Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Peach of a Breakfast

It's the busy season at the Inn, with guests arriving and departing in a steady flow, here in town to enjoy the resident light opera company and other area attractions. And since the weekends have meant a full house, the Innkeeper asked me to help cook breakfasts several weekends in a row. Not a problem!

When we parted last weekend, the Innkeeper gave me a new mission for this week's cooking. We had discussed the possibility of my baking something to share with the guests, and though she usually serves scones (baked by her co-owner's wife), she wants to add other possibilities to the menu and asked if I could bake something different. Say, a coffee cake?

Say no more! (Nudge nudge, wink wink!)

My favorite coffee cake in recent years has been a recipe from The Voluptuous Vegan (and the title of the book alone should tell you that it's going to be a wicked tasty recipe) for a date-pecan coffee cake. With two layers of cake around a creamy date filling laced with finely chopped spiced pecans, and topped with a cruncy-sweet streusel, it's a breakfast that never fails to delight and inspire me.

This time, though, I wanted to try something a little different in order to work in some more local foods. Since I'm low on dates, I decided yesterday to thaw a bag of black raspberries from the freezer, and after straining them to remove the seeds, I simmered the liquid with two fresh peeled and chopped peaches and a handful of mini diced crystallized ginger. With a bit of cornstarch and flour to thicken the mix, I added some chopped pecans, stirred, and let it cool while I worked on other projects.

Later in the afternoon, I assembled the entire coffee cake, using lots of local goodies from my pantry: honey, maple syrup, pecans (from Sojourner), and apple cider vinegar. I started filling the springform pan with a layer of cake batter, topped with messy dollops of the berry-peach-pecan filling.

After scraping the rest of the cake batter into the pan, I topped it all with a sweet-spicy pecan streusel and slid it into the oven to bake for an hour.

When the cake came out, it looked as good as the original version and smelled just as tempting.

But I had to wait until today to find out how it tasted.

I arrived at the Inn, ready to set the table and to get things started in the kitchen as the Innkeeper followed me through the door. We agreed to slice the coffee cake into 20 thin slices so that everyone could enjoy a small piece and not feel as if they'd overeaten (since we were also serving a fruit cup and an egg-sausage-vegetable casserole).

By setting out the entire cake, I missed my opportunity to sample a piece before serving it to guests, so I just kept my fingers crossed that everything had turned out all right. And once the guests sat down to breakfast, it wasn't long before I was dragged out into the dining room for the verdict: "Delicious!"

They asked questions about the ingredients and were amazed when I told them it was a vegan cake, but they were especially happy to discover the number of wholesome local ingredients that went into their breakfast. I think some folks went back for a second piece, but they very kindly saved a piece for me so that I could sample my own creation.

The Innkeeper, thrilled with the response to something new, encouraged me to keep working on the recipe to my heart's content, developing it as I saw fit (with seasonal variations) and bringing it with me periodically for breakfast. She still wants me to try other breakfast items like biscuits and sweet rolls, but for now, the coffee cake definitely gets high marks and rave reviews.

And that's just peachy by me!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Simple Pleasures

Most of the time when I write about a meal I've made, it's something a little out of the ordinary: a new recipe, a feast for guests, or maybe an old favorite given a new twist to feature seasonal produce.

I don't usually bother telling you what I'm cooking most nights because, frankly, it's kind of boring. I can eat my old standby of broccoli-walnut pasta for nights on end, and if that's not on the menu, I can usually make do with a simple dish of whatever vegetables are in the refrigerator. Some nights, it's really just a matter of eating something that will be nutritious and filling and really easy, like a big salad or sauteed zucchini).

Sometimes, though, something so simple and unassuming ends up being the best meal of all.

Today has been a very full day, and after all the work in the kitchen, I really didn't want to spend too much more time making something for dinner. (Not to mention that the range was well occupied with simmering salsa and a huge canner!) After looking around and thinking for a moment or two, I decided to turn on the oven and prepare potatoes and zucchini for roasting.

If you keep track at all of what I buy at the farmers' market from week to week, you might notice that I did not buy either potatoes or zucchini today. You're right, these are from last week's trip, and fortunately, they're still in great shape for eating. So I cut them into large chunks, threw in a few cloves of garlic (also in chunks), and tossed them all with olive oil, salt, and pepper before sliding the little casserole dish into the oven.

The timing for the salsa worked out well with roasting the vegetables as the timer went off at fifteen-minute intervals, so after filling jars and setting them in the canner, I pulled out the vegetables and gave them a stir. After removing the salsa from the hot water bath, I gave the vegetables another toss.

After almost an hour of slow cooking and regular stirring, the vegetables came out tender (in the zucchini's case, it was almost falling apart), so I added some fresh chopped parsley and some chunks of feta cheese (not local, but organic) before scooping the lot onto my plate.

I flopped down on the floor cushion I've been using lately to stretch out my back, and as I picked up the book I've been reading this weekend, I savored my dinner one morsel at a time.

It shouldn't surprise me that something so simple could be so good, especially when it involves some of my best beloved ingredients, almost all from the farmers' market. But the combination of slow cooking, fresh flavors, and the simplest of seasonings made for a dish that nearly melted in my mouth. Every bite, every combination of vegetable, herb, and cheese exemplified the perfection of the moment.

Maybe it was due to all the hard work I'd put in over the course of the day, and maybe it was because of the inspiring book I've been reading, but I'd have to call that one of the best meals I've ever had, simply because everything about it enhanced the experience of that one quarter-hour of my life. The salty tang of the feta, the velvety tenderness of the vegetables, the rich golden drip of good olive oil, the breeze from the window, the satisfying ease to my poor aching back, and the thoughtful and thought-provoking words of a woman finding new joy in her life... everything fit together and made the mundane sublime.

I felt so content with the meal and with the world, so relaxed and at peace. And it's not that I made anything really grand or exciting or adventurous... just satisfying.

I'd like to think that this is why we're all here... why I'm writing this blog, why you're reading it, why so many other people are writing about food. While it's fun and interesting to explore new foods and learn more about what nourishes us, ultimately it's about appreciating what is given to us in this life, what sustains us, and what we do to share that with others and to build community. It's about celebration.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't bother posting about such a simple meal, but this one... ah, this one transcended simplicity. And it's my hope that if you haven't already experienced such a deeply moving and satisfying meal for yourself, you will soon.

Hot Stuff!

Last year I canned salsa for the first time (having only made fresh batches in previous years, intended to be eaten immediately), and I discovered two things:

1. I didn't make nearly enough salsa to eat it as often as I might have liked throughout the winter (talk about having to hold back!), and
2. I didn't really make it hot enough.

