Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Dill Is Gone

After spending nearly the entire morning at the farmers' market, you might think I would want a bit of a break from all that produce.


Give me a free summer afternoon, and here's what I might end up doing:

Five pints of small cucumbers, a couple bulbs of garlic, a big bunch of dill, and a handful of dried chile peppers from My Wonderful Parents' sojourn in the Southwest a couple of years ago... along with a couple of other ingredients... add up to eight and a half pints of hot dill pickles.

Not bad for an hour's work (or so) over a steaming canner.

Maybe I should make a list as to who all gets pickles this year before I repeat this scenario too often. Because frankly, I need to get more canning jars. Already.

And I haven't even made it to the raspberry jam yet.

Still, not bad, eh? And my family is already getting excited about getting their fair share.

The dill might be almost gone for me, but not for them!

Shop Talk

It's really hard to believe that it's only the end of June, because the summer produce is coming into the farmers' market already!

I arrived at the market half an hour before the official opening time today, partly because I wanted to get a jump start on my shopping since I had a couple of canning projects in mind for the week. I made the rounds and very quickly spent a lot of money on lots of excellent fresh produce:

--spinach, purslane (another wild edible), green beans, broccoli, dill, and black raspberries from the Cheerful Lady
--pickling cucumbers -- a whopping five pints -- from the Amish Farmers
--kale from the Fiddlin' Farmer
--more spelt pasta from the Sheep Lady's friend
--fresh lavender and patty pan squash with the blossoms still attached from a new farmer

--four pints of red raspberries and a pint of huge grape tomatoes from the Berry Farmer
--a pair of cucumbers for eating and a pint of raw honey from the Gentleman Farmer
--a mixed bag of red and Yukon Gold potatoes plus some small onions from another new farmer

The other reason I arrived so early, though, was because the local Sustainable Energy Network (which I recently joined) had planned a series of speakers for the morning, offering the crowd information on reducing energy consumption in many areas of everyday living including... you guessed it... food. And yes, as you might have guessed, I was asked to organize a couple of speakers to talk about the benefits and the joys of local food.

I managed to round up a former contact, Matt, who came to talk briefly about local food systems and the benefits to the environment, and though I wasn't able to sign up one of my
favorite local chefs (to his regret as much as mine), I did enjoy hearing a farmer from the Ohio Farmers Union talk about differentiating local from industrial agriculture and the need for country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for food. (I loved his t-shirt!)

Hearing their words gave me the added courage I needed to get up and give my own spiel a couple of times (with some variations), sharing some of the statistics I've learned over the past couple of years:

--Agriculture is responsible for nearly 1/5 of energy use and 7% of the greenhouse gas emissions nationally.
--American agriculture requires the input of 400 gallons of oil per citizen per year.
--One local and organic meal a week on the table of each U.S. citizen could reduce our nation's oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels of oil a week.

I shared a handout on reasons to eat local, based on information I've learned from some of the other excellent web sites and blogs listed to the right, and I did see some appreciation and recognition among the market-goers about my points about the affordability and great taste of local foods. (I was especially delighted to have the Gentleman Farmer's Wife express her appreciation afterward for some of the things I had said that she wasn't sure everyone always recognized!)

Obviously, to some extent I felt I was "preaching to the choir" about why it's so important to shop at the farmers' market, but since I really felt it was time to speak out more about local foods and their importance to our communities and our world, it was a good way to take a slightly more visible and audible role. Will it make a big difference? I have no idea, but it felt like a good step.

Between my purchases and my talking to other people, I know I'm going to keep supporting these local farmers as much as possible. And with the large numbers of other people doing the same at our local market, I'm optimistic that we will make a difference.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In a Pickle... Again

One of the tricky things about having to deal with the summer harvest is that it's hot work at a hot time of the year. But what can you do?

All week long, I've been meaning to make my family's recipe for dill pickles with the cucumbers and dill I found at the farmers' market last week. But between vacation, resting up afterward, and coping with the 90-degree heat, I kept putting it off.

Thanks to the rainy weather today, though, the temps finally cooled off enough for me to fling open the windows and set a giant canner to boil on the stove (with the super-duper high-powered exhaust fan going, too, of course!). I set out all the ingredients, sterilized the jars, started the brine a-bubblin', and got ready to roll.

My family's recipe for pickles is really pretty easy, because once you've laid out everything and prepped the vegetables, you just have to wait for water to boil before you pack the jars in a rush, top them off with brine, cap and seal them, and pop them into the hot water bath. (Trust me, it really is that easy.)

Then, you can step away for ten minutes or so, go fan yourself or swig a pint of iced tea or water, and come back to pints of homemade pickles.

Okay, so I only made two pints of pickles from the pint of cucumbers I bought last week, but it's a start. I have no idea yet how many jars of pickles I'll make this year since I made none last year, but I do sincerely hope that I don't reach or top my all-time high of 78 pints (or was it more?) in a summer, because that's just an awful lot of jars to give away.

Yes, you read that right. I give away every last jar of pickles. I don't eat 'em myself. I'm not a pickle fan and never have been (though I have grown fond of the Archivist's pickled beans), though if I were, these would definitely hit the top of the list (yes, I've at least tried them) because of the crisp cool taste with a fiery kick at the end.

No, I make the pickles because I'm the only one left in the family who does. The Chef Mother isn't interested in canning any more (and probably can't can since I have the canner), and the one time my Culinarily-Challenged Aunt made pickles, she misread the recipe and added a wee bit too much hot red pepper. (This was back in the late 1980s, and we kidded her about her "Chernobyl" pickles for years. Still do, really.) So it's up to me to uphold the family tradition and supply the family and selected friends with "the hots" once a year.

You can be sure I'll be back at this again next week... and probably the next, and maybe the next... to make sure the supply line is flowing again. These pickles are better than gold in my family, and I'm sure I'll be amply rewarded for my work (possibly with two birthday cakes this year).

