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.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harvest II

This entry will be short and sweet, but the garden is long on flavor and becoming heavy on production. As I mentioned last week, the chard went to my dad. I prepared it with him, using a little olive oil, garlic, S, P and a spritz of lemon at the end. He devoured it – which is good, since the chard keeps regenerating beyond my rate of consumption. I also gave a nice-sized bag of the purple pole beans to my sister on Thursday - I was glad to, she's great. And my daughter was very proud to do so.

I’ve also harvested chervil, other herbs, another bowlful of lettuce – little bits that I should calculate, but I’m just not in the mood to nickel and dime. The garden has given me a great deal, both physically and otherwise.

Everything else is producing steadily, and a few SunGold cherry tomatoes have ripened to orange. None has made it to the table – picked, eaten and savored on the spot. The picture at right was taken on Wednesday; the week’s harvest was tallied as of Saturday, the 25th:

Chard: 1 @ $2= $2.00
Kirby Cukes: 1 lb @ $.99/lb (Shop Rite price)= $.99
Lemon Cukes: 2 lb @ $.99 = $1.98
Haricot Verts: 1 lb @ $2.49/lb= $2.49
Kwintus Beans: 2 lbs @1.29/lb = $2.58
Purple Pole Beans: Over 2 lbs @ $2=$4
2 lbs Pattypan squash @ $1.50: $3
Total: $17.04

Expenditures: $49.70
Less Harvest: $38.60 ($21.56 + $17.04)
Total: - $11.10

I never thought the break-even point would be on its way so early!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Eco-nomics: Harvest

It’s payback.

So far, I’ve harvested four armloads of Swiss Chard, and I’m not kidding about the word “armloads.” Holy mackerel. I’ll conservatively put each at $2.50, considering what $1.29/lb gets you at my supermarket. Some baby leaves have been making their way into salads all along. The chard is also just unbelievable: the colors are so bright, so varied and the volume speaks for itself. Just like “Cannoli 18 Ways,” I’m on my way to writing “Chard 118 Ways.” I love it, as does Mike, but we’re nearing overload. The next bale of greens has my father’s name on it.

I’m also up to my ears in cucumbers, which seem early to me this year. We’ve picked at least a pound of kirbies, which barely make it to the table. My daughter eats them straight off the vine – she goes hunting for them, actually. I’m glad I tried something new this year and planted them! The lemon cucumbers are coming in like gangbusters. I’ve picked a few here and there, but come next week, there are at least a dozen that will be ready. Each time I look at the vines, I can’t believe my eyes. I’ll tally those at that time.

The little filet beans are early producers, and at least a pound have come off the vines. They are delicate and sweet, and even the ones that elude us and grow too long are super tender as well. A lot of these little beans go into a pound. If I let them grow larger, the harvest weights would be higher. But I grew these to be picked small. Next time I come into some good tuna steaks, a salad nicoise will be in order, and especially when my fingerling potatoes are ready in the fall.

A big surprise is the Kwintus pole beans. I was not expecting these to come in so early, but MAN – do those vines produce! The beans also grow fast. Those left on the vine for an extra day jump out at you the next, reaching eight inches seemingly overnight. And even at that length with a 1” width, they are tender and stringless – excellent cut on a diagonal and steamed, sautéed or tossed into a hot sausage and peppery pasta dish like the one I made last week for my husband. The beans keep their crunch and their color beautifully when cooked. Plus, we’re up to almost 2 lbs picked. I gave a bag of them to my parents this weekend, with rave reviews when they cooked them. I’ve never seen these at the store, so I’ll just price them as regular green beans, which are $1.29/lb lately.

Volumes of tender green small leaf lettuce along with two very large heads of red loose leaf lettuce have created some great salads. I would easily have spent more than $4 for this at the store – quite a nice return on that impulse buy of two 20-cent seed packets! I can’t wait to plant more in the fall. The lettuces are in pots, so the rabbits haven’t marauded them. The same can’t be said for my four heads of cauliflower. Only one made it to full size and to the table.

We’ve also pulled a few red carrots, but I feel they need a bit more time in the ground. The one pattypan squash picked made its way to the grill – de-lish. Neither is really enough to tally right now, so I’ll omit them.

So, here goes, the first Eco-nomics Harvest Tally:

Chard: 4 @ $2.50= $10.00
Kirby Cukes: 1 lb @ $.99/lb (Shop Rite price)= $.99
Haricot Verts: 1 lb @ $2.49/lb= $2.49
Kwintus Beans: 2 lbs @1.29/lb = $2.58
Lettuces: $4.00
Cauliflower: $1.50
Total Harvest so far: $21.56

Total Expenditures: $49.70
Less Harvest: $21.56
Balance: $28.14

I’m still in the red, so to speak, but we’re getting there. And pretty far along at that.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pie 102

I took my own advice from Pie 101 and made a blueberry pie last weekend. How could I not? I came into a flat of Jersey blueberries for only $6 on Friday.

I washed and picked over three pint containers of berries – there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch or a single green berry – let them dry and put together my scant cup of solids: three heaping tablespoons cornstarch, a pinch of salt and white sugar. I sprinkled that over the berries then added the zest of a lemon. There was, as usual, no time involved, but a ton of flavor resulting.

