Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The benefits of travel

Despite our extremely cosmopolitan, eclectic and generally adventurous approach to cuisine, until a visit to New Orleans in our late 20s we had never made dirty rice, and I for one had never heard of it. What a revelation. Dirt cheap, dead easy and delicious, it's one of those "stone soup" meals that you can make with pretty much anything at hand.

Since the fridge is filling up with garden goodness (we'll prepare a lot of it for our annual garden party this weekend) today is dirty rice day. I'll use the day's harvest-- broccoli, chard, an early turnip and its greens-- for the veggies in this dish. Might go see if there's a carrot ready to pull so I can get some color in here as well.

Dirty rice

Medium onion, diced
Any vegetables, fresh or frozen
chop meat, 1/4 pound per serving
couple cloves garlic, smashed and diced
herbs like tarragon, parsley or oregano, fresh or dried
rice, 1/4 to 1/2 cup dry per serving (depending on how you like your meat-to-rice ratio for this dish. Experiment)

Make the rice (takes about 20 minutes; instructions here)

While the rice is cooking, saute the onions in a 1/2 cup of water until all the liquid is gone, immediately add the chop meat. When the meat is about halfway done, add the garlic and the herbs so that the fat releases the oils; this will enhance the flavor of both the meat and the herbs. When the meat is fully browned, add the vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until the veggies turn bright green. I don't drain the fat, but you can do so if you want to once the meat is fully browned and the vegetables have had a chance to wilt a little. Salt and pepper to taste.

Add the rice and mix it well, continue cooking for a few minutes. You can add a little soy sauce here or some brown sugar for color (a teaspoon or less so you don't end up with too-sweet dirty rice). Or not. It tastes great as is.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I’m from 4 generations of city dwellers, as is my husband, a rarity. Not a farmer among us. Despite having eventually landed on the central Illinois prairie, we can trace our soil-free urban ancestry back to the 1840s, on both sides, in a family stretching from Toisan to Stockholm to Dublin to Piraeus.

So how does a city girl come at gardening? Not honestly-- my mother once hired a landscaper who was into pine trees. Fortunately we couldn’t afford the 14 firs he wanted to put in on our quarter acre (which we didn’t know at the time get 100 feet tall). Cooler heads prevailed and we ended up with a gorgeous 8-foot tall hedge of mixed flowering shrubs and two decks enclosed by small trees and low bushes. I don’t think that woman ever planted a flower in her life.

So— flowers or vegetables? Flowers are pretty, but when I started I kept putting the floppy ones in the back, where they fell over on the ones that didn’t bloom until fall, except the floppy ones had deprived them of sun so they died. Annuals are pretty— they bloom for months! How hard can it be to plant 20 flats? Every year? I know! Prairie natives. Let’s put some Queen Anne’s Lace here, and some wild phlox, and how about mint! And loosestrife. Now, how do I get rid of it…

We started vegetables slowly and safely— tomatoes. When that went well, we tried green peppers, and then of course we needed oregano. How about salad? Beans and peas and carrots. Now I had to stop planting flats of annuals and get serious about a perennial garden, because there are only so many hours in the day. Before we knew it we were growing 6 months worth of vegetables, but had only 3 months worth of storage space.

It only took twenty years, but I think I have it figured it out— flower border, herb plot, patio, vegetables. The flowers are hard to start, but then they take care of themselves. The vegetables are easy to start, but need care all season. The herbs just deal.

Experimental stir-fry today, everything from the garden but the ginger, bean curd and rice. Instead of soy sauce, I even used some leftover chamomile tea from the herb garden to create a sauce. The ingredients:

Bean curd deep fried with lemon grass, ginger and dried orange zest (don't throw away those peels! Zest them and dry them in the microwave). Vegetables were green beans, snow peas, pumpkin blossoms, fennel, onion, and garlic. A very unusual and savory stir fry.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cooking with fresh vegetables

One of the ways I've been dealing with this year's harvests is by unloading some of them on my son and his roommates. I gave them a large bag of snow peas a couple of weeks ago and was dismayed, and somewhat surprised, to hear that they hadn't eaten them yet because "we don't know how to cook them."

This is one of the things that you forget when you've been cooking for more than 40 years. There was, in fact, a time when I would not have known how to do something as basic as cook fresh vegetables. So here's a small tour and tutorial on cooking and eating fresh, and of course, a recipe.

