31 January 2010

A little stuck

That's how I've been feeling lately.

Lots of grand plans for the garden, but it's too wet and soggy to do much.  All kinds of home improvement ideas and things needing doing, but not sure how to get started and what to do first.  Feeling like I want to cook something new and delicious, but getting lost in the cookbooks for too long . . . only to end up too hungry to wait for something good -- so it's top ramen and bok choy.
Being a little stuck has left me wondering what to write about on my blog lately too.  And as for my fitness goals . . . not making such speedy progress.
Is it the rain?  All the gray in Seattle?  Could be.

Then again, could be that I'm more like my plants than I realized:  A bit dormant for part of the year -- the coldest, grayest, wettest part -- stuck in an awkward spot, a little pale, storing up energy, growing a bit, sending out feelers, getting organized.

I like that metaphor.   And that we're having an early spring.

26 January 2010

Sunday Night Beans

Wow.  January turned out to be full of things to deal with -- no plums this time -- but there was car theft (including my purse and passport), my sister's thyroid surgery (she's doing great and on the mend), some new job responsibilities for Byron (meaning longer hours), and then (hooray) the stolen car was recovered (repairs and fumigation to follow).

On a brighter note, our balmy January weather gave me more days than usual to get into the garden.  I spent a day renovating my perennial bed in the back yard (anyone need any iris?  Siberian and bearded available).  And, I'm putting in a cold frame at the p-patch. 

Another bright spot -- my seven bags of beans from Rancho Gordo arrived.  So pretty.

We eat a lot of beans around here -- all different ways.  Black beans with onions and garlic, chili beans, bean soup with veggies, refried beans, beans and greens . . .

I find the long prep time that beans require to be a good excuse to slow down and hang out in the kitchen for a while.  Quite therapeutic after a busy week.

One of my favorite ways to make beans is my own version of "Home Alone Beans," a recipe I discovered in a Sun Valley Cookbook some years ago.  I used local cannellinis from Willie Green's Farm for this recipe -- but any white bean will do.

Sunday Night Beans
1 1/2 c. dried cannellini beans
6-8 c. filtered water
1-28 oz. can chopped, fire-roasted, good quality tomatoes
2 tsp. salt

1/4 c. good quality olive oil
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
1 T. fresh thyme leaves
1 T. fresh rosemary, chopped
1 T. chopped fresh cilantro
1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp dried chili flakes
1/2 c. white wine or water

Garnish (don't omit):
red onion, thinly sliced
pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano, grated
ground black pepper

Rinse and pick through the beans.  Put them in a heavy cooking pot -- I use a Le Creuset pot -- and cover with the water.  The water should be at least two inches above the beans.  Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for about a minute.  Remove from the heat, cover, and let them sit for a couple hours.

Once the beans have soaked, bring them to a boil again and simmer gently until tender.  For dried beans harvested this season, I find this takes less than an hour.  Older beans will take longer and may require you add a little more cooking water.  By the time the beans are done you want some remaining liquid but just enough so the top beans are not exposed.  Also, don't let the beans fall apart.  Once tender, add the salt and the tomatoes (juice and all) and heat through.

While the beans are cooking assemble and chop all your herbs and garlic.

When the beans are finished, in a separate small sauce pan, heat the oil.  While it is heating, add the chili flakes, all the herbs, and the sliced garlic.  Bring to a rapid boil and cook until the mixture is fragrant and a little soft.  Don't let the garlic get crispy.  This may take a minute or two. When you're ready to stop the cooking, add the wine or water.  Stir, bring to a boil again, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about a minute longer.  Add this all at once to the beans and tomato mixture.

Ladle into bowls with as much or as little of the broth as you like.  Garnish with onion slices (I've used white onion or scallions with good success too), cheese, and a grind of black pepper.

Serves 6.

14 January 2010

Beware the Foods of January

I know January is really here because I'm craving rich, comforting foods.  And by that I mean various forms of baked pasta and tapioca pudding. 

While these foods do nothing to advance my 2010 fitness goals, they are a joy to eat.  My plan: kick up the exercise a notch and hope everything will work out.

