Friday, December 30, 2011


I had a large piece of ginger left from the ginger pie (with ginger whipped cream*) thatI made for Christmas, so I decided to play around with it and made honey-candied ginger, pickled ginger, crystallized ginger, and ginger syrup (another "waste not" recipe!)

The honey ginger is the winner.

Ginger Syrup
2 cups water
ginger peels from the other recipes
about 2 cups ginger "stock" from making the candy and pickles

1 1/2 cups sugar
juice of 1/4 lemon
lemon zest
pinch of salt

Make 1 more cup of "stock" by boiling the ginger peels in the water; turn heat to simmer and continue to cook until it is reduced by half. Add to the stock from the other recipes. Add the remaining ingredients and heat until the sugar is completely melted. Continue to simmer until the syrup is reduced by a third to half (depending on how thick a syrup you want). You should end up with about 2 cups of syrup.

Use as pancake syrup, or to flavor tea, cocktails, or sparkling water.

*Ginger whipped cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 T powdered sugar
1/2 t vanilla
1/4 cup ginger liqueur

In a small bowl, whip the cream until it starts to thicken. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to beat until stiff, about 3-5 minutes.  For best results, put the bowl and the beaters in the freezer for at least 3 hours before hand.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Playing with pie crust

I did a lot of baking this week and didn't want to make a dessert pie, so I made a quiche instead.

 I always avoided pies because I was afraid of the crust. Well, it turns out the crust is the easy part. I make quiche a lot, but only recently started using my own crust once I realized this. Today I added green tea powder and dried mint (about 1/4 teaspoon each) to the flour, and mixed it with some green mint tea still sitting in the pot from this morning.

After a couple of false starts, I seem to have developed a bit of a knack for a tender and flaky crust.  I've been playing around with the basic recipe; here are some of my variations.

Basic pie crust
2 cups flour (I use a wheat pastry flour)
2/3 cup shortening (yes, I've been using lard, from humanely-raised local pigs)
1/4 teaspoon salt
4-6 teaspoons water

Whisk the flour and salt, then cut in the shortening until it's mixed to pea-sized bits. Add the liquid a tablespoonful at a time, mixing it with a fork, and being careful not to overwork any single portion of the the dough. The more you handle it, the tougher it will be. I've found because lard is so moist, I usually need only 3-4 tablespoons of liquid.

Finish the last bit of combining with your hands, divide dough into two equal pieces and flatten into disks. Put one away while you roll out the other, it's easier to handle when it's slightly chilled.

Some variations:

You can alter the flour. I've substituted
1/4 cup oats + 1/4 cup ground walnuts
1/4 rice flour
mixed white and wheat flour
used only whole wheat (nice for a quiche)

I've add the following to the crust (not all at once):
dried orange zest
a tablespoon of raw sugar (this is nice for dessert pies)
various sweet or savory spices including 
ground coriander, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, ground clove
green tea powder
dried mint

You can mess with the liquid you use too. I've substituted
tea (including a green mint)
apple cider
orange juice

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas dinner

I make menu cards every year for our Christmas dinners, using seasonal photos from the garden. Here are the ones from the past few years.




 ( Don't know where 2010 disappeared to!)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Waste not

Apple, pear or peach peels. Cherry pits. Lemon rinds. Orange rinds. Chard stems.

You should not be throwing any of these away. Any time you use a lemon, orange or lime, zest it before you discard the rind. Leave the zest out for a couple of days on a paper towel, or zap it for a minute (literally, just one minute) in the microwave to dry it, and save it in an old spice jar. This will be the best zest you ever use short of fresh, and essentially free.

All vegetable discards, with the possible exception of potato peels, should be thrown in a ziplock and frozen for a quick stock.

Fruit peels can be turned into simple syrups--a couple of cups of peels, a couple of cups of water and some sugar and lemon juice makes enough syrup for a drink or two.

Here's another stick-to-your ribs Dark Days meal for a gloomy cold day, using this principal!

Potato-leek soup, with a twist
1 large or several small leeks
2 very large russets
3-4 white carrots
2 small parsnips
1 small turnip
2 T butter
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
Apple stock

Now, then, you've frozen those apple peels from all that apple sauce and pie, right? Right? Good. Because it makes a wonderful stock for soups--sweet and heavy, and able to give vegetarian soups the closest thing to an umami flavor you can get without adding soy sauce.  To make stock, put a quart or more of the peels into a quart of water and boil down to three cups (about 10-20 minutes). Drain and set aside.

Peel and roughly cut, into bite sized pieces, the root vegetables and boil until very soft.  Drain. Slice the leeks and saute in a couple tablespoons of a high-heat oil like grapeseed or olive. Add butter and the drained roots to the pan and stir over medium heat until the butter is melted. Grind the seasoning and stir it in.  Add the stock and simmer a couple hours (or less, if you're impatient). This is not a smooth soup, don't blend it please, you'll want to taste all those lovely chunks.

If you must, fry up some bacon and add it. Cool the soup with a little half-and-half (don't add it directly to the pot; if you reheat this soup with dairy in it, it will curdle).  I served this with homemade cheesy biscuits.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A holiday meal

We're having our oldest friends over for dinner tonight.  Even the kids don't argue about setting time aside for dinner with Steve and Gayle every year.

I don't like to make a typical holiday meal of ham or turkey for this family tradition. (I'm not actually making any traditional meals this year--we're having salmon for Christmas day.)  I should probably have made at least an attempt at a kosher meal in honor of the first day of hanukkah today, but I couldn't resist the dip (shell fish and cheese) or the cheesecake.

I love putting together meals like this, thinking through all the courses to make a balance, and to make every course interesting and different.

A good bit of the ingredients are local and seasonal, all of it (with the probable exception of the crab meat) is sustainable and whole:

Goat cheese dip with crab meat
Place in a food processor or mixing bowl: 4 oz crumbled goat cheese, 2 T yogurt, 4 T soft cream cheese, winter or indoor herbs: 2-3 sprigs each. I still had chives, parsley, and thyme outside, and rosemary inside. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix until smooth. Serve with homemade crackers.

Hot spiced cider
Mix in a large saucepan: 1 quart cider, 1 cup orange juice, 1 T each cinnamon (or 3-4 cinnamon sticks) orange zest, 1 teaspoon whole coriander, 1/4 each teaspoon nutmeg, allspice, a few black peppercorns. Heat to a simmer, cover and continue to barely simmer for a couple of hours. Strain through cheesecloth.  Add a little spiced cider liqueur (scroll down to "apple jail fail-redux").

Chicken curry with fall vegetables I finally bought a dutch oven, which you really need to finish a dish like this properly, by letting it simmer in the dutch oven for a couple of hours. I served it with local(ish) wild rice and brussels sprouts.

Chocolate raspberry cheesecake. I used this recipe from epicurious, but substituted semi-sweet chocolate and semi-sweet milk chocolate melting dots for the white chocolate. I had to add the melting dots when I discovered that you can't melt chocolate in the microwave because it makes it burn. Good news is that I didn't actually burn down the kitchen (scroll down to the photo that says "Ack").

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What's in your larder?

It used to be a common skill--not just knowing how to put up food, but also a sense of how much you'll need.

I've got plenty of fruit to get me through the winter, I think, and peppers, and eggplants. But I don't think I put up enough tomatoes, and I definitely haven't solved the root-vegetable thing. I still just buy them from the year-round CSA which tends to have local veggies well into early winter. I don't have room to grow the beans I know I'd eat-- about 45 square feet yielded just 3 quarts of beans.

Reading the sustainability blogs as one of the managers of this year's Dark Days Challenge, I'm also amazed at the amount of preserving people do. Do they have a million kids or something? People talk about 40 jars of pickles, and 200 jars of tomato paste. People kill, butcher and freeze 5 and 6 and 7 deer.  I start to think that I'm not doing it right.

Last year I made it all the way to May without buying vegetables. This year, I'm not so sure.

Everything in the meal below was made from food I grew, except the seasonings and bacon.

