

On the hidden costs of cheesemaking

Last week’s (top) and this week’s yogurt made from our milk share

Over the years my husband and I have had a bit of a tussle over finances.  This of course is the typical marital story.  Defining our particular story is my yen to DIY, and almost every little project I undertake, financially, has a big start-up cost.  It has a start-up cost (mainly in materials) that almost always requires no huge outlay of later cash…no bubble, as it were; only maintenance money.  So I have been able to persuade him that my *needs* are, well, inexpensive if you amortize!  At this point he trusts me.

The things I am thinking of are the chicken coop, the chicken tractor, the greenhouses, the goat(s), the (so far unfinished) masonry oven.  Smaller things likewise can be considered:  the pressure canner, the grain mill, the chest freezers, the tiller.  The orchard.  Raised beds for the gardens.  All of them have paid for themselves or will do so within the first year or so of owning them.  And any of my kookier ideas also have an out, financially:  2010, to name one example, will be the first year I don’t have to order chicks because we have roosters and a tom turkey, thus, self-sufficiency in egg and meat birds.

But cheesemaking.  I mentioned a while back how I found life as a single vegetarian to be much less expensive than omnivory…mainly because I almost never bought cheese!  I adore cheese, but it was rare that I would shell out for it, despite my love of the stuff…good butter being the one exception.  NOW there’s a goat in the shed, and she’s bagging up quite nicely, and within about a month I will don the bonnet of Resident Milkmaid.  And fresh milk means cheese.  And homemade cheese means…damn, another start-up cost!

A few years back when the homemade cheese bug bit me, I purchased a starter kit from Hoegger Goat Supply.  It’s served me nicely and I haven’t gone back to that well, but then again, I didn’t try to make hard cheeses or aged cheeses.  Now, though, now I have printed out little plans for my husband to build me a cheese press (he likes to feel handy) and now I have finally purchased and read Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making.  And I am discovering that that woman is a pusher.  Seriously:  is she any different than the guy on the corner who’s giving you a little taste for free so you can keep coming back to feed your habit?  I read the recipes and I think:  hmmm, thermophilic culture, I need that; how about a bag of penicillium candidum, and might as well get a bag of p. roquefortii while I am at it.  And then, well, use it up and keep coming back for more.  Yogurt sure doesn’t have this problem:  make it once, always have it (like sourdough).

Man!  What would Ma Ingalls do?  She’d culture her own.  Something else to figure out, I guess…stay tuned.

On winter squash…in winter

Congratulations!  8lb, 1oz and 18 1/2″ long…pink banana squash!

One astute commenter noted that my family’s probably not hurting for Vitamin A in our diets, what with the monster winter squash harvest this year.  And it’s true, we’re awash in the things.  It’s okay, really it is, especially since the school garden’s squash patch was a bust (deer predation) so I have a…somewhat willing population to whom I can feed the things.  AND:  happily:  all our animals (except T-bell the goat) eat squash.

Surprisingly easy to slice, especially when you have a great hand-made chopper like this one

I do love squash, always have.  But I find that, as a gardener, my esteem of any one vegetable goes up or down in direct proportion to how well it grows for me.  Squash is quite the flatterer, so…I love it.  I’ve got a very fox-and-the-grapes attitude about things that don’t grow so well for me (i.e.,”bah, Brussels sprouts, who needs ’em) and it proves to me that if nothing else I am terribly…human.

The now-indispensable food mill.  Usually reserved for separating tomatoes from their seeds and peels, and stewed whole apples during the saucing sessions, I realized how handy this thing was once I killed my immersion blender.  It’s now out all the time, especially to cream hot soups and hot squash.  And, unlike the damned hand-held stick blender, I could never break this thing.

But my family is on the “likes” squash part of the spectrum:  it ain’t “love.”  I therefore only feed them one squash per week, if that.  Mostly, we love creamy squash soup (with a splash of curry), but it also finds its way into baked goods.  Only butternut is tolerated in other forms (pan-roasted, say; or candied) and luckily I planted plenty of those, too.

5 cups of puree for us people!  The basement worms get the skins, the poultry and bunnies vie for the seeds and pulp…a true no-waste food.

Sunday, though, I brought out one of the pink bananas.  They were one of the first escape artists of the squash patch (up and over the fence, 16′ away) and one plant put out, what, three squash total of similar size to this one.  They’re really easy to cut up (bonus!) and I found the chickens and turkeys appreciated the seeds and pulp if I chopped it for them.  I baked these, cut-side down, arranged diagonally across my two largest rimmed cookie sheets.  Scooped, run through the food mill, and sweet!  Its great advantage appears to be its readiness to be cut into rings, and baked a la most acorn squash.  It did take a bit longer to fruit out than many of the other winter squash I had, and Fedco says it is not terribly reliable in really short summer areas but, well…if you like winter squash, you might want to try to grow this one this year.

On sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts

I’m making edible sprouts again:  it must be snowy outside.

Everything we eat here has a season.  With the exception of frozen meat* and the seemingly unending jars of tomatoes, every other food item has an on and an off period…everything has its season.  Lettuce cannot be found from mid-July to the beginning of September.  Potatoes are only found from July to March.  Stored garlic (sniff!!) winds down just when green garlic winds up.  And so on.  All of these things are seasonal by the fact that the calendar makes them so.  There are some harvests, though, that have me to blame for their seasonality.  Sprouts are one of those things.

