Sunday, April 29, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 7

Today wraps up the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, and I bet you're wondering how I rounded out the week, right?

One of the benefits to this week's Challenge has been that not only has it encouraged me both to plan my meals better while also being more open to experimentation in order to use up what I've opened or thawed, but it also has meant less waste. For example, I thawed a bag of frozen local corn at the beginning of the week. There were maybe 2 cups of corn kernels in the bag, but I stretched that corn through stew with dumplings and vegetable patties before using the rest up this morning in corn pancakes.

I feel like I've eaten an awful lot of corn this week, so it's a good thing I like it... a LOT. But really, I think a lot of people would be hard pressed to pass up homemade corn pancakes, made with local egg, milk, butter, cornmeal, spelt flour, and, of course, corn. It's even harder to say no to these pancakes when they're topped with a dab of local butter and some homemade blueberry-ginger chutney.

I finished off the quart of grape juice I'd pulled for the week and followed up breakfast with a cup of Midsummer Dream Blend herbal tea with local honey. A refreshing way to start a bright and sunny day!

After a lovely walk in the park, followed by a morning of letter writing and other such leisurely activities, I decided to devour the remaining two vegetable patties (with more of the Archivist's fantastic sweet pepper relish, of course) for a light lunch before heading out to the Hungarian pastry shop for my usual Sunday writing retreat. I admit it, I splurged on decidedly un-local stuff -- coffee and a slice of gerbaud, a pastry with thin layers of cake interspersed with raspberry preserves and topped with a thin layer of dark chocolate -- but since I also believe in supporting local small businesses, I didn't feel as though I was "cheating" on the Challenge all that much.

I spent the afternoon with a friend, which included a stroll to the county fairgrounds to visit the home and garden show, and while there, we enjoyed scoops of locally-made old-fashioned ice cream that reminded me of small-town summer days long ago. What a treat!

By the time I got around to making dinner, I wasn't up for making much. I had thought about making another pizza in order to have food for the coming week's lunches, but I decided instead to enjoy some more homemade pasta. After cooking the bowties, I sauteed a couple cloves of local garlic, some chopped pecans (not local to me, but local to my friend Sojourner, who sent them late last year), fresh rosemary from my herb "garden," and a few chopped carrots (from the freezer), then tossed the pasta back in and added a little olive oil for a simple, fragrant, and delicious dinner.

After dinner, I sat down and added up the day's food expenses. Thanks to two treats out, it came to $12.50, which really isn't too bad, all things considered. That meant my total for the week came to just over $59, well under the 1-person budget limit of $68. Yippee!

To celebrate, I pulled out the bottle of Vignoles I'd had chilling in the refrigerator and enjoyed a glass (about $3 worth, if I'm still keeping track!) of sweet white wine made by a local winery. Why not? I'm feeling pretty good that I manage to store enough food this past year in order to make it this far into the spring with enough local food to meet this Challenge. And I look forward to this year's farmers' market... and more food preservation for next year.

Tomorrow, I'm sure I'll tuck into some of my non-local foods again, simply because I already have them around and don't want them to go to waste. But a week's worth of eating locally on a budget has definitely raised my awareness, and I'm sure I'll be incorporating the things I've learned and the attitudes I've developed more and more into my way of eating.

For those of you who hope or plan to try this Challenge at a later time, when you have more local foods available to you, I encourage you to do it and enjoy it. I think you'll find that even though it might result in more kitchen work over the week, you'll appreciate the connection to your food even more, and you may even find yourself feeling a little bit changed for the better. Let me know how it works for you!

Thanks to the folks at Eat Local Challenge for inspiring this week! And thanks to all my Dear Readers for their support!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 6

What a difference a good night's sleep can make!

I'm well aware that yesterday's menus weren't exactly the healthiest ever, being rather short on vegetables and all. But they got me through the day, and after a good night's sleep, I awoke hungry and ready to cook. So hold on to your hats... it's been a food frenzy around here today!

I love starting the day with something cooked on my favorite cast iron skillet, and I had just the dish in mind this morning. I heated the last two cornmeal-maple biscuits in the skillet first, then scrambled a local egg and laid it on the biscuits with homemade salsa and local organic cheddar cheese on top. Add to that another cup of grape juice and a mug of Moroccan mint tea with local honey, and, well, you've got the makings of a beautiful morning.

Fortified for the morning's errands, I headed out for a long walk and a visit to the shops, getting back home in time to start making lunch. (Do you ever feel like you do nothing but cook all day? Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing...)

Inspired by a discussion with the Archivist yesterday, I decided to whip up a small batch of "veggie burgers" loaded with several kinds of vegetables tucked away after last year's farmers' market: edamame, corn, and carrots thawed from the freezer; dried shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, garlic, and red pepper, soaked in hot water; fresh herbs and dried; local oats and corn flour; and a local egg to bind them all together. Easy and tasty!

Let's just say I "dedicated" that lunch to the Archivist, since the dilled green beans and the sweet pepper relish came from her home gardens. I also finished off the farmhouse Gouda, my other local cheese for the week, with the meal as a nice counterbalance to the heat of the beans.

By dinner time, I was ready to tackle my big project for the weekend: making pasta from scratch. Some of you may remember that this was one of my "goals" for the year, and I decided that with this week's Challenge, it was high time I tried it. Granted, I needed to use some non-local unbleached flour and olive oil for the pasta dough, but I did mix it with some local spelt flour and eggs. Thanks to the spelt, the dough was somewhat tender to handle, but it rolled out just fine:

If you're wondering about the wavy lines, I used a pastry wheel to cut the dough, and then I pinched individual pieces in the middle to make farfalle or bowties:

As you might expect, the dough made more than enough little bowties for my dinner, so I decided to lay out the rest to dry and store for later. (Talk about economy!)

