Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Garden Grows Friendships

It started when I planted garlic in my front yard.  You see, my backyard is full of shade trees, so the only logical place to plant vegetables on my rental property is the front yard.  Luckily, I live in a college town, on the student side of the railroad tracks, so ripping up front lawns to grow food goes over well.  No homeowner's association is going to be suing me.

When you grow vegetables in your front yard, though, your gardening is on display for the whole neighborhood.  This openness, this crack of vulnerability, has created a space for me to build bonds, to build my little community.  People walking by stop to chat about vegetables, about a favorite grandma/uncle/cousin who used to garden.  People stop to ask questions about what is growing or want advice about how to grow their own.  Friendships, like the plants, are nurtured in this green, growing space between my front door and the sidewalk.

In the fourth grade reading classes I teach this summer, we read The Cricket in Times Square.  This classic children's novel is all about forming unlikely friendships.  In one class period, I ask students how did you meet one of your friends?  Then, I share this story.

One day Chen, who lives in my neighborhood walked by my house and saw my garden.  "Very nice garden," he said.  The next day he walked by again and this time he noticed the garlic growing in my yard.  "No can buy here," he said pointing to the garlic.  "We have in China, but you can't buy it here in the stores."  The garlic was young, still green.  It was the size of gigantic scallions.  The bulbs hadn't formed yet.  He was so interested in the garden, I gave him a tour (it's not hard to convince a gardener to show off her labors.)  I also sent him home with a bag of green garlic.

A few days later, Chen was back with his friend Lan.  They stopped by on their evening walk to admire my garden.  Perhaps it reminded them of China, or perhaps they, like me, have a passionate love for all vegetables.  From this, a friendship was formed as we began talking about food.  It was decided that Chen would teach me to make Chinese style noodles.

From my garden, I have harvested an unexpected and delightful new friendship with two generous fellow food lovers.  This week I spent an afternoon with Chen and Lan making Chinese noodles (will post the details soon) and drinking tea.  And, if you've read The Cricket in Times Square, know that I was in as much awe over the Chinese food Lan and Chen made for me as Mario was when he and Chester Cricket visit Sai Fong for dinner! I'm sure this is just the beginning of the many food adventures we'll share together.  All of this came from a few cloves of garlic and some vegetables seeds planted where most people just have lawns.

I started my garden because I care deeply about the food I eat.  I want my food to be organic, not grown with dangerous chemicals that could harm me or the animals, soil, air, and water around me.  And I don't want my food to have traveled more miles than I have in the past week.  I want food that is fresh, flavorful, and fits my budget.  I want the pride that comes with turning a seed into a carrot or watermelon. I want to be outside and watch how the garden unfolds, grows, changes, and dies a little bit each day.  I wanted all of these things when I began this garden this spring, but I didn't realize that I would get so much more than that.

This garden has rooted me, quite literally, in place.  I have met my neighbors and have had meaningful exchanges because of this garden.  I have built a small community of food lovers, gardeners, and curious passerbys because of a shared interest in this garden.  I have inspired neighbors to plant a few vegetables of their own.  And, I've had the opportunity to share the bounty of the garden.  As it produces copious vegetables, I am delighted to pass the abundance forward.

Sure, it's just a vegetable garden, but it's also a whole lot more.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Guilty Pleasure Dining: Raw Kale Three Ways

I try on average 3 to 4 new recipes a week.  Mostly, I am just cooking for myself and my husband, Kent.  I enjoy cooking for Kent, not only because cooking is a form of endearment, but because he also happens to be a pretty darn good guinea pig.  (Not to say he has any other traits resembling a guinea pig.  He doesn't have buck teeth or smell funny, for instance.)  For as much harassment I give Kent for the foods he doesn't like, I don't give the man nearly enough credit for the experiments he endures because he married a foodie.  He takes my culinary whims in stride.  He never complains about dinner.  At worst, he just doesn't eat it, and then he sneaks junk food later after I've gone to bed.
Here's a partial list of things my culinary martyr has endured:

