Thursday, June 29, 2006

Take Another Little Piece of My Tart

I just don't know why I get certain ideas in my head sometimes.

Here I've been craving sweet foods like mad lately and thinking I should give in and bake cookies or brownies or something portable for lunches and such... and something I could pass around freely to friends.

So what do I end up making instead? A tart.

Go figure.

Perhaps it's because I knew I would be entertaining dinner guests this week, and perhaps it's because I knew that one of those guests (the lovely Phoenix, naturally) would be more than willing to help me prepare the tart. And maybe it's just because I've had a recipe for a cheese and jam tart in my notebook for several years now and haven't yet tried it.

Whatever the reason may be, that's what I ended up baking tonight.

When I came home from work, I mixed up a short crust pastry dough based on a recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book and slid the ball of dough into the refrigerator to chill. Once Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy showed up, Phoenix and I quickly rolled out the dough, lined a cake pan (since I don't have a tart pan), and finished filling the crust.

As you might expect, I could not adhere strictly to the recipe, so after spreading the cream cheese-egg layer in the crust, we added a layer of finely chopped Scharffen-Berger bittersweet chocolate before spreading the lot with my homemade strawberry-rose petal jam (in place of the raspberry jam originally suggested in the recipe).

Mr. Nice Guy, once again living up to his appellation, headed out to pick up pizza for us for dinner: not just any pizza, but a spanokopita pizza from the local Greek restaurant, a treat much enjoyed by vegetarians and omnivores alike.

After a most satisfying dinner, we took the tart out of the oven and allowed it to cool while we relaxed and enjoyed a delightful conversation.

When at last I sliced the tart, the mingling of fragrances greeted us, and we hurriedly tucked into a deliciously creamy, not too sweet, and richly fruity dessert with a mysterious hint of dark chocolate giving the whole concoction depth and that indefinable magic. The cheese and jam filling alone would have been lovely and pleasing in an old-fashioned sort of way, perfect for tea time, but the chocolate took it to new heights of sublimity.

As you might well guess, everyone approved of the dessert most highly. And if you wonder what constitutes high praise in my household, I will show you.

That's right: plates were licked clean. All three plates. (It's okay, we’re as good as family.)

If that isn't convincing enough for you, I have extra to share.

Not to mention the recipe.

Jam and Cheese Tart

I have no idea where the original recipe for this tart came from, but I have, of course, modified it from the original to fit your tastebuds. The pastry recipe is the second short pastry recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book (with modifications). If, like me, you use homemade jam and you like your jam on the runny side (I don't always use pectin), allow the tart to cool at least half an hour before serving so that the jam can congeal slightly. If you feel really decadent, you could always top this with fresh whipped cream, a sprinkling of more dark chocolate, or fresh berries. But don't hold me responsible if people swoon all over your dining table.

Short Crust Pastry
1 1/2 to 2 c whole wheat pastry flour
2 T maple sugar
1/4 c finely ground pecans or hazelnuts
1/2 c butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg
2 T water

Combine flour, sugar, and nuts. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg and water and work the dough together (with a spatula or your clean hands) until the flour disappears and the dough holds together, no longer sticking to your hands. Dust lightly with flour, shape into a ball, and place in a plastic bag, pressing down to form a disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

1 egg
1 8-oz package cream cheese, room temperature
3 T sugar (cane juice crystals)
2 oz finely grated dark chocolate
1 c strawberry or raspberry jam

Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out dough to a circle large enough to cover your tart pan, cake pan, or pie dish. Trim pastry, then gather the remains together and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine egg, cream cheese, and sugar until light and fluffy. Spread mixture over bottom of the pastry. Sprinkle with finely grated chocolate, then top with jam, spread into an even layer.

Form a ball with the remaining dough and roll out again. Cut into long strips 1/2" wide. Brush edge of pastry with water, and lay strips over the filling in a lattice pattern. Press edges to pastry shell to seal, then trim.

Bake tart at 350 F for 40 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Cool 15 minutes before slicing and serving. Serve warm or refrigerate until served.

Makes 8 servings

Monday, June 26, 2006

Cane You Tell the Difference?

Anyone out there know their berries really well?

I planted red raspberry canes last year, and though I only snagged about one of the tiny number of berries they produced the first time around, it looks like I might get a couple more this year (if the birds don't get them first).

But in the back corner of the garden, the wild canes already have fruit ripening:

I sampled one, and though the color was a deep red, the flavor was unsatisfyingly undeveloped... still tart and starchy. So I'm thinking that perhaps these "volunteers" are blackberries or black raspberries instead.

Anyone know the difference? I"d love to know!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Pasta's Always Greener on the Other Side

It's good to eat simply and lightly, to enjoy the flavor of the vegetables and to leave the table feeling refreshed but not stuffed.

That's why I'm not complaining about going without power for nearly 50 hours. I feel better for having eaten less food, more mindfully.

But I have electricity now, and I'm not afraid to use it!

Among this week's market finds was something I've eaten with other greens before, but not on its own: arugula.

Looks like any other green, right? And if it has lovely creamy white flowers, it must be fairly tame and harmless, right?

Well, right on the first count. The taste of arugula, though, is definitely an acquired one, especially when the leaves are larger and more mature, as this bunch is. Bitter, tangy, edgy... take your pick of adjectives. It ain't for the faint of heart.