For those farfalle I did cook for dinner, I pulled a cube of homemade pesto from the freezer and tossed it (thawed, of course) with the pasta and a small number of oven-dried tomatoes.

Are you hungry yet? I'm pretty impressed myself with what all I managed to cook today. And better yet, all that food even ended up being relatively inexpensive: a whopping $7 for the entire day's meals. (Yes, I am counting the items I stashed away last year, but since I've only been using small amounts of each of them at a time, they end up not being very expensive at all.)

That leaves one day left in this Challenge... and plenty of good local foods still in the fridge to use! Stay tuned!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 5

The trouble with setting goals for yourself is that sometimes life has a way of interrupting your plans for reaching those goals.

I started the morning with a repeat of yesterday's breakfast: same old cornmeal biscuits, same old juice, different herb tea with same old honey. I do actually tend to approach breakfasts like this, by making a large quantity of something and repeating it over and over until it's gone, so don't think that I'm bored with it! I just don't have anything new to say about it.

By lunchtime, I was glad to have the last piece of pizza tucked into my lunch bag, because that was all I could handle. At some point in the morning, I developed a comprehensive migraine and wasn't really in the mood for anything new and exciting.

When I got home from work, I immediately headed to bed in hopes of alleviating the migraine somewhat, but by the time I got up an hour or so later, all I could think to do for dinner was to make popcorn. I had planned to try making pasta tonight, but believe me, that just wasn't going to happen.

So, on the one hand, I got through the day by spending only $3 or so on my food. On the other hand, I have no exciting food stories to share with you, other than the all-too-familiar realization that when you're feeling under the weather, you're more likely to reach for quick and easy convenience foods. Thankfully, in this case that comfort food was local.

In related news, the folks over at the Eat Local Challenge have asked participants to share stories of their Challenge experience this week, and I wrote a more general piece on my reflections for them to post. Give their site a visit and read some of the other stories, too!

In the meantime, I'm going to get more rest and shake this dreadful headache so that I can cook some interesting new dishes featuring more local food this weekend.

Meet you back here tomorrow!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 4

Though the work week is winding down, I'm only at the halfway mark with this week's Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge. And I'm afraid today's report won't be too exciting, because my menus were almost identical to yesterday's.

I started the day with two more of those tender cornmeal biscuits, though I topped them with rose jelly from last year's farmers' market instead; a small glass of grape juice; and a cup of herbal tea with honey. Very soothing!

By mid-morning, I craved a little pick-me-up, and I headed to the nearby cafe for a small decaf mocha. So much for local! I have a serious weakness for mochas, though I'm trying hard to get down to just one a week (and hopefully less), and today I just couldn't resist. I don't think it will bump me over budget for this week, and I'm learning to be more mindful when I do indulge, so I'm learning something, at least.

At lunchtime, I enjoyed another couple slices of that good broccoli pizza, along with a chance to sit and write a bit.

Of course, when I got home, I felt a bit peckish, so I noshed on a biscuit and a few morsels of that buttery Gouda that's been sitting in the fridge. After that, I reheated the rest of yesterday's vegetable stew and dumplings, and after such a hearty dinner, I needed nothing else for the rest of the evening.

So, a bit of a boring day overall, but don't worry, I expect to get back to cooking this weekend! In terms of the week's Challenge budget, today's meals totaled a little bit higher, thanks to the mocha: approximately $8.25, which is still well under the average of not quite $10 per person per day.

I've also been keeping tabs on others who are taking this week's Challenge, thanks to the posts over at the Eat Local Challenge web site. It's good to find out how others are managing their exceptions (and cravings!) and what goals they've set for themselves, because it helps me to think a little more about what I'm doing and ways I can do more.

Are any of you Dear Readers doing this Challenge as well... if not now, perhaps later? Let me know!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 3

As the week progresses, I'm finding it's both easier and more difficult to eat completely locally and to stay on a budget. I've got plenty of food stashed away, which means I'm not hurting for my usual veggie fix, but convenience food is scarce, so I'm spending a little more time in the kitchen making things from scratch. And yet, it's all working out wonderfully.

This morning I had some extra time before work to make a batch of cornmeal-maple biscuits from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook. Because I'm out of whole wheat flour that was milled locally, I substituted spelt flour to go along with the cornmeal (both local). Baking powder and salt, as with some other basic baking ingredients, I didn't expect to find locally, but the butter, egg, milk, and maple syrup included in the batch all came from nearby. I think I may have been too sleepy to be allowed to bake, as I seemed to have gotten the proportions off a bit, ending up with flat spreading biscuits, but they tasted just fine topped with more of that local butter and a dollop of homemade "Grand Old Jam" (blueberry, strawberry, and Grand Marnier).

They're simple and homely little biscuits, capable of taking on sweet toppings or savory, and they filled the need for starchy food that I missed in yesterday's breakfast. Along with the biscuits, I also enjoyed a glass of local grape juice and a cup of herbal tea that included some dried raspberry leaves from my old garden.

For lunch, I packed a couple slices of that delectable broccoli pizza to take with me to work, enjoying them over a good book instead of walking out in the pouring rain for my lunchtime exercise. (Sigh.)

By dinner time, the day had turned dreary, damp, and chilly, and I was really craving pasta. But since I had no locally produced pasta in the cupboard, nor did I think I had time to try and make pasta before my dance class, I was stumped. I had plenty of thawed vegetables in the refrigerator waiting to be used, and I briefly considered repeating the morning's biscuits along with a vegetable salad or stew.

And then it occurred to me: dumplings! If I made a stew from the vegetables, I could make dumpling dough and drop it into the pot of simmering vegetables to let everything cook together and make a hearty meal. Genius!

