Monday, March 31, 2008

Corn to Be Wild

Because the social calendar has been full lately, I haven't done a whole lot of planned-ahead cooking (save for a certain birthday dinner). I try to remember to pull one or two things from the freezer and the pantry, and I'll occasionally pick up a couple of things at the grocery store, just to be able to throw something together at the last minute.

Surprisingly, that has worked out reasonably well. I haven't cooked anything fancy, but each meal has been good and satisfying and nutritious (to varying degrees). And, best of all, I've been able to clean out leftover food at a decent pace just by "shopping" meal by meal in my own refrigerator.

I know, I'm getting a little wild and crazy by improvising meals so often, with so few references to an actual cookbook or written recipe. But honestly, it's been nice to take the pressure off myself in the kitchen (not that I thought there was any pressure to begin with!) and just... go with the flow.

So when the Renaissance Man and I decided to dine together this evening, I could clean a few more things out of my kitchen to pair with what he had in his. I had half an eggplant left over from the other night, plus half a jar of homemade salsa, and combined with an onion from his pantry and some frozen corn, I was able to throw together an easy Southwestern-style saute.

I wanted something a little starchy to support it, though, so I decided to pull out a recipe and make a pan of cornbread.


I whisked together a bowl of batter for the "Three-Layer Corn Bread" from the Tassajara Bread Book, one of my favorites. (The dry ingredients came from my kitchen, the wet ingredients from his. We share.) I poured the speckled, bubbling batter into a greased baking pan and slid it into the oven while I prepared the vegetables.


Yes, somehow the cornbread developed a crack on top, possibly from my checking on it in the oven a few too many times or from some other factor. I was pretty sure it would still taste and look good, though.


The beauty of this particular cornbread recipe is that the wheat germ rises to the top for a grainy layer, the cornbread settles to the bottom, and the eggs and milk form a custardy layer in the middle. What a treat!


I split the cornbread squares and topped them with the sauteed vegetables and a couple dollops of salsa, and we enjoyed that hearty entree with a salad of mixed mesclun greens and a light dressing.

With tomorrow, the social calendar kicks back into high gear again, so I'll be throwing together even more random and crazy meals this week. But I'm glad I had time tonight to make something a little more substantial, both to use up some vegetables and to have leftover cornbread for the rest of the week.

Because things are going to get wild around here...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jam-a-lot

As I've been working through my pantry this winter, I've been repeatedly astonished by the quantity and variety of jam jars I've had tucked away.


What was I thinking? I don't eat jam on toast regularly enough to warrant such a stash, even if I do love to preserve summer fruit in this way.

Happily, there are other ways to appreciate jam, and after many experiments, I finally published an article on using up the jam stash over at the Ethicurean. Readers have added other ideas, like swirling jam into a bowl of warm oatmeal, something I will have to try soon.

In the meantime, I've got a lot more jars to clean out...

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Friday, March 28, 2008

First Seeds

Spring is officially here, and I can't wait any longer.


I planted the first seeds this afternoon, sowing a row of fava beans, a row of Jaune du Doubs yellow carrots, and half a row of lettuce along the deck at the home of the Absent-Minded Professor and the Southern Belle.

I know, I know... it's still early, and we still have a good chance for more frost. But reliable sources inform me that favas can tolerate the cold weather and should be planted early. As for the other vegetables... well, I have plenty of seeds, and it's worth sowing a few in a sheltered spot to see if I can start things a little early this year.

The Absent-Minded Professor hopes to lay out the main garden bed this weekend, so keep your fingers crossed. I'd like to get that almost entirely planted (save for tomatoes, potted herbs, and fall greens) by the end of April.

Seed you later!

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Year's to You!

As Spring found its merry way back to us last week, NPR had a brief segment on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Because Nowruz coincides with the vernal equinox, the celebrations of the holiday (not to mention the foods) focus on fertility and the renewal of life and hope that Spring represents for the rest of us.

It's been a while since I made much in the way of Persian food or other food from various Silk Road cuisines, but I'm always open to suggestion. And since the Renaissance Man had a birthday arriving shortly after the equinox, it seemed ideal to celebrate the two different "new years" at the same time with a (mostly) Persian feast.

