Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mom-Mom’s Pastry Cookies

Some things you want to make. Some things you have to make.

It is the kind of dough that mocks you from the dark depths of the fridge as you chill it. “I dare you.”

Well, it did that this year.

Every Christmas, my grandmother used to make what my mom called “The Hungarian Pastry Cookies.” We are not Hungarian. I’m not sure of the origin of this recipe, which at this point consists only of a list of ingredients, one noted direction and a temperature [but no baking time] I scrawled one year on a sheet of reporter’s notebook paper. I did learn this year that when my mother was a child, “Mom-Mom and Nanny [my great great aunt] used to spend a day together, making apricot filling, drinking the apricot brandy, rolling them in powdered sugar over and over again.”

Now, you all know I’m all for a sip or two of brandy anytime, but this is one baking project where a clear head is clearly needed.

I never saw my grandmother make them. I have no instructions, but I’m the only one in the family who knows how to make them. Or is willing to.

So I did again this year.

It is a tender pastry dough, not to be overworked, and quick to turn sticky once your rolling pin hits it. To be honest, though, I’ve never had a problem with it, not even the first year I attempted them. I did this year, though.

As I previously wrote, it was the final batch of dough made that Sunday night after the weekend snowstorm and a few days before Christmas. Perhaps it was the long days and late nights I’d put in, but once the dough came together in my mixing bowl and I went to pre-roll it into 16” x 16” x 1/8” sheets, it stuck to my fingers, it glued itself to the waxed paper, it melted and tore into holes in spots.

Back to the fridge to chill. Then it still didn’t behave. I had to call it a night eventually, but not until I showed the dough who’s boss.

It showed me instead.

All week, I silently checked it as it silently sneered back at me. For the first time, I was not looking forward to Christmas Eve Day, when I make the cookies to be delivered warm out of the oven that night, then still fresh for the extended family on Christmas Day. I could not not make them. That was not an option.

I held my breath that morning, banished all from the kitchen counter and went to work. Not “slowly but surely,” but quickly and efficiently. I gave the dough no excuse to gloop up on me. Using a ruler and a pizza wheel (or razor sharp knife), I cut each pre-rolled super-chilled sheet (my secret, shhhh) into sixteen 2” squares. You then put a dollop of filling in, fold over the edges, quickly evacuate them to a cookie sheet, then say a Hail Mary as you slip them into the oven.

Fillings this year were prune (my favorite), apricot (family favorite & the tradition) and date. In years past, I’ve made a wonderful “stew” of dried figs and star anise. That was absolute blasphemy the first year I did it, as I’d forsaken the walnut filling my grandmother used to make. But everyone ate them then and in subsequent years.

Actually, I observed something this year that I’d seen in the past, but didn’t fully, duly or officially note.

Mom-Mom’s cookies are the first thing every member of my family takes when they arrive. My younger sister, who hosted Christmas this year, puts together quite a spread of appetizers and nibblies no matter what the occasion – pretty much anything and everything any guest could want. But my cousin Craig walked in after a long drive from Pennsylvania and took an apricot cookie – before barely a “Hello.” Ditto for cousin Alicia, even after assaying the table covered with cheeses, dips, crudité, chocolates, etc. My mother’s brother, Vic, makes no false pretenses or apologies: he pours a glass of milk and sits down right next to the cookies for as long a spell as it takes to relive childhood. My father made a beeline for the prune filled cookies. My mom, surprisingly, tried a date-filled cookie first.

“Delicious, good idea Elise,” she said. “But didn’t you make the fig this year?”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Old Favorite for An Early Christmas

They say the holidays come earlier and earlier each year. We had our first Christmas of the season two days early, on Wednesday.

A special friend and I wanted our own Christmas to exchange gifts and had theoretically planned it pretty much since Halloween. I figured it would be a short quiet time together, maybe at home, over dinner in a restaurant, or at our favorite bar if need be. It’s not always easy for either of us to steal time away from home. But she is near and dear, as is every moment together.

In the end, she decided to make a full turkey dinner with trimmings and invite both me and my daughter over to celebrate with her family (my husband was working). Dessert? Quite a spread of cookies, courtesy of you know who.

I took such great pleasure in putting together these treats and chose a favorite green Depression glass dish to use. The flavors, the colors, the composition – I’m grinning ear to ear just thinking about it and the wide eyes that greeted the cookies once unveiled. She knows I like to bake and create and has tasted the fruits of my labor before, both savory and sweet. But never did she expect the variety or the surprise of one of her favorites: the tri-colored Italian cookies. They are my favorite cookie as well.

Served with a little Asti (one of her favorite drinks, another surprise I brought), the cookies were the perfect accompaniment nibble by nibble to our gift giving, creating one of the warmest, sweetest Christmases in recent memory.

This is the most wonderful time of the year.

7-Layer Italian Cookies
Gourmet Magazine, December 2005
4 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 (8-oz) can almond paste
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
25 drops red food coloring
25 drops green food coloring
1 (12-oz) jar apricot preserves, heated and strained {you don’t need this much)
7 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped (best, darkest you can find; use extra if desired)

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13- by 9-inch baking pan and line bottom with wax paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on 2 ends, then butter paper.
Beat whites in mixer fitted with whisk attachment at medium-high speed until they just hold stiff peaks. Add 1/4 cup sugar a little at a time, beating at high speed until whites hold stiff, slightly glossy peaks. Transfer to another bowl.

Switch to paddle attachment, then beat together almond paste and remaining 3/4 cup sugar until well blended, about 3 minutes. Add butter and beat until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add yolks and almond extract and beat until combined well, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low, then add flour and salt and mix until just combined. Fold half of egg white mixture into almond mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly.

Divide batter among 3 bowls. Stir red food coloring into one and green food coloring into another, leaving the third batch plain. Set white batter aside. Chill green batter, covered. Pour red batter into prepared pan and spread evenly with offset spatula (layer will be about 1/4 inch thick).
Bake red layer 8 to 10 minutes, until just set. (It is important to undercook.)

Using paper overhang, transfer layer to a rack to cool, about 15 minutes. Clean pan, then line with wax paper and butter paper in same manner as above. Bake white layer in prepared pan until just set. As white layer bakes, bring green batter to room temperature. Transfer white layer to a rack. Prepare pan as above, then bake green layer in same manner as before. Transfer to a rack to cool.

When all layers are cool, invert green onto a wax-paper-lined large baking sheet. Discard paper from layer and spread with half of preserves. Invert white on top of green layer, discarding paper. Spread with remaining preserves. Invert red layer on top of white layer and discard wax paper.

Cover with plastic wrap and weight with a large baking pan. Chill at least 8 hours.
Remove weight and plastic wrap. Bring layers to room temperature. Melt chocolate in a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat. Keep chocolate over water.

Trim edges of assembled layers with a long serrated knife. Quickly spread half of chocolate in a thin layer on top of cake. Chill, uncovered, until chocolate is firm, about 15 minutes. Cover with another sheet of wax paper and place another baking sheet on top, then invert cake onto sheet and remove paper. Quickly spread with remaining chocolate. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Cut lengthwise into 4 strips. Cut strips crosswise into 3/4-inch-wide cookies.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Stained Glass Cookies

Let the games begin!

