Archive for the 'garden fare' Category



noodles and butter

Food is complicated. Too complicated, really. But I love food, so I spend a lot of time thinking about it. And there is no shortage of fodder. Books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,  Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, and documentaries such as Food Inc., and Forks Over Knives keep my brain reeling.

Blame the long winter, but I’ve been doing an above average amount of soul searching lately about what I eat and why. And it’s recently struck me that I want to revert back to a vegetarian diet.

Most (but certainly not all) of the animal products I’ve been eating are byproducts of a happy life, raised by people I know and trust. I firmly believe that the small farms I buy meat from, like like Hermit Creek Farm and Pasture Perfect Poultry, create vital ecological systems that are healthy and sustainable. And it feels good to be a part of that cycle. So it’s been confusing to have vegetarianism tugging at my sleeve.

veggie-wonder

I originally became a vegetarian at the ripe age of twelve. I distinctly remember the day I realized that there even was such a thing. An entire group of people who consciously didn’t eat animals? These, I knew, were my people.

My twelve-year-old logic was twofold. I loved animals almost more than anything as a kid. My heart was (and still is) a giant sinkhole of compassion for anything and everything living. I’m the type that says a silent blessing for roadkill. Additionally, I didn’t really like meat – the taste, the texture – nothing about it turned me on. And that’s saying something because my mother is known for her cooking. I certainly couldn’t blame my distaste on dried out chops and rubbery chicken.

I shared this breakthrough with my mom who only responded with, “That’s fine, but you’re not just going to eat noodles and butter.” She then embarked on learning (and teaching me) how to cook like a proper vegetarian. Talk about a mom on her game.

As I learned more about food politics, my reasons grew more ethically and environmentally based. By college I was dabbling with a vegan diet. Though when life landed me on a small organic farm in northern Maine I dutifully tried reintroducing meat – mostly out of a notion that I should take responsibility and be a part of the ecological loop I was helping to create. But it didn’t stick.

Years later, after working with scores of small, sustainably oriented farmers, meat slowly crept back into my diet. I even came to like it. Kind of. The overall number of meat to vegetarian recipes in the Pig archives should tell you something about where my loyalties lie.

bowls-in-waiting

I’ve also been studying the Yoga Sutras this winter. And the first yama, ahimsa – which translates to “do no harm” – really resonates with me. It’s funny, but it took reading it in print to wake up the twelve year old in me. Maybe I’m oversimplifying and skirting details, but if I allow myself to be a kid again, all I can say is that it just feels better not to eat animals – even ones that are impeccably raised.

And for now, that works. I’m trusting my instinct and it feels good. I’ve been rediscovering falafel wraps, hot rutabaga melts, and yes – noodles. But not just any noodles, and certainly not just noodles and butter (thank you mother). I’m talking soba noodles, crunchy vegggies, and flavors so simple that all they can do is shine. I used short sprouted mung beans for this dish, but traditional long mung bean sprouts (or any other sprout) will work just fine.

Fried Noodles with Broccoli & Bean Sprouts
(Adapted from Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food)

5 ounces noodles (soba, udon, or curly ramen)
3 Tablespoons peanut oil
2-3 Tablespoons fresh grated ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups broccoli
2 large handfuls bean sprouts
4 scallions, sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese cooking wine (shao shing)
Salt and red pepper flakes to taste

Cook noodles in a large pot of salted water until they are barely done and still toothsome. Drain and toss well with 2 tablespoons oil.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a hot wok or large skillet. Add ginger and garlic and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the broccoli and bean sprouts, cooking for another minute or two. Tip in the noodles and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, keeping everything moving over hot heat. Add the scallions, soy sauce and cooking wine. Stir-fry for another minute and remove from heat. Season with a bit of coarse salt and red pepper flakes to taste. (Serves 2-3)

fried-noodles

buried treasure

Living in Northern Wisconsin has it’s perks, to be sure. But it also means coming to terms with being a step or two behind most of the world. Fashion trends, for instance, typically don’t make their way up here until they are already on their way out in most places. Or, wait. Do they ever even make it up here? Not really sure on that. Likewise, when the spring barrage of cooking mags start pouring in with glorious photos of rhubarb and spring peas, I take it with a grain of salt. I’m lucky if I get my first pea harvest by the end of June.

I know to set my new throng of must-try seasonal recipes aside for at least another month or two. Still, my heart goes pitter-patter at the mere thought of fresh produce. On a whim I go out to check my most promising contender – the parsnip patch. I plant a few rows of parsnips every summer. Half of them I devour in the fall, and half I leave well mulched in the ground for a spring feast. Parsnips are good in the fall, but they’re even better after a winter underground. The frost converts some of their starch to sugar and gives them an unbeatable subtle sweetness.

parsnips

I grab the yard stick on the way out the door. As I suspected, things do not look promising. My gnarly jewels are buried under thirty-six inches of hard snow pack. I desperately rack my brain for some of the benefits of living on Lake Superior. There must be some, I’m sure of it, but at the moment all I can focus on is my hidden treasure. Clearly this is going to require some human intervention. I strike hard with my shovel, keeping my eyes on the prize. It becomes immediately obvious that my plastic tool is no match for 3 feet of snow that has repeatedly thawed and frozen over the season.

