Monday, May 26, 2008

Thyme Out

To round out the holiday weekend, the Farm Mother requested a somewhat traditional holiday picnic menu for lunchtime. So I decided to take a little breather from wood-splitting this morning and stayed in the kitchen to whip up a few little things for our not-quite-picnic.

One of the specific dishes the Farm Mother wanted on the table was potato salad, made with mayonnaise and mustard and pickle relish and all the sorts of things I'm not crazy about. But I wanted to make her happy, so I made it the best I could and asked The Renaissance Man to taste-test it and tell me what more I needed to do to make it like hers. (More of everything, he replied.)

Sure, that would please everyone else at the table. But for me, I made a small dish of my own potato salad.

I kept mine light, adding carrots and garlic and tossing it all with a drizzle of olive oil. And since I had planted some fresh herbs in the garden behind the house, I added a little fresh thyme to the mix for just the right taste of green.

Since I was on a roll this morning -- having also made a pie for dessert -- I decided to surprise everyone and make fresh biscuits.

The Renaissance Man has been hinting broadly that he's still waiting for the perfect biscuits, and since my last batch (made with his aged baking powder) didn't turn out as well as they should, I thought I'd show him. So I made the basic baking powder biscuit recipe and added bits of colby-jack cheese and more fresh thyme for something melty and a little savory.

They came out of the oven smelling wonderful, so I quickly buttered two and took them out to the tractor to share with him. Clearly they won his approval, because he decided it was time for a break and returned to the house with me for tea and about three more fresh biscuits.

That ended my cooking for the day, and after my own break for food, I headed back outside for more hard work.

The rest of this week will be crazy-busy, too, so consider this a lengthy time out for me, for my cooking, and for this site. But don't worry: I'll be back.

Just give me a little thyme.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Invasive Pesto

Instead of the leisurely three-day vacation that many people are taking this Memorial Day weekend, I've been out on the Farm, helping the Renaissance Man and the neighbors with some serious timber cleanup and wood-splitting. It's not my usual weekend activity, of course, but it makes a nice change of pace.

That doesn't mean I've neglected the kitchen, though, and it didn't stop me from a mid-morning foraging stroll while the others wielded their chainsaws.

I wandered back into the woods to visit familiar wild edibles and to scout out new ones, but I ended up picking wild greens through the hedgerows and the grove closest to the house.

I found more lambs' quarters along with tangy wood sorrel and chickweed, plus a few violets for color, all of which I rinsed before tossing together as a quick undressed salad.

My main mission for the weekend, though, was to find patches of garlic mustard -- an
invasive species that runs rampant in this area of the country -- and I had no problem in tracking down plenty.

When I had first read through my book on wild edibles (that would be
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by "Wildman" Steve Brill) a couple years ago, the garlic mustard jumped out at me since I had plenty around my compost bin. I wasn't impressed at the time (it's not really garlicky enough for me), but finding a recipe for garlic mustard pesto over at Grist recently caused me to give it a second glance.

I harvested only a small number of plants for taste testing and took them into the kitchen to wash. Aside from the difference in greens, the recipe stays the same, using garlic, nuts (I like walnuts), cheese, pepper, and olive oil.

Mostly, it tastes about the same as regular pesto, though more on the sharp side than the fragrant basil side. (NOTE 5/27: After the first day, the mustardy flavor of the greens really comes through more strongly, which may not be to everyone's taste.) The Renaissance Man and I agreed that while it was good, we liked the chickweed version (and, of course, the original) better.

It makes you think, though, that maybe even invasive species can have their uses when they have to be ripped out. The leaves themselves can be added raw to salads for a kick not unlike mizuna or other gourmet greens, and I'll have to do some thinking as to what else that hint of mustard flavor would enhance. (Any ideas?)

And maybe eating the darn things will discourage them from growing! (Or maybe not...)


Friday, May 23, 2008

Original Thin

With all the excitement I've expressed here on the blog this spring about having a garden again this summer, you'd never guess I really have a love-it-or-leave-it attitude about growing my own food.

There's much to love, of course: the thrill of choosing seeds and plants, the rich loamy scent of the soil as I plant, the peace of gardening, and the warmth and full flavors of freshly-picked vegetables.

What I'd prefer to leave behind, though, is all the stuff in the middle -- the work. I'm not a fan of weeding or even (heaven help me) thinning the seedlings in order to let the hardiest plants survive. It's all tedious, back-straining work, and though I'm getting better at it, I can't often view it as meditative, stress-reducing activity or even a pleasant respite from housework.

