Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Nibby End to the Year

I awoke this morning to find that not only was it still cold outside (big surprise) but that a fair bit of snow had fallen, covering the neighborhood. Though it didn't look too treacherous, I did slip a bit as I took out the trash, and I was grateful to stay home and cook for another day.

I started off the day by firing up the oven to bake a batch of cookies I had started yesterday. A couple weeks ago, I had spotted the recipe for "Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies" over at Culinate, and since I had a small amount of cacao nibs to use up -- and the Renaissance Man is a fan of buckwheat flour -- I thought it was worth a try.

The dough turned out to be a variation on refrigerator cookies, so after chilling overnight, the log of dough emerged this morning, and I cut thick slices to spread on my cookie sheets. The taste is delightful: a little dark and grainy, but marvelously offsetting the faint chocolate crunch of the nibs. I'm a fan!

The cardinal that perched in the bush outside my kitchen window seemed to agree, though I couldn't bear to share with it.

Later in the morning, I prepped vegetables and rolled out pie dough to make my annual winter break vegetable pot pie. (I know, I just can't shake this pie obsession lately!) I varied the vegetables a little, throwing together sweet potato, potato, parsnip, a touch of dried zucchini, and snow peas along with onion and garlic.

While not a glamorous pie by any means, the pot pie smelled wonderful as it came out of the oven, and I couldn't wait to tuck in.

Obviously I did not get the stock thickened enough before filling the pie, but it tasted like home and made me very contented to stay inside, warm my belly, and settle in with a good book for the afternoon.

I don't even know what the rest of this New Year's Eve will hold, but I do hope that all my Dear Readers have a blessed and joyful New Year.

Stay warm, and I'll see you in 2009!

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Monday, December 29, 2008

And a Happy Paneer

Now that the round of family visits is over for the holidays, I'm happy to get back into my own kitchen and to jump into my usual year-end cooking projects.

It's been a while since I made paneer, and since I recently bought a copy of Home Cheese Making, I thought I'd prepare for more complicated recipes by revisiting an old favorite.

I used nearly half a gallon of good local whole milk and 2 cups of rich whole-milk yogurt to make the cheese this time, thinking that a big batch was just as easy to whip up as a smaller one.

After straining the whey through double-layered cheesecloth, I bunched the cloth together and hung the paneer up to drain before pressing it. And what came out of the wrappings was a beautiful creamy curd that sliced easily under my knife.

I set the paneer in the refrigerator until closer to dinner time, when I pulled together some good local vegetables and exotic spices to treat the Renaissance Man to an Indian dinner.

The paneer naturally went into a rich shahi paneer, made with a quart of my homemade tomato sauce, and I paired that dish with local sweet potatoes sauteed with garlic and onion and simmered in leftover whey (with some fresh kale tossed on top at the last). What a savory and satisfying meal!

Perhaps one of these days I'll get that book out and start thumbing through some other cheese recipes, maybe starting with homemade mozzarella (since I have a kit for that). And I'm still hoping to arrange a cheesemaking class with a farmer I met at the Northeast Ohio Food Congress.

Wouldn't that be a good way to start the New Year?

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pie Goeth Before a Fall

I don't claim to be a great cook, but I do admit that sometimes I get a little cocky. I'll go beyond the bounds of a recipe, substitute freely, and throw things together in a slapdash manner.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes that works brilliantly.

And sometimes -- well, sometimes it ends up in disaster.

Take the pumpkin pie I made this evening. (Please!)

The Renaissance Man had toyed with the idea of making another sample of his excellent pumpkin pie to take to the Farm at Christmas, but he eventually decided that one pie (the pecan pie I made) would be enough.

Still, I had already baked a pumpkin and stashed it in his refrigerator, so we needed to make the pie sooner rather than later.

And here's where the troubles began. First, this pumpkin was likely not a true pie pumpkin as the flesh was more yellow than orange. Next, I hadn't baked it fully, so it didn't puree well.

Finally, when he invited me over this evening to make the pie, I jumped in and took charge of the project. BAD move.

In pureeing the pumpkin, I used the whole can of evaporated milk instead of 2/3 of it, and it sloshed all over since there was too much liquid in the food processor. Even then, the pumpkin didn't end up in a smooth puree: instead, we had chunks and shreds throughout the batter (see top of pie).

We baked it anyway, and it still tasted okay, though not as rich and lushly spiced as his pie. Mine still tasted strongly of squash, even under a blanket of homemade whipped cream.

So I hereby declare to you, Dear Readers, that I am suitably humbled and chagrined at my dismal showing on the dessert front today, and I bow to the superior care that the Renaissance Man takes in making his pie. (He will demur and tell you that he's only done it once, and you probably can't count that because he has yet to replicate the "experiment," but I firmly believe that he would still show me up.)

For a guy who claims not to know how to cook, he really does very well, and I'm happy to share the kitchen spotlight with him.

Don't worry, I won't let this stop me from cooking and experimenting.

But I hope that at least for a little while, I can set aside my pride when I cook.

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Squash, With Care

Going to more potlucks this year has prodded me to broaden my potluck-dish repertoire.

It's not easy. When most of us think of potlucks, we may think of casseroles, pasta salads, and the like.

This potluck series, though, is one that encourages me to be more creative. Many of the folks who attend are vegetarian, so they appreciate good produce, but they're also not bringing run-of-the-mill dishes themselves.