First let me say that I'm not against preserved vegetables. Blanching and flash freezing vegetables is one of the best ways to preserve their nutrition and flavor, and even canned vegetables have their place (one of my guilty pleasures is canned creamed corn). Plus, that's where a lot of the garden bounty goes-- into preservation. But fresh vegetables, even the lip-service fresh vegetables in the grocery store, have better texture, and are more versatile, than any preserved ones.

Really fresh vegetables-- farmers' market or better yet backyard garden are something else again. First of all, if you rinse them, put them damp into a zip lock bag with the air squeezed out and stick them right in the fridge, they will keep longer than you think possible. I've had hand picked lettuce come out of a bag still crisp and fresh after a month. You won't get that from the grocery store. So I'm not too worried that J and his friends haven't eaten the peas yet; they're probably fine.

So what do you do with them? Well, coupla options.

Trim them; while you're doing this bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop the trimmed veggies in, bring it back to a rolling boil, and cook for 3-4 minutes. Green vegetables will turn bright green when they're done. You can then eat them or drain, pat dry and put them immediately into a very cold freezer (0F, -18C). They will keep for months. Do this with greens like spinach, mustard, collard; green, lima, and french beans; peas and snow peas, broccoli, brussels sprouts.

Again, trim, then put about a tablespoon of oil per every two servings of veggies in a wok or frying pan. When the oil is very hot, throw the veggies on and toss until, again, they turn bright green. Eat 'em. Yum. Try different types of oil-- olive, various nut, sesame. Throw in some toasted nuts (walnut, almonds, or pine nuts). This works with all the vegetables listed above as well as summer squash like zucchini.

You can also throw them in stew or casserole. You can make a cream soup with them (I'll blog my favorite cream soup recipe as soon as I have some cucumbers, a couple of weeks.)

In other words, nothing to it.

Here's what I did with my fresh vegetables today:

Three-bean salad
1/2 pound of trimmed, cut green beans
1 can garbanzo beans (I keep trying to grow them, with no luck)
1 can red or black beans (ditto)
1/2 red or Vidalia onion, medium, sliced very very thinly
Vinaigrette to taste (make it yourself, see below)

3-4 medium radishes, cut into strips
any kind of pepper-- green, red, yellow, banana, again sliced very thinly
large handful fresh mint leaves (or any soft-leaf herb like parsley, basil, tarragon, etc.) chopped very fine

Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch the green beans. Throw everything in a bowl and mix. Tastes better the second day.

Wine or balsamic vinegar
Olive, nut or sesame oil
Any fresh or dried herbs that strike your fancy, large pinch
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix liquids on a 1-1-3 ratio Vinegar to Water to Oil, add herbs and spices, whisk briskly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


A regret of my tiny urban "farm" is the limited amount of fruit I'm able to grow. I have raspberries, a gift from my friend Holly I believe the very first summer we were in the house (I had forgotten this, until she reminded me). They might be the first food I ever grew, and they are still going strong after nearly 25 years. One of my favorite aspects of cooking from the garden is the whole Little House on the Praire aspect-- puttin' up preserves, cannin' pumpkin and squash. I've even investigated the possibility of putting a root cellar in our basement.

I love making syrups and preserves, so every summer we end up with quarts and quarts of raspberry jam. This year I finally put in 3 blackberry canes and a gooseberry bush, but will probably not get fruit from them for a couple of years. Next year-- blueberries.

In the meantime, I've harvested almost 5 quarts of raspberries so far this year, a bounty due to my clever (if I do say so myself) use of spiral tomato stakes to as supports for the canes. Because of this, they're getting a lot of sun.

We also have an apple tree which has never produced more than one apple and usually loses all the new fruits a few days after appearing. This year they're hanging on; haven't given up hope yet that we'll get some actual apples. I may try my hand at vinegar if we do. In the meantime, the tree loses a large handful of apples every day. I've just been piling them in the dirt prior to dumping them in the compost, and then today got this bright idea: apple edging.

In the meantime, I'm on my third raspberry preserving task. Once I have another pint or two of the berries, I'll make syrup. Last week I made raspberry apricot jam (with sugar) and the week before the delicious and unusual preserves (no sugar) below.