I posted a while back about sprouting things. I find I have a higher tolerance for the sprouting process when two things happen:  1.  when it’s abominably cold out and 2.  when I don’t have vegetables growing under the lights downstairs, and thus am sick of seeing seeds.  So, in other words, the season of edible sprouts is a short one:  from December to February, usually.  I do tend to sprout wheat year-round, though, because I like sprouted wheat in my breads and pancakes etc….but that’s an exception.

And I could get all wackadoo and tell you the reason why I think sprouts are so very important…but I won’t.  Suffice it to say I think raw, living food is a very important part of our diets (and by “living” I mean sprouts, but I also mean yogurt, kefir, krauts, and of course my insistent salads); I feel their lack when I leave home and have to…you know, fend for myself!  To my gut flora’s** sincere dismay, I might add!

*Frozen meat has a season, too:  I “harvest” our birds, and we order meat shares (1/2 hog, 1/4 cow) and when the harvest happens, the freezer fills.

**Gut flora:  The human body, consisting of about 10 trillion cells, carries about ten times as many microorganisms in the intestines.

On made-up recipes: apple/pumpkin upside-down cake

My goal with this massive winter squash harvest is to come up with multiple, tasty ways of making that squash disappear.  Here’s the latest:  apple/pumpkin upside-down cake.

Use what you have:  Galeux d’Eysines squash puree with our Jonagold apples

With time, I have become more comfortable with seat-of-my-pants cooking, including baking.  I hate to say it but Ruhlman is right:  so much of cooking and especially baking IS proportions:  this much plus that much equals expected output.  And when eating down the stores of something tasty and plentiful, like Thanksgiving’s squash, my other expected output is “well, how bad can it be:  apples, pumpkins, flour, eggs, sugar?”

In a warm oven, put 2 T butter to melt in a 9×13 or similar sized cake pan while you prepare the upside-down topping.  Peel and cube two large apples, retrieve the warming pan and toss the apples in the butter with 2 T sugar and 1/2 t cinnamon; wrap up sides to grease them, then distribute the apples evenly on the bottom and set aside.

Cream 1/4 cup of butter with 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on how sweet your squash puree is); crack 2 large or 3 small eggs into the mix and continue to blend until smooth.  Stir in about 2 cups of pureed pumpkin or other winter squash and a cup of yogurt or buttermilk. Set aside.

Sift together 2 cups flour with 1-1/2 teaspoons each of baking powder and baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, along with another 1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.  Add this dry mix to the wet and stir together.  Add milk to thin if it seems very stiff.

Bake in a 350* oven until a toothpick stuck in its center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes.  Let cool slightly, run a knife around the sides of the cake, place a cookie sheet or large platter atop the pan and invert them, tapping the bottom of the pan to free it.  Adjust the apple chunks along the top and try not to eat in one sitting.

On anticipating the Thanksgiving feast

I knew it.

I knew at first sight back in May that THIS was a specimen worthy of the Thanksgiving table.  All summer and fall I spent many hours feeding and watering.  I was vigilant against predatory attacks from birds and insects.  I covetously watched growth, being ever surprised, day by day, by how big this thing was getting.

Monsterous growth!  So big, there is no way we could eat it all at one sitting!!!  Yay:  Thanksgiving, after all, is the one time of year that we look forward to leftovers.

And then, one chilly day in November, I killed it.

But, gutted and peeled, it came in a quarter of a pound less than Baby Turkey did.

(Galeux d’Eysines squash:  quite sweet flesh!  Pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie…plus, a ton of puree for the freezer.)

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday…

On high holiday preparations

Tick tock, big roof bird:  Thanksgiving dinner

For a nonreligious family whose head cook is admittedly a bit food-mad, Thanksgiving remains THE holiday of the year.

We’re on track (again) for an all-local meal, with about 85-90% of all the ingredients grown and raised right here.  Cider and wine from 5 miles away, cranberries from 15, wheat from 80, dairy from 100.  I adore this holiday.  Admittedly, I am a bit of an overachiever and I allow nobody to help me in the kitchen…except for washing the dishes.

And admittedly, as far as food goes, there’s really not that much that’s taxing about your typical Thanksgiving spread except for the sheer quantity of food that gets made.  That’s always made me pause:  I used to do a spread with 15, 20 items, 5 courses, for three people and though it was wonderful it was REALLY over the top, all for comfort food that tastes the same!  So, every year, I have been chucking one dish to see where the “heart” of the meal truly lies.  This year, I can’t reduce further:  no stuffing?  no gravy?  gotta have the Brussels sprouts…so it’s going to be a grand total of 7 items (3 courses) plus dessert.

It’s still a lot of work, but…it’s The holiday, after all…

On gleaning

Not dead yet

It usually takes giving a tour to someone unfamiliar with the gardens for me to view the place with new eyes.  Like a beloved, sometimes you just can’t get enough distance to really see what’s going on.  I had a visitor this weekend and, despite the constant attention I have recently given the outdoor gardens when putting them “to bed,” my friend said quite clearly:

“There’s still a lot of stuff growing out here, isn’t there?”

Indeed!  So I have made many furtive trips to the gardens, harvesting what I can.  The resultant food I call my “As God is my Witness”*meals:  there’s much still to harvest in the leavings, in the gleanings, in the tail-ends of what’s still in the ground.  And this is a good thing.  Much can be learned from making a meal out of these not-pretty cast-offs.  And it makes me feel…rich.  Wealthy beyond reason, and certainly beyond sense.