Time for the big guns. I summon my husband Mark and his unwieldy beast of a snow blower. I doubt I’ll even have to plead. Mark is sort of a snow blowing nut. He must find it satisfying work. Halfway through the winter I discovered an amazing labyrinth of paths criss crossing the upper half of our property. I had no idea. When I confronted him about it, he burst out singing “Don’t Fence Me In” and claimed that a fella needs to roam. Did I mention we have long winters?

spring garden

We concur that the parsnips are indeed a noble cause and Mark fires up the beast. Of course the ground is still frozen solid underneath, but we’ve made headway at least. A few weeks of spring weather is all it will take for the parsnips to start poking their heads above ground. And you can bet that I’ll be out there muscling my way through to them with a pitch fork at the first sign of a thaw.

Luckily, in the meantime, I’ve got a few parsnips lingering in the crisper from our winter CSA share. I like to mix parsnips in with other root vegetables for roasting, and equally, I love a creamy potato-parsnip mashup, but my favorite way to prepare parsnips is to feature them head on in a simple parsnip pie. It really lets them shine in an easy, comfort food sort of way way.

parsnip pie

Brown Butter Parsnip Pie

1 9-inch unbaked pastry shell*
1 1/2  pounds (roughly) parsnips
2 tablespoons tahini
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoon lightly crushed pecans
Salt, pepper, nutmeg

Peel and dice the parsnips. You want enough to fill the pie pan, so you can sort of eyeball or do a dry test run before you line the pie shell. Steam the parsnips until tender, about 10 minutes. While they steam, roll out the pie crust and line the pan. Brown the butter in a small sauce pan until it is nutty and fragrant, but not at all burnt. Mash the steamed parsnips with the butter and tahini and spoon the mixture into the pie shell. Leaving a few lumps of parsnips is a-okay. Fold over any edges of crust and sprinkle the top with salt, pepper and a dusting of nutmeg. Bake at 350ºF for 15 minutes. At this point, scatter the crushed pecans over the top and continue to bake for another 10 – 15 minutes,

* My standard note on the pie shell: after trying many recipes and methods, I’ve settled on Alice Waters’ pie dough in The Art of Simple Food as my standby. It is easy, straightforward, and has yet to let me down. But a frozen store bought shell would work just as well.

pie gone

potato amnesia

It happens every January. But still, it always catches me off guard and leaves me feeling bleak. The dreaded January thaw. One night of rain and our gorgeous snow base is diminished by half. One night of freezing temperatures turns our world into an awkward skating rink. A funk envelopes the house. My husband Mark mopes around and resolves to go biking with studded tires instead skiing on the trails. I stare out at the garden through the fog, searching for solace. It’s only a tease though. I know better.

Earl

The only member of the household who finds meaning in this gray bout of mucky of weather is our dog, Earl. He gets a reprieve from suiting up in full winter regalia before heading outdoors. And like magic he can smell the earth again. His walks take on new significance. He lingers over scents unknown to me, no longer anxious to sprint back to the warmth of the house. His nose goes into overdrive when he catches something in the wind. I try and let his delight trickle down to me.

I’ve been through this before, I tell myself. I know what to do. I queue up a few classic episodes of The Office – like the one where Dwight forms an alliance with Jim and stages a secret operation from a cardboard box, or when Ryan (the temp) starts a fire in the break room with his cheesy pita, or maybe for one final belly laugh, the episode where Andy Bernard does the splits in his dance routine and lands on his car keys. I’m smiling already.

Then I head to the kitchen, open a bottle of Sangiovese, and start rummaging. Potatoes, leeks, mushrooms, shallots, a little wedge of Gruyère, and a splash of cream. That’s right. It’s time for a gratin.

mushroom-leek-sauté

I’m pretty sure that January was made for gratins. When else can you get away with a layer of browned cream and nutty cheese atop your vegetables? Or rather, when can you get away with AND feel good about it even? During a January thaw. That’s when.

I put the gratin in to bake and call Mark to my home office to escape into a much more amusing office. And later, when our spoons break through that golden brown crust to the goodness below, we sigh and revel in momentary potato induced amnesia. What weather?

