Sunday, July 30, 2006

Chutney Be Good

As much as I love Indian food and I love enjoying a tangy, savory chutney along with it, I don't often make chutney.

Sure, if I'm making samosas, I might whip up a quick cilantro chutney, but I also just like keeping a jar of tamarind chutney on hand.

But with my mint growing rampant this year and with other good produce available regularly at the farmers' market, I decided that this year I would make a number of different kinds of chutney and preserve some for the winter.

With the mint, I found two different recipes that begged to be tried: a green mint chutney heavy on the cilantro and sweet pepper, and a mint-tomato chutney that, as you can see, looks almost more like a salsa.

Once I have the remaining ingredients, I think I'll also try a green tomato chutney since I've found so many of those at the farmers' market this week.

But the most exciting recipe I've tried is a wild variation of the cranberry chutney found in The Indian Vegetarian. Since I'm still trying to use up the last of my blueberries, I thought, why not use them in something savory? I knew that blueberries worked well with sweet Indian spices, so it didn't seem too farfetched to work sweet and savory together.

Oh, wow. What a good idea! Imagine a blueberry sauce, laden with cinnamon and cardamom and ginger and coconut but with the bite of vinegar and fenugreek and a bit of pepper, served with a pungent curry.

I can, and I did. I whipped up a batch of curried hash browns one evening for a quick dinner, drizzled some nonfat yogurt on top, and added a dollop of blueberry chutney. And a few bites in, I went back and spooned more chutney over the rest of the potatoes.

Believe it or not, that chutney is good! Try it for yourself.

Blueberry Chutney

The spicing is similar to that in the cranberry chutney found in The Indian Vegetarian, but after a certain point, I veered off wildly and started throwing things in for the heck of it. Though I used whole spices for the most part, I've substituted ground spices here because it can be rather disconcerting to bite into a whole clove or cardamom pod. I will probably try this again and tinker with it some more, and if you try it, taste it as you go and adjust as needed. If you find something that makes it even better, let me know!

3 c fresh blueberries
1/4 c water
1/2 c sugar (I used cane juice crystals and a dash of maple syrup)
2 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp ground coriander
3 T white vinegar
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 c flaked coconut (optional)

Combine blueberries, water, sugar, and all spices together in a large, heavy, nonreactive (stainless steel or glass) saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Add vinegar and lime juice and continue cooking another 5 minutes. Add coconut if desired.

My chutney turned out relatively thin (I had added too much water). If your chutney isn't as thick as you'd like, mix 1 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot with 1 tsp water and whisk into the chutney, allowing extra cooking time to thicken the sauce.

Spoon into sterilized canning jars, top with hot sterilized lids and rings, and process in a hot water bath for 10-15 minutes. This will allow you to store the jars in the cupboard, but you can also just store the chutney, unprocessed, in the refrigerator. I don't know how long this will last as it's the first time I've made it, so use caution.

Makes about 2 c chutney


Though it's true that every summer I look forward to each crop coming into its own, there's one crop that tends to bring to mind (for most people, though not usually me) visions of B horror movies, ominous music, and underhanded schemes by gardeners or farmers wishing to rid themselves of the inevitable surplus.

Yes, you know what I'm talking about: zucchini.

Now, wait just a minute. Don't run off screaming in terror. If all you can think when the word zucchini is mentioned is giant baseball bat or billy club sized squash appearing on your doorstep in the middle of the night, then you'd better think again.

While it's easy to let zucchini get away from you in the garden and not reappear until they're oversized, the careful eye can spot the smaller squash and pick them at the height of their tenderness (say, no more than 6 to 8" long). At this stage, a small zucchini, sliced and sauteed in olive oil with some fresh garlic and seasoned with black pepper and Parmesan cheese, can result in simple garden-fresh culinary bliss. (I've been known to make a dinner solely on that.)

If, however, you do find yourself in possession of one of the overgrown monsters (known to some as bazucchini; think about it), you still have a few options. You can slice it, dredge the slices in egg and then a cornmeal or bread crumb breading, and fry the slices. You can cut it into long lengthwise slices that then become the "noodles" in a pan of vegetable lasagna. Or you can shred it and use it in an infinite variety of ways, both sweet and savory.

I'll often pick up larger zucchini on purpose just to shred and freeze the squash in clumps for later use in bread, cake, or even one of my favorite quick meals, zucchini-feta pancakes. So when the Original Organic Farmer offered "a free zucchini with every purchase" at yesterday's market, I snagged a good sized one with the idea of making a batch of muffins for the week, saving the remains of the shreds in the freezer for later.

Though for zucchini bread I like to use the classic recipe in the Betty Crocker Cookbook, I'm always on the lookout for a new muffin recipe. I found a recipe for Carrot Date Muffins (from Yeast West Bakery in Buffalo, NY) in my Uprisings cookbook and decided to modify it for the zucchini.

And wouldn't you know it, that recipe also gave me plenty of opportunity to use lots of local foods: the zucchini, the dates my parents bought at the date farm in California last year, locally milled oats and whole wheat flour, local honey and maple syrup for sweeteners, local eggs, pecans from my trip to the Springfield farmers' market, and dry milk from a local farm a little farther afield. Between the good blend of flavors and just a hint of sweetness in the muffins and the satisfaction of being able to use so many local ingredients, I had a thoroughly enjoyable breakfast this morning.

Of course, I still have a smaller zucchini in the fridge that may end up sauteed later this week, and another medium-sized one that might become part of a pasta salad or some other delight. It's still early in the season, and I've no doubt that by the time summer is over, I'll have had my fill of zucchini.

But for now, I still say, "Bring it on!"

Zucchini Date Muffins

The mild... bland, some might say... flavor and texture of zucchini makes it well suited for use in almost any baked good, as long as you press the excess water from the shredded squash. It takes on the flavor of the spices used and adds a colorful and nutritious boost to your morning pastries. While there are plenty of good zucchini recipes around, I like this version of Carrot Date Muffins from Uprisings and find it fairly quick to throw together. If you make this recipe during hot weather, store the baked muffins in the refrigerator or share with friends, because the moisture in the zucchini draws mold within three days. You can also fill muffin cup liners with dough, freeze a pan full of dough-filled tins, and then store the frozen raw muffins in a freezer bag to bake off later (just pop them back into a tin and bake at 350 F, checking at 30 minutes and onward to test for doneness).

1/4 c water
1/4 c chopped, pitted dates
1/4 c rolled oats
1 c grated zucchini
1/3 c canola oil
2 T honey
2 T maple syrup
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 c chopped pecans
1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Dash nutmeg
2 T powdered milk

1/2 c chopped pecans
1 T maple sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 T melted butter or oil

Soak water, dates, and oats in a large bowl while you grate the zucchini. Then add zucchini, oil, honey, maple syrup, and eggs, beating until well-blended. Fold in pecans.

In smaller bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, spices, and powdered milk. Add to wet ingredients in two batches, blending well. Spoon batter into oiled or lined muffin tins.

Combine dry ingredients for streusel, then add melted butter and toss ingredients together with your fingers. Sprinkle streusel on top of muffins.

Bake muffins at 350 F for 20 minutes, testing for doneness. Cool on wire racks. Keeps only a couple of days at room temperature.

