Monday, October 31, 2005

I Yam What I Eat

Like many other people, I go through food cravings. But fortunately, these cravings have gotten more and more healthy of late.

Steamed kale? Oh yeah. Broccoli? Mmm-hmmm.

Sweet potatoes? Now you're talkin'...

Having added to my big bag of sweet potatoes from the farmers' market just recently, I decided it was time to start cooking with them.

First, I tried the sweet potato fries recommended by one of the older ladies at the market: julienned sweet potatoes tossed with olive oil, cinnamon, and paprika, and roasted until tender. Perfection!

Then last week I had a craving for a sweet potato stir-fry, with steamed sweet potatoes and broccoli, shredded cabbage, thinly sliced garlic, and the remains of my favorite potsticker sauce... tossed over whole wheat spaghetti with a sprinkling of crumbled nori on top. I cannot begin to tell you how amazingly delicious this turned out to be... other than to say I intend to make it again this week (replacing the cabbage with bok choy).

On Sunday, I tested a recipe from Vegetarian Times for a sweet potato and artichoke gratin (with a layer of pureed navy beans and vegetable stock) topped with crushed walnuts: another fine combination, especially when served with steamed kale.

And this evening I opted to put aside recipes and just throw something together: an Indian-spiced vegetable stew with potato, sweet potato, carrot, peas, brown basmati rice, and kale. Topped with a dollop of yogurt, a bowl of this kept me warm and happy all evening.

I love how versatile this vegetable is, and how flavorful it becomes under a variety of spices. And even though I was scared off it as a child by one too many marshmallow-topped yams at Thanksgiving (ugh!), I love it now.

But if I start turning orange, just feed me kale.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Too Much of a Good Thing

As Mae West famously said, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!" And while there are times when I would agree wholeheartedly with her, there are also times when too much of a good thing can be... well, too much.

And right now, astonishingly enough, I am feeling that way about baking.

Why? Well, at last count my kitchen still contained:

--a number of buttery ginger-molasses cookies in a tin on the kitchen counter

--a jar full of pumpkin spice biscotti

--a smaller tin with the last of the chai biscotti on the kitchen table

--half a pan full of peanut butter brownie bars (baked Tuesday so that I could perfect the recipe... yum!)

--a second small loaf of my Fabulous Aunt's traditional pumpkin bread, loaded with dates and nuts, in the refrigerator

Whew. I'm not complaining, mind you, because it's all wonderful stuff. But really, I can only eat so much, and even with giving away cookies to friends and freezing bags of the ginger-molasses cookies for Christmas, I still have a lot left over.

I think I need help.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Doing the Splits

I wanted to bake bread this weekend. But I couldn't make up my mind what kind of bread I should bake.

I considered whole wheat pita breads. But after reading the recipe and realizing it was another of those "turn the oven to 500 F and heat your baking stone" recipes, I decided against it. (I have a baking stone, I just have to be in the right mood to create that much heat. Maybe come January.)

I considered a basic loaf bread, since I have two yummy jams in the fridge waiting to be eaten. But... ho hum.

Finally I flipped through my copy of The Bread Baker's Apprentice and decided on... English muffins.

English muffins???

Yes, here's a recipe I've never tried before, but I decided it was time to give it a whirl. After all, the dough would have time to rise while I headed off to a chamber music concert a couple blocks away, and when I returned home, I could start the soup for dinner (a spicy Moroccan pumpkin and split pea soup) before cooking the muffins in a skillet and finishing them off in the oven.

I replaced some of the unbleached flour with whole wheat flour because, well, I like it. So that may account for why my muffins didn't turn out very holey.

But I took a fork and split the first warm muffin and slathered it with sweet unsalted butter and... happiness.

The muffins turned out thicker and a little more tender than store-bought English muffins, so they're a real treat for breakfasts, and I can still slather them with butter and jam.

I was never crazy about English muffins before, but I could get used to these fork-split treats.

It's not that big of a stretch!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

If You Carrot All...

Watch as the leaves drift slowly down from the big maple tree out back. Watch as even the hardiest of weeds start to droop and wither. Watch as the borage and the dill make a cool-weather comeback, hoping to get in just one more precious burst of flavorful greenness!

We're still waiting for the first frost around here, but the garden is slowly dying down to its winter hibernation, and I am gradually getting it cleared for its rest.

After today's hard work, approximately half the garden is weeded, and about half of that is covered in newspapers and mulch. The other half has a nice thick layer of dark, rich, perfectly moist-crumbly compost over it. Once I can get the rest of the garden weeded, I'll be raking those gorgeously brilliant maple leaves on top for an extra layer of humus come spring.

