Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Freezer Eggstravaganza

In my quest to use all my canned and frozen (and dried) foods at a steady pace this year, I've gotten into the habit of pulling three or four bags from the freezer on a Sunday night.

Most of the time, I don't have a good idea of how I'll end up using the vegetables, but I aim for a balance between greens and golds (broccoli, spinach, pac choi versus corn, yellow beans, squash). That way I can combine vegetables for better nutrition and more pizzazz, no matter what recipe I use.

Some things are easy: broccoli usually gets used in homemade pizza since I put away almost as much broccoli as pizza sauce. I try to reserve peas for Indian cooking, and the breaded eggplant slices naturally end up as eggplant Parmesan.

Everything else, though, is fair game. The challenge is to use it all up by the end of the week in simple but healthy and nutritious dishes that will either extend to a guest or to my weekday lunches (preferably both!). And I confess to a certain laziness: if they end up in one-pot meals, so much the better!

This week I pulled out a package of shredded zucchini, a bag of green beans, and the roasted red peppers. For dinner tonight, I knew the three would work well together in some colorful dish. Then it occurred to me: quiche!

I haven't made quiche in a while, but I had all the other ingredients, and it seemed like a winning solution. Since I had planned to share dinner with the Renaissance Man, who worked later than I did, I even had a little time after work to prep everything before heading to his place.

So I threw together a pie crust dough (with local spelt flour), whisked together local eggs and milk for the filling, dumped vegetables and herbs into a bowl, grabbed my glass pie plate, and walked over to his place. I commandeered the kitchen, rolled out the dough and fitted it into the plate, added the vegetables and eggs, shredded some cheese on top, and set it in the oven to bake.

We curled up for another movie night (a very fine activity on all these cold winter evenings), and we enjoyed some very creamy and delicious quiche for dinner. What a treat!

Now he has leftovers for lunch, I have a leftover slice for lunch, and I've taken care of this week's freezer selections.

Question is, what will I make for the rest of the week?

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: January, Week 5

Since I started the series very early this month, I've got a fifth week in the month to contribute to this series. But don't worry, I'll keep it simple.

It's time again to check your stored food.

A recent post over at Fast Grow the Weeds gave me a gentle reminder that it's time both to check on what I've put up for winter and to accelerate eating from storage. So this weekend I did a quick check of what I still have on hand:

I've been trying to pull a couple bags from the freezer each week, varying what vegetables I incorporate in meals for the week. So far I've made a serious dent in the corn, started plowing through the broccoli, and taken a bag of pac choi and a couple of green beans, not to mention a container of breaded eggplant. But I've got a long way to go yet.

The Renaissance Man and I have been so busy baking of late (and you can read more about our adventures over at The Ethicurean -- there's a decadent sticky bun recipe waiting for you) that we've really knocked down the grain supply, particularly the 5-pound bags of whole wheat flour and spelt flour. (Good thing I have a big bucket of wheat berries and a grain mill, right?)

I've finally started eating the potatoes in my straw-filled cooler, having just skimmed off the top layer. The potatoes are starting to sprout, as you can see, since it's that time of the year, but so far they're keeping very well, not getting wrinkled or rotten.

The pantry shelves are still loaded, but if you look closely you can see that I've been using jars of tomatoes (plus sauce) and the occasional other canned goods. Time to step that up, too -- maybe baking with some jam!

In addition, I still have a basket of garlic, a good collection of onions (though that's dwindling), and several sweet potatoes. I've used dried vegetables on occasion, but I haven't made a big dent in those, and it's time to start working more dried fruits into baking. (Might be time to bake more granola.)

And not that this is about checking on the food, but I wanted to let you know that I've pulled together all the links from this ongoing series and put them into a neater list format on their own Preserving the Seasons page. I hope that makes it easier for you to go back and find what you need.

All in all, everything is keeping well, and I'm finally picking up speed on cooking from the pantry.

How are things looking in your kitchen storage?

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Potluck o' the Irish: January

On the fourth Sunday of the month, if the Renaissance Man and I are around, chances are good that we'll end up at the local Friends meeting and join the others for the monthly potluck.