So each month it's a challenge: what can I make that is relatively easy, uses what local produce I have on hand, and will be different enough to pique interest but not so different as to be turned down?

This month I decided to pull out one of my butternut squashes and to use a recipe (from Local Flavors) I tried a couple of years ago and liked, but never trotted out again.

First, you peel and slice the top (unseeded) part of a butternut squash. Then you pan-fry the slices until they just begin to brown. Layer them in a greased baking dish.

Not very exciting, is it? That's because the dazzle of the dish comes from a topping of sautéed shallots and garlic, chopped dates, chopped pistachios, herbs and spices, orange peel and juice. The flavors mingle to give a sort of Middle Eastern or even Persian flair to the whole dish.

The squash, topped with the date-nut mixture, gets baked with a little extra water (to finish cooking the squash), and the whole comes out moist, tender, exotic, and incredibly delicious.

The folks at the potluck seemed to think so, anyway -- including the very young boys who didn't find a whole lot else to enjoy (aside from the macaroni and cheese and the pita bread) on the table. And what was left over would just about fill the serving spoon (maybe 1/3 c worth).

You think maybe I should make this more often?

Butternut Squash Rounds with Dates and Nuts

This dish from Local Flavors (and my variations) sounded like the perfect potluck dish: festive and seasonal, using plenty of the produce I had stockpiled from the farmers' market. Once you have prepared the vegetables, the dish goes together in almost no time flat, and while it bakes, you have time to steam some kale, warm up some rolls, and pour a little wine if you like. And though the vegetables themselves are all-American, the flavors combine to take you to exotic lands. This is a dish you can truly be thankful for!

1 large butternut squash, about 3 pounds
3 T olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T unsalted butter (or more olive oil)
2 shallots, finely diced, about 1/3 c (1/2 an onion works well, too)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c pistachios, chopped
1 T grated orange zest
6 large dates, pitted and chopped
2 T finely chopped parsley
1 T chopped mint
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Juice of 1/2 orange

Preheat oven to 400 F. Lightly butter a large baking dish.

Peel the neck of the squash and slice thinly. (You can use the rest of the squash, seeded and peeled, in this dish, too, or save it for another recipe.) Heat oil in a wide nonstick skillet. Add squash in a single layer and cook over medium heat until golden, then turn and brown the second side. Season with salt and pepper. Remove browned slices from the pan, add oil if needed, and brown the next slices. (Repeat until done!)

Melt butter (or heat oil) in medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook without browning, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes.

Add nuts, zest, dates, herbs, and cinnamon, and raise the heat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes, then add the orange juice and cook for 1 minute more before removing from the heat.

Arrange squash rounds in the baking dish and scatter the date-nut mixture over them. Add 1/4 c water and bake until heated through and the topping is barely crisped, about 15 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish, 2 to 3 as an entree

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

While Shepherds Watched Their Pie By Night

Over my winter vacation, I tend to want to cook. A lot.

I haven't done much big cooking yet, making lots of comfort food to carry me through days of at-home projects. Yes, I've baked; yes, I've made simple suppers; yes, I made Christmas dinner.

But it's time for the old winter favorites, the ones I like to make when I have plenty of time.

One old favorite, a vegetarian version of shepherd's pie, seemed like a good supper to share with the Renaissance Man. I started by cooking some lentils, then setting them aside with some of my dried carrots and some herbs.

Since I haven't yet made any vegetable stock over the holidays (another traditional "project"), I pulled out my vegetable broth mix and whisked some of the powder into warm water. (The flavor is good, despite the lack of salt. But that can be added in the dish.)

After sauteing shallots and garlic, I added a jar of canned tomatoes, the lentils and carrots, the vegetable broth, and the remaining ingredients to make the filling of the "pie." In another pan, I boiled, drained, and mashed potatoes for the topping.

The potatoes didn't spread well across the still-juicy lentil mixture, but dollops of potato seemed to work as well, and a few thin strips of muenster cheese added the finishing touch.

While the pie didn't turn out picture-perfect, it tasted even better than I remembered! I will definitely need to make this again sometime as I have plenty of all the ingredients on hand and expect to do so for the rest of winter.

Now that I've got one "big" cooking project out of the way for the break, I'm ready to tackle another.

Perhaps a pot pie? (Do you sense a theme?)

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a Pie Christmas

Christmas is here at last, and it's not like any other in my past.

I spent time with My Wonderful Parents yesterday and opened presents with them, so there was no waking to presents under the tree on Christmas morn this year. (Actually, that was a pleasant change of pace.)

Instead, the Renaissance Man and I loaded the truck and headed back down to the Farm to spend the day with his folks.

We started off our visit by bundling into Carhartts, jumping on the tractor, and heading out to the woods to start clearing one major trail of some of the fallen trees we assume were left in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

That's right: we spent our Yule cutting logs. Well, he wielded the chainsaw, and I dragged brush out of the paths and stacked wood.

After two hours of that, though, I was ready to head indoors, wash up, and start cooking Christmas dinner (sort of my gift to his elderly parents).

Over the course of an hour -- and with help from the Renaissance Man -- I laid the table with a baked ham, candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, and homemade biscuits. (No, no local produce, sadly; but we work with what we're given, right?)