I also dug up the last of the carrots before covering up that section, so it looks like I will be cooking with those sometime this week.

Normally, that much work would exhaust me and pull my back just enough for me to call it quits. But the relatively warm and sunny weather compelled me to remain outside for the most grueling work of all: turning the compost.

I'm lucky to have two good-sized open-air bins that allow me to keep dumping the kitchen scraps and weeds and leaves into one while the other "cooks" down into that dark gold. And with my trusty shovel, I turned the newer additions from the full bin into the nearly-empty one, adding the occasional layer of leaves in order to help the more compacted layers loosen up.

Hard work, but there's something satisfying about using your muscles so vigorously and heaving shovelful after shovelful of organic matter that will eventually adorn and enrich your garden. (As long as you don't end up with mud, slimy weeds, or slugs accidentally tossed back into your face due to poor aim or the wind. What fun.)

Come winter, I'll end up shoveling a path through the lawn to get to the compost bins to keep dumping steaming stock scraps and other kitchen detritus to keep the compost "cooking" (albeit slowly). And next year, I'll have even more good compost to add to the garden.

Now, if it would only stop raining so that I could finish...

Only 63 More Baking Days Until Christmas!

Perhaps that doesn't worry you, but I know I'm feeling a little jittery about it.

The truth is, I don't even have that much time because I usually have to have most of my holiday baking done around the first week of December in order to have everything ready for a hand-picked bunch of students as they head into finals week.

So yes, when it comes to holiday baking, I start early. (And I give thanks to my Fabulous Aunt for turning on that little light bulb over my head to make me realize that hey! if I spread it out over a couple of months, I don't get as stressed!)

I'm planning on baking less this year: only a couple of kinds of cookies, two kinds of biscotti, baklava (of course), and some spiced nuts. But every year, I say I'm not going to bake as much... and then I do anyway. So don't hold me to this.

That's why this weekend I made two batches of one of my favorite cookies: ginger-molasses cookies. Like gingersnaps but soft, these dark and delectable morsels melt in your mouth with their buttery, spicy goodness.

And best of all, they freeze and thaw exceptionally well, enabling me to bake them now, freeze a few bags of them, and enjoy the rest with some warm mulled cider.

On top of that, I also tested two new biscotti recipes: chai biscotti, courtesy of faithful reader Tina, and pumpkin spice biscotti. Will either of these make the cut for holiday baking? It's possible, though the usual standbys of cranberry-orange and ginger-pecan are awfully tough to beat.

In the meantime, the project has been started, the freezer has been replenished, and I have cookies to share.

Well... maybe.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Salt and Battery

That sounds terribly painful and violent, doesn't it? But I promise you, I really am going to talk about food in this post.

To be quite picky about it, I'll tell you about the book I just finished reading: What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke.

Like one of my other favorites, How to Read a French Fry, this book takes many basic (and not-so-basic) questions about different ingredients and cooking techniques and offers scientific explanations for why things are. Wolke is a retired chemistry professor, so he knows his stuff.

And even with fairly dry and straightforward facts, Wolke knows how to make the subjects appealing and easily understood for non-science majors and beginning cooks. A number of the topics intrigued and delighted me, and some of the facts I simply have to share with you:

--What's the difference between sea salt and regular table salt? Wolke goes into a long and scientifically sound explanation, but it comes down to how the salt is mined or dried and then refined, leaving table salt with very regular uniform grains and sea salt with irregularly shaped crystals that dissolve more quickly and give a sudden burst of saltiness when you taste it.

--How do you clarify butter? (Slowly. Oh, you wanted details? Read the book!)

--Why does the aluminum foil covering lasagna get pinholes in it? This is my favorite one! If you use a non-aluminum metal pan (usually stainless steel) for your lasagna, and the aluminum foil you use to cover the pan touches the tomato sauce (an acid), you are essentially creating a weak battery that draws atoms from the aluminum, thus leaving holes. (Again, my explanation is greatly simplified and possibly slightly inaccurate... but isn't that cool?)

--Does all the alcohol in a dish cook out? No. But depending on the dish, the length of cooking time, the techniques, the size of pan, the rotation of the earth (OK, maybe not that), the amount of alcohol that evaporates can vary. Still, it doesn't all cook out, so take that into consideration when you cook for teetotaling guests.

There are many, many more fascinating bits of information in this book, and if you're as much of a cooking geek as I am, I highly recommend you read this. Wolke adds recipes, in case that helps to persuade you.