We’ve completely hunkered down in the trenches of Christmas cookie production. Starting Saturday afternoon as a snowstorm blew through the Northeast, my daughter and I made the following doughs:

- Sugar Cookies, to roll out and cut into shapes;
- French Chocolate rimmed in white non-pariels, a slice and bake variety;
- Pfefferneuse, to roll into balls and bake;
- Fig, raisin, bourbon and chocolate filling rolled into a spiral, to slice and bake (an invention this year of random ingredients);
- Gingerbread, to roll out and cut into shapes.

I added a sixth on Sunday night after putting my daughter to bed, when I made my grandmother’s tender pastry dough. These will be filled with apricot, prune and date fillings this year.

Do you think six varieties are enough? Is this a sufficient head start? There is a method to my madness.

Any doughs that can be refrigerated to make cut and slice, rolled and cut, or balled cookies are done first and set aside in the fridge for future use. This can be extremely convenient if done early enough, since you can bake a batch of each or any on short notice, or break off just what you’re yearning for when you simply want hot, fresh cookies at midnight with a glass of warm brandy. ‘Tis the season, you know.

In the coming days, I’ll tackle (with glee!) three-layer Italian cookies, a two-day process, almond macaroons (recipe here), dark chocolate-dipped icebox cookies dusted with pulverized peppermint sticks, and my own mixed-fruit biscotti.

By Sunday night, my first batch had already come out of the oven. Well, two actually, if you count the army of little gingerbread men I baked for good measure, and because my husband devours them.

I used my standard sugar cookie dough (recipe here) to create stained glass cookies – easy, glistening and impressive – for my daughter’s kindergarten class. The only extras you need are hard candies and nested cookie cutters.

I prefer individually wrapped Life Savers for this cookie. They come in a variety of colors, one candy perfectly fills the opening, and each comes in its own pouch. Crack and break them up with a hammer or mallet, being careful not to break the cellophane wrap. When you’re ready, just open the pouch and pour the candy into the cookie holes.

Roll the dough to at least a ¼ inch thickness. Cut your desired large shapes, place on a cookie sheet, then cut out your inner shape. Bake as directed. The crushed candies melt into “glass,” filling the inner shapes of the cookies. Ice or decorate as desired, or leave plain. Save the inner shapes to eat plain or decorate as one-bite treats. Accumulate and bake them on a separate pan, since they take a shorter time in the oven than the larger cookies.

I purchased one bag of mixed Life Savers and one bag of Butter Rum flavor. The mixed colors worked on the trees (green), snowflakes (white), some stars and angel “ornament” balls (red); the butter rums made for great gold stars and angels.

The little gift bags tied in a frizz of curling ribbon were a hit with the kids, since I also added the iced and sugared center shapes, some candy, and a gingerbread man to each.

Try these cookies this season, perfect your process, then make them on Valentine’s Day using heart cutters and red candies.

Let's just get past Christmas for now.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Last Call

It’s over.

Two and a half pounds of knobby, gnarly, hairy-rooted celeriac came out of the ground this weekend.

I sat solemnly astride a pail of water, knife in hand, silently slicing off the tall, green tops, then gently removing roots and ends, dipping each muddy orb into the water as it took shape. My bare hands turned increasingly purple and stiff, wet from the water, further chilled by the very cold Sunday air.

When all were cleaned, I sat on the grass, eyeing the empty celery root area of that largest bed. It grew aside the potatoes. I lifted my body up briefly, with the intention of digging in the potato area with my bare frozen hands in the hopes of finding a stray spud. Then I mentally pictured the desperate act I was considering.

In the end, I preserved my last shred of dignity and did not dig. I went inside, closed the back door and called it a season.

Last Eco-Nomics:
2.5 lbs Celery Root @ $2.99:
Total: $7.48

Last Eco-nomics posting: $186.05
This harvest tally: $7.48
Ahead by a Total of: $193.53
“Whole Foods” Pricing: $193.53 x 3.5 = $677.36

Not bad for a few handfuls of seeds and a rack of peat pellets.

Keep in mind that I’ve been keeping track of an “ahead by” figure – i.e., my garden actually produced $243.23 worth of goods, but I knocked off the initial expense of $49.70.

I can’t wait for next year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I Used the Beef II

Three Down, One to Go.

The beef is making its way out of my freezer, slowly but bloodily surely.

It was very finely combined with ground pork, good parm and crusty country breadcrumbs to make meatballs in a red sauce. The meal turned into an impromptu extended-family dinner paired with an Italian Primitivo I wanted to try, which I think will be a new house red for the winter.

If I make a red sauce, which oddly is not all that often, I bring out the big guns: my favorite, tall, heavy-gauge stainless steel Williams-Sonoma pot with a glass lid. I received it as a Christmas gift, geez, probably 15 years ago. It was one of my first “good” pieces. Kitchenwise, I’ve learned that you’ve got to buy the best that you can. Things heat evenly and dependably, the pieces hold up and you’ll never have to replace a cheap pan again. This pot, together with some Le Creuset pieces, drives home what I also call The Shoe Rule: Your cheapest shoes are the most expensive, and your most expensive shoes are the cheapest. You will constantly break, repair or throw away cheapies that lose their shape and wear out before the season is through. Yet I have a pair of strappy, silver Italian high-heeled sandals from before I was married. They’re a summer constant and still look stunning.

But, I digress. Subconsciously, I’m getting off-topic, and that’s for a reason.

I’ve noticed that I have a habit of taking a long time to fess up about using the beef. This pot of sauce was made on Columbus Day, appropriately. I’m just getting around to dealing with, or at least acknowledging, my own personal fallout. It took close to one month to write about my first use of the beef over the summer.

Either way, it was a good, hearty meal for an October that’s been one of the colder ones on record.

One last block of beef remains in the freezer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nearing the End

I knew this day would come.

It’s time to put my beds to bed. I have been putting it off for reasons other than the cold and the tangled mess of refuse it will create. I just don’t want the gardening season to be over.

But my squash vines are unsightly and dying. The tomatoes are not ripening. The bean vines long ago stopped producing in any meaningful way and have lost most of their leaves. All my potatoes are harvested. The celery root is ready to come out of the ground.

I cleared out the first bed two Sundays ago by picking the last of the Swiss Chard, a double bale. The stems were narrow and tender, and the colors were far deeper than seen earlier, likely due to the cold weather and the fact that I left the leaves out for so long in the false hope that my garden could survive the winter. The Kentucky Wonder bean vines covering those trellises and winding up the gutter pipe managed to put out one last pound of beans. Not bad for four or five year old seeds planted “just to see” if they’d grow. Some beans dried and went to seed, so I collected those seeds for use next year.

The tomato vines have grown rattier with each passing day, yet they were still completely heavily laden with fruit, all green. We collected each possibly usable tomato and placed them in paper bags to ripen indoors. The brown and cold-injured fruits went to be composted. I pray the tomatoes will ripen in the bags and I can squeeze out one last panzanella from them, as they are largely Sungold and black cherry tomatoes. I’ll let you know what happens. The larger mortgage lifters, black Russians and my daughter’s yellow tomatoes did not fare well once the cold set in.