I can't say that my meal would have been entirely suitable for Nowruz, though I did try to incorporate a few traditional ingredients, such as nuts, garlic for health, olives (through olive oil), and the usual eggs for fertility and rebirth of the earth. I pulled out a few old favorites from my recipe book, added a new one, and made a variation of one of my signature dishes.


I love borani, the fresh-tasting yogurt dip that somehow shows up in many of my Middle Eastern meals. Though I couldn't yet find local radishes, I splurged anyway, and I tossed in some of my dried mint and basil as well as local garlic and fresh dill to make a refreshing appetizer to serve with homemade lavash crackers.


I can never resist Uzbek carrot salad, so even though it's technically not a Persian dish, I made it for the extra color and the raw texture that contrasted so well with the traditional kuku (recipe found at the NPR link above) made with the last of the green eggs, spinach, and fresh herbs.


No, eggplant isn't in season, but with half a jar of home-canned tomatoes, local garlic, and dried local parsley, the imam bayildi I made for the meal still tasted wonderful. And all the vegetable dishes worked well with the polow or rice dish made with pistachios, cardamom, fresh dill, and dried rose petals.


For such a different and exotic meal, I decided that we should have a picnic dinner on the floor of my loft, using my well-loved picnic blanket (with place settings appliqued directly onto the fabric, courtesy of the multi-talented Chef Mother) so that we could bask in the sunlight and enjoy everything to the fullest. The Renaissance Man, being the mellow sort of person he is, did not gush or rave about the meal, but as he reached for seconds on nearly every dish, I knew he was well pleased with his birthday feast.


And wouldn't you be pleased, too, if instead of a birthday cake you had fresh baklava laced with an orange-honey-rosewater syrup and studded with walnuts, pecans, and pistachios? (He certainly was.)

Those Persians certainly knew/know how to celebrate the beginning of Spring! And we definitely knew how to start a new year right ourselves, even if it's not the New Year's celebration you might expect.

So here's to you, Renaissance Man -- Happy Birthday, and Happy New Year!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Basket Case

After years of not doing much to celebrate Easter in the grand family tradition (of a ham dinner), this year I ended up being invited to two family dinners.

My Wonderful Parents, of course, were glad to make room at their table for an early Easter dinner on Saturday evening, and since they had planned the whole meal, I simply offered to bring dessert. Then -- I promptly forgot about it and received a gentle reminder on Friday.

That, perhaps, was not the best news I could get since I had already planned to spend Saturday baking for two other upcoming dinners, but I unearthed my astoundingly simple recipe for an applesauce cake and was able to whip that up in less time than it took to find the recipe in the first place. And when the Chef Mother offered butter pecan ice cream as well, I knew the two would be a perfect fit.

Other than that, though, I spent time on Saturday preparing two dishes to share with the Renaissance Man and his family for a traditional ham dinner down on the farm. I had expected that I would be able to survive on the vegetables offered at the meal, but the Renaissance Man gently suggested that I might consider taking something along that would keep me from going hungry, not knowing how much food would actually appear at the table.


Well, I don't generally need to be asked twice to cook something, and I thought a dish that combined vegetables and a starch might be just the ticket as an entree for myself. After some quick thought, I decided to bake a casserole with brown basmati rice, chopped spinach sauteed with local garlic and a dollop of my garlic-shallot jam, a handful of home-dried red peppers, and a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese.

I also decided that since I had already made one dessert for the weekend, why not make another? I reasoned that with a dozen people at the feast, including a handful of teenagers, one dessert probably would not suffice.


I've been meaning to make cheesecake recently and just hadn't gotten around to it, so this seemed the perfect opportunity. I used the recipe from the "new" Moosewood cookbook and replaced the lemon rind and juice with orange, adding a bit of fresh grated peel to the graham cracker crust, too.

Though I used the monster mixer to whip the filling into a thick creamy froth, I still didn't get all the cream cheese perfectly blended, and once chilled, the filling resisted slicing, so I don't have a good view of the finished dessert, including a drizzle of homemade strawberry-ginger jam on top. (But it sure tasted good!)

Once we made it to the farm, I also helped prepare the remaining vegetables, something I was happy to do since I find socializing so much easier if I'm doing something comforting like cooking. I mean, who doesn't love gathering in the kitchen to chat while they work?