*Strange Salad Dressings involving Hazelnut oil and too much lemon
*Dry Pasta Dishes without marinara sauce (marinara is Kent's favorite)
*Bitter greens (mustard, kale, collards) sneaked into soups and casseroles
*Three months of no yeast/bread/dairy in the house while I completed a Candida Cleanse
*Swiss chard gone wrong with soggy walnuts
*Watching me eat animals that he thinks should only be known as pets (rabbit)
*Waiting for at least 20 shots of any meal to be taken before eating

Even though I realize I'm lucky because Kent is so agreeable, I admit I feel the freedom to indulge in all my guilty food pleasures when he's not around.  This habit started the first year we were married when he was completing a low-residency Master's degree.  Twice a year he'd be out of town for a couple weeks at a time for his residencies.  I could cook whatever I wanted with no sighs or eye rolling.

This week Kent's been out of town, and I've been trying hard to get the more Kent offensive food items into my diet so that he won't have to stomach them.  So I polished off the tilapia in the freezer (he has a minor food allergy to fish), and then I moved on to the grass-fed, organic beef liver (like so many others, he has an aversion to liver.)  But, the highlight of this week's guilty pleasure dining has been the ability to eat kale at almost every meal without feeling guilt and without being ridiculed.  It's as if Kent covertly planned his trip to coincide with the kale harvest so he could avoid his number one most hated vegetable.

I mostly enjoy my kale fixes as Molly Wizenburg of Orangette suggests in her article "How I Learned to Love Kale": hot pan of olive oil and butter, a quick saute, finished by a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of sea salt. 

 But it's summer, so as temperatures soar I've turned to raw kale.  I know.  It's sort of scary.  Almost like admitting you eat raw liver (although I'd never go THAT far.) Frankly, raw kale has a lot going against it.  Its rubbery, garbage bag texture, and it's grass clipping aroma.  I wasn't brave enough to experiment on my own, so I perused the Internet for, what I felt were, the most promising raw kale recipes out there.  Please feel free to post your own links or recipes if you have a raw kale recipe I missed.  What follows are the three that I tried this week.

The best part of these three recipes is shredding the kale.  The best way to do this is to chiffonade the leaves after de-stemming them.  Bundle the leaves into a big fat, cigar-like roll, and slice as thinly as you can.  This is the most satisfying knife skill I know.

Dr. Dick's Kale Coleslaw  the first recipe I tried comes from Diana Dyer, a nutritionist who writes 364 Days of Kale, which is a great resource for the kale obsessed.  This recipe is entry level kale eating.  Most people hate kale because it's bitter, but this recipe has a whooping 1/3 cup of brown sugar in its balsamic vinaigrette dressing to counteract kale's bite.  In all honesty, this was too much sugar for me, but I took this to a 4th of July BBQ, and it a hit.  (More popular than the Mulberry Jam Thumbprint Cookies I made and nearly as sweet!)  However, this kaleslaw is beautiful because of the contrasting colors: red peppers, purple red onions, and orange carrots.  I think the amount of sugar in this recipe could be cut in half with no repercussions.

If we were playing Goldilocks, I'd say the first salad was too sweet, and the second salad was too salty. This Raw Kale Salad with Avocado from Tara Weaver of Tea & Cookies is composed of kale, cabbage, red onion, and a garlicky, lemon miso dressing.  The miso was overpowering, but this could be my own damn fault because I used Red Miso instead of Light Miso, but either way, go easy on the miso and taste as you go.  Because if you get the balance of right, the miso makes the creaminess of the avocado sing.  The cabbage also added a nice counterpoint, and although it seems strange, the onion powder gives the dressing a craveable flavor.  I will definately make this again.

Finally, I ended this raw kale bender with Sesame Kale Salad. This last recipe, while not necessarily "just right," was a good base salad to add other ingredients to.  On it's own it, it just didn't have enough pizazz even though the sesame seeds and sesame oil played well with the sweet roasted red bell peppers.  I jazzed it up with a few blanched green beans, some garbanzo beans, and a little leftover rice I made a meal of it.

