Sunday, February 28, 2010

Start as you mean to go on

Mac and cheese. Fish sticks. Spaghetti. Chili. Tacos. Mashed potatoes.

Most comfort foods, the ones your mom cooked, are easy to make from ingredients in your larder. They don't take any longer than it takes to open a box, and they afford you just as much time with your family as any "convenience" food you might buy.

I always get annoyed at the prepackaged food ads that use as a selling point that you'll get to spend more time with your family. I don't know about most families, but my family tended to hang out in the kitchen and on the back porch while I was cooking, or running back and forth from the living room where they were watching tv, or at the dining room table doing homework. What exactly is it that these mythical tv moms are doing with their families instead of cooking? Is it not quality time if the pursuit is other than frivolous? What is it, exactly, that they are saving all this time for? I can't honestly think of a better way to spend time with my family than in a warm, fragrant kitchen, cooking something that my grandmother learned from her grandmother and passed on down to me to teach to my granddaughter. That's called immortality.

Would you rather your daughter think of comfort food as something in a box, or as something with a memory attached? Do you want to teach your granddaughter how to open a box or how to cook?

Would you rather save time, or be immortal?

I thought so.

Fish sticks
Any dense non-oily fish like salmon or tilapia
1/2 cup to 1 cup of bread crumbs
1-2 teaspoons seasoning
1-2 eggs

Use the higher amount for more fish, obviously. The low end works with a little less than a pound of fish.

I tested two seasonings:
• 1 teaspoon orange zest (never throw away an orange rind without zesting it, then drying the zest in the microwave), ground green peppercorns, seasalt, 1/2 teaspoon rosemary
• 1 teaspoon garlic flakes, 1 1/2 teaspoons ground sage, black pepper, seasalt

Both delicious

Lightly whip the egg in a shallow bowl. Combine the bread crumbs and seasoning in a second shallow bowl. Cut the fish into 1 x 5 inch strips, pat dry, coat in egg, then roll in the breadcrumbs. I tried this with salmon, whitefish, and tilapia. The salmon could be easily manipulated fresh and never frozen. Slice off the skin and then bread it. The tilapia worked best frozen and then lightly defrosted; otherwise it fell apart when rolling. Cooked up beautifully and just as fast. White fish is much too loose, even frozen, and you couldn't get the skin off.

Pan fry, turning once, in shallow oil (a lighter oil like canola or corn); 3-5 minutes max. Drain on newspaper.

Serve with rice or mashed potatoes and homemade cole slaw, with a remoulade or tartar sauce. I think this would be charming at a dinner party, made with tuna or shark.

You will not believe either how easy these are, nor how much more delicious than the frozen kind. This is food that kids will eat. You have to wash an additional 2 dishes and 1 pan, but you have just taught your children how good food can be both to make and to eat.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Line, Shape, Color, Texture, Tone

After spending the last two weeks fused to my couch to watch figure skating at the Olympics, I've been hearing a lot about the tension between artistry and technique.

Cooking and gardening are like that, too. Technique is important to get the result you want, and each pursuit has an inherent aesthetic that is met even if you don't think about it. Green things are pretty; food tastes good.

But technique alone cannot bring joy, that ineffable element that stills your heart and calms your brain.

Especially in winter, as color becomes more monochromatic, tone and contrast become the main color statements in a garden— black dirt or red branches against white snow, the warmer areas that melt sooner creating lines through the garden, a shoveled path.

In winter you see more clearly the lines of a tree, and the texture of seedpods left for the winter. The dense branches of a shrub, especially if its red or orange or purple berries still hang on, add a contrasting round shape within the lines of the canes or branches, and the overall shape of the bush stands in contrast to the clean lines of architechtural elements like walkways, trellises and patios.

Line can also draw the eye up, an important direction in a small urban garden where you want to find as much space as you can.

In winter you lose scent in the garden, a design element less available to visual artists, but add a dimension of sound. When a snow cover dampens the noise, the rustle of leaves and the trickle of a pond become focal points.

Food aesthetic starts with scent and adds another element not available to visual artists: taste. But it needs to look good too. I made a delicious soup with greens, but you don't want to eat it, because it looks so nasty. The dimension of food to plate, the contrast of texture and shape, all combine to make a meal taste better because it looks good.

