Category Archives: food

On harmonic convergences in the garden

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The girl models edible jewelry in the form of garlic scape bracelets.  That’s part of the first round of garlic drying on a rack behind her, a harvest of about 10 pounds of softnecks from my tiny first-year bulbil sets.  They didn’t get as large as I thought but this was still a successful experiment.

Many, many things bloom and ripen at the same time and it is quite a boon for both we food gardeners and the people our gardens feed.  Strawberries and rhubarb, tomatoes and basil, peas and spring onions are a few at the top of my head/tip of my tongue. And there are items we seasonal eaters absolutely look forward to all year:  for me, it’s that one big pot of asparagus risotto, that first gluttonous binge of shell peas, that first ripe tomato, warm in your hand.

Somehow, however, my convergence gets off track, and it’s (mostly) my own damned fault.  I mentioned that my potatoes went in late this year.  I also mentioned that garlic is ONLY getting the greenhouse treatment from now on because the heads so produced are exceedlingly large and (thanks to the time warp that’s greenhouse living) early.  This means, therefore, that my garlic scapes are going to miss the first grabbled potatoes by as much as a month.  SIGH.  This, this is a shame.  Tiny potatoes and minced garlic scapes!  Divine!

Scapes are little twisty miracles all on their own, of course.  The flower stem of rocambole or hardneck garlic, there is raging debate if they should be left on or chopped off to ensure bigger heads below ground.  Frankly, I have never noticed a difference in the head size of scapes that escaped.  But I do what I can to harvest them all.  They can freeze successfully, and even have a fairly long life in the refrigerator if you keep them in a damp towel.  I won’t go that far.  All my potatoes are gone (and this is no hardship; they’re staples 10 months of the year) so I actually (gasp!) purchased three local Russets from the farm stand down the road.

I couldn’t let those scapes go without a little spud love….

On the first foods of spring

img_1095When you grow your own, you can’t truly expect uniformity

Wow:  a weekend of warm temperatures, and it’s like we’ve traveled to a different country!  (And all without leaving home, how cool…)  It helps that the majority of the blooming trees are blooming.  Because we live in the fruit belt, we pass probably more different kinds of trees (and orchards full of them) than the average bear; I am teaching our daughter to identify different trees mainly by blossom.  Redbuds and magnolias are easy, but she seems to be able to tell her plums from her cherries.  Even I can’t quite tell the difference between pears and apples so she gets a pass on those.  It’s early yet for apricots and peaches though, as well as the vines and the blueberries; they’ll happen soon enough.

Perhaps you’re not enjoying your own asparagus quite yet, but do you have herbs in your gardens?  Freshly cut herbs in spring are a true delicacy.  They’re still spring tender, not woody, not sharp.  It’s this time of year I make excuses to make lots of herbed yogurt cheese and herbed butters.  Herbed butters can be frozen, too; I have often surprised myself by “finding” one in mid-summer when doing a freezer-filling session:  tossing freshly cooked summer veggies in a pat of chive/thyme/marjoram butter is a great cheat, I mean treat.

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Herbed yogurt cheese

  • Homemade yogurt, or store-bought plain: start with 2 cups.  Line a small colander or strainer or funnel with cheesecloth and set it over a small pot or bowl.  Add yogurt and drain; I usually let it go overnight and then give it a final squeeze until most of the liquid is out.  You’ll end up with about a cup of “cheese.”
  • Go to the garden and snip a generous handful of fresh herbs:  chives are lovely, but so is anything else that is up and is green and–most importantly–tastes good to you.  Wash and mince the herbs; add them to a bowl and mix in the yogurt cheese.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • This is especially good on a nice warm piece of toast.

On new harvests

Last weekend we were all due to be away from home:  my husband as an instructor at a swanky design camp, and we girls off to a weekend of cardplaying and gabbing with the women of my mother’s family.  Our daughter got sick, though, so she and I spent the weekend at home.

img_1043Yum.  But look at that nasty clay soil.

I don’t care how sick someone is:  if it’s beautiful weather, one really needs to go out to the gardens!  And look at what we found.  The beginnings of the asparagus.  Now, our daughter loves these shoots so much that I had to raise the latch to the gate so she couldn’t pilfer them all.  This was a couple of years ago and now she is tall enough to unlatch it and eat at will…but she was simply glad I let her have one, a tiny one.

img_1049She’s eying the rest of the patch

“Well, how is it,” I ask her.

“Good, Mama.  Do you still have that salt in your greenhouse?”

Wow.  I can’t put anything past her.  That salt was for tomato-eating!

On sweet spring bounty

img_0999We liked it so much I made it again

Ah, the beauty of the spring garden!

Of course as I type this MY spring gardens have barely budged past the crocuses:  my forsythia stubbornly remains closed, the daffodils up but not blooming.  So what could I possibly be talking about then?  Ah.  The gleanings of the greenhouse of course.

I made a pizza recently as a side dish to whatever bigger better thing I was serving.  I cannot remember what that bigger dish was but it was probably some meat.  But the pizza:  we keep talking about it!  Why?  It was covered with spring onions.  Spring onions, parsley and thyme; chopped chives.  Olive oil, sea salt, pepper.  That is it.  No cheese, no tomatoes.  Wrinkling her nose, our daughter, who is onion-phobic thanks to being served some commercial pizza, said she absolutely would not eat a green pizza.  “But it’s not bitter,” we told her.  “It’s actually sweet, kiddo:  just trust us and try it.”  She did, and she loved it.

Many things out of the ground right now are heartbreakingly sweet.  Parsnips, carrots, leeks, multiplier onions, spring (overwintered seed) onions or onion sets; lettuces, turnip greens, arugula.  Without the goosing that the heat of a hot spring day gives them, these goodies, biennials all, are sweet tasting.  Once the heat hits them, they react with a “touche-pas” bitterness that keeps everyone from eating them:  their goal now is seed production, so it does them no good at all to be attractively delicious.

Eating-wise, this is becoming my favorite season.