The great thing about all these kale salads is that the kale leaves are so sturdy that once you make up the salad and dress it, it will keep in the refrigerator for several days.  So, when you find yourself alone, at midnight with a hankering for kale, you can indulge your guilty pleasure.

So what do you eat when your picky family members are not around?

Friday, July 9, 2010

No Grocery Store Challenge Wrap Up

So, the no grocery store challenge has ended.  We went three and a half weeks only spending $12.94 at Meijer Supermarket.  This challenge was a way for us to save money while our budget was temporarily tight.  Many advocates of food storage cite natural disasters as a reason to be well supplied but fail to mention that food storage can be extremely helpful during times when the pocketbook is lean.

Here are some of the things I learned about myself in the past weeks:

1.  I am a food hoarder. My pantries bulge. I collect staples.  The problems is while Webster's defines a staple as "a basic and necessary food item" my definition is quite broader.  I shop at grocery stores and ethnic food markets like most people shop malls and antique stores.  (Case in point: On our recent trip to Omaha, the only shopping I did was at Whole Foods and various ethic food stores.  Yes, I was a tourist at a Whole Foods.  If you happen to live near one, don't take it for granted!)  I’m always in search for the seeds, nuts, legumes, pulses, beans, grains, ect. that I can’t get in my limited Bowling Green grocery stores, and I buy up.  I also buy up whenever I see something on sale.  In fact, pantry space has overflowed to the laundry room.  Shelves are heaped haphazardly with bags of lentils, rice, beans which threaten to avalanche at any moment.

2. The No Grocery Store challenge made me less of a hoarder.  I HAD to use what was on hand.  Many times I have the tendency to save the good stuff for a special occasion, but that occasion never comes.  It didn’t occur to me that this was the case until I started buying groceries again.  Yesterday, I was prepping to make a beet and lentil salad.  I only have French lentils on hand (from Omaha’s Wholefoods, before that I got them at Cleveland’s West Side Market because I can't get them in B.G.).  I thought, I can’t use these in this recipe—it’s my precious stash—so I sent Kent out to buy regular brown lentils.  So it's great to collect uncommon grains and beans, but I need to stop saving them up.  Perhaps this is why I find the urgency of using fresh, seasonal produce so compelling.

3. I didn’t make much of a dent in my pantry or freezer.  See two previous items.  I really must do better with this.  So, while Kent’s gone next week, I should make sure to eat all the frozen food that he won’t normally eat: KALE. FISH.  But, at the same time, if it's not in danger of spoiling, it IS comforting to have extra food on hand.

4.  I liked the limitations of using what was on hand because I didn’t feel overwhelmed with too much food to cook.  While I think I do a good job of not letting food go to waste, I still overbuy.  Or I let the CSA box get the best of me, and can't seem to use up everything before it goes bad.  I hate feeling anxious about having TOO much food! 

5.  Limitations make even small treats feel decadent.  After awhile, the limitations did begin to feel spartan.  We ate a lot of peanut butter in 3 weeks.  But, when we sprung for Parmesan, it felt lavish.  I forget how easy it is to be jaded by over saturation of something.  Which again, brings me to Alice Waters’s quote “The things most worth having are not available everywhere all the time.”  Because if they were, they wouldn’t be worth it.

6. I appreciated and celebrated the food that I did have more.  I felt grateful for the soups I had frozen this winter and thawed.  I felt thrilled that I was able to cobble together healthy, delicious meals from what was left in the pantry.  I was even prouder of the vegetables from my garden (if that's possible).

7.  I had more free time because I wasn't obsessing over grocery shopping.  This challenge made me realize that I don’t like going to the grocery store. Submitting weekly to a crowded big-box store, with it's onslaught of heavily marketed packaged food, not to mention the plethora of decisions about what to buy and not buy, makes me a little crazy.  I’d rather not have to deal with it.  It's more manageable for me to stay out in the farmer’s markets, CSAs, my own garden, and the underground food network I’ve made for myself here, and to go to specialty markets for special treats.  Of course, I can't stay out of the supermarket forever, but at least during the summer, I don't need to rely on it nearly as much for my food.