I'm not talking about the precarious designs that high end restaurants feel required to make to justify outrageous prices, or the precious dribbles of a teaspoon of sauce (when what you really want is a cupful). Spare me from foodies who view meals as architecture. Food can be art even when it looks like food.

So I'll take a moment now, and combine the line of a spinach fettucini, with the creamy texture of an alfredo, and add a gentle golden color with a little winter squash.

Alfredo sauce with squash, with fettucini and toasted walnuts
• 1 cup pureed acorn squash
• 1 pint heavy cream (half and half will also work, don't tell the foodies)
• 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
• parsley, 1 teaspoon dried, or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped very fine
• one cup crushed walnuts
• fettucini

Cut and seed the squash and roast until soft (about 1 hour in a 350F oven, face down on a greased baking sheet). Puree the pulp until smooth. (Set aside the leftover puree for acorn squash baba ganoush from Jeff Smiths wonderful Our Immigrant Ancestors)

Hang on, don't turn the oven off. Spread a cup of walnuts, lightly crushed (not too fine) on a dry cookie sheet. Now turn the oven off, and put the walnuts in. They'll toast in the cooling oven while you're making the sauce.

Heat heavy cream over low to medium heat in a 2 quart sauce pan. Add butter and whisk gently to melt. Whisk in squash until fully incorporated. Sprinkle in cheese and stir to incorporate. (Reserve some cheese for topping.) Add pepper and parsley. Thin with a little milk, if necessary.

Cook the fettucini per package instructions; drain and mix in the walnuts. Mix in the sauce, and serve, with a little grated cheese.

This made a little over a quart, way more than we needed for two people, so some went into the fridge for a quick meal on some future tired night.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The recipe box

My mother died when I was just 22 years old. I sold, donated, and gave away most of her things, so that the items that were left took on mythic importance. A cookie jar shaped like a strawberry and a salad bowl shaped like a lettuce leaf. There was a taped diary, jewelry and some items of clothing. Her dishes. Her silver. Her paintings.

And there was a recipe box. Just a small wooden box, the one in the picture in fact, filled with index cards on which she had written the recipes of my childhood. There was an apricot-pineapple pie with a basket crust, and spice cake with caramel frosting that she always made for my birthday, when she wasn't making the pineapple upside down cake from another card. She used to make cheese crackers the color of ripe cheddar, shaped like flat sticks, crumbly and delicious.

For years, I couldn't bear to even open that box. And then one day I decided it was time to lay the ghost and make something of hers. So I opened it up.

And it was empty.

The pain of that moment was like reliving her death. I have no idea what happened to the recipes. They might have gotten lost in the chaos of that final move, or she may have dumped them all for some forgotten reason. Maybe, after carrying it around for a decade, this was not even the same box. I've managed to recreate some of her foods, but they never quite taste like my childhood memory, and they are taken from recipes that are written in an unfamiliar hand, or some anonymous typeface. I keep looking for facsimiles of these treats.

These romano crackers are tasty, but they aren't the thin, flaky crust-like delicacies that I remember.

Romano crackers
• 1 1/4 cups grated Romano cheese
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
• 2 T half and half
• 1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the cheese, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Add the butter. Using a hand mixer, beat the cheese mixture and butter until combined. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time, mixing only until incorporated and the mixture holds together. If needed, add the half-and-half to make the dough pliable.

Place tablespoon-sized balls of the dough on 1 or 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets, tapping the dough down gently with your fingertips. Bake until just beginning to brown at the edges, about 15 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes. Transfer to a serving plate.

from a recipe

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Butternut and garden centers

I'm a fan of the big box stores.

For tools, soil, pots, additives and all sorts of garden hardware and accessories they always have the most reliable stock, and the best prices. For plants and nursery starts, I prefer the smaller, family-run greenhouses, although for unfamiliar plants, I'll head to whichever nursery I think will have the best staff.

As you get into gardening, you start to learn where to go for what. There's a Home Depot very close to my house; I always go there first because of that proximity, and I always regret it. It's poorly run, staff is not only not knowledgeable, if they don't know something they will lie to you or try to convince you that you are wrong (for instance telling me that there is no difference between potting soil and seed starting mix). Further, when I walked in there about two weeks ago to start gearing up for seed starting and spring prep, the place was in chaos. Soil out of stock, seeds unshelved, carts and crates blocking the aisles, no dedicated staff. When I mentioned that gardeners start in February, I was told "not experienced gardeners." Hmmm.