I’ll never be hungry again.

*Scarlett O’Hara, upon finding, then throwing up, the only vegetable in her Yankee-raided garden:  “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

On the last hot-weather crops

Bell, Hungarian and jalapeno peppers

I pulled the pepper plants on Tuesday.  It was time.

Are you this way?  I always get a little wistful when *the last* of a year’s crop goes into the compost.  And peppers make me positively misty, their green fleshy leaves, their blossom-tipped branches.  The solanaceae family (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes) is the one crop we most identify with summer, and for good reason:  these plants all have tropical origins, and thus are tricked into thinking ours is the Forever Summer that is life in the tropics.  Tomatoes have figured it out, growing and definitely dying within a season, but the others haven’t really given up their desire to be perennials, bushy perennials.  Such is the case, certainly, with my peppers.

Granted, greenhouse-grown peppers have the benefit of season extension a month, two, beyond what is considered Death To Pepper Weather.  And in all honesty, these beauties could’ve held on a while longer.  But, I needed the beds!  Garlic-planting season is nigh.  It is time to say hello to 2010 crops, farewell 2009.

But:  I am still a bit misty.  Sniff!

On late fall garden crops

While I am tidying up, I am also running around harvesting the last crops out of the garden.  There are quite a few that needed the whole season to reach maturity, and there are others that I planted in August that are ready to eat now.

P1010781Twinned roots!  Complete with lots of worm-filled dirt:  Brilliant celeriac

Celeriac, or celery root, is one of the former.  I started these puppies indoors with the celery, Italian parsley, cutting celery (wonderful crop:  tastes like a mix of celery and curly parsley), and Chinese parsley all going in under the lights way back in February.  While I have been harvesting all these other crops all spring, summer and fall, the celeriac gets a pass until now.  I appreciate its knobby ugliness mashed with potatoes, or sliced raw in a salad, or used as a subtle “what is that taste” in a creamed soup.  The tops and stalks likewise can be used like celery, though they’re admittedly stringier.

P1010795

Garden-planted fennel

August-planted crops include bulb fennel and kohlrabi, baby turnips and rapini.  I actually never plant these crops in the spring, and always wait for August:  they tend to get big, spicy, woody, and bolt into seed if they’re spring planted.  Fennel is another one of those miraculous vegetables that can be cooked or eaten raw:  indeed, when salad lettuces are scarce, a fennel/apple salad is quite welcome, and wonderfully crunchy too.  And the fronds are tasty little garnishes to add to any dish. When my fish-averse husband is out of town, the girl and I usually chow down on a bouillabaisse in which fennel plays a major part.

P1010794Purple kohlrabi: a bit on the small side but tasty

I have converted more people to kohlrabi than I have to any other vegetable.  I am not quite sure why this is:  were they afraid to try it otherwise?  It does look otherworldly.  This is another better-as-salad vegetable, but that could just be me.  Its subtle broccoli-stem flavor tends to go away when cooked.  We eat it julienned or chopped or even just shredded in a salad.

Turnips and Swedes (rutabagas) are actually something I do plant in spring, but most turnips get infernally hot unless I pick them as babies.  Fall turnips, though, are just sweet things, accepting life as part of a roasted root veg dish, as part of a stew, or–of course–eaten raw in a salad.  I have found a variety, the Gilfeather turnip, that doesn’t get terribly hot as a spring-planted veg, but that’s mainly because it’s part rutabaga.  My mother, an Atkins zombie, eats rutabagas like candy, so I always grow a few rows for her.

Late August-seeded rapini joins late July-seeded broccoli in avoiding the summer cabbage-worm infestation that all my coles undergo.  Rapini (broccoli raab) likewise can get blasted-hot if planted in the spring or summer, but it comes into its own quite well in the fall garden.  This is one of our favorite sauteed greens.  And broccoli.  No need for explanation there.

P1010801And finally, a peek in the fennel forest in the new greenhouse.  I harvest the big ones first, thus letting the others grow bigger; this crop should last until Christmas

On winter squash

P1010729-1The girl with a pink banana squash while Mary Ellen the rooster looks on

There is a good reason I don’t normally flaunt the harvests around here, and yesterday’s squash post demonstrates why:  I tend to harvest things by the wheelbarrowload.  I kind of don’t like showing off how crazy I am so I try to keep things under wraps.  (It’s probably not working, though.)

I did, however, get a few serious questions about winter squash yesterday.  It has taken me a few years to figure out what makes them grow well, so I thought I would share with you the secrets of a successful harvest.  Barring my local conditions (fertile clay soil, lots of sun, lots of rain) here are my tips:

