Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You Pancake It With You

I've never really celebrated Mardi Gras. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in New Orleans, or because I wasn't raised in the Catholic Church, or because I've never been able to picture myself doing a nearly naked samba through Rio. (Well, not yet, anyway. After I turn 50, though, all bets are off.)

Big fancy parades with costumed folks tossing bright shiny beads, lush purple and gold king cakes, pots of gumbo -- nope, not my style. After all, I wasn't giving up anything for Lent, so why have a big blowout sort of party? Didn't make sense to me.

For some reason, though, I found myself thinking about Mardi Gras this week and wondering what I could cook to celebrate. It's not that I'll be depriving myself of anything for the season, though my cooking will certainly remain as simple and as focused on preserved foods as it has all winter.

But for one night -- why not indulge a little?

So I looked around for Mardi Gras recipes, and nothing seemed to suit me (nor did I have most of the ingredients!). For some reason, I had the thought of pancakes stuck in my head, but I wasn't finding any references.

Then I thought about the alternate name for the day -- Shrove Tuesday -- and searched for that. Success!

It turns out that in Britain, Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day. The tradition goes way back to the days when people had one last feast before Lent and used up their milk, eggs, and butter in one serious pancake party. (Now that's my kind of celebration!)

Mind you, I suspect that the tradition may even pre-date the Christian calendar, as the dead of winter often found cows drying up and hens taking a pass on egg-laying, thanks to the cold weather (and probably their own lack of good food in the winter months). I won't swear that's true, but it makes sense to me.

In looking up more information on Shrovetide traditions in my cozy cookbook The Vegetarian Hearth by Darra Goldstein, I found this lovely synopsis:

True, we no longer believe that eating pancakes safeguards us from hunger in the year ahead; nor do we accept that in imitating the sun, pancakes symbolize our survival. And for that we can be grateful. But even if pancake eating is today no more than an indulgence, devoid of any higher meaning, we still clamor for them. We want to bid winter a lush, sweet farewell. As a communal holiday, Shrovetide once affirmed the necessary bonds that enabled families and villages to function harmoniously. So when we sit down to share pancakes with family and friends, we share in an age-old ritual. With each taste of pancake, we partake of community, enabling us to experience the warm spirit of winter, even if we no longer feel entirely free to eat to our heart's content. (pp 77-78)

Well, with so many good reasons for it, I don't have to be prodded a second time to make pancakes, even for dinner. That itself is a time-honored tradition in my family, and I had no problem going home and firing up the cast iron skillet.

So here's my Mardi Gras indulgence: whole wheat pancakes made from a mix (are you shocked?) from my local miller and cooked with shredded local sharp cheddar. (I loves me some cheese pancakes!) I also splurged at the store on some of those vegetarian "sausage" patties -- an increasingly rare indulgence on my part since they're not local and are highly processed.

Mmmm, mmmm. Rich buttery and cheesy pancakes, with the sharp savory cheese flavor offset by a hint of sweetness in the grains, and complemented by savory crisp patties on the side, followed by a big cup of creamy dark tea infused with cardamom. This dinner encompassed so many of the cozy flavors of winter and so many of the creature comforts we cling to on cold days. What bliss!

Okay, maybe you don't think that's much of an indulgence, but for me, it is. (I mean, there wasn't a single vegetable on the plate! Quick! Fetch your smelling salts!) But it's enough for me to mark the occasion and to relax a little bit before we head into the rest of winter and my own personal challenge to keep cleaning out the pantry.

I won't be giving up good food, though -- just appreciating a different kind.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: February, Week 4

February has really flown by this year, and not just because it's the shortest month. The calendar has been filled with meetings, appointments, movie nights, and the occasional dance, all arranged to keep me from going stir crazy as winter plods on.

The most exciting events have been meetings of like-minded people coming together to organize a year-round farmers' market in town. We've only begun to meet and discuss the details, so I don't have a whole lot to share at this point, but the meetings -- unlike most meetings -- leave me feeling incredibly uplifted and energized. Everyone brings amazing gifts and interests and ideas to the table, and the enthusiasm constantly cycles upward as we plan ways to develop our local economy to everyone's benefit.