Makes 12-18 muffins (mine are usually modestly sized)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fry Me to the Moon

On a humid day like today, when you can just feel the temperature climbing to energy-sapping levels, I'm reminded of my years Down South, and I get to craving some of my favorite Southern dishes.

And since the Fiddlin' Farmer had his first batch of fresh okra this morning, I knew I needed to get some.

After last year's long-running summer streak of fried okra dinners, my anticipation for this year's okra crop has built up steadily. So once I had that okra in my hot little hands, I could barely wait for lunchtime.

Such a simple dish to make: slice the okra, toss it in cornmeal and spices, and fry it in a skillet to end up with a bowl full of tender-crisp, melt-in-your-mouth peppery green goodness.

It's one of those dishes that exemplifies the joys of eating local food in season. There's no way that I want to freeze or (heaven forbid) pickle okra to have it in the winter because it just doesn't taste the same to me. The anticipation, the freshness, the surfeit of okra pods over a few weeks in July and August all combine to make a meal that never fails to send me into a blissful orbit.

Though I have a couple of other okra recipes I'd like to try (including an Indian dish), I know I'll return again and again to the simplicity of fried okra until the crop is gone for the year.

So bring on the sweet tea and let me enjoy the okra while it lasts!

Basket Case

During my rambles with the fair Titania this past week, I found a splendid sturdy basket with strong handles and plenty of room for goodies from the market. So of course I needed to test it on my weekly outing to the farmers' market this morning.

Nearly everyone had something I wanted, whether to cook, dry, or freeze, and with $60 in my pocket, a backpack on my shoulders, and a new basket in my hands, I was ready to go a little produce-crazy and splurge!

I visited the Original Organic Farmer, who gave me the heads-up that the local Bistro had run out of organic salad greens the night before, and if I wanted salad this week, I'd better snap up a bag right away. Naturally, I did, since the forecast includes a couple of 90-plus degree days this coming week... time for a good cold salad meal! She also had tender celery, so I bought a bag of that as well so that I could make a big pot of vegetable stock and put a few jars in the freezer. And finally, craving something a little sweet, I indulged in a package of her homemade almond cookies.

I moved on down the square and talked with the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe as I eyed all their fine produce. I ended up buying several small kohlrabi, a quart of green beans, four bulbs of garlic, and a seedless cucumber, but later on I returned for a bag of basil and a quart of their beautiful yellow and orange carrots.

I arrived at the Fiddlin' Farmer's stand just as he was unloading his goods, and the first thing he plopped on the table was a quart of fresh okra, just for me. I nearly fell over myself reaching for those beautiful slender pods, knowing that I'd be having plenty of fried okra this week. I also bought a small cabbage from him, whether to dry or to eat now, I'm not sure.

On my way back down the square, I picked up a bag of ruby red popcorn from the Corn Queen (that's for you, Tina!), two small bags of spinach from the sweet older couple, and a quart of green tomatoes from the Tomato Farmer.

While my backpack still had space available after all these purchases, my basket had reached a comfortable capacity, so I felt reasonably well-balanced (no comments, please!) on my trek back up the hill. (Though that could have been because my pocket was half as light as before!) The basket definitely gets high marks for convenience, spaciousness, and style, and it will accompany me on all future market trips.

I know I'll be going crazy buying more produce through the summer!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Lunching Into a New Adventure

After the joy of nearly a week's vacation with a good friend, I returned to work today for one reason only: it's the last day that the lovely Phoenix is working here with me.

Since she came to campus nearly four years ago, Phoenix has been one of the very best student assistants I've ever trained, and she swiftly became one of the best friends I've ever known. From the first day, we clicked over our mutually offbeat senses of humor and deep love for books, and the more we learned about each other, the closer we became.

It wasn't long before the sweet treats I took to the office or the meals I served Phoenix at my home convinced her to beg me for cooking lessons. And finding someone so eager to try new things and learn how to fend for herself naturally persuaded me to agree.

Over the past couple of years, Phoenix has gone from being unsure how to peel a carrot to throwing her own dinner parties, baking her own bread, and learning how to make dandelion wine and liqueurs. Each thing she's learned has built up her confidence more and more, and I know that once she's on her own at grad school and then setting up household with Mr. Nice Guy, she will prepare wonderful, healthy meals and impress friends herself.

So as much as I don't want to see her leave, I accept the inevitable (after all, this happens all the time at a college). But of course I can't let her leave without a celebration. And where better to celebrate friendship and a love of local foods than at the local Bistro?

We strolled downtown for a long lunch and settled into our seats, nibbling on the house herbed focaccia while we waited for our meals. Phoenix, being a fan of all things green, enjoyed the mixed organic greens with a baked zucchini, onion, and Swiss cheese tart for her lunch. I sampled the cream of asparagus soup, followed by a big bowl of bowtie pasta tossed with very fresh pesto and a mixture of vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and who knows what else). We shared, of course, and both agreed that we couldn't find a finer lunch many other places.

For dessert, Phoenix ordered the black raspberry and blueberry crisp with local caramel ice cream, and I selected the sorbet trio, savoring the intensity of the mango, black cherry, and toasted coconut flavors. What bliss!

We walked slowly back up the hill, not really wanting to get back to work, appreciating this last walk together for a while. It won't be the same around here without her cheerful smile, her wicked sense of humor, and her willingness to cook and eat wonderful food, and I will miss Phoenix terribly. But other people and new friends will reap the benefits of what she has learned, and I'm so proud that she has learned so much.

Fare thee well, dear Phoenix. You grace the world with your light and your gifts, and I'm blessed to count you as my friend.

And if I have to bribe you to come back and visit, I will. Oh, I will.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Croissant We Have to Bear

Once a year or so, I get the urge to make fresh croissants. I don't really feel the need to make them more often because let's face it, that's a lot more butter than I really need in my diet.

(Well, that and the fact that a full recipe of croissant dough, judiciously parceled out, can last several months for the occasional decadent brunch.)

But since I haven't made croissants since last June, when I taught the lovely Phoenix how to make them, I thought I would pull out the recipe for the fair Titania's visit.

I did, however, think that it was time to try a variation on the recipe. After all, I've been baking white-flour croissants for twenty years, so I should be comfortable enough with the recipe to flirt with it a little, right?

The challenge I set for myself was both to make the dough more wholesome (whole grains and less refined sweeteners) and more local, and I think the results can be summed up in one word: success.

I replaced most of the flour with locally ground whole wheat flour, keeping some all-purpose flour both for texture and for the necessary gluten. I also added in a little bit of ground flax seeds, which added a slight nuttiness. I replaced the sugar with local honey (which then, of course, meant adding a little more flour), and the butter, egg, and milk all came from the local dairy.

I started the dough last night as Titania sat and read (after a lot of driving during the day, she deserved the respite), and after working several turns and layers into the dough, I wrapped it up and slid it into the refrigerator overnight.

This morning I let it warm and rise while I walked out on a quick errand, and when I returned, I fired up the oven and rolled out the dough, shaping it into long, slender crescents. After adding a quick egg wash, I popped the rolls into the oven and let them bake and fill the house with their delicious buttery and yeasty fragrance.