While I'm not a wimp in terms of culinary heat, I do approach it with caution. And while I can handle the occasional medium-hot curry and often slip a second dried chile into my home-cooked Indian meals, when it comes to fresh chiles, I tend to go slow.

After opening the last jar of last year's salsa just this week, I realized that the flavor was fairly tepid, and if I wanted to make salsa this weekend, I'd better pick up a more substantial load of peppers at the farmers' market. I came home with about 8 medium-hot banana peppers and 3 poblano chiles, as well as two kinds of tomatoes, two red onions, and more garlic.

Having rested after the other kitchen work for the day (whew!), I prepared the salsa vegetables, using about half of what I had brought home and thinking that would be enough salsa for now. While I seeded the peppers (of course!), I did not peel the tomatoes as the recipe indicated simply because I like a little extra texture in my salsa.

[As a side note, there's a good article over at Culinate this week about why it's good to peel and even seed your tomatoes when you're canning. I'm of two minds on this. For plain canned tomatoes, I definitely do peel them, despite the extra work, and for sauce, I puree the tomatoes in a mill, so peels and seeds are removed with no problem. But for making salsa and for drying, I think the peel adds a little more substance to the tomatoes so that I'm not left with almost ephemeral pulp. That's my opinion, though, and you're welcome to post yours in the comments!]

All the vegetables went into my large cooking pot (where I realized that I could have made the entire batch at once had I been up for all that chopping), and I added some extraordinarily fresh and kicky local apple cider vinegar -- so fresh it practically slapped my face on the way home from the market! -- cilantro, salt, and pepper before stirring it all up and letting it simmer for a while.

Half an hour later, with a dash of cumin and fresh oregano thrown in for good measure, the salsa was ready to can. I only got 2 1/2 pints from this batch, but that was good enough for today, so I filled the jars and ran them through the hot water bath while I prepared a very simple dinner. And fifteen minutes later, I had salsa ready to go into the pantry for the winter.

If I'm up for it, I might try to make the rest of the batch tomorrow or early in the week, since two pints and a very small jar won't last me long at all. And next week, I might do it all over again. (I'm also considering roasting the vegetables and making a freezer salsa; anyone got experience with that or suggestions?)

Because when winter comes, I am going to need some hot stuff to keep me warm!

The Labor Market

To anyone who thinks that getting excited about the local farmers' market is a little over the top, I can only say, you haven't been to mine. Though I can usually predict most of the produce that shows up from week to week, every week holds a new surprise for me.

I set out at my usual early hour today, determined not to go overboard on shopping but wanting to get ingredients for salsa as well as for dinners during the week. I wandered through the market once, stopping to chat with farmers and vendors, but not ready to buy until I had seen what everyone had.

As I started back through the market, I started collecting goodies to take home:

--half a dozen ears of white corn and a bag of red popcorn from the Corn Queen

--broccoli, garlic, medium hot peppers, onions, and basil from the Cheerful Lady
--spelt flour and peanut butter cookies from Super Spelt Woman
--two pints of honey from the Beekeeper
--Red Haven peaches, Red Zebra tomatoes, and apple cider vinegar from the local orchard stand
--more tomatoes from the Potato Farmer

By the time I got to the Gentleman Farmer's stand and cast my eyes over the variety of produce he and his family had brought, I was well loaded down already and only intended to get a couple more items and head home. But the Farmer's Wife stopped me with a wide-eyed exclamation and asked if I'd be willing to help her out by manning the stand with her while her husband headed off to pick up their eldest son from summer camp.

Having no other plans aside from spending the day in the kitchen (off and on), I agreed, even before she offered to let me have any produce I wanted in place of cash wages. (That certainly sealed the deal!) So I tied on a money belt, acquainted myself with the produce and the prices, and jumped right into the fray to learn the ropes of selling good local farm fresh produce.

The farmers' market looks very different from behind the table: though you don't get much time to talk with each customer, sometimes you get an interesting insight into their lives. One young woman and her boyfriend were planning a roasted vegetable dish for dinner and were pondering the use of some of the small beets available (so of course I had to add my two cents' worth of culinary advice!). One older woman, a local schoolteacher, stopped to talk about ways to cook okra, having grown up in Louisiana. And a number of people I know from work stopped to give me a double take, wondering if I'd finally had my fill of the usual work politics and stress and had truly headed back to the land. (I wish!)

Two hours passed quickly, between the steady flow of customers, the need to restock bins, and the fun exchanges with the Farmers' little girl. By the time the Gentleman Farmer returned with his boys in tow, I was almost reluctant to hand over the money belt because I'd been having such a good time! (Don't worry, I gave them back all the money. I'd like to stay a good customer!)

And in return, they sent me home with gushing thanks and plenty of produce: two pints of okra, a quart of green beans, more garlic, three poblano peppers, and a big red onion.

I think they would have sent me home with even more produce, but I resisted adding any more to my already overflowing basket and bags since I certainly don't want to let the week get away from me and to have any of the food go to waste.

After unpacking my goodies at home, I started right in on preserving: blanching and freezing green beans and broccoli, and boiling ears of corn to strip and freeze as well. Later on today, I'll tackle the salsa as well as make a coffeecake for tomorrow's "work shift" at the Inn. (As the old saying goes, "No rest for the wicked... and the righteous don't need none!" I'll let you guess which category suits me better.)

There's a lot of work surrounding the farmers' market, between the work the farmers do to bring their goods to market and to sell it all (and now I understand a little more!) and the work I do at home to enjoy it all, either now or later.

But it's work that feels good all the way around, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Link, Therefore I Am

If it's Friday, I've probably got more links in my browser than produce in the fridge, so it's time to offer a buffet of tidbits from the Interwebs. Enjoy.

First up, Colin over at No Impact Man explains the "sustainable eating" part of his No Impact experiment: it's all about local. And those recent news stories that say maybe local's not so great? They have some good points, but don't let them confuse you. Truly sustainable local agriculture (seasonal, remember?) is worth supporting and is better for the environment. (Plus it tastes better. But you knew that already, right?)

Related to this post, a couple of people have asked what would happen if we all went locavore and caused food exports to dwindle? What happens to people in Third World countries if we don't eat their food? Well, my gut answer is, they develop self-supporting, sustainable agriculture and don't get ripped off by us. But Craig over at Celsias gives an ever-so-much-more well-reasoned and thoughtful explanation of the situation that you really should go read it. Go on. I'll wait.

