Thursday, April 30, 2009

Green Test

Now that I'm getting both gardens planted with some early greens, I realize that I need to clean out the remains of last year's greens from the freezer to make room for the new.

I only managed to put away two small bags of spinach last summer, and with only one left, I think I will save that for some pasta dish. But I put away a good bit more pac choi, and I'm having to come up with new ways of using it.

Last week I had a bag that had been thawing for over a week, so I hurried up and threw it into a tortilla wrap with some tomato hummus. (Not bad.)

Tonight, though, I wanted to try this dark leafy green in a recipe I haven't pulled out for a while: Bangkok noodles.

I haven't cooked Thai food in a long time, especially with coconut milk, because the more I work local foods into my diet, the less I reach for specialty items like that. Once in a while, though, it's a nice foil to local produce.

This dish usually calls for spinach, but I figured the pac choi would add a nice edge (along with some mature and potent garlic... wheeeee!).

And I was right. Between that rich curry-laden sauce, the dark and savory greens, and a hit of potent garlic, this noodle dish made a temperature-rising comfort meal on a damp evening with a hint of chill in the air.

For the complexity of the flavors in the recipe, it's surprisingly simple and one I should pull out more often, despite the dearth of a bumper coconut crop here in northeastern Ohio.

Maybe I should test it again when I pick fresh pac choi this year...

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Sweet Surprise!

As the school year winds to a close and yet another group of students graduates and heads out into the "real" world, I find myself in the grip of bittersweet regret.

One of this year's graduating seniors, der Freiburger, is one I'll especially miss. I regret that we didn't have more shared kitchen experiences, given his keen interest in baking and in learning new skills (like making a soufflé).

But one of the reasons why I've treasured his presence in the department is his capacity to brighten my day with little things. When he has baked biscotti or croissants, he has brought samples into the office to share (and to get a gentle critique, generally enthusiastic).

The latest of his sweet surprises came from a recent trip to Columbus for a job interview. As he declared, he couldn't drive all that way just for an interview, he had to explore. And in his wanderings, he found a small artisan chocolate shop and purchased a few little treats to share.

This box, then, was his gift to me: four dark chocolates laced with different flavors (maple, raspberry, vanilla, and cinnamon). What a lovely surprise!

I've only sampled one thus far -- the cinnamon heart -- but the depth of the chocolate flavor made the perfect foil for the candy heat of the cinnamon. And if the others are this good, I will definitely enjoy them, perhaps even sharing one or two with the Renaissance Man when I see him next.

It's such a little thing, but sometimes it's so heart-warming to be remembered by a friend in such a sweet way.

And now I'll miss der Freiburger even more.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If You're In the Market...

It may look all calm and serene here on the blog front -- lots of happy nodding flowers and delicious food -- but behind the scenes, I've been scrambling like crazy to do my part in the plans for launching our local foods market.

As a quick update, we finally have a legal entity now and an elected Board of Directors (I was chosen to serve as secretary), and we're pushing out the publicity with brochures at local Earth Day fairs, mini-posters around town, and press releases for (and interviews with) newspapers in the area. And let's not forget, we've also been trying to pin down the phasing of our project and figuring out what renovations will need to be done to the building and when.


We're making amazing progress, and it's time to go public. We're holding a community information meeting at the public library (here in Wooster) on Monday, May 4 at 7 PM, and we hope to draw in lots of local growers and other food producers as well as potential customer-members to share with them the dream and the plan. It should be an exciting evening -- lots of people have already expressed enthusiasm for our project -- and if you're in the area, you're welcome to attend.

We've still got a lot of work to do, but we hope that the enthusiasm we generate Monday night will bring some other volunteers into the picture so we can push ahead even more.

Won't you Root us on?

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: April, Week 4

On this fourth utterly gorgeous and hot day in a row, the dogwoods and redbuds and crabapples are unfurling into full, fragrant bloom. Sunlight presses down on me as I walk around town, coating me with the warmth I've hungered for the past few months.