Though I've often approached potluck with either wariness or an urge to show off, these potlucks simply inspire delight and anticipation. Everyone there is a good and creative cook, and the vast majority of the dishes are vegetarian, were made from scratch, and contain local produce (often from home gardens).

Add to that the gracious and fun-loving company of a variety of kind and thoughtful people, and you can see why we enjoy these community meals so much.

This morning, I pulled out the artisan bread dough that I've been enjoying of late and made two flatbread rounds. I thawed one cube of pesto and spread it across both rounds, and then I sliced some roasted red pepper (also from the freezer) and arranged them on top before baking. (Sorry, I don't have a "finished" photo but you can just imagine the bread a little browner.)

The bread turned out to be a good choice as others brought hearty salads made with quinoa, soba noodles, or other pasta; a luscious macaroni and cheese; two kinds of cornbread; and both cookies and peach cobbler.

In this kind of crowd, I'm not likely to have the most heralded dish, though my food generally gets favorable comments. Now that's good company to be in!

But there's always room to experiment -- so who knows what I'll have next month?

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Soup's On!

Despite yesterday's momentary warm spell, winter returned this morning with a vengeance, knocking me off my feet (literally -- ow) and chilling me to the bone.

I'm glad to report, though, that my colleague (She Who Brings Fresh Donuts) gave me an offhanded but excellent suggestion yesterday: French onion soup.

I haven't made it in a couple of years, and though you'd think a soup based on beef broth wouldn't translate well to a vegetarian dish, I rely on the excellent onion soup recipe from the Cabbagetown Cookbook that adds tamari and sherry to vegetable broth.

So once the Renaissance Man returned from a quick trip to the Farm, he picked me up and dropped me into his kitchen, where I started chopping and sautéeing onions.

Being hungry and impatient, I'm afraid I didn't caramelize the onions deeply enough for their sweetness and depth of flavor (and color), but on the whole the soup turned out very nicely.

I sliced the whole wheat artisan loaf I'd made last night, brushed a little olive oil on it, and topped it with a couple wedges of Gruyère cheese before sliding into a hot oven for a quick toast. These "croutons" then graced the bottom of our soup bowls.

With the soup on top soaking into the toast, the fragrance wafting up from the bowls was heavenly, and we couldn't wait to enjoy dinner.

What a satisfying dish for a cold night! (Though I'm afraid we both still wanted more toast later in the evening while watching movies -- it was that kind of night!)

And with another jar of stock in the fridge, what soup will be on next?

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Tiffin Point

The wintry weather lately has really nudged me into packing good lunches for my workday, and just this week, the desire for a hot lunch tipped the balance in favor of pulling out my tiffin again.

With leftovers in each layer, and a morning spent sitting on top of the register next to my desk, my tiffin easily turns a homemade lunch into a warm and cozy gourmet experience.

But today's lunch really topped everything I'd packed so far this week:

--homemade pesto (made with homegrown basil and CSA garlic) on homemade pasta (with local spelt flour and a local egg)
--homemade eggplant parmesan (CSA eggplant breaded, baked and stored in the freezer; topped with home-canned tomato sauce enhanced with dried homegrown herbs)
--homemade wheat artisan bread (with local wheat flour) topped with a bit of local honey

Totally homemade, mostly local, and all from what I put away for winter. Amazing!

Hey, even I can get bored with eating from the pantry all winter long. But once in a while I remember things like this, and then I get a nice little respite from solid winter food and can enjoy a breath of summer. (Or at least spring -- temps today are hitting the 40s!)

What a treat!

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: January, Week 4

Winter has yet to release its icy grip on us, though its frigid fingers have loosened just a tiny bit to warm our air into the teens. I've even seen sunshine the past couple days -- remarkable!

And today, you could hardly escape any of the excitement surrounding the presidential inauguration, with so many people pinning their hopes on one slender but strong reed of a man. He spoke movingly of the hard times and the difficult challenges we face right now, as well as of the hard work and the hope we will need to move ahead.