Still, it all has to be done, so I have to deal with it. And this year, since I'm trying to teach My Adorable Nephews about gardening, I have to be fair and show them all the hard work that goes into good food. (It's a pain being a role model sometimes!)

So I stopped by the garden after work today to see how everything is coming along -- splendidly, as you can see -- and to thin out a couple of the first crops.

The pac choi, which had so astonished me with its lush growth last week, needed thinning first. The Southern Belle sat down with me and learned how to thread her way through the seedlings with a gentle touch, selecting sturdy sprouts at a reasonable distance from each other and pulling the rest.

We trimmed off the roots as we worked, and by the time we had finished thinning a yard-long row, we had a very large bowl filled with tender leaves with a sharp taste. Though I've never eaten pac choi raw before, I knew it would make an exciting addition to salads, and I was even more pleased that both Beaker and Scooter, with their very young and not overly adventurous palates, liked it very much!

After the success with the pac choi, I moved over to the first row of carrots and thinned them radically so that we'll get some nice-sized roots growing on them. None of the other plantings needed such attention, though, so I was able to stop before I got well and truly fed up with the work.

I know already that I'll have to discipline myself to check on the garden once or twice a week during the summer so that I can stay on top of the weeding and such as well as harvesting. I know it's hardly a sin to consider such tasks as drudgery, but I do feel a little guilty about wanting to reap all the rewards with little work.

I'm learning, though, to appreciate the hard-won delights of my own little Eden.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Series Look at Local Foods

Every so often, I feel like I'm just spinning my wheels, writing on this blog. Sure, you know I'm a fan of local foods, you know I love to bake, and you know I'm constantly experimenting in the kitchen. (See that bread? It's made with local flours, local dry milk, local honey, and those richly golden local eggs I recently bought.)

But given the cyclical nature of local foods and the way my cooking generally falls into set patterns that follow the seasons, after a while I feel like both my cooking and my writing get a little stale. (Honestly, do you really want to know how often I can live on homemade pizza for a week?)

With the summer swiftly approaching, bringing with it the farmers' market, I'm hoping to reinfuse this site with a little more excitement as well as little more substance (like that loaf of bread you see pictured above). Not only will I have weekly Market Reports for you, with luscious tales about my market finds, but I've got a couple of other series planned for you:

1. Since this year marks the first time I've ever subscribed to a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) -- and it's the first time my farming friends the Bakers have set up a CSA -- I'll post weekly reports about my CSA box and what I hope to cook or preserve with the produce. And since I think patriotism shouldn't be limited to mere flag-waving symbolism, you'll find this series under the tongue-in-cheek title of "Oh, Say, Can You CSA?" (Talk about following the beat of a different drummer...)

2. I've been pondering the outline for a possible book project on eating seasonally and preserving food for the lean months. I really don't have time to pursue a book right now, though, so I'll make this a month-by-month series called "Preserving the Seasons" with set weekly entries on what's growing or being harvesting each month, what to cook with fresh produce, what to preserve (and how), and the example of one local meal to tempt you into trying it yourself. Obviously come winter, the focus of each week's post will vary, but that's the current plan.

All of these series will start in June, since both the CSA and the farmers' market begin early in the month, and since for us here in northern Ohio, early June is really the first time in the year when we can find a consistent source of local foods.

With any luck, these series will help you and me both to incorporate more local foods into daily meals, to preserve more food in a variety of ways for winter, and to get ideas for doing just a little more next year. (Maybe I'll even get inspired to build a cold frame to have more fresh greens during the winter!)

You may have also noticed that I've stopped updating the index pages in favor of using labels for each post. I'm still coming up with labels to use, but at some point I may try to go back and add labels or at least add a section with labels appended to the index list. For those of you who follow this blog through an RSS feed, would you please let me know if updating individual back posts will flood your feed? I don't want to make it impossible for you to keep up with what's going on.

As always, I'd love to hear back from you. What are you doing and would like to share? What questions do you have? What other possibilities do you see?

I'm no expert, so I'm happy to learn from my Dear Readers at the same time that I hope you'll find something to learn from me.

Stay tuned -- and we'll see where this journey leads us!

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Patch Work

In planning my gardening this year, you may remember, I had decided to put in an herb garden at the Inn.