On greens and their cooking

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De gustibus non est disputandum: In matters of taste, there is no argument.

This might be the case for cooked greens, too, but I do believe most resistance to them comes from being served overcooked greens.  Sure, creamed spinach might have a special place in one’s heart (it does in mine), but goodness, serving all greens that way would be like boiling one’s broccoli or asparagus or green beans into submission: it’s not recommended!

As far as I am concerned, there are two steps to cooking delicious greens:  1.  growing your own and  2.  cooking them to the proper consistency as dictated by their texture.  Step one is pretty obvious.  If you grow your own you have enormous incentive to eat them and they’ll be at the peak of freshness.  Step two is a bit more tricky, as it requires a bit of consideration of the leaves.  But even that gets pretty easy:  the tenderer the leaves, the gentler their cooking.

Warm spinach salad: Wash and dry some new spinach (if there are thick stems, remove them), and place in a glass bowl, and add some crumbles of feta cheese on top.  Heat some good olive oil to just shy of smoking:  you just want the sweet flavor to leap out.  You may add some chopped chives or very thinly sliced garlic at the very end of heating.  Whisk in some good balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, and add a pinch of salt and some pepper.   Toss over the spinach and adjust seasonings:  the spinach should be slightly limp, and shiny, but not cooked.  Serve warm.

(Warm salads are entirely adaptable:  saute some cubed marinated tofu in some garlic and sesame oil and ginger, and toss them, hot, with clean, slightly damp spinach.  Same with lentils, or other savory beans:  toss hot, eat warm.)

Bigger, tougher leaves require bigger, tougher care.  Many greens through the heat of summer have thicker stems and more leathery leaves:  this helps them conserve their energies; this adaptation one of the reasons you won’t find spinach grow for you in the summer!  Often, I cut or pull the leaves off the tough ribs and stems and chop the ribs to cook separately.  It is here I pull out what my family considers to be the Great Equalizer in making any green palatable:  plenty of representation from the genus allium.  So, I will chop up the summer-toughened stems of kale, rapini, chard, etc. and throw them in a pan with plenty of onions, leek, and/or garlic; add a glug of olive oil and some salt, and caramelize them together gently.  After they look mostly cooked, I add the chopped leaves and a bit of water, cover, and cook; checking on them until they’re (what I consider to be) done.  A splash of vinegar at the end brightens them up a bit.

Many greens are from the brassica family (cabbage, kales, rapini, bok choy, turnips, collards) and so share that family’s somewhat offensive sulfurous stink when cooked.  Some studies say the longer these things are cooked, the more hydrogen sulfide is released!  It is traditional, however, to boil to death certain collards and mustard greens:  simmering in a pot with some garlic and maybe a ham hock…frankly, I *love* Southern greens, served up with some butter beans and a side of thick bread to sop up that “pot likker,” but perhaps this is an acquired taste.  Actually, many collards and mustards grow so thick and hearty that a long simmering is the only way to make them edible.

Anyway, experiment lots is the best advice I can give you with greens.  Experiment, and have plenty of garlic and onions on hand…

On those lovely leeks

img_0781Ladies and gentlemen, your days are numbered: the last bed of leeks.  I will select 3 to go to seed but the rest will be dinner.

It’s the wind-down of the season for certain garden goodies around here.  Leeks are the first up at bat.  Like most things around here, and even though they’re the longest-lived garden item, these, too, are seasonal!

img_0785Can you see how one is enough for three people?  Unlike outdoor leeks, I don’t need to remove nearly as many outer leaves on the greenhouse ones so what you see is nearly what we ate.  This variety is Fedco’s  Bleu de Solaize but it’s from my own seed from last year’s crop.

I am normally such a scrooge with this one particular long-lived allium.  They’re somewhat hard to grow, they’re quite lovely, and they bridge the gap in our calendar between storage onions and garlic to new garden onions and (yum) green garlic.  But now, well, now this veg gets the royal treatment!  One of these big puppies makes a lovely leek tart atop my own somewhat inconsistent puff pastry.  We devoured it.

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And the tyranny has ended for me for the little indoor seedlings of leek.  The greenhouses are warm enough, and the leeklings big enough, that they’ve all been transplanted out to their temporary bed.  Ah!  Now there’s space for new seeds indoors.

On food destiny

img_0754Emptied, cleaned jars await a trip back down to the canning shelves

Last summer I had no idea where the Ancho peppers I’d been gifted were going to end up, meal-wise.  I knew I should simply char them on the barbecue while waiting for the coals to cool enough for other items; I skinned them, seeded them and froze them.  Likewise, the posole I made early last fall or one of the dozens of quarts of tomato sauce, or one of the 20 or so pints of Great Northern beans that I had cooked and canned had no particular destiny.  And the regular red peppers, jalapenos and sweet corn:  blanched, frozen, and waiting, they sat.

It was fun to make chili this weekend, adding to it a browned ground pound of our quarter-cow.  It’s March, one of the hungrier months in this northern calendar: we are a long way off from outdoor garden bounty.   But all that work last summer has paid off in these delicious, somewhat impromptu wintertime meals shared with family and friends.

On breakfast

img_0730Waffles in the toaster this morning

Breakfast remains much more of a grab-and-go meal than any other in most households, ours included.  Unfortunately, this mostly means grab-and-go crappy food, or (horrors!) no food at all…all for a few more minutes of precious shut-eye.  Well!  For those of you control freaks like me who aim for more whole-foods breakfast goodies for your family, I thought I would share a few things that we do.