All this activity, though, has meant that my cooking has often ended up fairly basic, throwing together what I have on hand to make something reasonably appealing and nutritious. Thank heaven I've gotten into the habit of pulling three or four vegetables from the freezer each weekend to help me whip something up during the week!

And yes, this also means that I'm so thankful I spent all that time preserving food back in the summer. What a timesaver (and money saver) now!

One of the things I had put away back in December was a jar half-full of dried lentils and topped with layers of dried vegetables from my pantry. Along with a jar of tomato sauce, freshly chopped onion and garlic from cold storage, selected spices, and the last of the leftover whey, this jar made it easy to throw together a pot of dal yesterday in the midst of my house work.

Then, as the Indian spices filled the air, I ended up back in the kitchen to make samosas with potatoes and another onion from cold storage, edamame from the freezer, and whole wheat flour from the local grist mill.

For the first time ever, I used all the filling in all the dough since I packed extra in every little turnover. You can see the difference: these samosas turned out nice and plump!

Last night's meal, then, was an almost entirely local meal -- and came entirely from the food I preserved last year. (I even served the samosas with homemade blueberry-ginger chutney, also from local produce.) No wonder it tasted so good!

In fact, those samosas were so tasty that I took a large portion of what remained to today's potluck, along with the chutney, where they earned rave reviews.

Slowly, slowly, I'm watching my stores of produce dwindle. I'm on my third box of empty jars, repacked for this year's canning, and the freezer is definitely looking more roomy. I've still got plenty to carry me through spring, but it's satisfying to be able to go through so much preserved food each week and not worry about running out. That's a first for me!

Though the snow still dances in and out every few days, we can tell that spring is approaching. The sky is lighter in the morning on my way to work, and daylight lingers until past 6 PM now, making me feel like I have more time and energy for evening projects. Only three months left of eating from the pantry -- and then the whole cycle starts all over again.

That's worth waiting for!

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Gratin Weather

Winter is determined to linger, promising to bring us more snow this weekend.

But I am just as determined to make the most of this wintry weather by pulling out produce -- frozen, canned, and dried -- to make some hearty, comforting meals this weekend to get us through the chill and snow.

For an easy dinner with the Renaissance Man this evening (another movie night!), I thawed a bag of cubed butternut squash and a bag of corn kernels. Along with potatoes from his stash, thin slices of good Cheddar, and a sprinkling of Southwestern spices, I layered the vegetables in a loaf pan and added a mixture of beaten eggs and milk to make a very basic gratin.

It baked quickly (less than 45 minutes at 375 F), resulting in fragrant layers of starch cosseted by a luxurious custard.

We spooned the vegetables onto our plates and added a small salad of fresh chickweed for just a hint of springtime. What a treat!

Now we're warm enough to face the wintriest of storms. (We hope!)

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: February, Week 3

Though it's not considered a part of food preservation, growing food is an essential element of the whole process. If you don't grow it, and someone else doesn't grow it, how will you have anything to preserve?

And at this time of year, when we're on the cusp of spring and longing for fresh green shoots to make their way out of the earth -- and have been living on a good deal of preserved food otherwise -- growing fresh food becomes all the more magical. So from here through the end of the Preserving the Seasons year (end of May), you'll notice a focus on growing and getting ready for the next season.

This is a challenge for me. Though I'm fairly handy in the garden and am successful more often than not in what I sow, my track record for starting things from seed indoors is a little more sketchy. So over the next month or so, you may bear witness to my attempts and potential failures!

For this week, I'd like to display my ignorance and struggle with the prospect of sprouting. I've long been curious about the act of soaking seeds, watching something start to grow from them, and then eating the sprouts. I tried it last year and failed miserably to grow anything but mold.

But since sprouts contain concentrated nutrients and are more easily digestible, they're certainly worth trying.

So I decided to try it again this year and pulled out year-old sunflower seeds for sprouting. Due to their age, they took a little longer to grow, and they didn't green up as nicely as I would have liked, but they looked much better than last year's attempt.

Sprouting should be easy, though why I don't find it so, I don't know. All you need is a clean jar, a screen of some sort (cheesecloth, a plastic screened lid, or a mesh strainer), seeds, and water. You soak the seeds in the jar for 12-24 hours to get them softened, drain the water, and start a cycle of rinsing and draining the seeds two to three times a day until you have sprouts emerging.