Last weekend, I made homemade mac and cheese or actually, penne with Gruyere, sharp cheddar, and blue cheese from Willapa Hills that I discovered at the farmers market.  I highly recommend both -- the blue cheese and the preparation.

Then yesterday I made lasagne with homemade ricotta and tomato sauce that I preserved last summer.  I love lasagne, but it took me 20 years to figure out how to make a lasagne with good flavor, that's not too watery or dry, that has a few crispy edges, is salty enough, and well, doesn't have rubbery cheese.  What can I say, I'm a slow learner . . . and well, I only make it a couple times a year.  Anyhow, I think I've finally figured it out.

Outstanding Cheese Lasagne
1 pound (about 2 cups) whole milk ricotta
1 large egg
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
black pepper
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese (regular whole milk mozarella is also fine)
2 cups finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Lasagne noodles (enough for four layers of noodles, which is about 12)
3 - 31/2 cups basic tomato sauce (recipe below)

If you are using dried pasta, boil the noodles in salted water until al dente.  While the noodles boil, combine the ricotta, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper and half the mozzarella (grated).  When I make my own ricotta, sometimes I add some of my leftover whey to this mixture just to make it a little creamier and easier to spread.  Tear up the remaining mozzarella into strips and small pieces and set aside.

Assemble the lasagne in a deep 9x13 pan:  Start with about a cup of tomato sauce in the bottom, then a layer of noodles, then spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, and sprinkle 1/3 of the Parmesan on that.  Put a layer of noodles over the cheese, then a cup of sauce, then another layer of noodles, then another third of the ricotta mixture and Parmesan, noodles again, then the rest of the ricotta and Parmesan and another cup or so of tomato sauce.  Finally, top it with the remaining mozzarella.

Bake in a preheated 375˚ oven for about 35-40 minutes.  Cool 15 minutes before cutting.  It's even better if you bake it ahead and reheat.

This picture doesn't do it justice -- it's been in the fridge overnight.  I promise, it looks amazing right after it comes out of the oven.

Basic Tomato Sauce
adapted from Mario Batali's recipe
1/4 c. fruity olive oil
4-5 cloves fresh garlic, roughly chopped
1 large Spanish onion, chopped
3 Tbs. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
8-10 cups roughly chopped, ripe fresh tomatoes

In a wide soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add onion and garlic and cook until soft and light brown, about 10 minutes.  Add thyme and carrot and cook for another five minutes, until the carrot is quite soft.  Add the tomatoes and all their juices, bring to a boil stirring often.  Once it boils, lower the heat and simmer until the sauce is as thick as you like, usually 30 minutes to an hour.  Season with salt to taste.  Makes 4-6 cups.

* * *

BUT I DIGRESS . . .  it's the pot of tapioca pudding that I made this week that I really wanted to tell you about.

I had never made tapioca pudding before -- usually I settle for the stuff from Kozy Shack or splurge and pick some up at Whole Foods.  Anyway, I'm here to tell you that homemade is so much better (big surprise, right?).  Plus, you can dress it up with all kinds of extras.

I dropped some miniature chocolate chips into the dish of warm pudding that I ate right away.  The next day, I grated a little fresh nutmeg and crumbled an amaretti on top.  The next day, I tried it with chocolate shavings . . . you get the idea. 

This version has a lightness that none of the the store-bought puddings even come close to. 

Classic Tapioca Pudding
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
3/4 cup water
2 1/3 cups 2% milk (or a combination of 1% and whole)
1/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup cane sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a two-quart sauce pan, soak the tapioca in water for about 30 minutes.  Add milk, salt, and lightly beaten egg yolks and stir over medium heat until boiling.  Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered on very low heat for about 12 -15 minutes.  Stir it often so nothing sticks or burns.  While the pudding simmers, whisk the egg whites in an electric mixer until just beginning to foam, then slowly add the sugar.  Beat until the mixture holds soft peaks.

Take the pudding off the heat, and fold about one cup of the pudding into the egg whites, then gently fold the egg white mixture back into the pudding.  Place it over low heat again and stir/fold for about 3-4 minutes.