I wonder, how many of us truly recognize the sacrifices we'll need to make in days to come? How many of us will have to tighten our belts even further? How many of us will have to learn new ways of living? And does President Obama realize himself what he may have to ask us -- and himself -- to do?

I don't ask these questions to get bogged down in politics here, to cast shadows on the early days of a new presidency, or to get too depressing in general for readers. But these thoughts have been on my mind in recent years, and I suspect many of you are grappling with them as well.

Sometimes following the local foods bandwagon can seem like a frivolous "foodie" distraction from real life. To obsess over the minute details of what we eat seems absurd when there are those who don't even know what they can put on the table.

But I like to think that emphasizing local foods -- especially through food preservation -- gets us back to the days when so many Americans did have to sacrifice in so many little ways throughout their daily living, whether out of economic necessity or patriotic duty. By supporting local farmers, on their farms or at the local market, we support their place in the local community and the local economy. By choosing to limit our food choices to items that are locally grown or produced, we can learn to make do with less or to simplify our eating habits. By growing our own food, we find we often have a bountiful surplus that we can preserve for winter and share with others less fortunate.

So tonight, despite the pomp and festivities surrounding the new Administration, I'm going to feature a bit of cucina povera (good ol' poverty food or economy cooking) for this month's local meal.

Over the weekend, I had a nostalgia-fueled craving for couscous topped with a spicy vegetable tagine. But I've been buying very few fresh vegetables lately (just kale, really), so I decided to make the tagine (stew) with a selection of dried vegetables: cabbage, zucchini, carrots, red peppers, peas, and green beans.

I soaked the dried vegetables in heated whey leftover from paneer-making a couple of weeks ago since it needed to be used. And once those had softened, I tossed them into the slow cooker along with a sauté of onion, garlic, and lots of spices; one peeled and chopped turnip; a jar of home-canned tomatoes; and the remains of a can of tomato paste. Aside from the paste, all the vegetables were local, and the whole mess helped me clean out a few things from the refrigerator.

The tagine simmered for several hours before I served it over the last of the wheat couscous, satisfying not only my appetite but my urge both to use up what I had and to make it stretch as far as possible. What remained in the pot -- and was then ladled into jars -- could easily cover 5 to 6 more servings.

Tonight, then, I reheated some of the tagine with a small handful of homemade pasta noodles (made with local spelt flour and a local egg). The noodles helped to thicken the stew just a touch more as well as to add a different flavor for a change of pace. I also finished off the last of the local cider to go with it!

A handful of "challenges" are floating around the Internet these days, between a Food Waste Reduction challenge and the Hunger Artist's Fanatic's Proposition (as mentioned by fellow Ethicurean Charlotte), as well as the very dramatic Riot 4 Austerity. There's a lot we can learn from each of them, and I've been trying to implement some of the ideas into my daily living. My own personal challenge this winter is to limit my cooking as much as possible to what resources I have on hand right now, as well as to clean out the cupboards and freezer as much as possible before June 1, when the preservation season starts all over again.

Will such a challenge help others? Not really, though I expect to share a good many of those meals. But I hope that becoming even more thoughtful and conscious about what I eat -- about eating what I have specifically put away to eat now -- will be another good step toward preserving enough to be able to help others in their times of need.

Hope and celebration fill the air tonight. But we still have work to do -- all of us, in so many ways.

Let's start wherever we can, wherever we are.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bake Us This Day Our Daily Bread

If you keep an eye on the books I read as noted in the sidebar, you'll remember that I recently picked up a copy of Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day.

It's been a pretty popular cookbook of late, and I've noticed among other blogs that other people are giving it a try. I always have mixed feelings about picking up a popular title of any sort, and I especially don't like getting caught up in the latest "foodie" thing as I don't consider myself a foodie. Besides, I really like kneading bread, and the whole point of this book is a kind of bread you don't have to knead. Where's the fun in that?

But an off-blog email exchange with Dear Reader Tara nudged me into giving it a try. And I gotta admit, this cookbook might well be one I'll have to add to my collection.