The world is alive with color once more, and though we're expecting cooler temperatures and rains the rest of this week, there's no stopping Spring now.

The new orchard on the Farm, planted in neat rows of apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees, is alive and well after a harsh winter, and the slender twigs are sprouting their first green leaves amidst the sunny riot of dandelions.

The blueberry bushes that were planted just below this new orchard back in the summer took a somewhat harder hit over the winter, but even so, there's new growth here, too.

And back at home, the tomato and broccoli seeds I had planted weeks ago are finally revealing second sets of leaves, and despite their still spindly stems, I think it might not be too long before I can transplant the seedlings into the garden.

From dormant roots and shoots, finally we're seeing a burst of exuberant life everywhere. Isn't it great?

To celebrate, I made this month's featured local meal from some of the first green things in the garden: nettles. I pulled out the recipe for nettle fritters and whipped up a very tiny amount of batter (it was not a big nettle plant I pulled) to make a small fritter or pancake. (I also used a local egg and some local corn flour in the recipe.)

With a cup of refreshingly cold local cider, it made a good, quick, satisfying spring meal on a scorcher of an evening. (And I can only hope to enjoy more weedy meals in the near future!)

We've got one month left in this year-long preserving series, and already the harvest is starting to come in.

Are you ready to start preserving more of the season this time around?

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Getting a Fair Bake

Knowing that I'd be heading to the Farm today for a visit -- and not being utterly overwhelmed by life during all the weekdays leading up to the trip -- I decided to get in the kitchen and make something good to share with the Renaissance Man and his family.

I started yesterday morning by making some fresh scones for breakfast, using several local ingredients: spelt flour, butter, dried strawberries, candied orange peel, and milk. I enjoyed the treat of two fresh, warm scones with a cold glass of local cider to start my day, and I knew that the Farm family would appreciate the treat today.

Later in the afternoon, I made dessert -- always appreciated, especially by the sweet-tooth-indulging Farm Mother. I took the pear cake recipe that another friend loves so well and replaced the fresh pear slices with the remains of a jar of canned peaches. I also swapped the chopped pistachios for chopped local hicans, since that seemed like a better mix with the peaches. Other local ingredients included spelt flour, maple sugar, eggs, and the syrup remaining from the jar of peaches.

As soon as the cake emerged from the oven, I slid in a dish of springtime risotto. The Arborio rice, asparagus, and artichoke hearts were not, unfortunately, local, but I did add a few dried red peppers and dried cherry tomatoes from my pantry to give it a little more zip.

Today, then, I arrived at the Farm late morning to find the Renaissance Man lounging on the front porch glider, and once I had unloaded everything I had taken, I shared with him (and his brother, back from some hard work down at the lake) a tender, fruit-filled scone that met his approval.

After a very full partial day's worth of work around the house, helping out where possible, I pulled together a light dinner, reheating the risotto and throwing together a fresh salad. Everyone appreciated all the vegetables, but they loved dessert and tucked into the peach cake with great enthusiasm.

I left the cake with them and returned home at a reasonable hour, tired but pleased to have been able to offer them something wholesome and delicious for the day. And as for me? I just love being at the Farm and am always happy when I can contribute something to life there.

Seems like a pretty fair trade to me.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Dig Weekend

Spring has finally decided to bring us some warm, sunny, almost summery weather, and I've had just enough free time in my schedule to plan some garden visits.

On Thursday, the Absent-Minded Professor picked me up from work and took me to his family's home, where I waved to the Southern Belle and My Adorable Nephews in transit to the back yard. While the AMP dug a bed and planted the blueberry bushes I had ordered for them at Christmas, I worked on putting in a second round of seeds. (I forgot to take my camera, but I'll try to remember next time around.)