White bean cassoulet with chard
4-6 thick bacon slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups (1/2-inch-thick) slices diagonally cut carrot
1 cup (1/2-inch-thick) slices diagonally cut parsnip

3 cups white beans (I used Hutterites)
3/4 cup vegetable broth
1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3-4 fresh sage leaves, chopped very fine

1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1-2 large tomatoes, skinned, seeded, then roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan or Romano cheese (not for vegans, natch)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley


    Cut up some bacon and fry in a large sauce pan until very well done. Drain and set aside. Using the bacon grease, add onion, carrot, parsnip, and garlic; cover and cook 5 minutes or until tender. (Add a little olive oil, lard, or preserved bacon grease if you need more).  Add stock, beans, enough cold water to cover, sage, and thyme. I'm told you shouldn't add salt to the beans until they are fully cooked because they won't cook correctly, but I don't know what that means. Plus, there's salt in the bacon.  Bring to a boil, and then simmer covered for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring about every 20 minutes.

Add next 4 ingredients and bring back to simmer.  When the beans are just about done, add the bacon, parsley and garlic, and simmer another 10 minutes.

Remove the stems from some chard and blanch the leaves. Place these in the bottom of a bowl and ladle in the cassoulet. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and top with a little garnish of extra parsley.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I thought you said you don't bake?

I'm a baking machine this fall. I've been doing a pie a week (although not this week--I'll make a quiche to fill that promise this week). Yesterday I threw together some cheesy baking-powder biscuits, and I'm planning a cake for my "Housiversary" (25 years in our house on the 16th!) and a chocolate raspberry cheesecake for dinner with friends next week.

Thank goodness my daughter makes the bouche for Christmas!

Here's another use for those Thanksgiving leftovers!

Cranberry-oatmeal cookies
 2 sticks butter
1 ½ cups light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
½ cup cranberry sauce
½ teaspoon orange extract

2 cups oats
1 ½ cups wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ salt

1 cup dried cranberries, plumped

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350F/176C. To plump cranberries, place in a pyrex or other microwave-safe container, cover with water and heat on high for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Combine and whisk the dry ingredients. Set aside. Cream the butter, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar and cream until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat until smooth, add the cranberry sauce and beat until fully blended. Add the dry ingredients about 1/2 cup at a time, blending fully each time. When done, fold in the fruit using a fork or spatula.

Spoon onto cookie sheet in small teaspoonfuls (about 1" across). Bake for 13 minutes.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dark Days Challenge, Week One

I'm helping the writers at Not Dabbling in Normal to manage Urban Hennery's Dark Days Challenge this year (use the link on the badge in the side bar to find out more).

I guess that means I should really play along and make at least one SOLE meal (Seasonal Organic Local Ethical) food meal a week. I think I hit it out of the park with this one, although I confess to pepper, salt, and yes, sherry. Everything else, except the bacon and the cheese (which are from farms in Wisconsin and Illinois, ordered through, was so local that it came out of my garden.

White bean cassoulet with rosemary and sage
based on this recipe from Edible Chicago Magazine

1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 sprigs fresh sage
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 whole peeled medium tomatoes (I pulled out a quart bag that I froze a couple of months ago)
splash of sherry
6 pieces of bacon, fried quite crisp and crumbled
olive oil
fresh ground pepper
any hard Italian cheese (asiago, parmesan, pecorino, romano), grated
Cook the beans; if they are commercial dried beans they usually recommend soaking overnight, but I've found it works better to boil them for 20 minutes, let them soak until the water is cool, then repeat.  With beans you've dried yourself, usually a single boiling will work.  Drain the water off. No need to conserve it.

In a large cast iron Dutch oven or heavy enamel pot, add garlic, tomato, sherry, sage and rosemary to the beans. Add the herbs on the stem so you can easily remove them before serving or you'll be picking them out a leaf at a time. Do not ask me how I know this. Add water to just cover the beans. You may need to add water as the beans cook. You want to keep them covered, but remember that it isn't soup. When you're done there should be minimal liquid.

Remember to use the good sherry. Although a lot of cooks apparently now dispute this, I like the saying that you shouldn't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink, if for no other reason than why buy a whole extra bottle just to cook with? I don't know about you, but I don't use liquor to cook with all that often. I don't even use liquor to drink with all that often.

Bring the pot to a boil then reduce heat to low and keep the beans at low simmer adding water as necessary. You may cook the beans on stovetop or place in a 350° oven and cook until tender. Add the bacon about 10 minutes before serving.

Garnish with grated hard cheese, olive oil, salt, and fresh ground pepper.

I honestly did not expect this to be all that good--cassoulets are easy to make, but hard to make tasty--but this was delicious.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mayors Landscape Awards

I was honored to receive Second Place (Region 1) for Single Residential Landscapes from the venerable Chicago Mayor's Landscape Awards for 2011.

Here's the essay I submitted with the application (regular readers will recognize places where I plagiarized myself!)
I grew my garden in lockstep with my family. We moved in to a vast expanse of grass in 1986 (actually a vast expanse of snow, since it was December).
For a while the garden grew with the family-- add a child, add a flower bed. As the children grew in complexity so did the garden, adding vegetables, trees, more flowers, patios and a pond. The children are grown and gone and the garden is grown yet comes back every year, a lovely metaphor on the nature of parenting adults.
I get joy from gardening that is visceral and emotional. I put in a bed to fix the shape; or put in a plant to change the profile or enhance the color. My garden has a beautiful design, but I didn't "design" it. It's just nearly 30 years of living in a space, and moving things around, kind of like the living room furniture. It just takes a little longer with plants. If the color or size works in the spot I want to fill, I’ll try it. If I want to try growing some new thing to eat or preserve, I'll try it. A benefit of this is that the plants that have survived are indeed hardy, with some spectacular successes. I have a number of my own backyard cultivars- an heirloom tomato, sweet alyssum, cleome.
A garden assaults the senses; it makes you “be”: taste, spirit, beauty, scent, intellect. Is there food, light, color, understanding? Are you scientist or goddess? Do you plant for joy or with an understanding of the the science of the effort? What makes a garden a garden and not just a yard? There’s sight of course— what most people think of when they see a garden— it looks nice. And taste— you can grow the things you eat.
This is where gardeners start, I think, with a desire for beauty and food. But gardens also have sound. Buzzing insects, and singing birds. Rustling of small animals in the brush, maybe running water. Gardeners know about touch. The fuzz of a lambs ear, or the prick of a rose. A crisp forsythia leaf, the hard shell of a nut, the heavy sun on the back of your neck and of course the wonderful feel of the soil around your hands.
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. Through every season, as the plants cycle through their growth and decline, the monochrome of winter arrives, 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 birds. 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.
I finally went through the Master Gardener course, thinking I wanted to be a “real” gardener at last, 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.
The application asks for “challenges” but I refuse to think of my garden in that way. A garden is not a challenge, but an antidote to the challenge that is life.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A sure sign of the season

I'm not someone who keeps, or collects, stuff.  In fact, I hate acquiring things, and I especially hate acquiring things I don't need.  I have pots that I have had, quite literally, all my life. Yes, folks, 50+ year old pots.

I don't buy appliances. I don't buy clothes. I use things I don't really like because I've already got them and they're good enough.

And then there's coffee mugs. Coffee mugs bring out the fussy old lady that lives in all of us.  I love coffee mugs. You know that aunt with all the ridiculous ceramic figurines?

That's me and my mugs.

This isn't all of them. Sigh.

I strong armed my family into buying me a holiday mug every year for Christmas. For a while they would just drop into Starbuck's and get the mug-of-the-year, but nuh-uh. It's got to be a mug that other people don't have. You need to work a little harder (or not really; these things form the backbone of most resale shops).Of course, when you get a mug every year for 25 years (or more, as other people started learning about this weakness of mine), you accumulate too many mugs.

So a few years ago I decided to start switching them out, not just for Christmas, but seasonally. I now have garden season mugs, autumn mugs, summer mugs. My daughter threatened to disown me if I started up a collection of Valentine's mugs.

After Thanksgiving every year, out come the Christmas mugs. Make yourself some snickerdoodles and hot chocolate and enjoy!

Cocoa, the real way
2 T cocoa powder
1 T sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water

Combine in a saucepan and heat to boiling until a smooth consistency, stirring constantly. I mean it. CONSTANTLY.  Reduce heat, add milk, bring to a scald (just short of boiling--don't boil it).