Okay, there's a little more to it than that, and you can learn more from books like Stocking Up or Fresh Food From Small Spaces. I consulted a couple of other sources as well, and I confess that I got just enough slightly contradictory or missing information that left me a little confused as to how to handle the sprouts once they had grown.

But never mind. I forged ahead, having seen the tails grow from the sunflower seeds, and started a jar of wheat berry sprouts, too. (Different kinds of sprouts take longer to grow: wheat grows in just a couple of days, and sunflower sprouts take at least a week.)

By the end of the weekend, both kind of sprouts had reached an edible length, so I planned a stir-fry dinner using both. I started by removing the hollow seed coats from the sunflower sprouts and rinsing them gently.

The sprouted wheat berries could be eaten whole, so I simply added them to a pile of steamed brown rice (courtesy of the Renaissance Man).

I topped the rice and wheat with stir-fried vegetables, and I added a handful of sunflower sprouts on top. I could tell the sunflower sprouts weren't as good as they could have been, but overall both kinds of sprouts added a fresh taste to the meal as well as a bit of crunch on top. Partial success!

I also found a recipe for a sprouted wheat bread (in Stocking Up) and gave that a try, too, adding local maple syrup, sorghum, oats, butter, whey, heartnuts, currants, and wheat flour to the mix. The bread had a delicious dark but sweet and wholesome taste, but I discovered that the wheat berries had become a little too crunchy in the baking, so I think I would need to cook them before baking next time. (The recipe did not indicate that.)

I've got a long way to go if I'm ever to become an expert in sprouting. I may yet stop by the natural foods store in town and try one or two other kinds of sprouting seeds to see if I have better luck. And as always, if any Dear Readers have expertise to share, please feel free to leave comments! I know I've got a lot to learn.

Still, it's worth a try as a way to supplement the pantry at a meager time of year.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Weed Like Spring to Come Soon, Thanks!

Time flows so much differently at the Farm than in town, but one thing's for certain: while Winter isn't quite ready to leave yet, Spring is gradually creeping in!

When we arrived at the Farm before lunch time yesterday, we had just a few minutes to pause before we headed back out on errands (chiefly, getting groceries for the Farm Folks). In the course of our wanderings, we stopped by the local farm supply store (one of the Renaissance Man's favorite places) where I picked up my very own rubber boots. (I've been borrowing from the Farm stash on a regular basis, but I needed a pair my size.)

After we returned, we headed out for a walkabout, checking on a blown-out window pane in the barn, downed branches from the recent wind storm, and the newly cleared paths through the woods. Despite the flurries in the air, the ground remained warmed enough for us to sink into mud and melt as we wandered around, and I gave the boots a good baptism.

Once in, I cooked a simple but warming supper for us all: ham and scalloped potatoes (with a separate dish just of potatoes for me), and steamed broccoli and carrots on the side. I didn't have an urge to bake anything for dessert, so we munched on leftover oatmeal cookies.

This morning, though, the spotted ripe bananas on the counter inspired me to pull out an old Fannie Farmer cookbook and to bake a tender, flavorful banana cake to share with them. (The Renaissance Man and I made sure we tested the quality of the recipe before letting the Folks have any, of course, and it went down well with chai.)

In the course of this morning's work -- heading to the barn for a ladder for some windmill work -- I spotted a large swath of chickweed that appeared to be greening up nicely. So as the RM did some of his work in the barn, I indulged in my first foraging outing of the year, gathering a nice clump of chickweed for fresh green salads this week. Now there is a good sign of spring!

The weather is still cold, and the snow is due to return, but as we left the Farm to return home, I knew that the next time I visited, I was likely to find Spring well on the way.

And that is fine by me!

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Goose Is Loose

Waaaaaay back in the summer -- seems so long ago now! -- having discovered that the Renaissance Man had a nostalgic fondness for gooseberry pie, I took advantage of his absence one weekend to stock up on extra berries to freeze for a winter surprise.

As I've been a little slack on dessert-making of late, this weekend seemed like a good time to indulge in a little baking. And what better way to show such a sterling fellow my affection than to bake a pie for him for Valentine's Day?