As for me... I'm getting hungry for some lasagna and a glass of wine.

Delivering the Goods

As I've mentioned before, the farmers' market is done for the year. But one organic farmer, the Cheerful Lady, had mentioned to me that she would still have produce for a while longer.

Without a car, I was unable to get out to the shopping center where she set up her tent this morning, but happily I had arranged with her earlier in the week to stop by my house once she had finished. (And since she was on the way to the local Bistro with a bucket of beans, my house was not significantly out of the way.)

I walked out in the autumn mizzle to inspect her buckets and bags in the back of her mini-van, and for a fairly small sum, I ended up with a bag of mixed greens, a big red onion, a couple more bulbs of garlic, three perfectly sized butternut squash, half a dozen sweet potatoes, and half a peck of Yellow Delicious apples.

She helped me carry the load into the house and indicated that I should call or email her this coming week to see what else she will still have, because she'd be happy to stop by again.

Once again I'm struck by the benefits of supporting the local farmers' market. Not only is it a great place to find fresh and inexpensive locally grown (and often organic) produce during the growing season. Not only does it give you a chance to support your local farmers and local economy. But it also helps you build good relationships with those farmers, who then may surprise and delight you with their kindness and generosity.

It's more than food... it's nourishment for the soul.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Me and My Gal(ette)

As previously noted, I had fresh parsnips from my garden, and I was not afraid to use them.

After trekking downtown to the grocery store for some kale (and to the co-op for other grocery items; they don't carry too much produce, alas), I returned home damp and shivery and ready for something hot and satisfying for dinner.

I pulled out the recipe for the parsnip galette with greens from Local Flavors and started off by cutting the washed parsnips in a julienne fashion (since they were too small to shred) while I steamed the kale.

Then I mixed together ingredients (egg, flour, salt, pepper, veggies) while I toasted chopped walnuts and dried sage in olive oil, adding them to the mixture when they were sufficiently browned.

Back into the skillet went the entire mixture, browning as beautifully as a perfect potato pancake. The walnuts toasted a little more and mingled with the comforting flavors of the vegetables, and my mouth watered as I waited impatiently for the galette to finish cooking.

Though I cut the recipe in half, it ended up being the perfect amount to make one galette about 8" in diameter, thus being the perfect size for a good, hearty fall dinner.

And the flavors! Mmmmm! Warm, toasted and toasty, slightly sweet and earthy, with a wonderfully addictive herbal crunch from the toasted walnuts, the flavors of all the ingredients came together in a perfect blend of autumnal tastes.

I suspect that this recipe, being similar to potato pancakes, would work well with other root vegetables and greens, so I believe I'll have to try it again. After all, it didn't take long to throw together, and it tasted sooooo good!

It's a match made in heaven.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Broc On!

I've been thinking the past couple of days that for all the preserving of good local produce I did over this summer and fall, I didn't get any broccoli to freeze.

And that's a shame, because broccoli is one of my absolute favorite vegetables (along with our friend Mr. Potato).

But even though the farmers' market has ended for the year, I've gotten a second chance: The husband of one of my co-workers works at the nearby agricultural research center, and he often brings in surplus produce from their fields.

And what did he bring us today? That's right, broccoli.

Guess what I'll be doing this weekend?

Back to My Roots

Yesterday afternoon, I finally had the time, the energy, and the beautiful weather to get back out to my garden to do some weeding and clearing. (Ugh.)

I've got a nice big bunch of parsley that I'd like to chop and freeze, as well as a smaller parsley plant that I think I'll try to dig up and pot and move indoors for winter. (I don't always have good luck with keeping parsley going through the winter, but it's worth a try.)

I also checked on my carrots and parsnips and decided to dig up a couple of carrots for dinner while I was digging up the parsnips for dinner tonight. Though I only had four or five small parsnips to harvest (didn't plant enough, and that row just didn't do so well this year... too damp?), I've got two recipes from Local Flavors to decide between: a parsnip salad with dates and walnuts, or a parsnip galette with greens.

Personally, I'm leaning toward the galette, as long as I remember to swing by the grocery store to pick up greens after work (unless I find my last row of kale at home is big enough to pick... probably not). The salad sounds good, too, but I've been on an egg-eating kick lately (reinforced by reading such yummy recipes as the Stir-Fried Eggs with Buckwheat Noodles and Salad Greens found on MaverickEats, the food blog from Tom Philpott's farm). So I think the galette will win out.