I'm definitely in a pickle now.

Monday, June 25, 2007

That's a Wrap!

Now that my guest has returned home, I'm enjoying a couple of days of slow living to round out my vacation. And while you might think that I decided to spend the time cooking or baking or canning, this time around, you'd be wrong. (Though there are cucumbers and dill begging to be turned into pickles...)

I'm devoting this time to other endeavors that are usually set aside in favor of more immediate tasks, and I've even managed to get away a little bit each day to enjoy those things more fully. So when it's time to eat, either I'm going to let someone else cook, or I'm going to throw together some very easy dishes.

Thankfully, I gathered plenty of ingredients for easy meals at the farmers' market on Saturday, and the most obvious solution for lunches on my vacation has been to make wraps with the lovely whole wheat tortillas I found.

The new baker at the market, tucked at the edge of the crowd near the gazebo, had loaves of wheat bread as well as the tortillas, so I stopped to talk with her a little bit to find out where her wheat came from. Turns out that the hard red wheat she used actually came from Montana, which was a bit of a disappointment, but she did make the tortillas at home, often with her children's help as they enjoyed operating the tortilla press.

I was reminded of the frustration that Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon reported in Plenty about finding local sources of flour, and suddenly I could sympathize with their situation. If I'm trying to eat locally as much as possible, what do I do when faced with locally-processed tortillas that use wheat from a long ways away?

It's times like these that I find a little compromise is in order. I do occasionally like to buy tortillas for various dishes, but those that I find at the grocery store aren't local in the least. So it's still better to buy the locally-made tortillas from someone I can talk to about her mode of production and quality control, even if all the ingredients aren't local. (Hey, if I can still buy chocolate, I can bend a little in this situation!)

So, dilemma resolved, I pulled out the tortillas along with the Pita Princess's fantastic hummus, a pesticide-free cucumber from the Gentleman Farmer, and organic red leaf lettuce from the Fiddlin' Farmer, ready to make lunch.

In just seconds, I had a refreshing, cold, and nutritious sandwich that I quickly devoured in the rising temperature of the day.

With a little leftover beet salad, I had just enough of a meal to nourish me for an afternoon of more vacation pursuits.

Easy to make, easy to eat, easy to clean up... leaving me with more time for what I'd really rather be doing on my time off.

And if you'll excuse me, I'm going to head back to that now. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Turkish Delights

Heading into this weekend visit, one of the things I was looking forward to was cooking with a new friend. (I'll let Dear Reader Tina speak for herself on that point!)

So with all the good things we found at the farmers' market this morning, what did we end up making? you may ask.

Of late, I've been craving Middle Eastern foods, and so I pulled out a cookbook I'd borrowed from the library (Arabesque) for ideas. The book covers Moroccan, Turkish, and Lebanese cuisines, and I had found a couple of simple vegetable recipes that seemed like they were worth a try.

First, however, I made one of my new favorites, haydari, to serve as a sort of appetizer along with the hummus and pita found at the market.

We then made two of the Lebanese recipes from the book. For the first, Tina quartered and steamed the last of my red potatoes from last week's market before tossing them with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasting them for half an hour. When they were done, we added a splash of lime juice and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro. We also made a simple saute of zucchini with fresh mint scattered on top.

For the third vegetable dish, I turned to my favorite book, Local Flavors, and found a ragout of spring vegetables that called for kohlrabi and turnips sauteed with garlic and thyme and simmered until tender. After that, we added peas and lamb's quarters along with some fresh parsley for a dish with a hint of Middle Eastern flavors.

As you might expect, they made a colorful dinner plate:

For each dish, we only made a small amount... just enough for two to share, without the threat of further crowding my refrigerator with leftovers. It ended up being just perfect, and though we lingered over all the good food, eventually it was gone.

After dinner, we wandered out for another short stroll before returning to the kitchen to make a Turkish dessert from Arabesque: a milk-almond pudding, topped by a warm berry compote found in Local Flavors. Thank heaven there were two of us to share the stirring, because the pudding took nearly an hour of stirring from start to finish! But after an hour in the fridge, the pudding set enough to take the berry compote and make a blissfully mellow dessert.

Wow. I mean, really. Wow. We're both big fans of fresh food, cooked to perfection, and we both enjoy being a little adventurous in our eating. But the whole meal turned out to be such an amazing array of fresh local foods, each with its own little flavor twist, that we just sat back, looked at each other, and smiled in utter contentment.

What could be more delightful than experimenting in the kitchen with a friend?

Meet Market

On sunny summer mornings like this, the only thing I can think of that would be better than visiting the farmers' market is taking a friend with me to enjoy the farmers' market.

Last week, I had the pleasure of introducing my Adorable Nephews to the market and seeing all the produce and crowd and atmosphere through their eyes. This week, I took Dear Reader Tina, a friend accustomed to her own local farmers' market but more than happy to check out local produce elsewhere.

We got a bit of a late start, having lingered over our breakfast of a grits soufflé full of local corn grits, milk, egg, Monterey Jack cheese, and asparagus, and so I endured a good bit of good-natured ribbing about missing my usual early routine. But by arriving just half an hour later at the market, it took over an hour to visit every farmer and vendor (in a small half-block parking lot) because we talked with several of the farmers and ran into many friends and acquaintances.

I managed to fill my basket yet again with all sorts of excellent produce:

--red leaf lettuce from the Fiddlin' Farmer's Wife
--shelling peas, scarlet turnips, big heads of broccoli, basil, parsley, dill, and some Dutch apple jam from the Cheerful Lady
--a chocolate espresso cookie from the bakery
--pickling cucumbers from the Amish Farmers
--whole wheat pita and hummus from the Pita Princess
--cucumbers from the Gentleman Farmer
--a small bouquet of fresh lavender from a new farmer
--a pint of the first red raspberries from the local fruit farm

The farmers' market is a grand social event as well as a shopping event, and you really can't just go, buy your
food, and leave lickety-split. Maybe you'll stop by the coffee house for your morning cuppa, maybe you'll talk recipes with the farmers, and maybe you'll find that every time you take two steps, you bump into someone else you know. But that's part of the fun.