One and a half pounds of pattypan squash emerged from the squash bed, which started look a bit ratty during Labor Day weekend. The buttercup squash vines had long since died; the pattypans, a summer squash, gave a good fight. The butternut vines, however, keep pumping out flowers, even in their unsightly condition. They also bear two new squashes – little as they are, I’m keeping that area untouched, in the hopes that they will mature before a serious frost. Hope springs eternal.

It does, actually. Due to four days of rain in the forecast this past weekend, I decided to leave my celery root in the ground in the hopes that each will plump up just a bit more. I left the chili pepper plants alone, since those peppers stand on the ends of the plants like firecrackers – a bit of red-hot cheer in the shortening days of autumn. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Double Bunch of Swiss Chard: 2 lbs @ $2 = $4
One Last pound of beans @ $.99 = $.99
Pattypan Squash: 1.5 lbs @ $1.50 = $2.25
The last Zucchetta Trombolina: 1.5 lbs @ $.99 = $1.49
Total: $8.73

Last Eco-nomics posting: $177.32
This harvest tally: $8.73
Ahead by a Total of: $186.05
“Whole Foods” Pricing: $x 3.5 = $651.18

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

R.I.P. Gourmet

Say it ain’t so.

After close to 70 years in circulation, Gourmet Magazine is slated to cease publication at the end of the year.

Never mind the fact that I’m paid up through the year 2013. I feel I came in late to the game as it is: My subscription kicked in with the November, 2003 issue. I was planning on my own 70 years with it.

My husband and I bought our first house in 2002. I had always tried to be somewhat inventive and adventurous in the kitchen – in my own little somewhat-knowledgeable way. I would find things at the farmer’s market or on sale at the grocery store and figure out what to do with them. I came up with a few of my husband’s favorites along the way, but believe me, not all were winners. Mike has always said that I’m a very intuitive cook. I just like the process of figuring it all out. When I started buying the occasional newsstand copy of Gourmet that year, my eyes opened up to so much more. So did our palates. Mike bought the subscription for me. I’ve never looked back.

Although with Gourmet, you always “look back.” I still have every issue. I still use them over and over again. The Rolodex in my brain still somehow knows where each recipe, spice combination, idea and variation I’ve created is in each back issue. I hoped to line an entire room with my Gourmets over the course of a lifetime. Should I be buried in a mausoleum, I would request in my will that my Gourmets accompany me. You’re never done with them.

In the grand scheme of things, I’ve barely begun. But the memories are there.

During Christmas of 2005, my daughter was fourteen months old, not fully verbal and learning to walk, still holding onto furniture to get around a room. While gripping my living room coffee table, she happened upon the December, 2005 issue of Gourmet, which featured a plethora of cookies on the cover – the December issue always delectably does. She honed in on the black and white cookies, her favorite since solid food, looked up at me, and let out an “Mmmm, Mmmm.” “Oh, yes, they look good,” I said. She looked up at me again, furrowed her brow and let out another set of “Mmmms,” her eyes locked on mine. “Yes, little one, the cookies are good,” I cooed to assuage her.

My daughter was adamant. She let go of the coffee table, held the magazine over her head with the front cover facing me, and let out a loud, guttural final “MMMMMM” before I said, “Alright, alright, we’ll make the black and whites!” Finally satisfied, she put down the magazine, never held a piece of furniture after that, then walked on her own out of the room. And yes, I did make the cookies.

When my April, 2006 issue arrived (“Italian Regional Cooking”), I devoured it, cover to cover. Then I immediately hit my local newsstand to pickup a second issue. I knew the one that came in the mail would become completely spattered with food, pages stuck together and unusable by the end of the month. It was. I like to think I did that issue proud.

And Thanksgiving has never been so “same” in my family since the year my mother put me in charge of the pumpkin pie. I never really eat pumpkin pie. I may pick at the filling, but never touch the crust. I agreed to bring it, saying, “Sure, I’ll do the pumpkin.” I never said the word “pie,” not even once in the weeks leading up when she’d call to double check that I was bringing it.

I made a pumpkin flan from the November, 2005 issue. My mom hollered at me the second she saw it as I walked through the door (I’m in my 40’s). The crowd was skeptical. My cousins tossed a few jokes in, such as “Is what they have in Spain on Thanksgiving?” and the like (Spain, flan, I get it. Hardy har har.) But Holy Mackerel: It was Delicious, with a capital D. The toasted pepitas, a garnish, nearly didn’t make it through the day once my dad and Uncle Vic discovered them! Cheers and cries for encores closed out that holiday evening. A new tradition was born.

I’m just not ready to say “Good bye” to Gourmet. Neither is my daughter.

Now five, she pretty much hijacks each issue from my hands after it arrives to select recipes, sometimes from the pictures, sometimes from the voluminous recipe pages. “We should totally make this,” is her favorite come-on.

She has been reading since the age of three – thanks in part, I’m sure, to following recipes together. It makes our adventures in cooking that much easier as she dashes off ingredients, measurements and steps to me. Her little hands are adept at measuring, too, and she can fold even the most delicate ingredients into a soufflé. She does most of the stirring, sifting and counterwork, while I tend to more dangerous areas, like a hot stove or oven.

And it’s not even a matter of using the recipes word for word, ingredient for ingredient. I’ll remember back to a treatment, technique, flavor combination, marinade or the like and translate it to the ingredients we have. Make a recipe once, and it’s yours forever, from new variations on old favorites (braised duck legs with sautéed duck breasts, “Paris on a Budget” September ’08) to attempting a traditional Russian Orthodox Easter dish (Paskha cheese, April ’04) to bring to a family friend’s celebration as a surprise. I’m Italian-Catholic. They were impressed, gracious and flattered that I’d attempt the Paskha, a three-day recipe. I was honored to make it. Thank you, Gourmet.

Even so, I seem always to be on a backlog.

I still haven’t gone through all of the tapas from January ’05. I constantly skim that issue every time I host a dinner – either for an appetizer I’ve made, or for a new one to complement the dinner itself. Heck, my October issue just arrived and I haven’t finished the key recipes on all those dog-eared pages of September.

Sadly, I suppose I’ll have time to catch up on all of them after my last issue comes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Earth Gives

Remember, “It’s a Potato! It’s a Potato!”?

This time, it was 65 potatoes.

We harvested the fingerlings to utter amazement – truly shock and awe.

One fingerling potato went into the ground this spring. Sixty-Five came out this weekend. I am not kidding. Some are the size of golf balls, but most are quite sizable and eminently roastable with garlic confit and a crunch of sea salt. I’m salivating as they cure for a few days on the back porch.

The quantity simply blew me away. My daughter counted them out as we sat on the patio, enveloped by the flame sunset of autumn. The counting just went on and on, our eyes widening further at each turn of ten: 30, then 40, then 50, then 60 …

And thank goodness she came out to help. The roots and tubers spread into a circumference far beyond anything I would have expected. We kept digging, excavating, and finding more and more roots that wended their ways sideways in a starburst throughout the bed. Some roots were thick, some were spidery, but when we pulled them gently, guaranteed there would be more tubers greeting us at the ends.