Since the peas, lettuce and other greens, radishes, and even last year's scallions were doing so well, I planted another round of each of those items. Then I added in a row of Yellow Finn potatoes, a row of parsnips, a small row of golden beets, and some cilantro. The soil is at the perfect mixture of rich moisture and crumbly texture and warmth, so I'm hoping those will all germinate soon.

On Friday, I grabbed my shovel and mud boots and headed for the Renaissance Man's back garden. Since he is out of commission for a while, I figured that if I wanted anything grown at his place, I'd have to do all the work myself.

So I did. Friday afternoon I worked up a sweat clearing last year's patch and making a dent on a new section, and this morning I headed back over to finish clearing.

And though this picture doesn't give a hint of what's under the surface, I'll tell you: both Sangre and Green Mountain potatoes, Blue Coco pole beans, Masai bush beans, Windsor fava beans, French Breakfast and Munchener Bier radishes, Noir de Russie scorzonera (the closest thing to salsify I could find for the Chef Mother), Chioggia beets, Antares Oakleaf lettuce, Red Cipollini onions, and chives. I still have lavender and sage from last year's planting, and I even have room for a couple of cherry tomato seedlings once those are large enough to transplant.

Whew! You can well imagine that I'm a little worn out from the push, but I am so glad to have this done. I'll still have more to plant at the original garden, but hey, the growing season is well underway.

And that's a dig deal.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: April, Week 3

Here in Wooster, we've got a mere month and a half before the farmers' market returns for another season. I'm getting excited already!

But the start of a new harvest season means it's time to start thinking about a new preservation season, too, and considering where you'll find all your local produce and other products.

Last week I mentioned the possibility of starting your own garden with plants started from seed. Having your own garden can be a very satisfying way of sourcing local food, but until you build up more experience with it, it most likely won't fill all your preservation needs for the season.

That's why this week I'll review some ideas of where to look for local foods in preparation for your food preservation efforts.

First of all, the farmers' market is generally the best place to start. (Not sure if there's one nearby? Check Local Harvest.) With multiple farmers and vendors bringing a variety of goods to one centralized market place, you're likely to find almost all the fruits and vegetables you could hope to want. If you particularly like the produce a farmer sells and would like to buy larger quantities for preservation, talk to him or her. In my experience, any farmer will be thrilled to have a large order placed in advance for fresh produce: guaranteed sales!

While you're at the market chatting up the farmers, start looking for or asking about other local foods. Do any of them also sell meats, poultry, eggs, or the like but can't bring them to market due to health code restrictions? Do they know of anyone else who sells those items?

Look around also for staples such as honey, maple syrup, nuts, pasta, grains, or flour. In recent years, I've been able to find all of those items at my local farmers' market, and even though one or two of those vendors no longer come to market, I have their phone numbers and can call to place an order. (If you like what they have to offer, get their contact information and ask if you'd be able to order larger quantities in the off-season.)

If you enjoy making that contact with the farmer, you might find that a weekend drive in the country takes you past a number of farmstands where you can buy more produce directly from the farmer. In some areas, you're likely to stumble across some specialty vendor, like a local winery.

And while you're wandering the back roads, look for a local orchard or country market: these small places generally have other local food products available for sale. I've been able to find cider vinegar, sorghum molasses, maple sugar, and popcorn at places like these.

Like getting out to visit the farms themselves? Look for a local farmers' organization, like the Grange or (here in Ohio) OEFFA, where you can meet and talk with the farmers. Check their web sites: OEFFA, for example, has a guide to finding organic and sustainable farms and businesses around the state.

If you prefer to limit your wanderings to town, check at the local grocery store -- especially if you have one that is locally owned -- and ask about what local foods they might carry. You may be surprised at what you can find, and if they hear enough customers asking for it, they will provide it.

Talk also to your neighbors, co-workers, friends -- anyone you have a regular or passing acquaintance with -- if they know where you can find such and such items of local produce. If they garden themselves, they may offer you some of their surplus, or they may give you tips on other places to go. (Hint: it's always charmingly polite if you thank them with food you've made from some of that local harvest, whether it's a gift or a whole meal.)