I've never been too interested in making artisan bread, but the more the Renaissance Man and I talk about the possibility of a masonry bread oven on the Farm, the more I think I ought to test some artisan recipes that would transfer well to a wood-fired oven.

So yesterday I pulled out the cookbook, one of my new 5-gallon food-grade plastic buckets and lids (thanks to My Wonderful Parents!), and opened up the Test Kitchen.

The dough is simple to mix. You don't proof the yeast, you don't knead the dough. It's a simple mixture of yeast, water, salt, and flour, and once you've stirred to incorporate the flour, you cover the bucket and let the dough rise. (You can use a bowl as usual, but the bucket is used for storage, so why dirty another pan?)

Once the dough has had a couple of hours to rise and develop, you cut a chunk of dough off from the rest and shape it quickly into a ball or boule. Again, there's no kneading, very little additional flour, and just a quick working of the dough before you put it on a cornmeal dusted peel or baking sheet.

While the oven heats, you dust the top with flour and slash the dough deeply for those dramatic artisan looks.

And after the appropriate time in the oven (complete with steam pan to give the crust that enticingly crisp texture), you end up with a stunningly beautiful loaf that smells like you just bought it at the local boulangerie. (It's very French!)

While it's tempting to tuck into the loaf right away, let it cool completely before slicing it. The interior is tender and fragrant, even in a whole wheat loaf like this. And with a little butter melting into the grain, it's heavenly.

Of course, that's just one loaf, and I still had plenty of dough left in the bucket. So this morning I pulled out another chunk, shaped it into a ball, and flattened it on the baking sheet so that I could make flatbread.

I sprinkled the top with za'atar seasoning from the farmers' market, then drizzled it with extra virgin olive oil.

It took only 20 minutes to bake this beautiful flatbread, which I then followed with another small loaf (since I had eaten most of yesterday's loaf -- it's that good).

The cookbook gives plenty of variations on the basic loaf, both in shape and in added ingredients or toppings. Many are ones I doubt I would use, but there's enough variety and inspiration in the book to make me think I need my own copy.

With this method, you truly could have fresh bread daily.

I'm afraid I might get hooked!

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nutcracker? Sweet!

The trip that My Wonderful Parents and I took to the nut farm this past fall resulted not just in lots of good nuts for the winter.

We also ended up with lots of nuts with extremely hard shells that couldn't be cracked easily by hand.

That's why My Wonderful Parents decided to head down to Lehman's one week and buy a sturdy nutcracker. It looks fairly simple, but the handle is long and will leverage a good bit of weight, making nut-cracking so much easier.

For several weeks they kept the nutcracker, shelling nuts for me by request. But My Dear Papa's back got tired of the work, and he passed it over to me for the time being.

I had hoped to get lots of nuts cracked over the holiday break, but as other projects kept me busy, it had to wait until this weekend.

This evening I finally sat down and cracked the remains of the hicans in my stash. Then I sat back and listened to "Prairie Home Companion" while I picked the meats from the shells and dropped them in a bowl.

It's tedious work, but it helps one pass the time on a quiet winter evening. I may tackle the heartnuts tomorrow... or not.

But it sure helps to have a sturdy nutcracker to get the job done!

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Faithful In Word and Seed

With the harsh wintry weather we've had this week -- today started at -12 F -- anything that helps me think about spring and summer is welcome.

That's one reason why I love Fedco Seeds.

Granted, there's a lot to appreciate about them. Their catalog, though all in black and white and printed on newsprint, offers a tantalizing and humorous look at life in the garden. Though you don't get any glossy photos of gorgeous vegetables and such, the descriptions are utterly irresistible and something outright fun.

They're committed to offering good seeds, mostly of the open-pollinated variety and many of them organic, making them ideal for seed savers. They avoid GMOs and will drop varieties that don't produce well.

And when they get their own seeds shipped to stock their warehouse, they turn around and fill orders and send those seeds out right away.

I came home today to find a small Priority Mail box waiting for me on the doorstep, and I opened it to find lots and lots of little seed packets. Oh glorious day!