I found a recipe in Local Flavors for a pasta dish using larger arugula leaves, and I meant to try that recipe straight up, no tweaks or "improvements."

On the other hand, I also really wanted my comfort food favorite broccoli-walnut pasta since I had some fresh organic broccoli calling my name. So what was I to do?

Oh, Dear Readers, you're so clever... yes, of course I combined the recipes!

I combined whole wheat spiral pasta with chopped broccoli and a quick saute of thin slices of organic garlic, chopped walnuts, black pepper, spinach, and arugula with a splash of lemon juice. With a handful of herbed feta and some snipped garlic chives from the garden, the dish ended up as a beautiful melange of texture and shades of green.

Though the strong arugula flavor still came through, it was tempered nicely by the milder greens, the rich garlic, and the crunchy walnuts. The whole dish made a satisfying meal... plus leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.

After lots of salad, I was ready for a more substantial but still healthy meal.

And with greens like that, I'd have that pasta again any time.

Greener Goddess Pasta

The recipe for pasta with "overgrown" arugula in Local Flavors isn't too far from my traditional favorite, broccoli-walnut pasta, so the two ideas were meant to be combined. Feel free to vary the greens in your dish; just make sure you cook them lightly in order to keep that vibrant green color. As for herbs, fresh parsley would work well if you have no chives, and depending on your vegetables, you could also consider fresh basil, fresh dill, or even fresh mint. Substitute a mild cheese for the feta, or omit it altogether. It's your pasta, and you're the only one who knows what divine tastes like to you!

2 c or so whole wheat pasta (something with character, please)
1 c chopped broccoli
1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 T olive oil
dash of black pepper
1/4 c chopped walnuts
2 c rinsed, chopped spinach
1 c rinsed, chopped arugula
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 T snipped fresh chives
1/4 c feta cheese

Boil whole wheat pasta in pot of salted water until it begins to give. Add broccoli and cook another 1-2 minutes more, until pasta is al dente and broccoli is bright green but tender. Drain and rinse. Set aside.

In same pot, saute garlic in olive oil until it begins to brown slightly. Add dash of black pepper and walnuts, and saute another minute or two longer. (Add them at the beginning if you don't like your garlic toasty; I do.) Toss in chopped greens and stir until they have decreased in volume and turned bright green. Splash lemon juice over greens and stir. Add drained pasta and broccoli to the pot, drizzle with a little more olive oil if needed, and toss in chives and feta. Mix well and serve to hungry people.

Serves 2

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Green Grocers

I awoke to no power again in the house this morning. So be it, I thought. So I'll lose a few more things in the refrigerator. Big deal.

It was easy for me to take that casual attitude since I knew I'd be headed to the farmers' market in a very short time... and that 'tis still the season for good fresh greens.

Sure enough, every farmer had some kind of greens available, most of which would easily make an entire meal with no cooking whatsoever. So, you guessed it, I stocked up.

From the Fiddlin' Farmer, I bought curly kale (to be cooked later) and a nice plump kohlrabi, good for peeling and munching on raw.

From the Amish Farmers, I bought three small tomatoes to enjoy with some of the thawing pesto from the freezer.

From the Cheerful Lady, I gathered two big bags of her fantastic salad mix and a bag of spinach to add a nice change of pace.

From the Taste-Everything! Lady, I bought a bunch of flowering arugula to add to salads or something later on, as well as a bunch of fresh romaine.

From the Original Organic Farmer, I bought a firm head of cabbage (cole slaw actually sounds good!), a beautiful head of broccoli, and two of her homemade brownies (not as fudgy as mine, but still pretty wonderful).

Add to that peanut butter cookies and zucchini bread from a quiet Mennonite woman and a loaf of house bread from the local bakery, and I figured I was pretty well set for the remainder of the power outage.

I headed home, and after some weeding and garden clean-up, I enjoyed a big (BIG) salad with over half a bag of salad mix, the last of the feta, and some walnuts from the freezer along with chunks of that chewy, wholesome bread. (Yes, and a brownie, too!)

Tonight for dinner, I had pretty much the same meal. Nothing exciting or earth-shattering, but on a warm evening with no electricity, I'll take it.

Of course, wouldn't you know it? As soon as I trekked down to the store for a bag of ice to replenish the cooler, the power came back on. Mind you, I'm not complaining! Refrigeration is a marvelous thing.

So tomorrow I'll be back in the kitchen. After all, I've got plenty of green vegetables to use. But I'll be ready for something other than salad.

And you know, it ain't easy bein' green.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Powering Down

A peaceful summer day, free from work and from most chores –- sounds idyllic! But when this "day off" results from a violent storm, fallen trees and limbs, and the ensuing power outage to a large portion of the city, it becomes a disconcerting step out of time.

On the way to work

Gingko near work

We have become so dependent on electricity in our society that such a power outage makes us wonder, "What do we do now?" Some people, desperate to entertain their children or even themselves, may pack up the family and head to a hotel with cable television –- or, in the case of one of my neighbors, find a generator because "we gotta have the Playstation!"