Obviously next year I will have to plant more parsnips because I've grown to appreciate them more and more as I've gotten older. As a kid, I would only eat them if they had been cooked and coated with a brown sugar and butter glaze. But now, I find them indispensable in soups (such as the curried carrot-parsnip soup I make once a year) and in roasted root vegetables.

The garden may be winding down for the year, but the lingering root vegetables will make me happy for a while longer.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Who Grew?

In the ongoing question of local vs. organic, here's further information (courtesy of Grist and an excellent new columnist, Tom Philpott) about the problems of organic mega-farms and monoculture:

"Organically Groan: Working Conditions on California's Organic Farms"

No, these huge organic farms aren't using pesticides... yippee! BUT they still use many of the same damaging practices such as monoculture and employing (exploiting, if you prefer) migrant labor. And since these farms are still located a long way away, the costs and environmental impact of fossil-fuel-based transportation make them only marginally better than conventionally-grown vegetables.

Yes, I know we're rapidly heading toward winter and a distinct lack of locally-produced fruits and vegetables available for purchase and consumption. Yes, I know that in the face of that local lack, organic still trumps conventional when it comes to farming.

But people are still involved in growing these foods, and these people still may not be getting a fair deal.

I should add that it's not my intent to make you feel guilty about everything you eat... just to pass along the information to help you make the best choices, even when the choices are flawed.

And if you're interested in further information on the problems of industrial agriculture, I'd recommend Tom Philpott's blog, the Bitter Greens Journal.

Behind every farm, there's a farm... or a lot of workers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Missing the Oat

It's quite an adjustment, being back home and back at work this week. I managed to stock up on groceries Sunday, but I still haven't quite got the same urge to cook (or, obviously, the abundance of time) that I had last week.

Part of it is that I'm missing the relaxed routine I had of waking up later, stoking the wood stove, and enjoying a bowl of good Irish oatmeal cooked in (gasp!) whole milk for breakfast. (Who knew that oatmeal could be so decadent?)

So this morning I decided that even though I was up at my usual early hour (you don't want to know... college students are just going to bed when I get up), I was going to make something special for breakfast before heading in to work a little early. And though I have some of that good Irish oatmeal on my own shelf, I had an idea for an oatmeal twist on my old favorite, pancakes.

Part of the inspiration came from a really wonderful oatmeal cookie I had made earlier this year, loaded with mini diced ginger and dates, so between that combination and the recipe for my favorite whole grain pancakes, I was able to whip up something both wholesome and happy.

I'm still missing those halcyon days of vacation. Heck, I even miss that wood stove!

But I'm not missing a good breakfast!

Oatmeal Pancakes

Almost all the pancakes I make are derived from my grandfather's recipe; where he got it, I don't know. But they're goooooooood.

1/2 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c rolled oats
1/4 c wheat germ
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 T Sucanat (or other sugar)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 c chopped mini diced crystallized ginger
1/4 c chopped dates
1 egg
2 T canola oil or melted butter
3/4 to 1 c soy milk (or regular milk)
salt or butter for the pan

Whisk together dry ingredients. Add chopped ginger and chopped dates and toss to coat.

Whisk together egg, oil, and soy milk. Add to dry ingredients and whisk until well combined and airy.

Salt or grease a hot skillet and add approximately 1/4 c batter to the pan. When bubbles appear on top of the cake and it looks like it's starting to dry, flip it over and brown the other side.

Serve hot with butter and maybe even maple syrup.

Makes 4 pancakes (I usually eat one per morning; keeps well in the fridge)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Plane Fare

I'm heading home today, taking my sweet time getting from one place to another. And though I generally prefer to eat lightly on travel days, today I'm making an exception.

It's not that I'm flying first class and getting a spectacular meal. Rather, I've given myself the luxury of a long layover in the DC area in order to arrange an extended visit with the one and only Mitch Heat.

After not seeing each other for over two and a half years, and having two missed connections in the past year alone, we were due for a reunion. So my buddy Mitch came out to the airport to meet me and to treat me to a decent airport meal (veg wrap, chips, cookies, and a mocha) while we sat in the baggage claim area and talked and talked and talked (and laughed over and over again).

In return, I brought him a slice of his favorite pear cake -- a simple butter cake topped with halved pears and chopped pistachios -- and earned for myself another heartfelt, bone-squishing hug.

No, there's nothing particularly exciting or impressive about any of the food we shared today. (He might tell you otherwise about the cake, but I'm fairly indifferent to it.)

But sometimes -- and I know it may shock you to read this, coming from me! -- sometimes it's not really what you eat that's important. It's who you share it with. And any meal shared with Mitch Heat is an occasion for celebration.