Back? Great! Next up, I know I've sung the praises of Wendell Berry before on this site (he's definitely a hero worth having), but a recent interview with him called "Food and consequence" makes the connection between sustainable agriculture and true economy. One of my favorite bits: "To shorten the distance as far as possible from the farm to the dinner plate just makes sense. But it also begins to elevate food in human culture back up to where it ought to be. We've allowed it to decline from a kind of sacrament and a kind of center of conviviality, through commodification, to a kind of stuffing."

This week, Congress is focusing on the Food and Farm Bill (among other things), and several bloggers are keeping a keen eye on our legislature. They're doing such a great job at cutting through the agonizing red tape, I'll just point you to them: The Ethicurean (thanks to Marc), the Central for Rural Affairs (live blogging!), Mulch, and Eating Liberally. Even the NPR podcast I caught this afternoon covered the bill! I'm not overly optimistic that Congress will actually pass a bill that is fair to more farmers than the usual subsidy recipients, but they're definitely getting an earful of criticism of more Americans than usual this time around. Stay tuned (on the abovementioned blogs) for more details.

And lastly, if you've been noticing higher prices at the grocery store, there's a good reason for that: they are higher. Latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that prices are going up due to higher commodity and fuel prices. And the dirty secret behind it? Ethanol. Corn prices (and subsidies) are going up because of the demand for ethanol development, and higher corn (read: feed) prices mean higher beef, chicken, pork, milk, soda, and snack prices. Tom Philpott (another hero!) explored some of these connections over at Grist back in May and continues to keep his eye on the situation in Gristmill.

(Speaking of Grist, they have a new post today about the top 15 green chefs in the world. Some will be no surprise, of course. I'd nominate my favorite chef, but he's very local and not nearly as big a name, though he's making a name for himself in our small town with his work at the Bistro, his dazzling breakfasts at a local B&B, and his occasional columns in the local paper. Not to mention he's a genuinely nice guy!)

It's enough to make me eat my veggies! Good thing the farmers' market will be open tomorrow...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cake Walk

I know I've mentioned before that when it comes to baking sweet stuff, I don't really think that cakes are my strength. I can make a good cake, sure, but I've just never made them often enough to feel like they represent some of my best baking work.

Maybe that's because as I was growing up, I watched the Chef Mother earn a little extra income by baking and decorating beautiful wedding cakes. I helped a little: mixing cake batter, helping to tint the frosting, stuffing the paper decorating cones with frosting, and eventually setting the posts and tiers. It was breathtaking to watch her professional creations take shape, and though she worked hard to teach me basic decorating techniques, I could never quite live up to the daunting standard she set.

Maybe that's about to change.

In the past couple of years, as I've experimented with recipes, I've found myself drawn a little more to cake baking. I'm not talking about fancy tiered decorated cakes here... just simple, flavorful pastries with at most a simple frosting. My tastes tend more toward making the cakes themselves the showpieces, setting off a moist and tender crumb with delicate spices, fruit, or even flowers.

And the ideas just keep coming.

Lately I've been dreaming of a spice cake topped with a maple-laced cream cheese frosting, all infused with espresso powder for a cappuccino-like flavor. And though I gathered the ingredients a few weeks ago, only tonight did I finally get around to testing the idea.

Some time back, I borrowed a copy of The Cake Book from the library, hoping to get some inspiration for expanding my cake horizons. The Apple Cake with Maple Frosting recipe had caught my eye when I read the book, and as I thumbed through my notebook to find a starting point for my new cake, the same recipe jumped out at me once again.

You'll not be surprised, I know, to find out that I made changes right from the start, making some substitutions in order to work in local ingredients (spelt flour, honey, and milk) and altering the spice combination to feature just cinnamon and cardamom, backed by espresso powder mixed with vanilla extract. Everything seemed to work out well, and the cake turned out a beautiful bronze color, speckled with spice and slightly crackly on top.

As I set the cake out to cool, I creamed together the very soft organic butter and cream cheese for the frosting, adding a repeat of the spices and flavors from the cake as well as local maple syrup to sweeten it all. (I still haven't quite learned the trick to get allof the lumps out of the cream cheese, but perhaps that requires a mechanical mixer, which really isn't worth the effort in my kitchen.) And once the cake had cooled, I was ready to spread the frosting on top.

As always, I couldn't wait to try my new creation and to evaluate the recipe, so I cut out a corner and sampled it, bite by slow and savoring bite. The spices deepen the flavor of the cake, and the frosting carries the hint of coffee for a good balance. The whole is moist and tender and creamy, not too sweet, and altogether satisfying.

While I think the cake would be more fitting for an autumnal celebration, served with strong coffee or even mulled cider, it was a splendid treat for a cool and damp summer evening, too.

Fancy cakes with roses and garlands piped on? No, I'm still not very interested in making those.

But making wholesome cakes loaded with surprising flavor and topped with a smear of creamy frosting? Easy. I can do that.

And maybe I'll even try to do that more often.

Cappuccino Spice Cake

Considering that my all-time favorite cake is the Chef Mother's legendary carrot cake, it's not a giant leap of the imagination to think that a spice cake would make me almost as happy. The original Apple Cake with Maple Frosting recipe found in The Cake Book called for cinnamon, ginger, and cloves for spices along with chopped apples and walnuts, but I felt reasonably certain that it would adapt easily to my own vision. I like having more spice flavor in the cake and more coffee flavor in the frosting, but you may find that you want more of the same in each. Though this only makes one square cake, I'm sure you could expand the recipe to make a round layer cake or a rectangular cake.

1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c spelt flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 c unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 c honey
1/2 tsp espresso powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2/3 c milk

8 oz package cream cheese, room temperature
4 T unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp espresso powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
pinch of salt
1/2 c maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9" square baking pan. Set aside.

In medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In large bowl, cream the butter and honey together. In small bowl (ramekin or prep dish), mix espresso powder into vanilla extract until blended. Add mixture to butter along with eggs, and beat well. Add the flour mixture in thirds, alternating with the milk and stirring just until blended.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make frosting, cream together cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, espresso, spices, and salt, mixing well. Add maple syrup and beat until smooth, increasing your speed until frosting is light, too.

Frost cooled cake with prepared frosting, decorating as desired. Cut cake into squares and serve.

Serves 9-16 (depending on size of squares)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eating is Fundamental

Though it has taken me a few weeks' worth of lunchtime reading, I've finally finished reading Marion Nestle's new (well, 2006) book What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating. And once again, I'm impressed with her sensible nutrition advice, down-to-earth debunking of food and marketing myths, and understated sense of humor.