As you discover new products and new sources, keep a list. Did you like particular varieties? Did you especially enjoy something preserved or cooked a certain way? Is this something you'd want to preserve in large or small quantities? Keep notes and add to your list every year, stretching your palate and your preservational repertoire as you go.

It may take a couple of years for you to switch over to mostly local foods (if that's what you want) and perhaps a couple more until you're preserving the quantities you need to get you through winter. It's a process, not an end goal, because some years some produce will see better harvests than others, and your tastes may change, too. Give yourself time to explore and experiment.

The more you enjoy eating local foods, the more this will become a delightful game for you. It's a joy to learn about new sources of good food and to try new dishes, so little by little, stretch yourself. Try something new!

And before you know it, you'll be more than ready for the farmers' market to begin!

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Does This Meringue a Bell?

Now that life -- well, at least in my little world -- is beginning to settle again, I find myself compelled a little more frequently to wend my way into the kitchen and to prepare something real.

This past week I've tested my new oven with homemade broccoli pizza, roasted garlicky brussels sprouts, and even a small pan of luscious brownies. Suffice it to say, I'm pleased with how well the oven handles, and pretty soon I'll be ready to take it through some more hard-core baking paces.

Until then, though, I'll settle for occasionally baking something sweet, based on a new recipe.

You might want to read that line again. Yes, after a ridiculously long time (or at least so it seems), I've pulled out a brand spankin' new recipe and -- true to form -- tweaked it from the get-go.

Some time ago, I had borrowed a copy of The Essence of Chocolate (written by the fellows who started Scharffen Berger chocolate) and copied down a number of enticing recipes. And though I'm out of chocolate at the moment, I thought I might be able to make a lovely variation on the Brown Sugar Meringue Bars recipe from the book.

I mixed together the shortbread-like base, using local spelt flour, sort-of-local maple sugar, local unsalted butter, local egg yolk, and a handful of chopped local hicans (to replace the chocolate chips). Between the moisture-absorbing spelt flour and the general lack of liquid, though, the base ended up being a bit crumbly, so I had to press it into the pan.

In a separate bowl, I whisked together a local egg white with some brown sugar, whipping it into a froth and then spreading it over the cookie bar base.

After half an hour in the oven, the toasty brown sugar fragrance lured me into the kitchen to discover that the foamy meringue topping had crisped into a light-as-air, melt-in-your-mouth cloud covering the buttery base.

I managed to wait until the pan of bars had cooled, but then I finally gave in and cut a corner for my dessert. You'll note that it ended up very crumbly, but it tasted so very good -- rich buttery maple nut goodness -- that I didn't really care. I do, however, think that next time I might try using maple syrup instead of maple sugar and/or melting the butter before mixing the ingredients together, just to see if that holds the cookie base together better.

As for the rest of the pan, I'm saving those for tomorrow night, when our Local Roots marketing team gets together for another potluck dinner and hands out really classy looking brochures for our upcoming community meeting. (Other groups can't possibly have as much fun working as we do!)

And you'll be sure to hear more about this recipe in future.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gene Therapy

A cool rain has settled on us for the past two days. I've been thinking that I'd like to get over to the garden to check on the first seeds and to plant the next round, but between the rain and my busy schedule, that just hasn't happened.

But I received a delightful surprise today that keeps the garden close to my heart...

Behold! Remember when I told you that Gene Logsdon was revising his classic Small-Scale Grain Raising, and that I had been fortunate enough to get a manuscript copy to review for the Ethicurean? Well, it has finally made the transition to a published book, and I got my copy in the mail today.

How exciting! Now I'm ready to get out and plant my very own "pancake patch" of either winter wheat or buckwheat. (Or maybe one of each!)