Technically, I made the pie last evening, knowing that we'd be heading to the Farm for part of the weekend, but the idea was the same. I mixed the dough at home, then loaded up the dough, a pie plate, and the filling ingredients to take to his place and finish the recipe there.

I followed a different recipe this time, using cornstarch to thicken the berry mixture, but apparently the berries didn't thaw enough, because they still ended up juicy and running loose from the cover of the pie crust.

That's okay, though -- it still tasted delicious, and the Renaissance Man was delighted with the treat. (He also didn't feel the need to share the pie with the Farm Folks as he carefully tucked it away in the cupboard before we headed out.)

I won't claim it's my favorite pie -- sometimes those berries are a little too tart for me -- but I'm happy to make it once in a while if it makes him happy.

After all, what's good for the goose... well, I'll let you finish that thought!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

"Yes. We Can."

As I've worked on this year-long Preserving the Seasons series, I've followed a number of other bloggers who have discovered their own ways of encouraging people to preserve food and save the summer's bounty for winter.

Chief among these is Emily at Eat Close to Home (blogging in Ann Arbor, MI). Late last year she realized that she wanted to take a more active role in helping others find ways to enjoy local food and to revive food preservation skills, and after much thought and investigation, she began Preserving Traditions, a community kitchen project with monthly classes on such topics as noodle making, grain milling, and canning.

Among her genius ideas for getting the program off the ground was the development of a stunning poster/logo that boldly states the hopeful message "Yes. We Can." Following the enthusiastic response to her design, she set up a Cafe Press shop to sell t-shirts and tote bags and other items with the logo, with all proceeds going to support Preserving Traditions.

While I can usually resist eye-catching things, when you cross a cool logo and a worthy endeavor, I open up my wallet. And as of this afternoon's mail delivery, I am now the proud owner of a spiffy tote bag (and a couple other items) that demonstrates my love of canning.

If all goes well, I'll get the chance to meet Emily in person in a few weeks and attend one of her Preserving Traditions events. Maybe I'll come away with more ideas on how to set up something similar around here!

Because yes... we can.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

A World of Difference

One of the benefits of working with books all day is that I can often get my hands on a new book before it even gets to the shelves. The person who labels the books knows of my interest in food, and she generally passes things along to me before they move to the circulating collection.

Recently she came across the book What the World Eats and thought I would be interested. I had heard about it some time earlier so was happy to look through it.

The premise of the book is colorful and pointed: the author and photographer visited families around the world and photographed those families with one week's worth of their food consumption. The photograph faces a list and economic breakdown of all the food products consumed in a week, with the costs and U.S. equivalents. And where those items were homegrown, a market price is added to them.

It's fascinating to see how family diets compare from the developed world (countries such as Australia, France, Great Britain, the United States) to the varying levels of income found in the developing world (Chad, Ecuador, Mali) as well as a range of countries whose economic situations settle them somewhere in the middle (Guatemala, India, Mexico, Poland).

What struck me most profoundly is how much processed food can be found in the diets across the wealthier and middle-of-the-road nations. It may not surprise you that the three American families featured have weekly grocery hauls that rely heavily on convenience food, but I was struck by the quantity of packaged food products found in China, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, and even France, the ideal food-lover's haven.

In looking over these detailed pictures and grocery lists, I found myself wondering which family's diet came closest to my own. Nothing matched it exactly, of course, but the limited quantities of processed foods in my pantry or refrigerator and the abundance of produce actually put me closer to the food consumed by the Indian and the Guatemalan families in the book.

(I also considered the Renaissance Man's usual food stores and found his diet to come closer to that found in Mali: heavy on the grains, moderate amounts of the same vegetables over and over, limited dairy and processed food. The exceptions would be his love of honey, jam, maple syrup, and tea. But even he thought that the Mali family enjoyed more food than he did!)

The text, which includes a fuller description of the families' lifestyles and eating habits, is interspersed with colorful graphs and charts that illustrate related food and economic facts, from average income and literacy to the number of McDonald's franchises in the country and this stunning chart revealing the obesity rates in the countries. (Yes, the U.S. tops the obesity charts for men, though the percentage of obese women is higher only in Kuwait.)

