Monday, December 13, 2010

My Dirty Little Secret

I write a food, cooking and gardening blog, and I have a confession to make: I haven’t had a working oven in nearly three years.

Yes, count them, three. And I’m being generous. There were times I could get the oven to work and once I did, it would pretty much heat on command for a few months at a time. “Mommy can fix anything” is the mantra around the house. Mercifully, it worked fairly consistently last winter. That was truly a case of Christmas magic.

But come spring, I’m “all about the grill.” And now you know why.

Now you also know why in a few past entries, you might catch a glimpse of my daughter in the background making little snowmen on the outdoor table while Mommy mans the grill in the middle of winter. Sure, food (both savory & sweet) tastes great from the grill any time of year, but I think I was in denial and just didn’t want to deal with the stove issue.

It died with no chance of resuscitation at the beginning of this year. There was only slight oven ignition, no hear generated and a gas smell in March, then a dead front burner by the end of the summer.

This relic came with the house when we bought it in 2002. The pokey little kitchen had been redone, at least refaced, a few years prior and had a new white sink and white GE Profile dishwasher, the quietest thing you’ve (n)ever heard run. We bought a white GE refrigerator upon moving in, because the seller took hers. But the black-bodied, white-enamel-topped Caloric gas range with a six-inch pyramid back and a clock that “flipped” its numbers as the minutes passed remained.

Why would anyone remodel a kitchen in white and keep a food-encrusted beginning-to-rust black clunker as the centerpiece of the room? Why did I all these years? Self-cleaning, it said. The latch never latched, so I’d go the Easy-Off route, although there was no enamel finish and nothing came off easily.

So I took the plunge and the expense only to ask now, “Why, Why, WHY did I wait so long??!!??”

I went with a gleaming GE slide-in range. It’s clean, white and shiny with slate gray continuous grates, a TrueTemp oven, power boil and precise simmer burners and a brand new flexible gas line. . . George Clooney be damned! This is a housewife’s wet dream!

And believe you me, I plan on giving it a workout that would make Mr. Clooney blush. Stay tuned.

Swiss Chard for Broccoli Rabe

Remember being charded-out last year? We’re not quite at that point, but these greens have made their way into lentil dishes, pasta dinners and numerous steamed or sautéed sides. I’ve also been doing “the swap” – changing out the spinach in pasta with spinach and white beans with Swiss chard, like last year and, finally, for broccoli rabe in that classic prep with sweet sausage.

The dish worked. Another plus was that the chard did not need to be blanched and rinsed before cooking, like the broccoli rabe would.

While broccoli rabe does have a distinct flavor that can’t quite be matched by anything, the end result using the chard was quite tasty. I think the sausage and extra garlic helped, but in the end I added cannelini beans (a household staple and favorite) and tossed it together with mezzi rigatoni. Without the pasta, it’s a very good side dish. But the beans and rigatoni stretched it into two meals.

Swiss Chard (or Broccoli Rabe) with Sweet Sausage

Two large bunches of Swiss chard or broccoli rabe, stems chopped and leaves cut into ribbons
A long link of sweet Italian sausage, casing removed
Thick slice of sweet onion, rough-chopped
2 large cloves garlic, sliced thin; three cloves if that’s what you’re after
1 15 oz. can of cannellini beans, drained and well rinsed (optional)
1 T. flour
4 T. good olive oil
Salt & a lot of cracked black Pepper
¼ C. white wine
¼ C. chicken broth
Wedge of Lemon

½ Lb. pasta, your choice of shape, if using.

Over medium heat, heat the olive oil in a wide sauté pan fitted with a lid. Add the sausage and break it up in the pan. Sauté until nearly browned. Add the garlic and the onions and sweat them until softened. Sprinkle the flour and sauté until well-integrated and lightly golden, about 2 minutes.

Add the beans if using, a very generous amount of black pepper, stir to coat. Add your wine and broth, stir and scrape; it will thicken. Add your greens and salt. Stir to integrate. Lower your flame to low and cover with lid. Allow to cook together for at least 5 minutes. Test for desired doneness.

Blend all together and toss in your pasta, adding pasta water if necessary. Test, re-season, and finish with the juice of your lemon wedge, a glistening drizzle of olive oil & serve.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Whole Foods vs. Fairway

Or should it be “Whole Paycheck vs. Fair Pay”?

Whole Foods apparently is feeling the pinch of the recession, touting its stores and wares as (I’m serious here) not expensive. The chain does have a certain reputation, so I get the feeling they’re trying to garner a new customer base, or lure back those who may have left. And that’s fine. Advertise. It’s a free country.

But the radio spots kill me: “I go to Whole Foods for value and fair pricing.” “Every penny counts.” Really? When I think of Whole Foods, an originator and now behemoth of the organic marketplace with 100% market share, I don’t think of “every penny” counting. I think of every penny, nickel, dime and dollar being leeched out of my wallet. Or, rather, their customers’ wallets.

I go to Whole Foods only periodically to stock up on grains and bulk goods. I think I’m the only person I know who can get out of there for under $20 and still have a full bag of groceries, including an esoteric cheese that might strike my fancy. If my husband and daughter come, the tab surely rises, and quickly.

I went there recently for a short list of specialty items to bring for a last-minute beach weekend: Baguette, three cheeses, water crackers, fig or date cake, and cerignola olives. One cheese had to be Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, a default and house favorite; the two others would be chosen on site to balance out the acidity on both ends. I went to Whole Foods that day because it’s geographically closer and we were in a rush to leave.

Baguette: Check. Water crackers: Check. Humboldt Fog: Check. Olives. Hmm, Olives. Check the olive bar. Slim pickings. Don’t want jarred. Don’t want the mixed. Check jarred. Nothing. Skip the olives. Trek back to inquire about fig cake at the cheese counter. The cheese monger tries to send me to baked goods. “No, it’s compressed, dried fruit, sometimes with nuts. It also comes in apricot.” He asks a pair of other employees. They escort me to the bakery. “No, it’s not a cake, per se.” Bakery sends me to dried fruit section in produce. I knew it was a fool’s mission to hike all the way back to the other end of the store. I did. Not there. Time to cut my losses and check out.

I should’ve gone 10-extra minutes out of the way to Fairway, because in the end I spent 40-minutes going in a circle with my daughter in tow, looking for things that used to be stocked but now don’t exist there. Fairway, I knew, had it all, and I knew where the items would be in the store.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Whole Foods. It’s a neat adventure when you’re in the mood. But I fail to see “value pricing” in organic heirloom tomatoes that cost $6.99 per pound. I don’t even spend $6.99 on the seeds I grow in my backyard for plants that produce by the kilo. But if you’re in the market for tomatoes and don’t grow them yourself, then be my guest. Knock yourself out.

Now, onto Fairway. I’ve spoken of this small, regional chain before, since it opened a store in my county. The prices are good, competitive. The offerings are vast: it is nearly impossible to just zip in and zip out, much less stick to your list. You’re tempted at every turn. Fairway has the Humboldt Fog cheese as well, but it’s pricey, so $27.99 vs. $28.99/lb won’t send me to one store over the other. When I want it, I know I’m going to pay. As for the “on site selection” of companion cheeses, the word “choice” barely scratches the surface: imagine a wall, floor to ceiling, of cheeses from around the world, in addition to those in the front case to choose from and the pre-cut selections just behind you in their own chilled section of the store.