And for dessert, I trotted out my longtime favorite, pecan pie. (I had hoped to convince the Renaissance Man to make his pumpkin pie again, but he persuaded me that one pie should be enough for us.)

For me, pecan pie is essential for at least one holiday per year, so I was eager to make it for Christmas (even after making a local variation for Thanksgiving). And everyone appreciated it thoroughly!

I'm more than happy to change some Christmas traditions.

But some things -- like pie -- should never change.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 4

With the holidays filling my schedule, I admit I haven't really thought too much about preserving or enjoying local foods of late.

In fact, meals have tended toward the absurdly simple -- and have often accommodated other people's preferences or non-local pantries.

That's okay. At this time of year, while it's wonderful to make our meals as local as possible, as often as possible, when it comes right down to it, it's the companionship that counts. The holidays aren't the same if you aren't sharing your table with someone else.

So this month's featured local meal may be something of a let-down, partly because it's not all-local and partly because it's ridiculously simple. But it helped me use up an open jar and something else from the freezer.

Doesn't look like much, does it? But pasta is a staple for me in the winter months, even if, like this, it isn't homemade.

The sauce, though, began as a random collection of ingredients -- local garlic, the remains of a jar of homemade tomato sauce, kale -- and incorporated a couple cubes of homemade pesto from the freezer to take it beyond humdrum to delicious.

After all, though it's wonderful to have fantastic holiday meals that feature many local foods, we don't eat like that every day of the year, nor should we. And sometimes, a simple meal with a few local ingredients is good enough.

It's all the better when shared -- and yes, I shared this pasta with the Renaissance Man for another movie night (we're squeezing a lot of those in while I'm on break).

Here's hoping your holidays are joyful and blessed. And if you can have some local foods on the table at some point, or you can share some of your home preserves with others, all the better!

And may your holiday meals preserve the peace, too!

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Freezing Our Buns

The Renaissance Man and I headed to the Farm today for a visit with the folks and for a solstice bonfire and general good times.

Unfortunately for us, the weather decided to change our plans. As it turned out, though the day was sunny and bright, it was also fiercely cold and windy, with wind chills well below zero.

Suffice it to say, there was no way we were going to build a bonfire in that wind. We were able to get some work done in the barn, but we didn't spend much time walking around.

Fortunately for us, we had made sweet roll dough before heading to the farm, and I quickly turned that dough into cinnamon rolls studded with small chunks of local apples. The fragrance warmed the house, delighted the folks, and gave us another good reason to seek shelter after our afternoon adventure.

Winter weather has its appeal at times, and I do enjoy walking out in it, though not in such frigid conditions.

I'd rather keep my buns warm, thanks.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Loafing Around

Now that I'm off work for the remainder of the year, I can finish my holiday baking -- and coast into a restful break!

Since my julekage-loving local friends (the Opera-Loving Friends and the Absent-Minded Professor and the Southern Belle) are all heading out of town for the holidays, I thought I'd better get started on their annual loaves of cardamom-rich goodness.

I'm a little embarrassed to report that one batch of dough did not turn out well as I poured too-hot milk over the yeast and destroyed its ability to leaven the loaves. The other batch fared much better, and that loaf went to my Opera-Loving Friends since they are far more discriminating in their julekage appreciation. The other loaves still tasted fine, but they turned out very dense.

Once I finished baking and cleaning up, I pulled together their gift bags, and the Renaissance Man drove me out on my elfish errands.

For his efforts, I saved the last loaf for him, and he enjoyed the flavors of fresh cardamom, whole wheat, and home-dried raisins.

As it turned out, he had spent part of the day baking bread as well, and he felt a certain satisfaction that his simple whole wheat loaf turned out better overall than my julekage.

In fact, it was his bread that accompanied our lazy-day and movie-night dinner of harira, steamed kale, and toast. Such wholesome simplicity!

Now that's the way to start a laid-back holiday break -- loafing!

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Sweet Christmas Wishes

It's shaping up to be a very low-key Christmas around the Rolling in the Dough kitchen. Even as I bake far less than usual, it seems that others are feeling the need for restraint as well.

I am not complaining in the least. In fact, I welcome this trend! It's all too easy to over-indulge in holiday treats, but that seems like a remote worry this year.

My kind colleagues, the Archivist and She Who Brings Fresh Donuts, shared goodie bags with a modest selection of homemade and carefully-considered bought treats. While SWBFD paired her homemade "puppy chow" or "reindeer chow" with Hershey's kisses and herbal teas, the Archivist packed up a pair of buttery shortbread cookies, her traditional cranberry-pistachio biscotti, and a trio of homemade preserves (grape, blackberry, and peach).

I also received a small bag of big buckeyes from the Lady Bountiful after the OEFFA meeting last night, though they didn't make it into this picture. (But boy, were they great!)

I do still anticipate the annual shipment of caramels and buckeyes from My Fabulous Aunt, but they are likely to arrive after Christmas, so it will be easier to avoid an overload of sugar.

And that's good enough for me!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Can Seed Clearly Now the Grain Has Come

Recently I spotted a couple of posts on Sharon's blog reminding me of the importance of having plenty of seed for next year's garden -- as well as the potential shortage of seeds as more people turn to raising their own food.

I had already received my Fedco Trees catalog for the year and ordered the blueberry bushes I planned to give to My Adorable Nephews for the back edge of our garden, but Sharon's post made me a little anxious about getting my seed catalog from Fedco.