I think it would be wonderful if everyone read this book and thought a little more about their own food habits. To me, the most enticing looking diets were those that had a rich array of colorful fruits and vegetables -- not the ones with the colorful boxes and bags -- but even those whole-foods family photographs caused me to stop and think about some of the details in my own diet. Are there areas where perhaps I don't eat as healthy as I should? Of course! But taking the time to consider the matter certainly helps me to be more mindful of my next food choices.

I'd also add that the grocery lists and costs that accompany each family's photo reinforce the point that good eating doesn't have to be expensive -- that the diets more heavily weighted toward processed foods end up being more expensive. That, too, is worth further consideration in these times.

The book doesn't preach, it just lays out the information and invites you to make your own comparisons.

But it certainly speaks volumes.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: February, Week 2

As you might expect from a vegetarian, I don't plan to explore preserving meats in this series. Not only do I not eat them, I just don't have a clue in how to preserve them.

But there's an area of food preservation beyond produce that you might not think about: preserving milk in the forms of butter, yogurt, and cheese.

To those of us in the "modern" or developed world, that hardly seems like an area of preservation. But for our forebears and for other groups around the world today, a surplus of milk produced by family livestock needed to be preserved in some way if it was not to be sold.

I have not yet had the experience of churning butter from whole milk (though my friend the fair Titania has done so often), so I won't talk about it here. As for making yogurt, I gave that a try a few months back and enjoyed the results, though I have yet to repeat the experiment.

Cheesemaking, though, is another story. I've played with the very basic technique of making paneer from whole milk and plain yogurt, and I hope to take a cheesemaking class at some point later this year. I'd really like to learn how to make the hard cheeses, like cheddar or muenster or gouda, but right now I don't have a place for their long-term storage.

In the meantime, I have a kit for making mozzarella and ricotta, thanks to a visit to Lehman's some months ago. And this weekend turned out to be a good time to test the whole milk ricotta recipe.

The process for making ricotta is very similar to that for paneer, but the ingredients are slightly different: citric acid and cheese salt are adding to the milk, and the whole mixture is brought up to a gentle boil very slowly, allowing the curds time to separate with care.

I laid a section of "butter muslin" from the kit over my colander so that I could drain off the whey, then I bundled the muslin ends together and suspended the cheese over the colander (and a bowl) to let it finish draining. (Sorry for the blurry photo: the cheese was swaying slightly after being hung up.)

I made only half a recipe and ended up with about a pound of fresh ricotta, but it looked very creamy and rich.

Later I made a pot of spaghetti sauce, using fresh onion and garlic, dried green pepper and herbs, and two quarts of tomato sauce from the pantry, along with tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and a few other ingredients.

Together with the sauce, fresh spelt pasta, and chopped spinach from the freezer, the ricotta made a deliciously, meltingly creamy and satisfying lasagna for dinner. (I served it with a mix of green and wax beans from last year's CSA, tossed with crumbs and olive oil.)

Now, I don't expect to have milk-giving livestock at any point, and I don't generally have much of a surplus of milk, so I suspect that any cheesemaking I do will be for fun or for specific meals rather than for serious preservation. But it's a good and thoroughly enjoyable skill to learn, and I highly recommend it.

I mean, whey not?

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Saturday, February 07, 2009

I Dried My Best

As I've been working to meet my personal challenge this winter of eating almost exclusively from my pantry, I've noticed that while I've had no problem working vegetables -- even the dried ones -- into my menu planning, I've hardly touched the fruit.

So as I started my list of things to do this weekend, I decided to give some attention to baking with dried fruit.

First, I needed to replenish my granola supply, so I whipped up a batch that used home-dried raisins, a bit of candied orange peel, and chopped heartnuts. (Other local ingredients included the oats, and the maple sugar and syrup.) That should be a good topping for oatmeal or yogurt in the mornings.

Then I looked through my copy of Making & Using Dried Foods and settled on a recipe for dried apple-cherry bran muffins. I soaked the apples and cherries in hot water while I mixed together other ingredients.