I've been fortunate this week to break bread with three fine people I first met as students and now am honored to consider as friends. I've had the privilege of hearing some of their dreams and learning how they've grown into themselves in the past few years. And that fellowship has nourished me even more than the food we shared.

I'm heading home now. Tomorrow I may be hard-pressed to pull together a decent meal for myself (at least until I visit the grocery store).

But for now, my stomach (and my heart) is content.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Pudding on a Show

As I spend the days by myself in the cabin this week, my routine boils down to three simple tasks:

1. Keep the wood stove stoked (and with this chill, damp weather, I don't need to be reminded!).

2. Read and write to my heart's content.

3. Cook to my hostess's heart's content.

Each afternoon, my Granola Girl comes home to fragrant smells wafting from the kitchen, and after we enjoy a long walk with the dog, we come back to tuck into a hearty meal.

And most evenings, we've enjoyed a fitting dessert, too. But tonight's dessert tops them all.

A few months back, my Fabulous Aunt had sent me some recipes copied from Chocolatier magazine (her favorite). Most looked too rich, even for my blood, but the recipes for the pots de creme variations caught my eye.

I've never had pots de creme before, but the simplicity of chocolate, cream, sugar, and egg yolks in a velvety rich cross between pudding and mousse had a certain appeal. And when I looked over the variations and decided on one of my own, I knew I had to test the recipe on a willing friend.

So after dinner, I pulled out ingredients and heated the half-and-half before whisking in sugar and unsweetened chocolate. I whisked the egg yolks separately, adding in the remaining sugar as well as vanilla and a healthy sprinkling of cinnamon. Then, I combined the two mixtures, poured it all into a greased dish, and topped it with chopped hazelnuts, more cinnamon, and the broken shards of a Scharffen Berger bittersweet chocolate bar.

Bake. Cool.

Wait. Drool.

An hour or so later, dessert was ready -- and so were we, for that rich chocolate confection turned out thick but fluffy, substantial but not too heavy, and flavorful but not too sweet.

In short, sublime.

It's obviously not a dessert for every day, but for very special occasions -- or just to warm your heart and belly on a chilly night -- it's worth the indulgence.

And it's worth sharing with a friend.

Dark Chocolate-Cinnamon Pots de Creme

Based on one of the many pots de creme recipes from Chocolatier magazine, issue unknown (though I suspect it's been in the last year or two). Even without the topping, this would be extraordinary.

1 c half and half
4 T evaporated cane juice crystals or granulated sugar, divided
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
3 large egg yolks
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract

Topping:
2 T chopped hazelnuts, toasted
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (OPTIONAL)

Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease 4 ramekins, set in a baking pan, and set aside.

Heat half and half in medium saucepan to simmer. Stir in 2 T sugar until dissolved. Whisk in chopped chocolate until smooth. Remove from heat and set aside.

In medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with remaining 2 T sugar and cinnamon until blended. Gradually whisk in about 1/3 of the chocolate mixture, then whisk in remaining chocolate and vanilla. Pour into ramekins.

Combine topping ingredients and sprinkle over top of chocolate.

Cover ramekins loosely with foil. Pour hot water into the baking pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake 30-40 minutes, until the custards jiggle slightly.

Remove ramekins from water bath and cool for 30 minutes. Eat warm! or refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving (as if anyone in their right minds would pass up warm pudding, please!).

Serves 4

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Crowd-Pleasing Cookies

When I discussed with my Granola Girl my wish to spend nearly a week's vacation with her in her cabin in the woods of southern New Hampshire, she was thrilled.

When I offered to cook for her for the whole week, since she would be teaching or in classes every day and leaving me on my own, she was ecstatic.

(I've discovered that for some odd reason, almost no one turns down my cooking. Go figure!)

The only thing that she said I absolutely had to do while I visited her was to go with her to the contra dance in Nelson on Monday night. "It's super fun!" she said. "You'll have dance partners all night, and they always welcome newcomers. You'll love it!"

"And by the way, do you want me to volunteer us to bring cookies?"

Now, I've never been to a contra dance before, and I know I tend to be a clumsy dancer. But I thought, perhaps these people will be more forgiving if I take home-baked cookies. So I agreed.

On my first full day in the cabin yesterday, I tested the kitchen's capacities to the limits by making soup stock, pumpkin soup, three-grain rolls, and two kinds of cookies for the dance: cinnamon refrigerator cookies and peanut butter brownie bars (with a peanut butter shortbread base, a fudgy filling, and chopped roasted peanuts on top). I've been pondering both of these recipes for a while, and as soon as I had the chance to test them, I did.