Thanks to the mild weather (60s and 70s today, unlike the 20s and 30s of the last multi-day outage I experienced), I am both astonished and pleased with how easily I have fared. Luckily, my fridge and freezer were not full, so I've been able to clean out what can be eaten without cooking, and I'll have very little to throw into the compost if the power doesn’t return soon. The asparagus from last week's farmers' market won't make it, but I polished off the broccoli today by making pizza wraps with tortillas, pizza sauce, and the last of the goat cheese.

Occasions like this naturally call to mind the fact that our forebears –- sometimes our parents, but mostly our grandparents and beyond –- lived very full lives without electricity, refrigeration as we know it, central air and heat, computers, and so many of the conveniences we take for granted. Their way of life wasn't necessarily a piece of cake: who wants to stoke a wood stove or break the ice on their wash basin on a cold morning, or keep a wood stove going on a hot day in order to cook or even to heat water for washing dishes or clothes? But they held onto a self-sufficiency that kept them independent of remote power resources and "time-saving modern conveniences," and while they worked hard and sometimes suffered, they enjoyed a certain freedom that we rarely even know we’re missing.

I find that even with my efforts over the past two years to live more simply and mindfully, I'm torn now between restlessness and wanting to slow down and savor the experience. Happy not to have to work today (can’t work in a big building with no computers and only emergency lighting), I still worked through the few chores I could do and felt the need to walk out on errands (some stores were open). And after a long nap to catch up on some much-needed sleep, I buzzed around aimlessly, trying to clean up piles and start new projects.

Over 24 hours without power have passed, with no indication as to when it will be restored, and I discover that I'm still slowly unfurling, letting go of those "needs" from my usual life in order to inhabit the moment. The rain from earlier today has cleared, and amidst the vibrant birdsong in the (thankfully!) still-standing trees, I hear the drone of an ultralight craft flying over the city, along with the whine of power saws making small piles of fallen branches and tree limbs. I can enjoy a glass of still-cool wine and a refreshing breeze while I wait for the fireflies to come out. I can have a guilt-free early night to get some more rest before I head to the farmers’ market tomorrow. I can do very well without electricity, at least for a few days.

But if I still don't have it tomorrow, I'll be eating a lot of salad this weekend!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

They Can't Take That Away From Me

You wouldn't be able to tell from my other cooking recently, but this weekend did not get off to a good start.

The truth is, Dear Readers, I discovered that someone had slipped into my house while I was mowing the lawn, and he stole my four most valuable (in monetary terms) pieces of jewelry and copies of the cards in my wallet (not the wallet itself).

You can imagine my reactions: utter disbelief, self-reproach for leaving the house open, gut-wrenching fear, determination to do whatever I could to prevent anything worse from happening (like identity theft), and relief that only things had been taken.

I slept very ill Friday night, as you might have guessed. But something amazing happened Saturday morning as I walked downtown to the farmers' market. Absorbed in seeing newly planted flower beds, inhaling the fragrance of lavender blossoms, hearing birdsong all around me, I experienced clarity and felt deep within me the truth of what I already knew:

My true treasures are not those lovely jewels that were given to me as I came of age, nor any other material possession. Dear though they may be, given by family and friends, but in the end, they're just things.

No, my true treasures are those qualities that no one can take from me: an appreciation of beauty, a sense of wonder and joy, security in knowing who I am, deep and abiding love for and from the people in my life, and profound gratitude for all of this.

Going to the market that morning was, perhaps, the most healing act I could have done, because it allowed me to step outside my own cares to see and hear other people and to appreciate the wondrous beauty of all they had to offer. On the one hand, what I find at the market is just food, meant to nourish the body. On the other hand, knowing that this food was raised and produced with care according to personal principles –- and that supporting these farmers means supporting the community, something beyond myself –- you can see that food truly nourishes the spirit as well as the body.

So tonight I decided to make a special, almost entirely local meal for myself to celebrate this newfound sense of freedom.

First, I made an enormous and lavish salad with mixed greens, strawberry halves, crushed walnuts, crumbled goat cheese (not local, alas), a chiffonade of fresh basil plus the few basil flowers from the pot on my windowsill, sliced spring onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette.

Yes, I ate all of that all by myself, and it was the best salad I have had in a very long time!

Then I tried a recipe from Local Flavors, recently given to me by Mr. Nice Guy's parents (he comes by it honestly), and braised asparagus in a light sauce with spring onions, garlic chives from my garden, and the Rhapsody wine that also accompanied dinner. At the end of cooking, I threw in a small handful of fresh peas as well as a few sprigs of fresh dill from my garden, and I served it all over polenta made with locally ground cornmeal.

I savored each and every bite (and sip), giving thanks for all the fine people who contributed to the making of this meal, for the light and life that went into all the foods, and for my ability to appreciate it all –- the smell, the taste, the sight, and the sensation.

It's not about the food. (Okay, it's not just about the food.) The true pleasure comes from a deeper awareness of and connection to the source of the food, recognizing that we are all woven together in life, that we are all interdependent, and that this is the source of our strength, not our weakness.

I do regret losing my jewelry, but I've let go of it, knowing that I still have the memories associated with those pieces -– and knowing that I possess more precious "jewels" than those, ones that can never be taken away.

And it's my hope that everyone, even this thief, has that same happy realization for themselves.