So I quickly sauteed garlic and shallots, adding in some fresh thyme and oregano, and then I dumped in edamame, corn, small whole carrots, and a jar of canned tomatoes, bringing the mixture to a boil before turning it down to a simmer.

Then I made the dumpling dough from a mixture of spelt and whole wheat flours, a touch of baking powder and salt, more fresh herbs, a local egg yolk, and local milk. When the stew had simmered long enough, I dropped small spoonfuls into the liquid and let them cook away.

At last, I had a bowl full of all that good local produce!

It's not glamorous, but boy! did that hit the spot! I followed it up with a cup of hot chocolate made from scratch, and though of course the chocolate wasn't local, the milk sure was!

All in all, it turned out to be a very good day for making good local meals, and I even managed to avoid the pitfall of quick-fix snacks that would definitely not have fit my criteria for the week. (I don't expect to escape them all week, but I'm going to try.)

Today's meals turned out to be very inexpensive, too: based on servings, I'd say I spent about $4.25 on food today, if you can believe it! If you're keeping track, that means I've spent just under $13.50 on food (not including the $15 for lunch out yesterday), so I'm doing really well with the budget this week.

And with plenty of leftovers so far, I think I'll be able to stretch it out even further!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 2

Here we are at the end of Day 2 of the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, and I've learned two new things about eating locally on a budget:

1. It's difficult, if not downright impossible, to eat locally and frugally when professional obligations beckon!
2. Controlling portion size in order to manage a budget can be equally tricky.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to breakfast, when I enjoyed a scrambled local free-range egg with local organic cheddar for breakfast, along with a cup of decidedly not local coffee (though organic and fair-trade) tempered by local milk and maple syrup (since I'm trying to avoid non-local sweeteners if I can this week). The meal satisfied me temporarily, but I usually need a little more than that to start my day, and I found myself wishing I had baked muffins with local berries... or had time to whip up some pancakes with local grains.

Alas, that was not to be today, as I needed to prepare for an almost-all-day meeting at work. And at lunchtime, I ran smack up against my other lesson for today. Though our group had lunch at a local restaurant that featured some local foods on the menu -- I had a buttery and delicious mushroom napoleon featuring locally grown mushrooms -- not all the foods were local, and the price was definitely not good for a tight budget. Happily, my meal was paid for by the Boss Man, but I'll calculate my daily and weekly expenses both ways to show the difference.

By the time I got home from work, I was ready to tackle some of the other produce I had pulled from the freezer for this week's challenge. Having pondered a few options, I decided to try something new and completely unscripted: edamame soup, inspired by a typical creamy pea soup to celebrate the flavors of spring.

I minced garlic and shallots (bought from the Cheerful Lady at last year's market) and sauteed them in local butter. I added a sprinkling of salt and pepper, followed by a small amount of crumbled dried basil (also from the Cheerful Lady), before I tossed in about 1/4 c of thawed edamame (from the Tomato Farmer). After letting the flavors develop a little, I took the mixture off the heat, poured in some local milk (between 1/2 and 1 cup... I didn't measure), and pureed the entire mixture to a pale green semi-creamy soup. I topped it with a sprinkling of crumbled dried tomatoes for extra color and flavor, and I settled back with my soup and a few pieces of that local Gouda.

The edamame were still a little on the starchy side and so didn't puree into a thoroughly creamy texture, but the combination of flavors came as a pleasant surprise, and it made for a refreshing start to the meal. I gobbled up a few more of those hot dilled beans from the Archivist's garden and kitchen, and then I made a small bowl of popcorn (ruby red popcorn from a local farm, topped with melted local butter) since I knew I would need a little more food to keep me from going to bed hungry!

Between breakfast and dinner, I only "spent" about $3 (yes, even counting the coffee) thanks to portion control and stocking up items in bulk. (I'm telling you, produce at the farmers' market really is a deal!) Lunch, however, was another matter: just under $15, including tax and tip. Guess I just have to be prepared sometimes to splurge a little (even if I didn't actually pay for it)!

Stay tuned for tomorrow's update!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge: Day 1

Over the weekend, the Gentleman came to visit for a couple of days, and we crammed a lot of good eating into less than 48 hours. Among the highlights was dinner at the Bistro, a blissful meal full of wonderful local foods, including fresh tender asparagus, morels, fennel, and a locally produced cherry wine. I'd go into the usual raptures, but that's not the point today.

You see, a meal at the Bistro, while fantastic, can also be fantastically expensive. It's worth it, don't get me wrong! (Oh, sooooooo worth it.) But it can also convey the impression that local food is an elite ideal, too expensive for most folks to enjoy.

Still, it made a good contrast to this week's Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge from the good folks who also brought you the Locavores site. As I promised last week, I'm up for the challenge, thanks in large part to all the good farmers' market produce I put away last fall and am still working through little by little.

With the first of seven days down, I can tell you two things. First, with a little advance preparation (that is, the habit of preserving the harvest for later use), you really can have inexpensive local meals that are varied, interesting, tasty, and healthful. Second, you'd better be prepared to spend some time in making them... which is not a bad thing!

I started off my day with a filling breakfast of cheese grits (using locally produced organic cheddar cheese) and a cup of Moroccan mint tea laced with honey. As tired as I was, I didn't think I'd get going on a Monday morning without coffee, but the honeyed tea made a gentle and tasty introduction to the week.

Since I hadn't had time this past weekend to cook much, I ended up throwing together a light hodgepodge of a meal to carry to work for lunch: dilled green beans (made by my colleague, the Archivist, with homegrown beans and dill), pears I had canned a year and a half ago (still sweet and yummy!), a wedge of Gouda from an Ohio cheesemaker, and a pair of my homemade espresso-chocolate shortbread cookies.