And what's really exciting for me is that a quote from my Ethicurean review has been printed on the back cover. Wheeeee!

That little tidbit is hardly the important part, though. If you're at all interested in raising some of your own grains for milling, baking, or cooking, this book is the definitive resource for you. Nothing else compares in terms of breadth, depth, and sheer delight. It'll make your fingers start to itch for the feel of soil underneath, and you'll start craving biscuits and pancakes and the like.

That's the kind of therapy that will make any day brighter!

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: April, Week 2

Though the change in the seasons often induces in us a craving for fresh green vegetables, Nature does not always oblige.

Yes, if you have a place where you can safely forage, you'll find a variety of greens available: chickweed, dandelion leaves, nettle, violets, and so on. They're loaded with nutrients and make a good addition to your seasonal palate.

But even so, most of us start craving other fresh vegetables around this time of year, and they will take longer to arrive at the farmers' market. It's times like these when you may find yourself thinking, if I grew my own, maybe I'd have tomatoes (or eggplant, or peppers, or whatever) sooner.

So even though this year-long series is about preserving the harvest, we're here this week to talk about growing the produce that will be later harvested and preserved. You can't have homemade tomato sauce without the tomato plants, and at some point, you might consider growing your own and even starting those plants from seed.

At least that's where I am in my gardening journey. I've tried starting plants from seed before and always had problems with the seedlings getting too leggy. But I was determined to try again this year, come what may.

I started by soaking the seeds with a thin covering of water on dessert plates. I had read somewhere that soaking seeds helped them germinate better, but in helping the Lady Bountiful a few weeks ago, I found that she didn't bother, perhaps because of the volume she had to plant. (I'll also add that trying to pick up wet seeds and to plant them accurately is a nightmare!)

I planted the seeds in small, deep pots filled with a soilless mix for seed-starting. After covering them, I added a little water, and then I took them home and set them in a south-facing window since I don't have a grow-light set-up.

The seedlings got off to a good start, with the broccoli making an excellent jump in the first week and a handful of tomato plants close behind. How exciting!

But eventually, they just stalled. Gradually more sprouts emerged, but none have yet to get very tall or sturdy or to develop their second sets of leaves.

Here's where I should really follow conventional wisdom and rig up grow lights and shelves for multiple flats of seedlings. Everything is going against me in this set-up: a too-distant light source, a too-cool environment, not enough water, and a general atmosphere of benign neglect.

I'm still holding on to hope that I'll get a few seedlings growing a little more -- and that I'll eventually have something to transplant into the garden. But overall, this year's attempt hasn't fared much better than past ones thus far. If you want to see a successful seed-staring operation, go back and review the process the Lady Bountiful uses -- she has plenty of success!

In the meantime, I'm continuing to plan the rest of the garden, and I expect I'll get back to plant another round of early seeds fairly soon. I have big plans for this year's garden, and I'll need all the time I can get.

Why not start a garden this year and grow some of your own harvest to preserve?

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

In the Weeds

There's so much going on around here right now that it's really difficult for me to keep up with the blog. Life continues to happen in a big, demanding way, and right now I'm juggling a good deal:

--still running My Wonderful Parents around until My Dear Papa is released to drive again
--a major push with Local Roots toward a big public meeting at the end of the month (and I'm involved in the marketing angle so will be busy writing copy for brochures and an upcoming web site)
--helping the Renaissance Man in any way possible following his recent accident
--taking on a few new responsibilities at work and wrapping up others
--starting this year's Victory Garden
--major spring cleaning
--finding time for friends!

So for a little while, posting will be thin (though I'll try to keep up with the Preserving series since it's quickly coming to the end of the year!). I do have a few recommended reads for you to tide you over, though:

--Did you see the news? There's a vegetable garden at the White House! Not only that, but the First Family is getting local students involved, a worthy cause made dear to my heart after my visit with Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook) at the Children's Studio School Garden in DC.