Cool about 15 minutes, then add the vanilla and stir in thoroughly.  Serve warm or chilled.  Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

10 January 2010

Reverse Engineered Perfect Protein Salad

A few years ago, my friend Lisa put me on to perfect protein salad at the PCC Market deli, and I've been buying it ever since.  It's a salad of garbanzos, wheat berries, and crunchy vegetables in a light mayo-type dressing.

While shopping the other day, I decided I would try to recreate this favorite salad at home.  I bought a container of it, read the ingredients label, and purchased what I needed, including Vegenaise, which I had never tried before.

The salad I came up with tastes pretty much like PCC's version, although I left out the celery to suit my own taste.  Here's my recipe:

Amy's Reverse-Engineered Perfect Protein Salad
adapted from the deli counter at PCC Market

Mix together the following ingredients in a large bowl, chill, and enjoy.

1-15 oz. can of garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 cup spelt berries, simmered for about 30 minutes and drained (measure after cooking)
1 medium cucumber, diced with the skin on
4 green onions, sliced
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 cup fresh carrots, sliced or diced
1 large clove fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried dill
1/2 tsp. dried Italian herbs
2 tsp. cider vinegar
Veganaise, enough to coat

Epilogue:  Before I posted this, the thought occurred to me that I might be able to find PCC's perfect protein salad recipe on the internet.  (Why didn't I do this to start?)  And there it was.  My valiant attempt at reverse engineering was quite unnecessary.  Oh well, it was kind of fun -- and my salad isn't too far off, actually. 

07 January 2010

What to do with Holiday Cards

When I pack Christmas away each January, it seems wrong to just throw away or recycle all the holiday cards, especially the photos.  But what to do with them?

Yesterday, my friend Megin gave me a great idea.  She suggests punching a hole in the corner of each card and putting them on a large metal ring.  Then pack them away in your decorations, and next year, when you get everything out again, you can set out last year's cards, too.

I suppose you could keep them indefinitely (which could get a little bulky) . . . but even if you just kept them for a year or two it would be fun to compare how kids have grown and friends have gotten better looking with the passing years.  I'm doing it.

05 January 2010

Winter Garden Update

It doesn't look like much, but who knew a garden could make so much progress in the winter? 

My Brussels sprout plants shortly after planting in October 2009.

And now -- January 2010.

I checked on them again today and I have tiny sprouts growing along the main stems that are about the size of a nickel!

If they stay on pace, we'll get a harvest in early spring.  Lots of holes in the leaves.  But the straw is keeping them from freezing (that and the fact that it hasn't gotten below 40˚F in the last month) and it keeps the air circulating as they grow taller.  Not bad for a first attempt in the off season.

Predictably, the slugs have devoured what remained of the lettuces and radicchio.

But before that occurred, I managed to harvest five small heads of crimson radicchio around Thanksgiving time.  I think I'll definitely grow radicchio again next season. 

As for the rest:  the thyme is healthy and the leeks are still growing (yeah!).  I've covered them with hay, too, in the hopes they will fare well should we get a freeze this month.

Apparently, however, my garlic is confused.  Our temperate winter weather has tricked my garlic into thinking that spring is here.  Now it's starting to come up.  Argh.

I still have some clean up work to do before spring -- digging up the dahlia bulbs, moving around some of the perennials, spreading fresh chicken manure so it can age.  Oh, and I discovered some volunteer Meeker raspberries that I would like to encourage, so I need to make some room for them to spread.

My compost piles under burlap are whithering nicely, which suggests that I should turn them this week.  I guess that's the down side of having a garden plot working every season of the year -- the gardener has to work too.

Next thing you know, it'll be spring and I'll be planting peas.  Oh, where are those seed catalogs . . .

03 January 2010

The Results are In

Remember the Thanksgiving contest that we entered?  Well, we won!

I can't remember the last time I won anything -- seriously, a pumpkin carving contest in second grade is all that comes to mind.

You can read about all the winning entries at the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance website.  Each one sounds delicious, making it all the more hard to believe that the judges actually chose our feast -- A Vegetarian Thanksgiving for Seven.

Special thanks to our guests who contributed delicious food to the meal and willingly sourced local food, shared their recipes, and photographed their preparations so we could include them in the entry.  Once we pulled everything together, our entry ended up a whopping 14 pages long.

Here it is -- recipes and all.  Just click on an image if you want to enlarge it.