The Fairway baguettes far beat the one I picked up at Whole Foods in both taste and chewy texture. One costs $1.49, sometimes on sale for 99-cents – that’s when you buy four and stock the freezer. The Whole Foods baguette was $2.59 and didn’t compare. My olive experience sealed the deal, though. Fairway offerings – and this is a small store by comparison – are lined up in a two-tiered ring around a large island of shelves. Cerignola olives (they’re the really big ones) are standard and come in four colors: green, black, pink and mixed. There are a number of blends to choose from, herbed, spiced, mild, lemony, Thai-chili infused and otherwise. Kalamata, Nicoise, Picholine – they’re all there. And, at eye level on the island you’ll find accompaniments, condiments and yes, fig, date and apricot cakes sliced into wedges.

Whole Foods has large hot and cold bars of prepared foods, if that’s what you shop for. Fairway does as well, but Whole Foods wins in the number of items offered. However, I don’t buy prepared foods. Fairway has both conventional and organic produce, meats, baked goods and other grocery items. The prices are definitely better than Whole Foods. Don’t even get me started on olive oils: Fairway wins hands down on quantity, quality, plus regions and countries of origin. And a tasting bar, no less! Fairway also has a lot of grains (and my black lentils), but they’re pre-weighed and not all that cheap. Whole Foods bulk goods beats them by a nose on that front, also because of the number of grains and rices offered.

But when I needed snails to make Escargot a la Bourguignon for Valentine’s Day, where did I actually find them? Fairway. I picked up a fresh octopus ($3.99/lb!) on impulse over the summer to grill, and he was huge, glistening and smelled only of sweet sea brine. It’s hard to find anything other than frozen pulpo. And the price was right.

I can’t quite imagine doing my regular shopping there, since I regularly need things ranging from Cheerios to cat litter to Kiwi shoe polish. I know some people who do at Fairway and swear by it. I could not imagine doing a regular, weekly shopping at Whole Foods, although I know people who do. Appealing radio spots, “value pricing” or not, it would take my whole paycheck.

When I passed a Whole Foods billboard for its “value” ad-campaign over the weekend, I laughed to myself in the car. I was on my way to Fairway at the time.

Apparently, I’m a convert. It’s Fair Pay all the way.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tomatoes are Female. Pole beans, Male.

Last summer, it was “Reflections on Tearing Lettuce.” This year, I have been musing off and on over the sex of my plants. There are male and female flowers on pumpkin vines, for example, so why not “male” and “female” plants themselves?

While not a comprehensive list of all things male, female or otherwise growing in my garden, a definitive few – the masculine and feminine, the tough and the tender, the sturdy and the dainty – make the cut as follows:

Female Plants

Tomatoes are most definitely female. With their hanging orbs perfectly cupped by a gentle hand and warmed by the sun, the fruits await a tender bite to release sweet, dribbling juices. When sliced, a gentle but skilled tongue can probe the gorgeous and glistening inner wells of the fruit for every last drop of sweet and salty goodness.

Summer squash - and the winter squash for that matter. The plants have a gently rambling form with bursting blooms and curlicue tendrils and are extremely productive. Plus the pollinating bees practically run each other over as they compete to enter the soft folds of the open, welcoming blossoms. There’s a lot of sex going on in the garden. And it’s constant in the squash bed.

Delicate fronds of Chervil and her subtle, mysterious taste.

Basil. Perhaps it is the way a good Genovese basil’s scent wafts up as you walk past, like a woman’s perfume. Perhaps it’s the lacy, ruffled edges of certain varieties that make it female. You tell me.

Rhubarb is female. My plant is a division from my grandmother. It has long, bright crimson stalks hidden beneath a canopy of large leaves. The leaves are poisonous but the stalks never fail to please and surprise. The raw taste will bite your tongue off, but its sweet and tangy flavor can be coaxed out by slow, steady, gentle cooking. And like a woman, the plant gets better and better with age.

Contrary to the knee-jerk “meat & potatoes” man’s meal image, potato plants are female. They have delicate, dangling lavender flowers that look lamentingly downward for the eyes to see, but like women, all their deepest secrets are buried beneath the fertile earth.

Male Plants

My climbing, vining, twining pole beans are male. This year, they have aggressively enveloped the three obelisks anchored in the bed and are venturing beyond, threatening to take over each other’s territory. If that’s not male, I don’t know what is. Also, this year, the bean plants are all boast and bravado: they’re puffing their chests, but not producing. By July of last year, I’d already harvested bales of beans. This year, it was slim pickings. These vines are all talk, no action. Definitely male. However, once the beans are prepared by an expert hand and transformed into a glistening tangle of oiled and herbaceous crisp-tender delight, they become female. The climbing bean exception would be Christmas limas. Once two thumbs gently ease open the pod, you reveal their hot fuschia striations of color. Those plants are definitely female from the start.

Tromboletta zucchini. Those hanging zucchinis are male, for obvious reasons. Plus, unchecked, the vigorous vines could overtake an entire backyard.

Tuscan kale is male, with its dark leaves, pebbled texture and plant heft and height.

Eggplants are male. I really gave this some thought because I just couldn’t quite decide. The leaves have a soft underside and the flowers are quite interesting. But they have a tough skin and take just sooo, sooo long to mature, if they do at all. Are they worth the wait? Some say eggplant is an acquired taste. But with the proper care and attention, eggplant can be trained and transformed in the kitchen into a variety of palatable dishes. That transformation is by a female hand, of course.

That’s not everything growing in my garden by any means. I’ve barely considered the cucumbers. Perhaps one night this week, after everyone’s in bed, I’ll sit on the patio with a glass of wine, survey my surroundings as the season winds down, and figure out the sex of my radicchio.

But for now, I think I need a cigarette.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Edible Jewels

We mined over two pounds of amethysts from the earth this weekend.

I knew the first purple potatoes were ready when, upon harvesting some squash, I noticed that a set of potato vines had withered and largely separated themselves from the roots. So out they came.

Varied in size but not in their deep purple color, the fresh potatoes nearly filled our large colander. The timing was perfect as well: it was already late on a Sunday and I needed a carbohydrate to serve with a grilled chicken dinner.

Potatoes are usually cured outdoors for a few days before consumption or storage, but these begged to be savored fresh. Like last year, with the large russets we ate freshly-dug, these purple potatoes were pillowy soft and delicately nutty in flavor. Once gently cleaned, they glistened and glinted like deeply colored gemstones.

All they needed was 15 minutes of steaming, a pat of Plugra butter and a finishing crunch of sea salt.

The curing hardens the skins, which protects and preserves these jewels during winter storage. I’ll do so with the rest of our harvest. I found it odd that only one set of the purple potatoes were ready, but did not question the wisdom of Mother Earth. We dug carefully but thoroughly so as not to disturb the others. There are three more mounds of purple potatoes with hardy vines still going strong, plus a row of red potatoes and another of Yukon Golds maturing beneath the earth.
As an aside, the meal was a real farm-to-table last grasp of summer with volumes of just-picked produce: I grilled the pattypan squashes that I was picking when I discovered the potatoes, herbed-up the chicken before my plants die down next month and served some of the last corn on the cob of the season. But the nights are arriving earlier and growing colder. School began two weeks ago. I fear there’s not much time left.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Peach Picking

And more crucially, peach pie making!