Up the Creek Without a Bottle

Nearly two months ago, the lovely Phoenix, Mr. Nice Guy, and I spent a day wandering around the area, hiking in our nearby national park and enjoying a satisfying Indian lunch.

On our way home, we saw a sign for The Winery at Wolf Creek and decided we needed to investigate. After all, we may not be wine connoisseurs, but we do enjoy a good drink now and then, and both Phoenix and I are constantly looking for local sources of good food and drink.

The winery, located on the western edge of Akron, overlooks lovely Wolf Creek, its vineyards on a sloping hill down to the water. We entered the tasting room, a lodge-style building with large windows overlooking this view, and picked up a list of their wines.

Phoenix and I both enjoyed small tastes of four or five wines each, just enough to make us glow but not enough to make us tipsy, and we agreed on a few favorites, including the luscious wine made from blueberries.

I knew I had no pressing need for a stocked wine cellar at home, but I did indulge in two varieties that particularly pleased my taste buds: Redemption, a slightly sweet red, and Rhapsody, a light and fruity white.

I don't drink wine regularly, so I stashed the bottles in the cupboard and waited for the perfect opportunity to showcase them. And tonight, with a dinner featuring many marvels from the farmers' market, I knew I needed to pull out the white wine.

Not only does Wolf Creek make wine I like, the owners have a marvelous sense of humor. The label declares, "Our winemaker was never an American in Paris, but he thinks nothing is more beautiful than his wife, or Rhapsody in blue bottles rolling off the bottling line." Brilliant!

I confess to preferring my wine to be a little on the sweet side, so this wine suits me just right: delicate, lightly sweet, like the just-ripening fruits of late summer. It paired well with a flavorful salad and springtime vegetables, and I know it will go well with nearly anything I might make for dinner this summer, whether I follow the advice on the bottle to enjoy "while listening to a Gershwin tune" or not.

I hope to get back to the winery next month, possibly for a tour with the fair Titania as well as Phoenix, and I may bring home a couple more varieties.

But don't worry, I'm set until then, no matter where summer's currents may lead.

What Curd I Do?

I've already raved to you about my wonderful friend, the fair Titania.

Her generosity knows no bounds. Not long after she sent me the pomegranate molasses, she sent another box, this time containing a very well-cushioned jar of homemade Meyer lemon curd.

What a treasure! I have sampled lemon curd before, but I had never had the chance to play with it in my own kitchen. Oh, the possibilities!

But, of course, when you think of lemon curd, you may first think of scones. I know I did.

Not just any scone, though. Oh, no. This treat called for a new scone recipe, combining flavors that would harmonize well with the creamy and sweet yet tart curd. What else would I choose but the bite of crystallized ginger and the fresh taste of mint?

Never mind that the temperature was already well into the 70s when I got up this morning. When I get the urge to bake, nothing stops me, and I wanted ginger-mint scones.

With the dark sweetness of Sucanat, a large handful of diced crystallized ginger, fresh organic lemon juice and peel, and some fresh and finely chopped spearmint from my garden, these tender little scones proved to balance the lemon curd very nicely. In fact, I rolled the dough a little more thinly than usual and made two-layer scones, with a light spread of lemon curd tucked in between.

On a handful of scones, I used some fresh strawberry-rose petal jam or even fresh berry halves for the inner layer.

Either way, the scones turned out to be a delightful brunch with a mint-and-lemon laced sweet iced tea –- perfect for a hot day in progress.

What else could I do with good lemon curd?

I aim to find out.

Ginger-Mint Scones

Derived from a recipe for Cinnamon Pecan Scones found on the King Arthur Flour web site, these scones make a tender and tasty addition to the breakfast table. My Moroccan mint would work equally well here, as would orange mint, if you have it. Serve with butter, lemon curd, or a complementary jam… or cut back on the sugar and serve this with an Indian or Thai meal for something out of the ordinary.

1/2 c sugar (I like Sucanat)
up to 1 T minced fresh spearmint
2 c whole wheat flour
1 c unbleached flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 c mini diced crystallized ginger
1/2 c unsalted butter
1/2 c soy milk
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp freshly grated lemon rind
2 large eggs
Lemon curd or jam for filling (optional)

In small food processor, grind sugar and mint together. In large bowl, whisk together sugar mixture, flours, baking powder, salt, and ginger. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

In a separate bowl, beat together the milk, lemon juice and rind, and eggs. Add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and stir to combine. Knead lightly in the bowl for a moment.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll it into a rectangle about 1/4" thin and cut dough with round cookie cutter (you can use other shapes as desired). Place scones on an ungreased cookie sheet and spread with a thin layer of lemon curd or jam. Place another layer of scone dough on top and seal edges. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for 12-14 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve warm.

Makes up to 2 dozen scones

Saturday, June 17, 2006


One shelf in my kitchen cupboard is almost entirely devoted to jams, mostly homemade.

Raspberry, triple raspberry, peach, pear-pine nut, blueberry, black raspberry and chocolate mint, rose jelly –- nearly ten jars of jam perch on that high shelf.

The thing is, I love to try new jam combinations and to give jars to other people, but it takes me a good long while to go through my own stash.

It's strawberry season, though, and aside from a jar of strawberry-ginger jam in the freezer, I'm out. And strawberry jam is my favorite.