So I travel the additional 3 miles to Lowe's, where I find the shelves stocked, staffed and stupendous. I bought several seed packets (I always go for the big brands on hard-to-grow plants, especially if I'm new to either the plant or to starting that plant from seed. I like the utter reliability of Burpees or Ferry Morse.) I don't know if it's Lowe's and Home Depot in general, or those ones in particular, but that Lowe's gets it for gardeners, while the Home Depot doesn't.

I have a favorite nursery, too, where I go for starts on solanums, onions, and herbs. They have utterly reliable plants, a huge variety and selection, and a nice country ambience. What they don't have is staff. Not just knowledgeable staff. Any staff. There are the gardeners, who won't talk to you (and possibly don't speak the same language I do), and there's the guy at the register, who redefines the concept of "taciturn." To shop at this nursery, you have to know what you're doing. So this is a nursery for the experienced gardener.

Then there's Gethsemane Gardens (really), which I've been going to since they were a little Christmas tree seller 25 years ago on an empty lot near our old apartment. They grew with their customers; even a few years ago you could still give them a check with no ID. Now they're one of the premier garden centers on the North Side of Chicago, with a national reputation. They've specialized in pocket gardens and containers (at which they excel), but they've lost their appeal to me as a community. However, I still go to Gethsemane when I have a garden question. I know there will be a specialist in whatever plant I'm thinking about.

So what makes a good garden center? Knowing which one to go to for your needs. The one that makes you feel comfortable, that offers you knowledge that you may not have, and accepts your needs and knowledge as valid. The one with the best price, or the one with the prettiest plant. The best garden center is lots of garden centers.

Now, what does this all have to do with butternut squash? Nothing. It's just what I'm making tonight.

Roasted butternut apple cider soup with toasted almonds

One medium to large butternut squash, roasted
1 medium or 1/2 large onion, sliced and carmelized
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup apple cider
1 cup almond slices, lightly toasted

To roast the squash, cut into quarters and scoop out the seeds. (Conserve the seeds in a 2 qt sauce pan, along with the onion skins.) Place meat-side down on a lightly greased cookie sheet, and bake at 350F/160C for an hour, or until you can easily insert a knife. When it's cool, scoop out the meat and transfer to a 1 gallon soup pot. Set aside. Add the skins to the seeds with some green peppercorns, salt, and water, and boil it for the stock, about 20 minutes.

While the stock is cooking, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan, about 5 minutes at high heat; keep the almonds moving so they don't burn. Then carmelize the onions in the same pan, in about 2 pats of butter.

Add the stock and the apple cider to the meat and blend smooth with an immersible blender. Add the onions and the almonds. Serve with a splash of cream or half-and-half.

Best thing about this soup is the smell-butter, almond, pepper corn. Yum. Can't get that at a big box store.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The dilemma of the grocery gardener

We eat really well at my house in the summertime.

Starting in mid-June, with the first harvest of snowpeas, early greens, and radishes, it's fresh food bonanza well into October. I've been known to go weeks without stepping into a grocery store and our food bill drops to less than $2 a day (even taking into account the direct cost of the garden). In a good garden year I can stretch that into November and even December with lardering--preserving, drying, freezing, and modified root cellaring.

But by mid February the bounty is really gone. I don't have the space, harvest, time, or technology to get much past Christmas from the garden. And I hate, I absolutely hate buying produce from the market. It just feels so wrong. I want my food miles and carbon cost as low as possible, but of course since I live in northern Illinois, this is impossible. It doesn't help that I'm not much of a meat eater. I stand in the produce section and I have to force myself to pick up that eggplant. Ugh, I'll think, it probably came all the way from Chile or something, but I really really want lasagna.

Today I bought my garden at the market. Eggplant, broccoli, two kinds of squash. Snow peas, baby peas, corn (the last two frozen). Peppers, tomato sauce. (I almost tried quinoa, but was put off by the admonishments to prep it right "to get rid of the unpleasant bitter taste." Yum.) Just 11 weeks until I might be able to pick something from the garden.