Naturally, I didn't stick to the recipe exactly. Since I didn't have any bran handy, nor wheat germ, I decided to use local cornmeal and then finish the batter with local spelt flour. (Other local ingredients: milk, eggs, candied orange peel, hicans.)

And because lately I've been too lazy to make muffins, I greased a square baking pan and spread the batter in that.

I haven't seen a cake come out of the oven so evenly formed in a long while, and the fragrance was irresistible.

So once the cake had cooled a while, I cut a small slice and enjoyed it with mid-morning tea. The cornmeal and spelt combine to give the coffee cake more flavor and substance without making it heavy -- the crumb remained moist and delicate. And the fruit flavors, enhanced with a bit of cinnamon, vanilla, and Fiori di Sicilia (orange-vanilla flavoring), gave the cake a bright, refreshing taste.

If using dried fruit makes pastries taste this good, I'll have to bake with them more often instead of saving them for special times!

And perhaps I'll have to put away more this coming summer.

Dried Apple and Cherry Coffee Cake

Based on a muffin recipe from Making & Using Dried Foods, this recipe could be varied to use any dried fruit in your pantry. If making muffins, grease or line the tins and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.

1 c chopped dried apples
1/2 c dried cherries
1 c cornmeal
2/3 c milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
5 drops Fiori di Sicilia (optional)
2 eggs
1 c brown or maple sugar
1/4 c melted butter
1 c spelt flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 c chopped candied orange peel
1/2 c hicans or pecans

Place dried apples and cherries in heatproof bowl. Cover with hot water. Let stand 1 hour, until softened. Drain. (Reserve liquid for a sweet recipe that uses hot water.)

Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease a 9" square baking pan.

In large bowl, combine cornmeal and milk and let sit until milk is mostly absorbed. Add vanilla and Fiori di Sicilia, eggs, sugar, and melted butter.

In small bowl, whisk together spelt flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Add to wet ingredients and mix until well incorporated.

Fold in soaked fruits, candied orange peel, and hicans or pecans. Spread in greased pan.

Bake at 400 F for 30-35 minutes, until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool before slicing and serving.

Serves 9-12

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Starch Quality

Sometimes I wonder if I'm just babbling on to an almost empty room when I get on my soapbox about local foods.

I forget the old adage that "actions speak louder than words" -- until I find that someone in my life is catching on, making changes to his or her eating habits or simply developing a keener awareness about food.

The Renaissance Man provided me with one such reminder this morning with a little email:

"Thought that I would share breakfast -- oatmeal with cranberries, honey, and apple butter; toast with butter and your peach lavender jam.

"I am sure that it will now taste better since I photographed it."

I'll point out two things about this delightful message:

1. The oats and honey were both local, the jam was something I had preserved (with local fruits), and the bread was leftover from last weekend's baking. And the fact that he didn't point out the local nature of his breakfast indicates to me that it's becoming second nature to him to appreciate local foods.

2. He's been hanging around me and my camera at meal times way too much. (He often kids me about making sure I take photos of my food so as to add the final nutritional kick to it!)

What else could I do with such a message but smile, chuckle, and insist on sharing it on the blog? What a keeper!

It's good to know that even little things can make such a difference!

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

My Grain of Thought

Thanks to my grist mill run back in November, I've had a good variety of grains to use in cooking this winter, resulting in some filling and delicious meals.

There are plenty of good reasons for that: not only are whole grains loaded with good nutrition and dietary fiber, they fill me up very well without too much effort.

In fact, because I love grains so much, I've fallen under the spell of others who advocate growing one's own grains, including "neighbor" blogger Emily at Eat Close to Home. But I've found more detailed information on growing grains in Gene Logsdon's book Small-Scale Grain Raising.

His first edition came out in the mid-1970s, and when I looked for a copy last fall, I felt fortunate to borrow a library copy because used copies were selling on Amazon for over $1000.

Happily, though, he has recently revised the book, and in the course of our email conversations he graciously invited me to read and review the manuscript of the second edition. Though the book won't be out until later this spring, you can find my review of it over at The Ethicurean. It's well worth a read if you're looking to take back control of more of your food supply because he makes grain-growing sound straightforward and even delightful.