One small croissant, fresh and steaming, was enough to lure Titania from the Land of Nod, and we enjoyed the wholesome, nutty pastries with a selection of homemade jams. What bliss!

I'd like to tinker with the recipe a little more. While the texture and flavor were both good, in a way it left me wanting something slightly different (perhaps pecan meal instead of flax seeds). So I'll try it again sometime, and once I have a recipe I'm satisfied with, I'll post it.

It's a tough life, but someone's got to do it, right?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Salad Days of Summer

One of the joys of having the fair Titania visit is having help in the kitchen. And while it's a delight to cook with the lovely Phoenix, Titania tends to throw herself into cooking with abandon, rarely using a recipe and opting to experiment by taste instead, giving me a chance to learn from her.

We had planned to catch an orchestra concert this evening at Blossom Music Center with Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy, and since we always prefer to listen to the fine music from the lawn area, we also prefer to pack a picnic for our dinner.

With all that good produce from yesterday's trip to the farmers' market, we knew we could throw together several different dishes. And so we did: nearly half a dozen different salads or vegetable dishes to make sort of a tapas buffet of fresh local foods.

Titania set to work on a cucumber-yogurt soup that used fresh dill, borage, and mint from my garden, and she also steamed green beans and tossed them with grape tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette. I whipped up a dilled potato salad, another batch of roasted eggplant and pine nut puree (since she approved of it so highly the other night), and steamed some tender young carrots for a variation on Uzbek carrot salad.

We also supplied the wines, the whole wheat pita, and some truly decadent chocolate mint brownies made with fresh chocolate mint from my garden and two kinds of Scharffen Berger chocolate (the 70% bittersweet and the 82% extreme dark).

Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy added to the meal as well, bringing organic apples and grapes, almond butter, Drunken Goat cheese, crackers, and some delectable Thai peanut noodles from a local Chinese restaurant.

On the whole, it was an enormously satisfying picnic dinner, one that far outshone other picnics being savored all around us. And each of us managed to clean our plates... repeatedly.

With full bellies and happy hearts, we settled back on the picnic blanket and pillows to appreciate beautiful music, the first stars in the evening sky, and good friends.

It's summer... let's enjoy it!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

How Dry I Am

One of the challenges I set for myself this year was to learn how to dry produce in order to stock up more for the winter.

Normally, I've just filled my freezer and made the occasional preserves, but I discovered this past winter that that reserve of farm produce only took me into January, leaving me dependent on supermarket food from far away for another four to five months. And with what I know now about local foods, that simply didn't satisfy me.

So I picked up a book on drying foods that gave me lots of clear instructions and good ideas, including recipes for using the dried foods, and away I went.

The first couple of attempts were, shall we say, unimpressive. I neglected to read the entire instructions with my first batch of peas and didn't blanch them before oven-drying, leaving me with a tray of rock-hard blackened pellets of no use to anyone. And my first attempt at air-drying outside left me with a small tray of rotted peas. (Yes, it was as disgusting as it sounds.)

With the damp weather this spring and summer, I turned back to the oven for drying (mainly in the afternoons and evenings) and have since dried peas, raspberries, blueberries, and cabbage along with my usual herbs.

Today I decided to take care of the four fresh bulbs of garlic I bought last week at the farmers' market.

First, the fair Titania indulged her creativity as she peeled the outer layers of skin back from the bulbs, leaving us with a goodly-sized pile of rosy-wrapped cloves.

Then we put two paring knives into action, peeling and slicing the cloves and scattering the garlic on a cookie sheet, letting them dry slowly in a warm oven.

By evening, the garlic slices had shrunk and wrinkled as their moisture evaporated, leaving about half a pint's worth of crisp slices ready for throwing into soups, stock, or sautes come winter.

Drying produce takes surprisingly little effort. Some items require a little prep work ahead of time, whether in blanching or chopping, but once the fruits or vegetables are spread out on the cookie sheets and in the oven, they only need an occasional stir before they're done hours later (sometimes a day or two later). The end result is produce that will keep close to a year and take up comparatively little space in the cupboard (and not weigh as much).

And when I think of how much longer I'll be able to enjoy local foods into the winter, I feel very satisfied that I finally decided to expand my repertoire of techniques to include food drying.

I'm definitely not going to complain about dryness this summer!

Market Shares

My eager anticipation for this week's trek to the farmers' market was exceeded only by the delight I had in knowing that I would be accompanied by the fair Titania.

After all, many's the time we've gone shopping at other markets and stopped in our tracks to fall into raptures over various fruits and vegetables and other delicacies. So why should today be any different?

Though the rain kept many people away, nothing could stop us from visiting each booth and indulging in plenty of good fresh produce. It's a good thing we each took a backpack, because we stocked up:

--whole wheat flour, oats, and cornmeal for Titania and buckwheat pancake mix for me (for my Dear Papa, really) from the grist mill
--a bright yellow summer squash, a quart of green tomatoes, and three bell peppers from the Gentleman Farmer's son
--grape tomatoes from the Tomato Farmer
--two kinds of goat milk fudge from the Goatherd
--big bags of onions and garlic from the Original Organic Farmer
--whole wheat pita from the Pita Princess
--basil, parsley, fingerling potatoes, carrots, and green beans from the Cheerful Lady
--Japanese eggplant, a warty cucumber, curly kale, and cabbage from the Fiddlin'b Farmer

Some of this will get preserved for winter, but my guess is that most will get eaten in the next couple of days. We made a good start at lunch by having an all-local meal.

Since Titania had never sampled fried green tomatoes before, I felt it was my duty to introduce her to these cornmeal-coated savory treats. We added fresh cucumber slices to our plates for a nice contrast.

And for dessert, well, we simply had to sample both flavors of goat milk fudge: vanilla walnut and peanut butter. Both won high marks, and no, we didn't eat it all at once!

There's only one thing better than good food from the farmers' market:

Sharing it with a like-minded friend.

Nothing But Blue(berry) Skies

I know I haven't had many kitchen adventures to share with you this past week. Summer finally decided to pay us a lingering visit with energy-sapping heat and humidity that kept me from cooking much.

And to top it all off, I've been busy cleaning the house for a very special guest: the fair Titania.

Fortunately, though, Titania’s visit means two things: nearly a week's vacation for me (and thus some serious relaxation), and nearly a week's worth of celebrating fabulous food.

To wit: Titania showed up on the doorstep around 6 last evening, and I promptly greeted her with a glass of limeade laced with a sweet red wine (Redemption from the Winery at Wolf Creek), a roasted eggplant-pine nut puree, and warm whole wheat pita.

This morning I rose at my usual insanely early hour and whipped up a batch of lavender-blueberry streusel muffins, made with local whole wheat flour, lavender from my garden, blueberries from the farm south of town, milk and butter from the local dairy, and local free-range eggs. What a treat it was to use so many quality baking ingredients from my own county!

And, oh, my! The fragrance! Blueberries and lavender complement each other so well every time I use them together. With a perfume like that dancing through the house, how can anyone sleep on?

Today's weather may be cool and rainy (admittedly, a relief after this past week), but with a dear friend here and a week's worth of fun cooking and good eating ahead of us, I've got plenty of sunshine to be thankful for in my life!