Vegetarian lasagna with roasted peppers
One box lasagna noodles
Romano or parmesan cheese, large wedge, grated
Mozzarella cheese, 1/2 to 1 pound, sliced or crumbled
1 each, large green and red peppers
1 medium eggplant
1 large summer squash (yellow or zucchini, or 1 of each, smaller), sliced thin
1 medium onion sliced very thin
1 pint mushrooms

2 quarts tomato sauce (from a jar, or make your own from canned tomatoes, or really make it from scratch. I used the stuff in a jar today. I'm only human.)

Prepare the lasagna noodles per package instructions. Yes, I know you can get that kind that cooks in the sauce in the oven, but, um, no.

To roast the peppers, quarter them and cut out the seeds and the white part of the spine. Place them face down on a lightly greased cookie sheet (cooking spray will do). Place them on a high rack (not the very top) in a very hot oven (400-450F) and roast for 20 minutes. Let them cool until you can handle them, then peel the blackened skins off. The flavor of roasted peppers is indescribable. Cut into strips.

To prepare the eggplant, cut it into 1/2" (1 cm) or thinner slices. Salt it and let it drain on a paper towel or newspaper for a few minutes, then heavily dredge it in olive oil. When the olive oil is completely absorbed, dredge it again, and then sautee it. Keep adding olive oil until it stops absorbing. Add the mushrooms and saute until they start to change color. Add the onions and saute until the onions are soft.

Start layering with a layer of noodles, then sauce and cheese, then noodles, then sauce cheese and veggies, until you finish with a top layer of noodles. Cover completely with sauce (make sure no noodle is sticking out, or it will dry out), and then sprinkle the remaining cheese over it.

Bake for about 30 minutes in a 350F oven, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

If you really must, you can substitute chopped meat for the eggplant. Make one quart of the sauce a meat sauce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cold drink, cold day. Why not?

Each weekend now I put in a couple more cells of seedlings, working from the chill-tolerant early planters and the long season jump starters like leeks and herbs, towards my late-March/early April planting of the solanums. The table top is filling, and I had to raise the grow lights over the leeks, they've gotten so tall.

Outside, things are perking up as well. The snow by the back steps melted, revealing, as I had hoped, the first brave crocus sprouts. I expect there are more still hiding under their white blanket. We won't have a warm enough spell for several more days to put enough of a dent in the 12" snow cover to see them, but I know they're there, because they always are.

I have to stop myself planning summer meals. After all, I'm still at least 11 weeks from the first harvest, probably snow peas and radishes, in early May. I dream of a succession house, or a cold frame, for early fresh food during our long and agonizing lakefront spring.

This is the central schizophrenia of the gardener. You know that your plants are going to break through the thawing soil, as they have for a billion years. But in the depths of winter, with the snow burying everything familiar, you never quite believe it. You need that first brave sprout to reach through to the growing sunshine and chirp, Ah! Here we go again!

Sunshine shakes
2 scoops Vanilla ice cream
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 cup milk

Throw it in a blender and zap it. A little taste of summer. Drink it while sitting on the radiator, because it's still awfully cold outside. Don't forget to zest the oranges before discarding the rind! Zap the zest in the microwave in 20 second bursts on 60% power until it's dry (it'll burn if you zap it in longer bursts). Save for baking and breading.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Revealing my heathen upbringing

Apparently, today is Pancake Day. (Thank goodness for Twitter, or I would never know important stuff like this). Really, of course, it's Shrove Tuesday, last day before Lent, so last chance to eat sweets before the long fast. (A quick internet search revealed that I am the only English-speaking person in the world who apparently does not know this.)

It's a great excuse for a blog post, but presented me with an ethical dilemma. I try only to post things on this blog that, first I actually make, and second, anyone could actually make. As I like to say, I'm not a cook, I just play one on the internet.

Unfortunately, the only pancakes I ever make are the kind on the side of the Bisquik box. Inasmuch as it was a minor miracle when I actually had breakfast food in the house (unfortunately that includes boxed cereal), let alone cooked breakfast for my poor deprived children, let alone got creative at 7 a.m...