We went peach picking over the weekend at a nearby farm. It was tremendous fun, and we must have picked a peck of ‘em. But I was transported into another world.

I was utterly captivated by the orchard, the soft and glossy leaves, the arching canopies of perfect peaches above, each peach more blushing and beautiful than the next. It was odd in a way. I’ve been apple picking and to farms many times before, but there was something almost unearthly about being there. I could have meandered all day, unaware of the time or any other being around me, wandering from tree to tree as the perfume of the ripe fruit and rich earth enveloped me.

I did, however, have my daughter with me to bring me back to earth. She started strong, respected the trees, and knew to twist the fruit just slightly in order to pick it and not damage the branch. Mike tends toward the orange peaches and took his time filling the bag given by the farm with our tickets. I wasted no space for them in my bag, and waited patiently for us to reach the white peach grove just down the hill. I couldn’t fill the bag with enough, it seemed. In the end, I think Mike, my daughter and I ate her weight in peaches before riding back on the tractor-rig. The sticky, dribbling juice on our chins and collars was a dead giveaway.

Once home and out of “context,” what seemed like an OK amount of fruit in the orchard turned into four insurmountable mountains of peaches that consumed the kitchen counters. We gave some to all the grandparents, ate a few more after Saturday dinner, sliced some at breakfast on Sunday, but were still left with a ton of fruit.

“Make a pie already!”

I think Mike expected one to magically appear from my oven the second we arrived home on Saturday afternoon. Good things come to those who wait: it was a warm and juicy midnight snack on Sunday night when Mike came home from a late news shift.

The ripe peaches peeled perfectly. Use the same process as for peeling tomatoes: shallowly score the bottom with an “X” . Briefly plunge them into simmering water. Remove, cool momentarily and slide the skin off.

As outlined in Pie 101, I flavored this crust with some cinnamon, doused the peaches in honey-bourbon, added the requisite cup of solids and made a lattice top. Baked peaches can be even more flavorful and concentrated than they are eaten raw.

We still have a lot of peaches left. We have a tentative get-together planned later this week, and if it comes together I’ll do a sponge base drenched in Amaretto simple syrup, a vanilla bean pastry cream (or maybe I’ll simply flavor some Mascarpone cheese), and sliced peaches overlapped in a radiant sunburst. A garnish of toasted, slivered almonds is optional – I’ll see if the mood strikes me. There’s no hot oven heating the summer kitchen involved in that one, and the peaches are ripening and sweetening as I type. Imagine what they’ll be like by the weekend.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Waiting for the Rain

The rain was supposed to come on Sunday, so we headed out in the morning to check the beds and harvest what had grown while the weather was still dry.

Pay dirt!

The chard was tall, thick and plentiful – just look at the glossy green leaves on the white variety. The radicchio (the last two of four heads) was huge, with green outer leaves and large, burgundy spherical centers. I removed the outer leaves (they can be pretty bitter), but kept them to wilt on a hot grill, which mitigates the flavor. The lemon cucumbers are coming in nicely, adding to the Kirby cucumber haul. We’ve been picking both red and orange cherry tomatoes for weeks, which never make it to the table; they’re so sweet straight off the vine. But our first really large tomato (German Gold, a pale orange variety) came off the vine with ease on Sunday. We left her blushing sisters to ripen just a bit further. We’ve got both Rosa Bianca and slender white eggplants on their way, as well as three dark green acorn squashes (too early!) almost ready to be picked and vines full of tennis-ball sized babies that should ripen into a basketful come September.

But no zucchini. Or pattypan squash. Naturally, just as soon as I’d made the boast that I was giving away mountains of produce did nature strike me back for the brag.

Last Sunday, we experienced a long, torrential downpour with force so violent that the beds were severely beaten down and some structures blown over. We lost power into the night as well. After righting the tomato cages and pole bean obelisks when the rain let up, I surveyed the damage. The center bed consisting mainly of squash had really taken a hit.

“Oh, they’ll bounce back,” I told myself. “They always do.” By midweek, some leaves were back up and filling in, but not many. Yesterday, I really looked: the storm severed a lot of the rambling vines right off of their main stems. Whatever little orbs I had growing on the vines before the storm were hollow, soft or simply dead. The vines themselves are bleached and turning dry. The main stems are trying to send off new shoots – nature is amazing – so I’ll keep you up to date on their success.

This weekend’s rain never did come. I really need to water, not just to keep up production, but to nurture the squash bed back to health.

But for now, let’s break even on Eco-nomics – I knew the chard would put me over the top. To be honest, I more than broken even a while ago. I haven’t been keeping up on the harvest tally like last year, and beyond this date, I may not do it to the dollar. Oh, the garden is producing – don’t get me wrong, I’ve picked more salads than I care to calculate, not even tallying the first two heads of radicchio – but I think I’ll keep a roundabout running total offline and approximate at the end of the season. And anyway, my pricing is admittedly somewhat less than scientific this time around and as last year, a bit on the low side.

Triple bale of chard $5
Radicchio $5
3 lbs cukes @ $.99/lb $2.97
3+ lbs cherry & other tomatoes @ $1.29 $3.87
2 lbs purple and yellow beans @1.29 $2.58
From $6.86 in the red last time: Ahead by $12.56

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mâche Salad with Quail Eggs

You’re only as good as your ingredients.

Well, if the fresh-picked mâche I served last night together with soft-boiled quail eggs, fragrant blushing apricots, soft baby sage leaves, glossy thyme and you-could-cut-it-with-a-spoon pork tenderloin were any indication, then I was Thomas Keller.

I’d been dying to use the lamb’s ear lettuce that I allowed to grow into little poufy bouquets. When I stumbled upon a dozen-pack of quail eggs at the farmer’s market this weekend, I knew I had to get them. Paired with the mache, a sweet sherry-shallot vinaigrette and just the right amount of yolk-ooze for richness, it was divinity on earth. Plus, my daughter loved just peeling and eating the little taupe and brown speckled orbs.

Also at the farmer’s market I found not just apricots, but fresh, firm, fragrant blushing apricots, boxes upon boxes that someone was physically removing from a trolley and emptying into a bin. I halved them, added a very little drizzle of honey, fresh chopped thyme, a crack of black pepper and canola oil. The honey is optional, really, because the fruit will caramelize into its own glossy glaze on the grill. The apricots behaved perfectly: they kept their shape once cooked, and developed the most sensuous sheen and sweetly savory flavor. I topped them with a drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar upon serving, and ringed them around the pork tenderloin on the serving platter.

For the pork, I blended in a Ziploc bag at least 1/4 cup of honey, a good dose my husband’s Evan Williams Reserve Honey Bourbon, two large cloves of microplaned garlic, sea salt, ground pepper and chopped thyme. The honey helped create the most incredible crust, further enhanced by a final sprinkle of sea salt before serving. I put the tenderloin on a blazing hot grill, turned it only twice, and that was it. I grilled the apricots while the pork rested.

To round out the meal, I went with an old favorite: white potatoes and sweet potatoes tossed in my Sherry vinegar, shallot and sage dressing. They’re good hot, cold, room temperature and especially the day after. I believe I’ve written about them before.