The Earth gives and gives. One thumb sized fingerling yielded just so much. I saw firsthand why potatoes are a staple crop in the world, how civilizations have been built upon successful crops, and have fallen in their failure. The garden has given me a great deal this year, more so than in years past and not just in terms of crops. Add to that a new level of respect for Mother Earth – it seems in a way almost crass that I’m doing a running tally of monetary gains.

Suffice it to say, once the garden is put to bed, I can’t wait to start composting and amending her soil until a hard freeze, then commence again come spring. Dirty work it is, but it’s the least I can do.

Fingerling Potatoes: 9 lbs @ $.99 = $8.91
Butternut Squash: 24 lbs @ $.99 = $23.76
Tomatoes: 4 usable lbs @ $.99 = $3.96
Pattypan squash: 2 lbs @ $1.50: $3
Zucchetta Trombolina: 6 lbs @ $.99 = $5.94
Total: $45.57

Last Eco-nomics posting: $129.65
This harvest tally: $45.57
Ahead by a Total of: $177.22
“Whole Foods” Pricing: $x 3.5 = $613.27

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Theater of the Absurd, II

Or, as I like to call it, The Garden’s Greatest Hits.

My original “Theater” entry was more about a sudden freakish volume of harvest. This one is just plain about the freaks.

It happens every year: Sometimes it’s a bell pepper that looks like Nixon, other times, it’s pole beans that twist themselves into letters of the alphabet. This is not supermarket produce bred for looks. I do regret not having taken a picture of that scrunched-in, wrinkled Buddy Hackett tomato, so I’ll just have to leave that one to your imagination.

Here is our beheaded frog at right. Some of my carrots forked, so I learned a lesson about manured soil. I thought enough time had elapsed between the winter amendment and seed sowing. Apparently not.

Moving on to our Canada Goose, this trombolina zucchini both entertained and fed the crowd.

This potato happened before planting. Yes, I draw on my food when so inspired. I sat this potato on my kitchen windowsill to start the sprouting, but once the face went on, he wasn’t going anywhere: I didn’t plant him. The sprouts were just too big, he got a little too old and wrinkled, and, well, I enjoyed his company.

This trombolina zucchini somehow escaped my view amidst the large leaves and heavy vines that cover the plants’ growing trellis. Once discovered, we decided to leave it on the vine, just to see what happened. Holy moly. The only reason I cut it down is because the bulbous seed end started touching the ground. That, and it was sucking the life and productivity out of the rest of the plant.

We didn’t eat this one, however. It got a little too husky.

So, that’s life on the farm this season. I still have a second round of butternut squash to pick, two types of potatoes to harvest soon and my celery root to pull from the ground at the end of the month. I’ll let you know if The Virgin Mary appears on any of them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Used the Beef

There’s blood on my hands, officially.

I used some of the beef. I made hamburgers topped with grilled Portobello mushrooms and Piave Vecchia cheese when my in-laws came over a short while ago. The meat was laced with garlic, generous amounts of salt and fresh pepper, plus finely chopped Italian parsley, then finely milled by hand and shaped into thick patties. The portobellos got a treatment of balsamic vinegar and chopped fresh rosemary after grilling. The Piave Vecchia, a hard cheese with a nice bite, turned out to be a very good substitute for the intended Taleggio, which I could not find. The burgers were served on lightly warmed buns.

No crumbs were left.

No juice went unsopped.

No pictures were taken.

No beef was eaten by the writer. But I had to come clean. I used it.

And I still have over two-thirds of it left, beating in my freezer like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart.

Monday, September 14, 2009

It’s a Potato! It’s a Potato!

It was time.

Turning fork in hand, I headed out to harvest some russet potatoes. The vines of one plant had been declining slowly in recent weeks, and I’d been itching to dig them up. Oddly, my daughter was not so into it, “Nah, I don’t feel like it.” But once the messiness began, she got into the game.

I found the first potato close to the surface, where I’d been peeking at it and checking on it for weeks. It was about the size of an elongated tennis ball. I gently but deeply forked a wide area around the plant and brought up another little guy. My daughter was not impressed. The next forking brought up a monster: it was HUGE! Even I couldn’t believe my eyes. That’s when she ran to the shed, retrieved her Dora the Explorer hand-cultivator and got really into it, digging through the pile of loose soil.

What she got was a rock – which, upon realizing it, she tossed immediately into a side bed. We both persisted. She found another rock. So did I. I forked some more. Things didn’t look promising.

“Mom, I found one!”

“Is it a rock or a potato?”

She moved her hand up and down as if to check the weight. She wiped off some dirt with her little nearly-five-year-old thumbs. Her eyes widened to the size of saucers.

“It’s a potato! It’s a potato!” she screamed and squealed, running in circles, waving the spud over her head. I started laughing my head off at her reaction. Senor Wences got spooked, bolted out from beneath the hostas and made it to the other side of the yard like a bat out of hell. And she’s dancing around in a loop, squealing with a potato. Yeah, life’s crazy in the backyard.

We dug and checked as if panning for gold until I felt safe no more were in the area. I left the other russet and the fingerling plant undisturbed, as their vines are still green and, I assume, nourishing their tubers.

So, in this instance, one-half a spud thudded into the ground on a whim yielded eight potatoes – nice return! Two are huge, almost the length of my daughter’s head. The others are of varying, medium size, with one tiny pepino. One of the larger ones was damaged during the harvest, so we used it in our Sunday dinner, cut lengthwise and grilled with olive oil, garlic and fresh rosemary. It was pillowy soft, sweet and whiter inside than any russet I’ve ever prepared. Since the potato was uncured, its skin came off almost completely with just a gentle scrubbing.

In fact, everything we ate Sunday night came from our garden, except for the chicken. I gave the bone-in chicken a super-herb treatment with parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme (nod to S&G there), steamed a huge quantity of the purple beans, made “summer on a plate” with tomatoes of all colors and lettuce-leaf basil, and prepared the giant potato with a buttercup squash, which was also excellent: very orange, sweet and quite pumpkin-y.

So, let’s update Eco-Nomics. It was a banner week and weekend for tomatoes, with over a dozen pounds by Friday and another five picked on Sunday. Until the potatoes came into our lives yesterday afternoon, I planned on writing their own entry. But for now, I’ll just let the pictures and poundage speak for themselves.

Russet Potatoes: 6 lbs @ $.89 = $5.34
Tomatoes: 17 lbs @ $.99 = $17
Tuscan Kale: $4
Haricot Verts: 1/2 lb @ $2.49/lb= $1.25
Purple Pole Beans: 1 lb (probably our last) @ $2=$2
Green Beans: 1/2 lb @ $.99/lb: $.50
Pattypan squash: 4 lbs @ $1.50: $6
Total: $36.09

Last Eco-nomics posting: $97.56
This harvest: $36.09
Ahead by a Total of: $123.65
Whole Foods” Pricing: $129.65 x 3.5 = $467.78

Friday, September 4, 2009

Still Clipping Along

Our nights have grown very cool, very fast, but the garden is still clipping along and still producing. The cooler weather will suit my celery root just fine, which I’ll harvest later this month or in October. The fragrant, bulbous root ends are peeking out of the ground a bit, but still seem small. The potatoes may be ready soon; the vines appear to be on the decline, ever so slightly. I should start some new lettuce seeds over the weekend, and perhaps a row of Tuscan kale and a maybe few cauliflowers. Plus, at the rate my winter squash is still growing and producing new flowers and fruits, I’ll have a huge second harvest later this month – and butternut squash six-ways for Thanksgiving. I’m glad I made that impulse buy and “splurged” on that 20-cent package of seeds!