As in Food Politics, Nestle gives you a clear view of how marketing influences our food choices. In this book, she explores how an item's location in the supermarket can affect your urge to buy it. The obvious example is endcap advertising, where highly processed food items (often on sale) are shelved at the end of a row to make them more highly visible and attractive to consumers, but the design of long rows that take you past many more goods than the ones you want also encourages the purchase of convenience processed foods.

(I'm very glad that my local supermarket follows tradition and keeps the produce right up front as I walk in the door... that's usually all I want! Colorful fresh produce, with organics up front, always manages to seduce me with its variety of colors and shapes and scents far more than the bags, boxes, and cans that scream "Eat me!")

I won't give a comprehensive review of Nestle's book, following her row-by-row outline, but here are some of the basic messages she repeats throughout the book:

--Eat foods that are as close to the natural state as possible, with no or little processing or additives, for the best nutritional and economic value. (As she notes, "Aging, drying, freezing, canning, and cooking do change foods, but they cause little loss of nutritional value, if any, and they often make the nutrients in foods more available to the body (p.307).")

--Read the labels. Granted, fresh produce doesn't carry nutrition labeling, but do you really need it anyway? For those processed foods you do buy, though, be sure to look at the labels for added ingredients as well as caloric and fat content... then decide if it's worth the price.

--Everything in moderation. While Nestle advocates a wholesome diet based on a variety of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and sensible amounts of meat and dairy (if you partake), she acknowledges that we all indulge in snack foods that may not be so healthy. (She admits to a fondness for Oreos.) That's fine, as long as we stick to portion size, don't make it a regular habit, and don't go overboard with calories.

--Know the origin of your food. This isn't always easy, given the lack of COOL (country-of-origin labeling) on many foods, but stores are learning that consumers do want to know where their food is grown, not just where it's processed. This also means that for the take-out types of food available at the deli counter or at restaurants, you should want to know who handles the food, how safely it's handled, and how fresh it is.

Nestle doesn't place quite as much emphasis on local foods as I would, but she strongly suggests buying organically AND locally grown items first:

When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies -- all better in the long run. When you choose locally grown produce, you are voting for conservation of fuel resources and the economic viability of local communities, along with freshness and better taste. (p.66)

Having grown up with a solid education in nutrition, thanks to the Chef Mother, I've always known to look at the labels and be smart in comparing costs, so for me, Nestle's book mainly reinforces what I already know while adding the occasional new tidbit of information. I would definitely recommend the book, though, to those readers who don't have as firm a grasp on nutrition or who are seeking a comprehensive source of shopping wisdom. (I mentioned the book to the Southern Belle, and with feeding two small boys, mostly cooking from scratch, she's looking for just this sort of no-nonsense practical help to improve but not overhaul her shopping habits.)

Ultimately, Nestle notes, the question of What to Eat goes beyond what we put into our bodies:

The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children. They are about nothing less than democracy in action. (p.524)

What your mom or your teacher always told you is true: you are what you eat. It's basic, once you get past the hype, and Marion is just the person to give you the guided tour.

So remember Nestle's tips when you head to the grocery store. And I would add, don't forget
your shopping list. (This is one I wrote for my mother back when I was 5... yes, she saved that sort of thing for me. Who knew I would use it this way?) If you know going into the store what you really need, you'll find it easy to resist the marketing ploys and the brightly colored signs and packaging for the things you don't really need.

You know what to eat. But sometimes it's nice to have someone confirm what you know and to add to what you know!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chopping Around

I've gotten out of the habit of planning meals for the week, but knowing that I couldn't buy much at the farmers' market on Saturday helped me focus my thoughts on certain dishes that would be easy and quick to prepare.

Since a co-worker had given me a handful of homegrown cucumbers on Friday, I knew that one of the dishes I wanted to make this week was gazpacho, one of my summertime favorites. But as I started pulling out ingredients after work, I realized that I wanted to tweak the recipe a little, removing it from Spain and traveling further east.

How far east? Perhaps I could have added fresh parsley and mint and a splash of lemon juice and remained at the far end of the Mediterranean. But, craving Indian food as I so often do, I added cilantro instead, fried some cumin and curry powder with the garlic, and chopped the tomatoes and cucumbers, pureeing the entire collection together. Then, to balance the (admittedly mild) heat of the spices, I stirred in some plain yogurt, making it more of a cross between gazpacho and raita.

Inspired, I made the rest of this week's fried okra to accompany the soup and enjoyed a light, lightly spiced, fresh meal:

To round out dinner, a tiny dish of creamy rice pudding or even a milky ras malai would have been lovely, but, having neither, I settled for a cup of chai-spiced hot cocoa made with local milk.

I know that there are people who might frown upon this mixing of ethnic cuisines and spices. I'm certainly not going to claim that this "gazpacho" is authentic to either Spanish or Indian cuisines, though it's influenced by both. I do, however, like to experiment with flavors and spice combinations, partly to understand better what works well together and to stretch my own culinary boundaries a little more.

Authentic ethnic cuisines are wonderful and irreplaceable, and I enjoy them as much as I can when I get the opportunity. But once in a while, I like to shop around and mix and match tastes.

I think it's a big enough world to make room for play, don't you?

Curry Gazpacho

Though this is derived from the basic gazpacho recipe I always use (and I don't remember where I originally found it; sorry!), it lies somewhere between a thick, pureed soup and a yogurt dip while fitting neither category very well. So call it what you like: I don't mind, as long as you enjoy it. Serve with a light sort of bread, like pita crisps, as well as some green vegetable. And don't forget to have a small dessert to tuck away at the end!

1 T olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp curry powder
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c plain yogurt

Heat olive oil in small skillet. Fry cumin and curry powder for one minute. Add garlic and saute until fragrant. Remove from heat.

Combine garlic mixture, tomatoes, cucumber, and cilantro in small food processor or blender and puree until mostly smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Stir in yogurt until creamy.

If desired, garnish with sprinkling of fresh chopped cilantro or dash of cumin.

Serves 2

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Black Bread Is Beautiful

I've been reading -- ever so slowly! -- bits and nibbles of Marion Nestle's latest book, What to Eat, over my lunch breaks at work. It's a fascinating book, going aisle by aisle through the supermarket to take a close look at all the foods we buy and eat, breaking down the science and the myths to help you make sensible and healthy choices. (Hint: The closer to the original form the food is, the healthier it is, the more you get for your money, and the more the farmer gets for the price.)

Over lunch on Friday, I read the chapter about breads, both those baked in the industrial process and those "artisan" breads baked in house. While I've long been a fan of whole grain breads -- ever so much more interesting and tasty than white bread! -- something striking happened while I read about the nutritional value of Wonder Bread and the other loaves available in the grocery store. I found the urge to bake my own bread raise its long-dormant head, and I even had a particular recipe in mind: black bread.