Therefore, I spent some time with last year's catalog last weekend and listed all the seeds I wanted to buy this year. The list ran to three pages (double columns) since I knew that we would have double the space for planting -- and since I wanted to try extending the season.

I spent my lunch hour Monday ordering online, updating my selections according to availability. It was a whopper of an order, and I won't embarrass myself by divulging how much I spent, but let it suffice to say that I have very low sales resistance in the face of such excellent heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.

Astonishingly, the first portion of my order arrived already today: the grain seeds I plan to sow in order to grow my own winter wheat and buckwheat, along with a couple of seed packs for soil-building (including some for the Farm so we can rebuild a garden plot there), a broadcast spreader for sowing an even crop of grain, and a couple of books. How exciting!

At least, it would have remained utterly thrilling had I not then attended the meeting of the local chapter of OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association) this evening -- and discovered that they were putting together a group order for seed potatoes in order to get a hefty discount, and they would be ordering their seeds from Fedco at next month's meeting.

Well, so I jumped the gun on that one. Still, I have my seeds (including seed potatoes) ordered, and I did get a small discount since I ordered so much, so all is not lost. And I had the chance to visit with a few of my favorite farmers at the meeting as well as to meet some others and get involved in some intriguing discussions.

I have a feeling that 2009 will be a good year for farming -- I hope so, anyway. And I have a feeling that I'm going to learn a lot more than I ever thought possible for this next growing season.

And I'm sure there's more than a grain of truth in that hope.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crèpe Shoot

I thought I'd start my week off right by pulling some vegetables (green beans and corn) from the freezer, getting my refrigerator ready to supply me for last-minute inspired meals. Because, you know, if you thaw them, the ideas will come.

Really. They do. And once the Renaissance Man suggested a movie night for this evening, I thought about those vegetables and decided that with the remaining half of an onion also located in the fridge, some spices, and cheddar cheese, I could end up with a good filling for cornmeal crèpes.

I started my kitchen work with the vegetable filling, sautéing the onion with cumin, chili powder, salt, and a dash of pepper before tossing in the thawed vegetables.

Then I whisked together the batter for the cornmeal crèpes and started cooking them in my trusty cast-iron skillet. Unfortunately, the cornmeal had a tendency to settle to the bottom of the batter, and when I ladled the batter in the pan, it spread unevenly and made the crèpes difficult to flip.

But never fear, I managed to get through the bowl of batter without too many horrifically misshapen
crèpes, and we eventually had more than enough for dinner.

While the Renaissance Man looked on (through the lens of a camera), I spread the filling in lines across the crèpes, sprinkling a little cheddar cheese on top.

Then I rolled them up...

...and topped them with a simmered combination of salsa and plain tomato sauce (both from the pantry), adding another sprinkle of cheddar cheese to finish.

Though the whole cooking process took a little longer than I had expected, the meal turned out to be a good way to use what I had pulled out for the week as well as a comforting dish for a night of freezing drizzle. The Renaissance Man gave his approval to the dinner, and I collected the leftovers in two small containers for lunches this week, extending the cooking just a little further.

It's often a gamble to base dinners around random items pulled from the freezer and the pantry.

But sometimes, you get lucky!

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Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 3

The speeding train of Christmas is barreling down the tracks, headed in my direction, and I feel it coming faster than I want. Even with saying "no" to an excess of holiday baking this year, I still feel somewhat unprepared for the season.

I've been able to pace my baking well, and I even finished the baklava baking as well as a first round of julekage last night. But the month seems to be spinning out of control in different directions, as my time at work before the holiday break plods along and my time outside of work seems to vanish as soon as I get hold of it.

I'm still in a sort of cooking slump, and I need help.

How appropriate, then, that I planned this week's Preserving post to feature not only a way to use some of my dried vegetables and herbs but also a way to prepare the basis for relatively quick meals to throw into the slow cooker.

The more I read about dried foods this past year, the more I came across the suggestions to take the home-dried produce and make mixes from them. There's a lot of sense in that: instead of buying soup mixes and such at the grocery store, reconstituting them with hot water, and ingesting all sorts of oversalted food bits, why not make your own?

You've probably seen recipes for bean soup in a jar, where you layer beans of various sorts, spices, dried vegetables, and so on -- so why not make your own? For you? And if you enjoy hiking or camping, you can come up with good nutritious dishes from your home-dried produce that will keep your energy up on the trail.

I admit, I've never tried this before, so I'm not going to include any recipes here (at least not until I taste the results). But with all that dried food in my pantry, how could I pass up the opportunity to experiment? (You can find recipes for dried vegetable soup mixes and other things online; just search and try something that sounds good to you.)

For savory dishes, it's wise to start with a well-seasoned broth or stock. So I found a recipe for a broth mix that sounded like a good alternative to bouillon.

For a broth to have good flavor, you'll need not only a variety of herbs (sage, thyme, basil, dill, oregano, and parsley are shown here) but a few aromatic vegetables like onions, garlic, and celery.

I ran the ingredients through the mini food processor, and while it didn't get everything finely chopped, I think this will work for a trial run. This is a very small batch, less than 1/2 cup total, but it's enough to get me started.