Okay, you want quick?  Certainly there’s nothing quicker than opening a box of cereal and dumping milk on it.  The breakfast foods companies have built an industry to convince you that prepackaged “cereals” with unpronounceable ingredients are the best choice for you to eat.  I admit it’s quick, but the best choice?  Homemade granola can win any taste test and yes it’s made with maybe 7 ingredients, all with pronounceable names.  And yes:  you (you!) adjust the sweetening and oil content as what you find best for your tastes.  I make a batch every two weeks or so, and it takes me maybe 45 minutes of not-terribly-mind-taxing time.  My recipe is from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and I have placed it in the comments.

img_0734Crunchy goodness

I still haven’t found a way to improve on Pocket Farm Liz’s homemade yogurt.  What you’ll need:  Milk, yogurt, a pot, a thermometer, two quart canning jars and a small cooler.  I make a quart about every week as needed, and make a new batch with the old as the starter.  We drink a lot of breakfast smoothies with fruit frozen from last summer, and the child gets yogurt with fruit preserves or jam or simply maple syrup mixed in as a school lunch snack.  Recipe, again, in the comments.

Eggs:  very quick, but I understand you don’t all have chickens in your side yards.  And bread:  toast!  There’s satisfaction to be had in a slice of your home-made bread as toast the next day.  But I’ve beaten you up enough recently about making your own bread…

Sundays have become waffle-making days here this winter.  I double my batch so we can have warm waffles on the weekdays (just pop them in the toaster).  They last all week because they’re cooked.

And yes, cooking.  Cooked items can stay “live” and waiting in the fridge for you to eat them.  I sometimes serve us leftover grains like rice with milk and maple syrup in the mornings.  We’re also huge fans of (what’s called in this country) Irish oatmeal:  steel-cut whole oats, not flakes.  I cut down the time it takes to cook it by boiling water the night before and dumping it on the oats, then putting the pot in the fridge for tomorrow’s eating…this shaves about 35 minutes off the cooking time.  (I think the ratio is 4 cups water to 1 cup cut oats.)  I’ve also put the oats in the slow-cooker overnight, too…but often that requires more of my time to find the crock pot.

Anyway, baby steps.  Baby steps turn into big leaps once you add them all up!

On salad

img_0557Fresh from the greenhouses, in a Michigan February

As a city-living vegetarian, I really considered salads to be somewhat overrated.  Maybe I took all those “how can you subsist on rabbit food” comments to heart, but I mostly found salads disappointing after all the preparation that went into making them.  I ate them, sure; still, my heart was not in it.

Nowadays, though?  Now I love the stuff.  I love picking it, I love washing it, I love preparing it…I love my Sunday-afternoon salad-dressing sessions.  Maybe it’s a zen thing, this time that it takes to pick/wash/dry, with some chopping thrown in.

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Green onions, Par-Cel cuttting celery, Flakee carrots, purple-top turnip, and purple kohlrabi

I really love the noise of the knife hitting the cutting board:  thock thock thock.

Maybe I’ve just got a mild case of Stockholm syndrome:  loving one’s oppressors.  Wait:  who’s holding whom hostage:   do I own my greenhouses or do they own me?

On even quicker real bread

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So.  I’m a breadmaker, or rather, I fear not the whole yeasty/kneady/loafing thing, and I make all our bread.  I *love* to knead, too.  But I mentioned Jim Lahey’s bread a while back and, like most great ideas, his No-Knead Bread and variations have really caught on.  I wish Jim well, really I do, but I found an even easier recipe that you guys should try.

Considering I have more time on my hands in the winter, you’d think shaving minutes off my plush schedule wouldn’t be a priority, but hey.  It’s my duty to serve YOU, especially all of you who claim you’re too pressed for time to bake bread.  This is very similar to the kneadless bread, but… you simply make a bunch of dough and leave it in the refrigerator (for up to 2 weeks) until you’re ready to bake some of it.  And just like the kneadless recipe it’s not the best on the 2nd day, but because you’re making a lot of dough, it’s easily parceled out for smaller loaves.  It does require a bit of a thaw before it goes in the oven (enabling its final rise), and it helps if you have a pizza stone (the underside of a cast-iron skillet also works) and a pizza peel (a lipless cornmeal-covered cookie sheet works too).  The recipe suggests you leave the dough in a covered plastic bowl.  We’re anti-plastic around here so ours lives in a glass bowl with a tightly-fitting plate atop of it.

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This recipe works fairly well too to simply pull a hunk or two out to bake in the morning.  I’ve rolled out cigar-sized pieces and covered them in cinnamon and sugar, and I’ve made a kind of English muffin with them too.  Because the dough stays cold, it tends to use my whole-wheat flour to best advantage.  So, well, give it a try!  The weekend is coming, spring’s not here yet, and you should still have time!

The Master Recipe:  The Boule (Artisan Free-Form Loaf) from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois

Makes 4 1-pound loaves

3 cups lukewarm water
1 1⁄2 tbsp granulated yeast (1 1⁄2 packets)
1 1⁄2 tbsp coarse kosher or sea salt
6 1⁄2 cups unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour
Cornmeal for pizza peel

Read the rest of the instructions HERE or HERE.  See their blog and more recipes HERE.

But it’s what’s for dinner

img_0517Family portrait in the smoker’s lid

I have a bit of a confession to make.  Actually, it’s not much of a confession to anyone who knows me, but…meat ain’t really my thing.

This is said with somewhat clenched lips, with a slight sucking-in of breath:  meat, after all, is what we are told to crave.  It’s what’s for dinner if you believed the hype, and if you grew up in 50s-80s America, its nightly presence normally took up most of your plate.   THIS household became omnivorous only recently: Oct. of 2007, to be exact.  I put meat back in the diet when we began to find humane sources nearby and then last year to raise our own.  The girl wanted it, the husband wanted it, and, in reality, it’s a fairly low-impact source of nutrition if you live a locavore’s life in a snowy place like Michigan.

img_0508Molasses-glazed bone-in pork shoulder, a-smoking over our apple wood

I am much more in love with meat when it remains off the center/majority of the plate.  As a condiment, as a flavoring, it’s really quite exemplary, and really ridiculously easy too.  (Frankly I think my ho-hum reaction to that full freezer is that the preparation of meat requires very little of me.  Not quite heat-and-serve, it’s still not much of a challenge to cook if you’ve been used to the alchemy required of vegetarian cookery.)  So when I saw a recipe recently for “bacon” made with smoked pork shoulder, I told Tom to get out the smoker and let’s get cooking.  I can use the “bacon” in many meals, bean-y, vegetable-y meals, for the whole week.  And after a little skillet frying, it makes this weeknight’s serving of breakfast-for-dinner a little more smokily special.