Those plans have fallen by the wayside, as I simply haven't had the time to spend at the Inn all spring, save for turning the compost.

The Innkeeper, an understanding soul, didn't seem too put out when I said I thought I would have to divert my energies elsewhere, though I know she misses our times cooking together.

But what was I to do with all the extra herbs I had ordered from the Lady Bountiful? I gave one to My Wonderful Parents, and I still have yet to pot several for my own home, but that left me with more orphan herbs.

Thankfully, the Renaissance Man -- ever the gentleman, and ever so hungry for my cooking -- graciously offered me space in his back garden for some of those herbs. He cleared a large section of mint from one side of the bed, leaving plenty of mint behind, and when I stopped by this afternoon, he swept his hand toward it in invitation.

Well, I don't have to be asked twice. I ran inside and grabbed the potted herbs (which he had been herb-sitting) and started plopping them into the ground, interspersed with rows of herb seeds.

When I finished, I had sown yarrow and borage, anise hyssop and skullcap, and a row of Jaune du Doubs carrots, as well as planting basil, lavender, sage, and cilantro. It seemed logical to plant those items, since some will be used in cooking (and I expect I'll be cooking a fair amount there this summer) and others will be dried for herbal tisanes (something we both enjoy often).

It's not a large space, compared to that patch of mint, but it's more than enough to start a few more herbs for us both to share.

And, like a patchwork quilt pieced together with leftover scraps from here and there, it's a cozy little example of our shared work.

I'm sure those herbs will be snuggling up to each other in no time!

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pretty Seeds All in a Row

The prospect of having a large vegetable garden this year -- the first in a couple of years -- has kept me excited the past few months. (Had you noticed?)

Still, even in my excitement I realized that I couldn't do everything all at once. Around northern Ohio, it's sheer folly to put all of your garden in before May 15 or so because there's always that last remote chance that we'll have a freak snowstorm or hard frost in early May.

Not this year, I'm happy to say -- even if the temperatures have dipped a bit lately. I was able to stick to schedule this week and pick up my herbs and tomatoes before heading to the garden today, on the second best weather day all week.

I asked the Southern Belle to keep My Adorable Nephews busy for a little while so that I could get the big and unwieldy plants into the ground before I had little boys jumping all around and wanting to be "helpful." She kindly obliged me, and I managed to plant the tomatoes, peppers, basil, and the first other herbs before the boys came rushing up to me.

"I want to help!" shouted Beaker as he bounced up and down. (Scooter wasn't much interested today, thank goodness.)

Having strained my back earlier this week, I gladly accepted his assistance in planting the rest of the herb seedlings. I had already dug holes, so I tapped the plants out of their pots, set them firmly in the holes, and directed Beaker to scoop dirt back around the plants' roots and to pat it down gently.

After that, he insisted on helping sow the rest of the seeds, so I thanked my lucky stars that I had talked with a co-worker yesterday about having youngsters help in the garden. Her sage advice led me to offer two areas to Beaker for his input: the melons and the beans.

He was thrilled. He loves watermelon and cantaloupe both, so he eagerly dug the small holes in the melon patch, and once I had handed him the right amount of seeds for each hole, he covered them up and mounded the dirt over them. I added a couple rows of nasturtium seeds in between the mounds, explaining that the flowers would be good companions ("friends" was how we put it) to the melons.

Then I showed him where to hoe the rows for the cannellini and Tiger Eye beans I wanted planted. Once he had done that, I squatted down, started laying the seeds in the ditch with a comfortable distance between them, and he followed my example perfectly, working his way in from the other end. Using bigger seeds apparently does the trick in having children help: it was clearly easier for him to handle the seeds and gauge the appropriate distance for planting.

I added in a few more rows of seeds, including yet more lettuce and carrots, and I left a little space for the kale to be planted later next month.

Once we had finished, I had some time to investigate the earlier plantings.

While the lettuce was off to its usual graceful start, I discovered that the pac choi was already filling in thickly in its little row, so I'll have to make time next week to come back and thin the seedlings.

The fava beans continue to stretch their way up to the top of the deck railing, so one of these days I'll either have to stake them or tie them to the rail so they don't fall over.

With several patches of new seeds hidden beneath the topsoil, the garden still doesn't look too impressive, but to my eyes it's coming along beautifully.

Just keeping asking me, "How does your garden grow?"