And I've got plenty of muffin, too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Inspiration for Living Local

This weekend I raced through the book This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader by Joan Dye Gussow, never even getting the chance to mention it in the books section to the right.

What I thought was going to be the story of an older couple getting back to the land (which it sort of is) turned out to be an inspiring tale of how two people, long committed to the ideals of self-sufficiency and relocalization, gradually came to grow almost all of their own food, to learn more about the ups and downs of farming, and to share their knowledge with others.

Amidst all the anecdotes about buying a house that eventually needed to be torn down and rebuilt, Joan Dye Gussow brings her training in nutrition education to the story to emphasize the importance of what she and her husband Alan tried to do. She points out that foods shipped from all over end up having less taste and nutritional value and incurring more environmental costs than foods grown locally, and she can make her case pretty bluntly at times:

The high water content of [most fresh fruits and vegetables]... and their tendency to rot if they get warm, means that we are, in effect, burning lots of petroleum to ship cold water around. Because of the value of unfettered global trade is unquestioned and petroleum is artificially cheap, these sorts of costs are not being examined (p.82).

(And if you think about even that one point, knowing that gasoline and crude oil prices continue to rise, that should make you deeply concerned about the state of our food system and make you want to support local foods even more.)

Of course, it's rare that anyone is completely convinced of an argument based on negative factors such as these, and Gussow shares the delight she takes in working in her garden, preserving and cooking with the homegrown produce (she even includes recipes), and points out other attractive reasons for local eating:

Meal planning is simply more exciting and less bewildering when you wait for fruits and vegetables to come into season, eat them steadily when they arrive, and say a reluctant good-bye for another year when their season has passed. When you've done this for a while, you lose your taste for out-of-season produce (p.220).

I can definitely attest to that!

While Gussow and her husband went to great lengths to plant a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in order to fill as many of their dietary needs and desires as possible, growing many plants that most people wouldn't think could possibly be grown in the Northeast, they also found that every harvest was different, based on the weather and the events of the year. Gussow offers this gentle reminder:

If we wish to feed ourselves from our own regions, and allow others to do the same, we will need to try to adjust our choices and our appetites to what Nature will provide in a given year (p.107).

While the author readily admits that she can be somewhat militant in promoting local foods and expressing her dismay when others buy foods out-of-season, she maintains a good sense of humor and a balanced awareness that we all make our own choices. She just wants to point out that we need to understand the choices we make. For example,

Vegetarianism may be a wise and moral personal choice. But not because it does not involve death. One could live one's whole life as a vegan... yet animals and sometimes even people will have died on one's behalf. You can't control nature without inflicting pain. We have been shielded from that pain by distance. Unless we know where every mouthful of our food comes from, and none of us does, we have to be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that its production has at least indirectly involved killing (p.162).

As a vegetarian myself, I appreciate her gentle but forthright reminder that no one way of eating is superior and that we all can stand to examine the hidden costs in our food system. She's not an absolutist by any means –- she does acknowledge the desirability of some food trade of "exotics" such as citrus, coffee, tea, chocolate, spices, though in more sustainable quantities -– but she does definitely want us to open our eyes to what filling our plates involves.

I found this to be a truly inspiring book, forthright and funny in capturing the ups and downs of homeownership and attempting to fulfill a dream, and I recommend it to anyone looking for more reasons to eat local foods or ways to become more self-reliant in food production.

As for me, I'd like to find a little homestead of my own.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

And All... That... Juice!

How many ways can you use a gallon and a half of blueberries?

Believe me, I'm still finding out.

First, I froze over a quart of berries. Next came the start of blueberry liqueur with another cup or so of berries. Then I made blueberry-date bars with 1 cup of berries. Next came the dried blueberries (another near quart).

And today, even with the astonishing heat outside, I decided to throw a cup of blueberries and the last cup of red raspberries into a pot and simmer them down for berry juice.

That, actually, was the easy part, because I could back away from the stove (and the heat) and sit under the ceiling fan while the berries simmered in their own juices.

After that, I set up my conical colander over another pot so that the juices could slowly drain through. (If you're wondering why the whole set-up looks like an alien spaceship has landed in my kitchen, it's because I needed to use my small prep bowls to raise the level of the colander so that the juice could drain freely; otherwise the bottom of the colander would almost scrape the bottom of the pot.)

Slowly, the juice oozed out, and with a few extra squeezes, I managed to get a little more juice from the warm pulp.

Finally, once the berry pulp had been taken to the compost heap (to the delight of the bugs swarming around), I brought the juice back up to a simmer, added some local honey, and let it cook just a bit before pouring it into a jar.

It's not much juice, not even a pint. You might think it was hardly worth the effort.

But when I thaw and open that juice on a cold winter's morning and taste that summer sweetness on my tongue, I'll know.

It's always worth it.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Cabbage and Taters and Beans, Oh My!

I can't begin to tell you how much I look forward to Saturday morning and my weekly trip to the farmers' market. No matter how rough a week has been, visiting the farmers and buying loads of wonderful, fresh, locally-grown, mostly organic produce never fails to lift my spirits and give me hope.

Despite the intense humidity and the threat of rain, I made my way down the hill for my usual browse and buy. Though I was sorry not to see the Original Organic Farmer, everyone else was there with tables creaking under the weight of so much wonderful food.

I wasn't sure how much time or energy I would have to cook (or preserve) this weekend and into the week, but I still filled my pack with lots of good food in the hopes that having the produce would inspire me to make something delicious.

Here's the roundup for the week:

--more garlic and an ample zucchini from the Gentleman Farmer and his son
--slender green beans from the Taste-Everything! Lady
--fingerling potatoes, a small conical head of cabbage, a cucumber, and more homemade soaps from the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe
--broccoli heads from the Amish farmers
--small Japanese eggplants and red leaf lettuce from the Fiddlin’ Farmer
--half a dozen ears of bicolor corn from the Corn Queen (who has popcorn again this year; anyone up for a trade?)
--a loaf of focaccia from the bakery

After a spot of baking and a quick run around town on errands, I managed to make the time after lunch to boil the corn, shave it off the cob, and freeze it... as well as to steam, blanch, and freeze the green beans.

It's a good start, at least, and I think I might just get back into the cooking groove in the next couple of days after all.

Oh my, indeed!

A Date for the Weekend

I know most people don't think plants talk. It seems pretty far-fetched, I agree.

But let me tell you, when you've got a gallon bucket of blueberries sitting in the refrigerator, they can kick up quite a fuss in their demands to be used in baking.

What are you going to do? As for me, I heed the call and bake.

I've been wanting to make blueberry-date bars again ever since I created the recipe last year, and I thought this morning was as good a time as any to indulge myself.

I mixed up the shortbread dough for the base and pressed it into the pan, simmered the berries and dates together, and crumbled together the streusel ingredients all before heading downtown to the farmers' market. And when I returned home, I cranked up the oven, threw everything together, and let it bake.

Ah yes, sweet, sweet blueberry goodness.

I just love how the berries and dates meld together in a rich, sweet, darkly inviting luscious texture and flavor, enhanced by the merest touch of vanilla and almond extracts. And I love how the good local whole grains, maple sugar, and sweet cardamom pull it all together.