The entire meal met with general approval, and I'm pleased to report that while not an overwhelming success, the spinach-rice casserole did have its fans, and the cheesecake was duly savored with many dreamy sighs. (I still had plenty of leftovers, though.)


A walk after lunch helped to relax me after all the effort -- not that it was strenuous or difficult, but a change of pace is always welcome -- and it made me happy to realize that even after becoming so accustomed to running my own kitchen and controlling the dinner menu, I could work well enough under someone else's supervision. There's always something new to learn.

But I hope that next Easter won't catch me off-guard again!

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Bun in the Oven

March has been one wild month so far, with snowstorm after snowstorm pelting us with more precipitation and leaving us with ice, muddy puddles, and flooding creeks.

But believe it or not, today marks the first day of Spring, and though warmer weather -- truly permanent warmer weather -- seems so far away, the return of Spring itself merits a celebration.

This weekend also brings one of the earliest possible Easter Sundays in the calendar. In past years I've thought about baking something special for Easter, but I never got around to it. Surprisingly, though, even this early holiday didn't catch me off-guard, and I was ready with a recipe I've wanted to try for years: hot cross buns.

Typically laden with currants or raisins and marked with a powdered sugar frosting X, these sweet buns offer a traditional Good Friday treat in England and trace their roots back to ancient times, when people wanted to welcome the light of Spring and the rebirth of the Earth with sweet bounty.

I found a recipe in my Betty Crocker International Cookbook, and naturally, I couldn't leave well enough alone. In the interest of working in more local ingredients, I used whole wheat flour for half the flour in the recipe, local organic eggs, local milk, some of my home-dried raisins, local butter, local honey, and -- just for a different twist -- local cider (from the freezer) and some chopped not-quite-local pecans (courtesy of Sojourner).


Spreading out the work seemed the best solution, so I made the dough last evening, allowed it to rise once, and then shaped the dough into simple balls, tucking them into greased muffin cups. Then I covered them with oiled wax paper and slid them into the refrigerator.


This morning, I allowed the buns to rise for about half an hour once they came out of the refrigerator, and then I slashed an X into the top of each and brushed them with an egg-white glaze. (I don't keep powdered sugar around and wanted a simpler, more hearty look to the buns.)

The buns took about 20 minutes to bake, giving me enough time to mull the rest of the cider to accompany breakfast. And by the time the sweet fragrances began to lure me back into the kitchen...


...they were done! They smelled like cinnamon rolls but had a more yeasty and less sweet flavor, making them a satisfyingly healthy treat for a Good Friday morning.


While it may snow again this weekend, the light continues to grow each day, and I hold on to hope that Spring will make its presence more fully known very soon. (I'm itching to get the garden started, for one thing!)

And if I have to bake a little sympathetic "magic" to encourage the rebirth of the world... so be it!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Dessert After My Own Tart

Ever since a friend gave me a two-quart bag full of frozen local blackberries a couple weeks ago, I've been wanting to try all sorts of interesting recipes with them.

But what? I worked some into a quick bread that was delicious, and I shared some last night with My Wonderful Parents in a simple fruit crisp.

Somehow, though, I wanted to try something more.

When the Renaissance Man invited me out to the family farm this weekend, I decided to bake something to share with everyone. And the more those blackberries called to me, the more I looked for an appropriate use for them.

Finally, it occurred to me: I would make a berry tart.

I could make a pie, sure, but I really wanted to try something a little lighter. And though the tart dough recipe I found called for butter (and plenty of it), the crust ended up very light and flaky.


I don't own a tart pan, so I formed the shell in my springform pan instead, curling the edges of the crust under for a different effect. And since I had plenty of dough left over, I cut it into smaller pieces, added dollops of homemade strawberry-ginger jam, wrapped them up, and baked them, too, for a quick sweet snack.

This morning, just before heading out, I spread a thin layer of lemon curd over the bottom of the tart shell and covered it with thawed and drained blackberries that I had tossed with my homemade lemon basil syrup.


Simple, but elegant, I just had a feeling this dessert would please everyone.