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Eat Your Weedies

Since I haven't gotten to forage on the farm lately, I've been feeling a distinct lack of greenery in my diet. It takes a while for the cultivated crops of lettuce and spinach to start coming in, even with cold frames, while the wild edible greens seem to pop up early and fill the gap for us (if we bother to look).

So even though the Lady Bountiful sent me home yesterday with plenty of the first lettuce of the year, I still felt excited about toting home a bag of lambs' quarters, too.

Tonight seemed like a good night to pull out the greens and add them to a comforting pasta dish, after a drizzly trip to another farm, so I invited the Renaissance Man to join me for dinner.

I haven't had time lately to make more homemade pasta, so I ended up using whole wheat spaghetti from the store. But all the other major ingredients were local: some of the last garlic from last year's farmers' markets, oven-dried tomatoes, a sprig of fresh basil (broken off one of my new herb pots), and the lambs' quarters.

Like most of my comfort-food pasta dishes, once I had cooked the pasta I sautéed the garlic and added the tomatoes along with a hint of pepper, then tossed in the lambs' quarters to wilt them before adding the mix to the top of a pile of pasta and garnishing it all with a chiffonade of basil.

Add a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and there's dinner!

While the Renaissance Man teased me gently about eating "weeds" -- he patted my hand and told me, "We'll have to get you eating a little higher on the food chain next time!" -- he agreed that the resulting dish offered a fresh taste of spring and a satisfying meal.

I still have a large quantity of greens left, so I'm sure I'll be cooking with them in many ways as the week progresses. I may even try something like lambs' quarters pesto or some sauce. Who knows?

All I know is, I'm going to eat them up!

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So Farm, So Good (Part 2)

I'm getting so close to having the rest of my garden planted, now that I have my herbs ready to add in the corners along with the last of the seeds. Only one thing is missing...


That's right, it's not a real garden in my family's book until you've got tomatoes planted. And though I know I will buy plenty of tomatoes this summer -- both through my CSA and from the farmers' market -- there's nothing quite like growing your own and eating them right off the vine.

So for this year's tomatoes, I asked My Dear Papa what kind of tomatoes he wanted. His request was the old-fashioned and heirloom variety of Rutgers.

Not wanting to start tomatoes myself from seed, I turned to an expert: the Original Organic Farmer. She greeted my request with great enthusiasm and offered to keep my tomatoes in the greenhouse on her farm until it was time to plant.

Guess what, Dear Readers? It's time to plant!

My Dear Papa drove me down to Elee's farm after work so that I could pick up our tomato plants as well as get a look around the farm as her growing season gets started.

As we drove back the lane, I noticed plants already sprouting in the garden, as well as several cold frames containing the first greens of the year.

We headed into the greenhouse to get out of the drizzling rain, and we found plenty of green growth there, as well. She had several flowers, a handful of herbs, and the last of her tomato and pepper plants waiting for a good day to head outside into the garden beds. She generously offered me a couple of pepper plants, something I hadn't really considered planting this year. How could I resist a pack of four small ancho pepper plants and an heirloom variety (I think; she couldn't remember the exact name of it, but a Google search indicates it might be Quadrato d'Oro) of chile pepper?

Well, I couldn't. And neither could I resist those big, beautiful Rutgers plants.

There were only three pots of them, but they had already grown so large that they sprawled all over the flat. Oh, my!

Once we had the plants tucked into the minivan, I followed Elee into her kitchen for two
dozen eggs from her very happy hens. Having enjoyed these eggs last year, I knew I couldn't visit the farm without picking up more!

We spent some time chatting (Elee and I, not the chickens), and she even introduced me to the newest member of her farm family: a little duckling hatched from one of this spring's eggs.

He's a cute little fellow, but I wasn't about to try and hold him: he wiggled a lot, and his babysitter -- a big grey goose -- was very protective!

My Dear Papa and I left shortly thereafter, and I sighed, thinking how much I would love to have a farm and a life like Elee's. I don't think I'll get it, but it's always such a treat to visit and to enjoy the tranquility and the hard work of her farm.

In the meantime, I'll keep working on my garden... starting tomorrow.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So Farm, So Good (Part 1)

After a bit of cool and rainy weather the past couple of days, the beautiful sunshine today reminded me that the magic date -- May 15 -- is coming soon. From that date on, we here in northern Ohio are pretty much safe from late frosts and can feel free to plant even the tender seeds and seedlings in our gardens. (Some argue that Memorial Day is the frost-free date, but I'm sticking with the 15th as warmer weather is definitely coming sooner than later these days.)