  • My first tip?  Compost!  Ever since my best harvests of cantaloupe and birdhouse gourds came from volunteers in the compost heap, I realized that compost is a squash plant’s best friend.  Last year I moved the compost pile to a different location and I allowed a few volunteers to pop up in the former location, as well as nutrient-hungry corn and popcorn.  I had never been terribly serious about winter squash before last year, because the squash bugs made sure that there was never a serious SUMMER squash harvest.  Squash bugs are vile creatures, bent on the destruction of any squash plant, but crookneck yellow squash (my personal favorite) is its primary target.  I have always succession-planted summer squash (once when the ground warms, the second once the squash bugs hit) and have usually beaten them that way.  But I never figured winter squash was a viable crop until I literally planted them in compost.
  • My second tip is vigilance against vine borers and the aforementioned squash bugs.  Vine borer damage is obvious, and quick; squash bug infestations are slow but sure.  Daily examination helps both.  I got over my “ick” reaction and began squashing squash bug eggs as soon as I could find them, whether I had gloves on or not.  (I seem to be able to handle any vile thing if there’s a protective layer between me and it.)  As long as any one plant has only ONE colony of eggs on it, the plant will live, albeit in a reduced capacity.
  • My third tip is compost tea and a steady application of new compost, especially where the vining plants dig into the ground again (this happens with pumpkins, not with butternuts).  Compost tea for me is just compost sitting in a bucket of water for 2 days; I pour it and the wet compost onto the plant’s roots and  new runners.  No aeration, no straining, nothing fancy.

Geez this sounds like a lot of work.  And I suppose it could be but the winter squash season is a long one, the bug-infestation season a short one.  For the most part I just stand back and watch them grow.

And as to what I am to do with all this?  Well, we’ll eat maybe one or two squash a week, in various guises.  I tend to tuck puree’d squash into anything (breads, mashed potatoes, soups, pies) but honestly only one dinner a week will feature “obvious” squash (as soup, roasted as a side dish, tucked in with some pasta or in risotto).

Happy harvest!

P1010358Tomatoes and peppers and popcorn (oh my)

If everyone is as busy as we seem to be lately then you’ll easily understand the lack of posts!  We’ll be back soon…with harvest news.

On long-stored squash

P1010318

Penny and the girl with the final harvest of last year

This gorgeous and gigantic thing is the last of my butternut squash…from 2008!

Obviously, something that grew this large, tasted this good and (most importantly) stored for as long as this one did needs to be saved in perpetuity.  Butternuts (cucurbita moschata) don’t easily cross with the four other types of typical garden squash, as most of its relatives are rare.  Personally, butternuts are the one squash I reliably seed-save because I don’t grow varieties that could cross it, nor do any of my neighbors.  So, these seeds are washed and are drying for next year’s garden.

Butternuts have the distinction of being the one unadulterated squash (read: not covered in brown sugar) that my picky husband will eat.  Me, I love them all, and now that fall is upon us, my desire to eat squash has returned with the turning leaves and the cooler temperatures.  By far my favorite butternut squash dish is hand-made squash-filled ravioli with a shallot/sage/browned butter sauce (eat, die happy!) but my weeknights are usually harried, with no time to craft a stuffed pasta.  ‘Sokay.  Shortcuts can be taken.  Oven-roasted squash chunks can be made while the store-bought pasta boils and the shallots caramelize in their own pan of butter.  Sizzle the sage in the shallot butter, drain the pasta, toss all in a big pasta bowl, testing for salt…and voila, a quicker, near-enough dish for a Wednesday night.

P1010334Whoops:  Steam on the lens.  Take my word, it was tasty.  I used broken-up lasagna noodles.

On sweet things

P1010310Get the biscuits!

When I was in New York earlier this month, the governor put forward an initiative to tax all sugary sodas by 18%.  “Sugary” is a relative word.   If you follow the sweetened beverage industry at all, you know that sugar is kind of hard to come by in a carbonated drink:  it’s all corncorncorn in the form of HFCS.  Indeed, any pop (yes, POP, as I am a Midwesterner) that actually contains sugar has been spun as a retro beverage, a throwback to better days:  it’s even hawked in old-fashioned small bottles.

My daughter and I are big fans of Antiques Roadshow, and on a rerun recently someone questioned the original purpose of a small chest their family owned.  It was a sugar safe.  Yes, I explained to our girl, at one point in time, cane sugar was so precious that one would lock it up in a chest, using it only for special occasions!

I thought of that chest when I roasted a ham in the smoker on Saturday morning.  The glaze with which I basted the meat was a sorghum/mustard/garlic glaze.  Way back when sugar (from cane or beets) was expensive, Southern and Midwestern families tended to grow their own sweetener in the form of sweet sorghum.  Sorghum is a tall, corn-like grass (minus the cobs) whose canes are stripped of their leaves and then put through a wringer to extract the juice.  Much like maple syrup, the resulting sap needs to be boiled/evaporated to get the concentrated end product, sorghum.  And fall was traditionally the time when the stalks were harvested, the evaporators fired up.  And as things would have it, the upside-down world we live in now has my jar of Indiana sorghum about eight times more expensive than the beet-derived Michigan sugar in the same pantry.

Is taxing sodas the answer to our ills?  I am unsure, mainly because, like cigarette taxes, the tax disproportionately affects the poor, the ignorant, and the addicted.  Perhaps if we ceased to subsidize corn production at the levels we do, we wouldn’t need these kinds of taxes.  Perhaps there’s something to that sugar safe, to the idea of growing your own sweetener, that shouldn’t be discarded too:  if it’s precious, you might not guzzle it.

On small garden hands

Gardening with children can be a wonderful thing.  Their enthusiasm is catching, as is their curiosity:  you want to see your garden differently?  Get on your knees and turn over leaves and rocks with a two year old.  Our girl is growing up in these gardens and it is a fun thing to watch.  And, even better, her help becomes more and more useful with time.