Anyway, I think you could count on one hand the number of times I cooked breakfast for my family. I'm sure that scratch pancakes are probably easy and delicious, but this was just not something I ever did. So I'm sitting here thinking, damn, gonna have to skip Pancake Day. And what kind of cooking blogger would that make me.

So I set the problem aside, and opened my Facebook. At the top of the feed was a link that a Swiss friend sent me, which set off the memories.

I went to art school in Austria (that's where the name of this blog comes from). For a year, I shared a very rudimentary kitchen with 60 people. Four electric burners, a toaster oven and a fridge. I can make anything on a burner because of that, and one of the recipes that I brought home with me was the wonderful light Alpine pancakes that are a staple of the Austrian diet.

Easy, versatile and delicious, they are a perfect quick meal. I haven't made them in years, and had a couple of false starts remembering the recipe. I also hope I've spelled it right!


1 cup flour
2 T sugar (for dessert or breakfast. For lunch or dinner leave the sugar out)
pinch salt
1 cup milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Sift the flour, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Gradually add the milk until it forms a smooth batter. Add the beaten eggs, and mix until the batter is smooth. Don't use an electric mixer as overmixing can make the crepes rubbery.

Heat a 9 inch skillet (if you use an iron one you get a nice little boost of iron as well) and pour in just enough melted butter to cover the pan. Pour in enough batter to cover the pan very thinly, but completely. Cook the crepe over medium heat until the underside is lightly browned; turn and brown it lightly on the other side.

Serve with jam, nutella, or fruit and schlag (well, whipped cream) for a sweet crepe, or with sauteed mushrooms or [use your imagination!] for a lunch or dinner crepe. Or just roll it up plain and eat it on the go. Austrian fast food!

Unfortunately, no pix until later-- I have to go to work! (Who put pancake day on a work day for heaven's sake) but I'll make these for dinner and post the pix.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bloom Day, February

Sedum (journaled here)

Amaryllis "Splash"

I’ve both taken and unearthed photographs of our yard and garden from today back through my children’s infancy, when there was no garden— only grass. It has been an interesting journey back through time. I find a photo of the garden with the first patio, or the tree that fell. A wall of phlox that is now part of a mix. I had forgotten that the Knot Garden was originally a long rectangle.

We take pictures to preserve a moment. To document an event. To record something important or amusing. To remember. To admire. To create beauty or art. You take them for yourself, or for the ones who come after so that they remember, admire and see the art or the moment that the photographer valued.

Poinsettia (journaled here)

Are we real without our memories? If the stories aren’t preserved, did they happen? What does a memory feel like? Is it a photograph or a dream? Is it a movie that I inhabit, or one that I watch? When I say I do not remember, perhaps I only mean, I do not know, or even I am not there.

Will I be able to tell when I shot these photos? Will it matter?

Find all the Bloom Day posts at May Dreams Garden. More of my Bloom Day photos here.

My true love

I met a lot of people my freshman year of college. Some of them I met, forgot, then met again. You have those conversations where you discover that you were in the same room at the same time with someone you later got to know well, yet you have no memory of them there at all.

Everyone who knows me has heard this story a million times, of how I "met" my husband (of either 32 or 27 years, depending on where you start counting), but it's worth repeating here, on our 35th Valentine's Day together.

Thinking that I would be a costume designer, I took theater classes my freshman year. Quickly discovering that I absolutely hated being around actors (so why am I working for a theater now? It's a question I ask myself daily), I switched to the art department the following year. I don't remember anyone from my theater year, except that skinny Chinese fellow with the aviator glasses. Sophomore year, having put theater behind me, I was sitting in the choral rehearsal room, and in that guy walks. Christ, I thought, the theater people are following me.

I never did shake him loose (tried once or twice, but he's a stubborn fellow and I'm no match). So this is for you, my own true love, with a little help from my recent trip down memory lane.

Chocolate-Basil Red Velvet Cake

2 1/2 cups (250 grams) sifted cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons (15 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves (plus addition leaves for garnish)
3/4 cup sour cream plus 1/2 cup milk whipped to a thick liquid,
• or 1 1/4 cup buttermilk (if you can find it)
2 tablespoons liquid red food coloring
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Butter two - 9 inch (23 cm) round cake pans and line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder. Place the sugar and basil in a food processor. Process until basil is chopped fine and uniformly green in color (it will look slightly wet).Set aside.