So you might have guessed that a fair number of the berries I bought at the farmers' market this morning were destined to end up mashed, cooked, and sealed in a glass jar or two.

But what did I want to add to the berries? Last year's microbatches with Moroccan mint and rose-scented geranium proved very successful, but given the abundance of my beautiful red roses this year, I chose to make strawberry-rose petal jam.

After slicing and mashing the berries, I mixed rose petals, one rose-scented geranium leaf, and sugar (yes, the highly refined white stuff –- shocking, I know!) in my small food processor and ground everything to a soft, fine texture.

The grinding released a lush wave of rosy fragrance, and when I added the sugar mixture to the berries, the combination was heavenly!

I won't bore you with the details of the cooking process; suffice it to say that I stood at the stove, stirring, for about 45 minutes before filling jars and processing them in a hot water bath.

My favorite part, though, is always skimming the foam –- or, as we call it in my family, the scum –- off the cooked jam because that's the stuff that's always eaten first, fresh and warm. And it always means that my hard work is immediately rewarded with a slice of fresh bread, toasted and slathered with butter, and a generous dollop of jam on top.

Roses and strawberries complement each other's flavors so beautifully, it's clear they were meant to be together.

I have three jars to prove it!

A Growing Appreciation

It's Saturday morning, and you know what that means: time to strap on the backpack and head downtown for the farmers' market.

I arrived early today, about 15 minutes before they officially opened, but that just gave me time to scout out all of the stands and talk to some of the farmers.

The Original Organic Farmer greeted me effusively and immediately began to apologize: apparently she had meant to bring me a seedling of a plant she had mentioned to me –- an Asian green that she’s raising for restaurants –- and she forgot it. Fortunately, she'll be back next week, and in the meantime, I'll enjoy some of her delicious rose jelly.

The folks with the good local grains were back, so I picked up some whole wheat flour and told them how delighted I was that they were back!

The Bee Man had returned, too, so I stopped to buy a pint of honey and to express my wishes that he'd be back again soon.

The Cheerful Lady and her husband had lots of good organic produce, so I went a little nuts, buying radishes, more of their delicious salad mix (which includes arugula, mizuna, mustard, and/or cress on any given week), a bunch of colorful spring onions, and two quarts of shelling peas for freezing or drying.

I talked with the other organic farmer (the man with the ponytail) and asked when he would have his organic strawberries this season. Alas, he doesn't have a good enough crop to bring to market this year, though he did say I'd be welcome to come out and brave the weeds to pick my own. (Phoenix, are you with me?) I "settled" instead (not that it's a hardship!) for the last of his family's asparagus and the first of their broccoli.

The Amish folks, though, had plenty of strawberries, so I picked up two quarts from them, along with a loaf of focaccia from the bakery.

I lingered at the market to enjoy a blackberry half-moon pie and a cup of pink lemonade from an enterprising young farm boy, and I enjoyed some fine folk music provided by the man with the ponytail, now to be known hereafter as the Fiddlin' Farmer.

What a way to spend a sunny Saturday morning! Each week I find more to love about the farmers' market.

And my appreciation for their home-grown produce is definitely growing.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Makin' Guacamole

When warm weather comes, I like to make very easy dishes that require no powered appliances: salads of all sorts, sandwiches (hello, radishes!), and the like.

One of my favorite quick warm weather meals is guacamole on tortillas or with chips.

Though I used to have a slightly more complex recipe for guacamole that was very tasty, I've found that the fair Titania's extraordinarily easy and flavorful recipe is much better.

Thanks to her gracious teaching, I have been able to enjoy guacamole at home much more often than before, and I've served it to friends who raved about it. (The Gentleman, in particular, recently rhapsodized about it when I told him that's what I was having for dinner.) I've had friends ask for the recipe, but really, it's not that difficult to make!

Now, the other thing to know about Titania -- aside from her passionate, adventurous approach to food -- is that she loves to sing. And when she cooks, she likes to sing to her food. And because I have cooked with her so many times, I have picked up that habit on occasion.

So instead of a straightforward recipe for guacamole -- which you don't need, because it's so simple and the quantities are really to your own taste -- I'll give you a song. (Count your blessings that I'm not uploading a sound file of me singing it!)

Makin' Guacamole

Sung to the tune of "Makin' Whoopee." Serve with tortilla chips or toasted tortillas and share with someone who appreciates your style and sense of humor.

An avocado,
Some garlic, too,
Some fresh cilantro,
And fresh lime juice...
Mash it together
In any weather
For guacamole.

Yeah, I know, "don't quit your day job."

So don't forget, folks, that's what you get, folks...

...when you ask for a recipe.

Who's Hungry?

I've been back from my vacation for a few days now, but I haven't been cooking much.

Before I left on vacation, I used up the good farmers' market produce that was in the fridge (or gave some to the lovely Phoenix), so I came home to an echoing kitchen with not much ready-to-eat food aside from juice.

The next day, I visited the grocery store over my lunch hour so that I could stock up on produce (mostly organic, but not local, alas), yogurt, cheese, and soy milk to get me through the week before I could visit the farmers' market again. I tried not to get too much, because even though I have two big compost bins in the back yard, I really do try not to waste food. (I'll also add that I ate incredibly well, with way too many desserts, and I've now swung back to the other end of the spectrum.)