Serve it in your silly mug, and no snickering.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waste not

I grind my own spices in an old coffee grinder. Because spices aren't really dry, they leave a residue in the grinder which is hard to clean--you can't immerse the thing, and wiping with a paper towel always misses something. To get everything out,  I grind white rice (although I suppose any dried rice will work).

This leaves me with, essentially, rice flour, lightly flavored with spices, which I used to make these crumbly flavorful crackers.

There's a nice little Thanksgiving-leftovers angle to this one as well.

Walnut-rice crackers
3/4 cup ground rice or rice flour
1 1/2 cups wheat flour
1/4 cup finely ground walnuts (or other oily nut)
1 heaping tablespoon evaporated sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
2 1/2 T cold butter

1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
3 T cranberry sauce

Heat oven to 300f/148c

Whisk the dry ingredients, and in a separate bowl the wet ingredients. With a fork, blended the wet with the dry; you may need to do the last bit with your hand. Break it into three equal pieces and roll out each piece very very thin, using plenty of flour on the rolling surface so it doesn't stick. Paint it lightly with oil (I used walnut), then sprinkle with sea salt. Lightly roll the surface to make the salt adhere.

Using a pizza or pastry cutter, slice into 1" squares. Transfer to a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake 25 minutes or until crisp.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This is a family favorite that I've never seemed to post before! So no story, just delicious pork chops! Strangely, I did post a picture of it.

Tomato-basil pork chops

1 chop per diner
per chop: 1 medium to large tomato, one small onion, handful basil leaves
1 or more large cloves of garlic, pressed
3 T butter

To prepare the meat, poke both sides of chops with fork, lightly dredge w salt, pepper, crushed garlic. Set aside. Slice onions, tomatoes and basil. Melt 2-4 tablespoons of butter (you heard me) in a large skillet. Brown the chops on both sides (a few minutes per side), then add the sliced onions to the pan, stir until they are thoroughly coated with butter. Cook until just short of carmelization. If you have any other veggies to add do it now. I had a small black bell pepper, so that went in. Before you add the tomatoes, make sure the pan is browning. If it's not, let the chops fry another few minutes . Add the tomatoes and turn down heat. Continue to sautee until a light sauce has formed. I like to lift out the tomato skins as they separate from the meat. To start creating gravy, through a splash of sherry in. You want a little bit of liquid at all times after this point. Add the fresh basil.

Start water for pasta, continue to simmer the meat while the pasta is cooking. We're using a German egg noodle tonight, but spaetzle, gnochi, or fettucini are also nice with this.

Start to finish about 40 minutes, not counting waiting for the pasta to cook. For a complete step by step time line, check out the Twitter thread, in real time: #basilporkchops.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Opting out

Six reasons to opt out of national food system:
  1. Industrial foods are lower in nutritional value.
  2. Buying from local, entrepreneurial farmers and sellers improves the local economy. Know your farmer!
  3. The US does not require that genetically modified foods be labeled as such.
  4. A pregnant teen that I know told me that she "doesn't eat vegetables."
  5. HFCS. 'nuff said.
  6. You'll never find this in a box:

Mashed summer roots
Per every 2 diners:
One large potato
3-5 radishes
1 medium parsnip
1 pat butter
1/4 cup (or so) milk, half-half, or cream
white pepper and sea salt to taste

Peel, roughly cube, and boil all until soft (you can easily slip a knife in). To cube vegetables, just cut them up along each axis-- length, width, height. Mash into a lumpy mass with a potato masher or fork, then add the butter and milk/cream. Continue to mash with the masher/fork or whip with a hand mixer on low. I don't mind lumps in my mashed potatoes, but some people like them really smooth.

Serve with meat loaf, or pan fried pork, fish or portobello mushroom.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Missing ingredients

One of the best lessons you learn from cooking a lot is utter loss of fear. Run out of a key ingredient? Too lazy to run to the market (or worse--don't realize it until you're too deep into the prep). Open the cupboard, see what's there, and substitute substitute substitute.

The other thing about cooking a lot, and about cooking SLOW (Seasonal Local Organic Whole) is that there always is something in the cupboard to substitute, and that you tend to have what might be considered unusual ingredients in a more package-oriented kitchen. I have flour made from three different grains. I know how to grind oats, and I've ground rice into powder/flour in a pinch (it makes a great addition to bulk up soup).

We don't consume much meat around here-- a pound or two a week between the two of us, and very very little of that beef, but somehow I count the days until it gets cold enough for meatloaf. And here was this wonderful chilly rainy autumn day. Meatloaf weather.

I know-- what? Cold enough for meatloaf? You never knew it was a seasonal dish, did you.

But somehow, I think of meatloaf as a wintertime meal. I almost never make it in the summer. I'd say it's because it takes a long time to bake and the kitchen gets hot, except that I've happily done canning and baking in the middle of the hottest late summer days.

There's just something about meatloaf that says "short day meal" to me--maybe my mother only made meatloaf in the autumn or something.

So I'm pulling out ingredients and jeez, I have no bread crumbs. I never run out of breadcrumbs, because I always dry out my loaf ends and crumble them up. But somehow--no bread crumbs. Hmmm. How about oats?

Autumn meatloaf
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground lamb or pork
2 small onions, diced very fine
1/2 large appled, peeled and diced very fine
1/2 c steel-cut oats
1 tablespoon honey
optional-1 large egg

1 T crushed dried orange zest
1-2 teaspoons black pepper (I used an orange-seasoned pepper I found at the spice shop)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
You can figure out your own seasonings, but don't use traditional meatloaf seasonings like oregano, which will overwhelm the apple flavor.

Preheat oven to 375F/190C

Soak the oats for 20 minutes in about 1 cup of boiling water. Drain thoroughly, then mix everything together (yes, with your hands--leave the water running so you can easily rinse them). Because the oats are so moist you don't really need the egg, but it's traditional in meatloaf and won't hurt. I didn't use one, mostly because I just forgot and it was fine. Press into a loaf or meatloaf pan (I just discovered these) and bake at 375/190 for an hour and 15 minutes.

This one of the moistest, tenderest meatloafs (meatloaves? that doesn't sound right) I've ever made, and my meatloaf is legendary.

Serve with apple mashed root vegetables: roughly cut the other half of the apple, plus 3 medium russet potatos, a medium parsnip, and a medium turnip. Boil until all are very soft (the parsnip will take a while), add a tablespoon of butter, a little milk, and a dollop of honey and mash until smooth.

A word about orange (and other citrus) zest-- always zest your oranges and lemons before you eat/use them. It makes them easier to peel, and you'll always have zest.  You can dry it on the counter (it'll take a day or two), or zap it on a paper towel for a few minutes. Store it in a jar with your spices.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Dark Days Challenge

I’m very pleased to announce I'm helping with the 5th Annual Dark Days Challenge. Along with my fellow writers at Not Dabbling in Normal we'll be working with (not so) Urban Hennery to manage it this year.

What’s the Challenge?
Cook one meal each week featuring SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) ingredients, write about it on your blog (or in the comments here, on Not Dabbling or at Urban Hennery) and email your happy recapper a link to your post.  There's more details in the post and in the right sidebar at the Urban Hennery blog.

We’re still finalizing all the details, but there are likely to be THEME WEEKS and PRIZES and a whole lot of other reasons that this will be the best challenge ever. I'll be recapping participants in the Upper Midwest/Great Lakes region, since I share your challenges.

To sign up, head over here and fill in the form at the bottom of the page.  You need to sign up by December 4, although if you miss the deadline you can still follow along; you just won't be part of the recap.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up! Join in! Cook the winter blahs away with fabulous local food all winter! But seriously, I hope you’ll join us in eating locally, sustainably and fantastically well this year!

The challenge runs from Sunday, November 27th, 2011 to Saturday, March 31st, 2012; check out the Dark Days post (here it is again, in case I haven't linked it enough) for answers to questions on what constitutes "local," how to participate if you don't have a blog, etc.

How do I sign up?
Use the form here (okay, that's 5 copies of the link, if you haven't managed to find it by now, I give up) to join; and make sure to include your location so you get put into the right geographic group!