Raspberry-Mango-Basil preserves
3 large ripe mangos
1 1/2 quarts fresh raspberries
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped fine

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. The raspberries should turn quite liquid. Continue boil at 220F/104C for ten minutes, stirring constantly (this will release the pectin and reduce the liquid). Remove from the burner and place a burner ring over the flame, turn the flame low and replace the pot. Continue simmering until fruit is reduced by two thirds (top picture); you should end up with one or two pints of preserves.

Don't use sugar in this recipe as it overwhelms the basil.

The flavor of this compote is indescribably complex-- tart raspberry followed by the sweet mango and a sweet basil after taste.

I used the mango pits and skins, which still had a lot of fruit on them, to make mango syrup-- boiled the discards in 3 cups of water and 1 1/2 cups sugar (bottom picture), then scraped the fruit off into the liquid and ran it through a hand mill.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Ides of July

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day is hosted by May Dreams Garden. To participate, just post on your blog a list of what you have blooming on the 15th of the month and add a comment to her post for the month so followers can find you. If you don't have a public Blogger profile, don't forget to include a link to your post in the comment.

Mid-July, of course, is a problem-- EVERYTHING is blooming! Here's a couple of choice items, and since this is a food blog, look at the prior post to see what I harvested today (okay, yesterday, but it's raining, so I won't pick anything else until tomorrow). I've also started a flickr set for Bloom Day; I'll post my blooms and harvests the Ides of each month.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Way ahead of schedule, I'm going to have to start preserving vegetables, with snow peas and green beans needing to be blanched and frozen. In the meantime, I'm searching for creative ways to use the same vegetables over and over. Eating from your garden means you eat what's ripe, when it's ripe and if that's snow peas and raspberries six days in a row, so be it. This week I picked everything in this picture-- a pound of snowpeas, two small broccoli heads, about a half-pound of green beans, a sizable bowl of mixed greens, 5 enormous radishes, a quart of nasturtium blossoms, and 2 quarts of raspberries.

Of course, the produce at the market is also spectacular, so I broke my "no store-bought produce" rule today and got apricots, cherries and avocados (all things which I don't grow). The apricots will go in an apricot-raspberry preserve, and also in the salad below, and the avocados will turn into guacamole and sandwich fixings.

My son got a pint of raspberry-mango preserves, and will also get some of the pound of snowpeas I've picked this week. With the rest of the bounty, a lovely summer salad with a nasturtium vinaigrette.

Summer Salad
Garden greens, blanched (chard, mustard)
Lettuce (Simpson and Merlot leaf lettuces)
Wild greens (lamb's quarters, sorrel, purslane and unidentified mache-looking thing)
Snow peas, sauteed
Uncle Lajos' walnuts
If you simply must have animal protein, throw in some bacon or strips of ham, and/or a hard-boiled egg.

Nasturtium Vinaigrette
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/4 cup shallots, finely minced
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried dill weed
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
3/4 cup chopped nasturtium flowers
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons olive oil

Whisk together balsamic vinegar, shallots, 1/2 cup olive oil and dill weed until combined. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in nasturtium flowers and chives. Drizzle on salad.

Thanks to Springfield Illinois' State Journal-Register for the recipe.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Everything but the cheese was home grown

Practiced a little "kitchen archeology" a couple of days ago and unearthed a jar of homegrown walnuts from my "uncle of the heart" Lajos, who lives on a small farm in Hungary and brings produce a couple of times a year.

So I went out into the garden and deadheaded my five sweet basil plants (if it bolts, i.e. develops flowers, the flavor changes, so you have to pinch off the flowers at this time of year). Pulled up 5 enormous cherry belle radishes and made a pesto, using walnut oil instead of olive oil. Sauteed some new snow peas from the oregon sugar pods that just started to fruit, a couple of large mustard greens and the radish greens. Added all to a lovely fettucini from World Market (they have really good fettucini), crumbled some more walnuts on top.

As my previous post averred, this is one of the joys of backyard gardening, joined to a fearless approach to cooking. I had never heard of a pesto made with radishes, but I know that pesto is just a "paste" (literal translation) made of vegetables, oil, hard cheese, and nuts. So why NOT a radish pesto?