Several of the seeds I ordered are backordered, but none of them appear to be ones that I want to start indoors in the next couple of months, so I'm not worried.

Just shuffling through these envelopes gets me thinking about warmer days when I can actually see the soil again, and soon I'll have to start planning garden layouts and schedules. Won't that be fun?

Maybe that will keep me warm and happy this weekend!


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: January, Week 3

Most forms of food preservation, as we've already discovered, have the unfortunate tendency of reducing the nutritional content of the foods. Canning and drying can lower the vitamin and mineral levels of produce significantly, while freezing causes a lesser loss of nutrition.

But there's one form of food preservation that can give us a little nutritional boost, simply by virtue of making those nutrients more easily digested: fermentation.

I admit that I really didn't know much at all about fermentation before this past year, and I still don't claim to be very confident on the subject. So I rely heavily on Sandor Ellix Katz's excellent and entertaining book Wild Fermentation. (I have yet to read either Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions or the book Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning.)

Katz points out the multiple benefits of fermentation: it preserves food, makes it more digestible, adds new nutrients (through the microbial culture), and removes toxins from food. On that basis alone, I knew I had to try it!

(I'll just add here that if you're a little nervous about allowing and even encouraging microbes to "rot" food in the name of preservation -- as I once did -- fret not. After all, we find fermentation in things like bread, yogurt, and even compost, so why not on other foods?)

I had tried kim chi back in the summer, and when I finished up the last of it earlier this week, it was still crisp. Not just firm, but crisp and refreshing! And since I liked the kim chi so much, I decided to attempt to get over my old dislike of sauerkraut.

On New Year's Day, a traditional time for enjoying sauerkraut, I pulled out a head of local cabbage and shredded not quite half of it. I only had a small container for fermenting the kraut, so I didn't want to go overboard.

Katz's basic kraut recipe simply calls for tossing the cabbage with salt, so I pulled out my dill salt and mixed some in.

I packed the cabbage into a wide-mouth quart jar, pressing each spoonful deeper into the jar. Once I had added all the cabbage, I pressed down on it with a water-filled glass bottle that fit just inside the mouth of the jar, covering the whole structure with a napkin.

Over the past two weeks, every time I walked by the jar I would press down firmly, packing the cabbage into the brine it produced for itself.

Today, feeling somewhat under the weather, I thought I'd test the healing properties of fermented food and checked on the kraut.

I spooned a little into a dish, impressed that it, like the kim chi, was still crisp. Though over the past two weeks it has smelled something like cole slaw, it definitely has more of a tang to it now.

The verdict? Well, I'm still not a fan of sauerkraut, though I admit this is somewhat better than what I've had before. The flavor is piquant, somewhat sharp, but with a clean finish.

On the whole, I think I'll stick with kim chi as far as fermenting cabbage goes. But I do look forward to trying some of the other fermentation recipes in the book, including his sourdough bread, a couple of the beers (and the fermented cider), and so on. I definitely want to explore it some more.

It's easy and it's even fun -- so why don't you try it, too?

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pound For Pound

Despite the snowy weekend, the Renaissance Man and I have been enjoying maritime-themed movies ("Horatio Hornblower" and "Pirates of the Caribbean") and thought we'd extend the metaphor.

On an impulse, he called a sailing friend and invited us to the friend's home on Saturday evening, offering to bring movies and bread. Sailor Mike happily agreed, his wife suggested we come for dinner, and the plan was set.

What the Renaissance Man did not tell Sailor Mike, however, was that we had a special bread we hoped to bring: ship's biscuits, or hardtack.

A few weeks ago, lacking milk in the house but craving biscuits nonetheless, the RM flipped through the pages of his biscuit recipe book and spotted a recipe for ship's biscuits that required only flour, salt, a dab of butter, and flour. We tried them, and they were fairly bland, but the story to go with them would make them all the better.

For you see, the trick to making really good ship's biscuits is to pound the living daylights out of the dough. Repeatedly. And how better to do that than to use an enormous timber framing mallet? (As the RM noted, "It's just like a rolling pin with a handle." Right?)