And finally, remember that pumpkin maple bread I was bragging about? Here it is--made with home-grown pumpkin, local flour and local maple syrup.

Pumpkin Maple Quick Bread

1 cup evaporated, raw, or granulated sugar
1/2 cup maple sugar ($16 a pound. Substitute regular sugar to save money)
1 cup canola oil (if you know that no one with a nut allergy will be eating it, use walnut or hazelnut oil)
1/2 cup maple syrup
½ teaspoon maple extract
3 eggs
2 cups pumpkin puree

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (or 1 teaspoon pre-ground)
½ teaspoon allspice

Optional: 1 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or hazelnuts and/or plumped raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter and flour two 9x5 inch Pyrex loaf pans. Tap off excess flour from the pans.

Combine the dry ingredients and set aside. Beat together the sugar, oil, maple syrup, and maple extract until smooth and completely combined. Add the eggs and beat until combined. Add the pumpkin and mix until combined. Then add the flour and mix on low speed until just combined. To plump raisins, cover them with water, then microwave for one minute. Drain thoroughly, then add to batter.

Divide the batter equally among two pans. (I made a double recipe, and used mini pans because I had them.) Bake for 60 to 65 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Place in the pans on a cooling rack, and allow to cool about 10 minutes before removing the loaves from the pans.

Serve with maple butter:
1/2 cup softened butter
1/4 cup maple syrup
pinch of salt

whip until completely combined

Sunday, November 6, 2011


I haven't made a meat dish in a while. This is not because I don't think you should eat meat, it's more a function of the empty nest.

In fact, I find myself cooking less and less, and struggling with quantities. Despite the fact the the kids have been on their own for four years (and one of them for 7--how did that happen?), I still find myself growing, shopping, and cooking for four. And then I have enough leftovers for days and days. Really, I could get away with cooking once or twice a week and then Wei and I just living on leftovers, like we did in college.

It's especially frustrating because right now I have tons of time--my hoped for new job did not come through (yet), and I've cut my teaching schedule back to almost nothing. So I have lots of time for cooking. But with fewer people, and less income, I really have to be careful about not wasting food.

Wasting food, of course, is practically a national pastime. About half the food grown (!) never gets to the table. All you have to do to see how cavalier we are about food is to walk through any cafeteria after lunch, or a park after a big event, to see the trash overflowing, not just with trash, but with uneaten, often perfectly good food.

The EPA has lots of suggestions about how to mitigate the problem, and resources for study. There are entire organizations dedicated to reducing food waste.

Which all seems kind of silly. Because like a lot of things, this is really in our control. Don't buy what you don't need, and eat those leftovers!

This lasted us for 3 meals:

Pork Xandaloo
Grind into a light powder:
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cardamom seeds
3 in stick cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp whole black mustard seeds
1 tsp whole fenugreek seeds (if you've got 'em)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ight brown sugar
1 Tbsp ground coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ground turmeric

if you like heat also use:
2 small hot peppers (like a shishito), cut fine
1 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix into:
5 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 cup tomato paste
up to 6 T water if needed

Pork chops, whatever cut you like. I used very thinly cut boneless center loin

10 T oil
2 large onions

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Fry onions, stirring frequently, until they are a rich, dark brown. Remove onions with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil. Sear the meat on both sides, until the fat starts to carmelize, Turn down the heat and add the sauce. It should cover the meat; if it doesn't add a little water. Bring to a simmer, then place the onions on top. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Serve over:

Garlic rice
1 cup rice
4 medium cloves garlic

Prepare rice according to package instructions. Using a garlic press, add the garlic when the water comes to a boil.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I confess. When Michelle Obama was in Chicago last week, and visited Walgreens, I stood in front of the television yelling at her.

Why was Michelle Obama, of all people, in Chicago-city of neighborhoods, home of the nation's most diverse ethnic population, in the middle of the richest farmland in the world, and leader of the WW2 Victory Gardens movement-standing in some anonymous Walgreens, praising them for importing tomatoes from Chile.

Why was she not walking down Clark Street in Rogers Park, where there are probably 15 locally-owned mercados featuring produce raised locally, and run by families living in the neighborhood. Why was she not on Devon Avenue in the 40th ward, another strip of vibrant local economy? How about 57th Street in her own neighborhood, and home, until the big boxes shut it down, of the famous 57th Street Food Co-op?

The solution to healthy food systems and urban vitality is not another vast parking lot, where private security will boot your car if you so much as step onto the sidewalk to mail a letter, but small, locally owned grocery stores, with sensible inspection protocols, and family management.

After the '68 riots, Chicago let its local economies die. Where once there were dozens of family businesses keeping the neighborhoods, especially the African-American neighborhoods alive, a decades-long shibboleth has been sold us, teaching us that "business" happens on Wall Street or LaSalle Street, over-regulating small businesses while letting the big guys get away with murder and the family silver, and selling our own livelihoods back to us in Big Boxes stocked with the fruits of foreign slave labor.

Once "business" is what your grandpa did, in his shop around the corner from his house, or downstairs from his apartment. You worked there on the weekends and after school, learning how to run a business, a business that you would take over, when your grandpa and your pa got too old. We've let not one, or two, but now three generations of business acumen just die in service to the supposed "efficiency" and low prices of Walmart and its ilk.

Just another reason to be disappointed in the Obamas. Michelle, Walgreen's is not the answer to food deserts or to sustainable economies. Walgreen's is the problem. Bring back the neighborhood pharmacists, tailors, shoe repairs, appliance repairs, and grocers.

A coalition of local food activists agrees with me. They've created the Statement of Local Food Economy. You can sign the statement, too--instructions here.

Root n fruit soup
1 medium parsnip
1 medium white carrot
1 medium orange carrot
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup pumpkin puree
2+ cups water

1 medium purple carrot, sliced
1 medium white carrot, sliced
small onion, cubed

salt and white pepper to taste

Roughly chop and then saute the parsnip, orange carrot and one of the white carrots in about 2 tablespoon butter, until very soft. Add a cup of water and boil under they start to fall apart. Add the pumpkin and another cup of water; bring to a light boil, then puree with an immersible blender (or decant into a food processor if you don't have the blender).

Sautee the sliced onion and carrot in about a tablespoon of butter, until onion is translucent. Add to the puree, and add water until it reaches the desired consistency (personal choice). Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with homemade shortbread biscuits.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Safeway

I envision a massive crowd of suburban uber-moms standing on top of their SUVs.

These are our demands:

1. Only healthy junk food, with pictures of rain forests and bunnies so I know it's safe
2. Fresh organic lettuce, sold in plastic bags, preferably pre-cut, because who has time.
3. No dirt-- otherwise who KNOWS where that turnip has been
4. Healthy options at MacDonald's. If you eat a salad with the Big Mac, I'm pretty sure it has fewer calories.
5. Have Maria teach me the proper pronunciation of "habanero" next time she comes to clean
6. All vegetables presented in faux wood bins, with real wicker baskets instead of shopping carts so I can pretend I'm at the Farmers Market, which is full of all these farmers, which can't be sanitary
7. A special display with 14 different heirloom tomatoes (not 14 types--14 tomatoes) so I can say I've seen one. Make sure they cost $7 apiece so I can complain about how organic (sic) is too expensive
8. Candy in the checkout aisle. Because those nuts from Occupy Safeway are blocking access to the candy.
9. Support local farmers! Give them jobs as baggers, since their farms are all mortgaged to the hilt.

No energy to come up with my own recipe today. Made these honey-apple muffins.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


My head hurts. I think it's from falling off the October Unprocessed wagon and eating hallowe'en candy.

Serves me right.

Here's a delicious mild salsa from pastry chef Lindsay Shepherd. I guess pastry chefs like to walk on the wild side every now and then!

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde)
1 pound fresh tomatillos (about 8-10 ripe tomatillos)
2 serrano peppers (if you like heat) *optional- if you want mild salsa, use 1 large bell pepper (prefer chocolate bell peppers)
2 jalapenos
1 medium sweet onion
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
¼ - ½ cup fresh cilantro (depending on how much you like cilantro)
¼ cup fresh lemon basil
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lime juice

Preheat broiler.