And so it was that we arrived at the town hall with me bearing a basket of cookies and a bit of nervousness about the dance. My Granola Girl graciously solicited a few dances for me with some of the more experienced dancers, and soon I was whirling merrily around the room, laughing with the exhilarating understanding of why she loves contra dancing so much.

When I took a break, I also could understand the need for the cookies, as I felt light-headed and in desperate need of quick calories. I managed to snatch a couple of the cinnamon cookies, but I never did see any of the brownie bars again as I was quickly whisked into the next set with another willing gentleman.

By the end of the evening, I suspect that a number of regulars were ready to have me come back, for my cookies if not yet for my dancing.

And you know, I think I just might.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Ladies Who Lunch, Pt. 2

Many of my friends have scattered around the country after their few years in my college town, and when I get the chance to visit them, I like to enjoy their company over a good meal. Let's face it -- almost all of my good friends share my appreciation (if not passion!) for good food, so what better way to spend time together than in breaking bread?

Since Spicyflower had offered to drive me to meet my Granola Girl (with whom I'm spending the rest of my vacation), I suggested that we enjoy a late lunch at a charming place off the beaten path in southern New Hampshire.

Pickity Place appeals to all my interests with its herb and flower gardens (many items find their way onto the menu), a gift shop with herb blends and teas and other good things, and a small dining room where you can enjoy a five-course set menu that celebrates the season's bounty.

Though we had to wait until 4 PM to be seated for lunch, we were able to tuck in right away with the crackers and the sun-dried tomato spread. Our waitress understood our need to leave early, and she graciously speeded up our meal without rushing us so that we could all hit the road in good time.

Our first course contained a smooth and savory butternut squash soup drizzled with a cider cream that warmed us up after being out in the cool, damp weather. The soup was followed by a Greek salad topped with a sun-dried tomato dressing, and we had slices of warm, swirled apple cranberry cinnamon bread spread with orange butter to go along with it.

For our entree, we all chose the sweet potato quiche (two entrees are offered: one vegetarian and one meat). The quiche was satisfyingly light and full of taste without being too heavy on the eggs, and the braised red cabbage that accompanied it provided the perfect kick to go with the quiche's mellow flavor.

We rounded out the meal with small wedges of a dark, intensely chocolate Kahlua cake drizzled with caramel sauce and topped with whipped cream. Heavenly!

Though we parted ways right after lunch, we all enjoyed the elegant meal and the chance to converse together (since neither of them had seen each other in several years) -- and, of course, to share our love of food.

What better way to spend time with friends?

Sweets from the Sweet

Among my fondest memories from my semester in France are the visits I would make to local patisseries, sometimes for a small quiche for my lunch and sometimes for a sweet morsel such as a mille-feuille or a sable. Such pastries and sweet confections are worth the occasional indulgence, though most of us don't have a pastry chef on hand to cater to our sweet tooth.

But for one brief, shining moment at the beginning of my vacation, I did.

I spent the first night with the incomparable Spicyflower who, in addition to offering me a comfortable spot to rest my weary head for the night, shared with me samples from her recent pastry school projects.

Before our Sunday brunch this morning, she offered me half of a miniature, sugar-syrup-soaked savarin, topped with real whipped cream and berries. Saturated with sweetness, this little cake offered a shamelessly decadent start to the day.

Next, Spicyflower handed me a pastry swirl that at first glance looked like a cinnamon roll but proved instead to have a filling of raspberries, homemade marzipan, and just a hint of rosewater. The more my bites moved to the center of the roll, the richer and more perfectly blended the flavors became.

Finally, we had a luscious brunch consisting of fresh orange juice, a fruit salad with Asian pears and red grapes and blackberries, and challah French toast topped with strawberries in maple sugar. The challah, of course, came from her class on enriched breads, and it suited the French toast (and me!) to a T.

Though shortly after brunch we headed up the road to meet up with my Granola Girl, Spicyflower also wrapped up a large chunk of candied-fruit-studded brioche and the remains of a country wheat bread.

It amused and touched me that Spicyflower was so anxious to please me with her baking since she holds my baking in high esteem. But with what she's learning and doing now, she is going far beyond the realms of my expertise, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to sample her excellent work.

She has already taught me a thing or two in our culinary discussions, for which I am truly grateful.

And maybe someday, she'll share recipes.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Safely Gathered In

Although there's one more week for the farmers' market, I made my last visit to it this morning to collect some of the last locally-grown vegetables of the season.