On long-distance luxury items

cake

It was Tom’s birthday this weekend and he requested a chocolate cake.  A flourless chocolate cake, natch.

In the interest of both Valentine’s day and in good world practices in general, I thought I would tell you how we addressed the man’s “need” for this cake.  Cake:  I have never been a big fan.  It always seemed to me that the frosting was much more worthwhile than the item it frosted, so, on my birthdays, I like berry pies, befitting a July birthday.  But Tom loves all kinds of cake and really wanted this flourless one, with a recipe he’s used for years to much fanfare.

Our two not-local-but-still-gotta-have-it items are coffee and chocolate, and the ratio to which these items are readily consumed in the house is about 150:1.  It is a no-brainer for us that these buzz-inducing luxury items be fair traded and organic…along with being shade-grown.  I don’t need a little rain forest deforestation with my morning jolt, nor can I sanction a little child slavery with my chocolate cake.  Our coffee comes from a like-minded friend who is a hobbyist roaster:  we buy in 10# quantities, and the UPS driver either loves us or hates us depending on where our delivery is on her work day, as that is one mighty smelly box.  The coffee is whole-bean, and it gets thrown in the freezer to be used as needed.  Cocoa, though, comes from here as baker’s cocoa and semisweet bars.

But hey:  despite the fact that this cake has lots of long-distance ingredients, the six eggs, the sugar and the butter are local!  Recipe in the comments.

On gnocchi

img_0357Riced potatoes, salted and peppered and ready for some flour

I had a friend in graduate school who, during one of our late nights in the studio, asked us to answer this one question of ourselves:  Dairy?  Vegetable?  Meat?  or Bread?

Undoubtedly, I selected Bread, with Vegetable as runner-up.  I am complex-carbohydrate obsessed, or at least I certainly was back then to handle the late nights of grad school.  Now, well, now I like to diversify.  But I have always made a mean gnocchi:  heavenly little potato dumpling-like pasta.  And hey, with this one little dish I do hit the two main categories, bread and veg!  And then of course you can serve it in a butter, cream and meat sauce…my favorite treatment of course being stinky melty blue cheese.

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Someone asked about the potato ricer I mentioned in my last post.  Here it is, and notice, there’s that very intriguing CRANK.  (I think it’s Crank Week here at Old Vines, seeing as I have brought out my old beater, the old meat grinder and now the ancient ricer all within a calendar week.)  I figured it’s time for one of my favorite dishes, NeeOHkee. They’re pretty easy to make.  You don’t necessarily need the ricer but it certainly helps make airy and light little puffs, and makes the most wonderful mashed potatoes too so it’s a fairly useful tool.  Having a light touch with the kneading (you don’t want to overly glutenize either the flour or the spuds) AND with the flour too is helpful, not to put too much pressure on you or anything.  Anyway, the recipe is in the comments.   Bon appetit.

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A little mixy, a little kneady, a little rolly…then chop and shape/roll with a fork.  Let dry slightly, then into a pot of boiling salted water they go.  Then, once they float, drain them and serve.

So, tell me:  Dairy, Vegetable, Meat or Bread?

On soup, and sausage

img_0330Sausage/leek soup with potatoes and carrots

I have lately been in the habit of making sausage.  It’s not hard to do, frankly, and like nearly everything else (breadmaking, soups, etc.) sausage is a vast and deep category, accepting thousands of variations.  Mostly, with all the meat (1/2 pig, 1/4 cow, 40 chickens) in the freezer, I am in serious need of uses for the less-than-prime pieces of it, and sausage is a great outlet for the tougher bits of flesh.  I find that getting out the hand grinder is a meditative task, and like the pasta roller or potato ricer or even the food mill, using the crank is so appealing that even the five year old here stays interested enough to complete the task.

But soups:  save the ubiquitous chicken soup, our weekly soup is usually a vegetarian affair.  It’s a habit, frankly, borne out of 16 years of vegetarianism:  I just don’t think to grab a hunk of flesh to sex up my soups, you know?  Entirely unnecessary.

Until, that is, you make about 3 lbs. of sausage that you can’t refreeze:  how about using some of it in soup?  Indeed.

On kitchen science, and magic

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Completely hemispheric (no flat spots) antique copper bowl, from France, with brass holding ring.  Get out the whisk and go to town. I usually avoid single-use tools in my kitchen but I make an exception for this beautiful bowl.

On many things in my life, I find I am a half-geek.  That is, I am really interested in knowing HOW something happens (and will often spend hours studying how) but I often stop myself before completely knowing WHY it does.  It’s like I still wish to be caught by surprise, or at least want to still have a bit of faith that something magical can happen.  Also, it’s no fun being a geek 100% of the time (trust me).

In an effort to remove all things electronic from my life, I have increasingly gone for hand-powered tools in the kitchen.   I like stirring/kneading/whisking things by hand, and fortunately my dependency on kitchen electronics was pretty thin to begin with…so not much has been recycled/rehomed.  New things have come in, though, and most of those things were found by my husband (the household shopper) at either the antique mall in town or at various thrift stores.  Here are two items I use all the time, especially now that eggs are in seriously great supply again:  this hand-blender and this copper bowl.

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When I use my (much faster) c. 1925 hand blender, I need both hands, so I make a nest with a dishtowel, tip the bowl, and start whipping.  Loose whites to stiff peaks in less than 4 minutes.

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Whipping egg whites is what I call lots of fun.  The whole process:  separating white from yolk, setting the whites in the bowl, reaching for the blender and the tea towel…it’s enjoyable to me.  The result is fun too (meringue, souffle, roulade, even a simple cake).  That I know how to whisk, or in this case blend, and even why it’s best done in a copper bowl are interesting facts to me…but that it happens at all is where I find the surprise.