Remove husks from tomatillos and rinse under warm water to remove stickiness. Remove skin from onion, and cut into 4 wedges. Place fresh tomatillos, serranos (or bell pepper), jalapenos , onion, and garlic (with skin on) on rack of a broiler pan 1 to 2 inches from heat. Broil, turning once, until tomatillos are softened and all ingredients are slightly charred, about 10-20 minutes.

Peel garlic, and rub the charred skin off the peppers. Pull off tops of chiles and jalapenos and take out the seeds (leaving just a few for heat).

Place all of the ingredients (including the remaining cilantro, basil, salt, and lime juice) in a blender, and puree until desired consistency.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cake thief

I went to a wonderful harvest dinner at The Yarden last night. Madam Yarden, aka LaManda Joy, made an amazing feast from the bounty of her gorgeous urban farmette, with two dishes contributed by guests: ratatouille (by yours truly) and Apple Dapple cake, from another friend's mother.

I got the last piece of the cake.

Which turned out to be LaManda's. I ought to say that I feel really guilty about stealing her dessert, when she had just spent the day preparing this amazing feast for us. But it was so delicious I'm having trouble summoning up the shame.

So I made these for her this morning.

Apple dapple blondies

2/3 cup butter, softened
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup chopped peeled apples
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (i did not add nuts)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat butter, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla until thick and smooth, about 3 minutes. Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture on low speed, mixing until blended. Stir in apples, cinnamon and nuts, mixing well. Spread evenly in greased 9x13 pan.Bake in Preheated oven at 350 degrees until set and golden, 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely in pan on rack.

1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup margarine(1 -1/2 sticks)

Stir together in a medium sauce pan and bring to a gentle boil. Once it starts boiling gently, keep stirring and cook for about three minutes. Remove from heat. Remove hot delicious cake from the oven. Pour over hot cake while cake is still in pan. Let cake cool completely before removing.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I ate that on purpose

Repost, from October 10, 2010

Unprocessed. Real Food. Slow food. Locavore.

Every time you turn around these days, there's a new term about getting away from the American industrialized, depersonalized, outsourced food culture. Now on my third food challenge, I think that Michael Pollan actually said it best (that's why they pay him the big bucks).

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

The main thing I take away from these efforts--all of them personally and culturally challenging, mostly well meaning, in varying degrees sensible--is that what you need to do is think about what you are eating.

When I was growing up in the middle of the last century, you didn't have to think about it. The food you bought, even in suburban supermarkets, was what it said it was. It had a shelf life and a source, which was mostly nearby. Importing food was something that starving Indians (as in subcontinent) did. Even as a child I knew which fruits were in season, not because I looked up a chart, but because if it wasn't in season, you couldn't buy it. No one ever got salmonella poisoning, and E. Coli was something you learned about in high school biology. Meat was meat colored, not that bizarre bright red (how do they do that, and why?). Chickens came with innards. Fruits did not have individual labels, and the butcher packed your meat in paper, even at the supermarket (yes, Virginia, there were butchers at the supermarket). You could buy only the amount you needed, and exactly the amount you needed, because they cut it on the premises. I got to Junior year in college before I knew that you could buy French fries frozen in a bag.

Because of this, I am able to "think" about food. I have clear memories of what it looks like, when it's naturally available, and how it tastes. My mother had to cook, because the prepared food industry was just getting started ("Prince spaghetti day", anyone?).

Younger generations don't have this advantage. You are rediscovering what I grew up understanding, perhaps the last generation to do so. I'm not saying there were no processed foods; we had spam and cake mixes and tv dinners and every day there was a new "convenience" product. But families eating meals cooked from whole ingredients was the norm, not the outlier.

For the way I live and eat, I think the "slow" approach works best-- seasonal, local, organic, whole. It gives you flexibility--can't find or afford organic? Buy it from the local mom-and-pop, instead of the super store (on the "3 outta 4 ain't bad" theory). What works about it, and all the other monikers, is that they make you think about what you're putting into your and your family's bodies.

Unprocessed. Real Food. Slow food. Locavore.

Call it deliberate eating.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What if you're already unprocessed?

One of the things I've been hearing alot in talking about October Unprocessed, is "oh, we already eat really healthy."

This statement is not just hubris--I work in food activism and I live and work in a crunchy-granola urban neighborhood, so a lot of the people I know eat only seasonal, local, organic and whole. They know how to make their own yeast. They have root cellars, in the city. They haven't set foot in a grocery store in 5 years.

I'm one myself. I started with Not Dabbling in Normal's Real Food Challenge in 2009 and never looked back. Except.

I gave myself a pass on candy bars. I like flavored teas. I eat out.

I'm probably not going to stop doing any of those things in the long haul. But I can do it for a month. And maybe I'll find, like I did with the Real Food Challenge, that there are things I can live without. And things that are easy, I mean easy, to replace, like getting local farmer-made raw-milk cheese and plain yogurt, or bread from the family-owned bakery, instead of Sara Lee's "healthy" line. And things that are absurdly easy to make, like jam, and mayonnaise, and flat breads-pita or nan.

Don't talk to me about "I have no time." I don't have kids at home, but I work full time and then some. I just spend all day Sunday cooking, and then the rest of the week I get to hang out on line looking for challenges.

So if you're as green as you think you can get, think again. Look through your cupboard and your larder and take an extra step. Think of creative ways to approach the challenge--go vegetarian if you're not already, or vegan, for one day. (Meat being one of the most highly processed foods we know.) Get really unprocessed and try incorporating more raw foods into your weekly diet. Think ahead and put something up for the winter.

As Andrew says in the Eating Rules blog that "runs" the challenge, October Unprocessed is not just about eating real food. It's about eating mindfully. Read a label, or better yet, a recipe. Eat a carrot for snack.

You'll be surprised how basic you can get.

Apple-maple oatmeal
1/2 cup apple cider (buy it at the farmers market, or read the label. It should say "ingredients: apples")
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup oats
pinch of salt
1 T maple syrup
1/2 apple, cubed.

Boil the apple cider and water, then slowly add the oats, stirring constantly. Boil about 5 minutes or until the oats start to soften. Add the salt and maple syrup, continue cooking until it's the consistency you like. For a sweeter oatmeal, increase the apple cider to a full cup (and skip the water), and/or add more maple syrup.

Add the cut-up apple and serve.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

October Unprocessed: snacks

Can't get away from the topic, seemingly. I wrote about an unprocessed treat on Friday, and here we are two days later, snacking again.

Here's what I "snacked" on today:
Fresh-squeezed orange juice
A 6-oz glass of locally pressed apple cider
A pear
A donut from the farmers' market, freshly made on Saturday
Some dried cranberries (from Mick Klug Farm, bought through the CSA, so not commercially processed)
Popcorn, the old fashioned kind
In other words, to snack "unprocessed," just eat food. Snacking isn't about the type of food you're eating, it's about timing, convenience and quantity. If it's 3:00 in the afternoon and you're eating an apple, that's a snack. If it's noon and you're eating it with a sandwich, that's lunch. If it's 7:30 and you've put it in a pie, that's dessert (the pie also counts as a snack in the middle of the afternoon, but mother says you may only have a small piece).

The problem is we've let the industrialized food system and Madison Avenue tell us what a "snack" is, and have swallowed wholesale, if I may, the idea that "snack food" is somehow different from "food."

Unprocessed snacks can include nuts, raw fruit, dried fruit (but read the label, the grocery store ones contain a lot of preservatives, artificial colors and even sweeteners), potato chips are easy to make if a little tedious, popcorn–the old fashioned kind, you pop it in the microwave just like “microwave” popcorn. Just stick it in a paper bag and hit the “popcorn” preset, bread and butter, jam or nut butters, hot cocoa or a hard boiled egg.

Here's the homemade hot chocolate my mother used to make for us when we were little (I never had commercial hot cocoa til I got to college; didn't know what it was, despite watching Bosco ads all my life). I remember traveling with some friends, they asked me to make hot cocoa and handed me little bags filled with brown powder. I knew what it was, but had never seen it, let alone made it. I did it wrong. They were really mad, and I was really embarrassed, but in retrospect, I'm very glad I did not know that dirt-colored powder was considered an acceptable drink.