And it's addictive, too. Getting such great fresh produce is something you'll keep coming back for, of course, but the social interaction and the warm community feeling is also addictive.

So once we dropped our finds back at my apartment, we headed back out again, thoroughly hooked on the community spirit, and we headed to the new public library just in time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. (I said "new" and I mean "new"!) And if we thought the crowd at the farmers' market was big, we hadn't seen nuthin' yet.

After the speeches we couldn't hear, it took us another 15-20 minutes before we actually stepped through the doors and entered the magical world of the Public Library. (And believe me, if you hear kids whining to their parents outside that "I wanna go in the LI-brary!!!" it's magical!) We took nearly an hour to wind our way through all the nooks and crannies of the new space, partly because we wanted to see everything and partly, well, because we kept running into people I knew.

Saturday is definitely the time for socializing, even in a small town like this, and I think Dear Reader Tina (from a bigger city) was much impressed with how much there was to occupy and entertain people here.

So if you haven't yet found or visited your local farmers' market or explored your local downtown, what are you waiting for?

You never know what interesting people you'll meet!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Feta Under Glass

Ahhh, Summer. You've arrived at last, on the wing of a fresh breeze and pleasantly warm (but not hot) days. And in your honor, I'm taking a little vacation.

For the weekend, I'll have the pleasant company of a fellow local-food-lover, Dear Reader Tina, and we have a delightful dinner at the Bistro planned for this evening, followed by the requisite farmers' market outing tomorrow and plenty of cooking tomorrow evening. I can hardly wait, because it's always a thrill to spend time with friends who love food as much as I do.

Since our dinner reservation is for later in the evening, I decided to greet her with a couple of small hors-d'oeuvres, just to take the edge off her hunger after her drive. Along with a repeat of the shredded beet and ginger salad, I decided to use some of the French bread I baked this morning to make a quick sort of "bruschette" (though not exactly). I didn't want to turn the oven on for such a small project, so I decided to devise a makeshift solar "oven" and try solar cooking, something I've wanted to do for a while.

I set a few slices of bread on the plate, topped them with fresh sprigs of thyme from my windowsill and crumbled feta cheese, drizzled them with olive oil and sprinkled them with black pepper, then covered them with a glass lid and set them in the sun for about an hour.

Granted, it's the kind of cooking that might not pass the strictest health department test, but I figured the cheese would get sufficiently warm to become spreadable, and for an hour, the heat wouldn't be a problem.

When I lifted the lid at the "end" of the "cooking" time, I found my theory proven: the feta was, indeed, softer, and more easily spread.

When Tina arrived, bearing her generous hostess gift of a trio of fresh kohlrabi, I quickly peeled and sliced one kohlrabi to add to our small hors-d'oeuvres plates, and we sat by the window enjoying good food, good company, and a little people-watching as well.

It's a good start to what promises to be a fabulous weekend, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Tiramisu Pretty!

It's not easy to please everybody.

I mean, that's a given in life, right? No two people are exactly alike, different strokes for different folks, chacun a son gout, all of that. And while I can generally make a lot of people happy with my baking, sometimes I've really got to juggle things to make it work.

For instance, this week, both the Boss Man and my close co-worker She Who Brings Donuts (my Wonder Twin, if you will) have both celebrated birthdays. So I thought, why not bake a birthday cake for them to share so our whole department can enjoy?

Here's the trouble: She Who Brings Donuts has high cholesterol and isn't a huge fan of chocolate, whereas the Boss Man doesn't give a hoot about fat and cholesterol, likes chocolate, but doesn't mess with coffee or liqueurs.


So, I started thinking about what local foods and flavors to feature in a special birthday dessert. The obvious choice, of course, was strawberries (which explains my purchase of yet another quart of the little treasures at the market over the weekend). And it struck me that a layer cake with some sort of cream filling would be the perfect canvas on which to paint a strawberry-strewn confection.

Enter my new favorite cookbook, the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook. I found a recipe for a berry tiramisu that sounded too good to pass up, even if I might tweak it a little here and there.

Thanks to a cold front and thunderstorms passing through yesterday afternoon, I didn't mind firing up the oven to bake two layers of a whole wheat sponge cake while I drained a quart of lowfat organic vanilla yogurt for a filling (replacing the usual mascarpone and whipped cream fluff). I also changed the orange-infused sugar syrup for soaking the cake layers with a simple sugar syrup infused with lime juice and candied ginger, just for a hint of something more exotic.

Though I assembled most of the dessert before heading to bed last night, I finished it off with the final "frosting" of vanilla yogurt and strawberries just before our morning department meeting so as not to get anything smudged or messed up. The resulting dessert earned admiring sighs from our student assistants:

After everyone had their fill visually, I cut into the layers and served up small squares of creamy, syrupy decadence.

How can anyone resist such a sweet, charming little morsel? (Unless, of course, you're allergic to strawberries, which would be very sad, indeed.) She Who Brings Donuts was thrilled with the emphasis on low-fat and whole grains, the students loved the preponderance of local and organic ingredients, and the Boss Man... well, the Boss Man just likes dessert.

As for me, I got the leftovers. Darn.

Guess I managed to make everyone happy yet again!

Strawberry Tiramisu

The original recipe, Fresh Berry Tiramisu, comes from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book, and I'm sure it's wonderful, but I just didn't really feel like tracking down mascarpone cheese or having extra whipping cream on hand. (Normally, sure, but not in this heat!) Being a lazy sort at heart, I simplified things somewhat, and though I took a couple of shortcuts, the results were still pretty amazingly good. I think I may come back to this recipe periodically and try other variations...