Another two week’s harvest, as of Friday, the 4th:

Lemon Cucumbers: 3 lbs @ $.99 = $2.97
Haricot Verts: 1 lb @ $2.49/lb= $2.49
Kwintus Beans: 1.5 lbs @1.29/lb = $1.94
Purple Pole Beans: 1.5 lbs @ $2=$3
Green Beans: 1/2 lb @ $.99/lb: $.50
Another 3 lbs Pattypan squash @ $1.50: $ 4.50
3+ pints of cherry tomatoes: $6
6+ Lbs reds, blacks, yellows, striped: $6
Total: $27.40

Last Eco-nomics posting: $70.16
This harvest: $27.40
Total: $97.56

I will indulge from here on out and include a “Whole Foods” price (see previous post). Whole Foods charges five (5) times what I “charge” here for my tomatoes; twice what I do for haricot vert; nearly 5 ½ times what I do for pattypan; 4 times for the chard; twice what I do for other beans … you get the picture. I think a factor of 3.5 should do it:
“Whole Foods” Pricing: $97.56 x 3.5 = $341.46

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Whole Foods Pricing - Eco-Nomics

My friend stated flatly last weekend, “Elise, you’re selling yourself short on your blog.”

She maintains that I don’t enter the right prices in Eco-Nomics. While my method isn’t exactly scientific, I price my produce as I find it in my travels or in my supermarket circular or, to be honest, what I think it might cost as I type away blearily at night and err on the side of caution, on both pricing and weights.

Presented with an offering of fresh basil, a nosegay of chervil, a trio of lemon cucumbers and a mess of purple-podded pole beans, she said, almost salivating, “You have no idea what some people would pay for this.”

Perhaps I am selling a bit short. I could “charge” organic prices in Eco-Nomics for any and all that I harvest. I compost, so that’s natural stewardship of the soil. I don’t use pesticides, fertilizers, Miracle-Gro, sprays – the only thing that touches my plants is rainwater. If my daughter wants to pick and eat her way through the backyard any afternoon, I have no worries, and she’s done so since she was a toddler.

I take my mom to DePiero Farms in Bergen County some Sundays, since it’s also a nice place to walk around, and it charges $3.99/lb for heirloom tomatoes – not designated organic, just heirloom. I also go there in the hopes that I’ll find at least some of the things growing in my backyard for comparable pricing, from purple beans (no dice) to pattypan squash ($10.99/lb for baby pattypans.) That’s unconscionable – and ridiculous! First, I don’t pick mine at the ping-pong ball stage. And even if I did, there’s no way I’d enter that price into Eco-Nomics, because it’s not a price I’m willing to pay. And don’t even get me started on Rhubarb, which is a perennial and comes back for free every year in greater quantities: It costs upwards of $5 a pound, both there and at ShopRite when they have it.

Still, my friend persisted. So I finally headed to Whole Foods in the hopes that it would carry some examples of my produce, which would be organic as well, and I could find out what the store charges and what people are willing to pay for it. I hit the new Fairway for good measure as well.

Holy mackerel.

Organic Heirloom tomatoes cost $4.99 per pound at Whole Foods. The bin was colorful and enticing to be sure, and I gently went through it to see what sorts were represented: There were my Black Russians! And my daughter’s favorite yellows, among gold and green striped (got those, too), white (never grown them), the pale persimmon tomatoes (did those last year – scrumptious) and every shape and wrinkle of red. The skimpy pints of small “Gourmet Medley” tomatoes, at $4.99 each, could have come straight from my backyard as well: lots of orange and red and some purples. For five dollars. Five dollars. And people had them in their carts!

There were no purple beans at Whole Foods or Fairway, but I did find my little haricot verts: pre-packaged from Mexico, $4.99 for a one-pound bag at Whole Paycheck. Organic, yes, but I was somewhat surprised at the measly size of the pound-package. I’m underweighing and under eye-balling mine!

I also could not believe what $2.99 buys you in Swiss Chard: That price per bunch gets you, on average, 8 ½ stalks. I say 8 ½ because those that featured nine stalks had nine that were on the thin side – and I’m being generous in that assessment. Those that contained eight may have had wider stalks, but there were always one or two scraggly stragglers in each bunch, every time. Yes, I stood there counting the contents of twist-tied bunches of both red and white organic chard. You’d fare better at Fairway, with its $1.99/bunch price for at least a somewhat larger bunch of conventional red or white chard.

At least small pattypan squash didn’t cost $10.99/lb – it was “only” $7.99/lb. The butternut squash at both spots was new and fresh, first of the season like mine – but pound for pound, I’m glad I don’t need to buy it!

I had to stop there – or just stop here. I did canvass fully, but couldn’t find specifically what I was growing; only things that were somewhat close. I also must resist rambling on here like my overeager squash and bean vines. Suffice it to say, my friend is kind of right. Plus, I’ve got a potential gold mine back there, and a tasty one at that.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Theater of the Absurd

That seems to be what my backyard has become.

Heavy rains were to arrive by Friday night. So late in the afternoon, I went out to pick a few tomatoes and other things that the rain might knock off of their vines. I brought a large melamine bowl out, and started with the cucumbers. Filled within minutes, I had to go back inside to get the big colander.

Walking back to the garden, I noticed a buttercup squash was disconnected from its vine. Apparently, it was ready to be picked – it picked itself. I found another one. Then I checked the butternut squashes, which have been of the right color for weeks, but I didn’t know if they’d be ready – they are for winter storage. Well, they were. Back inside, to empty the colander. Then back to the squash patch for the last butternut and to check for pattypans. Back to the house to empty the colander, and out again to finally start on the tomatoes.

Oops, there’s a giant zucchini hanging from its climbing vines! Cut down with a knife, it doesn’t fit anywhere and is laid on a patio table. I also thought I’d check the “secret” potato plant behind that trellis. I don’t think I mentioned it, but about 6 weeks ago, I spied a familiar-looking plant in the back of a bed. I thought it was a potato plant, so I excavated a little and came up with a tiny, red new potato, and tucked it back into the ground. No, I did not plant new potatoes. I had and have no idea where it came from – did I compost some old potatoes at some point? I have things just growing out of nowhere, and this is not the only “surprise” plant. Like I said, this has become the theater of the absurd. I dig a bit with my fingers and the knife and come up with a handful of potatoes. Thank goodness I’m wearing something with pockets today.

Onto the tomatoes – finally. Large varieties first, so the heavy ones are on the bottom. OK, I still have room in the colander for the cherry tomatoes. They roll down to fill in between the large mortgage lifters, yellows and at last! A succulent Black Russian tomato larger than a man’s fist. My two cherry varieties fill the colander to the 2/3 point. May as well check on the beans in the next bed.