Long, long ago, black bread was the bottom of the barrel, literally. Made with the cheapest, coarsest grain, often with all sorts of unsavory "additives" left in, black bread was what was left for the peasants... or for everyone, in times of high taxes or famine. Over time, though, with better quality ingredients and the health-conscious fixation on whole grains, black bread (like pumpernickel) has become more respectable.

Thing is, most people still prefer white bread or a mild whole wheat bread, and it's not often you'll find a truly dark bread in the stores or even in most bakeries. But I can certainly find a recipe or two in my collection of cookbooks.

I pulled out my ragged copy of Uprisings, which is a wonderful collection of bread recipes from bakeries and cooperatives around the country, laced with stories about the people and ideals about social justice, peace, and cooperation. It always makes me happy to bake from this book, as if I'm part of broader community dedicated to making real food for real people. (Oh, wait. I am!)

The black bread recipe found in the book incorporates a number of different grains, and I was pleased to be able to use local ingredients for about half of them: local organic spelt flour, local corn meal, and local rolled oats, along with whole wheat and rye flours, cocoa powder, and wheat germ.

Despite my eager rush to get the bread started and my unintentional destruction of the yeast in the sponge (it's OK, I added a little more), the dough came together and rose reasonably well. I divided the dough to make one large loaf for me and two smaller loaves for friends, and I baked them off just in time for lunch.

I couldn't wait to tuck into my loaf, so I cut off a few slices, slathered them with butter, sprinkled them with fresh local dill, and topped them with slices of cucumber from a co-worker. Lunch time!

I certainly wouldn't want to glorify the black bread of the past, knowing it wasn't of high quality (like this). I know I have access to far better food and a better variety of food than many people today, let alone centuries ago. But I'm glad I can appreciate the simplicity and the wholesome taste of such foods.

That's the beauty of local and home-cooked food: simple, fresh tastes that are good for you.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A Full Plate

As much as I look forward to a long stroll through the farmers' market each Saturday morning, with plenty of time to stop and chat with my favorite farmers, sometimes I have to compromise in making plans.

I had planned to help the Innkeeper with breakfast at her fine establishment tomorrow morning, but since the Chef needed a break today, we switched days and I ended up needing to be at the Inn around 7:30 AM.

Since the farmers' market technically doesn't open until 8 AM, I knew I wouldn't get a lengthy visit today. But I headed down around 7 AM in the hopes of catching a couple of farmers and getting a few things before I headed in to "work":

The Potato Lady caught my eye first, and she had, naturally, some lovely red potatoes for me as well as tomatoes and small onions.

Further down the market, I found the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe and offered them my shopping list to see what items they could hold for me. They graciously offered to sort through their bins and supply me with broccoli, two large zucchini, carrots, parsley, dill, and spearmint.

Since the two stops supplied almost all my needs for the week -- and I had a short list so that I wouldn't waste nearly as much food in the next few days -- I headed on up the hill to the Inn, letting myself in to start preparing for the breakfast service.

For the next couple of hours, the Innkeeper and I prepared, served, and cleaned up from breakfast for ten guests, from juice and coffee and fruit salad to scones, muffins, and two kinds of quiche (all of which were prepared ahead of time by the Chef, thank goodness!). And once I had a chance to sit back and rest for a bit, the Innkeeper pressed upon me her usual generous offerings of a cup of coffee and a slice of vegetable quiche (I love leftovers at her place!).

Once the guests had headed out, intent on their various merry ways, and we had cleaned up the dining room, kitchen, and a couple of guest rooms, the Innkeeper commissioned her husband, The Economist, to deliver me back to the farmers' market for the rest of my shopping. (Normally I would have walked, but with an already-full and heavy basket and only half an hour left in the market, I accepted the lift.)

I visited with a few other farmers on this second round, picking up a small bag of baby lettuces from the New Organic Farmers and a pint of okra from the Gentleman Farmer. I also visited the Original Organic Farmer for a brief chat, and she brought me a special surprise: cupcakes! Aside from farming, she also makes cakes for special catered occasions, and as I'm planning to commission a cake or two from her for a celebration later in the year, she brought me a sampler of five kinds of cakes so that I can explore the possibilities. WOW!

By the time I made it home, I was well exhausted from the morning's activities. But you know, sometimes when your plate is full of good things, you don't mind needing to rest and enjoy it all afterward!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Left Behind But Not Leftover

I love my farmers' market. I think that's no surprise to my Dear Readers.

Unfortunately, like love in general, it sometimes makes me do things I sort of regret later, when I'm a little bit older and just a little bit wiser. I'm certainly not going to elaborate on that where love in general is concerned, but in regard to the farmers' market, I must confess that my endless appreciation for all the delicious local food often causes me to buy far more than I can eat in a week.

I'm not happy to admit that. I try to preserve a certain amount for the winter and use the rest, but many times the weather, my weekly schedule, or other factors keep me from cooking everything I've bought.

When I had two enormous outdoor compost bins, it didn't really tie me up in knots of guilt to let food go to waste because I knew that at least the wilted and past-prime produce would break down more quickly in the bins and be used to enrich the soil in my garden. With just a small worm bin now, it's harder for me to make that excuse, so I'm trying really hard to reduce my waste this year.

So come Friday night, it's time to clear out the fridge, see what's left, and see what I can make for dinner to use up that woebegone greenery and what can be stretched into the next week.

Tonight I pulled out the small eggplant I had bought two weeks ago, the last of the tomatoes, and a handful of other ingredients in order to make a simple Persian dish called imam bayildi (often translated as "the priest has fainted," presumably because it's so good). I've seen a number of recipes for the dish over the years, but my recipe came from a long-ago friend, and since it was the first recipe that made me appreciate eggplant, I stay loyal to it.

Simply put, I sauteed sliced garlic in olive oil before adding the chopped eggplant and tomatoes, and I let them cook down into a soft mush before adding a dash of allspice, some dried parsley (since I didn't have fresh), a dash of lime juice, a squirt of local honey, and some chopped walnuts. And since I still had some whole wheat pita in the refrigerator, I toasted that and topped it with the vegetables.

I also made some haydari, just because it's been a while since I've had it, and I knew it would go well with the warm eggplant dish. Heavenly! (I'd faint, too, if I were the fainting type.)

I'll still be taking a couple of small bags of produce scraps to the Innkeeper's compost pile tomorrow, as well as feeding my worm friends, but at least I saved a few things from neglect.