When I finally got home after work and a visit with the Innkeeper, I was glad I had thought ahead to thaw some local broccoli from the freezer so that I could whip up a pizza using locally milled spelt flour and locally produced honey in the dough, a locally produced pizza sauce, and local mozzarella cheese. And since I was just in the right mood to offset the weekend's Bistro feast with something more pedestrian, I backed that pizza with a selection from a local brewery: Commodore Perry ale from the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

Since I still have so many food items left from last year's farmers' market, I'm going to have to guess on food costs. (It's all estimates, anyway, because it's really tricky to guess how much is spent on spices or other minor ingredients.) I'll try to calculate it a couple of different ways by the end of the week, but based on the portions that I ate today, I'd estimate that today's costs would have been just over $6 for my meals.

That's right... SIX dollars, even with the beer. Thanks to buying in bulk, storing food in the freezer or the pantry, and moderating portions, I ended up with three satisfying meals for less than what any of those meals would cost at a restaurant or from the grocery store.

I'll try to update daily as I head through this week... but what a great start!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Short and Sweet

Back when my Fabulous Aunt was in town and staying at the lovely Victorian bed and breakfast run by my friend, the Innkeeper, the three of us had a lively discussion of possible tasty treats for the Innkeeper to share with her guests.

The Innkeeper expressed a desire to have afternoon tea or evening cocktails on her porch or in the garden when summer guests arrived, and she also talked about breakfasts overlooking the garden. But in talking, we also hit upon a clever idea for welcoming guests: dark chocolate shortbread cookies that represented the inn's name theme.

I knew I could adapt, once again, the recipe for chocolate shortbread cookies that I've used in my Dark Chocolate Seduction Torte as well as in my Truffle Surprise Cookies, so I headed back to the kitchen this week to tinker with the recipe once more.

In the first batch, I used maple sugar and local maple syrup to sweeten the dough and added cinnamon for a warm, homey flavor underneath the decadent dark chocolate taste. For the second batch, I switched to local honey to sweeten the dough, and the added flavor came from a hint of espresso powder.

Both batches turned out very well, with multiple layers of flavor in every crisp, buttery bite. And for the espresso-chocolate shortbread, I added a generous dusting of two cocoas to deepen the chocolate effect.

I packed some up for a Friday visit with the Innkeeper (which fell through, unfortunately), and I sent a number of the morsels off to a few friends in need of a serious chocolate pick-me-up, as well as sharing more cookies with people nearby. The reactions were unanimously encouraging, as you can see:

"You are now officially my favorite person in the world!"

"I can taste every flavor in these... wow!"

"It walks a fine line between seductive darkness and overload!"

"OH MY GOD, these are fantastic! More! More!"

The Innkeeper, the source of that last quote, even sounded ready to head right into the kitchen to bake several dozen on the spot, so I think it's safe to say that we'll be carrying through our idea sometime very soon.

How sweet it is!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

And Now in More Local News...

Eating locally is definitely catching on!

The Locavores group, based in San Francisco, has issued a new challenge on their Eat Local Challenge blog: the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge, a one-week challenge to see if eating locally can be done affordably.

Because many times locally produced food does cost more -- thanks to a more transparent cost that benefits the farmer almost entirely, instead of having the price knocked down to subsidies and giving little back to the farmer -- eating locally has gotten an "elitist" cachet that it doesn't need. The Locavores challenge us all to prove that image wrong. And they're getting a little extra press from the San Francisco Chronicle, so check it out!

I think I'll be able to manage my "assigned" budget of $68 for the week since I still have a good variety of foods stashed away from last year's farmers' market, but the trick will be those non-local things that tend to creep into my diet (like a morning coffee!). The Locavores do have a set of guidelines posted, which helps, but I can already see I'm going to have to be a little creative in my meal planning next week!
I'll try to keep you all posted on a regular basis as to how the week's challenge goes for me. Should be fun!

(And I see that they've also designated September to be their Eat Local Challenge month this year... you have time to prepare yourself!)

Not that I expect that most of you reading this blog need another reason to eat locally, but my faithful newshound friend, Mr. Clean, recently directed me to a San article exploring how the recent "Pet food recall raises questions about the safety of imported foods." I really hate to say I told you so, but... well.

On a happier note, though, Deborah Madison (author of Local Flavors, one of my new favorite cookbooks) has a piece over at Culinate that encourages us all to "Savor the taste of local." And why not?

Not strictly about local foods, my new favorite blog, No Impact Man, has a thoughtful article that explores not only gender roles within the household but also how we can view chores (including cooking) as something beyond drudgery and time-consuming: they can enrich our life by bringing our families together to do the work that is important and nourishing to our bodies and souls. This re-emphasis on the domestic or household economy is one that occurs frequently in Wendell Berry's writings, and it's one that I've come to appreciate more and more in my own life.

By supporting local foods and doing more cooking myself (as opposed to eating out or reaching for processed convenience food on a regular basis), I feel like in my own small way I'm doing something supremely important, even if it takes more time and energy -- there's an undeniable satisfaction in making do for myself and in sharing that joy with others.

And isn't that what it's all about?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Swimming in the Polenta

Most days, I get home from work and don't want to fuss with cooking. That probably sounds familiar to most of you! I get some cooking done on the weekend, try to stretch it out through the week, try to have a few things handy for quick-fix meals, and then end up going out more than I'd like.


You've probably noticed, though, that some of my favorite quick-fix meals involve broccoli. That includes my favorite broccoli-walnut pasta (and variations) as well as broccoli pizza. I figure, maybe I'm relying on starches too much sometimes to fill me up, but if I throw in plenty of healthy green veggies, it's all right.

Sometimes, though, I can actually get myself in gear on a weeknight and make something that's a little more complex, still easy, and still healthy. (AND still have leftovers for lunches!)