P1010273Sewing project

She’s admired the strings of dried peppers hung in the pantry for a couple of years now.  I pull what I need, grinding it or merely flaking it into a dish.  When the new peppers were tiny flowering plants this spring, she asked if she could string them when the time came.  Well, the time was this Sunday, when the peppers were quite ripe.  And quite ably, she strung three two-foot long strings for the pantry.

I sure hope she’s still willing to help at 14.

On shell beans

P1000689Overgrown Rattlesnake pole beans (love these beans!)

This post is a nod to my good friend Ed.

One of the reasons I grow my own is because it opens up a world of vegetative goodness that I could not otherwise attain.  (Lest you think this is merely a condition of living in the boonies, I can assure you my city garden likewise yielded riches not so easily gotten at the myriad co-ops or snooty stores near my home.)  And shelly beans definitely qualify as vegetative goodness.

P1000683Glass of wine and turkey companionship optional, but helpful

Shell beans, shelling beans, shelly beans:  there is a point somewhere between the spectrum of green (mange-tout)  and dried beans that is a chef’s dream.  They’re certainly THIS home cook’s dream.  And as a point of absolution for you less-than-attentive gardeners, shelly beans are akin to making more than lemonade of lemons:  think a fine dessert wine from lemons instead.  Say you just happen to have ignored your pole green beans for a few days, and now…they’re quite swollen, showing their growing seeds, pregnant little bumps all in a row.   Harvest them.  Sit down with a glass of wine and shell them.  Eaten raw, they’re an unpromising crunch of starch.  But you need to get out a shallot or two, a glug of olive oil or big pat of butter or flavorful animal fat, a small saucepan, and get cooking.  Sweat the shallot, then add the beans, covering them with some broth or some water to almost cover.  Cook them until you consider them “done,” and then plate them up with some chopped fresh parsley, some toasted breadcrumbs, maybe a squeeze of lemon…a bit of heaven on your plate.

Many beans are eaten as shell beans:  Limas, butterbeans, and favas are in this category.  Before you sneer and say that you think limas are abhorrent, I think they are too unless they’re garden-fresh.  Lots of vegetables are this way and it’s yet another reason to garden, quite frankly:  garden and get rid of your food prejudices! But most other beans can qualify as shell beans too.

Oh, and ALL beans can be eaten as dry beans.  Just like most garden vegetables, there are some that are “best” as fresh, shell, or dried; I have eaten the tiny dried brown beans of “Maxibel” haricot vert beans, for example, though it was a huge effort.  But frankly I can’t think of any other vegetable that has such nascent variety, can you?

An act of contrition

Wow.  Perhaps it’s just that my Catholic upbringing is still really residually strong (goodness knows the last time I went to mass:  perhaps in service to some dear person’s wedding or funeral, but it has been a while) but Saturday morning whilst canning up some peaches I started reciting the Act as if whom I was offending with the commission/omission of my sins was the winter pantry!

(For those blissfully unaware, the leadoff of a penitent’s confession to one’s priest begins with reciting the first line of the Act of Contrition, following with how long it’s been since the penitent last took the rite of Penance. “It’s been two weeks,” you’d say, or “It’s been twenty years.”)

MY “act” was recited in reference to the fact that it had been almost a month since I last put away some fruit!

P1000578Peach jam and peach/cranberry conserve

Ah, the wonder that is small-batch jams, conserves, preserves:  you can really mix it up.  I am awash in peaches now, finally ripening in my car (more on that in a minute), and I am still going through the freezer to use up the old stuff.  *Why* ripen peaches in the car, El?  No fruit flies that way, and it’s nice and cool in the garage.  Granted, I just can’t go anywhere, but that’s fine.

Mix it up and try some small-batch jams. Generally using only 3-4 cups of fruit, 2-3 cups sugar (or not), they stew in a large saucepan, reducing all that juicewater nicely, until you have some delicious thick jam.  I find it a good way to use up the tail ends of a fruit harvest, or to find a place for some frozen fruit.

On small truths

P1000521Sometimes, not often, food can be better than sex.

On small garden gifts

P1000391Tiny but good:  Year 3 of a home-grown seedling

“Mama, looook!  Here’s one that’s ready!”

Other than the beans, the squash, the potatoes, the cucumbers, the tomatoes/peppers/eggplants that populate the harvest baskets at this time of year, it’s quite fun to have something that is special.

Would that I lived in an area where I could get rootstock for artichokes!  Now THERE would be some tasty plants.  As it is, the globe artichokes grown from seed are tasty, but not the same.  Just don’t tell my daughter because she thinks they’re wonderful as they are.

On using things up

P1000321-1

Banner year for the tomatillos

It’s an odd time in the garden and in our food storage systems.  We’re preparing for the onslaught that is the summer produce season, and we’re cleaning out our stored goods to make room for the new things.  And some things are ripening when others are not:  my peppers and tomatillos, for example, are going great guns whilst the tomatoes are only hinting at turning red.  And some stored goods are just plain GONE, like the all-important foostuff that is SALSA.

I took advantage of our daughter’s overnight trip to her grandparents’ to make a very hot and tasty soup that made use of both the new produce and the frozen/canned stuff that needed to be used up.  At the same time, I made an emergency quart or two of some mostly tomatillo salsa, with jalapenos and yellow Hungarian peppers, corn and canned green (color, not ripeness) tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, vinegar and fresh onions.   She won’t object to something spicy if she doesn’t get to eat it!  And both the soup and the salsa were nice and fiery.