--Other folks are getting their gardens started, too, and enjoying the peace and satisfaction it brings. Sharon offers her poetic and thoughtful take on the subject over at Hen and Harvest.

--Times are tough, and sometimes it's hard to afford the truly good, healthy, local food we idealize. Fellow Ethicurean Charlotte reminds us, though, that there's more to the price of groceries than meets the eye, and she explains why she's done cheating on her egg lady.

As for me, cooking will be basic and utilitarian this week, but hopefully this weekend I'll be able to try something new to share with you.

And as soon as I can do something about these "weeds," I'll be back...

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: April, Week 1

By the time April arrives, even in northern Ohio we feel fairly certain that Winter has loosed its icy grip. We may still quote the local saying "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute" in acknowledgement of April's fickleness. We may watch fervently to see if the old adage "snow three times after the forsythia blooms" holds true, but we know deep down that even when the snow does fly in April, it will be of the wet, shortlasting variety, blanketing the ground for but a day.

No, once the time change occurs and Spring officially arrives and we get through the potentially crazy weather on April Fools' Day, we know that we'll start to see more sunshine and feel a little more warmth in the world around us.

With that light and heat comes a refreshing change in our surroundings: the earth takes on a hundred different shades of green, from emerald grass to dusky verdant tulip leaves to chartreuse hints speckled among the tree branches. And layered on top of all those lush shades we find the traditional spring blooms, from golden daffodils and plummy violets to creamy dogwoods and blushing apple blossoms. Forget the frills and furbelows of your favorite Easter dress or the pastels found in your Easter basket -- Nature brings us the real deal, a world alive with color!

After months of short days, dreary skies, and feeling chilled to the bone, we bask in the glory of Spring, allowing ourselves to be dazzled and temporarily blinded by a world reborn. In the midst of all the unpredictable weather April brings, we can hold on to the promise of hope and joy and warm days once again.

For those of us who try to eat seasonally, April can be a month both of longing and of fulfilled desire. After eating from the freezer and the pantry and the root cellar for months, surviving on a diet that eventually seems monotonous, we see all the greens coloring the world outside and start to salivate, dreaming of fresh salads, tonic herbs, and tender asparagus. And yet, there's still plenty of preserved food to eat (at least there is in my kitchen!), food that by now seems mushy and dull and even unappetizing in the face of such freshness.

What to do, what to do? I don't know about you, but I'm trying to forge ahead as best I can, cleaning out a jar or two (more if I can) and a few bags of vegetables from the freezer each week, but even I find I occasionally have to give in and eat something fresh. If I can forage wild greens, I'm ever so happy, but otherwise, I will occasionally eat store-bought greens just until I can get fresh locally-grown ones. (If I don't, I can tell that I'm not getting a good enough nutritional balance in my meals.)

In addition, I'm gearing up for this year's garden season. I headed out to the garden around noon yesterday to plant the first seeds since the Absent-Minded Professor had kindly turned over the garden beds for me. I sowed rows of spinach, lettuce, radishes, carrots, scallions, chard, and two kinds of peas, all in the hopes of having something fresh from the garden to eat even by the end of this month and into next.

While there, I checked on the growth of the garlic I planted last fall, and both rows look impressive! Maybe soon I'll head out to find the scapes curling up from the ground, offering a bit of that garlic taste before this year's harvest later in the season.

I know that local farmers are already starting this year's crops, whether under grow lights, in the greenhouse, or even in the fields. With any luck, they might start seeing some early harvests fairly soon, too. And whether it happens yet this month or early next, I can't wait for the fresh, pencil-thin, tender asparagus that I know a couple of people will have on offer.

Certainly we won't be able to eat complete weekly meals from what might be harvested this month, and there may not be enough yet for preservation, but the work begins now for this coming season, either in your own garden or in tracking down what will be offered at local farms and farmers' markets. Start planning now!

We're not fully into the growing season yet, but fresh food is coming. Soon!

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