The haricot verts fill that last third. No, I am not going back into the house for the umpteenth time to empty this thing. I pile the purple beans on top. Then move onto the Kwintus pole beans, which I proceed to jam vertically into any space I find around the rim. I call my daughter over to hold out her dress, which we use to cradle the overflow.

Overflow is an understatement: just look at the kitchen counter! I’m laughing out loud at this point. I decide not to even deal with the chard. Where all of this came from? It’s ridiculous! And the thing is, while harvesting what amounted to a true and truly unexpected bounty, I spied a good deal more that needed another day or two on their vines. Come Sunday or Monday, we’d do it all over again!

In the interim, I made the freshest, most luscious panzanella salad with the tomatoes that night, a cucumber and farro grain salad side dish (recipe to come), a platter of grilled pattypan squash finished with Romano cheese on Saturday, a corn-basil-tomato and kidney bean salad on Sunday for Monday and Tuesday lunches, and broke out the ZipLoc freezer bags to start preparing produce for the winter.

Lemon Cukes: 4 lbs @ $.99 = $3.96
Haricot Verts: 1 lb @ $2.49/lb= $2.49
Kwintus Beans: 1+ lbs @1.29/lb = $1.29
Purple Pole Beans: Another lb @ $2=$2
3 lbs Pattypan squash @ $1.50: $ 4.50
2+ pints of cherry tomatoes: $4
2 Lbs Mortgage lifter reds plus the big Black Russian plus another lb of yellows: $5
One big zuchetta trombolina (2 lbs @ $.99) $1.98
2 large Buttercup squashes: $5
5 Butternut squashes of varying sizes, all nicely heavy: $9
Total: $39.22

Last Eco-nomics posting, in the black by $30.94
Plus Friday’s circus: $39.22
Total: $70.16

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In The Black

While it has been all about chard and beans in recent weeks, we’ve turned the corner into real Jersey territory: Tomatoes!

We’ve got tomatoes in many colors: red, orange, yellow and purple, and awaiting a striped variety to ripen. For some reason, my daughter loves those yellow tomatoes: When we were selecting seeds from catalogs in January then starting them in peat pellets in early spring, she repeatedly (almost obsessively) had to make sure we had purchased and planted the yellows. We had seeds leftover from last year, which we used – but don’t tell her! While that first mortgage lifter picked last week was nearly as big as her face, she had a different gleam in her eyes upon proudly picking her first yellow tomato this weekend.

And yes, she ate it right then and there, like an apple.

Two week’s harvest, as of Saturday, the 15th:

Chard: 3 armloads @ $2= $6.00
Lemon Cukes plus some Kirbies: easily 5 lbs @ $.99 = $1.98
Haricot Verts: 1 lb @ $2.49/lb= $2.49
Kwintus Beans: well over 2 lbs @1.29/lb = $2.58
Purple Pole Beans: About 2 lbs @ $2=$4
Green Beans: 1 lb @ $.99/lb. (see below)
3 lbs Pattypan squash @ $1.50: $ 4.50
And Tomatoes!!!!
2+ pints of cherry tomatoes, mostly SunGold: $4
4 Lbs Mortgage lifter reds: $4
A pound of sweet yellows: $1
Total: $31.55

Last Eco-nomics posting, I was in the red by $0.60
This two-week harvest: $31.54
In the Black! By $30.94.

The chard seems to be slowing down a bit (whew!), although I still plan to use my trading tactic in future recipes and preparations. I thought that my bean vines had slowed completely – with only about 1 lb of filets over two weeks - so I let them be for a bit, and honestly forgot to look at them. Big mistake: The fridge is full of big bags of beans, including Kentucky Wonder pole beans, those 4-year-old seeds I came across and thought I’d plant because, hey, you never know. I had completely forgotten about those, since they’re planted in a different area than the others and they are now threatening to take down a gutter downspout.

I’ve said before that giving it away is half the fun of growing it, and with the addition of fresh-picked tomatoes, those around me are increasingly happy to take some harvest off my hands.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pasta with Spinach and White Beans

I harvested not a bale but a bushel of chard last week.

We’re a little charded-out at this point. I love it, simply steamed or sautéed. It reminds me of eating spinach, with oxalic acid and iron coating your teeth and minerals & nutrients coursing through your veins. All right, so that doesn’t exactly sound like a selling point to most, and it’s also why few members of my family will take any chard off my hands. I never realized I would have so much for the entire growing season, so I’ve had to be creative. I think I hit it this time, though: swap my chard in mass quantities for the spinach in pasta with spinach and white beans.

I’ve mentioned this dish before – a standby favorite in the household, for which I always have all the ingredients on hand. Mike likes penne, orecchiette or a similar shape (don’t use spaghetti or the like), with more vegetable base than pasta.

This time, I used some pillowy gnocchi instead of a pasta shape and went pretty heavy on the vegetable (for obvious reasons), including the colorful stems. He loved it, heaped into a bowl and topped with fresh grated Romano cheese. I also passed some along to my father when I stopped by for a visit– he devoured half on the spot (cold!) then heated the remainder for lunch the next day. Why hadn’t I thought of this trading tactic before?

Next treatment: Swap it for the broccoli rabe in a classic prep with sweet sausage. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Pasta with Spinach and White Beans

2 block pkgs frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed a bit (keep some juice) or your choice of fresh greens, chopped; at least 8 cups (it cooks down to nothing)
half a sweet onion, diced
two large cloves garlic, minced
1 15 oz. or 19 oz. can of cannellini beans, drained and well rinsed
1 T. flour
4 T. good olive oil
S & P ; pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
¼ C. white wine
¼ C. chicken broth
¼ C. chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 T. chopped capers (optional)
Wedge of Lemon

½ Lb. pasta, your choice of shape

Over medium heat, heat the olive oil with red pepper flakes (if using) in a wide sauté pan fitted with a lid. Sweat the onion until soft and golden. Add the garlic and sauté a minute longer. Sprinkle the flour and sauté until well-integrated and lightly golden, about 2 minutes.

Add the beans, a very generous amount of black pepper, stir to coat. Add your wine and broth, stir and scrape; it will thicken. Add your spinach and salt. Stir to integrate. Lower your flame to low and cover with lid. Allow to cook together for at least 5 minutes. **Note: That time is for frozen spinach and for a normal quantity of fresh. I had a LOT of fresh greens. It went in in two batches until it all cooked down, taking longer than 5 mins.

Add your parsley and capers, if using, blend all together and toss in your pasta, adding pasta water if necessary. Finish with the juice of your lemon wedge, a glistening drizzle of olive oil (if desired) & serve.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Summer on a Plate

The day has finally come: TOMATOES.

Awaiting extra sun and extra heat, my tomato plants have been falling over in recent weeks, weighed down by volumes of unripe fruit, soaked by heavy rains yet, to my regret, holding steady in their greenness due to cool nights and cloudy days. Staked or caged, most every one has required reinforcement. But yesterday, I relieved my heaving Mortgage Lifter plant by picking two violet-red near-2-lb tomatoes. She thanked me somewhat for the relief, and I hope I did her fruit justice.

