Saturday, January 27, 2007

Healthy Snacks in a Curry

What’s especially difficult about eating locally at this time of the year is how my stores of vegetables are dwindling while the markets have very little local produce to offer.

It’s been wonderful to use dried, canned, and frozen vegetables in soups and such, and I’ve been going through my stash of potatoes like crazy. But I’ve also been craving fresh vegetables that just look like they’re loaded with vitamins and minerals.

Normally, I’d reach for broccoli or kale, and though I haven’t found any good kale at the market lately, I’ve been eating lots of broccoli.

On the other hand, I also want some of those vivid orange vegetables to balance the greens, and so I went through my pantry this weekend and pulled out the remaining squash to remind myself to use them up.

But how? Should I bake or steam them, using the pulp in recipes later? Just bake and eat them? What?

Finally, I decided to take a small butternut squash, cut off the end showing the beginning of rot, peel the rest, and cut it into thick sticks, like fries, to roast them.

And as I prepared the squash, I realized that I was craving something simple with Indian spices, so I tossed the “fries” with olive oil, curry powder, and chili powder before tossing the pan in a 350 F oven and baking them for 45 minutes.

They turned out tender and soft inside with a spicy crisp outside, with just enough heat to warm me up. And I ate them all. That’s right, I ate an entire squash (a small one, granted) and I enjoyed it.

And that’s a snack I’ll be happy to enjoy again soon!

Curried Squash “Fries”

This is so easy that you shouldn’t need a recipe. Quantities will vary based on how much you have of the squash. Besides, you can do this with sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, too. But just to make it absolutely clear, here’s what I did:

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into thick sticks
Extra-virgin olive oil
Curry powder
Chili powder

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place squash “fries” in a square baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with curry and chili powders. Toss to coat evenly.

Bake for 45 minutes at 350 F. Allow to cool slightly before eating. If desired, serve with chutney or raita.

Another Berry Tasty Bread

I don’t know why I’m in the mood for berry flavors lately, but I suspect it has something to do with all that white stuff that keeps falling from the sky and sticking to the ground.

There’s something about the depths of winter that makes us crave summer foods, reminiscent of warm sunshine. And that’s when I tend to reach for the berry jams I’ve preserved or, now that I have them, dried berries.

So when I looked through my bread baking books for a yeast bread that would appeal to me, I decided to modify a standard cinnamon raisin bread in order to use some of my dried black raspberries.

I started off by soaking the raspberries in the warm water that would get worked into the dough later, and after breakfast, I mixed the dough, adding some dried lavender to enhance the raspberry flavor and some chopped walnuts for texture.

And all of a sudden, the kitchen filled with a warm yeasty aroma filled with the juicy promise of berries and the fresh herbal scent of lavender, just as if I had opened the door to a sun-dappled garden.

Who knew such a simple loaf of bread could hold such magic? But how could it not, with that rosy blush and those speckles of berries and walnuts?

As with all baked goods, though, the quality control taste test is the most important. Sure, the bread looked gorgeous, but how did it taste?

That aroma drew me back out to the kitchen after the loaf had had a chance to cool a bit, and I cut two slices from the end, buttered them, and sat back and savored them.

Wonderful! The experiment resulted in a bright berry flavor, a hint of lavender, and just enough walnut crunch to balance the soft, tender crumb, and I knew it would be equally fine toasted the next few mornings.

In short, a berry fine bread for winter to tide me over until summer’s return.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Feeling Seedy

Winter tends to be a difficult time for people who love to garden. The days are short and often grey and gloomy, and though we didn't really see much wintry weather here until last week, all that snow blanketing the ground tends to make you long for the earthy smell of soil and the brilliant green of spring's first shoots.

Perhaps that's why I've finally gotten around to planting some seeds.
I know, in a small apartment, where on earth would I have a garden? But don't forget that lovely big window seat in a huge west-facing window, just perfect for a half a dozen or so pots of fragrant green herbs.

I pulled out a couple of pots last week, along with the bag of potting soil and my tin of seeds, and I planted one pot with lettuce and the other with kale. It'll be a while before I see any sign of life there, but I remain, as ever, optimistic. I also planted a tiny cup of broccoli sprouts, and I hope to tell you more about those soon (they're growing!).