This all sounds elaborate, but the integration of ingredients on hand and the thread of common herbs and flavors across each dish was both fluidly intuitive and deliciously complementary. Each element just made sense. And it was, honestly, all fairly quick. Only peeling the potatoes was somewhat time consuming. The rest was toss, grill, serve and – most importantly - enjoy.

Honestly, I picked up my daughter from camp and gave her a snack after arriving home at 4:00 p.m. We chatted, she wanted some TV, and out of nowhere it was suddenly 5:00. To the tunes of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons Greatest Hits, I started by picking my herbs outside and had everything on the table at 6:00 on the dot. I was completely in the zone.

I feel guilty for admitting the ease, because it also felt so good to serve a special weekday meal like this for just the three of us.

Mâche from the garden: $5 (easily. I can’t believe what a single miniature plastic shell of this costs at Fairway, if they have it.)
Still in the red by $6.86. So close and yet so far!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stuffed Squash

Earlier than anticipated, I’m already giving away produce.

One eight-ball zucchini plant produced her first little squash well over two weeks ago and the rest of them, obviously jealous, have been pumping them out to keep up. I had forgotten how productive summer squash can be once you pick the first fruit. The pale, tender green variety has been the most productive, but the sunny yellow and dark green types are catching up.

Either way, those sweet little orbs have made their way to friends and family. In our household, they’ve been cut into sticks to dip in hummus, halved and grilled, sliced and steamed, and as of last night, stuffed.

I first prepared cous cous then blended in Greek gigante beans in a light tomato base with a touch of garlic. I cut the stem tops off the squashes, hollowed out the inside, the slicked them (inside & out) with a little olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. I quickly grilled them to blister the outsides and lightly sweeten the flavor while keeping the squash still firm. Once removed from the grill, I spooned in the cous cous mixture, topped them all with a final crunch of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil, then served them with roasted red and yellow peppers fresh from the grill, which my husband chopped roughly and used as a garnish.

Squash aside, we’ve also harvested two pounds of wax beans and easily two pounds of Kirby cucumbers. Those barely make it to the table or into salads, as they’re just so crisp and delicious eaten whole while sitting on the patio, straight off the vine.

2 lbs wax beans @ $1.29 / $2.58
2 lbs cukes @ $.99 / $1.98
Conservatively, 5 lbs zucchini @ $.99 / $4.95
Many Salads of green & red looseleaf lettuce $2
Harvested: $11.51
Offsetting last “in the red” total of $23.37:
Still in the red by $11.86, but quickly closing the gap.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grilled Butternut Squash

Sunday may have been Father’s Day, but the evening was a veritable celebration of Mother Earth.

I served a fresh-picked salad, added a flurry of basil over the main chicken dish and a chiffonade of sage over the sides, and presented a rhubarb pie sprinkled with fresh black raspberries for dessert - all of which came from the backyard.

Plus, I used the last of my butternut squash that was harvested last fall. Which is good, because I have eight Waltham Butternut Squash plants growing like gangbusters in my middle bed.

I couldn’t believe how well the squash was preserved after all this time. Once cut open, it was sweetly glistening and still as orange as I remembered that the first-picked were.

I wanted to go beyond the wintry preparations and pureés of squash that we’re all used to, so I thought of a classic combination to vary: butternut squash, sage and shaved parmesan cheese. I cut the two large squashes lengthwise, then spritzed some cooking spray on the outer skin sides. I then rubbed a blend of olive oil, garlic, sea salt, pepper and a touch of white wine vinegar to the flesh. I topped it all with the sage I’d picked while gathering basil leaves and salad greens.

I preheated the grill to about 400 degrees – a good roasting temperature – then placed the squash on, flesh side up, and closed the top so the grill would act as an oven. I turned them over after 15 minutes, when the sage had frizzled a bit and the garlic and olive oil had sizzled their way into flavoring the flesh of the squash.

Two rotations later (got to get those grill marks!) I removed them and immediately re-seasoned with a little salt and pepper, then the parmesan.

The skin was delicate and papery, but nutty and earthy, completely crumbly and edible. The flesh was soft and tasty even after a full period of winter and spring storage. In a way, I was sad to see the last of my squash go, but am really looking forward to this year’s harvest.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Eating Our Way Through the Backyard

It has begun.

On Saturday evening, my daughter ate her way through the backyard. Starting with our black raspberry bush, whose canes are producing like gangbusters this year, she picked the outer few while I waded into the thorny underbrush to get the rest. Dee-lish! After that, we hit the sugar snap peas, swollen from recent rain for the loudest “snap” with each sweet bite. She ventured on to both purple and green basil – a nice garnish, she said. I nibbled some outer leaves of my mache to try, but she took a pass and “traded” me for my share of the sugar snaps. We’ve also picked the equivalent of a $3.99 grocery-store clamshell of mesclun for a few salads so far this year.

It wasn’t exactly a feast that night, but it was fun and it really felt like summer again.

And, like last year, things are just coming up on their own from seeds, compost, buried kitchen scraps or whatever wintered over. So far, we’ve got two types of climbing beans and no fewer than a dozen “secret” tomato plants popping up in the squash beds and elsewhere, which I have thinned to six of the strongest plants. The biggest surprise? Our secret potatoes. I looked out the back window last month during a rainy weekend and kept wondering about this weed, or something, that just kept getting bigger and bigger. When I ventured out on that finally-dry Monday afternoon, I recognized it immediately: it was a potato plant! Did we miss one of the fingerlings or russets during the harvest last year? I laughed so hard.

The funny thing is that when I told my daughter upon picking her up from kindergarten, she bolted out of the car and into the backyard, hunted around a bit then quickly identified it. Yes, we all know what a potato looks like, but how many of you out there know what the actual plant looks like?

That’s my girl. I’m proud of her. And the fun really has begun.

Eco-nomics update:
Romano Bean Seeds $0.80
Kirby Cucumbers $1.99
4-Pack of Tomatoes w/5 plants $1.99
Acorn Squash $1.79
Eggplants – 2 pks @$1.99 $3.98
Sugar Baby Watermelons $1.98
Subtotal: $10.55
Added to previous total $18.31
Total Spent: $28.86

Picked salad greens $3.99
Handfuls of sugar snaps $1.50

In the black by: $23.37

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Starting Seedlings

We started our first seeds of the season indoors this weekend, and had our first “incidents” of the season within 24 hours.

My daughter and I on Saturday morning finally got around to sowing tomato seeds in a peat-pellet tray. The excitement and anticipation never disappoints, as she completely took over once we commenced operations at the kitchen counter. More skilled this year than last, she soaked the pellets, inserted the first tiny seeds into the swollen peat balls, then moved onto the next variety – without assistance or instruction from me. She became somewhat upset when I offered help!

In addition to the tomato seeds, we made a row of six sunflower seeds, which came from a packet given to her last year by my best friend. I’m excited about these, as they are not the “usual” yellow sunflowers. We grew those giants last year with great results, but these flowers come in mixed autumnal tones that should be rich, deep and dark.

We placed the covered tray near a sunny window, and no sooner did our cat Daisy lay atop it, crush the cover, and settle into the depressed “bed” that surrounded her. Not good.