Cut in half then sliced into wedges, alternating with two lemon cucumbers cut in the same fashion, the slices were arranged in a pattern around the rim of a large, 14-inch round pressed glass plate, atop a bed of shredded romaine lettuce. In the center, I heaped a half-pint of SunGold cherry tomatoes, sprinkled a good bit of finely diced Vidalia onion throughout, then topped the entire dish with a blizzard of basil in a chiffonade. A mild red vinaigrette made with the greenest, grassiest olive oil I have, drizzled atop, finished the dish.

It was beautiful, crisp, refreshing in this sudden onset of 94-degree heat and, most important, delicious. How could it not be? Nearly every element went from the earth to the table in a matter of minutes. I couldn’t believe it, but just one Mortgage Lifter tomato filled the entire rim.

I can’t wait to pick more.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pork, Peaches & Potatoes

I rarely, if ever, blog a meal. But the sun, the moon and the stars aligned on this one, from the ingredients to my timing on the grill.

It was a Saturday meal created after returning home from my daughter’s art class after four, and with Mike to return from work at seven. I served boneless pork marinated in a sherry vinaigrette with fresh sage, grilled peaches with balsamic vinegar and fresh thyme, and double-garlic potatoes, all with a salad that was freshly picked, just like the herbs.

I marinated the pork first and the peaches last, but started cooking the potatoes first, then the pork last. My timing blew me away as well – all three dishes were done to perfection and at the same time. When I got the Weber 3-burner grill early this spring, I loved it from the start and was ambitious from the get-go. First dish? Leg of Lamb, bone-in. I’d never owned a grill like this, only a charcoal kettle model, which I hated wheeling out, stoking, then cleaning later. But I’m a maniac with this one. From that first dish onward, I mentally vowed not to turn on my oven until Thanksgiving (except for baking), and there’s no need to: You can do everything on it. Try this:

For the Pork
4 lean boneless pork chops, 1” thick.
A dozen sage leaves, in a chiffonade
One small clove garlic, microplaned
Sea salt & fresh pepper
1 tsp sugar
Sherry vinaigrette (see below) plus extra sherry vinegar.

At least an hour before grilling, put a little smear of garlic on each pork chop, then marinate the chops in your sherry vinaigrette plus two extra tablespoons, salt, pepper, sugar and sage. Turn to coat during the course of marinating.
Grill 3 minutes, then turn 90 degrees and grill 3 minutes more. Flip over and finish to desired doneness. S&P the hot chops and serve.

Sherry Vinaigrette
4 T. sherry vinegar
¼ C. canola or other neutral oil
One small shallot, finely minced
1 t. Dijon mustard
1 t. sugar
S & P to taste.

Whisk together all ingredients to emulsify.
I had this leftover in the fridge from some salads last week and thought I’d try it as the pork marinade. I’m glad I did.

For the Peaches
Four large peaches, white or orange fleshed, cut in half and stone removed
2 T. balsamic vinegar
1 T. canola or other neutral oil
1 clove garlic, mocroplaned (optional)
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped, plus more for garnish
1 t. sugar
S & P
Butter (optional)
Chévre (optional)

Blend together the marinade ingredients in a shallow dish. Place peaches cut side down and swirl to coat. Grill over medium to low flame, rotating carefully to achieve good marks. Turn over, then dot tops with butter, if using. Cook to desired doneness. Plate, drizzle any leftover marinade over the top, and garnish with extra thyme, if desired. Serve with Chévre, if desired. Note: There are times I really like a lot of extra pepper cracked on top. Try it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For the Potatoes
5 large potatoes, scrubbed and halved lengthwise
¼ C. olive oil or neutral oil if you prefer
3 large cloves of garlic, microplaned
1 generous t. sugar
2 t. sea salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste.

I came into a 5-lb bag of russets on Saturday for only $1.49 – not my favorite spud (as previously noted), but I couldn’t pass up the bag. Use any variety you wish. Combine all ingredients very well in a large glass bowl. Grill cut side down for 10 minutes, closing grill to use as an oven. Rotate 90 degrees and close grill for another 10 minutes. Turn over, grill for 15 or 20 mins more, depending on size of the potatoes. When the potatoes are done and still hot, place back into their glass bowl and toss to coat with the remaining garlic oil. Add extra salt, if desired. Garnish with chopped Italian parsley, if desired.

For timing’s sake, after flipping to the skin side of the potatoes, start grilling your peaches on the rear racks. Then move onto the pork chops over a high flame up front.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In Praise of White Beans

When I posted last night, I planned on linking to my entry on cannellini beans when referring to white bean hummus. I scoured this site and no, I hadn’t written it! I still can’t believe it, since white beans are a family favorite and a standard pantry item in my household throughout the year. I become seriously alarmed if I don’t have at least a can on hand. You can’t go wrong with them, either: They’re good for fiber, 7g protein, complex carbohydrates and 10% iron per serving, and they can be used in infinite ways.

Well-rinsed and eaten straight, they’ve been one of my daughter’s favorite snacks since she started on solid food at 6-months (seriously). They’re easy to sprinkle over a salad for extra taste, texture, bite and bulk, or to add to many other dishes for the same reasons. Toss some into your next batch of summer bruschetta and you’ll see. Pasta with spinach and white beans is a default dinner item for my husband at any time when I don’t have anything thawed or planned – as are a half-dozen other meatless pasta dishes I’ve come up with using the white beans and other pantry and fridge items. White beans with a drizzle of very good olive oil, lemon and fresh chopped basil is an easy, 30-second addition to summer tapas, eaten straight or spooned onto crusty bread brushed with garlicky olive oil or garlic confit. I’ll use fresh thyme for a more autumnal flavor come September. Another tapa: warm, blistered roasted sweet peppers from the grill or oven, chopped, drizzled in garlic oil and blended with the beans. I could go on: the variations and uses are endless.

Canned vs. Dried: Canned beans are quick and easy. To be honest, my store brand cannelini beans in cans hold their shape the best, even cooked. Progresso brand is very good, too, but comes only in 19 oz. cans. I stock up on them whenever they’re on sale. I’ve never had luck with Goya (sometimes good, often pasty; inconsistent, which is surprising), Luigi Vitelli (no shape or tooth, just paste) or Colonna (ditto). Sorry to all of the above; hey, I have my housewife favorites, but you all know that by now.

You could also soak a 1 lb. bag of dried beans, which cost about the same as one large Progresso can, but will yield beans until kingdom come. It’s extremely economical, and you could do half the bag if desired. Plus, the remaining dry beans will keep until kingdom come. I tend to do this during the winter, when nothing warms you like a good bowl of Pasta e Fagiole soup. By the end of the week, I’ll make warm white beans with the rest, if they haven’t been used on salads or in other dishes. For a soup, braise or other heated recipe or dish, the dried beans hold their shape and tooth better than canned.

But, so far as summer goes and a starter on white beans, try this:

White Bean Hummus

One can, 14 oz or 19 oz, white Cannelini Beans, drained and rinsed
¼ cup good olive oil
One large clove garlic, chopped
¼ Lemon in a wedge for juicing
¼ cup loosely packed Italian parsley leaves
½ tsp sea salt, or to taste
pepper to taste

Equipment: Food processor or mini-chopper
Total time: under 10 minutes.