Enter the polenta pizza pie.

I found a recipe in the New Moosewood Cookbook a number of years ago for a Polenta Pie topped with sauteed vegetables, and after my first attempt at it (when the amount of polenta the recipe made ended up filling two pie pans), I discovered that the gritty-creamy bite of the crust made it a novel variation worth repeating.

Having given it some extra thought over the weekend, I decided to whip up a pan of polenta tonight, using corn meal from the farmers' market. After spreading it in my favorite pie plate, I let it cool while I simmered tomato sauce (canned from last year's market tomatoes) with fresh oregano and thyme from my herb pots, a little balsamic vinegar, a dash of pepper, and a sprinkling of goat cheese. Once that had thickened sufficiently, I spread it over the polenta, topped it with chopped broccoli that I had put in the freezer after last year's farmers' market plus more goat cheese, and baked it.

And voila!

Dinner is served! For a dish that really didn't take long overall to make, I not only had the satisfaction of enjoying something healthy, relatively low-fat, and nutritious, but I also had an almost entirely local meal. And that tasted gooooood.

Now, of course, I'm swimming in leftovers. But that's really not such a bad thing when they taste this good!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I Feel Another Baking Spelt Coming On

At long last! Ever since it came out, I've been eager to get my hands on a library copy of the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook. (I prefer to borrow cookbooks first before I decide if they're really worth adding to my collection.) And now that I have, I can see that I will have to get a copy for myself from King Arthur Flour sometime soon.

See, I've been baking with whole grains for a while now, but I don't really know them intimately... know how they work together, what properties the various grains have, what grains work best for what kinds of foods, and so on. Whole wheat flour and oats, I have no problem with. But thanks to my finds from the local grist mill, I also have rye flour, corn flour, and spelt flour in the refrigerator waiting to be used.

I've barely begun to scratch the surface of this new cookbook, but for this weekend's baking I thought I'd find some muffin or quick bread recipe that used spelt flour, something I've never worked with before. So I decided to learn.

I had heard from the fair Titania that spelt was a better grain for diabetics, though I didn't know until I skimmed the cookbook that spelt has a lower glycemic index and breaks down in the body more slowly than other grains, thus slowing the rise of blood sugar levels. Spelt also is high in protein and is extremely water-soluble, so all its good nutrients can be absorbed better by the human body. And the cookbook notes that the structure of baked goods using spelt are more fragile, requiring more care and a rest between mixing and baking.

I thumbed through the recipes and found one for Cranberry-Orange Spelt Muffins that looked rather tasty. Of course, I didn't have dried cranberries at hand, nor orange juice, but you know me... I improvised. I pulled out some of the local raspberries I had oven-dried last year and soaked them in hot water before adding them to a batter enriched with local spelt flour, local milk, local maple syrup, and local eggs. I slid the bowl of batter into the refrigerator overnight and went to bed dreaming of fresh muffins for breakfast.

When I stepped into the kitchen this morning, I mixed up a simple streusel to top the muffins (and I have to add that the good folks at King Arthur Flour love streusel as much as I do: I had plenty left over!). After that, it was a quick and easy task to fill the muffin tins, sprinkle the streusel on top, and slide the pan into the oven.

The recipe indicated that allowing the batter to rest overnight in the refrigerator resulted in a higher-rising muffin, and it was immediately obvious that they weren't kidding!

As with the proverbial pudding, though, the proof of the muffin is definitely in the eating. And yes, these delectable morsels certainly do prove themselves! The overnight rest adds a nice tang to the intense raspberry flavor, the spelt flour adds a tender and nutty taste, and the streusel... well, you just can't go wrong with balancing a soft muffin with a sweet crunch on top.

Overall, these make a satisfying breakfast, and I know I'll enjoy them during my morning coffee breaks at work this week.

And I'll scour this book for more opportunities to add spelt to my baking.

Raspberry-Walnut Spelt Muffins

Now that I'm getting more comfortable with various muffin recipes, I'm happy to experiment with new possibilities, and I definitely think this one will have to get into the baking rotation. The original recipe called for dried cranberries soaked in warm orange juice, but I found that other dried berries soaked in hot water worked just fine. (Of course, soaked raspberries do tend to give a purple cast to the muffin batter, but that doesn't really bother me.) I also decided that a little extra flavor was needed, so I tipped in vanilla and almond extracts. (Sometimes the King Arthur recipes seem woefully inadequate in this regard, and I don't understand why.) Do make the batter the night before and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight; not only does it contribute to better rising and taste, but it also means you'll get your breakfast much more quickly in the morning!

1 c dried raspberries
1/2 c hot water
1 1/4 c whole spelt flour
1 c unbleached flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c milk
1/4 c maple syrup or honey
2 large eggs
1 T safflower or canola oil
1 tsp dried orange peel or 1 T fresh orange zest
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c chopped walnuts

Place raspberries in a small, heatproof bowl and cover with hot water. Allow to soak for half an hour.

Whisk together spelt flour, unbleached flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, maple syrup or honey, eggs, oil, orange peel, and extracts. Add wet ingredients to dry, mixing just until flour is incorporated. Fold in walnuts, berries, and water. Cover bowl and refrigerate batter overnight.

3 T unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c maple sugar
1/4 c oat bran
1/4 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c chopped walnuts

Cream together butter and maple sugar. Add oat bran, flour, and nuts and mix until crumbly.

Remove batter from refrigerator. Preheat oven to 400 F. Lightly grease a muffin tin. Scoop batter into muffin cups until almost full. Sprinkle with streusel.

Bake muffins at 400 F until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 24 minutes. Remove pan from oven and allow muffins to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to finish cooling.