Without a large vegetable garden of my own, though, I do feel a bit lost. This year's Fedco Seeds catalog arrived in the mail before Christmas, and I have yet to pore over it, fearing that the temptation might be too disturbing. I never did get to plant vegetables at other friends' houses last year, and I don't know yet if we'll work something out this year, so I'm hesitant to read and start dreaming about delicious heirloom varieties.

I'm also a little disturbed by a post I found over on Groovy Green about the National Arbor Day Foundation's update to the USDA hardiness zones: turns out that northern Ohio has now moved almost completely into a whole new zone, thanks to global warming. What this will mean for growers in the long run remains to be seen, of course, but I think we can expect the results to be mixed.

Speaking of Groovy Green, here's a new post hot off the blog: "Revive the Victory Garden!" I absolutely agree... it's time we revived this idea and grew (and preserved) more food locally, on our own or in community gardens. All I can say is, "What she said!"

One of these days, I'm sure I'll have a more substantial garden plot again. The snow won't last forever. But the constant diet of canned, dried, or saved vegetables from the farmers' market with only the occasional store-bought leafy green is starting to feel a little old, and I'm eager to see a few new green things growing around my place (oh, you know what I mean).

So here's to hope, and to spring... and to the seeds of a new harvest season.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Berry Quick

I meant to make muffins over the weekend – something sweet and bready for my morning coffee breaks at work all week. I even pulled a bag of frozen local raspberries from the freezer to thaw.

But I didn’t get around to baking any such thing on Sunday, and by the time I got home tonight and saw that bag of soggy raspberries in their own watery juice slumped in the refrigerator, I knew I’d better work fast.

After dinner, I flipped through a trio of favorite baking books in order to find a muffin or quick bread recipe that would accommodate berries and juice. Passing up several that required a thicker liquid (milk), I decided to tweak a recipe for Walnut-Strawberry Bread found in the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.

As I scanned the recipe, I hauled out the ingredients and started tossing things into mixing bowls while I had a lengthy phone chat with the Gentleman (who has become quite the chatterbox since he moved into a place of his own!): flours and other dry ingredients in one bowl, and a puree of the raspberries, juice, yogurt, egg, vanilla, canola oil, and maple syrup in the other.

The batter appeared to have just the right light but thick consistency, even once I added a generous handful of chocolate chips, so I scraped it all into a greased loaf pan and popped it into the oven.

Less than an hour later, I pulled out the loaf to cool, and before bed, I had sliced the end off to sample the bread before packing the next day’s lunch.

Perfect! Moist, tender, not too sweet, this bread had everything I wanted in a break time snack… not to mention an abundance of local ingredients and a healthy use of whole grains and less refined sweeteners. And to top it all off, it was easy and quick to throw together.

I’m sure it will disappear just as easily and quickly, too!

Raspberry-Chocolate Chip Quick Bread

You’ve probably noticed that I pick up a number of recipes from King Arthur Flour, whether through their web site, the Baker’s Catalogue, or one of their cookbooks. I don’t always use their flours but I do regularly buy special ingredients from them, and I’ve almost always found their recipes to be well-structured, easy, and tasty. And then I go and change them to suit myself. So there’s my disclaimer. Vary this as you will, with different berries or even replacing the chips with nuts or other dried fruit.

1 c unbleached flour
1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 c pureed raspberries and juice
1/4 to 1/2 c plain nonfat yogurt
1 large egg
1/4 c canola oil
1/4 c maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

In medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl or blender, whisk together berries, yogurt, egg, oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, mixing until well-blended. Fold in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan at least 15 minutes, though I let mine cool an hour or two before slicing.

Makes 1 loaf

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Galette-ing Gourmet

The snow that has for so long been absent has finally decided to hang out a little longer in our fair town. We haven’t had huge amounts, just the occasional heavy dusting, but it’s to the point where I definitely need to wear my new “tracks” (coils that stretch over my boot soles) for the walk to work because the snow that melts one day is frozen underneath new snow the next morning.

After that sometimes strenuous hike to work, a full workday, and the hike (I’m resisting the temptation to slide downhill) home, I want something warm and comforting to fill and soothe my stomach.

Knowing that I still had a bag of parsnips – one of the last purchases from the farmers’ market this past year – in the fridge, I picked up some fresh spinach at the grocery store over the weekend in the hopes of finally getting around to making a tasty parsnip galette with greens once again.