So it's been a menu of fairly simple, fresh meals this week, nothing too exciting.

But that got me to thinking. Like most Americans, I'm pretty fortunate to be able to keep my cupboards and my refrigerator well stocked with good food, and when I'm out, it's not very difficult for me to head to the store and get more. I'm not rolling in the big bucks by any means, but I live very comfortably and can afford to indulge my love of good, healthy food and the occasional exotic ingredient.

What about those people who can't? How many people can barely afford cans or bags or boxes of nutritionally deficient processed food, let alone fresh fruits and vegetables? How many people are dependent on food stamps, soup kitchens, or local food pantries?

Thoughts like that don't really take away the good taste of my meal, but they do make me think much more carefully when I buy and cook food and make me try to be more mindful of the beauty and the life of the food I eat as well as of those who aren't so lucky.

I do try to support the regional food pantry, but this article on gleaning or food recovery points out ways that other people try to reduce food waste and feed those who need the help, including those who might ordinarily be able to afford food but find their resources diminished in a disaster. Food can be recovered from restaurants, stores, and yes, even farmers' markets and made available to those who need it.

There's so much going on out there in the world of food politics that I still don't know, but I'm very glad to see that there are many resources for reducing food waste and for helping those who need healthy food and can't get it on their own.

In this day and age, no one should go hungry. We have enough to share.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Market Research

I never tire of saying it: I love my farmers' market.

I love the array of colorful fresh produce, I love talking with the farmers and vendors, and I love the occasional surprises.

I definitely admit to a preference for my own farmers' market since I can get there almost every week and I have already made a connection with several of the growers.

But that doesn’t mean I don't enjoy visiting other markets, too. And since I'm here in Springfield for a few days, I might as well join Sojourner and her husband for a trip to their farmers' market.

(All right, all right, full disclosure: I begged to be taken there.)

While they searched for fresh strawberries and tomatoes and peaches and potted daisies, I wandered up and down the street (two blocks' worth) and carefully examined the stalls.

Along with the usual selections of fresh produce (much of it organic), I also found homemade preserves (vegetables as well as fruit), two bakery stalls, a coffee vendor, plenty of potted flowers and herbs for home gardens, herbal personal care products, and on and on. Sojourner tells me that the full complement of vendors was not present today; she was even hoping to get a quick massage from a stall affiliated with the local hospital, but it wasn't open.

Since I'm a guest and still have a couple of days before I head home, I knew I wouldn't spend madly like I do at my usual market. I did, however, pick up a one-pound bag of shelled pecans (which Sojourner had sent me before) and a pair of lime shortbread cookies from one bakery stand.

I had thought that would be the extent of my purchases, but the other bakery stand had small containers of sample pieces of all their breads, and, well, I sampled.

I particularly enjoyed the piece of tomato-basil focaccia I tried, and the more I thought about it, the more I knew I needed to buy a loaf to take home.

My allegiance to my home farmers' market remains unshaken. You knew that.

But I do enjoy researching other markets!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Home Plate

I have mixed feelings on travel. (Doesn't everyone?) I love to explore new places, but I miss the comfort and the reliability of familiar things from home.

That's probably why most of my travels focus on visiting with friends and staying in their homes. Granted, there's still the stress of travel and getting out of the usual routine, but there's also the adventure of exploring new cities, historical sites, and restaurants balanced by the home environment.

This vacation is no exception. My friend Sojourner graciously invited me to visit her and her husband in Springfield, IL, a year ago, and I am finally able to take them up on their kind offer, enjoying the domestic comfort of their elegant but cozy four-square home along with the daily expeditions into the Land of Lincoln.

And, of course, since these friends enjoy good food as much as I do, this visit will include a sampling of good local restaurants, starting with lunch at the Middle Eastern buffet at the Holy Land Cafe, across from the old capitol building.

But on this first day out, what I've enjoyed the most has been the pleasure of simple meals and between-meals at their house. After our first round of touring, Sojourner and I returned to the house to refresh ourselves with a plate full of fruit, muffins, and cookies alongside cold drinks out on the shaded front porch.

Since we had a late nosh and a comfortable rest on the wicker furniture, we decided not to do much for dinner, settling for fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and garnished with fresh basil (from her labyrinth garden), whole wheat artisan bread, and herb-laced cheese.

Sitting on the back deck overlooking the labyrinth garden, we savored the bliss of fresh foods in fresh warm breezes, with birds serenading us.

More adventures await us, but for the first day, this suits me just fine.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Rose by Any Other Name

One of the delights of having multiple garden spaces around the house is the constantly changing array of blooming things.

After the spring bulbs give way to the lilacs, and the lilies-of-the-valley fade to let the peonies take center stage, June heralds the return of my roses. These beautiful red ramblers jump out from their glossy green foliage against the brick walls and add a vibrant warmth to the herb garden.

"But wait a minute," you may be saying. "Aren't you supposed to be writing about food? What's with the flower parade?"

Ah, my Dear Reader, do you not remember that I enjoy edible flowers as much as herbs and vegetables and fruits?