So I mixed up the dough, laid it out on the board, and let him pound away at it:

After that much pounding, the dough turns out a little rubbery and extremely dense. But I cut it into squares, arranged the biscuits on a baking sheet, and baked them for half an hour.

These were really too fresh and puffy to be quite authentic, and they didn't contain any weevils, as happened so often on board even the finest of British Navy vessels. But they were fine as they were, for Sailor Mike got a big chuckle out of the gift, though he promised to store some away to get properly hard and tasteless before the next sailing adventure.

I bet they'd be better with a bottle of rum, though.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Knife Is Beautiful

This past week, the Renaissance Man made a run to Lehman's Hardware and found himself browsing the section of kitchen knives (specifically, the Damascus steel knives of high quality and high price).

When he told me about his dream knives, I applauded him on his good taste and told him even the Chef Mother would approve. He then mused that since he feels deficient in kitchen skills, perhaps the Chef Mother would be willing to give him a lesson in proper kitchen knife selection and use.

Knowing that the Chef Mother loves to teach about cooking even more than I do -- and that I myself had learned a good deal from my own knife lessons a year ago -- I was more than happy to act as go-between and set up the lesson.

This morning, despite the heavy snowfall blanketing town and obstructing roadways, we headed over to visit My Wonderful Parents for the scheduled lesson.

The Chef Mother had asked me to bring along several vegetables so that she could demonstrate different techniques. Starting with garlic, she showed the Renaissance Man how to smash garlic with the flat of the blade in order to remove the peel more easily, and in demonstrating how to hold the knife in order to mince the garlic finely, she also showed him how to mince with two knives at once (as seen here).

Following the garlic, she showed him how to diced onions without having the layers fall apart. Holding on to one intact end of the onion, she cut horizontally back into the onion (but not all the way through).

Then he made vertical cuts to set up the dice...

...and firm slices through the cross sections resulted in a relatively even dice. Brilliant!

She also had him slice and then julienne carrots (shown here), which then were diced into tiny cubes.

I started sauteeing the aromatic vegetables (along with some chopped celery from the freezer) with a handful of herbs. As I started the base of our lunchtime soup, the Renaissance Man finished by chopping cabbage and cubing potatoes. He added those to the pot while I dumped in a quart of home-canned tomatoes, and I brought the whole soup to a simmer to let everything finish cooking.

Less than an hour later, we had a delicious and hearty vegetable soup ready to warm us on a winter's day -- thanks to the Chef Mother's lessons, the Renaissance Man's knife work, and my combining it all. (I think we make a good team.)

And that's a pretty good slice of life around here!

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Preserving the Seasons: January, Week 2

One of the traditions My Wonderful Parents have carried down through the years is that of Christmas citrus.

See, when they were growing up, citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit were expensive, rare treats. That made them all the more appreciated, then, when a plump round fruit ended up padding the bottom of their Christmas stockings.

Once they retired and starting spending their winters down south, My Wonderful Parents made the effort to ship me a box of Florida (or, one year, California) oranges so that I could enjoy some of their local bounty. Now that they've moved back north, they order a box for themselves and share it with me.

And so at this time of year, I indulge in freshly squeezed orange juice and the occasional Pie in the Sky, just to savor those oranges to the fullest.

Since citrus fruits are specialty items for us here in northern Ohio, it's worth talking about them separately in terms of preservation. Storing citrus is easy: I keep mine in the bottom of the refrigerator, knowing that I'll use them fairly quickly, but I discovered in reading A Slice of Organic Life that they can also be packed in boxes lined with sand and stored for longer periods.

Once you use the fruit, though, you're often left with a mostly-overlooked peel. In the interest of reducing kitchen waste (something I try to do often), I'll offer two suggestions for preserving and using the peel itself.

Section the peel into manageable sections, and scrape out the remains of the pulp (if any) and especially the white pith. I usually scrape them out with my thumbnail, but after one or two oranges, that can get painful. I haven't tried using a knife, but if you do, scrape carefully!