And life in the kitchen would be quite boring without a bit of magic.

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Herb and cheddar souffle

On the incredible egg

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Eggs from Maggie (Black Australorps, pictured) and a little one from our pullet Chicken Patty (slow-growing CornishX).  First eggs tend to be smaller, but Maggie always lays our biggest ones so perhaps the comparison is unfair.  It’s easy to tell who lays what egg if you only have 7 layers.

Eggs.  One small package, one thing so ubiquitous, humble and yet so miraculous.  They’re cheapened, of course, by the crass way we treat battery hens; I would lay insipid eggs too if I had to live their lives of horror.  But a farm-fresh egg from a well-treated hen, laying even in the depths of a greenless winter…now that is a little bit of wonder.

My family is quite happy eggs are back on the menu now that the girls are laying again.  I had hoarded them during the girls’ peak moult from Thanksgiving-Christmas.  But now it’s breakfast for dinner again!  There is nothing quicker or more delicious than a simple fried egg steaming and hot on a plate, or even a more gymnastic poached egg sitting atop a salad.  Add toast, or maybe some potatoes.  Cheap wealth in eating.

I think back to the day when Bonnie laid our first egg.  So perfect, so precious!  Not our effort, but still we gloated.  And we fought over it too if I remember correctly.  One egg, split three ways.

On food storage in January

img_9595Boo!  At least the sprouts of onions like these Red Wethersfields are edible, unlike the just-as-spooky potato sprouts.

One of the things that the lazy person inside me really appreciates about freezing and canning is that, after the item is frozen or canned, it requires no monitoring from me.  Root cellar crops require lots more care.  And here it is, nearly mid-January, so it’s time for me to make an assessment of the State of the Stored.

The greenhouses and gardens in winter are great places for me to keep root crops like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas, and it’s there that I go to find them.  In the past I have stored them in the root cellar, but frankly they do better (and require less of my care) in the gardens themselves.  Leeks, likewise, will be just fine in both the greenhouse and the gardens, and I am able to grow a fair number of salad onions through the winter in the greenhouses (both bunching onions (scallions) and regular onions that haven’t fully bulbed out).

Sprouty onions and potatoes in a cold dark basement are unpleasant, to say the least, especially when I am in a rush to make dinner and have to sort through them.  I store these two crops on the floor below my canning jars; the average temperature all winter there is 50*.  I try to eat the onions in the order of their sprouting (cipollini first, reds second, yellows third, whites last) and that usually works fine.  Potatoes, however, have an internal sprouting clock that goes off with a bang, usually toward the end of January, and frankly there’s not much I can do about that.  It would help if my basement were colder, maybe by 10*, but that’s not going to happen either.

In the true root cellar I have cabbage and apples.  The daily average back there is about 35*, though it gets much colder on days like today (10*).  This “cellar” is simply the back stairs to the basement.   It’s far too cold for potatoes and onions out there but these other things are just fine in the cold.  In fact, I tend to ignore them.  It helps to go through them about once a month and pull out the bad apples, but cabbage lasts all winter.

Winter squash.  They’re stored with the canned goods, but tender pumpkins get the kitchen-floor treatment under the butcher block table as it’s warm-ish there (60*).  These things all require some vigilance from me.  Fortunately we do eat quite a bit of the stuff so I usually have the stash fairly sorted through and eaten in terms of ripeness, but…we usually also hit a “no more squash, please” request right at the time when some of the more tender ones are beginning to go bad.  Luckily the geese and turkeys love squash!  Uncooked, I just split the things in half and it’s beta-carotene treat time for the poultry.  The sometimes even eat the peel.

Anyway, the short answer to the lazy person in me is that all storage requires a bit of vigilance.  Every jar’s seal needs to be checked before and after opening; the damned freezers do need to be grumble grumble defrosted annually, and yes, all root cellar crops do have an Eat By date built into them.  Frankly I am glad to be able to have the time to do this produce monitoring:  I’m certainly much more busy in the growing season!

On soft cheeses

img_9342Newly-kneaded mozzarella

One of my biggest problems, and one which I will probably never rectify, is a certain…chutzpah borne of the oft-repeated statement/question below:

“Well, how hard can THAT be?”

I utter it so often (aloud and otherwise) that it’s become something of a life statement.  I’ll tell you something, though:  certain cheesemaking is hard to do.  And then I recall my first rock-hard loaves of bread baked some 25 years ago and think, well, getting good at breadmaking was hard to do too.  Practice, practice, practice.  That, and ignore your inner naysayer.

img_9354Lemon juice ricotta

Cheesemaking from fresh milk yields surprisingly little cheese.  Whey is the bigger byproduct, but whey is some mighty good stuff.  I use the whey, generally, in three ways:  in breadmaking, in animal feed, and in lacto-fermented things like pickles, kimchee and krauts.  It’d be kind of a pity to throw this gold liquid down the drain, or even into the compost.  The farmyard poultry get their grains soaked in it overnight before eating it.

img_9351No way:  wheeey

But yeah, I’ve been making lots of dairy goodies here lately.  I’ve been practicing to become a milkmaid.  Having a home-based dairy:  well, how hard can that be?

On adventures in meat

img_9323Molasses glazed dry cured ham

When we got our half of a pig, I had the butcher chop her up into sizes manageable for a family of three.  The ham, for example, which is normally a 12-15 pound thing, was divided into five pieces for us.  Perfect for experimenting!

Tom got a combination smoker/barbecue thingy from yours truly for the holidays.  He’s not exactly a reluctant cook, but as with most men there’s something about an open flame that brings out his inner Escoffier.  We experimented with the two hams I had started curing last weekend.  One ham was wet cured (basically salt, sugar, spices and water) and one was dry cured (everything listed minus the water).  The wet-cured one was to be the traditional glazed ham, the other leaning more toward Country Ham.  They got different smoking times and temperatures, but we took the glazed one with us for a New Year’s Eve party at 5 and left the other one to smoke for the remaining 8 hours of its 18 hour smoking session.