So, in preparation for Planting Day later this week, I knew I needed to arrange a couple of field trips in order to pick up some of the plants I had ordered from friends at local farms.

After work today, I headed north with the Renaissance Man to visit the farm of the Gentleman Farmer and his lovely wife, the Lady Bountiful -- a farm operation better known to locals as Bakers' Fresh Produce and Honey. Located about half an hour's drive from me, their farm covers only a few acres but is arranged so that they can grow a wide variety of crops in large quantities.

They happily led us around the farm, pointing out all the crops already in the ground or working their way out of greenhouses and hoop houses. One greenhouse held a multitude of flats of potted herbs, with plenty of fragrant basil and cilantro and oregano clamoring for my attention. (I restrained myself from rubbing their leaves, knowing that the herbs I had ordered had already been set aside for me.)

Another shelf held tomato seedlings, growing thick and leafy, and further back I spotted several pots of okra plants, just waiting to get planted and to produce all that yummy okra I'll fry up this summer.

We continued out and around the many fields, talking animatedly about all the good food the Bakers would have at the market this year as well as about how their children help out around the farm. (I even met the groundhog-hunting dog and the curious chicken... a lively crew!)

In this field, beets and chard and other greens are already growing fast and furious!

In this field, leeks and onions and (I think) squash are getting a jump start on the growing season. And while the family has a small machine for planting seeds and seedlings in such neat, evenly-spaced rows, they do go out and harvest everything by hand.

And with a crop like strawberries, how could you do otherwise? Picking these by hand -- and eating a few along the way -- is half the fun (and the pain)!

Set at the back of one field, half a dozen or more beehives stood, with honeybees busily flying around after gathering pollen. I felt so relieved to see the activity there, since I've seen almost no honeybees around town so far this spring -- even around the lusciously fragrant crabapples -- and have been concerned about local honey production this year as the population of honeybees continues to decline.

Out among the fields, we found a couple more greenhouse-type structures. One exceptionally
large hoop house had rows and rows of tomato seedlings already planted and kept warm by the plastic roof. If you want some sort of idea of just how large this bed is, compare my shadow with the rest of the "field"! I no longer have any trouble understanding how they can always bring so many tomatoes to market for so long during the farmers' market season each year.

In another greenhouse, constructed from the frame of a semi truck, they had bed after bed of a wide variety of greens -- red, green, and
speckled leaf lettuces; multiple varieties of romaine; lots of spinach; and even lambs' quarters (a weed to them but edible greens to me!). I enjoyed educating the Lady Bountiful on lambs' quarters and may have even planted the seed of having her bring some to market to sell, but in the meantime, I offered to weed several sprouts of the plant from her beds, as long as I could take them home and eat them.

Maybe she took pity on me, foraging for greens that she considered merely a nuisance, but she generously offered me a couple heads of fresh lettuce (including some for My Wonderful Parents) and cut them on the spot.

That's only two heads of lettuce, Dear Readers! But it's typical of the generosity of this farm family, and it's part of the reason why I am so proud to support them this year -- even beyond the farmers' market -- by being one of their first CSA members. They decided to start CSA subscriptions this year and have had few people putting down deposits, so it will be a real learning year for them and their business. But I figure that $500 for 20 weeks' worth of really good fresh produce, probably more than enough to feed My Wonderful Parents as well as me, is a bargain.

I'll still visit them at the farmers' market, though. My CSA pickup will be on Wednesdays, and the market remains a Saturday morning ritual for me, so in addition to my Market Updates this year, I'll have a series of posts on what I get in the CSA box each week. I'm very excited!

After a lengthy visit with them, we left carrying two big flats of over two dozen potted herbs (for my garden, for my folks, and for a couple of other gardens I wanted to coax along this year), a bag of lambs' quarters, all that good lettuce, and as much generosity and goodwill my farming friends could share.

It's a great start to the growing season... both for them and for me!

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fool Me Once...

The same friend who gave me the tender fresh asparagus earlier this week also gave me a large bundle of rhubarb to give to the Chef Mother for a pie. And though I've never been a fan of rhubarb, I slipped a few stalks out of the bundle in order to try to overcome my reluctance where this vegetable is concerned.