And I'll try better this next week not to leave any food behind.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cherry-Covered Chocolate

While I've got a decent cooking repertoire under my belt and can usually figure out something to make with most ingredients, sometimes I pull out my cookbooks to find a new recipe or to get ideas for using a less familiar flavor.

As I've noted before, cherries have never really been a part of my culinary experience, so when My Fabulous Aunt brought me a few cups of tart cherries, I was at a loss. Sweet cherries from the farmers' market? Sure, I'll dry those or turn them into jam. But tart? Hmmmmm...

One of the cookbooks I pulled out was my grandmother's copy of our family cookbook (an intriguing, nostalgia-filled record not only of our family's specialties and the usual offerings at the annual reunion but also of the changes in American cooking from the early part of the 20th century through the 1970s), and though I couldn't find a recipe that used cherries in the book itself, my grandmother had stashed a pile of recipes, clippings, letters, and such between the pages. Among those scraps, I found her recipe for cherry-almond bars. Success!

Of course, reading over the recipe, I could see right away that I wouldn't be following it to the letter. I didn't really want to add coconut, and I certainly wasn't going to add red food coloring! Besides, I was craving chocolate, and that always tends to lead me toward good ideas.

So, I drained the cherries and added local honey and a few drops of almond extract, stirring it all together. I probably should have cooked the cherries down for a bit, just to blend the flavors more and to thicken the fruit, but it worked well using my shortcut.

Then I made a chocolate shortbread base, patting most of the dough into the baking pan and saving the rest for on top:

After baking the shortbread for a few minutes, I let it cool before adding the cherries. I also worked some chopped almonds into the remaining dough for an extra little crunchy texture in the crumble topping.

When I finished assembling the dessert, I put it in to bake for half an hour and waited for my loft to fill with a tantalizing fragrance. And when I pulled out the pan...

...I could barely resist digging in right then and there! (I did, but it was tough.)

The cherries remained rather tart and puckered my mouth a good deal, but the sweet rich chocolate base and the crunchy almonds provided a satisfying contrast. (NOTE: I took these in to work the next day, and they were a huge hit!)

Obviously, it's not quite the same as chocolate-covered cherries as desserts go. But I think you might find they're even better.

Cherry-Chocolate-Almond Bars

I have no idea where my grandmother got this recipe originally. (I'm assuming it's not an original recipe, as I don't remember her being very creative in the kitchen. Competent, yes, but not really inventive.) Feel free to tinker with the filling: the original recipe called for canned cherries, with the cherry juice thickened with cornstarch and sugar before adding the fruit, but you could also cook the fruit and add a smidgen of flour along with the sweetener. Normally I cut bar cookies into small squares, but I just knew these needed to be cut voluptuously large. Why not? How often do you cook with fresh cherries?

3 c fresh cherries, pitted
1/4 to 1/2 c honey (or other sweetener; to taste, really)
1/4 tsp almond extract

1 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat pastry flour or spelt flour
1/4 c cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 c sugar (I used cane juice crystals)
1 c unsalted butter, softened
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 c slivered almonds, chopped

Mash cherries and combine with honey and almond extract. (If desired, simmer over low heat for about 15-20 minutes, until thicker.) Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Sift or whisk together flours, cocoa, salt, baking powder, and sugar. Cut in butter and almond extract with pastry blender until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Reserving 1/2 c dough in the bowl, spread the rest in a 9 x 13" baking pan, pressing the crumbs into a smooth base. Bake shortbread for 10 minutes; remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Reduce oven heat to 350 F. Spread cherries over cooled shortbread. Mix chopped almonds into remaining dough and sprinkle mixture over cherries. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool before cutting into bars.

Makes 12 big bars or 24 squares

Monday, July 16, 2007

Eggsactly How I Like To Be Quiched

Ever since I bought a dozen farm-fresh, organic, free-range, whopping BIG eggs at the farmers' market a week ago, I've been looking for ways to enjoy them. And that's not easy, since it's been too hot to bake much lately, and I don't often eat eggs straight up.

But when you've got them, practically straight from the hens (the bloom was still on), you have to give those eggs the proper respect, love, and honor.

Happily, today I had a very good reason to use a few eggs. Late last week, the lovely Phoenix, dear friend that she is, dropped me an email to say that she and Mr. Nice Guy would be in town today and would I have time to meet with them?

Well, yes! And lucky for them, I had already planned a vacation day, so I had time to make lunch.

Over the weekend, I pondered my options, based on the produce I had picked up at the market. I almost decided on a big vegetable curry, but when I remembered the eggs, I remembered Phoenix's fondness for and our past experiment with a market-vegetable quiche.

Once the cherry jam was done and I had a clear counter again, I started by making the quiche crust with local spelt flour, whole wheat pastry flour, one of those beautiful eggs, and a sprinkling of local parsley (dried). Unlike the last time, this dough held together reasonably well, though it felt a little too tender, and I managed to make a respectably ruffled crust:

I set it in the fridge and started to work on the filling, a saute of fresh broccoli (steamed), zucchini (shredded), spinach, watercress, onion, garlic, basil (dried), and mint (dried)... all of which were local.

When I was ready to assemble the quiche, I spread the vegetables in the bottom of the crust before whisking together the custard.

(And if you have any doubts about the superiority of fresh, organic, free-range eggs, this should persuade you. That yolk was easily 1 1/2 times the size of most yolks I've seen, and the color was a vivid orange. Wow! I'm a believer!)

With two local eggs, some local milk, a smidgen of flour and salt, and some shredded Prima Donna cheese (not local, but it is one of our favorites) whisked together, I was ready to finish putting together the quiche, and I slid it into the oven just before my friends rang the doorbell.

Less than an hour later, we enjoyed a piping-hot, vegetable-packed, bright yellow and green masterpiece of country fresh foods:

Honest, it really did turn out that yellow just from the eggs! And the flavor? Let's just say I had two very happy friends, and I will have a couple of very happy lunches at work this week with the leftovers.

And that's eggsactly the way I like it.

Cherry Busy

Wouldn't you know it? I take one vacation day, and I haul myself out of bed at the usual time in order to spend the morning in the kitchen.

That's just the way I am, and despite a touch of sleep deprivation, I wouldn't change a thing!

Since I had two quarts of sweet cherries sitting in the fridge from Saturday's market outing, I knew I needed to spend time today doing something with them. I was so pleased with how my dried cherries turned out last weekend that I wanted to make more (since those will get used quickly in winter baking), so I halved and pitted one of the quarts and spread the halves on a lined baking sheet and tucked them in the oven.