And though I know I'll need to save some for certain friends in the coming week, I immediately packaged a few to give to friends I'll see this weekend, people who have been extraordinarily supportive this week.

Don’t worry, I'll save some for myself.

I always enjoy a sweet date, especially one as comforting as this.

Blueberry-Date Bars

I love date bars that have a thick, satisfyingly buttery crust, lots of rich date flavor, and a sweet but spicy streusel on top... but I've been looking for the perfect recipe for years without much luck. I've finally come up with something a little untraditional, combining a recipe from Bon Appetit (shared by Dear Reader Tina) for candied ginger-cardamom bars and a date bar recipe from Uprisings (a whole grain baking book) as well as a little "what if?" on my part when faced with more blueberries than I could shake a bucket at...

1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c maple sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 c finely chopped crystallized ginger

1 c dates, pitted and chopped
1 c blueberries
1/2 c water
1 tsp vanilla
a few drops of real almond extract

1/4 c rolled oats
2 T maple sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 T candied diced ginger
1 T melted butter or canola oil

Preheat oven to 350 F.

To make the crust, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and cardamom. Blend in butter with a pastry cutter until small lumps form. Add ginger, then work the dough so that it starts to stick together. Press into a greased 9" square baking dish. Set aside.

To make the filling, place the dates, blueberries, and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool; then add extracts. Pour on top of crust and spread to the sides.

To make the streusel, mix the oats, sugar, cardamom, and ginger. Pour in the butter or oil and toss with your fingertips to mix. Sprinkle over the fruit filling.

Bake for 35 minutes until filling is well set. Remove from oven and allow to cool before cutting into squares.

Makes 16 2" squares

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Liqueur is Quickeur?

You wouldn't think that in mid-July I'd be thinking of making hot chocolate on a frosty night. But I am.

Maybe it's because the weather has been cool and rainy... again... this week, making me long for a cozy fire to dry the air. And maybe it's just because I'm one of those people who, while appreciating the moment, also thinks ahead an awful lot.

But I've been thinking about that hot chocolate a lot since the lovely Phoenix and I started a batch of homemade hazelnut liqueur.

I've been making homemade liqueurs for close to ten years now, since I found a small booklet containing lots of tasty-sounding recipes and decided to try something new for gift-giving. I've made several different kinds over the years, mostly using fruits, and I've had some I really enjoyed repeatedly (such as pear-ginger) and some that were duds (a chocolate-mint liqueur that smelled powerfully of a very medicinal mouthwash).

Some of the liqueurs are wonderful for drinking straight as a nice little nightcap. Others have made it into baked goods to add a flavorful little kick (as I have yet to try with this scrumptious strawberry liqueur, made last summer). And others still make fine additions to an evening coffee or a mug of hot chocolate whipped up from scratch.

So it is that in the last few weeks of having Phoenix around as my trusty sous chef, we finally got around to the highly uncomplicated task of making liqueurs. Three weeks ago, we chopped hazelnuts and poured them into canning jars along with vodka and a splash of vanilla.

Tonight, we strained the brew into new jars and made a simple sugar syrup (2:1 sugar:water) to add to the mix.

The liqueur needs another 3 weeks or so to mingle flavors, and after one more straining, she and I will both have bottles of deliciously rich hazelnut liqueur, perfect for adding to hot chocolate on a winter's evening.

In the meantime, I decided to use some of my berry bounty in a similar way and started batches of red raspberry liqueur and blueberry liqueur (with a touch of orange peel).

While the raspberry will be ready to strain in three weeks, I'll have a longer wait for the blueberry (some fruits take their own sweet time). Both of these will make lovely after-dinner cordials, though I suspect some of the raspberry liqueur will end up in brownies at some point.

Sure, all of these liqueurs take time to steep and brew and settle into their fullest flavors. (I've found that the pear-ginger liqueur is best about a year after bottling.) But when you consider how little of my own time and effort is spent in making these cordials, I'd say a little patience is a small price to pay for liquid gold.

After all, they're well worth the wait.

A New Chef in Town

Actually, this new chef isn't in this town specifically, though she hails from here.

I am both proud and pleased to announce that the incomparably sassy Spicyflower finished her pastry school training this spring and is now a certified pastry chef.

On top of that, she has started a new blog for culinary matters only, and I hope that we will soon be seeing some fantastic recipes and tempting photos on her site very soon.

By the way, Spicyflower.... ahem.... I'm still waiting for that triple-threat chocolate concoction of yours to show up in my mailbox.... something about payment for a cake decorating kit?

I'm just saying.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Kiss My Grits!

We haven't had an extraordinarily warm summer thus far. In fact, it's been comparatively cool!

But mere weather won't stop me from hauling out some of my favorite foods from my five years Down South: mint-infused sweet iced tea, cheese grits, and fresh biscuits.

And on a sunny Sunday morning, what better way to enjoy all that than to invite the lovely Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy over for brunch?

Since I had just picked up locally milled grits at the farmers' market yesterday, I was just itching to use them. I stocked the refrigerator with three kinds of iced tea (an herbal blackberry and an Earl Grey with lavender as well as the mint) yesterday evening, and I saved the rest of the prep for this morning.

The cheese grits had a slightly different twist this time: instead of using shredded cheddar cheese, I used cubes of dill-laced Havarti and a sprinkling of fresh dill from my garden, then added an egg and spooned the grits into a pan and baked them for an hour.

While they baked, I whipped up a half batch of whole wheat biscuits and baked them once I took out the grits. And by the time my guests had arrived, the table was set and the food was steaming.

What can I say but, "That's good eating!"

Havarti-Dill Grits

Once exposed to cheese grits in my years Down South, I was hooked. But I never considered variations on the theme until I stumbled across a couple of recipes in Morning Glories, a book of delightful recipes using a wide variety of herbs. One recipe suggested using smoked cheddar along with fresh chives, and this version offers a subtler combination of mild Havarti cheese (very buttery in itself) with fresh dill. I've adapted the combination to the standard grits recipe a Southern friend gave me years ago. I have a strong preference for yellow corn grits, though what's found around most Northern grocery stores is the boring instant or quick white version. Use what you will, but I think I'll be buying more of the yellow grits at the farmers' market.

2 1/2 c water
1 c quick-cooking grits (5 minute, not instant)
dash of salt
4 to 6 oz Havarti cheese, diced
1 T minced dill leaves (less if there’s dill in the cheese)
4 T unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 2 to 2 1/2 quart baking dish. Bring water to a boil in small saucepan.

Put grits in a large saucepan; slowly pour in boiling water, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil, whisking, over medium-high heat. Stir in salt, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes, whisking constantly until thickened.

Remove grits from heat; stir in cheese, dill, and butter until melted. Whisk a little of the grits mixture into the beaten eggs to warm them, then slowly pour egg mixture into the grits, whisking constantly. Pour into prepared baking dish.

Bake grits, uncovered, for 50 to 60 minutes or until just set. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. (If not serving immediately, cover and chill. Reheat in microwave or 325-degree oven.)

Serves 4 to 8 (depending on how hungry they are and how many biscuits you've made)

Got Grub?