Makes 12 big berry-full and nutty muffins

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Warming Up

When I started this blog over two years ago, I had intended it only as a journal of my own cooking exploits in which I could tempt and torment my friends with vivid, mouth-watering descriptions of what I'd made in my kitchen.

Over time, I found that not only did writing about my cooking help me experiment more and share my results (and recipes) with others, but it gradually made me more aware of food politics and the connection of food issues to environmental and political issues. And so I've tried to explore my thought processes on these pages, stumbling around for answers and finding how the questions themselves can start to change my life for the better.

The more I've learned, the more committed I've become to making a positive difference in the world... putting my money and my mouth where my head and heart are, essentially. Though I've been making plenty of efforts in my personal life, I've recently started to get more involved in public actions to back up my beliefs: writing to my members of Congress, making suggestions to the Environmental Task Force at work (including a proposal for an organic farm), and attending public events.

Which brings me to today, Step It Up 2007, and a National Day of Climate Action.

Despite the chilly weather, a good crowd gathered downtown on the square to hear speakers and musicians, check out electric vehicles, pick up information flyers, and, above all, show their support for the campaign's goal of getting Congress to cut carbon emissions in the nation 80% by 2050. It's an ambitious goal, but given the plethora of reports recently published (especially those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), it's a necessary one to avoid the worst results of rapidly accelerating climate change.

After two hours of standing out in the damp, cool air, though, I moved on to my next activity of the day: helping my friend, the Innkeeper, start a compost pile. That might seem like a bit of a leap from an environmental rally, but the goal was the same: to do something that would make a positive impact on the world, even in a small way. After all, by composting kitchen scraps, we can both reduce waste sent to landfills (thus reducing emissions involved in the transportation to and the activities at the landfill)
and replenish the soil's nutrients and then use that compost on a garden that contributes to local food production. What's not to love?

And it's so easy. I've really missed working with the two large compost bins I had at the house, so I was thrilled to dig in and clear a pit for the pile.

We worked leaves, scraps, and a few worms and castings from my bin into the pit to get the pile started. With a chicken-wire cage around the pit, this compost pile tucked into the back of the lot should provide a good way to recycle those kitchen scraps from the Innkeeper's scrumptious breakfasts and eventually nourish the herb garden I'll be helping her create.

A cup of tea and a delightful conversation later, I headed home to enjoy the harira, a Moroccan stew, that I had started earlier in the slow cooker. Containing tomatoes, garlic, and potatoes from last year's farmers' market as well as carrots, celery, lentils, chickpeas, and an array of spices (including a wallop of cayenne pepper), the soup warmed me up very nicely, body and soul.

For once, I actually made the harira as spicy as I once had it in a Moroccan restaurant... so it was a very good thing I had the leftover flatbreads to enjoy with the soup, as well as local ice cream in the freezer!

I rounded out the day talking to The Cheerful Lady about her spring crops. She doesn't have anything coming in yet because our spring weather has swung from one extreme to another, but she has promised to keep me posted as to what she has available, especially her asparagus!

In short, it was a day to make you feel good about the world: finding ways to buck the prevailing trends of consumption and waste through political action, gardening, and supporting local food production.

They're all small steps, but many people taking small steps can go far!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Great American Flake-Off

Ever since My Opera-Loving Friends first took me to the wonderful Turkish restaurant in the Big City, I have wanted to try making the Turkish version of baklava.

What's the difference? you ask? Well, I'm sure there are many, but the version I make at Christmas is loaded with walnuts and pecans mixed with cinnamon and cloves and drenched with a honey-lemon syrup. It turns out somewhat dry and flaky on top and progressively more syrupy and sticky the further down the layers you go.

What we had in the Turkish restaurant seemed to have no spices, a lighter (sugar only?) syrup, and a hint of rosewater. It had a certain degree of stickiness, but it wasn't overly dry and it wasn't overly syrupy... just right, in fact.

And I've sampled baklava at Middle Eastern restaurants that was much drier and flakier, and often times it includes chopped pistachios.

So many possibilities to choose from! But I decided that in honor of the last week of my new dance class (don't worry, I'm not the teacher!), I would attempt the Turkish version, following a sketchy outline of a recipe I had noted from a Turkish cookbook.

Happily, I had just enough phyllo dough left in the freezer for one pan of baklava, and I had just restocked on walnuts and pistachios. So after work last night, I pulled everything out and went to work, brushing the layers of dough with melted butter, sprinkling chopped nuts, and topping the entire baked pastry with a sweet sugar syrup laced with a hint of honey and rosewater.

Though it looked like the same old baklava, the taste was a little lighter, and the softer crunch of the pistachios worked well with the faint taste of roses.

But hey, don't take my word for it. I took the pan to class and earned rave reviews for the dessert, including one classmate who informed me that we were now new best friends on the basis of my baklava. And the teacher, who claims a pastry chef in the family, had that slack-jawed, wide-eyed look of absolute culinary bliss when she ate her piece and murmured about how good it was. (Can you tell I live for that moment, when people are so happy about what I've fed them that they get a little wobbly?)

I'm sure I'll take some to share at work tomorrow, just so that I don't have to overindulge on the remains myself.

Because, you know, I think people like it when I get a little flaky.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Take This Crumb and Chèvre It

An overactive imagination can be a dangerous thing.

I'm pretty good at imagining worst-case scenarios when minor medical problems come up, or when friends don't make it to an appointed meeting place five minutes before I asked them to be there. I can spin some pretty wild yarns in my head, only to feel an overwhelming relief when those mental gyrations turn out to be completely far-fetched.

And on the culinary front, once I start thinking about how two or three flavors might work together... well, Dear Readers, it's no-holds-barred time. I'll start wondering how to showcase those flavors, what else might be needed to deepen the combination, and just how decadent I can make the dish in question. It's the sort of thinking that can keep me awake late at night and force me to stumble to the kitchen in search of an adequate midnight snack.