That party ham was gone in no time flat.  Wonderfully juicy, it had a garlic/mustard/honey glaze.  The image above is of the molasses-glazed dry-cured ham.  It became part of New Year’s day breakfast with eggs, then part of a split pea soup lunch (first year harvesting my field peas*, a great dual-purpose green manure), then somehow it factored  into dinner with a gravy and potatoes.  It barely made it though:  I couldn’t get the child to stop eating it!

*see, this is a gardening post after all.

On frozen gardens

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This was a hard-fought battle:  me, a garden knife, iced-over soil and deeply bedded leeks.  I won.

We had a bit of a warm-up this last weekend, and frankly I hate it when it warms up.  We get so much moisture, see, that a warmup means simply that the near-daily snowstorms will simply be rainstorms, followed by snow.  This is of course what happened.  Granted, we didn’t get the ice storms that hit much of the country and in all honesty I have nothing to complain about, as I could’ve simply lifted a few leeks out of the nice fluffy non-frozen greenhouse soil but NO.  Had to be up for a challenge.  The leeks’ gorgeous frozen green leaves snapped right off in the cold.

And so:  leeks + potatoes = leek/potato soup, my absolute favorite, joined by more sprouted-wheat bread.  Around here,  leeks are an excuse to eat potatoes, and soup is an excuse to eat warm bread, and warm bread is an excuse to eat lots of butter.  (Do you like my math?)

On new off-season rituals

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Sunday wheat berry sprouts = Wednesday nutty bread

and look at that cool lid I found at the local hippie store

I guess I never quite know how much time I spend gardening/harvesting/preserving until it’s the off season.

My daughter and I made more apple cider vinegar this weekend from some of our windfalls.  It’s really quite easy to do, and microbes are my friends, as you might well know.  Every batch is slightly different, and that is quite fine with me.  We’ve also begun sprouting edible seeds again.  I even decided to make a new sourdough starter, as my last one has lost some of its tangy oomph.

I will tell you, though, what I have begun to do every Sunday afternoon.  Both of these things take little time, and both of these things are things I need to do weekly anyway so…it is nice to set a slice of time aside, no

Small hands love small tasks like tearing the pesky peels off of shallots.  We have two salad dressings:  a vinaigrette and a buttermilk.  The child likes harvesting the parsley and chervil out of the greenhouse, and she knows where the stash of shallots is stored in the basement.  She gets to harvest, wash and peel, pour and measure; I get to chop; she gets to shake.  It’s a pretty decent arrangement.

I get to sharpen the knives, though.  Maybe when she’s a little older, she can handle the whetstone.

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ORDER UP!  BREAD RECIPE NOW IN THE COMMENTS

On winter gardening

I suppose the title of this post is misleading:  this is not winter gardening, it’s winter harvesting.  Such is the case with the greenhouses too:  that’s also harvesting, but…I don’t need to clear the snow off of the goods first!

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Purple-top turnips

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Tools needed:  Garden fork, hand knife (hori-hori), warm gloves, boots, Mother of All Colanders; child and sled optional

img_8204A fistful of carrots

img_8220Peeking at us through a hole in the collards

It’s early December here.  We’ve had snow and cold weather but the ground is not frozen.  These outdoor goodies, therefore, have yet to be completely done in by the cold:  the water in their cell walls has not frozen, expanded, thawed, gone mushy. With the exception of the leeks and the collards, in a month everything will be too icky (and probably too buried in snow) to eat.  Gotta feast now then!

On the depths of one’s pantry

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l-r:  Jars of green tomato chutney, and then peach, regular and black bean/corn salsas, in their overexposed glory:  Sweat equity in small packages.

***NOTE:  Roasted Garlic Jelly and Cranberry Mustard recipes now in the comments!  Happy Thanksgiving all.

Now that we’re on the back end of the gardening calendar, I suppose I have to talk about either future or past gardening things.  There’s salad and veggies happening outside, of course, and I am sure I will continue to bore you about those kinds of harvests.  But recently, and as the calendar dictates, I have begun to raid the pantry for our meals.  It’s been an interesting trip, going down this road of harvests past.

Every year I take on a bit more canning.  It is a mild madness I have; it’s some kind of packratting/hoarding instinct certainly but it’s also pretty deeply rooted in the love of good old food.  I’ve told you before how an assessment of one’s canning season really needs to be taken when you’re done with the season:  you will find then what it is you truly shouldn’t have bothered with (beet greens) and what you will never have enough of (many, many things).  Well!  If I have one thing to share so far this season, it’s that I am really glad I put away a lot of weird things.*

The weekend before last, the child and I went to the butcher’s to pick up our half-pig.  (Next weekend it’s time to pick up the cow.)  Stuffed, now, in the new freezer is about 100 pounds of various piggy parts, from smoked hocks to jowl strips to back fat to many 3# hams (of which more later).  Our first meal was a couple of pan-seared pork chops, and I deglazed the pan with a tiny bit of local sherry and…some of my roasted garlic jelly, making a bit of a sauce.  Holy CATS!  Tasty! Then Thursday I browned a 3# shoulder and stewed it for the afternoon in the crock pot with green tomato chutney, carrots, celery, garlic and onions.  My gosh that went down easy.  And there’s leftovers!

Anyway, here’s my lesson.  I am not much of an open-a-jar kind of cook, never have been…but, now that I have more than just plain old jams, tomato sauces, and applesauce downstairs, all bets are off.  It’s time to get out a jar of homemade madness and see what happens.

*These things aren’t really “weird” so much as they’re a bit beyond the pale of the expected pantry fare.  They’re things like salsas, savory jellies, chutneys and mustards (I’m particularly pleased with the roasted pear/apple moutarde and the cranberry mustard downstairs right now: both will be welcome atop leftover turkey on Friday.)  We’re not too pickle-happy here but pickled red onions atop a salad is delightful.  There’s also stuff I haven’t canned at all, like herb vinegars and sauerkraut too.  Yes, it is quite true, I have shoved prepackaged condiments out the door with my quest for all-local, mostly homemade goodies.  Nothing beats mayonnaise, or salad dressing, from your birds’ eggs and your own vinegars.  Madness, I tell you!