A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by the person featured as Grist's InterActivist for the week: Bryant Terry, chef and founding director of b-healthy! (Build Healthy Eating and Lifestyles to Help Youth).

Since I've been turning over in my head ways that a concerned citizen can raise the issues of food security and promote local and organic foods as well as healthy eating in schools and other community institutions, the interview with Terry caught my eye and inspired me. And when I found out that he has recently co-authored a book with Anna Lappé called Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

About a week or so later, Grub appeared on my library's hold shelf, and I have been devouring it ever since. I've read some pretty good books on what's wrong with industrial agriculture and the food industry, but this book pulls it all together to give you the facts in an eye-opening, matter-of-fact way (along with talking points to convince the naysayers in your clique). And on top of that, it gives you some pretty tasty sounding recipes and meal plans to highlight seasonal produce.

The authors declare that since the word "food" has become so ubiquitous to describe products so highly processed that they barely resemble food any more (though we ingest it anyway), they claim the word "Grub" to describe whole and locally and sustainably grown foods that supports fairness for all the workers who bring that Grub to the table... and that should be made universal, available to everyone regardless of income (p.xii).

Lappé wrote the first three sections of the book, detailing what's wrong with the current food industry and explaining what we can do to reclaim Grub to nourish our bodies and spirits. She describes the six illusions upon which our current food and farming industry is built: the illusions of choice, safe and clean, efficiency, cheap, fairness, and progress (p.5). When the vast majority of the food industry is controlled by a very small handful of enormous corporations that ultimately have the single goal of profit in mind, each of these illusions is undercut by that determination to keep input costs as low as possible in order to make the big bucks from the consumer.

But as I've mentioned before, these costs couldn't be kept so low were it not for government subsidies that promote industrial agriculture, low wages or prices paid to farmers and farmworkers, and the hidden costs of environmental degradation. When you buy food, particularly processed goods, at the grocery store, most of your money goes back not to the farmers but to the corporations, who in turn spend that money on marketing more products and lobbying legislators for favorable subsidies, laws, and regulations (pp 41, 46).

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound right to me... right as in sustainable, ethical, or healthy. And I would agree with Lappé in that despite that enormous variety of products at the supermarket (on average, 35,000 items), we are losing the real choice of "diverse varieties of safe, locally grown fresh food" (p.6).

Fortunately, with farmers' markets and co-ops and CSAs and community and personal gardens, we still have that choice, though admittedly it's better in some areas than others. After all,

Eating is the most essential act of every living creature. And in virtually every human culture, growing, eating, and sharing food has a spiritual dimension, too. Today, eating is also unquestionably a political act. Our food choices, conscious or not, shape our world. ...

...choosing Grub -- making the most common sense choices about our food -- improves our own health and that of the planet, farmers, and farmworkers, all at the same time.

Will everyone choose Grub all of the time? No, probably not. But as we begin to open our eyes to the reality of our food and what impacts the growing and processing of that food has on our bodies, other people, our economy, and our planet, we can develop the habits that keep us leaning toward the good, healthy Grub that truly sustains us.

The latter section of the book, written by Terry, introduces a collection of vibrant, fun seasonal menus built around different themes so that readers can host their own Grub dinner parties to share the goodness of Grub with others, complete with music, poetry, and wine suggestions. Terry brings a very down-to-earth attitude toward personal food choices to this section in order to focus on making healthy choices for each person:

We all have specific body constitutions, cultural foodways, and personal tastes that determine which foods work for us; no single way of eating is perfect for everyone. In fact, because our bodies are so dynamic, no single diet is perfect for any one of us throughout our life. Our relationship with food should be fluid, shifting as we change (p.129).

If we did away with artificial boundaries around what we eat, what would eating healthy mean? Ultimately, each individual needs to answer this question by closely examining how certain foods make her or him feel spiritually and emotionally as well as physically (p.130).

My sole nitpick about the book is that some of the recipes use slightly more exotic ingredients that I would question as being truly local or sustainable, but perhaps that depends your location and what you can find. (Coconut oil is definitely not high on my list of local availability!) But I will agree that they can inspire you to try some new things.

In short (I know, too late for that), this book has really inspired me to take a good look at how I'm eating now and how I can eat in a way that is even more supportive of my personal health as well as the health of my community. And you know what? I'm pretty amazed with how far I've come!

Because of my upbringing -– the Chef Mother teaching me to cook so much from scratch and preserve so much of the season's harvest for winter -– I find that my kitchen cupboards actually contain very little processed food. Sure, there are some canned goods of vegetables I don't can (or that I've already eaten up from last year's harvest) and beans (though I'm switching more to dried beans), some baking ingredients, and definitely some chocolate. But look at those home-canned fruits on the top shelf! The local grains on the second shelf!

And here on the other side, there are plenty of store-bought spices (though more and more come from the co-op, where they're fresher and cheaper), but there are multiple jars of dried herbs harvested from my garden, herbal tisanes mixed from those same herbs, jam made with fruit from the farmers' market or the local fruit farm, and other preserves.

Seeing how easily I've made that transition to Grub, I find I'm energized to keep stocking the cabinets with dried produce and herbs, home-canned fruits (yet to come this summer), and homemade goodies like fresh granola (I just pulled a new batch out of the oven!). My freezer is gradually filling up again with local berries and veggies, and I am thoroughly enjoying cooking with so much fresh goodness and sharing it with my friends.

I hope over the past year and a half I've given you many ideas to support local food producers and to take advantage of the season's harvest to enjoy good, healthy food. But if you need a little extra inspiration, I can highly recommend Grub to you.

And you know I love good Grub!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Truffle with Berries

I've wanted to bake cookies for a few weeks now, but I haven't done it.

First, I couldn't think of what exactly I wanted. Then, I spent the past week drying herbs and berries and cooking to clean up the produce in the refrigerator.

I wasn't sure I'd actually get around to making cookies today, but since there's only so much I can do with fresh produce (I'll only dry one kind of food at a time, and there's not much room in the freezer for multiple trays of berries), I finally baked a small batch of something a little different.

Early last year, I tried the recipe for Chocolate Charms from a holiday cookie magazine. The cookies are actually a cocoa-laden shortbread, but shaped into balls and dusted with cocoa powder, they look somewhat like truffles.

The simplicity of these cookies became a hit with the Dinner Club, and soon I found myself turning to the idea of dark chocolate shortbread in other creations.

Today, though, I thought I'd revisit the original recipe and take it in a different direction, playing a little with the flavor. Since my chocolate mint is running rampant around my rosebushes, I thought I'd take some fresh mint, run it through the food processor with the sugar for the recipe, and have dark chocolate truffle cookies with a refreshing mint edge.

And then I thought to myself, Self, you know there are a lot of fresh raspberries in the refrigerator, and you know raspberries go exceptionally well with both chocolate and mint. So what are you going to do about it?

What, indeed? Why not extend the truffle parallel and wrap the cookie dough around a fresh raspberry?

Ah yes, Dear Readers, I hear your general blissful sigh of approval. I quite agree.

And when there's a drizzle of melted extreme dark chocolate (thank you, Scharffen Berger!) on top of the baked cookies... well, I simply hope I don't cause an Internet riot because I can't share samples of these cookies with all of you.