And it did! The Renaissance Man particularly liked the balance of sweet and tart between the berries and the lemon curd, and I know I appreciated the combination of textures (juicy, creamy, and crisp).

It has a little bit of everything good, really... and that will win my heart every time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

An Eggscellent Find

I've tried going vegan in the past. It's just not for me. I love cheese, and some days, I just have to have eggs.

Of course, that fits better into a local way of eating than tofu and some other vegan staples, at least for my region, so it makes more sense for me. (I'm also blessed with low cholesterol levels, so I don't have to worry about the very-occasional three-egg cheese omelet.) I can find good local eggs at the co-op, and on rare occasion I can get very good, fresh eggs direct from a nearby farmer.

This week, I got really lucky. The Innkeeper caught up with me (no easy task of late) and handed me a dozen eggs from a friend's hens. And what a delightful dozen!


Every last one of those eggs was tinged a pastel green, a perfect celebration for the upcoming holidays of both St. Patrick's Day and Easter. (The Innkeeper couldn't remember the breed of hen, but further research indicates that the hens were probably Araucana hens.)

Eggs that beautiful could only inspire me to recite a familiar verse:

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
--Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss

Well, that's a lie, really, because green or not, I do like these eggs.


Wouldn't you? I mean, look at that yolk! Big, plump, rounded high to indicate how fresh it is... and best of all, it came out a deep golden orange and rich in vitamins. How can you not love an egg that just screams "healthy and delicious!"?

Happily, I had just the use for the first few eggs: making homemade pasta. I mixed up a double batch of half-spelt pasta to use in a pan of lasagna for My Wonderful Parents as part of a dinner I had promised to make for them after My Dear Papa's recent cataract surgery (and he's in great shape after it).


Along with salad tossed with home-dried cherries and sliced almonds, pesto flatbread, and blackberry-blueberry crisp for dessert, that cheese lasagna was a hit with everyone at the table. The Chef Mother allowed as how it was the best pasta I've made yet! And while I can take a little credit for getting better at making the dough, I think those gorgeous eggs were part of the secret.

I've got plenty more green eggs to enjoy this next week, and another soufflé might be in the offing... or perhaps a quiche.

And I will eat them in the rain.
And in the dark. And on a train.
And in a car. And in a tree.
They are so good, so good, you see!
--Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss

Well, I might not get that carried away... but you never know!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone

One of the pleasures I've taken in my recent foray into the world of contra dancing -- aside from the sheer joy of dancing, of course -- is meeting new people who are quickly developing an appreciation for my cooking skills.

As you've probably gathered, I'm a sucker for flattery regarding my cooking. Drool, moan, or swoon over my home-baked treats, and you're likely to get more the next time I come out of the kitchen with a pan full of sweetness. And when such flattery combines with a request for a recipe or a lesson in how to make one of my recipes, I am more than happy to oblige you, my friends.

Enter, then, the Renaissance Man. One of my favorite dance partners for his steady and surefooted ways, he's a man of many talents: an avid amateur astronomer and naturalist, an architect and artist, a sailor, a dashing fencer, an enthralling storyteller, and a generally amusing companion.

What he does not claim to be, however, is a cook. So when he asked me to teach him to bake bread, I readily agreed.

Since the snow piled up as we headed into the weekend, this seemed an ideal time to fire up the oven and bake something hearty and filling, so I pulled out my recipe for rosemary-walnut-cider bread and invited him over for Lesson #1.

I knew he would appreciate a recipe that incorporated several local ingredients: cider from the freezer, whole wheat flour from the local grist mill, along with dried rosemary, non-fat dried milk, butter, and egg and milk for the glaze. After all, he's as big a fan of the local farmers' market as I am!


Once we had mixed the dough and given it a good knead (something he approached with the same methodical accuracy he applies to dance steps and blueprints), we let the dough rise before shaping it into two loaves. He obviously has a knack for it -- even I can't tell which loaf is mine and which is his!


With a quick glaze and a few slashes across the top, the loaves were ready for the oven in due course, and after 35 minutes of baking, we had wonderfully fragrant and hearty loaves just waiting for us.

We tucked into a few warm slices right away, slathering them with good local butter and a drizzle of local honey, but we saved enough of the first loaf for dinner.