Sponge Cake
1 1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 T unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar (I used organic cane juice crystals)
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp almond extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two 9" square baking pans or line with parchment paper. Set aside.

Whisk together dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and almond extract and beat until well blended. Add dry ingredients in three additions, folding flour mixture into batter just until incorporated.

Spread batter in baking pans, smoothing out with a small spatula. (These won't be thick.) Bake for 20-25 minutes, until middle is set and springs back when you press it lightly. Set pans on cooling rack and run a knife around the edges to loosen. Allow to cool completely in the pan.

Lime Syrup

1/2 c sugar
1/2 c water
juice and peel of one lime
2 slices of candied ginger

Combine all syrup ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar dissolves. Once sugar is incorporated and syrup has simmered briefly, remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Filling and Topping

1 qt lowfat vanilla yogurt, strained through muslin to remove whey
1 qt fresh strawberries, washed, hulled, and halved

To assemble the cake, decide which cake layer is larger and leave it in the pan (or remove it, peel off parchment, and return to pan). Brush or smear gently with half of the lime syrup so that the syrup soaks into the cake. Top with a layer of berry halves, then coat with at least half of the yogurt. Remove the other cake layer from its pan with care and set it atop the cake. (Peel off the parchment if using.) Brush with remaining syrup. Frost with remaining yogurt and decorate with as many berries as you like.

Serves 9 to 16, depending on how large you cut the squares

Monday, June 18, 2007

Summertime Salads

What do you do when you have a fridge full of fresh vegetables and an apartment made overly warm by the unusually high temperatures outside?

Okay, okay, I know a number of you might think, "Well, turn on the air conditioning and just cook, silly!" But I'm not a fan of A/C, thanks ever so, and I'm finding that my big ceiling fans do make the atmosphere up here more than tolerable.

So why not take the opportunity to slow down a little, move to a gentler tempo, and enjoy the vegetables in as close to their original state as possible? Yes, I'm in the mood for a salad... or two.

With a bag full of red potatoes and some snow peas and dill left over from previous weeks' markets, I decided to pull out my old standby and make a light potato salad, dressed with a simple olive oil and borage-dill vinegar dressing and sprinkled with chopped walnuts.

Yes, I had to have the stove on for a little while to steam the potatoes and pea pods, but since I did that in the cool of the morning and was able to chase the steam out before the afternoon heat, I thought it was worth the effort.

As for today, after a scorching walk home in the 90+ degree sunshine, I decided to try something a little different. After a quick radish sandwich and a small pile of fresh greens, I took one of the beets I'd bought on Saturday, peeled it, and grated it. Then I grated some fresh ginger on top of it and sprinkled it with a dash of rice vinegar for a refreshing little Asian-style salad (or "beet tartare," as the Gentleman so aptly put it when I shared the recipe with him on the phone).

Sure, raw beet is messy and will stain everything in sight, but it sure is good!

And when dinner takes no heat and little time to prepare, well, that's the way I want to keep my cool throughout the summer.

Beet Tartare

Created on a whim because I didn't want to turn on a burner to make the warm beet salad recipe I'd pulled out, this little gem is worth a try, especially if you don't think you like beets. Think carrots with depth. It's easy, cold, crunchy, nutritious, and a lovely palate cleanser. Just try it, okay? Trust me.

1 beet, peeled
1" fresh ginger, peeled
1/2 tsp rice vinegar

Shred the beet. Grate fresh ginger over the beet shreds. Toss with rice vinegar and chill. Eat with enthusiasm.

Serves 1 and is easily doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Dancin' in the Streets

The calendar still tells us that we're not into summer yet, but you wouldn't know that by all the activity around town. It's a time for block parties of the biggest kind, and I'm thrilled now to be so close to the heart of it all.

Last night the first Cruise-In of the summer took place down on the square, complete with a band at the gazebo covering 50's and 60's hits, and though I don't care all that much about cars, it was fun to head down, see some of the beautiful old vehicles, rock out to the music I grew up on (no, I'm not that old, but I heard it all the time, thanks to My Dear Papa), and watch the people, especially the little kids jumping and dancing to the tunes. Fun times!

The square cleared out overnight to make way for the farmers' market this morning -- always my favorite part of the weekend for its friendly neighborhood festival atmosphere (oh, and the great food, if I haven't mentioned that already). I made the rounds as usual, visiting at length with the Cheerful Lady and the Original Organic Farmer while also getting to know a couple of the newer farmers as well. And though once again I only took my market basket, it's clear to me that it's almost time to take both my backpack and my basket to the market, because I hauled home a lot of great produce and baked goods for under $40 (the weekly market budget I've set for myself):

--asparagus from the Fiddlin' Farmer

--spinach, peas, radishes, beets, and very small zucchini from the Cheerful Lady

--fresh spearmint, green garlic, and spelt noodles from the Sheep Lady and the Spelt Miller (they share a table)

--red potatoes and a small loaf of cinnamon bread from one new vendor

--a loaf of focaccia from the local bakery (they'll be opening their new location around the corner come August; I can't wait!)

--a bag of mixed salad greens from another new farmer

--brownies and a pecan pie from the Original Organic Farmer

--strawberries from the local fruit farm (they also have local cider vinegar, so I'll have to pick some up at a later date)

I headed home and immediately shelled peas so that I could blanch and freeze them, and then later in the morning I headed back down to the market with my friends the Southern Belle, her husband the Absent-Minded Professor, and their boys, My Adorable Nephews. They hadn't visited the market before (shocking, I know!) and were so enchanted that they promised to arrange another shopping visit another week. The Southern Belle then sent the boys home, and she and I enjoyed lunch downtown, followed by slices of that marvelous pecan pie and delightful conversation at my place.