Homemade hot cocoa
from the Woman's Home Companion Cook Book

2½ oz unsweetend chocolate (2½ squares)
⅓ cup sugar
pinch of salt (just a few grains)
½ cup boiling water
4 cups milk

Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler, add sugar and salt; add boiling water, stirring until well-blended. Place pan back over heat and boil about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually add milk, heat just short of scalding, again, stirring constantly. Beat until frothy. Pour into mugs and top with whipped cream or a marshmallow.

Here's a recipe for a homemade chocolate syrup that can be used in milk, or on ice cream.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What's a little cold between friends

At the ice rink where I teach, there are two vending machines. One of them is full of candy and dorritos; the other one has what the snack food industry likes to call "healthy snacks"-- things like granola bars, and sun chips, and those "reel froot jelly" things that kids insist isn't candy. I refuse to call it "healthy" food, so I tell the kids that one of the machines has "junk food" and the other one has "snack food."

A fine distinction.

In fact the distinction should not be "healthy" or "snack" or "junk" but simply there is food and then there is that edible stuff that they sell in all the pretty boxes. Why not have a vending machine full of "food"-- yogurt mixed with jam, and only jam. Apples and pears. Nuts. Milk. Raisins. If you have to say "this is healthy food" chances are it isn't food at all because saying "healthy" food is like saying "cold" ice or "metal" steel-- it's simply redundant. Food is healthy. That is its purpose.

It seems appropriate to start October Unprocessed with snack food, since it's snack food where we find the most processing, and the most resistance to the idea that you can snack on something that's not bad for you.

And since it's a balmy 40 out right now, I thought I'd start with ice cream

Autumn ice cream
1 pear, roasted
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 T home-powdered maple sugar
1/2 teaspoon maple extract, if you're cheating on the unprocessed thing

So, powdering your own sugar turns out to be a giant drag when you only have a little coffee grinder to do it in. I put a tablespoon at a time into a standard coffee grinder, and let 'er rip. It's not exactly powdered, but it's very very fine. Mix this, the cream and extract, and stick them in the freezer about 30 minutes (this helps with the aerating process).

Roast the pear at 350 for about 40 minutes, peel the skin off, then grind it in the blender, and put in the fridge until chilled.

When the pear is chilled, start up the ice cream maker (I have a little 2 cup one) and pour in the cream mixture. When it starts to resemble ice cream, add the chilled pear, and aerate until it turns into ice cream.

I tried this with maple syrup for sweetener, but it makes the mixture too watery and it doesn't aerate properly.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


If you were a medieval farm laborer, you'd be getting paid today, for the last 3 month's work, as September 29th is a traditional Quarter Day, known in the Anglican calendar as the feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas (pronounced "mikkelmuss" because, well, England). Fans of Thomas Hardy may remember Tess Durbeyville selling her services at a Quarter Day fair, and the drunken Michael Henchard auctioning off his family in an act that would come back to haunt him, decades later (hmmm, modern politicians would probably do well to re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge).

The Quarter Days--Lady Day (spring equinox), Midsummer Day (June solstice), Michaelmas (roughly the autumn equinox), and Christmas (winter solstice) and Cross-quarter days (Imbolc on February 2, May Day, Lammas (August 1), and Samhain (Halloween)--mark the ancient agrarian calendar.

Following these days puts you in rhythm with the earth and the ancestors, and reminds us that Hallmark and Macy's did not invent holidays, nor in fact did any modern religion. The holidays--holy days--are given to us by the universe, to mark the changing of the seasons and the passage of the earth around the sun. By focusing on the seasonal and celestial origin of these events, it becomes easier to resist the consumer culture that is consuming us, and to focus on the creative, the productive, and the holy.

It's traditional to make a goose on Michaelmas, although I'm making beef stew, since that's what I have in the house (and you see how out of rhythm I am? Why didn't I get a goose?) Other Michaelmas foods are carrots and other roots, and oat cakes.

The soup below is not very traditional, except inasmuch as it's made with a current harvest.

Cucumber Soup with corn and new potatoes
4-5 large cucumbers
1 large onion
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1 cup fingerling or new potatoes
niblets from 1-2 ears corn
2 T butter

1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional; for thickening. This recipe is from my MIL, who puts cornstarch in everything)
1 quart stock (chicken or vegetable; make sure it's a "white" stock or the soup will be ugly!)
>1 cup milk
2 cups half-half
2 yolks eggs
pepper and salt to taste

If any of the potatoes are larger than bite sized, cut them up, then boil them to al dente (not completely done!) and set aside.

Peel, seed and dice the largest cucumbers, leaving one for garnish. Dice onions and saute in butter with the parsley in the soup pot about 5 minutes (the cukes will turn a bright light green). Add water or stock, simmer 20 minutes. Mix cornstarch with milk, stir into the soup and bring it to a bare simmer, allowing to simmer for 10 minutes. Don't bring it to a full boil. Puree with an immersible mixer (or in a blender if you don't have a mixer; if you use a blender, let it cool a little before decanting it).

Lightly beat the half-half and egg yolks, pour a little boiling soup on to them, stirring at same time, then return it to the hot soup, stirring constantly; it must not boil again or it will curdle.

Add the potatoes and corn and heat; remember don't let it boil! Season to taste with white pepper and salt.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


At this time of year, all I seem to make is soup.

Roasted squash, pear and leek soup
1½ pounds sqash (I used delicata)
2 pears
2-3 leeks
2-3 cups leek stock
Creme fraiche

Heat oven to 350/170

Halve and seed the squash; halve the pears. Prepare a baking sheet with spray oil, and place the pears and squash face down. Trim the greens off the leeks, and also place the leeks on the sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife slips easily into the squash. (Save the seeds and greens.) Allow to cool.

While the vegetables are roasting, use the greens from the leeks, and the squash seeds to make a stock: boil about 20 minutes in 4 cups of water, with a handful of green peppercorns and salt to taste. Boil down to 3 cups. Drain and set aside.

Peel the squash and 1 pear, and grind them to pulp in a blender or food processor, using a little of the stock. Transfer the pulp to a large soup pot, and add stock until it's a little more watery than you want in the finished soup. You will probably have stock left over; conserve it. Blend the squash soup smooth with an immersible blender. Simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it's the consistency you like.

Cut up the leeks and the other pear (peel on), and gently fold into the soup. Garnish with freshly ground nutmeg and a dollop of creme fraiche. Drizzle very lightly with local honey.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The seed saver's dilemma

A few weeks ago I was talking seeds with some people from The Peterson Garden Project. I'm not really one of those seed people that just likes to buy seeds, but I flat out love harvesting seeds. There's something about growing plants from seeds that I grew that is just magical to me. It's an agrarian feedback loop.

I like the idea of the "backyard cultivar" as well--a plant that you've saved seeds from for so many years, that it's micro-adapted to your garden. I'm convinced my alyssum (which reseeds itself, no need to save them) and Black Krim tomatoes qualify.

Plus it's fascinating learning how different plants produce seeds--biennials that you leave to overwinter, and eggplants or cukes that you have allow to overripen so that the seeds get ripe too. I have rows of little jars of different colored tomato gel on the window sill, waiting to ferment the slime off so I can dry the seeds for next year.

But where was I? Right--talking to people from Peterson Garden, who introduced me to the idea of seed purchases as small business support. "I like to buy seeds to support the seed companies," my friend said.

And in the past two weeks we've seen this at work, with the imminent possible demise of Landreth Seeds, not only America's oldest seed company, but America's oldest company, period. Older than Chase Bank. Older than the New York Times. Older than Sears. And still local, family-owned and operated, and in dire straits.

I hope it's not because people like me aren't buying seeds.

Rainbow salsa
Golden, green, purple, and red tomatoes (plus any other color you have), about 3-4 lbs total, or 2 small to medium tomatoes of each color.
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, minced fine (will be less than a cup when minced)
1 medium onion, minced
hot peppers to taste (I used four shishitos, a small mild pepper)
Juice of 1/2 lime
Salt to taste

Makes about 8 cups

Chop and mix the vegetables. I like to drain the tomatoes for about 10 minutes to reduce the amount of liquid. Mix it all together, let it sit overnight.