The next morning, I awoke to find the tray overturned and on the floor, with peat pellets in piles. Not good either. I could barely tell if the seeds were still in the soil, much less discriminate between the tomato pellets and the sunflower pellets. That will be more apparent when they sprout, but until then, I need to keep an eagle eye on the tray. Remember that last year, Maisy clipped most of my celery root seedlings along with some others. And once fallen, the cats like to bat around the ball-shaped swollen pellets like toys, leaving looping trails of dirt and flakes of peat in their wake.

The tray is secured shut with a rubber band now and moved to a different window. We’ll keep you posted.

What We’re Growing this Year:
Pole Beans: Yellow Wax, Kwintus Beans, Emerité Filet Beans, Purple Podded pole beans
Summer squash: white and mixed-color pattypan; mixed color eightball zucchini
Winter squash: Butternut, Delicata
Red, White and Purple Potatoes (which we’ll buy and sprout in the coming weeks)
Tomatoes: Black Cherry, Sun Gold Cherry, Black Russian, Husky Gold and a red tomato from seeds given by a friend’s Polish Godmother.
Dwarf bok choy
Lemon Cucumbers

What’s in the Ground Now:
Rhubarb and Bright Lights Swiss chards
Mesclun mix, Mache, Radicchio
Tuscan Lacinato Kale
Sugar Snap Peas
Golden Beets

What I’ll Pick-up at the Nursery after the Last Frost Date:
Either Rosa Bianca or White Eggplant
Purple and Green Basil
Kirby Cucumber plants
Maybe a Roma and/or Big Boy tomato plant or two

Whatever I purchase will be included in this year’s Eco-Nomics, which so far is pretty low.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Early Beginnings

The farm has begun.

Tuscan kale, sugar snap peas, rhubarb Swiss chard, rainbow Swiss chard, a row of golden beets and wide patch of baby lettuces are all in the ground. Save the $1.19 mesclun mix, every seed was left over from last year or the year before. They’re still viable, and coming up.

When I purchased the mesclun seeds early last month, I had to exercise some restraint. When we see the first seed stands of the season, my daughter and I both become wide-eyed and energized. I’m like a kid in a candy store – full of hope for the growing season to come. Then we’ll bounce from store to store to see if other seed stands are up and running. She just goes insane, picking packet after packet until they spill out of her little hands. “Let’s grow this!” “Can we grow corn?” “I want the carrots again!”

Ah, that “again.” I knew we had some red carrot seeds from last year, but hadn’t taken a full seed inventory and didn’t remember precisely what I had on hand. We bought just the mesclun mix (with one of us leaving the store moping) then headed home to check our stock.

We had just about everything in the quantities needed for a good harvest. We did not, however, have enough varieties to fill all of the beds. I want to try more “storable” items for winter, like squashes, maybe parsnips and definitely more potatoes than I did last year. I also wanted a few different summer crops, specifically yellow wax beans.

My favorite catalog, John Scheepers, had only a bush variety. Plus, all the seeds I’m re-using this year are Scheepers seeds. Should I forsake them for a different company? I did: Jung Seeds had a climbing wax bean, “Kentucky Wonder,” so my daughter and I and I built an order around it.

Along with the pole beans, we chose mixed color eight ball zucchini, mixed pattypan squash, mache (or lamb’s ear lettuce) and dwarf pak choi.

The baby bok choy was an impulse at the end – a good one, I hope. It’s easy to grow and quick to harvest. And we like vegetarian stir-fries in this household.

The seeds haven’t come yet … I’m getting a little worried. The time for planting the mache will soon pass.

So, with seeds in the ground and more on the way, I may as well start the Eco-Nomics for the season:

Mesclun seeds $ 1.19
Jung Seeds $16.12
Total: $18.31

Inventory also went beyond seeds. I have peat pellets left over from last year, along with the reusable growing trays and half a bag of seed starting mix. My daughter and I will start our tomato seeds this week.

I Broke the Fast

It was the kielbasa that did me in.

After giving up meat for Lent, I ate some at our family Easter celebration on Sunday. Mass was lovely, the egg hunt my sister and I set up for the kids was a mad, squealing scramble, and the spread was, well, quite a spread: sliced ham, kielbasa, a full cheese board I put together, whitefish salad (interfaith marriage in the family), pickled cabbage, Polish mashed beets, boquerones (pickled anchovies) gardiniera, pepperoncini, the greenest Cerignola olives you’ve ever seen, and then some. It beckoned me.

I took two plates of appetizers, starting with the anchovies, cheeses and olives and a conversation with my father. I then moved on to the beets, cabbage, some whitefish salad, more anchovies and a mess of gardiniera for the strength I needed to perform an intervention between my daughter and too much Easter basket candy.

I don’t know if it was conscious or not, but still I took no meat. Then I made a plate for my daughter. And a third for myself. That kielbasa was my downfall. I took a sample bite while negotiating the spread. The skin snapped as I bit in. The silky, steaming fatty juice gushed over my tongue and the spice flooded my willing mouth. It was hot, salty, juicy and sliced thick. My mom doesn’t mess around. I heaped some ham and fruit on my daughter’s plate, then went straight for the kielbasa, spooning grainy mustard and two types of horseradish on the side for myself.

After that, we all had a late lunch of lamb. I ate that too.

It wasn’t a fully debauched gorging festival of flesh in the afternoon, and the small slice of lamb I took was tender, served with my wine reduction glaze. But it was all downhill from there. That kielbasa still called my name during clean-up, as I’d cruise past the tray en route to the dishwasher and scam another slice. Mom sent me home with some leftovers. All but one slice was gone by midnight. And no, I didn’t respect myself in the morning.

I’m a little water retentive from all the salt, but that will pass. But gastrointestinally, I feel like I’m paying for it today.

I did my best for the Lord during Lent, but the flesh is weak and the frailties of humanity infinite.

God, grant me pardon and absolution.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Two weeks have passed, but I’m still dreaming about Valentine’s Day. Gifts ran beyond an elaborate dinner, a 15-year-old Bordeaux and a night alone. My husband got a little romantic himself.

No, I did not receive perfume, jewelry, lingerie or chocolates. I didn’t get a “Get Out of Childcare Free” card (Dang!)

Mike gave me the new Gourmet Magazine cookbook.

Now, many wives or women might be offended at a Valentine’s Day gift of a cookbook, thinking it’s akin to receiving a toaster or, worse, a not-so-subtle hint. Not me, and Mike knows it.

When they folded, you said you’d planned to spend your life with Gourmet Magazine,” he said as I eagerly opened the book.

At 1,040 pages, I may be able to do just that.

This doorstop of a book seems to cover it all. It doesn’t contain every recipe from every issue of Gourmet. Believe me, I checked for some of my “greatest hits,” such as the Opera Cake. I’m glad, though. That means I can still paw through my past issues, Luddite that I can be. But I know this volume will end up taking center stage on my kitchen reference shelf.

Once Lent ends, I must make the Clementine Glazed Duck. I don’t plan on resuming fully carnivorous ways, mainly because this meatless venture is going quite well for all involved, animals included. But flesh will be on the menu again.

When we start planting cool weather crops in the coming weeks, including sugar snap peas, Tuscan kale, mâche and other greens, I’ll start the never-ending process of dog-earing recipes.

When our tomatoes, squash and other goodies come in this summer, there are 78 pages of just “Vegetables,” plus an entire chapter devoted to grains and beans. Plus, a 25-page chapter of relishes, chutneys, pickles and preserves for the bumper crops, of course.