On Thanksgiving preparation

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Eight pounds of fresh local goodness:  them’s some pretty berries.  (And no, they’re not all for T-Day, it’s our year’s supply.)

Countdown begins until my favorite holiday of the year:  Thanksgiving!

Really, I have this vision of myself as someone who is moderate in most things except politics and food.  I go NUTS for this holiday, people.  Not being terribly religious (nor much of a shopper) the Christmas season leaves me pretty cold, especially since it starts before Halloween.  Thanksgiving, though:  of course I can get behind a holiday that celebrates belt-loosening gluttony with lots of family and friends around.

I have to kill a turkey first though.  Sigh.  This, this is a big hurdle.

On chicken meat

img_0978Phyllis, our bearded lady Ameraucana: definitely not for dinner

I love my chickens.  I love them even if I am going to eat them:  I am just that kind of person.  As a child, I always envisioned myself as a veterinarian, or maybe a zookeeper.  Life intervened and now I am simply a chicken rancher.

The Eat Local Challenge for October was fun, though I did kind of drop the ball about foodstuff.  Call me fickle, but…well I have 15 posts saved in my drafts folder, all about things like chicken and millet and squash and the importance of eating salad (or raw food in general) and I never did get around to posting them.  Maybe they will see the light of day here sometime; maybe not.  One of the things I mentioned, though, was meat thrift.  How many meals can I squeeze out of one chicken?  Or, in the instance below, out of half a chicken?

Chickens, though.  Being a recent convert to carnivory, and being a general tightwad, it’s not like we binge on flesh around here.  In most cultures other than the big-slab-of-critter-on-the-plate U.S., meat is used as a condiment, as a flavoring, and as such gets shoved to a small portion of one’s plate.  I take that example as a model.  It makes the creature’s sacrifice seem more worthy.

Last Saturday I thawed a chicken half (about 3.5 lbs.) while we worked on the greenhouse.  That evening, the child chose a pumpkin to roast and we halved it, scooped out the seeds, and roasted the seeds while the bird was in the oven atop a bed of carrots and celery.  (I roast the bird on a large saute pan:  I want the drippings, see, and it’s easier done in a pan.)  When the bird was roasted, the pumpkin halves went in on their cookie sheet, and I turned the oven down.  The roasted seeds went atop the salad.

This was something of a special meal, so I made mashed potatoes and pan-roasted greens too.  I lifted the bird off the saute pan and placed it on a platter, covered with tinfoil, to rest before carving.  Dang:  I didn’t have any white wine to deglaze the pan, so…I improvised by whizzing about a cup of green tomato chutney in the food processor, and used about a quarter cup of that to deglaze the drippings in the pan.  I put about a half cup of the potato water in a cup and added about 2 tablespoons of flour to it, stirring well; I added this to the drippings.  Over a low heat a nice rich gravy formed.  I added more potato water to thin it.  The rest of the potato water would be saved to make bread the next day.

We didn’t eat the whole half a chicken.  In fact, we ate maybe a third of it:  mashed potatoes with gravy, the greens, and a huge salad with those roasted seeds was the majority of what we ate.  In point of fact, meat is never the center of our meals.  Vegetables are.  Anyway, when we cleaned the table after dinner, I pulled some of the meat off the carcass and put all of it, and the cooled, scraped-out pumpkins, into the fridge for tomorrow.

On Sunday morning, then, I made stock with the carcass, made two pie crusts with leaf lard and butter, and made bread with the reserved potato water.  I let the stock cook all day:  two celery stalks, their leaves, two chopped carrots, thyme, sage, salt and pepper; water to cover.  You barely let it boil:  one bubble every 10 seconds or so makes a very clear stock.  I went about my day from there and later made a leek galette for dinner with a salad and pumpkin pie for dessert.  After about 7 hours of cooking, I strained the stock, picked the carcass clean, deposited the bones in the trash, and reserved the stock for later.  Bread and pie smell pretty good when they bake together.

Monday’s dinner is somewhat sacrosanct:  it’s an office day for me so we always have pasta with tomato sauce.  The kid got chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy in her lunch, though.

Tuesday:  Election night!  Time for some comfort food, so I made biscuits and gravy.  Used some of the meat, added milk and flour, sage and red pepper flakes to the sauce.  Nothing like it!

Wednesday:  chicken tacos!  Yum.  Some Green Zebra tomatoes on top too, along with my black bean/corn salsa.  Lots of lettuce and shallots; no cheese.

Thursday:  Pumpkin soup with half of that chicken stock; cornbread, salad.

Friday:  Beet risotto with the other half of that chicken stock; braised chard, salad.

So:  One half of one chicken, five meals, two child-sized lunches.  Not bad for one little birdy.  Thanks.

On small garden treats

I realized yesterday that I never made a follow-up post about the figs.

Well, it’s now or never, I thought:  walking through the garden over lunch, I snagged the very last little fig!  This variety is called Chicago Hardy.  Supposedly it is hardy to zone 5 (i.e., Chicago), but I have been cautious with my plants and have brought them into either the root cellar or the greenhouse during the winter.  (Considering the snow and the fact that they’ve just lost all their leaves, it’s time to move them again.)  The “trees” are about 2.5′ tall, in big pots.  Every year I get more fruit from them.  I will bet the harvest was about 4 dozen total this season from the two trees.  They’re small, they are tasty, and mostly they’re mine (the child knows where they are and knows what they look like when they’re ripe).

I still don’t have enough to preserve, but…like the cherry tomatoes and sweet carrots, they’re merely a reward for the gardener and all her hard work.  Thanks, trees!

Still cranking

I love this thing

Yes, still “putting things by” around here.  (Before you think I am going all OCD with the lined-up apples I will have you know the child was helping so she wanted the apples. aligned. just. so.  Who am I to complain.)