I sifted through recipes and was about to make a rhubarb-berry dessert laced with crystallized ginger when I read about rhubarb on my fellow Ethicurean Janet's blog, She referred back to a recipe for a rhubarb fool that she had made last spring that turned out well.

Since I've heard about fools (the edible kind) for years, I was immediately tempted. And as I read over the recipe, learning how the fruit was blended with a custard into creamy sweetness -- not unlike a pudding, an old favorite made new again! -- I knew I'd end up trying this recipe instead of something out of my cookbooks.

Of course, I can never let a recipe be, even one from a friend. As I read the recipe, I also remembered the last bag of strawberries resting in the freezer from last year's crop. Since I often see strawberries and rhubarb used together in jam or pie, I thought this would be the perfect way to clean a little more out of the freezer.

Janet's recipe has all the details, but in essence:

1. I simmered the strawberries and rhubarb together, then mashed them, added sugar, and thickened the puree.

2. I made the creamy custard by heating cream (didn't have milk), whisking in thickening ingredients, and then gradually incorporating eggs and cooking it until it felt more substantial.

3. I mixed the custard into the puree and chilled it.

So easy! And so tasty, too, as a quick lick of the spatula proved.

While the fool could be served on its own, I had originally thought to dump it into a homemade pie crust to make a sort of cream pie. Instead, I ended up taking it to the farm this weekend to serve as part of a more elaborate dessert, using it as a filling for crepes.

After a hearty dinner, I cleared the table and made the crepes, filling them with the fool as they came off the griddle and topping them with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream. (Apologies for the poor color in both photos; the kitchen lighting is awful for photography, and I'm still learning how to adapt.)

Everyone offered praise for the dessert, whether verbally or through a slow and silent appreciation of each bite, and I was pretty pleased with it myself.

I definitely think I will have to play with Janet's recipe and other fruits... it's a simple but versatile dessert.

And I'm happy to be fooled once, twice, or more!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stalk This Way

Spring might have been a little slow in coming this year, but I'm finally starting to believe that it's here to stay. My morning walks to work in the growing sunlight have provided a feast for sight and scent alike, with trees and flowers bursting into colorful bloom and releasing their fragrant welcome to a season of renewal. I've felt rather like Sleeping Beauty, awakening into a new and vibrant world of wonders, and each day brings new delights to dazzle my eyes and -- I dare hope! -- my taste buds.

On Sunday, just when I was feeling a little more than tired of eating from the pantry, a new friend (evidently one worth keeping!) brought me the amazing gift of a small bunch of fresh asparagus from her garden.

I don't want to discount the pleasure I've found in eating the tender greens I had growing on the windowsill or in foraging for fresh spring greens, but this gift truly represents the first spring produce of the growing season around here. Lettuce I can grow during the winter, dandelions and chickweed grow of their own accord, but asparagus takes more effort and only lasts for a short time.

And for the first asparagus of the season, what could I possibly make that would bring out the brilliant green flavor and make it a celebration?

In a very recent conversation with the Archivist, she mentioned that she and her husband had been making a lot of crepes lately, both sweet and savory. Since it's been a few months since I made my own crepes, the thought of rolling asparagus into thin pancakes immediately caused my mouth to water.

I headed into the kitchen as soon as I got home from work and fired up the oven. Then, after trimming the asparagus, I tossed the spears in a loaf pan with chunks of local garlic, a sprinkling of dried dill from my garden and black pepper, and a substantial drizzle of olive oil.

I don't usually roast asparagus, but I really should more often: the roasting makes the stalks tender but even more flavorful, and I'm a sucker for the crunchy toasted garlic that went with it.

While the asparagus roasted, I whisked together the batter and started making the crepes, stacking them until I was ready to start assembling dinner.

Having given the matter considerable thought earlier in the day, I had stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up a small packet of goat cheese crumbles. After laying a few asparagus spears on each crepe, I added a sprinkling of chopped toasted walnuts and some goat cheese, wrapping it all up while they were still warm.

The Renaissance Man joined me for dinner and agreed that the simplest approach might well be the best approach, for that fresh asparagus flavor, enhanced by the creamy cheese and the warm toasted crunch of the walnuts, sang out loud and clear.

Now that I have the first spring food under my belt, I feel a little more alive and a little more enthusiastic about cooking again. I've been feeling like my cooking has been somewhat half-hearted of late as I've been working through the pantry. Now, though, my dreams of farmers' market produce have revived, and the ideas for new recipes are churning through my brain once more.