This soup takes a while, both in prep and in time cooking it; if you are bound to spend your days in the kitchen anyway, this is a great soup to make while you’re doing other things.  You can skip the chicken if you want a vegetarian soup, but I would add some olive oil and some cooked white beans for fat and protein.

El’s Hellfire Tortilla Soup*

serves 4-6

Soup base:

  • 3-4 small jalapenos or other hot pepper
  • 7-8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
  • 10 or so peppercorns
  • a 2″ piece of cinnamon stick
  • one medium yellow onion, cut into thin rings
  • one medium sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into thin rings

You are going to make a paste of these items, caramelized and roasted, above.  In one small cast-iron skillet, place the jalapenos, garlic, peppercorns and cinnamon stick on medium heat and roast until the peppers and garlic cloves are slightly blackened, turning frequently.  You can smash the peppers down with a spatula to ensure all sides get toasty, but don’t burst the pepper itself: it’s steaming nicely on the inside.  Set aside to cool.  Into the bowl of a mortar, squeeze the garlic out of its skin, add the peppercorns and crumble the cinnamon stick; pound to a grind and then add the seeded, lightly chopped peppers and pound to a paste.   In a large cast-iron pan or in a hot oven on a cookie sheet, caramelize the onions and the pepper (use no oil) until the onions are golden and the pepper is cooked through.  Add this and the contents of the mortar to the bowl of a food processor, whiz to a pulp.

Soup:

  • Chicken:  I used a very large (humongo) breast:  I blanched the breast in a bit of salted water until slightly cooked (about 20 minutes), then I cut the cooled breast into small-ish pieces, adding it back to the broth (about 2 cups of liquid)
  • 1 quart tomato sauce or stewed tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon each:  ground cumin, thyme, Mexican oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh corn:  about two ears’ worth, chopped off the cobs
  • 1 green or other mild-ish pepper, diced
  • 2-3 tomatillos, diced
  • 3 or so corn tortillas:  brown them individually in a cast-iron pan then slice into finger-sized pieces
  • minced parsley or cilantro
  • juice of one lime

Add the soup base, chicken, chicken stock, spices, salt and pepper into a large stockpot and bring to a boil; reduce to a very low heat and simmer gently for a couple of hours.  About an hour before serving, add the corn, pepper, and tomatillos and continue cooking.  Check for seasonings and adjust accordingly.   Immediately before serving, fish the bay leaves out of the soup and add the tortillas, parsley/cilantro and lime juice.

Garnishes:

  • Green onions
  • Cilantro
  • Sour cream
  • Queso blanco
  • Avocado
  • Lime
  • More roasted, chopped tortillas

*I got the beginnings of this recipe from somewhere but it’s gone in the sands of time.  I changed it enough, anyway, to probably claim it as my own, so that’s what I am doing!

On lettuce-free salads

P1000309Purslane, lamb’s quarters, some stray oakleaf lettuce, arugula, green onion and celery…with a few borage flowers

‘Tis the time of year our lettuce goes dormant.  (Actually, that is an untrue statement:  some of it is still there but is impossibly bitter as it has shot to seed and is now being harvested for goose food.)  Yet, we salad-lovers persevere!  Until the middle of August, our salads are usually made with weeds and flowers, or are some variation of slaw.

P1000249Purslane, in situ.  Our daughter can’t eat enough of this stuff.

Purslane is a happy weed found everywhere in my garden at this time of the year.  High in omega 3 fatty acids, its texture is reason enough to allow it to grow.  It’s succulently green, and my child can’t eat enough of it.  Likewise, the young shoots of lamb’s quarters are a great spinach substitute.  Watch the texture of its fuzzy leaves, though; for some, this is a turn-off. So, steam or braise it like spinach. And flowers:  borage, calendula, nasturtium, the blossoms of any herb, they’re all fair game for my weed salads.

And slaw.  Do you have a favorite dressing for slaw?  Don’t stop at cabbage, as any brassica can work, as can carrots, sweet peas, radicchio, etc.  Shredded kohlrabi or stems of broccoli, turnips, chopped celery:  all are fair game, all make wonderful slaw-y salads.

UPDATE, Tuesday evening at 5!  Oh my pounding heart:  from the girl:  “Mama, can I help you weed the garden?  I want more of that salad tonight for dinner.”

On “not enough”

P1000253Only one lousy 4×16 bed of onions.  Normally, we have two such beds.

So I might be waxing poetic about my garlic harvest, but it has been a dud year for onions.

Onions are very important.  Yes, they’re an inexpensive, readily available crop to buy, and those who are space-crunched in their vegetable gardens do very well sticking them in the “why bother” category.  But I am not space crunched, and I am a tightwad, therefore, I grow my own.  And this year has not been kind to my onions.

Granted, I have plenty of onion-y alternatives around here, so our food won’t be achingly bland.  But a combination of factors out of my control means it’s very much an Onions = Gold year.  No pickled red onions, no splurging with the caramelized yellow ones on the bean dishes and pizza…just the “usual” use of them.  And that is okay.

You know, when you do grow your own stuff, you have a different relationship with your food.  I won’t say it’s all gold, but it is all precious. If you’re the gardener as well as the cook, you remember pulling that onion you’re eating:  you may not remember planting the seed or transferring the seedling into the ground but you do remember watching it fill out, thinking, “that’s a fine looking bulb.”  I will say we have very little wasted food around here, somewhat by design but mostly by the fact that all produce is precious.  I cannot say this was the case when we bought all our food, and that astounds me:  we paid good money for that stuff!  Now, what little money we spend is offset by a different kind of investment:  the investment of time, of concern for our patch of earth.  And the victuals finally rendered onto our plates are very dear.