When I envisioned making this bread this weekend, I thought of the perfect combination: good local Cheddar cheese on this bread for grilled cheese sandwiches, dipped into homemade tomato soup made from my jars of tomato sauce. So once we were ready for supper, I pulled all the ingredients together and whipped up a comforting and filling meal for a still-chilly winter's evening.

It's proof positive that man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone.

But with really good homemade bread, you might not need much else!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Winter, Orange You Done Yet?

After a burst of spring-like weather earlier this week, we're now staring down the barrel of a loaded weather forecast and the prospect of a massive snowstorm tomorrow.

I don't like to complain. Really. I like to appreciate the seasons in their turn and to take what the moment offers (as long as it's not in the line of extreme weather). But I'm about ready for the end of this white stuff, of the constant watchfulness against ice and treacherous footing, and an impending snowstorm is not really what I want.

Since I know that I don't always get what I want, I'll take some small satisfaction in knowing that once in a while, I get what I need. And what I need right now is a burst of sunshine.

That's why this evening I turned to my lingering stash of oranges in the refrigerator and pulled one out to make a variation on my lime-ginger squares.

With local whole wheat flour, maple sugar, and butter in the crust and local eggs and honey added to the orange-ginger filling, this brightly citrusy dessert combined the best of both worlds for me: the comfort of local baking ingredients made more appealing by a burst of tropical sweetness.


I do like these little morsels of buttery gold. A little square will satisfy my sweet tooth very well as it reminds me of my favorite Pie in the Sky. I even feel healthy eating it knowing I'm getting a little extra vitamin C -- a useful thing when grappling with a mild sore throat and a day full of cold blowing snow tomorrow!

Winter might not be done with us yet here in northern Ohio, but I'm ready.

Orange you?

A Berry Good Read

You might think it's summer, considering how often I've cooked with berries or used berry bad puns in my posts lately.

Looking out the window over this lunch hour today, though, puts that misconception to rest as we're in the early hours of what is predicted to be our biggest snowfall of the season. Sigh. It's enough to make you want to curl up under a blanket with a big pot of tea at hand and a good book.

Lucky for you! I've recently finished re-reading a classic by Wendell Berry called The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Published over 30 years ago, it still resonates with Berry's scathing commentary on Big Ag and his ever-so-sensible (but not always easy) suggestions to mend our ways. I read it for the first time two years ago, and this second time through, I was struck even more by the relevance to today's situation, especially with all the headline problems with our food system.

My review of the book has just been posted to the Ethicurean, so hop on over there and take a look, then find the book in your local library. Maybe it will even have you thinking about spring and planting that garden.

At least it makes me Berry hopeful.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Things Have Been Berry Quiet in My Kitchen

Some of you might be wondering, what happened? Where have you been, Baklava Queen?

Sorry 'bout that. Life has definitely picked up around here, and when I'm home and have some time to cook, I've been falling back on the old familiar favorites that you've seen so many times before... and they just haven't been worth blogging about.

It will be a while before I'm back up to full speed with baking and whatnot, as the social calendar is still fairly full these days (and yes, that is a very good thing!), but at least I made the time this weekend to make a quick bread to have handy for breakfasts.

I had been toying with the idea of making my lavender blueberry streusel muffins this weekend, but my mind kept straying to the big bag of frozen blackberries given to me by a satisfied friend at my recent Moroccan meal.

I thumbed through my baking notebook and decided on a recipe for a walnut-strawberry quick bread that could easily be adapted to the flavor combination I had in mind. I made the obvious berry substitution, but the walnuts I dropped in favor of mini diced crystallized ginger, a wonderful bright flavor that put a shine on the deep rich tang of the blackberries. And with a touch of homemade lemon basil syrup to replace half of the sugar in the original recipe, the bread ended up with the right balance between smooth and sassy.


That's some seriously good bread, friends... moist and tender and full of good fresh flavor. That and a cup of tea will start my next few mornings on the right foot, that's for sure.

In the meantime, I've got another full week ahead, so it will be quiet again around here. Don't worry, I'll be back with more cooking adventures one of these days, not to mention possible garden plans as inspired by Ed at The Slow Cook.

Some berry big plans...!