Will you accept the recipe instead?

Chocolate Mint Truffle Surprise Cookies

Let me say here and now that I am not a Martha Stewart fan. But one year, I picked up her holiday cookie magazine, and I got a few worthwhile recipes from it. This recipe is based on her Chocolate Charms, but I've tried to make it both more wholesome, using whole grains and less refined sweeteners and local ingredients, and more decadent. If you don't have chocolate mint, peppermint will also work; you can also omit the mint altogether and simply enjoy the surprise of fresh berries. The recipe only makes a dozen cookies, true... but you'll only need one to satisfy that deep urge for dark chocolate.

1 c whole wheat flour
1 T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 T black cocoa
dash of salt
1/4 c maple sugar
8-10 small chocolate mint leaves (about 1 tsp fresh)
1 stick (1/2 c) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 fresh raspberries

Sift together flour, cocoa powders, and salt. Set aside.

In small food processor, grind sugar and mint leaves together until leaves are chopped very fine. Set aside.

In large bowl, cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar and mint mixture, blending well. Add vanilla, and cream until easier to handle. Add flour mixture in two batches, mixing until all flour is worked in and the dough holds together well.

Form dough into a ball, and wrap in waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 325 F. With clean hands, divide dough into a dozen chunks and roll into balls approximately 1 1/2" in diameter. Flatten each ball into a thin circle. Place one raspberry in the center of each circle and gently wrap the dough around the berry, sealing it inside. Smooth dough with fingers and place truffle on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake cookies 25 minutes, until firm. Allow to cool completely.

If desired, melt 1 oz dark chocolate and drizzle over cookies. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Makes 1 dozen cookies

Ripe for the Picking

The warm, lazy days of July bring back fond memories of childhood, and one family tradition I love to revisit every year is picking berries.

Last year the Chef Mother and I took the lovely Phoenix out to the fruit farm south of town for a Saturday morning filled with blueberries and three colors of luscious raspberries (red, black, and purple). And though the Chef Mother isn't around the area yet for the summer, Phoenix and I decided we'd still keep the tradition alive... and drag along Mr. Nice Guy.

So after our trip to the farmers' market, we climbed into the car and drove south down a winding, rolling country highway until we arrived at the vast acres of berry fields.

Buckets in hand, we headed first into the rows of blueberry bushes. Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy took one row and the gallon bucket, and I took another row and a slightly less spacious bucket. And away we went!

There's nothing quite like the peace of picking berries in a place where all the pickers are spread apart, and the sounds of anything except the birds are muffled. I don't think I'd want to go picking every day, as I suspect that might spoil the enjoyment of each moment on this annual outing. But it's always a pleasure to go once a year and stock up on fresh local berries.

After we filled our buckets, we returned to the car to exchange the blueberries for empty quart containers, and then we ventured into the rows of red raspberry canes. The pickings were slim in some spots, but we eventually filled all five quarts.

Back home, we divided the spoils, and surprisingly, they only took one quart of each kind of berry, leaving the rest for me to freeze, dry, and otherwise enjoy in the coming week. One tray of blueberries immediately went into the freezer, and one tray of raspberries went into the oven for drying.

And when I had time to rest and bask in the glow of the morning's work and the delicious rewards, the poetry of the experience slipped out and landed on paper, waiting to be shared:

Picking Berries

Birdsong echoes loud and clear
From the high trees bordering the field
Locusts raise their chattering chorus
In the warming morning sun
Rows of high lush blueberry bushes
Mute the conversation of other pickers
And I move slowly down the row
In timeless peace that recalls summers past
The deepest bluest berries elude easy reach
But gentle handling and patience
Coax them into makeshift buckets
Bees and beetles buzz overhead
In search of riper fruit
Dreams of desserts and muffins
Frozen and dried morsels of summer sweetness
Trail along the grass in my wake
This one startlingly bright and vivid hour
Becomes an eternal now
Of simple happiness

Are You Getting Fresh With Me?

I do love the weekends, especially at this time of year when the mornings dawn bright and fresh, the world beckons, and I end up happily wandering through the farmers' market in search of my dinners for the coming week.

The lovely Phoenix and a sleepy Mr. Nice Guy joined me for this week's outing, and while they headed off for some coffee, I made my first round of all the stalls, checking out everyone's goods.

Oh, my. That didn't come out quite like I meant... but it just goes to show you that a lusty appreciation of fresh and colorful and tasty farm produce can inspire me to new heights (or depths... take your pick).

I decided to be sensible and pick up the heavy items first, so I bought another pint of honey from the Bee Man, and when I visited the folks with the bags of whole grains, I discovered that they had bags of yellow corn grits to satisfy my cravings for cheese grits. (I bought two bags and had a lively conversation with them about cooking grits.)

Then it was time to stock up on produce for the week. I flung myself back into the crowd with abandon and started visiting my favorite farmers:

The Taste-Everything! Lady had more romaine today, and she picked out a large bunch for me. She also had glorious Bright Lights rainbow chard and wrapped up an enormous "bouquet" for me to take home. (I'm not kidding! For $2, she made me feel like Miss America... the bundle of chard was that big!)

The Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe greeted me with their usual smiles, and once again, I succumbed to the charms of their produce variety: more wonderful salad mix (the last until fall), two slender cucumbers, one Italian zucchini, and one large regular zucchini (to be shredded and frozen, naturally) all ended up in my pack.

The Fiddlin' Farmer still has mostly greens at his table, so I bought some red leaf lettuce and another large knob of kohlrabi. Can't wait for his okra to return!

The Original Organic Farmer had more black raspberries today, so I bought two more pints with every intention of drying them for use later (muffins, scones, granola?).

The Tomato Farmer was the sole person with shelling peas this week, so I bought two quarts from him, intending to dry more for winter stews and curries.

The Gentleman Farmer (and his family, all smiling and fresh-faced) had lots of root vegetables this week, but I limited myself (since my funds were rapidly becoming limited) to one large sweet onion and two large garlic bulbs.

Once again, I managed to fill my pack (and a bag) with enough produce to refill my refrigerator... all at an amazingly reasonable price.

Let's face it... I'm easy to please.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

For Granola Times' Sake

The rains have stopped for this week, so I've been scrambling madly into the garden every night to pick herbs for drying or for use in other things (like herbal sugars or vinegars).

This burst of energy has also affected the pile of farmers' market produce still in the fridge (now dwindling rapidly) as I've blanched and frozen organic broccoli, eaten salads, and made yet another variation on my favorite potato salad recipe (this time throwing in sauteed garlic, onions, kale, and borage).

The surprising thing is that my little projects haven't stopped there. I've been meaning to make some homemade granola for a few weeks now but have been putting it off repeatedly, not thinking that I had everything I wanted to make it.

Well, silly me. Of course, I did have everything, as I discovered tonight when I pulled out the recipe and started yanking bags from the cupboard and the refrigerator.

I like granola. I've never been wholly satisfied by the granola I can get at the co-op or almost any place else (save for the fabulous wholesome bakery Benevolence in our state’s capitol), but I’ve always been pretty pleased with what I make.