You may remember me raving about this simple dish last year, a not-quite variation on potato or vegetable pancakes or latkes. It’s chock full of shredded parsnips and shredded or chopped greens, bound together with toasted walnuts, Parmesan cheese, sage, egg, and flour, and then cooked on a hot skillet until well browned on both sides.

How can I resist? Sweet and savory flavors, plus the satisfaction of using local ingredients (parsnips, sage, egg, flour, butter), combine to make this one of my favorite quick winter comfort foods.

You really don’t need anything else for dinner but this… unless, of course, you want to share!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

This Takes the Cake

Over the years, I’ve gone through a number of different kitchen tools, gadgets, and equipment, thinking that the newest thing would make my cooking even better forever!

Ah, but trends come, and trends go, and in moving to a smaller place with a much smaller kitchen, I had to let go of a lot.

Tools? My “magic” drawer (so called because I could always find the perfect tool in it) still has a wide variety of gadgets, but it’s now limited to those items I do actually use, including a pastry wheel, a rotary beater, and other basics.

Appliances? All I have left (besides the obvious refrigerator and stove) is a toaster, a slow cooker, a four-in-one blender, and a coffee grinder.

I pared down my dishes and pots and pans, keeping what I use the most, and I got rid of all those horrendous non-stick skillets that had become scratched and scraped over time.

But the first item I bought specifically for my new place was a solid little cast iron skillet, and let me tell you, I am in love.

Though it’s heavy and hard to handle sometimes, my cast iron skillet (now well seasoned) is a dream to clean and is my best friend for breakfast. I use it to make crispy light hash browns, the occasional cheesy omelet, and, of course, a regular array of homemade pancakes, perfectly browned and fluffy.

Which brings me to this morning’s breakfast. In search of ways to use up the half-gallon jug of local milk before it expires in a couple of days, I unearthed a recipe for skonsur or Icelandic pancakes in my notebook, printed from the King Arthur Baking Circle web site. Billed as something between a pancake and a scone (which you might have guessed), it sounded like the perfect breakfast food for a weekend morning.

So after juicing two fresh oranges, I started whipping up the batter, rich with eggs, milk, and butter. I added small dollops of batter to the hot cast iron skillet to cook, and they remained thick but airy.

Even when flipped and pressed down (to spread out that batter for more even cooking), they stayed impressively substantial, unlike my usual pancakes.

But how do they taste? you may ask. They struck me as a highly pleasing cross between pancakes and baking powder biscuits, substantial but light, and willing to support a number of different flavors, both savory and sweet. For breakfast, of course, I stuck with sweet, adding butter and dollops of homemade strawberry-rose petal jam.

With a large mug of thick, homemade hot chocolate topped with orange-infused whipped cream, the skonsur made for a wonderfully decadent breakfast, perfect for a Sunday morning thick with the promise of snow, and I knew it would keep me warm all morning long.

And as for that cast iron skillet, I’m more in love than ever.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pie Eyed

Once the Christmas cookies are all gone, it takes me a while to feel any inclination toward dessert. But when I still have several deliciously juicy Florida oranges in the refrigerator, I feel a compelling urge to make one particular dessert in the depths of winter.

Yes, Dear Readers, it’s time once again for Pie in the Sky, that lusciously light but rich concoction of orange and cinnamon custardy goodness.

I confess to needing a little change of pace with this recipe, though. For some reason, I just didn’t feel like buying graham crackers and making my orange-cinnamon graham cracker crust.

Instead, I decided to try using a shortbread cookie crust, based on my pecan shortbread recipe but with orange peel and cinnamon added.

Not that it was a perfect substitution: the cookie base puffed up a good deal during baking, leaving me concerned that I’d fit all the filling inside it.

I cut back the filling recipe (2 eggs instead of 3, less orange juice, and so on), and I’m happy to report that the filling did not overflow the confines of the crust, and the final product ended up with the most beautiful layering I’ve seen since the first time I made the pie:

Of course, it wouldn’t be classic Pie in the Sky without a generous dollop of orange peel-infused whipped cream, made from scratch.

As always, it’s a delectable dessert for a cold winter’s night, and though I didn’t have a cup of coffee with it, I did enjoy that orange-spice sweetness warming my throat and stomach. And yes, I had a contented gleam in my eye afterward.