Other than that, though, I decided to make a small batch of cherry jam. I've never made cherry jam before, and I had briefly considered Dear Reader Tina's suggestion of making cherry butter, but as the cherries cooked and reduced, I realized that I wouldn't get much if I made a fruit butter as opposed to a jam.

Once it had simmered down far enough, I added some local honey, a dash of ground cardamom, and a few drops of almond extract, then let it simmer a little longer while I fired up the hot water bath.

I started to set the big canner (on the right) on the burner, but when I took a closer look at the amount of jam in the pot, I decided to call my Dutch oven or "baby canner" into action to save time and energy.

(The more I educate myself on environmental issues related to food, the more I'm aware of my use of energy at home. Canning and drying my produce can use a fair amount of electricity and natural gas as well as water, but using a smaller pot, recycling the hot water into dishwater, and just being more efficient in the process overall really helps. Sharon over at Casaubon's Book has an excellent recent post about the energy used in food preservation, and home preservation still comes out on top. Read it!)

Anyway, once the jam had finished cooking, I filled a half-pint jar and a half-cup jar and ran them through the hot water bath for 10 minutes. And that little bit of foamy jam that I had skimmed off the top?

Well, someone's got to perform the obligatory quality control check, right?

The dried cherries will take a good portion of the rest of the day to finish drying, but at least I can take a breather for now before I start the rest of my vacation day cooking.

Looks like it will be a busy day!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Early Bird Gets the Work

Come Saturday morning, I can't wait to get down to the square for the farmers' market. I'll get up at my usual weekday hour just so that I can have a good breakfast and get my chores done before I slip out of the apartment a good half-hour before the market officially opens and head down for the early shopping.

Granted, some of the vendors aren't fully set up yet by the time I get down to the square, so I might miss out on some good produce, but by going early, I have a better chance of being able to chat with the farmers for longer than usual.

Then, of course, I linger, wanting to support everyone by buying plenty of good food, and I stagger home an hour or so later, weighed down by all my purchases, and I face the prospect of actually doing something with it all.

So here's a peek into my market basket (and bags) for this week:

--spinach-basil pasta from the Herb Woman,
--a loaf of focaccia from the local bakery,
--two batches of cookies from the Cookie Lady,
--and whole wheat pita and baklava from the Pita Princess;

--two quarts of sweet dark cherries from the local fruit farm (some to dry, and some to turn into jam or cherry butter),
--a pint of no-spray blueberries from the Corn Queen,
--and red raspberries from the Herb Woman;

--broccoli, garlic, and fresh basil from the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe;
--spinach and a large kohlrabi from the Fiddlin' Farmer;
--half a dozen ears of bicolor corn from the Corn Queen;
--flat Italian green beans from the Original Organic Farmer; and
--tomatoes, a green pepper, and okra from the Gentleman Farmer's Family.

About the time I got everything up to my apartment and put it all away, I had a call from the Southern Belle saying that she and my Adorable Nephews would be happy to meet me at the market in about fifteen minutes... so down I went again! This time the Southern Belle bought plenty of good fruits and vegetables to take home, and the boys, though a little overwhelmed by the crowd and all, enjoyed standing to listen to the Fiddlin' Farmer play a few tunes on his fiddle with a friend playing banjo.

Once they headed home, I headed back upstairs and started working through the produce I'd brought home. I froze the blueberries, packing them into a freezer bag later, and then I blanched and froze the green beans and the broccoli. I made another batch of pesto (is this starting to sound like last week?), and after a trip back down the stairs for my haircut, I returned to shuck and boil the corn, shaving the kernels off the cob to freeze.

By this time, of course, I was awfully hungry, so I saved some of that corn (drizzled with a little olive oil) and backed it with a plate of my classic summertime favorite, fried okra.

You'd think that after that I'd get a breather, but no, then I was off on a planned adventure for the rest of the day, so the rest of the preserving will have to wait until I have a day off on Monday.

Guess it's a good thing I was up early to get all this work done!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Raw Deal

It's still hot out. What gives?

I've got a fridge full of vegetables from the farmers' market, most of which I wanted to cook, but it's too darn hot to turn on the stove, let alone the oven.

So, what else can I do but follow the theme for this week's meals and have my vegetables cold, raw, and refreshing?

First, I washed and trimmed some green beans and tiny carrots and then tossed them with a very easy soy-sesame dressing, ending up with something akin to Uzbek carrot salad.

Then, I took some of the fresh tomatoes, a whole cucumber, garlic, parsley, olive oil, pepper, and even a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and blended them into a savory-sweet rendition of gazpacho, one of my favorite summertime meals.

When it's hot out, I have to have simple meals in small quantities. And this hit the spot very nicely.

I'm hoping for a break in the weather soon so that I can get back to some more serious cooking... and blogging.

In the meantime, hope the rest of you are keeping cool!

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Right Stuff

One of my greatest joys in having my own vegetable garden was learning about companion planting, pairing vegetables and herbs that would support each other in warding off pests and furnishing complementary nutrients.

Cucumbers, for example, grew well with toweringly lacy dill, making for an entire "pickle row" each year. Tomatoes, not surprisingly, grew best with basil. And squash, I discovered, enjoyed the company of nasturtiums.

Though I hadn't known much about nasturtiums before studying companion planting, I soon came to appreciate them even more than the overwhelming zucchini harvest. The nasturtium leaves, with their peppery tang, made an exciting addition to salads, and the flowers contained the same kick along with vivid color and a plush silken texture.

I fell madly in love with those blossoms, enjoying them first in salads and then finding them to be a match made in heaven with dill in a pert herbal vinegar. I gathered the seeds each fall, collecting as many as possible so that I could enjoy their sunny brilliance again the following year. (According to Edible Flowers, in the Victorian language of flowers, nasturtiums signify "patriotism" -- hardly a far-fetched idea when you see their bright orange and yellow blooms burst open like fireworks in the dark green shade of zucchini leaves!)

Without a house and a garden, I didn't expect to enjoy nasturtiums this year. It's hardly a common vegetable to be found at the supermarket, and I hadn't seen any at last year's farmers' market, so I had resigned myself to the loss.

Enter, however, the Herb Woman, a new small farmer who has brought a number of unusual items to the market, from herbs like tarragon and bouquets of lavender to squash blossoms. I spotted nasturtium petals in her salad mix last week and asked if she'd be able to bring me a bag of just nasturtium blossoms and leaves this week. She most graciously obliged me:

There they were, in all their brilliant, peppery, fresh-picked goodness, tucked in a little bag just for me. Oh, happy day!

Given the rarity of this find, I knew I had to come up with a special use for them. But what?