From there, I decided to try a seasoned rice mix, using brown basmati rice, some of the vegetable broth mix, and a mixture of dried vegetables (carrots, peppers, onions). Once I'm ready for this, all I'll have to do is boil and then simmer it in water, just as I would plain rice.

I had hoped to prepare a soup mix in time for this post, but I ran out of "oomph" last night as I was pulling mixes together. Instead, I decided to fill a jar with the bulk of ingredients -- not all -- needed for one of my favorite cold-weather dishes.

I started with adding some dal lentils to the jar, then topping them with layers of dried carrots, dried potatoes, dried red peppers, dried cabbage, and some Indian seasonings. When I'm ready to make the dal, I can start by sautéing one of my onion "pucks" with more spices, adding a jar of canned tomatoes (or sauce), rinsing the jar with water and adding that, then pouring in this mixture, letting it all simmer for a couple of hours. With any luck, that will turn out well for an easy evening or weekend meal!

As I said, I haven't done this before, so I'll have to report back on the results when I get around to enjoying them. But don't let me stop you from seeking out recipes to try on your own! Maybe you'll hit on something you really like and can make for Christmas gifts next year.

And speaking of Christmas, it's back to the final rush for me... more next week!

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Monday, December 15, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Baklava

Gather around, Dear Readers, and I will spin a holiday tale for you, a sweet saga of that beloved baklava...

By the end of last week, I had reviewed my "nice" list for giving away holiday treats and discovered that I only needed to bake one more pan of baklava for this year. The Renaissance Man and I had planned to head to the Farm for the weekend, and as I had planned to take some of the sweet treats to them anyway, I decided to take all the ingredients with me and bake a pan-full there, bringing the rest home to divide among other friends.

I packed my bags to include my traveling pan (with the fitted lid), my pastry brush, good local honey, a jar of crushed pecans mixed with spices, a block of good local butter, and the lemon. Before leaving town, we stopped by the grocery store so that I could pick up a package of filo dough from the freezer case.

We meandered along the country highway, heading for the farm (with a stop for lunch along the way), and we arrived with plenty of time for me to whip up a pan of baklava and pop it into the oven before helping with chores.

And there the trouble began.

For you see, Dear Readers, the filo dough had not thawed anywhere near enough for me to use it immediately. I usually thaw it in the refrigerator for two whole days before unrolling it to make sure that it is supple and easily separated and lifted.

Temporarily stymied, I thought, how can I thaw this dough quickly? At that point, we weren't certain we would be staying at the Farm for the whole weekend, so waiting a few hours wasn't an option. So I asked myself, "Self, what would the Chef Mother do to help something thaw more quickly?"

The answer, of course, was to fill a container with hot water and to soak the plastic-wrapped and sealed package of dough in the water. So I soaked one end, occasionally massaging the roll of dough to loosen the sheets, and then turned it over and soaked the other until the dough felt more pliable.

Mentally patting myself on the back, I lifted the package from the water and opened one end. And as I tipped it over to open the other end, water spilled from the package.

That cloudy water caused my heart to sink and my shoulders to slump, for it could only mean that the plastic was not, in fact, sealed, and that the dough was now too wet.

I sighed heavily and continued to unwrap the package to see just how bad the damage was. The edges had all pasted themselves together, and one end of the dough sheets had shattered at a fold, apparently in great annoyance at my rush and my abusive handling.

So I stared at the mess, quickly thinking about how I could salvage something from it and bake some baklava to share with the others on the Farm. Finally, I set aside my big baking pan and pulled out a loaf pan instead, greasing it with melted butter. I trimmed the edges off the dough and started picking up the fragile layers one by one, buttering almost all of them and folding in the excess before adding more butter.

Back and forth my hands went, picking up dough and pressing it into place, not really caring any more if it looked good, adding layers with a devil-may-care attitude, spreading three layers of nuts instead of the usual two, and brushing more butter with every layer to make up for the chaos.

Finally, the pan full, the dough decimated, I cut the pieces of pastry, poured the remaining melted butter on top -- a good deal of butter! -- and shoved the pan into the oven to bake while I made the honey syrup.

An hour later, the timer went off, and I pulled the baklava from the oven. Curious, I thought. The tops of the pieces are all so nicely rounded -- not flattened like I usually see. I shrugged and added the honey syrup, breathing in the fragrant steam as the syrup sizzled and bubbled its way into the pastry. Then I set it aside to cool.

After running errands, we returned to the Farm, now knowing that we would be staying overnight, and we sat down to dinner. For dessert, I dished up the baklava, thinking it wasn't nearly my best effort but it still had to be pretty good.

Well. Well, well, well.

Never doubt, Dear Readers, that miracles can happen. For this baklava -- this train-wreck of a baking bomb -- turned out to be the very best I have ever made. It looked and tasted like the baklava found at truly good Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants, made by chefs who know the pastry like the back of their hands. The top layers were flaky, the middle was moist and rich, and it shimmered at the bottom with a luxurious honey finish.

It was -- to put it simply -- divine.

When the Renaissance Man commented that it turned out just fine, I joked, "Perhaps I should screw up more often!" Or, at least I should remember what I did "right" in doing it "wrong."

That small pan -- only 10 pieces -- remained at the Farm, but I still had a package of filo left for another big pan once I got home. So tonight I made the final final pan of baklava for 2008, using the "techniques" learned in my mistake.