In bowl of your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter until soft (about 1-2 minutes). Add the sugar/basil mixture and beat until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the vanilla extract and beat until combined.

In a measuring cup whisk the buttermilk with the red food coloring. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and sour cream/milk to the butter mixture, in three additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Because of the basil, cakes will be more of an antique red than the deep bright red of a traditional red velvet cake.

In a small cup combine the vinegar and baking soda. Allow the mixture to fizz and then quickly fold into the cake batter.

Working quickly, divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and smooth the tops with an offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 25 - 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto wire racks. Cool to room temp, then glaze with

Light Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting

1 and 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
6 tablespoon reduced fat sour cream
1 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium bowl whisk the powdered sugar and cocoa powder; set aside. In a separate medium bowl beat the sour cream and melted chocolate with an electric mixer on low speed until blended. Gradually add sugar mixture to sour cream mixture, beating at low speed until well-blended. Add vanilla and beat well for 1 minute until very smooth and creamy.

Icing from Enlightened Cooking blog
. I swear I came up with the basil before I started looking for frosting recipes, proving the internet truism that if you can think of it, there's already a website. Cake recipe adapted from Joy of Baking.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Getting mom to make the normal stuff

When I was growing up, the mother of my best friend had a reputation for being a marvelous cook. There was even a rumor that she had a college degree in cooking. This was back in the 60s when women with college degrees were not all that thick on the ground. I assume the degree was home economics or nutrition or something like that, but to our 7 and 8 year old minds, this translated directly as "food." And we were ready to believe it because of the exotic things she made-- easter cake shaped like a lamb and covered with coconut; red velvet cake shaped like a heart.

Of course two houses over my mother was making home made pastitio and baklava, but this was boring, and my friends thought it was weird. I wanted to have Sunday dinner with the Roberts. Pot Roast! Grilled streaks! Even a toffee pull, once. I remember once telling my mother that Mrs. Roberts was a better cook, because she had been to college. I cringe now. So sorry mom, I was just a stupid kid.

But Mrs. Roberts was not immune to the cruelty of children. There was a MacDonald's-like hamburger stand we all went to, called Scottie's (believe it or not, this was pretty much pre-MacDonald's. That's how old I am. Sigh.) Scottie's had greasy, squished, delicious hamburgers, and I remember overhearing Mrs. Roberts telling my mother how her kids had demanded hamburgers like Scottie's. Not the homemade meatloaf in a bun extravaganzas that she was famous for, but flat, plain, skinny, greasy hamburgers.

So she made them. Now that was a hamburger.

Chicken nuggets and homemade potato chips
Boned, skinned chicken, cut into strips
1 egg, lightly beaten

About 3 cups of canola or other light oil

Cornmeal, flour, bread crumbs, in 1:1:3 ratio
Salt, pepper, parsley to taste
Dried rosemary or other herbs

Fill a 2 quart saucepan with corn or canola oil, to about 1 1/2 inches from the top, heat to 400F/200C.

Coat the chicken strips with egg, then roll them in the bread crumb mixture until the entire surface is completely coated. Drop the pieces into the hot oil about 5 at a time, boil for 3-5 minutes depending on how thick they are, until golden, or just starting to turn a bread-crust color.

Do not leave the pot for a single second. As you cook these, moisture will escape from the coating into the oil, which can cause the oil to foam. Very dangerous. If the oil foams, remove it IMMEDIATELY from the heat and start again with new oil.

To drain use a Chinese skimmer or similar utensil, let as much oil drip off as possible, then lay on a newspaper to drain.

For the chips, slice a couple russets paper thin, coat both sides with a fairly heavy coating of salt (to draw off moisture). Lay them in a single layer on a several sheets of paper towels, put another paper towel layer (again, several sheets thick) over them, and weight with something flat and heavy like a cutting board. This is to draw off as much moisture as possible, again so that the oil doesn't foam.

When you're done with the chicken, use the same oil to deep fry the potatoes. You'll know they're done, because they'll look just like potato chips. Again, don't turn away for a second. To drain them, use the skimmer to remove them from the pot, then put them in a brown paper bag and shake the rest of the oil off.

The velveteen gardener

What makes a gardener "real?"