What about you?  How do you approach food storage?  What is your pantry like?

* I forgot to give photo credit where, credit is due.  Kent took the two grocery store shots in this post.  Good job, honey!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friendship Farm Friday: Snap Peas and Sage (!!!)

This week's CSA box: (clockwise from top left) Sugar Snap Peas, Lettuce, Beets, Kale, Sweet Banana Peppers, Jalapenos, Ponna Kheera Cucumber, Italian Parsley, Green Onions.

Sometimes eating seasonally means dealing with a glut.   While Alice Waters said it quite poetically: "The things most worth wanting are not available everywhere all the time."  There's more to it than that.  For instance, the past three weeks are the only weeks of the entire year that I can eat local, fresh, organic, sustainable sugar snap peas.  Then they will be gone until next season.  This fleeting window presents challenges.  On one hand, I'm tired of dealing with my 6th pound of peas in 21 days, but on the other hand, I am desperate not to let them go to waste.

Snap peas are brilliant.  Here is a pea that can be eaten pod and all! They do require stringing, though.  This is not nearly as tedious as shelling, and because the pod is succulent and tasty, there's less waste both in prep time and in product.  For the first few weeks, I prepared the snap peas with Asian flavors.  I highly making Sesame Orzo Salad from Sarah's Cucina Bella Blog.  However, substitute the orzo for a whole grain, as the refined flour in the orzo is not very healthy.  I substituted short grain brown rice.  The flavors that really pull through in this dish are ginger, sesame, and garlic.  I like this recipe because it uses the snap peas raw, which makes them particularly crunchy.  Plus, they look really cute when they're thinly sliced crosswise.

The other recipe that I adapted for snap peas is Rice Noodle Salad, which I found on Dorie Greenspan's blog.  This salad is Thai inspired so it's got some heady flavors: fish sauce, GARLIC, chili. (I LOVE garlic, but 1 1/2 tablespoons called for in this recipe is overwhelming.  Start slow with a 1/2 tablespoon at a time.)  You'll also notice that this recipe doesn't even call for snap peas, but they were a lovely addition.  Simply string the snap peas, and blanch them in a huge pot of boiling water for about a minute.  Then drain and pour cold water over to stop the cooking.  Do not over cook!

After these two recipes, I was out of ideas for snap peas, so I turned to the handy dandy Flavor Bible.  Which I can't sing the praises of enough.  At the end of each ingredient entry, there is a list of "Flavor Affinities" defined as "what herbs, spices, and other seasonings will best bring out the flavor of whatever it is you're cooking."  Most ingredient entries have long lists of Flavor Affinities.  Snap peas had one: snap peas + brown butter + sage.  Sage?  WTF?  

The Flavor Bible was recommending that I use an earthy, woodsy, Thanksgivingy herb to season the sweet, delicate, springy, and succulent snap peas?  It was too strange of a suggestion not to try it.  Oh my goodness!  I've never had snap peas more delicious.  The sweetness of the snap pea seems to intensify as it lingers with the brown butter, perhaps because the brown butter oozes notes of caramel.  And the sage is the bass line. It's deeper than either of the other flavors, but rather than overwhelming them, it lets all the other flavors sing.

Brown Buttered Snap Peas with Sage
This recipe would make a great side dish with any chicken dish or even incorporated into a pasta dish.

1 lb. sugar snap peas, strings removed
4 T. butter
1 to 2 teaspoons fresh minced sage

Bring large stock pot full of salted water to a boil.  Add snap peas, let cook for about 1 min.  Drain and set aside.  In stainless steel pan, (not dark nonstick) melt butter over medium heat.  Continue to heat until milk solids in butter turn dark brown, but not black.  Remove from heat immediately.  (This should only take a minute or two.  You can also judge doneness by the photo above.)  Toss together snap peas, brown butter, and sage.  Season to taste with salt.  Devour. 