I returned to brushing every layer of dough with butter, and I spread the nuts among three layers instead of the two I usually use. The tops of the pastry pieces didn't puff up as beautifully as they did at the Farm, and that may be because I didn't pour as much melted butter on top this time.

The baklava still turned out light and flaky, though, and while it didn't quite reach the heights of delectability as Saturday's batch, it's still pretty amazing.

So from here on out, I'm not going to worry about perfecting my batches of baklava. Wonders will happen, and I'll hit that peak again sometime.

But for now, I'll just enjoy the sweetness of a job well done.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 2

At this point in the year, it's hard to believe there's any possible food preservation left to do. The farmers' market has closed, the garden is largely empty (save for the carrots I still need to dig up), and the local orchard has a little less produce for sale each time I go in for cider.

Still, if you're looking for a quick and easy food gift for the holidays that would please any friends who are keen on cooking, I've got just the thing for you.

If you planted herbs this summer, chances are excellent that you ended up with way more than you thought you could use. And if so, you may have wondered how to preserve that generosity of growth. Here are a few ideas:

--dry the herbs whole, then save them for seasoning dishes or adding to herbal tisanes
--combine fresh herbs with vegetables in purees to freeze
--add herbs to hot vinegar and let them steep before bottling
--add to a liqueur (NOTE: you have to be really careful with this as the flavors can be overpowering!)
--dry herbs for a day or two, then layer with salt or sugar, allow time for flavors to meld, then grind and use in cooking or baking

It's that last idea I'd like to expand on this week. I can't remember I stumbled across the idea, whether in an herbal cookbook or at a farmers' market stand a few years back, but for a couple of years I used some of my bountiful mint crops to make herbal sugars. Peppermint and especially chocolate mint worked well blended with sugar and added to brownies, cakes, and other desserts. One summer I even enjoyed a sprinkling of Moroccan mint sugar over fresh peaches for a surprising treat. Lavender and rose geranium have also found their way into flavored sugars in my pantry.

For some reason, it didn't strike me until this year to try the same process with coarse sea salt. After all, salting is an age-old method of food preservation that was used heavily before home canning was developed, and it still provides an excellent way to preserve meats and some vegetables as well as to pickle or ferment produce (think sauerkraut!).

Salt draws moisture out of the food, thus reducing the activity of micro-organisms that cause foods to spoil. To salt foods, you have to use nonreactive equipment such as stoneware crocks, glass jars, or unchipped enamel ware, to avoid drawing added substances from the containers in which the salted foods sit. And since many people need to avoid excessive amounts of salt, this isn't a method you would want to use as a first line of preservation.

However, herbal salts can add a nice finish to foods with just a pinch of salt. Using some of my Celtic grey sea salt, I layered salt with parsley (left) and dill (right) repeatedly in two small glass canning jars, then set the covered jars aside for a week or more to let the flavors blend.

When I thought they'd had enough time to mingle, I dumped the dill and salt (the larger container) into the mini food processor and whizzed it around. The salt didn't grind too finely, though the dill is chopped more evenly now.

The smaller jar of parsley and salt I dumped into my coffee grinder, and I ended up with a much finer salt blend. I enjoyed a bit of steamed kale after a cool and rainy walk home today, and with just a pinch of parsley salt sprinkled on the greens, I had a perfectly seasoned and savory snack.

The amounts are up to you. I like to start the jars with a thin layer of salt, add a thin layer of fresh herbs, cover the herbs completely with salt before adding more, and repeating until the jar is full and the salt is on top. (I'd do the same with herbal sugars, too.)

For gifts, you might put the herbal salts or sugars into fancy little canning jars or other decorative containers and add a card with suggestions for use:

--herbal salts: sprinkle on roasted vegetables, steamed greens, rolls or flatbreads to be baked, rubbed into meat or fish to be cooked; in short, anything that needs a little hit of salt and could also stand a pleasant herbal kick

--herbal sugars: substitute 1 or 2 T herbal sugar for sugar in a baking recipe, add to herbal teas, sprinkle on fresh fruit or cookies to be baked

I'm sure you can find other ideas and suggestions to go with your homemade herbal concoctions! And don't be afraid to give a small jar of any of these as most people will use the salts and sugars in small quantities (unless they get hooked, in which case you may be making bigger batches in future).

Don't forget to keep a little for yourself, too!

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Yeast of Eden

On a cold winter's day, it's tough to beat certain simple culinary delights: a cup of tea, a bowl of homemade soup, or a slice of fresh, steaming, thickly buttered homemade bread.

I didn't get the chance to make soup this weekend, but I gladly jumped on the Renaissance Man's suggestion that we bake bread. I even accepted his excellent alternative of making our favorite sticky buns and insisted that we could make both.

What a way to spend a chilly winter weekend! -- letting the dough rise and bake while we curled up with cups of tea, blankets, and books.

We started with an oatmeal bread recipe (above left) that included local wheat and spelt flours, local corn meal, and local oatmeal. (The Renaissance Man was unimpressed by the paltry amount of oatmeal called for in a recipe alleging to be called "oatmeal bread," so I obliged him by tipping in more.)

Then we pulled together a sweet roll dough using more local wheat and spelt flours, local egg, and local honey. I added a touch of freshly grated orange peel since My Wonderful Parents had given me some of their holiday citrus order, and then I juiced the orange for us to share when the rolls were done.