Several recipes dot the landscape of the book, though it's hardly a cookbook, but they're worth trying. I sampled the cheese wheat germ biscuits (adding a bit of dried homegrown basil and a dash of black pepper) and enjoyed them with dinner last week.

Tonight I decided to celebrate other grains found in his book -- and in my pantry:

I used the last of a bag of frozen broccoli in a rich cheddar cheese grits soufflé, topped with leftover bread crumbs from Sunday's loaf.

And to accompany the soufflé, I made a batch of baking powder biscuits with local spelt flour -- a slightly gritty but light and flaky treat.

Though I don't plan to grow corn or spelt this year -- right now I have winter wheat and buckwheat seeds on hand and am still waiting for my oats -- the thought of using fresh grains from my own garden for some of these dishes fills me with excitement (as well as carbohydrates).

I can hardly wheat!

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

What's Your Curry?

Though I've been adding Indian seasonings to various throw-together dishes lately (like curry powder in roasted vegetables), it's been a little while since I made a dinner that was closer to a real Indian meal.

But since the temperatures dropped again today, I knew I needed a little extra heat in my belly, so I headed home to make cauliflower curry.

I haven't made this recipe (from the Cabbagetown Cookbook) in a few years, surprisingly, but I found myself longing for its coconut-laced fragrance. And as it turned out, it was a perfect selection for using more of my stored food.

The dish begins with a quick saute of mustard seeds, coconut, and various spices. After that, I added an onion-garlic disc from the freezer, followed by a jar of tomato sauce. For the vegetables, I tossed in my entire jar (about 1/2 cup) of dried cauliflower, half a bag of frozen peas, a small handful of crumbled dried green peppers, and one fresh sweet potato, cubed.

While it simmered for a while, I pulled out my bucket of artisan bread dough and took Emily's excellent suggestion to make naan. I waited until the Renaissance Man arrived for dinner and had him take photos while I shaped and fried the breads.

The book indicates that the small boules of dough should be rolled out to make naan, but I decided to treat them a little more like tortillas and slapped them back and forth between my palms.

My cast iron skillet, well buttered, proved to be the right pan for the naan, and the sides browned nicely. After each bread was done, I slid it onto a tray in the oven (on low heat) until I had finished them all.

With a big cup of chai, the cauliflower curry and the fresh naan made a warming dinner that gave us a chance to sit back, relax, and talk for a while.

Since I still have some cauliflower in the freezer, I might yet make this dish again this winter -- it was so much better than I had remembered!

But hey, I still have time. We'll just see what happens.

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Preserving the Seasons: February, Week 1

There's no doubt about it: we are about as far as you can get from summer's bounty at this point.

I don't care what the groundhog said this week. We still have six weeks of winter left, and I've got a neighborhood full of snow -- I mean, piled, mountainous snow -- to prove it.

I can guarantee you that there's nothing growing in the ground right now, at least not without serious protection. Heck, I can't even get to the last carrots stuck in the garden!

So right now, finding local food could be a real difficulty. The farmers' market is months away, the orchards are closing for the season, and unless the grocery store has connections to a local greenhouse, there's nothing to be had.

That is, except for the pantries and freezers of those of us who spent lots of time preserving food last summer.

That's not meant to be a brag. I know all too well that food preservation is a hard, exhausting, time-consuming task. I also know all too well that eating almost exclusively from stored food for a few months can be a drag. I guarantee that in a month or so, I'm going to look at all those jars of canned tomatoes and never want to open another.

Preserving food and cooking food that isn't at the height of freshness may not be anyone's first choice for meal preparation. But given our economic situation -- between food prices and the growing difficulty of stretching our budgets -- food preservation is swiftly becoming something we all need to consider more fully.

On the flip side, this is also as good a time as any to learn how to reduce food waste even further. Maybe you're a meticulous cook, using every possible bit of edible food products, composting the rest (or maybe feeding it to your farm animals -- I wish!). I'm certainly not going to claim to be perfect on that front.

But I'm learning. Flour used on a board as I knead bread can be worked into another batch of bread, leftover sugar from cinnamon rolls can top the next morning's oatmeal, excess oil used in sautéeing can be drained off and reused (if not scorched), and so on. Pamphlets and posters from the WWII era gave housewives plenty of ideas for stretching their food rations, and they're not bad ideas even now (like using less expensive grains such as oats, corn, and buckwheat to replace wheat flour at meals -- think oatmeal, grits or cornmeal mush, or buckwheat crepes and pancakes).