Because, well, you know, there’s still the rest of the pie in my fridge.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Catch Up

The new year has gotten off to something of a hectic start, and I haven’t cooked much aside from those weekend staples that carry me through the week (a pot of soup or chili, pizza). Since none of this is truly new, I haven’t blogged much about it, and I do beg your forgiveness.

I’ve also been thoroughly distracted this past week with keeping tabs on the Chef Mother, who, as I’ve told some of my Dear Friends in private email, has been in the hospital all week, battling pneumonia and a nasty MRSA infection. Many thanks to all those who have expressed their support and kept the Chef Mother (and the rest of my family) in their thoughts in prayers. She’s doing better little by little, and though she’s still not well enough to go home, she’s been complaining about the hospital food and joking with the nurses, two sure signs that she’s on the mend.

MRSA, as you may or may not know, stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of the “superbugs” now becoming more widely spread in the community. Only two drugs are effective against it, and the Chef Mother has been blessed to have doctors, nurses, and even infectious disease specialists who recognized her immediate need for these two drugs. She’s a lucky woman.

But this incident has brought home to me the problematic overuse of antibiotics in our society, not just in treating diseases that may not need such medicine, but also in the factory farming of our food. One site I came across this week, MRSA Watch, offers a good deal of scientific research regarding the use of antibiotics in CAFOs in order to keep animals “healthy” in industrial production... and what detrimental effects that has had on the effectiveness of modern drugs. It ain’t pretty, and if I hadn’t been inclined to avoid factory-farmed animals before (one of the benefits of vegetarianism and/or eating locally), I would definitely think twice about it now.

In lighter news, I’ve come across a number of uplifting articles about local foods and how this trend is growing strength:

1. As always, Tom Philpott over at Grist has a good twist on the trend to present. This time around, it’s an interview with Ann Cooper called “Meet the Lunch Lady” (along with a review of her book Lunch Lessons, something I’ve been wanting to read for a couple of months). In the UK, chef Jamie Oliver has brought the nation’s attention to improving the nutrition in school lunches; could something similar happen here in the States?

2. YES! Magazine’s recent issue is devoted to issues of local living and local economies, offering several good reads. I’d particular recommend "Food to Stay: How a local food system builds health and community wealth" by Gary Nabhan and "Judy Wicks: In Business for Life" about the owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia.

3. And in the growing field of local-eating blogs, I’d like to introduce you to The Ethicurean, a site devoted to local, sustainable eating. One recent post announces Virginia's declaration of February 6 to be Food Freedom Day, the day by which most people have earned enough money to pay for their food for the year. As the Ethicurean so aptly points out, "No word on whether there will be a subsequent celebration planned for when the average American earns enough to cover the damage to our water, land, oceans, atmosphere, and public health system incurred by that miraculously cheap food."

After all this good information and inspiration, I’ll be ready to get back into the kitchen this weekend. I’m not sure yet what delicious mayhem will ensure, but rest assured I’ll keep you posted.

And thanks again for your patience while I catch up!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Tooting My Own Corn

I know it's been quiet here on the blog since New Year's, and I hope you'll forgive me. I've been so wrapped up in other projects and some minor upheaval at home thanks to the renovations next door that my cooking has been very simple and unexciting.

But this weekend, I was determined to get into the kitchen and cook lots of good things to get me through the coming cold weather (a rarity around here of late). I started a pot of chili this morning, throwing together a couple jars of home-canned tomatoes, a can of beans, small handfuls of dried red peppers and garlic and carrots, and a chopped onion sauteed with the requisite spices. (And yes, all those vegetables came from last year's farmers' market!)

While it simmered, I dashed out in the drippy weather to run a couple of errands, and when I returned home and changed out of my damp clothes, I whipped up a pan of cornbread to go with the chili.

I honestly don't know why I don't make cornbread more often. It's so easy to make (I used the corn muffin recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book but spread the batter in a 9" square pan), it takes a lot less time than yeast bread, and it tastes so good with hearty soups. I guess I don't always think about making complete meals, just individual dishes, for myself.

After a mere half an hour, the cornbread came out of the oven looking crackly and wholesome:

While it had baked, I had also made a savory butter flavored with chili powder, lime juice, and a touch of fresh chopped cilantro, so I split open a square of cornbread and spread it with the mix.

Mmmm... can't beat that for a damp, chilly (or is that chili?) day!