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.