So why don't I make it more often? That I just can't figure out. But after tonight's cooking adventure, using a new recipe (found and sent to me by my Fabulous Aunt) that gives you basic ingredients and multiple suggested twists, I'd have to say it's just too easy not to make more often.

Along with the big bag of locally milled oats I pulled from the cupboard, I tossed into the bowl a sprinkling of Sucanat, toasted wheat germ, flax seeds, coconut flakes, mini diced ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cardamom. After whisking together the requisite oil, maple syrup, and water (with a dash of almond extract thrown in for good measure), I combined wet and dry ingredients and spread them on a parchment-lined baking pan.

Half an hour later, I added the dried cherries, and a quarter hour after that, I had lightly crisped, lightly sweetened, incredibly flavorful, and highly addictive granola.

Not only did I nibble a few morsels as it cooled, but after filling an entire quart jar with the fresh whole grain goodness, I scooped the remaining granola into a dish and enjoyed it for dessert after a cup of lavender berry soup.

I'm thinking maybe I should lock the jar in the cupboard overnight.

Or maybe breakfast had just better get here double quick!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue!

Since it's berry season again, it only makes sense to use up last year's berries in order to make room for the new.

Luckily, I only had one bag of local blueberries left in the freezer. The trouble is, after that big storm more than a week ago, I knew the thawed and refrozen berries would be mushy when thawed again.

What to do?

Well, when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, right? (Unless you're the fair Titania, who makes lemon curd.) So when life hands you mushy berries, you really only have two options: jam or soup.

Since my cupboards are well stocked with jam, I chose the latter option. I had bookmarked a recipe for a lavender blueberry soup in my copy of Edible Flowers since I know I love the combination of lavender and blueberries.

Of course, as you well know by now, I couldn't follow that recipe to the letter. First of all, I didn't have enough blueberries, even for half a batch, so I added some fresh organic black raspberries. Then, I didn't have a bottle of red wine open, so I used starfruit wine that my Wonderful Parents brought me from Florida. And so on.

Still, the results were fantastic, because not only did the whole concoction smell wonderful as it simmered on the stove, but the flavors also mingled well on the palate, and the addition of yogurt plus the action of pureeing the soup resulted in a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert after my lovely lunch.

Red and blue berries, white yogurt, lots of local flavors from around the country blended into one delightful dish -- what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July?

Luscious Lavender Berry Soup

The original recipe in Edible Flowers used only blueberries along with red wine, orange juice concentrate, lemon juice, and more seasonings. While I'm sure that recipe is perfectly lovely, I'm fond of this fruit-filled version that has a subtlety all its own. Serve warm or chilled, and if you're not crazy about berry seeds getting stuck in your teeth, strain the pureed soup before adding the yogurt. If you've got a light buttery cookie on hand, tuck that alongside the soup and enjoy!

2 c blueberries
1 c raspberries (red or black)
1/2 c wine (red or white, something fruity)
1/2 c water
3 T honey
2 T orange syrup (leftover from making orange peel)
---substitute more honey or maple syrup if needed
1 T dried lavender blossoms
juice and rind of 1 lime
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 c plain nonfat yogurt

Place all ingredients except the yogurt in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover, and simmer an additional 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely.

Puree soup thoroughly. Strain out seeds if desired. Add yogurt and puree once more for a creamy finish. Serve warm or chill and serve garnished with a sprinkling of lavender blossoms.

Serves 2-4

Fennel Way You Slice It

For this Independence Day holiday, I started off the day in the kitchen, celebrating my growing freedom from corporate processed foods derived from industrial agribusiness. (Yes, I've been reading Wendell Berry again; haven't you?)

Instead, I pulled lots of good local, organic produce from the refrigerator and started cooking.

First, I blanched some organic peas and started drying them in the oven. (Have to learn how to dry fruits and vegetables more effectively!) Then I took the big bundle of organic basil purchased from the Cheerful Lady and the garlic from the Taste-Everything! Lady and whipped up a batch of good homemade pesto, all of which got spooned into an ice cube tray and popped into the freezer.

At last, I was ready to start working on lunch.

While at the market Saturday, I found fresh fennel at the Original Organic Farmer's stand and decided to give it a try.

I never liked licorice or anise flavors as a kid, but I did have cooked fennel once a couple years ago and was pleasantly surprised by how inviting that anise flavor could be when deepened by long, slow cooking.

So I carried that bulb of fennel home and immediately reached for my new favorite cookbook, Local Flavors, to find a recipe that sounded worthwhile. And though I found three that sounded very tempting, I settled on pasta with golden fennel.

There wasn't a whole lot on this small bulb, so I cut back the recipe considerably, but as soon as the slices of fennel hit the hot pan and started browning, they smelled heavenly and completely worth the effort. The fennel cooked down with garlic and a splash of lemon juice, and it simmered away happily in water while I cooked a handful of saffron pasta ribbons.

When everything was ready, I threw it all together, added the chopped fennel greens, and had an incredibly tasty lunch.

I meant to save some for my lunch tomorrow, but, well, that didn't happen. Oh well!

And I think I might have to find more at the market next Saturday!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Cold Cuts

After this morning's rain and cooler weather, the sun came out and heated the air sufficiently to make a cold supper sound just right.

Good thing I planned it that way!

Having found some beautiful beets at the farmers' market yesterday, I searched through Local Flavors to find an intriguing new recipe to try and discovered one for beet "caviar" with Belgian endive and goat cheese. So while we browsed the aisles at West Point Market, I kept my eyes open for fresh Belgian endive and a nice little lump of tangy goat cheese.


The goat cheese in question, Purple Haze, is one I had seen before and been tempted to try, but I had not followed that impulse until today. The cheese includes lavender and fennel pollen, a combination that sounded like it might go well with the rest of the caviar ingredients, and I was pretty certain that I would have plenty left over to enjoy on good bread.

The beets, first steamed and then peeled and chopped, are intended to be mixed with a little red onion (I used one of my red spring onions), a dash of vinegar (none other than last year’s borage-dill), and fresh parsley. The recipe indicated that the dish should be presented in parts and then mixed at the table.

I can see why. First you have very distinct colors and textures, and then... exquisitely vibrant purplish-pink confetti of vegetables and cheese, perfect for spooning onto fresh locally-produced whole wheat pita wedges.

The combination of flavors ended up being quite tasty, but I confess that the whole concoction was a little rich and overwhelming for me. (I'm still learning to like beets, you see.) Still, it was definitely worth a try.

Perhaps I had too much creaminess in the dinner overall, since I had started off the meal with a radish and kohlrabi borani, a Persian dish with yogurt, walnuts, and fresh herbs (mint, basil, and dill in this case).

I've had this dish before and like it very much for warm weather, since the creamy yogurt (well drained) balances the crunch of the fresh vegetables, the bite of fresh garlic, and the mixture of fresh herbs (all from my garden). It, too, makes a nice dip for whole wheat pita, though I could probably line a pita with lettuce and spoon the borani into it for a tasty sandwich.

Even though the whole meal was probably a bit much (I don't like to eat as much in warm weather), it was still very satisfying, both in taste and in the quantity of local food used. Only the goat cheese, endive, and yogurt were not from the farmers' market or my herb garden.

And that makes me feel very good, indeed.