The blazing heat wave that swept in yesterday left me rather wrung-out by the time I got home from work this afternoon, so I knew I didn't want to cook. A lingering raid of the refrigerator (lingering to appreciate the cold air, of course) revealed not only this pack of greens and flowers but also the remains of some homemade cheese (left over from ravioli made yesterday).

And thus another wonderful idea was born.

I mixed the cheese with a little olive oil, a dash of black pepper, and a sprinkling of chopped fresh dill. Then I took the nasturtium blossoms, removed the stamens, and stuffed them with my homemade herb cheese.

You might think, that looks too good to eat! But no, food never looks too good to eat in my kitchen.

Dear Readers, I ate them all. The cheese stretched to all the blossoms and a few of the leaves, and I savored every last one, appreciating their cool taste and fresh kick as I tried to beat the heat. And with the last kohlrabi from Dear Reader Tina (yes, it lasted that long!), it made a light and incredibly refreshing meal.

On a hot summer evening, that really is the right stuff.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sweet Cherry-ty

What fruit do you think of when July rolls around? For me, the month starts with raspberries, moves on to blueberries, and rounds out with peaches... and I love 'em all. For some people, though, July means cherries.

I've never ranked cherries as one of my favorite fruits, strangely enough. I never quite developed a taste for them raw and sweet and juicy, and though I sort of liked cherry flavor in things, I suspect that was an artificial liking for a chemically-concocted sort of cherry pseudo-flavor.

Recently, though, I've come to appreciate dried cherries, especially in baking anything that also includes chocolate, almonds, coconut, or any combination thereof. I especially like them in my homemade granola or in scones, but they're pretty nice in cookies or biscotti, too.

So in planning for this year's farmers' market, I told myself I'd better keep my eyes open for cherries so that I could bring them home and dry a bunch for this winter's baking.

When I spotted the dark sweet cherries at the Berry Farmer's stand yesterday morning, my cash was running low, and I thought I might have to pass them by this week. But once I got home and realized I needed to head back, I stopped for more money and made sure I got a quart of those beauties.

I worked through all the produce to be frozen and enjoyed a light lunch before turning my attention to the cherries. Never having worked with them before, I wasn't quite sure how to prepare them for drying, but working on the premise that cherries are stone fruit, I trailed my knife around the pit, pried the halves apart, and popped out the stone inside.

Easy enough work, and after a while the repetition becomes almost meditative. It does, however, get messy, and it wasn't long before my fingertips were dripping dark red cherry juice, leaving my fingernails stained for the rest of the day. But hey, I'm not bothered by such minor details if it means I'm going to end up with good food!

I spread the cherry halves over a parchment-lined baking sheet, ready to dry in the oven (set to the lowest possible temperature, 170 F... still higher than what my book on drying foods calls for, but it does dry the fruits more quickly).

With occasional stirring, they slowly dried throughout the day, and I left them in the oven overnight, the heat off but the door closed, to finish drying. When I pulled them out this morning, all but a few were ready to pack away, dried and leathery and full of concentrated flavor.

Since I ended up with less than a cup of dried cherries, I'm sure I'll need to repeat this procedure next week with a couple more quarts of local cherries. But I think I can handle that.

In the meantime, I decided to learn to like cherries even more by sampling the Original Organic Farmer's chocolate cherry pie:

I've never been a fan of cherry pie (I know, how un-American of me!) or chocolate-covered cherries, but somehow, this works for me. Sweet-tart cherries, rich fudgy chocolate, crisp crust... yeah, I think I can live with that. I shared some with my Fabulous Aunt and Uncle, and they both agreed that it was a fine dessert.

And speaking of cherries and my Fabulous Aunt and Uncle, they brought me a little hostess gift:

About four cups of tart cherries! Now what do I do? I suspect that early in the week I'll end up making a cherry-almond cake or a cherry-berry cobbler or some such thing, but if anyone has any suggestions, I'm willing to listen! (Jam, maybe?)

In the meantime, I guess I'll just cherry on...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Super Market

Week after week, the local farmers' market provides an endless source of vibrant color, good conversation, excellent food, and sheer delight. I'm having so much fun there these days that I'm constantly going over my "budget" for shopping there (and I'm thankful that I can spend more when needed or wanted) so that I can put away more food.

Today I actually made two trips to the farmers' market... the second time was because I had left something behind at one of the tables, and since I decided I had to go back for it, I stopped by the ATM to pick up more cash and then bought a couple more items. What can I say? "Low sales resistance" must be my new middle name... plus I keep thinking about how best to get through the winter with buying very little added food.

Anyway, without further ado, here's this week's finds:

--From the Original Organic Farmer, a big bag of green beans (easily 2 qts) and a chocolate cherry pie;
--From one of the newer farmers -- who greeted me this morning by saying, "Hey! There's the Potato Lady!" -- a bag of red potatoes (she's had good ones for the past few weeks!);
--From a veteran farmer, a quart of pickling cucumbers;
--From another new farmer, the Herb Woman, a small bag of nasturtium blossoms and leaves (as I had requested last week), a bundle of herb fettucine, and an edible bouquet
filled with nasturtiums, calendula, bee balm, onion blossom, and sage;
--From the Granola Lady, a bag of her homemade maple-hazelnut granola;
--From the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe, more fresh organic broccoli, garlic, basil, and tiny perfect carrots;
--From the Corn Queen, no-spray blueberries;
--From the Fiddlin' Farmer, zucchini and a small eggplant;
--From the Gentleman Farmer, tomatoes and a thyme plant;
--From the New Organic Farm, a bag of mixed baby lettuces;
--From the Maple Man, a pint of local maple syrup; and
--From the Berry Farmer, a quart of sweet cherries.

And believe me, there was much more I would have liked to buy and eat or preserve for later, but I knew I would have limited time this weekend to work in the kitchen with my Fabulous Aunt (and Uncle!) coming into town.

Once I got home, I immediately started to work on what need to be packed away in the freezer. I spread the blueberries over a tray and set them in the freezer to harden, packing them into a freezer bag once they were like marbles (and about as easy to pick up!). I trimmed, steamed, blanched, and froze two quart bags of green beans, followed by two quart bags of broccoli. And in between all that, I made a small batch of pesto, spooning most of it into an ice cube tray to freeze serving-size portions and saving the rest for lunch.

Later today, I'll make the rest of the dill pickles for this year, and I also hope to start drying those sweet cherries for next winter's baking or granola.

And let me tell you, if I hadn't kept myself busy all morning with all of this, I probably would have dashed back down to the market for more goodies!

What a super way to spend a Saturday!