Since I'm headed out of town, there's no point in buying most of the produce (greens, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) that would sit and wilt in the fridge while I'm gone. But I can stock up on some of the longer-lasting vegetables:

--two butternut squash and two more quarts of walnuts from the pair of older ladies
--garlic labeled as "especially good for roasting" from the cheerful lady
--two pie pumpkins from the tomato farmer
--a potted basil plant from the gentleman farmer

Very few farmers were out today, either because their crops are largely done or because the chilly rain kept them away. But at least I was able to talk with a few of them and express my hopes that I'll see them next year at the market. (And I'll hope to see the cheerful lady sooner as she will have greens and garlic and onions a while longer and plans to take orders and deliver!)

After saying my farewells at the market, I headed across the street to the Hungarian pastry shop for breakfast (cappuccino and a slice of raspberry tea cake) to warm myself for a bit before heading home to finish my packing.

It's been a good year at the farmers' market, and I'm grateful not only for all the good food I bought there, but also for having the opportunity to talk with and learn from the many farmers who come to town with their produce.

Fall is definitely settling in now. My maple tree is turning a beautiful array of flame-flecked colors, my carrots and parsnips await their harvest, and I'm looking forward to spending future Saturday mornings baking bread and making soup from some of this year's bounty. Everything has its season, and though the farmers' market season is drawing to a close, the harvest is now in and ready to be transformed, just as I have been transformed by this year's harvest.

Let the season of thanksgiving begin.

Friday, October 07, 2005

To the Back Burner

I'm heading off on a desperately needed and richly deserved week's vacation in the north woods, so you won't be seeing any posts from me for a little while.

Don't worry, though... just because I'm on vacation doesn't mean I won't be cooking up some trouble... or playing with my food. And when I get back, I hope to have plenty of good stories about good meals shared with the incomparably sassy Spicyflower, my Granola Girl, and maybe even Mitch Heat. If you're lucky, I might even have recipes.

In the meantime... Go Cook!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Canned Applause

It's been a while since I checked up on the authors of the Hundred-Mile Diet, but their latest entry, "Getting Canned," takes on a topic near and dear to my heart.

You've probably read some of my entries throughout the summer about making and canning jam or pickles... or canning pears and peaches and tomatoes and carrots... and the list goes on.

I'm lucky in that I learned how to can from my grandmother and the Chef Mother because it has made it easier for me to preserve the fruits of my labor... or the local fruits of someone else's... and to enjoy these local foods throughout the year.

I'm delighted to have been able to share some of these skills with other people, such as the lovely Phoenix, or to see others learn such skills on their own (and here I pause to think fondly of the jar of rose hip jam my Granola Girl gave me for Christmas one year).

I'm not sure how many people out there continue to can, freeze, or dry the summer's harvest aside from folks who do live on small farms or in rural areas, or who have long maintained these summer rituals. It's not enough, surely, because I know far too many people (my contemporaries and even my parents' contemporaries) who are clueless about this wonderful exercise in home economics.

But those of you who do... well, my hat's off to you. After all the work I've done in my own kitchen this year, I have a greater appreciation for those people who, both in the past and the present, have preserved all or almost all of what they've grown. It's a lot of hard work, and it truly is best shared with a friend.

But the results are definitely worth a standing ovation.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Souper Harvest

Despite all the produce I picked up at the farmers' market over the weekend, I didn't really have any intention of cooking much this week as I need to clean out the refrigerator before my vacation.

But I did fully intend to pull out my slow cooker and a quart of vegetable stock to turn some of those vegetables into a harvest stew.

Since I walked home for lunch yesterday, I was able to start the stew then. I sauteed onions and garlic and a red pepper along with dried thyme, dried oregano, and some black pepper. That mixture went into the pot along with some corn from the freezer, cubes of butternut squash, two carrots, a potato, a rib of celery, the last of the wild rice, and some fresh sage.

It simmered through the rest of the afternoon while I finished work and ran errands downtown, and I returned home to a house full of that savory fragrance.

I topped my bowl full of stew with some roasted and salted sunflower seeds for an extra crunch, and the combination of flavors and textures made a very pleasing supper for a cool fall evening.

(Unfortunately, it was a rather warm fall evening last night, so it wasn't quite as appropriate. Still, it was good.)

One quart of the remaining stew has been set aside for my Opera-Loving Friends since the one friend is still recuperating from a recent heart bypass surgery (hence the lack of salt in the stew), and what I don't eat from the other quart of leftover stew by the time I head out of town this weekend will go into the freezer for a truly chilly fall night.