Come fall when we harvest our potatoes, parsnips, celery root and winter squashes for storage, there are 20 winters’ worth of soups, in addition to both main dishes and sides full of winter and root vegetables.

Are you kidding? My next big dinner could simply come from the 80-page Hors d’oeuvres and 1st Courses section alone: hot and cold appetizers, tapas, A to Z nibbles for a taste of everything. Add to that 50 pages of salads, and I’m set. There are things in here that I didn’t even know you could do with a wheel of Camembert!

Desserts begin on page 660, starting with cookies, and don’t end until near page 900.

This book is great! Who needs lingerie as a gift?

Sure, La Perla has its place. But as far as I’m concerned, Mike could’ve duct-taped a wooden spoon to the cover and I would’ve been even more thrilled. Plus, the book is so clean and neat and tight and shiny!

I can’t wait to get it completely spattered with food.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tofu Stir Fry

When I came up with this meatless Lent venture, I mentally vowed not to depend on soy protein.

I worry about the isoflavones that mimic estrogen in women and don’t want my five-year-old daughter developing at age six. Seriously. When my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004, the first thing her doctor asked her was, “Do you eat a lot of soy?” The answer was “No, not any, really.” [Mom made it through fine.] One of my daughter’s and husband’s favorite snacks is edamame, in or out of the pod. Toasted, salted soy nuts are another favorite for both, although I don’t buy them very often. She asks for edamame constantly, so I monitor soy intake – hers and mine.

At any rate, when I came across a huge bin of fresh snow peas at the farmer’s market this Sunday, at just 99-cents/pound, I knew exactly what I’d be making. I ended up purchasing about two pounds – which you may or may not realize is a huge bagful. A small mountain of snow peas makes up a single pound. But they are so crisp and refreshing and taste just like Spring to me. Eaten plain or dipped in homemade hummus, the household has already gone through half of the remaining snow peas.

The white pillows of tofu, which Mike loves, were fresh at the market as well. I changed the water at home that day, then on Monday morning before using it that night.

As for the stir-fry, you can’t go wrong with a ginger-garlic-soy sauce treatment cooked in a slick of sesame oil. I also blend those four ingredients along with rice wine vinegar for an in-pod edamame dip. I cooked some chicken for my daughter, which she blended into the stir-fry. She cleaned her plate, emptied her rice bowl, but was not crazy about the tofu. She picked it out and left it on the side. Whew.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday, Red Lentils

So it begins.

I served our first meatless meal of Lent and the family has survived.

I made a red lentil dal that I adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe in a recent edition of The New York Times. The actual recipe is below. I served it with white rice, a green vegetable, small salad and onion nan spread with garlic confit. My daughter kept all components separate, Mike put the dal over his rice, and I tried it both ways.

Considering all the snow we’ve had in the past ten days, the hearty bowl of steaming dal was a soothing and warming choice.

For now, it looks like fish on Friday.

Spiced Red Lentil Dal
The New York Times, January 6, 2010

2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup dried red lentils, washed and picked over
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cloves
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons cold butter (optional)
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish.

1. Put oil in a skillet over medium high heat; when it is hot, add onion and cook until soft, about 10 minutes; set aside.
2. Meanwhile, combine all remaining ingredients except the salt, butter and cilantro in a saucepan. Add water to cover by about 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary, until lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper and keep cooking to desired tenderness. Lentils should be saucy but not soupy.
3. Remove cloves from pan and add reserved sautéed onion. Stir in butter if you are using it. Taste and adjust seasoning, then garnish with cilantro and serve.

** Note: If you know how to develop flavors, you won’t follow this recipe to a T. Sauté your ginger and garlic in desired quantities, add lentils and coat, then liquid to deglaze. I respect Mark Bittman to some extent, but never fully follow his recipes. Vegetable oil is fine. And nix the cilantro, unless you're into it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine’s Dinner for Two

We will drink no wine before its time.

Well, it was time for the Chateau Leoville Barton St. Julien, 1995, this Valentine’s Day. I prepared a special dinner for two at home planned both around the wine and some quiet time together.

I’ve written in the past about our Bordeauxs aging in the basement, so I checked CellarTracker once again and honed in on the Leoville Barton for this meal.

With schools closed Monday for President’s Day, my daughter wanted a Sunday sleepover at my mother’s – who was glad to oblige. Mike and I also are off from work on Monday, so I proposed a Valentine’s Day dinner in. It is always good to reconnect as adults, so while Mike was at work Sunday, I dropped my girl off in the afternoon and hit the ground running. The first thing I did was uncork the wine and aerate it so it could open up for the night.

Now, Mike and I have been together for so long that at this point, you’d think I’d greet him with his slippers, a plaid robe, pipe and a double Dewars. Instead, I opt for the cheese of Bourgogne and a bubbling bowl of snails. But that’s just me.

While the menu may look ambitious, even impressive, it’s the flavors that are both: the ingredients do all the work. The preparation of each element is fairly straightforward – which is good. I had a lot to accomplish before Mike arrived home, including setting the table with our good china, crystal and wedding silver.

Warm duxelles over toast points with Chevre
Brillat-Savarin cheese
Champagne grapes


Baby lamb chops, seared pink, with a Montmorency cherry and red wine reduction glaze
Mashed potatoes
Friseé salad in a fig balsamic vinaigrette

Dark chocolate truffles and a heart-shaped chocolate mousse cake for two for dessert

I love duxelles and don’t make them often enough. They’re great as served above, but also quite versatile in both appetizers and main courses. I came into some simply GORGEOUS chanterelles at Fairway on Saturday. I couldn’t believe my luck. Plus, my thyme plant on the patio is still producing leaves. Don’t let the price per pound for exotic mushrooms scare you off – you barely need six ounces.

2 C chopped mushrooms, mixed if desired.
1 T. minced shallot
2-3 T. Butter
Fresh thyme leaves, chopped
White wine or Amontillado sherry (what I prefer this time of year)
Salt & black pepper to taste
Flat-edged wooden spoon or spatula

Gently clean, trim, then chop your mushrooms into a medium to fine dice, as desired. Heat a very wide skillet over medium high heat until it’s about to smoke. Seriously, this is where people go wrong. The pan has to be hot.
Toss in the butter, swirl to melt, then add the mushrooms and shallot. Toss gently, then leave them alone and let them cook. Agitate them if they’re sticking; add more butter if necessary until they brown. They will give up their juices (mushrooms are mostly water). Let the juices steam off. Add your thyme and a scant splash of your wine or sherry, deglaze, and let it steam off.
Season w/S & P, more thyme if desired, and serve warm. If my chive pot weren’t dormant, I would garnish this with fresh-snipped chives.

Fruit & Wine Reduction Glaze
This is a good thing to know how to make. The principals behind it are useful and can be translated to many dishes. It can also be made ahead of time. The glaze can be varied in the ingredients and herbs. I make it with fresh figs and fresh tarragon when figs are available in late summer, with dried apricots and thyme in the winter, or with apples and fresh sage in the fall with pork. The dried Montmorency cherries have a sweet and sour bite to them, and are usually stocked at Trader Joe’s, where I got mine. Soak dried fruit in a bit of warm water, then drain before using. I used thyme with the cherries, which I plumped with red wine in a warm pan.

