Friday, March 23, 2012

Springing Into Action

Spring is officially here, though this week has felt more like May than March, with sunny days and temperatures reaching into the 80s. We're about 30 degrees above average, and all this light and heat has triggered Nature's growth mechanisms: the world is in bloom, with loads of color and a frenzy of leafing out.

WOW. It's a stunner out there, and though the idea of such an early start just feels wrong to me on some levels, I'm at the point where I have to just live in the now and accept what we've got. (It's easier to do, now that I've actually seen honeybees pollinating the weeping cherries on the street -- I feel a little better about the season's fruit crops.)

But this extended burst of warmth has meant that I needed to kick myself into gear on the garden front. I planted peas, carrots, radishes, and Asian greens last weekend. Yesterday I transplanted the hardiest of my leggy broccoli seedlings into the larger pots (seen above) in the hopes that they'll grow a little better.

This morning, once I finished my light load of baking, I sat down outside to seed three flats of vegetables and to reseed some of the herbs I had started in January (but which had not germinated). A friend from contra dancing mentioned last weekend that she had bought a new little greenhouse but was new to starting seeds, so if I wanted space for my own I was welcome to use it -- so I thought I'd prepare for it! And in thanks, I made sure to sow some seeds -- tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, spinach, basil -- for her.

(Note: the little box in the middle, with lettuce and parsley seedlings, came Wednesday from the Delighted Gardener as part of this week's barter. Nice to have an early start on those!)

Since the week's baking is largely done (aside from fresh chocolate croissants tomorrow), I managed to get my week's-end work space cleaning done before my second cup of tea. (Trust me, those racks are almost never that empty!)

And that means that this afternoon, I might just be able to devote some time to cleaning out and reorganizing my pantry so that I have better storage for my teas and herbs. (A very necessary thing: not only am I making more tea and herb blends for market, but I started making iced tea this week, thanks to the heat, so I need to be able to keep everything together!)

I think we often don't realize how lethargic we can get during the winter -- even someone like me, who enjoys bundling up in the cold. The sunny, warm days this week have inspired a burst of cleaning and renewing around here, and that gives me a wonderful feeling.

So Spring it on -- I'm ready now.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

On the Brownie

I've been challenging myself this year to make three items a week for the bakery case at Local Roots, usually cheese rolls of some sort, a cake, and something that falls somewhere in between in terms of sweetness. Not too many other bakers are contributing to the bakery case, so I feel a sense of responsibility to make options available to customers, but I think it's also a good personal challenge to get me to try some new things or to break out old favorites.

Here's this week's example of reviving a favorite original recipe I haven't made in a few years:

Over six years ago, I developed this peanut butter brownie bar on a visit to my Granola Girl, and it met with wholehearted approval. I made it a couple of times after that, but it hadn't occurred to me to bake it for the market until just recently.

See, I try not to bake too much with chocolate -- one, because chocolate isn't local, and while I'm not a purist, two, I don't want to go overboard with the sweet stuff, even for others. But we do have a producer who makes delicious peanut butter (again, peanuts aren't local, but the value-adding is) with just nuts and salt, and I thought it would just sing out in the shortbread base of these brownie bars.

And oh my, did it ever! Shortbread packed with roasted peanut flavor, fudgy brownie, salted peanuts -- whole wheat flour all the way through -- what's not to love? And the customers definitely approved: I had to make a second pan midway through the week!

I'm not sure yet what other treats I'll come up with for the bakery case, but it seems to me that there are plenty of riches in my past favorite recipes to bring back into the light.

You've been warned!

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

Stock and Awe

I've been enjoying weekly swaps with the Delighted Gardener for many months now. With her family of five children and two hard-working parents, she is more than happy to take some of my leftover bread off my hands at the end of the market week. And in return, she shares with me a variety of fresh produce from her gardens (and cold frames), lots of herbs, handmade paper, and a host of other treats.

One of her recent surprises (other than the early arrival of chickweed) was the offer of some homemade chicken stock. Although I still eat a mostly vegetarian diet, I've become what the Renaissance Man calls a "meat snob," and I will occasionally indulge in a bit of meat or meat product if I know personally where it's coming from. And since I've been to the Delighted Gardener's farm and know how she raises (and harvests) her chickens, I was pretty excited at the prospect of getting some soup stock without all the work on my part.

Boy, was that a great deal! Her chicken stock is way more rich (and fatty, yes, but sooooo good) than any I've made (not that I've made much), and it was a treat to put it to use in the dwindling days of February.

Around the same time, I'd been re-reading Full Moon Feast and getting hungry reading the recipes. I decided to try the winter minestrone recipe, using this rich stock as well as carrots, turnip, and dried beans from the garden; dried celery, canned tomatoes, herbs, a cheese rind from my food storage; and some fresh greens.

Oh wow. That was easily the most delectable bowl of minestrone I have ever made, with the perfect combination of flavors (including a bang-up combination of basil, red pepper flakes, and cinnamon) accenting the rich thickness from both the cheese rind and the chicken stock. Mmmmm... leftovers never tasted so tempting!

With the success of one recipe from the book, I decided to try another:

Stracciatella or Roman egg drop soup is a milder version of the egg drop soup you've probably encountered at Chinese restaurants. The only seasoning here was a bit of parsley-infused sea salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. Otherwise, the flavor all came from that rich stock, an egg beaten with some local Parmesan-style cheese, and fresh kale. I've never been a huge fan of egg drop soup, but I could not stop eating this. Oh heaven!

Talk about some souper finds!

Stracciatella (Roman Egg Drop Soup)

From Full Moon Feast. I can't improve on this!

2 c chicken stock
sea salt to taste
1/2 c shredded leafy greens (kale, chard, spinach)
Parmesan cheese
1 egg
black pepper

Bring stock to a boil in a small pan. Season with salt. Add greens to broth.

Grate Parmesan and add to egg, beating the two together. Whisk the soup while you pour in the egg mixture. (The egg cooks immediately.)

Pour soup into a bowl, and garnish with fresh black pepper and nutmeg. Savor.

Makes 2 c

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