There are plenty of ways to extend the harvest!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Letting Down My Chard

I've never been a big fan of chard, probably because I never really knew how best to prepare it. One person suggested eating it raw, as a salad, and I was none too impressed. Someone else suggested cooking it, which left the greens rather limp and unappetizing.

But as I read Local Flavors earlier this year, I found a recipe for a chard gratin that sounded appealing. Using Bright Lights chard, with stems varying from beet red to bright yellow to pale green, it calls for a light saute of the chard with onions, a bechamel sauce, and a dill bread crumb topping.

Easy enough, I thought, so I bought a bag of chard at the farmers' market yesterday with the intent of trying it today.

This time, though the chard wilted in the saute, it didn't get overcooked, and it retained much of its rich color. (Maybe I never had the right variety of chard before?) And though the sauce was a bit thin, the bread crumb topping made it all look elegant and tasty.

You know what? It was tasty. And the slow-baked beets, topped with butter and salt and pepper, that joined the chard gratin on the plate also tasted good. Two vegetables I've never particularly liked both ended up as satisfying dishes for my Sunday lunch.

How's that for trying something new?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Apple of My Pie

I've been dawdling.

I spent most of this week avoiding any new cooking. Say there was too much to do, say I was too tired, say I was just plain lazy.

The fact is, I've been meaning to make a pie with the Early Mac apples I found at the farmers' market, and all week long I put it off.

But no more.

Happily, a Saturday morning market visit puts me in the mood to cook with all the good things I find, and after simmering grapes for juice and making broccoli pizza for lunch, I decided to tackle the pie this afternoon.

I'm sorry to say that my pie crust, though light and flaky and good-tasting, gave me fits by sticking to the counter and not holding together as well as it ought. (A bit dry, I expect.) So I would have to describe the finished crust as decidedly homely.

The apples, of course, were unimpeachable in their crisp tartness, and tossed with maple sugar, Sucanat, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, they made a sublime filling.

It smells heavenly. But since I invited Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy over to enjoy the pie tomorrow afternoon, I chose not to cut into it right away and settled for sauteed apples with similar spices and a maple-yogurt topping for dessert tonight instead.

Tomorrow, though -- look out, Pie, here I come!

Harvest Festival

Due to the local version of Oktoberfest clogging the main streets of town this weekend, the farmers' market relocated to another parking lot, away from the trailers for beer and brats. But the change in scenery failed to diminish the sheer variety of produce and goods available, and instead I found even more to buy in my attempt to stock up for winter.

I stopped to buy more Concord grapes from the sweet older couple, who told me that their grape crop had been especially fine this year. I can't argue with that! And I ended up buying another pint of honey from them because, well, you can't have enough good honey to get through the winter.

The Asian lady proudly showed off bins of newly-dug sweet potatoes, with the sweet rich dirt still clinging to their deep orange skins. She sold them by the pound and encouraged me to keep adding more to the bag until I had a hefty 5-lb bag containing 10 to 12 of these gems. And while there, I decided to buy a bunch of beets in the hope of learning to overcome my dislike of this vegetable.

The older ladies camped out next to her offered their cooking suggestions as I shopped, so of course I had to give them some of my trade by selecting a big, long-necked butternut squash. And as I cast my eye over the rest of the table, I spotted something that made my heart leap and my mouth water: English walnuts, still in their bumpy brown shells. I only bought two quarts this week as my pack already weighed a good deal, but I'm hoping to find more next week!

Down the row I went to greet the cheerful lady and to relieve her of some lettuce, rainbow chard, and fresh sage. We had a good chat about the market, writing, and her offer to deliver fresh greens, herbs, onions, and garlic, even after the market ends on the 15th. You'd better believe I'll be taking advantage of that offer!

I also picked up onions from the gentleman farmer, a pint of maple syrup from a lady sitting all by her lonesome, and broccoli and a loaf of wheat bread from the Amish folks before I took my turtle's-pace hike back home, smiling all the way.

As the cheerful lady commented to me, "I've never seen anyone get so excited about the food here as you do!" Probably not, and I'm sorry about that. I don't apologize for my enthusiasm, of course, because giving so much attention (and money) to the farmers and their goods this year has helped me to appreciate each fruit and vegetable in its own time, to taste the goodness of local foods, and to get to know more about the people who work hard to bring such quality produce to market.

No, I'm sorry for the folks who don't see that this local bounty is worth getting excited about, who don't fully appreciate the fresh flavors, who aren't enjoying the seasons as they roll by.

The true festival is here -- at the farmers' market.