1/2 stick unsalted butter
8 oz. fresh fruit or somewhat less for dried fruit
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
1 cup red wine
1 1/3 cups chicken broth; veal demi-glace if you have it for the lamb or other red(dish) meat
1 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
2 T balsamic vinegar. I’ve also used good Sherry vinegar, though slightly less, depending on the fruit and meat.
1 T chopped herbs: tarragon for figs, thyme for apricots or prunes; if using rosemary, it’s pungent. Cut quantity in half.
Salt & black pepper

Heat half your butter in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat, then brown your fruit without stirring. Transfer to a bowl. Add shallot to now-empty skillet and sauté until golden and soft. Add wine and about 2/3 of your fruit and boil, stirring and mashing the fruit, until wine is reduced to a syrup. This takes about 5 minutes. Stir in broth or demi-glace and boil. Stir cornstarch and sugar into vinegar until dissolved to make a slurry, then whisk into your pan. Boil for at least 2 minutes. It will thicken. Work the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a small pot or saucepan. Press every last bit of liquid out of it. Discard solids. Stir in your fresh herbs, S & P to taste.

If serving immediately, whisk in the remaining 2 T. butter.
As I said, this can be made a day ahead, or ahead of time. If so, bring to a simmer, add any pan juices from the meat, and whisk in your final bit of butter just before serving. It will be as glossy and smooth as silk.

Scatter reserved sautéed fruit artfully on the meat platter.

Because I was serving just two tonight, I cut the above in half. Make it once, and the recipe is yours. After the second translation, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.

Monday, February 8, 2010


First in the arsenal for Lent: Lentils.

Alliteration aside, lentils are chock full of protein, plus fiber and complex carbohydrates, and have been a part of the human diet since Neolithic times. They remain an important source of nutrition around the world. My father-in-law always said, “I love a woman who can cook lentils.” Over the years, as Mike and I have been together for 17 and married for 11 this year, I’ve come to learn what that means. To George, it’s his mother. She made lentil soup every Friday during Lent. Keep in mind that she had four children, plus a husband to feed, and extended family in Depression-era Pittsburgh. Everyone worked in the mills, sometimes just alternate weeks. Lentils are a poor man’s protein. I’m always honored to serve them to George, in any form.

Now, you know I always have French green Puy lentils on hand, year round, for warm dishes in winter and salads in the summer. They hold their shape and are infinitely useful (and delicious). I haven’t needed to bolster my supplies of those. The last time I hit Whole Foods, I purchased quite a quantity from the bulk foods section. I go there only a few times a year, mainly for grains and the like. I am the only person I know who can get out of there for under $20 and still have a full bag of groceries, including an esoteric cheese that might strike my fancy.

Next, I laid in supplies of brown lentils. You know the ones: a one-pound bag of little gray-green discs. Fortunately, my supermarket ran a special last week on Jack Rabbit lentils, my usual brand: 77-cents per bag, limit four. Yes, I bought four packages. They are a household staple, with lentil soup being a default lunch item for the week, made on a Sunday afternoon, or at night after the dishes are done. My five-year-old daughter has been helping me make lentil soup since she could toddle up to the kitchen counter while pushing a chair to stand on. If only her knife skills were at the adult stage – I’m honestly sure she could do it with her eyes closed at this point. My best friend adds ribbons of chopped spinach to hers, an Italian touch – and delicious. I can't believe I hadn’t thought of that. For other dishes, watch your cooking time. They can turn to mush easily. Make a pilaf with equal (or 2:1) parts white rice and lentils. Or toss them simply with a little red wine vinegar, garlic, S, P and Italian parsley.

Third, red lentils. They’re tiny, little things that don’t really hold their shape, but they can make a great Indian dal (warm, hearty), or be stewed with a cumin-cilantro-lime treatment then served over rice. The last time I used red lentils, they accompanied this sort of Cubano-pork dinner that I winged, geez, just too long ago. They were really good, to my recollection. I don’t always keep these on hand, but thought perhaps I should. I picked up a bag of Goya brand along with the Jack Rabbits, for good measure.

Finally, black Beluga lentils. I had completely forgotten about these! Over the weekend, I was at the Fairway that opened recently in our county, going in for one thing and coming out with much more. These shiny little black pearls jumped off the shelf and into my hand basket, seemingly out of nowhere. They weren’t on my list. They were tucked away near some organic chard and turnips (which were not on my list, nor did I buy them) – I was merely trying to find a clear path around and away from a crowd mobbing the bakery samples. It’s a great store, but it’s impossible to just zip in and zip out, much less stick to your list.

At any rate, they’re added to the lentil larder. They also reminded me of a curried black lentil soup that I make, which I haven’t served since I can remember. It is delicious and hearty – and will be one of the first meatless meals I make, guaranteed.

Try it – but start it in the morning:

One onion, diced
A good knob of ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. cumin
salt & pepper
1 cup black lentils (1 ½ if you like it really thick)
4to 6 cups water and/or chicken broth combined
1 small chili pepper, chopped, if desired
A few tsps oil for your pot

Heat the oil and add the onion and ginger, cooking until soft, golden and fragrant. Add the garlic and the chili pepper if using. Stir and soften. Add the dried spices, salt and some pepper. Keep stirring; it gets a little sticky.

Add the lentils. Toss to coat. Add the broth and/or water. Deglaze and scrape up all the good bits. Cover and bring to a simmer for 2 hours. Black lentils really take their time. Check, taste, adjust seasonings. There are times you want more curry flavor – now is the time to be bold. Cook for at least ½ hour more, depending on the doneness of the lentils.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Meatless Meals

I’m giving up meat for Lent.

I’ve done that once before, but with less than perfect results. A few years ago, I realized that I was eating an inordinate amount of meat. It wasn’t on purpose, but it just grew into a habit. Every time I made a sandwich for my husband, Mike, I’d have a few slices of turkey, ham or whatever I was using. I would give my daughter a ham roll as part of a snack, and I’d end up eating two, three or more, loathe as I am to admit it. My default nibble at night seemed to always come out of the deli drawer of the fridge, or sliced off a leftover dinner roast, and a single slice or chunk of chicken would never do.

So I quit, cold turkey.

However, I didn’t “do it” right. After about two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly in the beef department of the supermarket – and I never buy beef – in a fugue state: I didn’t know how I got there or what I was doing, but I could not feel my arms, legs or head, much less stagger out of there and into the checkout line. I was starving and seeing double, standing still, staring at the blood-soaked packages, not even knowing how much time had elapsed. I ate meat two days later, lapsed Catholic that I am. That, and I gulped down a massive quantity of iron supplements.

But I want to try it again this year and announced as much last week, after scoring a ton of sardines in various sauces that were on sale at the supermarket.

Well, after a stellar dinner of a gorgeous filet of wild Sockeye salmon last night, served with sweet vinegared rice, edamame and salad, Mike proclaimed he wanted to give up meat for Lent as well. “Let’s all give up meat this year!” He was really into it.

“I can’t do that with her,” I told Mike, motioning my head toward our 5-year-old daughter, who was scraping up the last flakes of fish from her plate, then negotiating the skin.

She knows where meat comes from, and last night she asked why we had to kill the fish. She often asks why the chicken died. I tell her “We make our choices,” and don’t have to eat it. She will agree, then think, then completely renege and say she wants the meat, then repeats and repeats that she wants the meat, psyching herself up for dinner. And that’s fine. I wouldn’t expect anything different. I’m glad she’s a good eater.