So yes, those few onions, they’re gold to me.

On “enough”

P1000024You know you’ve had a successful harvest if you still have some of last year’s produce in storage when the new stuff needs to be pulled.  I still have about a pound, maybe more, of garlic from 2008 so I did the head-scratching routine of “was I stingy with garlic this last year?”  I answered that in the negative; we had our fair courses of garlic soup, and enough homemade aioli to keep any vampire far away.  There were also plenty of heads to replant.

“Enough,” or even “adequate,” are tough nuts to crack when you’re growing your own.  It will either be a while before you hit that goal, or you’ll overshoot it and will feel pangs of guilt every time you open the freezer and see all those bags of broccoli, broccoli your family picks at if you serve it to them.  There is a happy medium in there, one in which you don’t feel like the food is overly precious or overly expendable.  And it will take you a year or two of doing this before you discover that sweet spot.

P1000248All cleaned up and ready for eating

But back to the garlic.  It was another good year for garlic, a crop I discovered does best when grown in the greenhouse, last hardneck batches sown on New Year’s Day.  It’s an indispensable kitchen item in this house; it, and parsley, populate every supper dish, or near enough.  I am thankful for a good harvest.

(And yes, some of it will be available in the seed trade.)

On being food renegades

P1000178The U.S.D.A. in its infinite wisdom pays farmers to NOT produce food.  To keep the prices high, the consolidation of growers of (let’s give a relevant example) sour cherries all stick their fingers to the wind and decide how MUCH of their harvest to pick on a given year.  This year, it’s 60%, which means that 40% of your crop is not to be sold and must rot on the tree.

Rot on the tree!

Well, we fruit renegades did a bit of patriotic tea-dumping and picked 150 pounds of cherries on the Fourth of July for our school.  We in no way even dented that 40% of this particular farm’s trees. Having the full support of the farmers, we pickers had to be surreptitious about it, parking our cars way out of view and picking in the dead middle of the orchard early in the morning.  At one point a plane flew over and I had a true Goodfellas moment, getting somewhat paranoid.

P1000186About a third of our harvest

So for the price of pitting them at another farm, we have a nice huge stock of cherries to make into snacks for the school.

P1000193KathunkKathunkKathunk:  This 1937 pitter can process a ton of cherries in an hour

On drying fruit

P1000160Yay!  Another opportunity to show off my latent O.C.D.!

Drying fruit is a fairly straightforward affair.  Preserving vegetables, both as frozen and as dried, requires a few more steps for you but fruit, thankfully, is easy-peasy.  Most of us have an oven, therefore, most of us can dry some fruit, especially if you’d like to try fruit leather.  In point of fact, fruit leather is the only thing I had heretofore tried to preserve, as I didn’t have a dehydrator of my own, either plug-in or solar.  The picture above is one of the school’s 3 dehydrators, liberated by yours truly for the upcoming blueberry onslaught.  Today, though, it’s strawberries.

Evapotranspiration is a mighty big word but it includes a concept (transpiration) you are probably already familiar with, even if you don’t think you are, and evaporation, which you already know.  All produce, all plants, transpire (wick water) as part of “what they do,” and the extreme form of this otherwise natural occurrence is dried produce, dried leaves.  There’s a certain formula of heat plus wind plus relative humidity and soil moisture that farmers look to to see how their crops are growing. On a global scale, evapotranspiration is how water is exchanged in the world (rain to trees/plants and back again), but in your kitchen or in your back yard, you can use it to help preserve your fruit harvest.

I am all in favor as you know of things you DON’T plug in to an outlet, and there are plenty of sites for solar food dehydrators out there.  Here’s one dear to my heart as it’s similar to the chicken tractor, plus it geeks out on the whole process of how it best happens (I do loves me some engineering).  Try this at home!!  Me, I am time-crunched this summer so the plug-in is the way I will go, for now.  These strawberries dried in six hours, and will keep for six months.

On freezing fruits

P1000165Nothing like a little O.C.D. with your project to get you wound up!

SO:  it’s fruit season in this hemisphere:  gotta make hay while that sun shines!  The non-fresh-fruit season is entirely too long in my humble opinion.  Freezing is the best way to preserve any fruit’s nutrients if you can’t eat it fresh. But like anything, freezing has an expiration date:  it is best to eat all frozen fruit within six months of freezing it.

We *love* fruit smoothies around here.  In point of fact, smoothies are the primary way we eat our fruit in the off-season.  I make our own kefir and yogurt, and it’s very easy to just run downstairs with the blender and grab a handful of frozen berries to whiz up for a treat.

Strawberries, cranberries and blueberries freeze wonderfully “dry,” that is, by themselves.  Cherries do too but one should pit them beforehand as trying to do it afterward leads to a wad of cherry mush in your hand.  The best way to handle these berries  is to get fruit at its absolute height of freshness, wash, stem and sort them and place them on cookie sheets.   As you can see one can go a little nutty with the sorting part.  Stick them in the freezer until hard then bag them up, squeezing as much air out of the bags as possible.  You’re now able to open the bags at will this winter and grab what you need, leaving the rest behind.