It's a complex activity, and easy to out-source at many steps, from design, to installation, to seed starting, to care, to harvest. Garden walks and competitions often disqualify anyone who has had a professional plan and/or install a garden, except for hardscaping.

Many food growers, myself included until recently, "outsource" their seed starting, buying nursery starts at various stages of growth (the bigger, the more expensive, but also the more reliable). There are plants, like peppers, onions, leeks, and tomatoes, that you simply can't start in the ground in a place like Chicago with its late frost date and unreliable late spring freeze danger (well into May). We don't have a long enough growing season, and small backyards like mine lose the sun to close-in buildings late in the season, shortening it further. Always in the past, I only started the easy plants direct from seed-- peas and beans and turnips, that will grow anywhere.

So am I not a "real" gardener because I let someone else start my seeds? When I started journaling my garden on line at MyFolia I initially developed quite an inferiority complex because everyone else seemed to be a "real" gardener (my definition, not theirs!), despite the fact that I'd been gardening since most of them were in diapers.

In the last couple of years my day job has gotten smaller and my garden bigger, to where I now have enough time to go the extra mile and seed start indoors, while also too little money to buy nursery starts. I'm a "real" gardener this year and last out of time and necessity. At Folia, the consensus was that a "real" gardener gets his or her hands dirty.

But I think like our old friend the Velveteen Rabbit, a gardener becomes real, not through her methods or involvement, but through the love she feels for her plants, and the feedback of friends; through the flowers in her vase, and the food she shares:

Mushroom Barley Soup
2 cups cubed red potatoes
1/2 cup uncooked barley
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup apple cider
1/3 cup dry sherry
1 large onion, sliced very thin
2-3 pints mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2-3 gloves crushed, minced garlic
1 tsp basil, dry or 3 tsp fresh, chopped fine
2 T parsley dry, or 3 T fresh, chopped fine
dash cayenne, dash black pepper
10-12 large swiss chard leaves, chopped roughly (optional)
salt to taste

Combine potatoes, barley, and stock in a large pot (I used a 1 gallon pot, seemed about right), bring to a low boil, then simmer about 30 minutes, until barley is cooked.

Carmelize onions in about 2 T olive oil. (Carmelizing onions looks and sounds complex, but it's basically just cooking the dickens out of them, more tedious than difficult.) Mix about 1 teaspoon olive oil with the mushrooms, add to onions with lemon juice, saute until mushrooms release liquid. Add garlic and herbs, saute a few minutes. Add sherry and cider, bring to a low simmer, then add to the barley/potato pot. Add the chard and simmer covered 20 minutes.

(Then there's the question of whether I'm a "real" cook. Or do I just play one on the internet?)

Birthday Brunch and hubris

I've been having birthday dinners with two close friends three times a year for probably 25 years. H has a lovely early summer birthday, so we've been to lots of outdoor cafes like the wonderful Lula Cafe in Logan Square, and the prosaic but vibrant Park Grill (the cheap side, anyway). C's birthday is in the fall, making for nice walks and cozy dinners in the restaurant haven of Oak Park. June and October are lovely months for driving, or riding the L or your bike to a new spot in the city to check out.

My birthday, mid January, requires a bit more commitment. We planned to go see the new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, but poverty and cold forced us to scale back. So C, H, and our four-footed friend Skye came over to my house instead. I promised not to make them watch figure skating (I have been known to do that).

I've got a new recipe for vegetarian barley soup (coming soon in a post near you), and I thought I would try the olive-oil rosemary hard rolls recipe that a friend sent me. Mind you, vasilopita and cranberry cheese bread notwithstanding, I'm not much of a baker. "But I'm a recipe blogger!" thinks I to myself, thinks I. "I'll test this recipe and blog it!"

Three, yes, three failed bread attempts later, C voted for scones instead of bread.

Apple cider scones
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • >1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 1/4 cup + 1 T sour cream
For glaze:
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon cider
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C.

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Cut in butter using a pastry blender or rubbing between your fingers until it has the consistency of corn meal. Mix together cider and sour cream in a measuring cup. Pour all at once into the dry ingredients, and stir gently until well blended. (Overworking the dough results in terrible scones!)
Press gently with your fingers or a pastry roller into a pancake about 12" across and 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Cut into wedges with a pizza cutter. Whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon of milk. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg wash. Let them rest for about 10 minutes.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until the tops are golden brown, not deep brown. Serve warm with friends, plus goat cheese, jam or butter. (The jam in the picture is a homemade plum compote. Let me know in the comments if you want the recipe!)