This evening I pulled out some of my market finds for a simple dinner:

I sliced some of the fresh green garlic, chopped snow peas from last week's market along with asparagus from this morning, then cooked the spelt noodles, sauteed the garlic and vegetables with a little curry powder and tossed it all together for an easy and flavorful spring meal.

It didn't last long, and though it was very satisfying, I couldn't resist following it with a radish sandwich (on the focaccia) and then a brownie for the full farmers' market meal.

By the time I'd finished cleaning up, the crowds were gathering down on the square yet again for the local indie music fest, Javapalooza (sponsored by My Favorite Coffee House), so I headed down to join the fun. The crowd ranged from the college students and hip young parents with their kids to grandparents, all enjoying the music, the glorious weather, and cold drinks. ( I opted to skip the beer in favor of an iced mocha with a shot of Frangelico tipped in... haven't done that in a loooooong time.)

With all this activity, it's a great neighborhood to live in. Sure, I miss things about my house: the big garden, the sunny kitchen, the compost bins, even (as I mentioned to Loren) the clotheslines! But I've never had so much fun in my neighborhood before, nor as much reason to get involved in the community.

And just think... summer hasn't truly begun yet. There will be plenty more opportunities to be dancin' in the streets!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Weed Eater

One of the joys of visiting the farmers' market every week is in finding new things to try. Though last year I stuck with fairly familiar items -- mushrooms and fennel, to name only two -- this year, I'm already discovering some very unusual foods.

May I introduce you to that fashionable new green vegetable (formerly known as a weed), lamb's quarters?

According to my copy of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, lamb's quarters are an excellent substitute for spinach, being milder in flavor and packing more of a nutritional punch: "The leaves are a super source of beta carotene, calcium, potassium, and iron... It also provides trace minerals, B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, and fiber" (p. 47).

So why call it a weed? Well, even some of the farmers at the market goggled their eyes at the thought of customers buying bags of what they so often try to rip out of their fields. If you're focusing on standard crops, after all, anything else that gets in the way (like, oh, say, dandelions) is a weed and therefore unwanted. But as more and more people realize that wild edibles have as much if not more nutritional value than some other vegetables, the demand for them is increasing.

Having never really found lamb's quarters in my backyard (when I owned a backyard), I thought I'd give them a try. And for $2 a bag full of them, why not?

So as I made my way into the kitchen this weekend, I pondered the ways I might be able to use this new leafy green (aside from the occasional raw nibble). First, I strained some cream-top yogurt to make a lovely cooling borani with fresh radishes, dill, walnuts, and lamb's quarters:

With a few toasted slices of homemade ciabatta on the side, this made a refreshing and easy lunch both days this weekend.

Then I decided that I would throw together a simple couscous dish with French lentils, dill, lamb's quarters, and a delicate garlic vinaigrette:

That, I think I can safely say, will be tucked away for lunches at work this coming week!

And this evening, after working hard with the Innkeeper in the morning and having a bit of a rest in the afternoon, I gave into my cravings for Indian food and made a simple dish of potatoes and lamb's quarters:

I started by browning mustard seeds until they popped, then sauteed local spring onions, garlic, and spices until fragrant. I added the local potatoes and simmered them in water and whey until they turned creamy and tender, and then I laid the lamb's quarters leaves on top and let them steam until finished. Add a little fresh cilantro, and there you have it.

All in all, I'd say I rather like the taste of this "weed" and am going to find other ways to use it this week. But I have to admit that my bag of spinach, also purchased at Saturday's market, is getting a little miffed that another green is getting more attention, so perhaps I'll have to freeze some spinach and dry some lamb's quarters to use later.

And I'm definitely wondering what new treasures I'll find at the market next week!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

There Must Be Something in the Square...

It's a gloriously sunny, if a bit chilly, Saturday morning in our little town, and as I flung open the windows to let in the fresh air, I could sense the impending activity in the air. So I grabbed my basket and headed down to the town square for none other than the weekly farmers' market and my weekly dose of gastronomic excitement.

I showed up exceptionally early, wanting to talk with a couple of the farmers on related business before they got too busy, and I spent a good hour or more wandering around, talking with people, and buying plenty of good produce.

Really, if there's a better way to spend a summer morning, I don't know it. (Okay, sometimes garden work or baking is just as refreshing, but on a social level, you can't beat the market.) And since by now you must know how much I love the farmers' market, I trust you won't mind if I open up my basket and share all my good finds with you:

The Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe had bags of fresh spinach as well as fresh mixed greens, so I bought one of each of those, along with a bunch of two-toned radishes for making sandwiches.

The Fiddlin' Farmer was back with small heads of fresh romaine, so I picked up a bit of that to mix with the other salad greens.

The Chef-of-All-Trades, a woman who has worked at a number of local restaurants, was selling her homemade granola along with the local mushrooms, and since I hadn't made my own granola in a while, I decided to try hers. She shared the table with another woman who brought in fresh herbs and vegetables, so I bought a pint of her snow peas along with a bag of lamb's-quarters, a wild edible plant (weed, to some) I've wanted to try but hadn't found in my backyard.

The Sheep Lady had small bunches of fresh herbs for sale, so I snagged a small bunch of cilantro as the snow peas inspired me to consider a new variation on an Indian dish later on, and when I found red potatoes at the table of another new farmers, I knew I was onto a good idea. (Curry, anyone?)

The Part-Time Farmer was back with more of his small, sweet strawberries, so I bought another two quarts so that I could make another micro-batch of jam (with lavender and rose petals and vanilla) this morning. And gracious fellow that he is, he gave me a little discount since I had brought my own bags and left the quart boxes for him to reuse later. (I do it to recycle bags, but if it helps them and leaves me with a little extra pocket change, I shan't complain!)