In the meantime, I hope I'll have another chance soon to stalk up on asparagus!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Whatcha Gonna Stew?

Since I had very few activities on the calendar for this weekend, I decided it was time to get back into the kitchen for some serious cooking. After all, the farmers' market is due to reopen in a month, and I've still got a lot of pantry items to clean out!

Yesterday's chilly rain made me long for something warm and comforting, so I was glad that I had pulled bags of corn and squash from the freezer and soaked and cooked a couple cups of cranberry beans. These three ingredients make the traditional Native American trinity of the "Three Sisters," and I thought it would be entirely appropriate to combine them with Southwestern spices and organic amaranth.

I sautéed the last of my onion-garlic-hot pepper puree disks first, adding cumin, coriander, oregano, paprika, and salt to make a fragrant base for the dish. Then I added the corn, squash, and beans, a splash of homemade vegetable stock, the cooked amaranth, and the whole mixture simmered and bubbled for an hour or more while I worked on other projects. Before dishing it up, I added a sprinkling of dried cilantro flakes and let them spread their flavor throughout the mix.

I have to admit, it was tough for me to eat it for dinner –- not because it wasn't good, but because I am so sick of squash at this point that I really have to force it down. (Where are my greens? I want greens!!!) As long as I can control that reaction, though, I'll have something tasty and nutritious for lunches this week.

Today the sun shone brightly, but the air remained cooler than I had expected, making me very grateful that I had planned to make a small pot of the Chef Mother's vegetable soup. Her recipe is a very flexible one, allowing for whatever vegetables you might have on hand, not to mention whatever ethnic spice combinations tickle your fancy.

I stuck somewhat close to the original recipe, though I replaced the tomato juice with sauce and extra water, used some of my dried vegetables (cabbage and peas), omitted others, and tossed in the last handful of alphabet pasta from my cupboard. Even though this recipe doesn't call for sautéed onion and garlic to create a rich, aromatic base for the other vegetables, everything else adds such good flavor that you end up with a simple and satisfying soup. And with a toasted slice of the bread I made yesterday on the side, I had a good end-of-weekend supper.

Since my springtime produce cravings are starting to kick into high gear, it's sometimes very difficult to force myself to continue to eat from the freezer or the pantry. I keep reminding myself, though, that if I don't make the room now, I won't have enough room for this year's food preservation!

Eating from the pantry has also helped me avoid some of the sticker shock now becoming commonplace at the grocery store, and I've written an article for the Ethicurean on the topic. (It should be up later this week, so stay tuned!) It's times like this that make me very thankful I know how to put up a good supply of food for the winter -– and that I make the effort to do it as much as I can.

At this point, what else can I stew?


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Singin' in the Grain

After enjoying a couple of warm sunny days, I thought I was prepared for the forecast of rain for today. But the damp weather has kept the temperatures lower than predicted, so I'm still clinging to cozy warm clothes and the desire to bake.

And what could be more pleasant than fresh bread on such a damp, cool day?

I had no idea what kind of bread I wanted to make, save that I wanted to be able to use it in peanut butter and jam sandwiches. (I'm just having a craving.) So I flipped through my Tassajara Bread Book and landed on the basic white bread recipe.

Don't think that I stuck with the plain white bread, though. I decided that I would use the recipe, with its enriched dough laden with egg (local), dry milk (local), and butter (non-local but organic), and clean out some of my other flours to boost the texture and nutritional value. That meant adding the last of one bag of buckwheat flour, some spelt flour, and some toasted wheat germ to all the unbleached flour.

Right away, I knew the combination would work well. As the sponge bubbled and rose, the yeasty aroma of the batter produced a slightly nutty edge, making me hungry for fresh bread from the start.

After working in the rest of the ingredients and kneading the dough, I found the recipe even more promising: tender but substantial, with a pleasing fragrance.

I allowed the dough to rise twice before I shaped the loaves, and while those rose, I puttered and worked on other projects, something I haven't had time to do in a while. (How lovely it is to have unplanned time at home!)

After lunch, I slid the loaves into the oven and let them bake for a full hour, and when they came out, my mouth started watering. Aren't they beautiful? The inside turned out beautifully speckled, perfectly moist and tender, and oh so delicious.

I haven't yet made that peanut butter and jam sandwich, but I have a feeling I will certainly get my fill of them this week with so much bread to enjoy (unless I give a loaf away).

Now that's something to sing about!