That's right, these lovely cherry red roses are considered more of a food crop in my household (even though one or two might get plucked and tucked into an antique salt shaker for decor). And though my canes don't produce as many flowers as they used to, I still try to dry many petals for later use in baking or even in Irish rose tea.

This year, though, my roses surprised me with a more abundant bloom than I had seen in a few years. So after another warm and sunny day encouraged more buds to open, I picked another batch of blossoms, cut the petals into shreds, covered them with sugar, and ended up making rose petal syrup.

A few years ago, I had tried to make rose petal jam, but it didn't thicken, and I ended up with a few small jars of brilliant pink syrup instead. I discovered that not only did the syrup add gorgeous streams of color and a faintly rose and berry flavor for vanilla ice cream, but it also made a magical Italian soda when combined with club soda, with the rosy pink color gradually fading like an exquisite sunset.

This year, then, I knew I wanted to try to recreate my efforts, so I spent a little time this evening simmering the rose petals and the sugar (with a little rose geranium sugar added to enhance the flavor) with water until the color leached from the petals and added a delicate, ephemeral flavor to the syrup. And when I finished, I poured the syrup into attractive bottles and let it cool.

I don't think I've ever been much of a girly girl, and pink has never been one of my favorite colors, but seeing this softly glowing rose syrup fills me with delight and makes me want to plan tea parties: Irish rose tea with rose petal scones? Berries with cream drizzled with rose petal syrup?

Any way I use them, these roses will still taste as sweet.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rolling Through Spring

The trouble with introducing food-loving friends to new dishes is that they often beg to enjoy those same meals again. And again. And again.

Not that I really have a problem with that, mind you, because I usually enjoy those exact same dishes and am happy to indulge myself.

Still, when late spring and warmer weather rolls around, I know to expect that the lovely Phoenix will beg for certain items to show up on the menu at my house, and one of her all-time favorites has to be rice paper (or crystal) rolls with spicy peanut sauce.

You could explain this desire of hers as that of a health-conscious vegan wannabe who loves her fresh veggies. You could also explain it as a childlike love of peanut butter and the fun ways it can be used.

Personally, I think (no, I know) that it's because she has an unseemly amount of fun making the darn things.

Lucky for her, I keep a stash of round rice paper wrappers in the cupboard, and I had plenty of beans and asparagus left over from Saturday's trip to the farmers' market. I had no rice noodles, but we found that soba (buckwheat noodles) made a very satisfying substitution.

By the time she and Mr. Nice Guy made it to my house after work, I had the vegetables prepped, the noodles cooked, the peanut sauce made, and everything laid out so that we could start in right away.

These rolls are so much fun to make because you have to handle the thin wet wrapper very carefully while you add all sorts of fun things to the filling. Along with the beans and asparagus, we also added fresh mint and cilantro, and Phoenix decided to try some of the sauce inside the roll (as well as for dipping later).

I'd definitely say that aside from the eating, this is the part that Phoenix enjoys the most, and she's usually happy to roll not only her own, but Mr. Nice Guy's, too.

As for me, I may not wrap mine perfectly either, but I'm pretty happy with the results:

Crisp steamed vegetables, tender noodles, rich and spicy sauce... a refreshingly perfect combination for an almost-summer evening meal.

You could definitely say we're on a roll here.

Monday, June 05, 2006

A Midsummer Night's Tea

Several weeks back, I made a light and refreshing new herbal blend for my morning tea, containing four herbs found regularly in my garden.

I've tried it again a couple of times since, enjoying the light, lilting floral flavor every time. And I've mentioned it to the fair Titania, who was instantly jealous and wanted to try some herself.

So since I've recently dried more Moroccan mint and have been meaning to clean out my cupboards, I decided to make a larger batch of this tea tonight to have some on hand as well as to share.

All the herbs in this batch came from my garden and were grown organically, so there's no question of local vs. organic here!

I only had enough herbs to fill two small jars, but that was plenty for me and for Titania. I decided to take the time to make attractive labels for the tea and to pull out lovely lavender ribbons to decorate the jar, seeing as how she enjoys good presentation as much as I do.

And though I don't have enough to share with the rest of you, if you're interested, the recipe itself is very simple.


Midsummer Blossom Tea

1 part dried Moroccan mint (spearmint, peppermint, or orange mint would also work)
1 part dried lemon balm
1 part dried lavender blossoms
1/4 part dried rose scented geranium leaves or petals (rose petals would work)

Mix thoroughly. Store in glass jars. To brew, use 1 T tea mix per cup of hot water; sweeten with honey if desired.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

I Don't Have Mushroom to Talk

Since I've encouraged everyone to try something new from the farmers' market this month, I thought it best to go ahead and follow my own advice.

There are so many surprises each week at our local farmers' market, and when I see fresh produce displayed in an attractive and welcoming fashion... well, let's just say that I have what my Opera-Loving Friends affectionately call "Low Sales Resistance."

Tucked in small baskets or in colorful bunches, even vegetables and other foods that I disdained as a child (and as an adult) start to look good to me. I'm just as prone to visual appeal as anyone else, and I'm a sucker for a pretty face, even if it's on a pumpkin.

So as I wandered up and down the market yesterday, I found myself drawn, of all places, to the Killbuck Valley Mushroom stand and their big round baskets full of shiitake, oyster, and other locally grown mushrooms.