Radish Basil Pesto Sauce

* 5 medium radishes, diced
* 1/4 cup walnuts
* 2-3 cloves garlic
* 1 cup fresh basil
* 1/4 cup olive or nut oil
* 1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan

Toast the walnuts and garlic (200F/90C for 5 to 8 minutes).

Place the radishes, walnuts, garlic and basil in the food processor and pulse about 7 to 10 times, until the ingredients are grated, not pureed. Add enough oil to moisten the ingredients and pulse again until blended. My food processor is one of those 3-cup ones, so at this point I moved the pesto into a bowl, but you can mix the cheese right in the food processor if there's room. Add the freshly grated Parmesan and mix it by hand. Taste and season the pesto with kosher salt, as necessary. Don't use pepper with this recipe, as it will mask the peppery flavor of the radishes.

Makes about 2 cups.

Spoon onto fresh, hot pasta to taste. Important that the pasta is hot, because it will soften the pesto. If the pasta is too cool, the pesto will just be in nasty lumps. For additional culinary and aesthetic interest, add sauteed greens and or green beans, diced roasted or sauteed squash, or a diced fresh tomato (or all of them!).

The pesto also makes a terrific condiment for sandwiches.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ten minutes to yum

One of my favorite things about gardening is walking through when I get home from work, to see what I can harvest, and then figure out what to cook from that. Today I had 2 dozen snow peas, some regular peas I had saved in the fridge, a couple big mustard greens (sliced into strips) and an onion. Sauteed them with a chicken chipotle sausage, then tossed it in the skillet with orzo pasta and boiled the whole thing in a broth I made from carrot greens (1 cup of orzo and 3 cups of broth. Boil until there's just a little liquid left). Add a little cream, seasoned it with dried orange zest and coriander.

Friday, July 3, 2009


My mother was Greek, so I grew up eating and cooking Greek. My father’s food heritage—Irish and Swedish—got short shrift. The only thing we ever ate that might have come from his childhood was Zweibach, a nasty, tasteless bread with the texture of stale cardboard. It might have been Swedish, I can’t imagine why we ate it otherwise.

Shepherd’s Pie is sauteed chopped meat layered with green beans and topped with mashed potatoes. It was a staple of my mother’s menu and a childhood favorite. My kids love it too; it’s one of the dishes they request when they come briefly home.

The funny thing is, I never knew it was a Greek dish. I happened upon the recipe one day when leafing through my Greek cookbook. Discovering this gave me a wonderful feeling of continuity. This is how culture descends through the ages. I never saw my mother use a recipe for this dish, and when I started making it, I simply copied what I saw her doing, with an innovation or two of my own. But the basic dish has probably descended in my family from mother to daughter for generations.

Food can be a beautiful thing.

Shepherd’s Pie

3-5 medium russet potatoes
1/2-2/3 cup milk, half-and-half or cream
1 egg

1 pound of ground chuck for each two people eating
medium onion, diced
1-2 T flour
seasoning: thyme, parsley, oregano or mint (dried works best)
salt and pepper

Preheat over to 350

Peel, cut and boil the potatoes for mashing. When the potatoes come to a boil, start the meat layer. Saute the diced onions in water until all the liquid is gone, add the meat. When the meat is about halfway done, add the dried herb (only one of the ones suggested, but they all work with this dish), and salt-pepper to taste. Finish frying the meat until it is cooked through and dredge with flour. Spoon about 1/2 to 1 cup of the boiling water from the potatoes onto the meat and heat it, stirring constantly, until it forms a thick gravy (this will happen fairly quickly. Don’t walk away). Put the meat into a prepared casserole (buttered or cooking sprayed).

Drain the potatoes and leave them in the pot (no sense dirtying another pot). Add the milk and egg and mash (quickly before the egg can cook). The egg gives the potatoes a nice color and body. Add salt to taste and mash to your preferred consistency (if you like a very smooth mashed potato use a beater, otherwise a masher and fork are fine). The potatoes should be wetter than you might want for a side dish, since they’ll bake for 25 minutes and you don’t want them to get dry.

Layer the potatoes over the meat and bake uncover for 25 minutes.

Traditional shepherd’s pie as a layer of blanched green beans over the meat; however my kids never liked it that way, so I serve the vegetable as a side dish.