I also slice fruits like peaches and nectarines and strawberries and coat them with a bit of honey before bagging them up.  You could also cover sliced fruit with a bit of sugar or superfine sugar.  Coating them with a sweetener tends to help them retain their color and their flavor.  Making a syrup of one part honey to four parts hot water also works well:  the fruit is stored “wet” this way and keeps most of its flavor and nutrients intact.  And indeed one can freeze mashed or pulped fruit “wet” too, without sugar.

You know, most thawed fruit is but a pale simulacrum of its fresh self, so for the most part all my frozen fruit ends up in smoothies or cooked items.  I also treat freezing as a form of suspended animation if I have a huge harvest (like, the 30 pounds of cherries from last Saturday) that I can’t get to immediately:  pulling out the bag to make jam or baked goods is a true time-saver.  And I am always looking for more time….

Another day, another jam

P1000158Today’s berry, bubbling in the saucepan:  gooseberries

Gooseberries.  Finally, we have enough to “do” something with them, after three years of off/on harvests, so I grabbed a bowl yesterday and headed outside.  “Do you want to pick the gooseberries with me?” I asked my daughter.  “Nah, too prickly.  Can I pick the strawberries instead?”  Smart child.

I get all misty when I think about gooseberries.  A green variety adorned our wedding cake, they and some golden raspberries and some very red currants.  The cake probably had no flour in it but was made instead with almond flour, honey, and lots of egg whites.  It was a perfect summer cake, perfect for me that is, an avowed cake-hater, especially of the wedding variety.

But today I made four pints of jam.  Because I am usually terribly time-crunched and have no patience to tip and tail these things, what I do with little fruits like these is cook them down and run them through the fine sieve on my food mill.  The skins and those nasty pointy stems are left behind, and I measure out the resulting juice and pulp and figure out how much sugar and pectin is required to make a small batch of jam.  I cook down other seedy fruits the same way:  damson plums, cherries and those aronia berries have seeds too small to reach but (in some instances) too vulnerable to the food mill’s crushing turns so they instead go into a chinois that has a pestle to wring the juice from the pulp.  It sounds like I might have a crowded kitchen and it is true, I do, but the chinois does come in handy.

I just adore fruit, and fruit jam is one way to preserve all this bounty.  I will mention a few other ways in some following posts.

On magic bullets

P1000102Another day, another berry to blog about

I picked up some aronia berries at a friend’s house on Friday.  This species of native berry is very high in antioxidants, especially the black and purple varieties; it has been labeled a “superfood” for that reason.  The variety we picked, Aronia albutifolia, isn’t so very high in this magical property.  No matter.  The red, sweet, jujube-shaped fruits were plentiful, and I got a gallon with which to experiment.

Traditionally one of the fruit sources found in pemmican, these bushes or shrubby trees normally yield clusters of pea-sized fruit in the fall.  Well, MY calendar told me it was late June, so I kind of scratched my head about this a bit:  can these really be red aronia berries (also called chokeberries)?  It would appear that they are.  Some time ago, these eastern American trees got exported to Poland and Russia and it was there that they became cultivated enough to be used widely as a juice berry, and its progeny got tweaked enough to ripen in June.  Normal aronia berries, the shrub-borne black variety (A. melanocarpa) ripen much later and are entirely too tart to be eaten out of hand.

Personally, I am highly suspicious of anything that is labeled a superfood, a culinary “magic bullet” to cure all that ails a person.  I also think that many people who look to a food as medicine aren’t doing the hard work necessary to maintain basic good health.  Diet and exercise certainly go a long way to keep the doctor away. Eating a decent diet and getting up off the couch is just plain too hard for most Westerners: thus, let’s look for some tonic, hopefully found on my grocer’s shelf, that will offset all my couch-sitting, all those extra pounds around my middle.

I’m also suspicious of the purported health claims tagged on things like aronia berries.  If it were true that eating these things magically cured you from ever getting cancer, do you really think this would be the first time you have heard about them?

With my skeptical eye, then, I turned these into jelly early this morning (with some of our grape juice and fresh cherries to help flesh out the taste).  A little slice of medicine on my morning toast?  Doubtful, but tasty.

On hedgerow foraging

IMG_1727

Hedgerows:  doesn’t that sound so very…English?  I confess to a certain admiration for the long gardening tradition of the British isles, and I readily admit having a huge crush on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  But hedgerows.  I can’t claim to have hedgerows here in Michigan.  For one, our property lines only go back about 100 years (not nearly long enough for a proper hedge) and two, ours are poison ivy- and bramble-filled ditches, not something as tempting a foraging target as some misty Cotswold or Yorkshire hedgerow.

But it is the season for elderflowers, the pretty creamy-white blossoms of the black elderberry.  And–wonder of wonders–I have elderberry bushes in the hedges ditches around my property.  So!  Time to get out the scissors and the wading boots (all the better to fend off the poison ivy tendrils) and get snipping.

In honor of another Dorset bloke who’s a champion hedgerow forager, I made some of Hedgewizard’s elderflower champagne this week, as well as elderflower crepes.  It will be a while before the fizzy, nonalcoholic champagne can be sipped and enjoyed, but boy did those crepes get eaten quickly!  Our gooseberries are near ripening, too, so it’s time to try Hugh’s Elderflower/Gooseberry fool.

It is quite fun harvesting food from the farm I had no hand in growing, you know?  Just watch the poison ivy, which, alas, is not edible.