Some of you may think nothing odd about this. But I have never been a fan of mushrooms, save for the occasional portabella. When you learn as a child that a great-aunt you never knew died from eating mushrooms (toadstools, really) gathered in the wild, it rather puts you off any sort of fungus.

I know it's a totally unreasonable aversion on my part, because there are many excellent edible mushroom varieties, and they are often used in vegetarian cooking. Heck, even some of my best friends love mushrooms!

Therefore, I decided to learn more and try something new. I talked to the charming young couple at the stand and asked about one of the unfamiliar mushrooms, by the name of wine cup. These fungi had the appearance of a plumper portabella, but the young man told me that they tasted much better than portabellas, held their firmness and meatiness no matter how long you sauteed them, and were tender clear down into the stem.

When he added that this particular variety was one that was native to our area and had been specially cultivated by them, I knew I had to try them. Being somewhat hesitant, though, I only bought two.

Since I had also bought green beans and asparagus at the market with the intent of making a stir-fry of some sort, be it with Chinese or Indian seasonings, I decided to add one of the mushrooms to that.

I steamed the beans and asparagus first and set them aside while I sauteed large slices of garlic and then the sliced mushrooms. I added the other vegetables and tossed them about for a minute or so before adding my favorite easy soy-ginger-lime sauce, letting them simmer and braise in the savory sauce while I cooked soba noodles.

The young man was right: these mushrooms held up very well in the cooking and retained a good texture and mild but rich flavor in the dish, adding an interesting depth to the meal.

Has this made me a convert to mushrooms? Sadly, no. I'm still just not that crazy about them.

But at least I tried!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I Love Radish in the Springtime

I've grown to love certain foods only at the peak of their freshness, and springtime (yes, even into June) heralds a bounty of distinctive flavors fresh from the garden or the farmers' market.

Asparagus? From February to June, I get cravings, but the rest of the year, it doesn't much interest me. And during the first warm snap of the season, I'm ready for endless salads of mixed greens and herbs.

But easily one of my favorite –- and most short-lived –- springtime cravings is radish sandwiches.

I mentioned last year the origins of this fascination with such an unusual dish. And since I just picked up a bundle of almost-organic locally-grown radishes at the farmers' market this morning, along with a loaf of tangy wheat sourdough bread, what else could I possibly have for lunch but radish sandwiches?

Of course, even with old favorites, there's room for experimentation. Peppery radishes can be cooled down by the creamy butter, true, but I also considered the cool cucumber flavor of borage, an herb readily found in my vegetable garden.

On the way back into the house from the garden, I also happened to notice that my roses are starting to bloom, and since their flavor is a mildly peppery one (surprisingly!), too, I picked one bloom to add its vivid cherry red petals to the sandwich as well.

Crisp, creamy, soft, chewy textures all mingled with sweet, cool, and pleasantly spicy flavors for a refreshing lunch that captured the essence of a fleeting spring moment.

And fleeting it was, because for dessert I wanted to hasten the return of summer with a slice of organic black raspberry pie:

Simple pleasures like these make me love the farmers' market... every moment of the year!

Eat Like You Live Here: June

May passed by in a blur, and though I was able to get into the kitchen to test some new recipes, my stash of local foods kept dwindling, down now to the canned fruit, jams, and last pesto and nuts from last year.

Every time I visited the grocery store to stock up on produce, I was thrilled to be able to pick up some organic greens, but I kept craving the truly fresh fruits and veggies from the farmers' market. Sure, I've had some fresh herbs from the garden to add to my meals, but I haven't been able to make a completely local meal in a while. And I miss that!

Happily, our farmers' market opened for the year this morning, and I was downtown before 8 AM, visiting with the various farmers, who greeted me like an old friend and were thrilled to talk about what they had planted so far this year. The man with the ponytail particularly enjoyed telling me that yes, he and his family had planted lots of okra "just for you!"

Ahhh... I love this market and these farmers, and I am just so thrilled that they're back!

So I visited nearly every farmer and vendor and filled my pack with goodies:

--organic asparagus from the man with the ponytail
--mixed greens and spinach from the cheerful lady (who even asked, "Why didn't you call me early? I'd have been happy to bring you some greens!")
--green beans from the Amish folks
--radishes from the gentleman farmer and his (growing!) son
--artisan bread from the local bakery
--mushrooms from the local mushroom farm
--cookies and a black raspberry pie from my original favorite organic farmer

And there was so much more I could have bought, if only I weren't going on vacation soon!

So what's your "assignment" for this month, you ask? It's very simple:

1. Go to your local farmers' market! Go early, and go often!

2. While you're there, try something new, something you've never had before. That might be a different variety of a familiar food, or something completely foreign to you... maybe even something you don't like! (Hey, if I can try beets and chard from the farmers' market and learn to like them, you can be brave, too!)

3. Try to make one meal this month... just one!... completely local. And if that means you have to eat one huge salad one day for lunch just to qualify, do it. Savor the tastes and give thanks for the local farmers who grew your meal.

How hard can that be? After all, I'm only asking you to go and get good food and enjoy it. It's nothing I wouldn't do myself.

In fact, if you'll excuse me, that produce (and pie) is calling my name now...