The Goat Lady was back with her soaps and a small amount of her homemade fudge, so I bought a small block of peanut butter goat milk fudge from her. I asked her about making goat cheese, but unfortunately, thanks to the usual mire of agricultural regulations that apply industrial standards to small producers, she's not allowed to sell any. So much for that idea!

Finally, I had a chance to stop and visit with the Original Organic Farmer and to try some of her new floral preserves. I had bought some of her rose petal jam last year and am still enjoying it, and when I saw she had rose hip jelly, I snagged a jar. I also tried her peony jelly, which was intriguing but a little too cloying for my taste. Instead, I ended up with a jar of her lusciously spiced pumpkin butter... now there's a treat!

Adventure, intrigue, romance... there's definitely something in the air around the farmers' market, and it's worth making a visit every week just to find out what's new in the world around you.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ciabatta at the Plate

If you had a vacation day planned to start off a long weekend, and the day started off sunny and beautiful, what would you do with your day? Work in the garden? Go for a long drive? Head out to the nearest baseball game?

Me, I got up and baked bread.

(I trust you were expecting something food-related, after all!)

There's a reason for this, and it's not just because I was out of bread. No, I'm pretty certain that I'll be able to find fresh radishes at the farmers' market this weekend, and June just wouldn't be the same if I weren't able to make radish sandwiches on slices of slightly tangy and hearty bread. And since the bakery that in past years has had a table at the market is not showing up this year (they're planning to open a new location right here in town yet this summer), well, I'm on my own if I want good artisan-style bread.

Besides, I have fresh strawberry jam sitting around, just begging to be slathered on fresh homemade bread, and that's more than enough reason to bake.

So I flipped through the pages of the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook -- as you can see, I'm still smitten with it -- and decided on the recipe for ciabatta, an Italian bread that draws its flavor from a starter that rises overnight and a lengthy rise once the dough is made.

I started the dough last night, mixing together whole wheat flour, a pinch of instant yeast, and water and letting it proof in the warm kitchen overnight. Once I got going this morning, I finished mixing the dough, deciding to knead it in the bowl to cut down my cleaning.

I left the dough to rise for the requisite three hours, deflating it every hour, while I went about my morning plans (which included a thorough scrub-down of the kitchen, believe it or not). When it came time to shape the dough into loaves and set them on pans, I was a bit surprised by how free-form they were intended to be. The recipe indicated just to stretch and pat out the dough into a length, with no further tucking or sealing as I've come to expect. (All right, I did tuck the ends in a little bit.)

But after two hours' worth of rising and a quick bake, I was pleased with how the loaves turned out:

The fragrance of fresh bread, of course, is utterly irresistible, so it wasn't long before I had cut into the first loaf for a slice or two, still steaming, to dip into some good olive oil.

I think it's a safe guess that this bread will work well for the other purposes I had in mind, too, but just as a start, bread dipped in oil was the perfect little snack for the afternoon.

So those of you who prefer your outdoor activities on a vacation day, you go ahead and enjoy. (Watch out for that afternoon thunderstorm, though!) I'll be very happy with my cooking adventures when I take them, and I'll enjoy the results on my home plate for a few days to come.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Persona Non Frittata

When I surveyed the remains of Saturday's farmers' market shopping spree, I knew I'd better do something with the remaining asparagus... and soon.

I wanted to freeze some to have on hand next winter, so I chopped, steamed, and blanched all but a handful of stalks and tossed them into a couple of freezer bags. I hadn't frozen any asparagus last year, and I thought it might be nice to give it a try, since come February or March I might need just a hint of spring to tide me over.

As for the rest, well, I knew I wanted them in my dinner. But having already indulged in a simple pasta dish and feeling much too hungry just to saute them and eat them relatively unadorned, I pondered my options. A quiche sounded just right, but I didn't really feel like making a crust after a bumpy day at work. And that left me with... a crustless quiche. A frittata, really.

Now that I could do. I'd already started vegetable prep and had only an onion and some garlic to slice, and I could even throw in some leftover "succotash" from a previous meal. (If you're keeping track, that means all the vegetables were local.) Add some fresh chopped dill to the saute, combine with a couple of local eggs beaten with local milk, spread it in a pie dish and top with (non-local) parmesan cheese, and bake.

Surprisingly simple, fast, and easy... and less than an hour later, there was dinner, warm and hearty and fresh from the oven, the perfect comforting dinner on a rare chilly June evening.

And really, who doesn't need a little comfort now and then?

Asparagus Frittata

I don't know if this entirely fits the definition of frittata as I didn't bake it in the same pan in which I sauteed the vegetables, but I don't really care. I just decided to throw everything together without a recipe for once, and, well, sometimes you just have to slap a label on. You don't have to add any vegetables other than asparagus, though fresh chopped spinach might work well or strips of red pepper. Feel free to experiment... that's what I did!

1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 spring onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c chopped asparagus
1 c other vegetables (like corn, beans, spinach, etc.; can be omitted or lessened)
2 T chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
2 egg whites
1/3 c milk
up to 1/4 c shredded parmesan cheese (Swiss cheese would also work well)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a pie plate and set aside.

In small skillet or saucepan, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until fragrant. Add asparagus and saute for another 3 minutes or so. Add other vegetables and cook until starting to soften. Add dill, cook another minute, then set aside and season with salt and pepper.

In medium bowl, beat eggs and egg whites with milk until well blended.

Spread vegetable mixture in pie plate, cover with egg mixture, and sprinkle with cheese. (You might want to set the pie plate on a baking sheet to make it easier to move it in and out of the oven without fear of spills.) Bake for 45 minutes, until eggs are set and frittata is lightly browned.

Cool, slice, and serve.

Serves 6

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Mystery Un-ravioli'd

For a few years now, I've been intrigued by the idea of making my own pasta. I'd see photos of pasta ribbons or ravioli and such in magazines and cookbooks, and I'd think, that doesn't look so difficult -- I could do that!