I further explained to Mike that I don’t really know the bean-rice-lentil combinations and quantities to create that elusive “complete protein” I always hear vegetarians talk about. I don’t eat pasta, but they do, so maybe this could work. I then recalled to him the fugue state I entered each time I went to the store starving and practically cross-eyed three years ago.

“I have confidence in you. We can do it,” he said [i.e. I can do it, prepare the food in balance, and keep the Lenten promise going …]

Maybe we can. We go meatless probably more often than most American families, with an ever-evolving repertoire of grains, beans and any invented combination thereof. It’s definitely easier in the summer, when our garden produces all the produce we need to feed the neighborhood.

I’ve also had my run-ins with supermarket meat. And until a lapse last year for which I received 113 lashes, I hadn’t purchased industrial beef since I can remember.

But I obviously purchase meat and fish. I like it to an extent, and my daughter, since starting solid food, almost always eats her meat first. She (and I) also love organ meats, from hearts to livers. Although I exceed her age by a high 30+ [ahem] years, she’ll out consume me, hands down, when it comes to the innards. I will be preparing protein in various forms for her during the Lenten season. I’ll enjoy making a little something special and different for her, and she’ll feel like a big deal.

In the end, Mike also pulled back a bit, requesting only meatless dinners. The lunches I make for him to take to work usually involve a turkey, ham or other type of sandwich [Italian hero is a favorite, loaded with Coppa], although not always.

But for now, I need to do more than lay in extra supplies of tinned fish for myself: research, recipes, shopping (I’m out of both polenta and wheat berries) and planning are on the menu before Ash Wednesday arrives on the 17th. Fresh fish is costly, and I can’t shoulder that as a nightly expense.

I also hope this will bring a new spark of creativity to my kitchen. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Opera Cake

Quail and Cornish game hens be damned! The hit of the night was dessert.

The presentation of the glistening little birds ringing a large platter was impressive with additional walnut stuffing mounded in the center. The fruit and wine reduction sauce was velvety smooth. Since fig balsamic vinegar went into the sauce, I made a fig balsamic vinaigrette for the salad, and gave the option of adding the toasted walnuts and chevre, which were out for appetizers. I’m glad I was inspired to change at the last minute. The flavors really dovetailed all around, from soup to nuts – well, from appetizers to the repeated use of the walnuts.

But in the end, it was the Opera Cake.

“Elise, this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten here,” my father-in-law gushed, adding that anything he’s “had at Latour doesn’t even compare.” [A restaurant in Bergen County]

I delivered two slices of the cake on Monday morning to my best friend, who at the last minute could not attend. I felt like the Easter bunny, hopping up to her back door and hanging the gift bag on the doorknob early in the morning. Once she found the surprise, she called immediately, confessed that both pieces were gone, and that she’d be “out of commission for the next two hours” on her Wii Fit.

It is a beautiful and tasty cake to say the least, with a 100+ year history. But honestly, it looks a lot harder to make than it is. Sure, there are a number of components, but if you break them down empirically, it’s Pastry 101 (maybe Pastry 201): sponge cake, simple syrup, icing, melted chocolate.

My five-year-old daughter was there every step of the way with a very active hand, and it came out great.

Here is a link to the recipe from Gourmet Magazine, September, 2004 issue. Good luck, and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Quail Quandary

I knew they were just too good to be true.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a supply of Canadian quail at, of all places, a local Asian market. Frozen, four to a package, and unbelievably cheap, at least compared to what I’ve seen or paid in the past – if you can even find them!

Since that date, I’ve been fantasizing about a quail dinner, planning and plotting for basically as many friends and family can attend. Pan seared and oven finished, I would fill them with a fruited stuffing with walnuts and dress them in a fruit and red wine reduction glaze. I started accumulating odd ingredients for the meal and appetizers, from veal demi glace to a really nice Camembert I happened upon last week and snapped up at a great price.

I didn’t entertain as much as I intended to over the holidays, so I’ve been itching to go all out. I rounded up some of the usual suspects for a Sunday dinner then called more. Monday the 18th is a holiday, no work, no school, so a late night wouldn’t be out of order. I had my final head count on Monday night and headed out to buy the quail after work on Tuesday.

I eagerly start piling the packages in my arms. Then I really looked at them: they seemed a little too plump and “whole.” I peeked through the cello-wrap and try to see into the birds’ cavities. The neck part of each bird is facing toward the outer rims of each package. A big label from the Canadian farm covers most of the top, so I can’t see into the bird’s “other end.” I start to wonder.

“Are these cleaned?” I ask a random worker stocking a separate freezer case.

He looks, turns the package all around in the same way I did, and says, “I don’t know.”

I go to the butcher’s counter and encounter a language barrier. No biggie, I’ve communicated through more. He “thinks” they’re clean, but can’t be sure. Then he looks, and says, “No.” He calls over a woman who looks at me like I’m nuts. She has a thicker accent than the butcher, but speaks some English. She looks them over, brings them to another worker to caucus, points to me – I think I saw an eye-roll at that point – and returns.

“Not cleaned,” she says. I still don’t want to believe it. How can I pass these up? I’d been fantasizing about a Night at the Opera-type dinner for weeks.

I ask, “Is the liver inside?” A basic question, easy to answer, to get my confirmation.

“Yes!” she says, almost excitedly.

“And the lungs?”


Turns out, these birds weren’t cleaned. Sure, they were plucked, and as the final man I spoke with said, “Lady, head cut off.”

It’s not the head I’m worried about.

Cleaning the quail would be like doing an autopsy on a sparrow. Sixteen of them. I did consider it, almost at length. I really wanted to make them. They are delicious, impressive and secretly so, so easy to cook. Could I just thaw and eviscerate? Sixteen stomachs, 16 livers, 32 lungs, a football field’s length of intestines. No, I’m not cleaning these things.

Cornish game hens will do, one per person plus spares.

Sunday’s Menu

D’Artagnan paté de foie gras on toast points with cornichons
Warm duxelles over chevre on toast points
Morbier and Tomme de Savoie cheeses; Chevre.
Champagne grapes
Toasted walnuts
Acacia honey
Veuve Cliquot Champagne and Santi Nello Prosecco [Santaniello is my maiden name. I had to get this!]

Roast Cornish game hen with fig and walnut stuffing and a fruit reduction sauce.
Mache salad with a warm sherry vinaigrette and Camembert on Baguette
Roasted mini red and Yukon gold potatoes
Steamed green beans
A red Bordeaux or Margaux [TBD]

Opera Cake and truffles
Tawny Port and coffee.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Girl Can Dream, Can't She?

Plant, plant, plant your seeds
Neatly in a row
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily,
Don’t forget your hoe!

My first garden catalog
Came by mail today
Seeds and vines and roots and herbs
I can’t wait ‘til May.

We won’t wait ‘til then
You know just what I mean
Seedlings started extra early
Will deliver green.

Heirloom tomatoes, climbing beans
Seed potatoesWow!
Purple basil, baby squash
I can nearly taste them now.

But first I have to narrow down,
From a thousand items all told
I want them all, I can’t decide
This winter has been so cold.

But spring will dawn, my beds will thaw
My robin will make the scene
But until that day, I’ll close my eyes
And all I’ll do is dream.