Saturday, February 6, 2010


There is, at last, some glimmer of recognition at my day job that people spend a lot of time at this place called "the internet." So yesterday I got to meet with a consultant who sets up small businesses with social media. We met at a local Wifi cafe where every single table was populated by someone with a lap top, a smart phone, and a (live) friend.

I catch a lot of flack from my uninitiated friends about how "superficial" and "vacuous" and "seventh grade" the web is. On the other hand, the web has made me a better gardener, a more creative and active cook, and a thoughtful coach. And I've met some amazing people, that I have to call friends, although I've never met them and likely never will.

Well, one of the things that Liz the social media expert mentioned is that, apparently, February 5 is World Nutella Day. Who knew. Mark it in your calendars. I was running around all day yesterday and wasn't able to get this post in, so I'm a day late. But here you go. I didn't actually make this yesterday, so no pictures (I'll make some and post them later.) Never be without nutella again:

Chocolate-hazelnut spread (homemade Nutella)
2 cups whole raw hazelnuts
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
up to 1/4 cup vegetable or nut oil
1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place hazelnuts in a single layer on a shallow baking pan. Toast until the skins are almost black and the meat is dark brown, about 15 minutes. Stir the nuts halfway through baking so ensure an even color.

Since the skin is bitter, you'll want to discard them. Wrap the cooled hazelnuts in a clean kitchen towel or paper towel, and rub until most of the skins have come off. Don't fret if you can't get off all the skins.

Process nuts in a food processor, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally, until they have liquefied, about 5 minutes. At first, you will get coarsely chopped nuts, and then it will turn into a fine meal. After a little while, the nuts will form a ball around the blade, and it will seem like you only have a solid mass. Keep processing. The heat and friction will extract the natural oils, and you will get hazelnut butter!

When the nuts are liquified, add in the sugar, cocoa and vanilla. Slowly drizzle in enough oil to make a spreadable consistency. Since the mixture is warm, it will be more liquidy now than at room temperature.

Transfer the spread to an airtight container, and store refrigerated for up to 1 month. For best results, stir the chocolate-hazelnut spread before using.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Do we really NEED another garden blog?

I've been toying with the idea of adding more gardening to this blog. Lately there have been a number of posts touching on the dilemma of a home-cooking blog: you run out of recipes. I'm not a "cook," I'm just someone who cooks well in a home setting. I have no ambitions to write a cookbook, and for the most part these recipes are passed down, borrowed or existing, so I'm not breaking any new ground here either.

The web abounds with gardening blogs; several excellent ones are in my blog list and every one of those blogs has another list of excellent blogs and on and on ad infinitum. I don't think the web, or anyone/where else, needs my gardening tips.

But gardening is a big part of my cooking, and the creative act of homemaking has an awful lot to do with dirt, from digging it to cleaning it to making it (as in compost). I started the garden a couple of decades ago so that my urban children would know what food looks like in its natural state, and that you can have control over it from seed to feed (hah--there's a new title for the blog!). We eat better in the summer, when I "grocery shop" basically on the walk from the garage to the back door.

So I may start in on my garden progress, especially in the tweets. I promise to be marvelously and originally philosophical and to always include a recipe.

Mom's open-faced toasted cheese sandwiches
Cheddar, swiss, or Edam, or American cheese

We must have eaten traditional stove top grilled cheese when we were kids, but frankly I don't remember that. What I remember are these wonderful, drippy, crunchy-edged delights. I also remember that my terminally suburban college roommates had never encountered "grilled" cheese made this way.

Thickly layer the cheese on open slices of bread. Place on a baker's cooling rack, then on a baking sheet and place directly under the broiler (or use a counter-top toaster oven on the broil setting) for about 5 minutes. The cooling rack allows the air to flow around the bread, so it doesn't get soggy. For the oily cheeses like cheddar, it's done when it starts to bubble. For the drier cheeses, let it toast a little bit.

Serve with homemade fruit soda.