By the way, you can help Landreth, by placing your fall seed, bulb and set purchases with them, and by ordering a catalog, or ten.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

As American as

Nothing more American than apples on this uber-American day. I got 10 pounds of them from last week, so I've spent the last few days making stuff.

I started with a simple applesauce--peel and core, and boil the hell out of a gallon of diced apples. Dump in honey for sweetener, and lemon juice for preserving. Hot water bath, and I've got a quart and half of apple sauce.

I used Early Golds; these seem mostly to be recommended by the "Early" part of the variety name. I actually happen to like mealy apples, but these are a little mealy, even for me. They make a nice tart sauce, but if you like your sauce sweet, this is not the apple for you.

Last year I discovered that apple peels make a great stock, so I froze some of them to use for that in a future risotto or soup. About 4 quarts of peels, however, I used for my latest torture of trying to make jelly. I boiled the peels and cores until I had, essentially, apple stock (about 15 minutes), ran them through a food mill, and then strained out the liquid. Followed an apple jelly recipe to the *#* -%&$#&^ letter and I still appear to have apple syrup instead of apple jelly. It can't be that hard, right? I mean illiterate pioneers and immigrants can make a jelly set up, why can't I?

Still having a lot of apples, I started hunting through my favorite recipe sites: Orangette, and Chocolate and Zucchini, and Southern and finally found a fantastic list of apple recipes at the ever wonderful Coconut and Lime. I made this apple bread, and I'll be making meat loaf for dinner.

And that's all about as American as Apple Pie, if you ask me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No funny vegetables

There's a concept in fine arts marketing known as "threshold" art--it's the stuff that gets people past the doorway, that gets them to buy that first ticket. In visual art it's Monet, probably; in theater it's the musicals put on by the regional houses. In classical music it's often the school field trip to Symphony Hall. It's familiar, not too expensive, easy to understand, and ideally located right in the community.

The threshold experience gives you a taste for more. No one ever started going to the theater by checking out the experimental storefront in the sketchy neighborhood, or instrumental music by buying a subscription to the Kronos Quartet. But they just might get there via Brigadoon or Beethoven.

I'm sure this concept exists in other fields as well--you don't buy your first food processor as a high-end professional one from some obscure online source. You go down to Target and buy it on price and looks.

Home grown vegetables need a threshold level, too. I've got 220 square feet growing for two nutrition programs. The recipients are very excited about the produce I bring them, until I bring them a Dragon's Egg cucumber (pale yellow and fist shaped), or a light green or dark yellow zucchini (heck, a zucchini, period), or a green-when-ripe tomato, all planted by well-meaning volunteers who had already passed this threshold.

These people are barely familiar with standard vegetables. Several times this summer I've gotten "what's that" accompanied by a skeptical, slightly disgusted look. And I leave the veggie and walk away, thinking, well that's going in the garbage.

Several gardeners I've worked with over the past two summers are gaga to plant unusual vegetables--black carrots and white eggplants and blue tomatoes--for kids, food pantries, and new gardeners, as though somehow if the vegetables are weird enough they'll get eaten, whereas the ordinary ones are just too, well, ordinary and that's why people aren't trying them. I admit, the shock value is fun and even educational, but if the point is that you want people to eat this stuff, don't hand them something that doesn't look, to them, like food.

If you're trying to get someone to do something new, don't start at the geek end. Start at the familiar. Some nice Better Boys and standard Romas are going to look familiar and safe. A good old Danvers carrot will get eaten--and the person eating it, who has maybe never had a freshly dug carrot before, is going to be amazed at the difference in taste to the orange wooden sticks they sell at the Safeway.

I feel the same way about heirlooms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a hybrid tomato, grown from seed or nursery start. Why disdain or discourage the new gardener, because somehow their effort isn't pure enough? I never grew heirlooms until I started talking with other gardeners--we're talking years and years of standard hybrids--I needed it to be comfortable and familiar before I went out on that limb.

There's safety in the familiar. We don't need more foodies. We just need people to eat fresh, home grown produce.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Z is for zucchini

I'm hopeless at them.

I always read with amusement the "how to get rid of zucchini" posts every summer. In the past decade, with zucchini planted maybe 4 of those years, I think I have managed, maybe... 3?

That's right-- three zucchinis. Not three plants. Three. Zucchinis.

It's one of the untold stories of the gardening world--the things that experienced, knowledgeable gardeners are bad at. I am hopeless at eggplant, beets, spinach, zucchini, and onions. No amount of reading, training, class-taking, soil-amending, researching, wintersowing, direct sowing, indoor sowing--you name it I've tried it, seems to be able to get consistent harvests from me on these plants.

Notoriously difficult plants like pumpkins and leeks, corn, cabbage, rosemary? No problem. They do just fine.

Mind you, the eggplant seedlings that I grew are in gardens all over Chicago, yielding dozens of fruits per plant. Mine have managed fewer than one each--6 aubergine plants, 5 fruits so far. I did manage to get 80 onions this year, after the 3rd planting finally took. Beets, though. I've planted 4 entire seed packets. I have 6 beets out there, and they're of the "baby" sort. If I ran a fancy restaurant, the type where a dish=one bite, and I only made enough for the first 3 diners, I'd be golden.

And then there's zucchini. I love zucchini. I can cook a LOT of zucchini. Stir fry, lasagna, bread, salads, pickles. And yet I just don't seem to be able to grow it.

Next time you walk into someone's gorgeous garden, think about what you don't see. Everyone can't grow something.

And finally--thank you so much Suzy Morris, for this very challenging challenge. I think I managed every letter, if not every day. Who's with me for the next challenge-- a No Buy October!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Y is for Yellow

From the garden, spring through fall.

Monday, August 29, 2011

X is for Xan

I have this funny idea, that people don't remember me. When I encounter someone I've met only a few times, I always put out my hand and state my name, just in case.

Which is really rather funny, as I'm probably one of the more memorable people you'll meet. From my mixed-race family, to my outsized personality, to my pink hair, to my funny name I'm fairly out of the ordinary.

Or make that eXtraordinary.

As are we all.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

W is for Work

In retrospect, it would have been a nice pairing to make V for Vacation as, despite the posts that opened my Alphabet in August, I never take one.

As a freelancer and part timer, not to mention a gardener, "vacation" at one job is usually used for special projects at another. If one job goes on hiatus (for instance, the ice rink closes, as it does 4 times a year, for 1 to 2 weeks at a time), rather than being able to take vacation, one of my other jobs probably just has a big job due.

Sometimes I take vacation time at one job to do the big task at another.

But in some ways that's okay. Work is one of my favorite things to do on vacation--work in the garden, or a week spent working at my art, or doing a rehab project in the house. I like to "work" at my writing. I don't think I could take one of those vacations where you lie around on a beach or a hammock all day, doing nothing. It would drive me insane. Maybe a day, maybe two. But two weeks?

Give me something to work on!

Friday, August 26, 2011

V is for Victory Garden

I'll let my good friend LaManda Joy handle this one:

A Victory Gardens primer

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

T is for Tomato and U is for Update

T is also for twofer, and for thank god because this is really exhausting.

I'm participating in two tomato growing projects this year:
  • I'm saving 3 kinds of tomato seeds for the Populuxe seed bank- Bramki (a very meaty slicing tomato), Ferris Wheel (slicers) and Blondkopfchen (a golden cherry)
  • I'm growing German Pink tomatoes for the One Heirloom Project
I also work on adapting tomatoes to my own backyard. I've got my stalwart Black Krim (on its 10th year now and looking great); on their 3rd year- Stupice, and in just their second two new varieties- Goldman's Italian American, and San Marzanos (from seedlings developed by Chicago Botanic Garden), plus I'm trying to decide if I want to keep going with the Heirlooms Golds (don't know the variety). They had a tough year.

Bramki: A real keeper, as I've said before. I've got a good start on seed saving, but would like one more good looking fruit before I call it a day. These got a little stressed from the horrible Blondkopfchen next door (see next), but it's a killer tomato-big, juicy, delicious and also very beautiful.