The sticky bun dough rose more quickly, so we finished that first, spreading the dough with melted butter and sprinkling a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, orange peel, and chopped pecans on top. Having made only a half recipe (we've really got to find a much larger bowl for the Renaissance Man so we don't have to hold back), we ended up with only a baker's dozen of rolls.

But oh! they were so good! The fresh orange flavor highlighted the cinnamon as well, making the rolls taste both lighter and more lush all at once. We restrained ourselves and ate only one roll apiece at a time, but by the end of the day we had cleaned out roughly 2/3 of the pan.

Meanwhile, we had also shaped the bread dough into a plain loaf and let it bake, coating it with melted butter when it came out of the oven. We enjoyed slices of it with our leftover roasted vegetables for dinner -- a nice way to round out the day.

And during that whole time, I finished skimming one of the Renaissance Man's library books, finished reading one of mine (so I could leave it with him), and started yet another book, all with sticky bun breaks (accompanied by tea or mulled cider) in between.

What a heavenly way to end the weekend!

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Starchy Night

Though winter's winds have chilled us a good bit lately, today proved that we ain't seen nothin' yet. After frigid temps in the teens last night, the day hardly warmed before a driving snow sailed into town and created slick roads and cold necks. Brrr!

In short, it was another perfect day for comfort food.

I'm gradually working my way through the longer-lasting produce from my CSA share and the farmers' market, with a little help from the Renaissance Man, and so I was able to throw together two simple but hearty and warming meals for us today.

After running around town on errands, I roasted sweet potatoes and potatoes with garlic, curry powder, chili powder, paprika, and chick peas, then tossed in steamed kale at the last to collect a little extra spice and crispness. Along with homemade rosemary-walnut bread, it gave us a nice lunch to stick to our ribs!

For dinner, I used up a pre-made pie shell from his freezer, his last carrot, some of my parsnips and leeks, a touch of fresh dill (lingering from the garden!), and a bit of Muenster cheese to make a delicious root vegetable quiche. Astonishingly, it smelled like Thanksgiving dinner (turkey and dressing all rolled into one) as it baked, but the taste was pure root vegetable sweetness and comfort.

It was almost a pity, then, that we needed to head out in the cold after warming up to good food, but I had promised to take baklava to the contra dance, and I knew we'd get warmed up again very quickly on the dance floor.

The forecast for the rest of the weekend calls for more of the same, both in weather and in leftovers, so I don't think we'll have any problems staying warm.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Are You Ready to Baklava?

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to make the baklava!

I decided this year not to make any cookies to send or give to friends because it seems like there are always too many tempting treats to go around at the holidays, and though everyone likes my cookies, they love my baklava. So why not stick with what works?

I also admit to some selfishness. Since this fall has been such a whirlwind of social and intellectual activity for me, I just didn't want to be tied down baking lots of things. And in the current climate, it all seemed to be a little much.

Instead, I'll put my energy into making plenty of baklava to share with friends both old and new. And I started that today by taking the day off work and whipping out two pans full of baklava by mid-morning.

These first two pans will be shared far and wide, supplying far-flung friends, fellow contra dancers, student workers, and dinner hosts. I'll follow up with another pan next week and, if needed, a final pan the week after that.

With local butter and honey drenching each layer of the pastry, I'm sure this will turn out to be as good a batch of baklava as I've ever made, and with any luck, one of my upcoming batches will even feature some local nuts.

So while I offer a half-hearted apology for not having other holiday baking to share, I look at these photos (and smell the sweet fragrance of the real thing) and think, this is enough. This will be all the more precious and all the more appreciated for all that I am not baking and giving away.

I'll bake holiday breads later in the month, and I may well find occasions to bake and give to friends later in the winter, when the appeal of holiday sweets has passed. But for now, this is enough.

And how sweet that is.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Tidings of Good Year

Where does the time go? First, November flew by, and the next thing I knew, Thanksgiving was over, baklava-baking season was staring me in the face, and the fourth anniversary of this modest little blog peeped out from the calendar.

This annual celebration usually means a look back and a look inward, to see how I've grown as a cook and (hopefully) as a writer -- as well as to see where I might go next.

Looking back at last year's goals, I can report that, once again, I saw mixed results. My indoor gardening remained somewhat half-hearted, though I did get an ongoing small crop of kale I hope to replicate this year, but I did start a good Victory Garden with friends in two places, and I was able to put away a portion of the produce and to share some with other people.

I did keep up with making homemade pasta for a while, but my bread-baking dropped off at some point over the year (perhaps it was once I taught the Renaissance Man how to bake; think I could persuade him to supply me more regularly?). I managed to work through most, though not all, of last year's preservation before starting this year's round, but I still haven't quite figured out how to use more jam. (That's the main reason I didn't make so much of it this year.)

I didn't cook for My Wonderful Parents as much as I had hoped, and I certainly didn't get around to reacquainting myself with basic sauces, but I do think I made some strides in food preservation techniques, thanks to the impetus to share with all of you what I know or learn! I'm still working on reducing food waste, but I think that will be an ongoing goal.

So overall, I think it's been a very successful year, and I feel very fortunate to have learned so much and to have had such good feedback from all of you!

What might this coming year bring, then?