It's also the sort of thinking that leads me into the kitchen on a snowy morning to experiment. Sundays are the ideal time for me to test recipe ideas since I usually have a large block of time and a rested mind, and if those recipe ideas involve breakfast or brunch foods, so much the better.

Lately I've been pondering a combination I saw in a recipe sometime back: pears stuffed with chèvre (goat cheese) and walnuts, then poached and drizzled with a sweet syrup laced with balsamic vinegar. Being a fan of all those ingredients, I knew I had to try something myself. The only pears I have around right now, though, are ones that I canned myself, so poaching wasn't really an option.

And then I remembered a pear cake that my friend Mitch Heat has been known to rave about (especially when I take time from my vacation to make it for him). While I didn't want to make a butter cake, the idea of topping a cake with slices or wedges of pears and then a nut streusel seemed to be a good way to adapt my favorite vegan coffee cake recipe.

So away I went, starting with a walnut streusel laced with balsamic vinegar, a jar of home-canned pears, crumbled goat cheese, and a whole-wheat, no-refined-sweeteners vegan cake batter (with more balsamic vinegar added).

Once I had the pan ready and the oven up to speed, I whisked together wet and dry ingredients (best held off until the end since the rising action comes from vinegar hitting the baking soda), pressed the pears into the top, covered it with streusel, and slid the pan into the oven. After the cake baked part way, I added the crumbled goat cheese and let the oven do the rest.

Now, even if you're not a goat cheese fan, you might actually consider trying this, with or without the chèvre. The sweetness of the pears, the toasty flavor of the walnuts, and the deep but sweet tang of the balsamic vinegar all stand out more than the creamy cheese and balance it very nicely. And with a moist, tender cake beneath it all, you'd really be hard pressed to resist.

A slice of this, warm from the oven, made the perfect decadent brunch on a flurry-filled Easter Sunday, which just goes to show that sometimes my rampant imagination does a pretty good job after all.

Pear-Chèvre Crumb Cake

My favorite coffee cake recipe is, astonishingly, a dairy-free, double-layered delight from The Voluptuous Vegan (and how can you not love a title like that?) called a Date-Pecan Coffee Cake. For the pear and goat cheese combination, though, I thought that two layers might be a little tricky since the moisture of the pears could keep the middle from cooking completely. Instead, I've cut the cake recipe in half, omitted a filling, and tweaked the topping. Without the goat cheese, this cake is vegan, too. With it, it's a real treat for breakfast or dessert.

1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c chopped walnuts
1/4 c maple sugar (or Sucanat)
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
up to 4 T canola oil, as needed

2 pears, halved or sliced (canned are fine; reserve syrup)
1/4 c creamy goat cheese, crumbled
balsamic vinegar

1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3 T canola oil
1/2 c maple syrup
1/4 c syrup from pears (if canned), pear juice, or apple juice
1 tsp white vinegar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a springform pan (8" to 10") and set on a cookie sheet. Set aside.

Make the streusel topping by combining flour, walnuts, sugar, baking powder and salt. Drizzle in balsamic vinegar and enough canola oil, mixing everything with your fingers, until the texture is like running your fingers through wet sand (a little pebbly). Set aside.

To make the cake, in a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In a medium bowl, whisk together canola oil, maple syrup, pear syrup, vinegars, vanilla, and salt.

When oven is ready, whisk wet cake ingredients into dry ones until batter is well mixed. Pour into prepared springform pan, smoothing batter out to edges. Top with pear slices and streusel. Bake at 350 F for 15 minutes. Pull pan out and top cake with crumbled goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, then bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until cake is done in the middle and goat cheese is soft and starting to brown.

Set springform pan on serving platter and remove ring. Allow to cool before serving (if you can!).

Serves 6 to 8

Thursday, April 05, 2007

True Grits

Yes, the forecast turned out to be correct, and summer quickly gave way to winter this week, and my cravings for lighter springtime fare have been edged out by the wish for warm comfort food.

But with a bundle of asparagus in the refrigerator, I couldn't give up too easily. After delaying my asparagus gratification until April, how could I possibly let it sit in the refrigerator, completely ignored?

I couldn't. And thanks to the recent (April 2007) issue of Vegetarian Times, I didn't have to.

You see, one of the recipes I had dog-eared in the issue was a glamorous take on cheese grits, turning this down-home favorite into mini soufflés filled with chopped, steamed asparagus. And there's no way I could turn down the potentially fantastic mingling of two of my favorite foods.

Of course, as so often happens, I didn't have all the same ingredients as the recipe demanded, and so... I improvised. Instead of the low-fat milk (which I usually have), I ended up using the last of the heavy cream in the fridge. Instead of Cheddar and Gouda, I used my last block of Gruyère cheese. Instead of separating multiple eggs, I used just one egg altogether. (Not to mention I cut the recipe in third, since I knew I didn't need six small souffles.) And I added some dried dill from my old garden to enhance the asparagus flavor. In all, it was higher in fat than the original recipe, which I wouldn't want to do again, but it still turned out very well.

Aren't those beautiful? And they smelled so delectable straight out of the oven. Yes, they collapsed quickly, but they remained rich and creamy inside with a crisp crust thanks to the grits used to dust the ramekins.

(UPDATE: If you decide to make these, serve them hot. They don't bounce back well as leftovers.)

What a satisfying compromise between springtime flavors and wintertime comfort food!

(But really, you can take the snow back now. Really.)

Cheesy Grits Soufflés with Asparagus

Though the original recipe was meant to serve 6, and I reduced it to a third, I still got four small ramekins' worth full of soufflé (and my ramekins are from the local pottery, averaging 3" diameter and 2" depth). Two were more than enough for a filling dinner, so I should have had a friend come by to help me out! Serve this with a good green salad and maybe a crisp white wine, but you won't need much else.