Blondkopfchen. Never. Again. Hideously blight-prone, leggy, slow. Flavor nice, but nothing to replace a good Sungold. I saved seeds, but I'm loathe to add them to the seed bank because I don't want anyone to grow these. I finally took it out because it was infecting the nearby Bramkis which I don't want to lose. Unfortunately, I also had to take out the sungold, not because it was blighty, but it just stopped setting flowers, so I had all this leggy growth and no fruit. Weird.

Ferris Wheel: Nice, but not great flavor, tendency to very large, easily bruised fruit. Reasonably prolific considering it's not adapted to local conditions. But I don't think I'll be able to devote space to this guy again.

The German Pink is still trying to keep up, and has finally managed to set a fruit. Just one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

S is for Shortcut

So there you are.

Two hundred and twenty tomatoes, all ripe at once.

And a giant project due at work.

As much as you would like to, you can't spend all day seeding, peeling and rendering tomatoes, but they're going to go bad. But you can make a quick sauce-- a little messier, a little off-the cuff, but way faster than those jars of perfect paste you've been dreaming of.

Ready? Don't tell Martha.

Quick tomato sauce
per serving:
1 pound of whole tomatoes, roughly cut
1/4 cup fresh or 1 T dried oregano and parsley
salt, pepper to taste
If it's going to be around for a while, add about 1 teaspoon rice vinegar or lemon juice per serving

A blender.

Grind away folks. You can use it right away, or freeze it. You can take it out later to make a proper paste as you normally would, and then can it. (You'll have to run it through a food mill because it will have the seeds and skins in it.) I've used this as is to do sauteed chicken and chops, on spaghetti, and in lasagna.

Monday, August 22, 2011

R is for Radio

For someone who has the tv on a lot, I don't really watch a lot of tv. In fact, I mostly sleep to tv.

But I'm a radio junkie. I like it because you can DO things while listening to the radio. TV, TiVo, Netflix, movies-you have to sit and watch. But I get a lot done while listening to the radio-gardening, cooking, cleaning, writing.

As I write this I'm listening to the Mike Nowak Show on WCPT (Chicago Progressive Talk) my single venture into AM radio. Mike's a lot of fun, and I learn a lot, and he tweets, allowing me to pretend I know a celebrity (if you define celebrity as "my mother would be impressed", since Mike's a pretty regular guy). I've put in a lot of gardens, and made a lot of pickles, while listening to Mike.

The rest of the time, pretty much, being a knee-jerk liberal, I listen to NPR, which stays in the background while tapping the consciousness every now and then with fascinating insights and info.

And my guilty pleasure? Mainstream country music alone in the car on late night drives.

Here's what I made while listening to Mike this morning.

Cucumber-plum honey pickles
Cukes & yellow plums, about 3 plums for every medium cucumber. (I used 7 cukes and a quart of plums, yielding about 8 cups of cut fruit)
Mildly hot peppers (to taste)

For 1 quart of pickling juice:
juice of 2 lemons
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/2 -2 cups water
1/4 cup kosher or pickling salt

Bring the juice to a boil, simmer for about 10 minutes. While it is simmering, peel, seed and slice the cukes, pit the plums and cut them into bite-size pieces (I actually use a scissor for this). Pour the hot liquid over the fruit, and refrigerate overnight. Pack into jars, with the fruit just covered with liquid, and put in a hot water bath to seal (35 minutes fully submersed at a rolling boil). Properly canned, these should be shelf-stable, although I refrigerate anyway, just to be safe.

If you have any leftover juice, save it for the next batch!

This makes a mild sweet-and-sour pickle, with a lovely peachy color.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Q is for questions

I'm always asking them. Today's question is "why have I never cooked anything that starts with Q?"

Thursday, August 18, 2011

P is for Preserving

I've always been pretty good, considering my demographic, about feeding my family whole, fresh foods, although I was terrible about the junk food when the kids were growing up. Ten hour day and 90 minute commute? McDonald's sounded pretty good to me.

But my kids will confirm that I Cooked Dinner. And once I got the garden in, when they were in grade school, I started, as many gardeners do, to have more than we could consume, especially tomatoes. So I learned how to make tomato paste.

At first I would just stick it in the freezer--no need for heat canning, or worrying about pH levels, but lately the freezer isn't big enough. Twenty-five tomato plants yields a lot of paste.

I also had a duh moment about jam. I never made it, because I didn't grow the ingredients. It literally never occurred to me to buy the fruit when it was in season, and make jam out of someone else's bounty. I really only ever thought about preserving what I grew myself, like there was some sort of law against preserving bought bounty.

Undoubtedly a consequence of my misspent youth.

Here are some of the jams
I've made since I figured it out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

N is for Not Enough Time

I was planning to spend the day at the Independent Garden Center show looking for things that start with N (I was going to say "N-words" but that sounds so wrong).

Unfortunately, I have ended up sick in bed annoying everyone with too much tweeting, and writing/scheduling blog posts to take me through 2018.

So N becomes Not Enough Time, which is how I felt in the 2 or so hours I had to walk the floor yesterday. I think there were more than 1,000 vendors, and the place is brimming with cool stuff, boring stuff, wtf-stuff and lots and lots of people to meet.

I stopped by Clesen Wholesalers, one of those places where one of my lives (skating--Dawn Clesen was my daughter's first serious coach), meets the other, namely gardening. I went by the Ethel's booth to see if there really is an Ethel, and to brag that I know Suzy Morris (aka Chiots Run, and Ethel's official blogger!). Alas, no Ethel, but wowie zowie I got to meet Renee of Renee's Garden. Some people are impressed by R. Kelly. Me? I like the seed ladies.

One of the vendors had lovely handmade soaps in various scents, including a "garden dirt" one, haha. Which, yes, I will buy this. I complain a lot about our toxic, extractive, consumerist culture, but I'm pretty much a sucker for a cute product.

Oh, and I told Corona Tools I'd find an "N" tool that I like. so here it is: catalog Number FS4350, Thinning Shears, forged blade.

Is that cheating?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

M is for Media

As in, I've got a Media pass to the Independent Garden Center show in Chicago this week.

M is also for Meet up, wherein all the bloggers and social media types with these passes get fed lunch, and I get to meet face to face a lot of the people I've befriended on Twitter and through the blogs. I'm not all that connected, as in no smart phone, so tweeting will be a little one-sided (I can tweet out, but not receive), but I'll let you know about the best products I see. I will make a special effort to look for "Ns" (Wednesday), and "Os" (Thursday)!

Anyway, follow me on Twitter @NotDabblingXan; we'll see how I do as a "real" media person.

And just because you really should be doing this, here's Little Blue Hen's wonderful recipe for easy (easy easy) homemade mayonnaise. I actually double the recipe below and I use cold eggs; I find that the oil emulsifies more reliably if you do that.

Anyway, stop buying mayonnaise in the store. I mean it.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Adapted from The Perfect Pantry via Little Blue Hen
Makes about 1 1/2- 2 cups

2 egg yolks
4 tablespoons room-temp water
1 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cup light, unflavored oil (canola, safflower, or grapeseed. The flavored oils, like nut or olive) will give your mayo a distinct taste of the oils)
1 teaspoon salt
juice of 1/4 lemon

Put egg yolk, water, and mustard in the bowl of a 3-cup food processor. Run the blade to make sure it catches the mixture, dribble in a bit more water if needed or stir up the yolk to get it to catch. Run the food processor until the mixture is pale yellow (about 30 seconds or so).

The oil must be added very slowly to ensure that the mixture emulsifies. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in a narrow (pencil tip width) steady stream. You can tell the emulsion is working because you'll start to hear slapping sounds as the food processor runs. Some recipes recommend stopping when about 1/3 of the oil has been added, and then continue to add by teaspoonfuls, but I've found it works fine to just keep the steady stream going. Stop the motor and check the mayonnaise to make sure it is emulsifying. If so, continue adding the oil slowly until it is all combined.

When all the oil has been added, add the salt and lemon juice. The lemon juice will help increase its shelf life. I've had this mayo last 3 months in the fridge.

It took me about 3 tries to get my rhythm on homemade mayo, but it is so superior to even the best store bought that once you get the hang of it, you'll never buy mayo again.