1. Since this year's garden turned out to bring a great deal of joy and togetherness for the Southern Belle, the Absent-Minded Professor, My Adorable Nephews, and me -- not to mention good food! -- we've decided to expand next year's garden. The AMP plans to put in another large bed in the back yard and to double the width of the lower bed, so I'm hoping to put in some unusual crops along with the rest: more dried beans, potatoes (or maybe sweet potatoes), and a couple of grain crops.

2. Along with that, I'd like to put some of what I learned from Four-Season Harvest into action by planting late crops and using row covers to extend the harvest even a little. I hope to plant a few things extra early, too, but we'll see how the weather cooperates.

3. As part of that garden expansion, I'm hoping to stock my pantry a little more fully. I've had the experience with drying beans this year and hope to put more of those away, and as for the grains, I've recently bought a small hand-cranked grain mill (and roller) to try making my own rolled oats or spelt as well as grind my own flour.

4. I'd like to try some new preserving methods. (I know, how many can there be???) I recently picked up a copy of Terre Vivante's book on Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques, and though I haven't read it yet, I expect that it will give me plenty to consider this winter in my planning for next year. Though I expect I'll do plenty of canning, I'd like to rely a lot less on frozen produce. I'll keep you posted on what I find.

5. As you can guess, I'm an avid reader, and I've been picking up a lot of books on agriculture lately -- more than cooking books. So I expect that will continue into the year as I have a pile of back issues of Farming Magazine (a locally published periodical for small farms), a handful of other books by perennial favorite Gene Logsdon, and anything else that piques my interest.

6. I finally picked up Ricki Carroll's book on Home Cheese Making, so I'd like to revive my interest in that and try something beyond paneer. I've got a kit for making mozzarella, and I've got a contact for lessons, so we'll see what cheesy trouble I can get into. This should be gouda...

7. Finally, at this point I am planning on breaking up my vacation time next year and spreading it among a few local farms run by kind people I've come to know a little better through the farmers' market and elsewhere. My hope is to spend a few days at each place at different times of the season in order to learn a variety of things: maple sugaring, running a CSA, animal husbandry, and anything else I can soak up. It should be an exciting adventure.

I know, again, it's an ambitious list, and we'll see how much I can actually check off as I go through the year. But I'm definitely looking forward to building new skills and finding a way to move closer to my dreams of greater self-sufficiency.

Having thought about all this over the past day, I decided that it really is worth celebrating another year of learning and sharing kitchen skills. And while I haven't come up with many new recipes this year or even cooked much beyond the basics, I still like to experiment every now and then. Tonight I decided to shake off my baking slump and tweak an old favorite -- my recipe for ginger-molasses cookies -- to end up with maple pecan cookies that incorporated local flour, maple syrup, butter, and maple sugar. It's a small batch, but it's just right for a small celebration.

So once again, here's to another year of culinary adventures, garden exploration, and developing new skills. Please join me!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 1

Though Old Man Winter isn't due to make his official entrance until later this month, I have to admit it: he's here already.

Days have turned cold and blustery, with tiny pellets or downy flakes of snow hurtling out of a leaden gray sky to pummel an unwary soul. And while I haven't yet succumbed to the burdensome comfort of my heavy wool coat, I've made good use already of my woolies and thermals to keep me toasty warm on my walks.

It's times like these when the kitchen becomes the true heart and hearth of the home. A chilly day inspires menus of comfort food, from soup and stews to starchy staples and fragrant spiced baked goods.

Unless you live in warmer climes or have taken steps to extend your growing or harvesting season -- something I hope to do next year, now that I've read Eliot Coleman's stimulating Four-Season Harvest -- your sources and stashes of fresh produce may be dwindling swiftly. Apples, potatoes, squash, and root crops are all still available around NE Ohio, but the leafy greens I crave even more now that the days have shortened have largely vanished.

Now is the time to hunker down and start delving into the pantry stores to stretch the last fresh foods. After keeping track of what I had preserved this summer, I compiled a new pair of spreadsheets that I hope will help me keep track of how I'm using my canned and frozen goods, as well as how long those stores last. I'm hoping it will give me a good idea of how much and what form to preserve next year.

But lest you think I'm settling into the dark days of winter all too quickly, have no fear. The holiday season is upon us, too, and that eventually calls us to be a little decadent in our baking, a little more sumptuous in our meals.

Though I've decided not to bake cookies this year, I'll still make three or four pans full of baklava to share with friends this month, using the jars of golden local honey from the farmers' market and even some of those nuts found at a local farm. Closer to Christmas, I'm sure I'll bake a few loaves of julekage, studded with my oven-dried raisins and laced with sweet, exotic cardamom.

I don't generally give many tangible gifts any more (aside from baked goods), but local friends will likely see a little bottle of liqueur, a jar of pickles or jam, or perhaps an herbal sugar or salt to use in cooking. So this month may find me in the kitchen at odd moments, puttering with jars and a last-minute project.

It's sort of the Anything Can Happen month, depending on what kind of time I have available and what I might be inspired to do. Chances are, I won't get through the month without succumbing to the desire to try a new recipe and a new way to use some of what I've put up for winter.

We're halfway through the "Preserving the Seasons" year now, and it's time to shift from the actual food preservation to enjoying the fruits of our labor. How appropriate it is, then, that that halfway point comes at the holidays and gives us even more reason to celebrate the season -- and the seasonality of local foods.

Indulge yourself this season. Try something new. Winter will be here soon enough.

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