In a way, some of this waste reduction can be another form of food preservation: berries left unused in the freezer could be turned into a batch of jam or syrup in the heart of winter, and excess amounts of milk could be made into yogurt or cheese.

We're not at the point of mandatory food rationing, but it certainly doesn't hurt to take a look at what we do now and see if there are ways to stretch our food and our budgets a little further.

In the meantime, we can continue to use what we've preserved for winter as well as find ways to bring spring a little closer with occasional flecks of green in our meals and in our homes. (I'm talking seeds, not mold. Really.)

It's a short month. Let's make the most of it -- and of our food.

WWII-era poster reproductions from Northwestern University Libraries and University of North Texas Libraries.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Honey -- You Should Have!

Putting food away for winter isn't always an exact science. Sometimes it's more of an art.

Keeping track of what you use one year might not prepare you for variations in the coming year, depending on your cravings or your cooking schedule or how much you may share.

And if you're fairly new to putting food by, you simply might not anticipate using so much.

While my pantry is still fairly full, and I am very willing to share it all, the Renaissance Man has discovered that certain items don't last long in his pantry.

He's gone through a lot more flour this winter since we've been baking so much, and he's starting to run low on oats and maple syrup since he loves his morning oatmeal so well.

But worst of all, he goes through honey like a groundhog goes through an earthen lake dam (slow but sure and destructive).

He'll use honey in tea, of course -- and I've enjoyed my fair share of that -- but he also uses it in oatmeal, on toast, on cornbread, and sometimes in baking.

Last week, though, I spotted a notice in the daily announcement email at work that one of the program houses on campus (where small groups of students live together and contribute their efforts to a local charity or project) had honey for sale.

This was no ordinary honey, though. This program house, known as the Honey House, has taken on their own beehives, and the students are learning beekeeping skills. The alumni magazine recently profiled their work, and I couldn't get over how ingenious the project was (and that our often-behind-the-curve institution supported it).

So when I spotted the offer, I immediately emailed the student in charge and ordered two pints.

This afternoon, a student stopped by my office and traded me the jars for cash payment. It's a good thing I contacted the group right away, as they apparently sold out their stock that first day!

When next I meet the Renaissance Man, I'll share the honey with him, in thanks for all the times he's shared with me.

That's a pretty sweet deal all around, I think.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Weekend Loafing

After cooking very simple meals all week, I was ready for something a little more substantial by the time the weekend rolled around.

I experimented with some roasted vegetables Friday night (always good) and a bean loaf Saturday night (not a big winner, but passable). But that wasn't enough.

I wanted to bake.

And since I was hanging out with my favorite baking apprentice over the weekend, I certainly wasn't going to be dissuaded from the task. In fact, he supported the plan so much, he even offered to let me use his giant mixing bowl, a new piece of equipment that has drawn out a surprising possessive streak. (Men and their tools, honestly!)

So this morning, I kicked into high baking gear, starting two recipes at once (in different bowls, of course): our favorite cinnamon rolls, and a spelt-unbleached variation of my favorite pain aux noix.

It's not too much of a stretch. Both start by proofing yeast in warm water, adding sweetener, then whisking in salt, dry milk, and the rest. The cinnamon rolls, enriched with egg and oil, took a little more attention, but on the whole, I kept them straight and ended up with dough to knead almost simultaneously. (I worked back and forth between the two bowls.)

The cinnamon roll dough rises very quickly, so I worked through those first, adding a thick layer of cinnamon-dusted brown sugar before rolling up the dough and adding more of the same to the pan. Luscious!

As the rolls baked, I shaped the bread dough into two standard loaves (not the usual boules) and slid those pans in once the cinnamon rolls were finished and the oven had worked its way up to the new temperature.

We enjoyed some steaming bread with our lunch and warm cinnamon rolls while we watched a movie, and by the end of the day, we both ended up with fresh yeasty goodness to start our respective work weeks.

Now that's the way to loaf on the weekend!

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