The only time consuming part, if you could call it that, was creating the lattice top. The first time I made one, years ago, was a patchy mess without fully weaving the strips of pastry dough in and out of each other. After a while, I just laid them slap on top of the fruit. I prefer not to remember that incident. However, with good, chilled dough and a pizza wheel or pastry cutter to make strips, it’s not that difficult to achieve attractive results.

Once done, brush the top with melted butter, an egg wash or heavy cream, then sprinkle with turbinado or any large-crystal sugar.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pie 101

The Fourth of July may be as American as apple pie, but we made rhubarb. It was fresh, tart and beyond delicious. We basically picked the rhubarb and put it into the pie pan, adding a few strawberries for good measure.

There is no mystery about pie, and no wondering about where the saying, “Easy as pie,” came from. But just in case nobody ever told you, here is Pie 101:

Cut more fruit than you need to fill your pie pan.
Add a spritz of acid.
Stir in about one cup of solids.
Bake until done.
That’s it.

Pies are easy and pretty much foolproof. Don’t drive yourself crazy with long recipes or loopy lists of ingredients. Use volumes of fruit that is fresh and available, and whatever appeals to you in any combination.

The cup of solids consists of a few tablespoons of cornstarch or flour to thicken the juice and hold the pie (somewhat) together; white sugar, brown sugar or both; a pinch of salt; a spice if desired, or any combination thereof. Dot the top with butter, if desired.

For this deep tart, my acid was lemon juice. Use lemon juice for apple pie, too, as it also reduces browning. The solids were a 2:1 mix of white sugar to brown with a dusting of cinnamon, and only a very scant cup. I wanted this tart tart.

Each summer when I come into a bale of peaches about to go south, my cup of solids contains more brown sugar than white, plus nutmeg. Cinnamon is good, too. My choice of acid is bourbon, and be generous with it when dousing the pie and when dosing the chef.

Cherry pie can be zipped up with lime juice and a little zest – an unexpected twist, like a Cherry-Lime Rickey. Or use a bit of almond extract while using this chance to integrate toasted slivered almonds into the pastry crust, sprinkling the remaining almonds on the top. Make a lattice top crust for this one. You could also try the almond variation with peaches or apricots.

Combinations are endless, but the procedure is easy and the same for each creation. Fruit is just so delicious, varied and plentiful this time of year. I hope you’ll try it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reflections on Tearing Lettuce

Summer arrived at about six on Sunday night, for the first time in probably more than a dozen years. I sat on the sun-warmed patio picking and tearing lettuce leaves for a salad, drifting away into, well, nowhere for, well, I don’t even know how long.

It all started with a routine task: making dinner. Getting a meal on the table can often be a race to the finish. We all know that. That night’s dinner prep started out no different, but ended in a place completely foreign to me.

With the chicken marinating and the vegetables cleaned and brushed with garlic and freshly picked herbs for the grill, I went outside to pick a salad. I stooped down with my big white colander and proceeded to turbo-pick my way through a thicket of overgrown salad greens. Both knees cracked as I crouched down. My neck creaked a bit, the result of a weekend wallpaper removal project where seemingly all the hard scraping and scrubbing was at the ceiling line. So I sat.

The patio was comforting and warm from the sun. Our orange cat mozied on over and sidled up to me to idle in the sun. Cats are good at this. My daughter flitted by with a butterfly net. And I sat.

For a few weeks now, I feel I’ve had a huge backlog of work, from refacing the kitchen and getting my daughter ready for camp, to weeding and writing. I’ve been meaning to update Eco-nomics with some harvest figures: three armloads of Swiss Chard, about a pound of Kirby cucumbers, and most recently pole beans that have come in earlier than expected, just under a pound of little haricot verts. And I was thinking about all of this while crouching over the lettuce pots, trying to speed my way to a 6:30 dinnertime. But still I sat.

While on the warm patio, with one cat sunning himself next to me and my daughter in her own little summer world, I was hypnotically picking lettuce leaves, reaching over for some baby chard leaves to add to the salad, and I found myself in a smooth groove of thinking. Of nearly nothing.

This never happens to me. It was utterly relaxing, and utterly human. And it was a long time in coming. Since then, I’m still feeling airy and relaxed, albeit slightly disconcerted. This is just not me. What comes next? Purchase a hammock then actually lay in it?

Any way around it, something is different. I’m relaxed and, dare I say it? Lax. Even the cats are reaping the benefits of this newfound tranquility. I barely make an effort to break up their fur-flying wrestling matches. More dinner? Sure, and extra canned food all around! The same goes for my daughter, who has plowed her way through half a box of Bomb Pops this week. Yes, I bought some junky Popsicles, those red, white and blue rockets emblematic of my childhood summers. As for the bare kitchen walls in desperate need of further patching and a coat of primer? I skipped that last night and took my daughter to a nearby park to play and ride her scooter in the twilight.

The garden is giving me far more than a $1.50 return on those lettuce seeds. It is giving me summer back.