Place rinsed beans in food processor. Set aside.
Warm olive oil and garlic low and slow on the stovetop or in the microwave until garlic is soft and oil is very fragrant.
Drizzle over beans into food processor while running.
Squeeze lemon juice into mixture and process until smooth, or to desired consistency.
Add salt, pepper to taste and parsley, process to blend.
Serve in a bowl and lightly drizzle with extra olive oil as garnish.
Serve with vegetables, warmed flat bread, pita, toast, breadsticks, other.

Extra lemon makes for a more tangy, hummus-y flavor.

Add a sprig of fresh rosemary to the olive oil and garlic while heating. Remove before processing, then rest sprig on top of finished dip for garnish. This is great on toasted Italian bread rubbed with garlic or as a sandwich spread.

When in season, replace the parsley with a generous amount of fresh basil leaves. Garnish with whole or finely cut basil leaves. This also is great on toasted Italian bread rubbed with garlic or as a sandwich spread.

Add a sprig or two of fresh thyme to the olive oil and garlic while heating. Remove before processing. Garnish with fresh chopped thyme leaves. Use Gala or other crisp, tart apples for dipping. Or, spoon onto a dinner plate and top with a grilled skinless boneless chicken breast, sliced.

Add a pinch of hot red pepper flakes to the olive oil and garlic while heating for some zing.

Or invent your own version!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Things to do with a Heavy Harvest

It's not that heavy yet, but half the fun of growing it is giving it away: I can’t imagine anyone turning down a surprise basket of freshly picked vegetables topped with a bouquet of basil and other herbs. But the better half to me is figuring out what to do with it all and inventing new favorites along the way. True, baking is science and you should measure, but cooking is a conversation: let the ingredients take you where they may, and the night lead you where it might. It’s feeling, emotion, l’amore!

I’d mentioned earlier that I’m on my way to writing “Chard 118 Ways” and that should have its own entry. My chervil is a large, productive cloud of delicate green fronds. The cucumbers, both green and yellow, have made their way into newly minted salads (both green and grain salads) and of course into tzatziki recently. Due to the rains, the vines are laden with fruit. The filet beans are still the best simply steamed. I don’t want this to become a laundry list of uses and recipes, so I’ll touch on just three items: Kwintus pole beans, purple beans and pattypan squash.

I’ve done a lot with the Kwintus beans, as noted in quite a few previous entries. But I somehow brought out a new layer of nutty flavor last week when I hosted a dinner. Because the beans are larger and wouldn’t fall through the grates, I decided to grill them at the last minute. I took the meat off the grill to rest before serving, did a quick brush cleaning of the grates, and set to work.
I made my basic grilling toss of olive oil, garlic, S & P, and then finished the grilled beans with a generous douse of fresh lemon juice, parsley and shavings of good Romano cheese and Whoa! They were crisp and still green, yet blistered and black – unbelievably savory and sexy as hell to look at, glistening and tangled together, entwined on a rustic Tuscan pottery platter. I could have made a meal out of them and licked the plate clean. But I had guests over that night and had to pray for leftovers. There weren’t any.

While we grew them last year, Mike has discovered the purple pole beans this summer. I feel as if I’ve rediscovered them a bit myself: I do not remember the color being so velvety, deep and dramatic. They’re just gorgeous! They turn green when cooked, but are largely eaten raw in our household, with long ones sliced in half on a diagonal and eaten plain or with store bought or home made hummus or a basil-y version of my white bean hummus. I served these purple beans raw and cut in half on the bias, their pencil-point tips sticking upward in two chilled cocktail glasses in the aforementioned dinner as somewhat of an afterthought. They were just healthy nibblies served with appetizers, then kept on the table through dinner. All were gone at the end of the night. This weekend, I sliced them into centimeter pieces and tossed them into a summer standard bean salad (cannelini and pink or pinto beans, celery, tomato, loads of parsley, red vinaigrette) – you can’t go wrong with extra crunch and greenery, or purple-ry in this case.

The pattypans are new to my husband – he’d never had them before, or knew they existed. I still remember when he first discovered them growing in the squash patch, asking “What in the heck are those disk things growing outside?” I thought he’d discovered a fungus or mushrooms which, considering all the rain we’ve had, would be our most prolific crop this year, if edible. With their ruffly edges and flying-saucer shape, Mike was a bit skeptical of the squash. But the proof is in the pudding, and taste: Tossed in olive oil, microplaned garlic, lemon juice, S & P, then grilled and finished with a flurry of fresh parsley (and/or basil), he’s convinced now.

I will do exactly that with my Rosa Bianca eggplants – if the plants would even grow! They are tropical and need constant heat. We have had a ton of rain and very cool nights, with barely a day reaching 90 degrees yet this summer. Good for my water and electric bills, but not for the eggplants. I could do an entire entry on just the weather conditions and how they’re affecting the crops – maybe I will. Suffice it to say, many foods are very, very late compared to years past, including tomatoes (barely a half-pint of Sungold Cherries so far) and notably the Zuchetta Trombolina (not a single one yet). That was my earliest heavy-harvest summer crop last year and the most eagerly-awaited this year.

But I am grateful for the success of the garden so far. Very pleased, actually, with the amount of production.

In fact, I’ll quickly add here another bale of Swiss chard ($2.50), another pound and a half of lemon cukes and ½ lb. kirbies ($2), a gorgeous nearly-two-pound bunch of red carrots ($2) and a big basket of beans ($4, all varieties) to the Eco-nomics Harvest:

Expenditures: $49.70
Less Harvest: $49.10 ($21.56 + $17.04 + $10.50, this entry)
Total: - $0.60

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Merguez Bites

Saved, yet again, by a well-stocked freezer: My Merguez sausages made a great last-minute appetizer.

I grilled the sausages crisp, sliced them on the bias and served them with tzaziki, warm flatbread wedges and baby carrots. It was fairly quick and quite savory. My presentation was a bit more grand than what is pictured at right; I assembled that quickly in my kitchen just to photograph it before leaving for the get-together. All components traveled well and were assembled with ease, even in front of people, for future reference.

People went for the tzatziki (or tzaziki) more than I expected, so I ended up slicing some bell pepper for dipping. It is good, actually, as just a dip, and also as a sandwich topping or filling for a rolled flatbread sandwich (in addition to use with gyros and souvlaki) or spooned over grilled, sliced chicken breast on a salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

The Merguez entry and recipe are here; Tzatziki is as follows:

A cup of plain, Greek yogurt; or 1 cup of plain yogurt, drained well.
One cucumber,
Handful of finely chopped Italian parsley
1 T. fresh lemon juice
S & P

Peel, seed and shred your cucumber. Press it “dry” using layers of paper towel or a clean, non-terry kitchen towel.
Combine all of the above and let “stew” before serving. Adjust lemon, S & P to taste. Fresh mint is also a very good and traditional addition, if that suits your taste. However, I almost always toast and crush coriander seeds and sprinkle them in to the final blend. There is something lemony, earthy and spicy about the coriander when treated that way.

Now, this is my own recipe. I should look one up one of these days for an “official” version, but this is what I’ve been making for a while now. However, with the sudden plethora of choices of good, thick Greek yogurts, the tzaziki has gotten better and better. You don’t even need to drain the Greek yogurt, unlike using a store-brand plain.