Until earlier this year, though, I never got around to testing that belief. And once I did, I decided -- I was right. It's not that difficult!

When I picked up all sorts of good produce at the farmers' market yesterday, I had the idea to make fresh pasta to go with the first fresh vegetables of the season. It seemed a natural fit to add fresh dill to pasta ribbons to accompany fresh asparagus, but I saved some of the dough for tonight's experiment: spinach-cheese ravioli.

Seems simple enough, right? But I wanted to add another twist to the whole experience by making the cheese to go into the filling.

Now some of my friends will tell you that I have a tendency to go a little too far in the direction of Martha Stewart by making so much from scratch, and some might even pointedly repeat the quote attributed to Carl Sagan: "If you wish to make an apple pie truly from scratch, you must first invent the universe."

In short, they like to keep me humble and down to earth, which is, believe it or not, a quality I value in them ('cause heaven knows I need the reality check at times). But there's a reason I go to such lengths in cooking sometimes: I want to learn.

I want to understand how things work, how flavors combine, how things are made. And above all, I want to know how much better making something myself can taste when I know exactly what ingredients and effort go into it.

So when faced with the challenging idea of making ravioli, I say, "Why not?"

Since I had already made the dough and refrigerated it yesterday, I started around lunchtime today by making the cheese. I couldn't find my recipe for ricotta offhand, so I simply used my paneer recipe, following the proportion of 4 parts milk to 1 part yogurt, and after draining the whey off the curds, I opted not to press the cheese into a block.

I set the cheese aside to cool while I prepped vegetables for the filling: a fresh spring onion, a few cloves of garlic, and one bag of spinach leaves, neatly
trimmed and washed. I sauteed them just long enough for the spinach to wilt into a fraction of the original volume.

Both the cheese and the spinach went into my handy little food processor to be chopped and blended together for the filling, and once that was done, I could tuck the container into the refrigerator to cool so that I could handle it comfortably later in the day. Having completed my prep work, I headed off for an afternoon of pleasant and relaxing pursuits!

By the time I was ready for dinner, I only had to assemble the ravioli and cook them. So I donned my apron, scattered flour on the counter, and rolled out the pasta dough. I spooned the filling onto the dough at what I thought were small intervals:

Then, having used only half the dough in laying out the filling, I brushed water in between the spoonfuls, folded the other half of dough over this, pressed out the air, sealed the ravioli, and cut them out:

Whew! Giant ravioli! Guess I'll make them smaller next time!

After that, it was a simple step to boil them briefly in salted water, spoon them onto my plate, and top them with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, and a dollop of garlic-shallot jam.

Now, truth be told, when I do this the next time, I'll make a couple of changes. I won't roll the dough so thin, because some of the ravioli came apart (and not necessarily at the seams). And I definitely hope to make them smaller. But I'll be happy to try some different fillings and different toppings at a future date, because the overall result was delicious and tender and so much better than store-bought ravioli.

It's no mystery that fresh is better, and I look forward to trying this little experiment again sometime!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

My Favorite Pasta-time

Now that my refrigerator is full of good produce from the farmers' market (at last!), what on earth shall I do with it all?

The answer, of course, is to invite a friend for dinner.

Enter Persephone. It's not her real name, of course, and she only disappears in the summer months (except for this year, when she'll wait until fall), but it will do as well as any. Having made her acquaintance back in the fall, I've found that not only is she an intelligent beauty with a breezy enjoyment of life, but she's also an excellent and inspiring friend (in the same vein as the fair Titania) who enjoys excellent food and living simply.

Having invited her earlier in the week for dinner this evening, it seemed only fitting to feed her only the best fresh food from my favorite farmers. And given all the good things I found this morning, I ended up being inspired beyond my wildest dreams.

First, my surplus of strawberries brought to mind a recipe for a strawberry-balsamic soup I found a couple of years ago in An Exaltation of Soups. I had tucked it away since I found it after strawberry season, forgot it last year, and decided it was time to give it a whirl. As usual, though, I improvised. Not having orange juice in the house, I decided to temper the puree with lime juice and a hint of ginger, bringing out the strawberry flavor and softening the bite of the balsamic vinegar. And why not start the meal with this surprising combination?

I saved out a few strawberry halves and macerated them in balsamic vinegar and sugar, then used them as the garnish, with a drizzle of the liquid over it all. The flavor of strawberry upon strawberry, full and vivid, made a satisfying start to the meal.

The main course showcased a simple saute of spring onion, garlic, asparagus, dill, and local white wine over homemade spelt pasta ribbons with fresh dill rolled into the dough. Having enjoyed my first experience with making pasta, I decided to try it again this weekend as a way to provide a fresh, tender contrast to all the green vegetables.

The asparagus remained tender-crisp, and the fresh dill inside and out made it all taste like late spring, green and bright and full of promise of wonderful things to come. I topped it with a light sprinkling of parmesan cheese, though it would have been just fine without it.

Needless to say, Persephone was very pleased with her meal and cleaned her plate thoroughly. But as I had not made dessert, she offered an admirable suggestion for rounding out the evening: visiting the local Bistro for a glass of wine and a spot of dessert to share in the last evening that a mutual friend was working there. We sampled a local ice wine along with a brilliantly composed Meyer lemon tart with honeyed whipped cream, and we enjoyed the amusing banter with our friend as he waited on us.

I expect we'll enjoy similarly fresh and adventurous meals throughout the summer as we shop the farmers' market and cook together, seeing as how it is one of my favorite ways to spend time, especially when I have friends who feel the same.

And expect more fresh pasta to show up in the near future!

Jam Session

The first day of summer is an ever mutable date in my home -- a moveable feast, if you will.