If you want, you can stop here and allow the scraped peels to air-dry on a baking sheet. Once they are dry, pack them in airtight containers. I like to use small wedges of dried peel in mulling cider, but I also throw a couple pieces into my coffee grinder and grind them fine for using in baking. Fresh grated peel is best, but dried peel will last longer.

The other thing you can do with citrus peels is to candy them. Start by slicing the scraped peels into thin strips. Dump the strips of peel into a saucepan and fill with water. Bring to a boil, then allow the peels to simmer for 30 minutes. Drain off the water, and repeat the process once more for oranges, lemons, and limes (twice more for grapefruit).

You'll notice that the peels appear a little plumper and definitely softer. While they drain, prepare a simple syrup of 2 parts sugar to 1 part water (2 c sugar and 1 c water for the peel of 3 oranges). Bring the syrup to the boil before adding the peel, then simmer the peel, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes.

I decided to try something a little different and used honey in my syrup. This gave me a thicker syrup and far more sticky peel pieces, so I'm not sure I would recommend it to you. Sure tastes good, though! I usually drain the peel pieces over the saucepan of syrup and set the syrup aside -- but I'll get to that in a moment.

Roll the pieces of cooked peel in sugar and lay on a wax-paper-covered surface to dry. Once these have dried and hardened, you can pack them in glass jars with airtight lids. They can be good for a quick sugar fix -- chewy and citrusy -- or can be added to baked goods.

As for the syrup leftover from the cooking, I like to pour it into a jar, refrigerate it, and use it on my pancakes. Since this honey-based syrup is thicker than the usual syrup, I may leave it out on the counter and even use it to spread on fresh biscuits.

So there you have it! Not only can you enjoy eating your winter citrus fruits, you can also preserve a little of the flavor for later.

Doesn't that sound ap-peel-ing?

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Mill 'Er Up!

One of the projects I had hoped to work on over the holiday break was to pull out my new grain mill and give it a whirl. As the break flew by more quickly than ever, I ended up putting off that experiment until today.

I should say here that I lay total inspiration for this at the feet of fellow blogger Emily at Eat Close to Home. Her goal last year of making a loaf of bread from scratch -- growing her own grain, milling it, then baking it -- made me think, well, why can't I do that, too? What a great idea! (Thanks, Emily!)

When I bought my grain mill at Lehman's, I also picked up a big bucket of winter wheat berries so that I had plenty of grain to practice with. So this morning I opened the bucket, scooped out a bowl full of wheat, and sealed it back up.

I set up the mill in the kitchen -- and isn't it a sweet little thing? -- and started cranking.

On the first pass, I had to give the crank all my strength in order to grind the wheat berries into a coarse meal. But I ran the meal back through the mill twice more to end up with a finer grain, though still a semi-coarse flour.

As you can see here, there was a fair bit of difference between what came out from the first milling (left) and what I ended up with after three tries (right)!

Then I decided to sift the flour, just to see what results I'd get. The bowl on the right contains the bigger pieces of bran (the outer coating of the wheat berries), though the flour on the left still contains pieces of the bran, too.

Since I had plenty of freshly milled flour, what else could I do but bake bread? I pulled out the recipe for my rosemary walnut cider bread and whipped it up fairly quickly, using the bran in place of wheat germ and adding a little local spelt flour to augment the wheat flour I had ground.

The wheat berries, having been in my cold storage room, and the flour from the refrigerator seemed to slow down the yeast's activity with their cooler temperatures, so after letting the dough rise on the board for a while, I ended up plopping it into a bowl and resting atop a pan of formerly mulling cider. That helped the dough proof a little more in my chilly kitchen.

Finally, I shaped the dough into a loaf, let it rise again, and baked it, resulting in this beauty. (Sorry the photo is a little dark: daylight was fading fast.)

Milling (and sifting) the grain directly before making the bread dough added nearly three-quarters of an hour to the process, but as I wasn't in a hurry, it didn't really matter. Besides, I expect I'll get a little more adept at grinding grains with practice. Since I'm planning to grow a couple of grains in the garden this coming season, I hope to have plenty of home-grown grains to use.