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mulberries and The Kindness of Strangers

Food foraging can be nerve wracking.  Soon after picking, doubt begins to set in.  Is it really edible?  Am I really, truly, sure that this plant/berry/mushroom is the right species and not an evil, poisonous doppelganger?
On the other hand, food foraging to feels exhilarating.  It’s the culinary equivalent of dumpster diving. Getting luscious berries like this for free isn't a bad deal at all.

When foraging for mulberries, I have no worries about getting the genuine thing.  I've been picking wild mulberries for as long as I can remember.  In fact, even before my little sister was born, I remember family foraging trips, down dusty dirt roads to find the best road-ditch mulberry trees in the county.  When I was 5, I thought it was quite spectacular to watch mulberry picking.  Mulberry picking is best accomplished by laying out a large sheet under the tree and shaking the branches until it rains mulberries.  Quite an exciting affair, especially compared to buying a can of pie filling at the grocery store.

My mulberry picking adventure this year was still exciting.  I've been scoping out the trees in my neighborhood for the past few weeks.  Waiting for ripeness.  I finally found the perfect picking tree two blocks from my house: a large specimen with low hanging boughs.  The only problem was that it is very much on private property.  I decided to Blanche DuBois it and "rely on the kindness of strangers." I knocked on the tree owner's door and asked if I could pick mulberries.  The gentlemen that answered the door said yes.  (Sometimes loving an unappreciated fruit can have its benefits. I don't think I'd have been nearly as lucky had I tried the same thing with a backyard cache of raspberries.)  Though mulberries are under appreciated, I find that I like them precisely because of how common, how pedestrian they are.  Here is a delicious berry that nearly goes unnoticed.  I also admire that fact that they seem to thrive in countryside road ditches as well as they do in my urban neck of the woods. 
Mulberries make a lovely pie filling.  In fact, that's the only use my mother ever had for the berry after my dad had shimmied and shaked the tree free of all its fruit.  She was on to something. Mulberries are best cooked to draw out the most flavor.  Mulberries are like blackberry’s shy, younger sibling. They're much more dainty in flavor, and delicate in physique.  Mulberries are juicy like blackberries, but they have the earthy humility of a blueberry, but without the tartness. They aren’t as tart as blackberries, either, and they aren’t nearly as aggressive with their seeds—which is particularly appealing.

For the pie, I made a butter crust this time because I didn't want to buy lard.  I used Michael Ruhlman's 3-2-1 Pie Crust from his book Ratio.  At first I was nervous that I had added too much water because the dough was a bit sticky when rolling out—so I used a lot of flour—and had to roll out each piece of dough twice because the first time it stuck to the table.  Even so, the crust was not overworked.  It was impeccably tender. More tender than any lard crust I had ever made before.  I loved how the butter flavor complimented the berry filling.  Although I love a lard pie crust for robust and spicy apple pie, that would have overwhelmed the flavors here.

I also made a batch of jam.  Another life lesson taught by cooking: everything gets easier with practice. Putting up a batch of mulberry jam took less than an hour today.The jam is brilliant—dark and shinny—mostly purple, with deep garnet undertones. I added cinnamon and just a pinch of ground clove to the jam.  While the cinnamon is less detectable than the clove, the two spices would fall under the realm of secret ingredients because without knowing they're in there, you just can't quite put your finger on what the flavor is.  But the spices round out the flavors, bringing the floral notes of the mulberry forward. The jam has commercial powdered pectin in it, which is easy to work with.  I simply followed the package directions, no recipe needed.  The pectin, which naturally occurs in many fruits, especially unripe fruits, works to thicken the jam.  Using powered pectin means that the jam doesn't have to cook for hours, just a couple of minutes on a good rolling boil.

All in all, a gratifying day.  Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I was able to make these mulberry treats.