While the calendar specifies June 20, 21, or 22 (depending), many people consider the Memorial Day weekend the start of summer. Having lived my life according to the academic calendar, in some respects I regard mid-May as the beginning of summer, because once the students have slogged through finals, packed up their belongings, and headed home, the daily atmosphere settles into one of languid enjoyment and relative peace.

But according to my palate, the first true sign of summer is the arrival of fresh, juicy strawberries.

Normally, in northern Ohio this occurs around mid-June. Some years, there has been great concern that strawberries would actually be ready for picking by the weekend of the local strawberry festival. This year, though, the berries have given us a jump start on the season by appearing at the farmers' market right at the start of the month.

And who am I to deny them?

When I was much younger, the Chef Mother and I would head out to a local farm one sunny morning shortly after school let out, and we would spend the morning hunched over the rows of berries picking basket after basket of those precious jewels. Then we'd head home, wash the berries, remove the caps, slice them, mash them, and make a big pot of strawberry jam. We'd skim off the foam with a big spoon, saving it in a dish, and we'd usually make fresh bread that same day so that I could call my Dear Papa at work and tell him that he could look forward to toast and strawberry "scum" when he came home in the evening. (That never failed to brighten his day.)

Thanks to the farmers' market, I don't have to head out to a you-pick farm to get my berries. (Though Loren over at Ceres' Secrets plans to do so, and she's listed a number of web sites that can help you find a local farm.) This morning I indulged myself and bought three quarts of beautiful berries and hauled them upstairs.

Because in recent years I've enjoyed taking simple jam recipes and making slight variations in flavor by adding different herbs, I've become fond of making "micro-batches" of no more than 2 pints' worth of jam. So I didn't cap and slice all of those three quarts of berries at once. I simply filled a sturdy saucepan, added my favorite rose geranium sugar and some local honey, and let it cook.

If you're a die-hard, by-the-book jam maker, or you're new to jam-making and follow the instructions precisely, you might stop and say, "Wait a minute. No pectin? Very little sweetening? What gives?"

And I say, over the years I have gotten progressively more comfortable and more lazy with my jam making, and I really do prefer my jam to be on the sloppy, not-too-sweet side. I wholeheartedly concur with Lynn Alley, author of Lost Arts, who writes:

I want fruit, not sugar. I want texture. No straining out the seeds and skins for me. And I want a lovely, spoonable consistency, not rubbery goop that I have to dig out with a knife. (p.152)

So I cooked the jam until it came to a boil and started to foam, let it simmer a while, then skimmed off the foam and packed the jam into small jars and ran them through a hot-water bath to seal them one by one. (Using my dutch oven, of course, since it's hardly worth pulling out my giant canner for three small jars.)

And there you have it: a few half-pint jars of an intensely strawberry-flavored preserve, with a faint hint of roses and just enough sweetness to enhance the flavors without making your teeth ache... a satisfying result for a couple of hours' work.

Or, as Alisa Smith points out in Plenty: "Making jam had taken all afternoon and evening, but the last thing I'd call it was work. It was living" (p.158).

If there are more strawberries at the market again next time, I'm sure I won't be able to resist, and perhaps I'll even try a new improvisation on an old theme.

So stay tuned to find out!

My Market's Back, and There's Gonna Be Trouble

It's here! The day I've waited months for is finally here! I could fairly swoon from the ecstasy of it!

I'm talking, of course, about none other than the opening day of the local farmers' market, right down on the square here in town. How I've missed seeing the farmers and talking with them! How I've missed those rows of tables loaded with fresh produce, homemade jams, crafts, and flowers! How I've missed that feast for the senses!

I got up early, like a child on Christmas morning, too eager for the day's adventure to sleep in. And I padded out to the kitchen to whip up a pan of oatmeal-peach bars, using oatmeal, spelt flour, and peaches found at the market along with a jar of peach jam from My Fabulous Aunt.

I packed several steaming squares in a tin and, at the appointed hour (OK, I got to the market my usual fifteen minutes early), I headed down to the market to visit with old friends, to share some home-baked treats, and to scout out this week's produce. I enjoyed chats with the Tomato Farmer and his wife (back this year, to my surprise, but only to sell hickory blocks for smoking), the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe, the Fiddlin' Farmer's Wife, the Gentleman Farmer's Son (who has sprouted up a few more inches since last fall!), and a number of new vendors.

And yes, I filled my ever-so-capacious basket with all sorts of good food, as always:

--From the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe, I bought pencil-thin asparagus, spring onions, two bags of spinach, and a head of red lettuce.
--From the Fiddlin' Farmer's Son, I bought another bunch of organic asparagus (because I'm just that hungry for it).
--From a friend of the Sheep Lady, I bought a bag of organic spelt flour... and had a brief chat about all the wonderful things I've made with spelt flour in the past couple of months!
--From a new farmer, I bought a bundle of fresh dill.
--From another new farmer, I selected one vivid pink peony that reminded me of the peonies I used to grow.
--I found fresh pita bread and hummus again from the Pita Princess... so glad to have her back!
--Three quarts of luscious red strawberries came from the back end of another farmer's truck... a couple of weeks early, but very welcome nonetheless.
--The fellow who sells maple syrup was back, and though I'm not yet out, I decided to purchase a pint today to get me through until the next time he visits.
--And finally, though the Gentleman Farmer and his produce weren't there, his son held down the fort with tables full of potted herbs. And since I can't resist his sweet smile, I purchased a pot of Thai basil, something I've long wanted to try.

Yes, it's a lot of food, but I was so delighted to see so much good food coming from people I've come to know and trust. It's been a while since I went this crazy over fresh produce, but believe me, it's worth it.

Don't worry, though. I have plans for all of that food, and you'll be sure to hear more about it later in the weekend and through the week. After all, I do tend to get inspired by my market finds.

And as the Gentleman would say, "There's trouble... delicious trouble!"