And I imagine I'll be practicing a lot this winter!

ADDENDUM (in case you haven't been following the comments): For anyone else who is interested in learning more about growing your own grains, Gene Logsdon has revised his classic Small-Scale Grain Raising, and it will be published by Chelsea Green at the end of March. I've read the original, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the new edition. If you'd like to learn more, Chelsea Green has posted the afterword to the new edition on their site. Classic Gene!

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: January, Week 1

When the holidays have finally passed and been tucked away in tissue-paper-lined boxes, I am more than happy to return to whatever semblance of a routine I may have had before the whirlwind of December began.

January always seems to me to be the time to take a deep breath and to relax, doing away with the frills and furbelows that round out the year, and reaching for the cozy simplicity of comfort foods. It's a time for a fresh start, with new dreams and new plans, and I usually begin the year with renewed energy and enthusiasm.

When January arrives, however, it also brings a cold hard reality check in its wake. Though the truly cold weather made its first appearance before winter officially arrived a couple weeks ago, up until January 1, recurring warm spells and the bustle of the holidays kept us from worrying too much about the weather.

No more. With the end of our holiday revels, we look out the window and find a world deprived of color: heavy gray skies bearing snow and ice, faded grass, bleached fields, and barren trees. Some days, of course, sparkle in the brilliant light of rare sunshine, blue skies, and new-fallen snow. But mostly, here in northern Ohio, the frigid wind chills of January slice us to the bone and cause us to dream of tropical getaways -- or at least a 50-degree day when a brave soul might just venture outside without a coat.

Usually by mid-month, winter will relent and offer us a quick, heady sip of spring. For one, maybe two days, air and soil both warm, filling the senses with the rich smell of earth. Gardeners feel their fingers twitch, eager to plant a few seeds yet knowing that the worst is yet to come, and so we clutch our seed catalogs, resisting the temptation to head outside and dig. And soon enough, the temperatures fall again, the ground re-freezes, and we bundle up once more with a heavy sigh, returning to semi-hibernation in our centrally-heated caves.

It's a difficult time to be a faithful locavore. In most northern cities and towns, farmers' markets rarely stay open past December (if that), and many farm stands and orchards have closed after the holidays. (After all, they need a break, too!)

The limits of fresh, local, seasonal produce become readily apparent to those people not living in California or Florida, since most of the local produce available by now consists of starchy, often high-glycemic foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, apples, and root vegetables, with the occasional cabbage or dark leafy green vegetable. Beyond that, though, you're either dependent on the food you preserved throughout the summer and fall, or you grit your teeth and accept that not everything on your plate originated in your own foodshed.

And that's okay!

Surprised? Think about it: unless you're an absolutist when it comes to local eating, you're already using food and ingredients that have traveled long distances. Many of these items, like spices, tea, coffee, and olive oil, are long-time staples of food trade, frequently and (comparatively) inexpensively shipped around the world. These goods add variety to our homegrown or locally-harvested meals, helping us stave off the boredom that can come with monotonous winter menus.

The other incentive to bend on local-eating "rules" in the winter depends on your health. Lacking a well-stocked pantry or freezer, your body will likely end up craving nutrients that are easily supplied by fresh produce from far away. And in this case, variety is not only the spice of life but the essence of health!

Nutritional guidelines exhort us to eat a selection of different fruits and vegetables each day in order to cover the spectrum of vitamins and minerals our bodies need. If that means that not only a locally-grown apple but also a well-traveled orange is what you need to keep the doctor away, so be it.

We can, however, find other ways to boost our nutritional intake. A handful of recently published books, especially Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, tout the health benefits of fermenting foods. Even some of your boring winter produce can become satisfying, health-giving supplements to the usual winter comfort food.

The snow hasn't yet piled up outside my door, but it will. I'm already starting to eat from my pantry and freezer, and yes, I'm already starting to miss fresh salads and greens. But I'm hoping to try some new things (and some familiar things) this month to liven up my menus and to keep me healthy in the face of cold and flu season.

It's a new year, time to try something new. Join me!

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