It is funny how clean the kitchen has been lately.  When I went down to get the pressure canner from the basement yesterday, the darned thing had DUST on it.  Wow:  after a month of no use!  But the adjustment period was about the same after this short food preservation break in that almost every pot, bowl, dish and scraper gets hauled out to help in the canning effort.  It’s just what has to happen, I guess…

A rose by any other name…

Family resemblance at the blossom end:  bottom to top rose hips, apple, crabapple, pear and quince

…might be an apple, a crabapple, a pear or a quince.  All the above are a part of the family Rosaceae.

What to do, as we’re almost out of preserved apple products in the house?  Our next-door neighbor has a lovely large-fruited crabapple tree, and he encourages me to pick them.  I was a bit too busy this year to do so at the proper time so I passed; crabapple jelly can wait another year (that, and I have two pints left from last year).  Our ancient apple tree is a biennially bearing and this was an off year.  Our nascent orchard is a good 3 years from producing for us.  The other neighbor’s trees are bearing but dang are the apples puny.

So:  after our nearly fruitless hike on Satuday, the kid and I got in the car.  I got up the courage to stop at a neighboring farm.  I had admired their orchard for years, and, as far as I could tell, the trees weren’t being tended or picked.  I came armed with gifts of grape and strawberry jam:  might we pick your trees, I asked?  Oh yeah.  Go ahead.  And there’s pears and quince around the side of the house you can have, too, said the owner.

Bingo!  One quick trip yielded two bushels of apples, one of pears, and a half-bushel of quince.  I guess it doesn’t hurt to ask.  These will make a lot of lovely sauce:  quince adds a nice fruity bite.  The pears aren’t quite ripe but that’s also okay.  Pears atop salads are great in November and December.  And pear tarts and poached pears…

Fuzzy quince: these smell wonderful, but are too sour to eat out of hand and should be cooked

On gifts from the ground

Look what I found in one of my old greenhouse’s garden beds!  It is what I think it is.  I think.  It’s fairly worn.

I’m always surprised any artifacts like this are found at all.  I always wonder, too, how they ever got missing in the first place:  think about it.  That was a lot of hours spent finely honing that stone.  I’m wondering if it was lost in a strike on an animal that got away.  (It’s a spearhead, I think; it’s too big to be an arrowhead.)  It would be horrible to think it is actually a tool of war, but it could be that too.  Anyway, with finding this little stone, much thought has been thunk.

I’ve already been on a do-your-own-food kick for a while, and the Eat Local Challenge for October posts that I have made have addressed some of the ways we eat very local around here.  But the Hubbard squash picture from yesterday, and the hominy corn post I did a while back?  These were staples of the Native Americans who lived where we do now.  Squash had to be big:  you needed to feed a lot of people with it.  No fluffy little Delicatas for them, what was the point?

The known tribe that still actually exists in Southwest Michigan is the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi.  This particular band wasn’t shuttled further west and south on their own Kansas and Oklahoma-bound Trail of Tears with the rest of the Potawatomi because they had the…distinction of being converts to Catholicism at the mission of St. Joseph (a town 15 miles south of me).  Rather fascinating story.  Fights with the Iroquois of New York in the 1650s led most of the Lower Peninsula to be a kind of no-man’s land, depopulated of its Miami and Potawatomi tribes, who, with the Hurons from Ontario and the Sauk from the Detroit area all fled to what is now Wisconsin and Illinois, on the other side of the lake.  Some Potawatomi and Miami returned, finding some security with the Jesuit mission on the St. Joseph River, around 1668.  And they settled, and stayed.

So for me, wondering about what they ate is an interesting exercise.  The fruits I tend to forage are not natives (olive berries, apples, pears).  Many edibles that are native I mostly ignore (lamb’s quarters, sassafras, wild cherry, wild grapes, sugar maples) or can’t find (pawpaws, acorns, wild rice, cranberries).  Lake Michigan has lots of native fish, but the easily caught spawning salmon that we find now are white-man introductions.  I don’t hunt, so all the game readily found around here (deer, turkey, pheasant, rabbit, beaver) and predators (cougars, coyotes, no-longer-here wolves) also get a pass.  The things I readily forage (asparagus, black raspberries, strawberries) are short-seasoned things that certainly aren’t at all filling.

What a different life it seems today, the life behind that spearhead.

On walnuts

The kid and I went exploring in the 100 Acre Wood on Saturday.  I swear I have seen an abandoned stand of apple trees on the property, but despite hours of bushwacking, we failed to find it.  All, however, was not lost.  We found walnuts.

These are black walnuts.  I had another batch of English walnuts: they are about half the size.  Note the dye on my fingers:  through the gloves even!

People have remarked, both in person and on the blog, that I appear to be a rather collected, cool person, someone with her proverbial head screwed on straight.  I dunno.  I wouldn’t say I am so even-tempered.   But I do think I have found the secret of my relative sanguinity:  lots of the stuff that I do on the farm allows me to blow off steam!  Case in point (or, case du jour):  shelling the walnuts.

The slag on the driveway is a great aid in shelling.  I visualize the bad things in this world being crushed under my heel as I do it.

If they’ve fallen from the tree, they’re ready to go.  One needs to remove the husk before curing and storing.  In days of yore, the husks were used as a furniture stain:  it is a ready dye that will just as readily go through gloves and stain your fingers and clothing, so…get out the barbecue tongs to handle them, and wear junky clothes.  I step-stomped on these things to crack the husk then rolled it toe-heel-toe to dispatch the rest of the husk.  Moving the husked nuts with the tongs, I agitated them further against the pebbly drive with the boots and a bit of water from the hose.  A final spray-off,  then I picked them up and set them in the shed to dry for a few days on a screen.  I will further store them in some old onion mesh bags, hanging them in the somewhat moist, not-too-warm basement.  Then I will shell them as needed.  I love toasted walnuts atop my salads!

Hosed off and ready for curing