1/3 c grits, plus extra for dusting
1 c low-fat milk (or heavy cream, if you live dangerously)
2/3 tsp baking powder
1/4 steamed asparagus, chopped
1/2 tsp dried dill
1/2 c shredded cheese (Gruyère, Swiss, or even Havarti)
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 375 F. Coat 4 ramekins with butter or cooking spray, and dust with grits.

Bring grits, milk, and baking powder to a boil in pot. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, whisking constantly, until grits have thickened. Cool 5 minutes. Stir in asparagus, dill, cheese, and egg.

Divide among prepared ramekins. Bake 25 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Unmold soufflés and serve warm.

Serves 4

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

And-a One, And Fattoush

Ah, fickle Spring! You vacillate between chilly grey days and broad hints of summer's warmth. And though you threaten to bring back the snow later this week, today you bring us the sun, fresh breezes, and temperatures hovering close to 80. What's a girl to do?

Though I had planned to make a hearty carrot and parsnip soup this week in preparation for the colder weather, I found I simply couldn't resist making something lighter to celebrate the summery weather we had yesterday and today. And nothing says summer to me than fresh vegetables (or fruits) eaten raw, with but the merest hint of dressing.

Enter the humble fattoush, a simple salad from the Middle East.

Though we Americans may be able to break away from our usual lettuce-based salads once in a while, it's not often we do. This salad, though, needs no bed of lettuce to cradle the sunshiny-bright flavor of fresh ripe tomatoes and the cool, cleansing taste of cucumbers. You'll only find chunks of juicy vegetables, fresh herbs, a tangy lemon and garlic vinaigrette, and crisp shards of toasted pita here.

Oh, all right, I confess. I can't quite leave it at that. Even though the standard recipe for fattoush is vegan, I like a little bit of crumbled feta tossed on mine to round out the flavors and make this salad a meal unto itself. I'm sure it's not authentic, but my taste buds really don't mind.

I came home from work yesterday, flung open the windows, and proceeded to chop the vegetables and throw the salad together for a light and utterly satisfying dinner. And though I'd had another idea for lunch today, I decided to come home and enjoy the same thing all over again.

The next time you're at a Middle Eastern restaurant, you might get a side of fattoush to go with your hummus or falafel or shish kebab. Or you might just want to cut to the chase and enjoy this light version at home.


I learned the basic recipe from the July/August 1994 issue of Natural Health but have found it other places, too. This is something similar to what I usually make, though I didn't have so many fresh herbs for this particular version. The quantities here will make a large meal-sized salad for one person; to serve as a side salad, double or triple the quantities for 4-6 people. Eat as much as you like... it's healthy!

1 6-7" whole wheat pita, toasted until crisp
1 tomato, cored, seeded, and chopped
6" cucumber, peeled and chopped
1/4 c minced fresh parsley
1 T minced fresh mint
1 T minced fresh chives
up to 1/4 c feta cheese (reduced-fat, if you can find it)
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
pinch of black pepper

Break pita into small shards. Set aside.

In bowl, combine tomato, cucumber, parsley, mint, chives, and feta. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over salad. Toss. Top with pita shards.

Sit in the sunshine and enjoy!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Cooking With the Inn Crowd

Back at the beginning of the year, I had to evacuate my lovely new abode one night as the renovation of the building next door caused clouds of dust in my place. My landlord very graciously put me up at a local bed and breakfast, run by a friend of his.

Over breakfast the next morning, the Innkeeper and I sat and savored our morning coffee... and talked. And talked. And talked. And laughed a good deal.

And when I left, we made plans to meet up for coffee the following week, and I knew I had met a wonderful new friend. Our interests and enthusiasms meshed so well that we had already begun to suggest plans for future adventures together, one of which involved my joining the Innkeeper to make breakfast for some of her future guests.

This weekend, my Fabulous Aunt (and Uncle) headed up to visit me, and since I have no room for guests any longer (unless they enjoy the floor), I offered to put them up at this lovely Victorian bed and breakfast, run by my new friend. When I called the Innkeeper to make the reservation, we also discussed the plan to have me help her in the kitchen.

I woke up early yesterday morning and made a fresh batch of scones to take with me. This recipe is one of my best first scone recipes, calling for the harmonious mingling of orange peel, chocolate mint, and chocolate chips. Though I had no chocolate chips on hand, I willingly sacrificed the remains of a bar of bittersweet Scharffen Berger chocolate, broken into small shards, for the scones.

Once I arrived at the inn, the Innkeeper and I got to work preparing a glorious morning feast. She set the table, poured the orange juice and water, set the kettle on for tea (and the coffee pot to brewing for us), and cooked a marvelous scrambled egg dish with fresh avocado. At the other counter, I peeled, sliced, diced, and otherwise prepared muskmelon, pears, strawberries, and grapes for a delectable fruit salad.

All in all, it made for a well-rounded and beautifully presented breakfast in a gorgeous setting. (It's not often I get a chance to cook in such a classy establishment!)

As you might expect, my aunt and uncle were suitably dazzled by the excellent food. (No sense in being modest; the Innkeeper comes from a restaurant family, and I'm not too shabby a cook myself.) They were even more dazzled by the delightful conversation as the Innkeeper insisted I join my family for breakfast, and she sat down with us, too. Good times!

Almost the same menu found its way to the table this morning (save that the scrambled eggs were replaced by baked eggs in toast cups), along with another lively and fun-filled conversation. The Innkeeper and I now have even more ideas for additional collaborative efforts, including starting an herb garden and a compost bin on the grounds, and my Fabulous Aunt's enthusiasm for some of our ideas just fed our imaginations even further.

This is definitely an Inn crowd I want to join!