My plan is working. Maybe even too well. By the time I repurpose the leftovers with a fried egg on top a few mornings later, the thermometer has plummeted back into single digits. It’s still disastrously icy, but I feel a little bit better about the whole thing. Earl, on the other hand, is ready for spring.

potato-amnesia

Leek and Potato Gratiné
Inspired from Russ Parson’s How to Pick a Peach

1 tablespoon butter
4 medium leeks, tops removed, and thinly sliced
4 ounces mushrooms, chopped (a mix is nice like cremini and shiitake)
3 small shallots, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pound potatoes
2 ounces Gruyére, grated
1 1/4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt, white pepper, nutmeg

Saute the leeks in 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and shallots and reduce the heat to low. Cook for about another 5 minutes until the mushrooms begin to give off their moisture. Add a generous pinch of salt.

Slice the potatoes very thin – a mandolin makes quick work of this. I prefer my potatoes unpeeled, as long as the skin is relatively tender. Layer half of the potatoes in the bottom of a well buttered 8 1/2 x 11-inch casserole dish. Spread the leek and mushroom mixture over the potatoes, followed by half of the cheese. Give a sprinkle of salt over this if you’d like. Then layer on the remaining potatoes. Scatter the rest of the cheese over the top.

Gently heat the broth and carefully pour this over the potatoes so that the majority of the liquid rests under the potatoes and cheese. Drizzle the cream over the top and finnish with a grating of nutmeg and white pepper. Bake in a 400º F oven for 50-60 minutes until the top is thoroughly browned and the gratin looks compact. Serves about 6 as a side.

adventure-pup

bad situation

It’s time to get back to the business at hand here. We’re way over due for a garlic talk. The honeybee drama has sort of hogged the stage lately. Truth be told though, I’m having as much trouble with the garlic as I’ve has with the bees. And I’m sort of in denial about it. If nothing else, the bees have been providing a nice distraction.
I’ll cut right to the chase. In my 18 years of growing garlic, I have never had things go quite so wrong. Sure, I’ve harvested some varieties way too late, mislabeled others, and have even had some surface mold issues. But this – this is something all together different. Everything was smooth sailing, right up until about a week before harvest. Almost overnight though, my generally healthy looking garlic plot turned yellow and crunchy. Nearly every single plant, of every single variety. This is when the denial started. We’re in sort of a drought, I rationalized. It’s natural for things to dry up and get crispy, right?
garlic decline
I bumped up my harvest schedule and started pulling varieties as fast as I could. Things didn’t look too bad, but the plants just didn’t seem right. The average head size was maybe a tad smaller than normal, but overall the heads seemed firm. The curing shed gradually filled up and looked like it looks every fall, but I left it hanging to dry with sort of queazy feeling in my stomach.
I decided that the best I could do at this point was a some research. I learned, rather shockingly, that much of the garlic crop in the midwest has been affected by a bacteria called Phytoplasma. Yellowing leaves and premature browning is a key symptom. Many growers in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are reporting up to 100% crop loss. Gulp.
The bacteria (which are tricky to detect due to their lack of a cell wall) appear to be spread from plant to plant by leafhoppers. Phytoplasma seriously affected garlic production in Edmonton, Canada 13 years ago, and in Cordoba, Argentina 15 years ago. One scientific paper I read out of Argentina refers to the disease repeatedly as ‘Tristeza del ajo’ or ‘the garlic decline.’ How sad is that? Evidentially many Midwestern crops, flowers, and vegetables have been infected by Phytoplasma disease this year.
If there is any good news in all this, it’s that the bacteria affects only the growing parts of the plant and does not infect the soil or move through the air. The bad news though, and it’s bad, is that Phytoplasma will likely overwinter in infected bulbs and the disease will carry over into the next year’s crop. This means, of course, that it is not a good idea to plant infected seed. See why I’m in still in denial? I’m one sad little garlic pig.
garlic in wiaitng
I have just a wee bit of what appears to be non-infected, normal seed. But even the thought of planting that makes me nervous. And I have quite a lot of infected bulbs. They also make me nervous. Once you get past peeling away their unnaturally ruddy-brown papers, the cloves are normal and safe to eat, but something tells me they may not store very well. Consequently we’ve been eating a lot of garlic intensive meals this fall. I’m doing my best to make the most of a bad situation.
Serving up Yotam Ottolenhi’s Caramelized Garlic Tart has certainly helped. I’m pretty sure I could eat this endlessly. Which is good, because I might have to in order to get through all of my declining garlic. Pair it with a simple green salad for a fantastic dinner. Or serve it up for brunch. Either way, get ready for a heavenly mix of savory cheeses and sweet caramelized garlic. It is simply delicious. And it’s bound to ease some troubles – garlic or otherwise.
garlic tart

Caramelized Garlic Tart
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty

1 sheet (8 1/2 oz) puff pastry
3 heads of garlic (3-4 ounces total), separted and peeled
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 scant cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
4 oz soft goat cheese (chev)
4 oz gruyere, shredded (or any similar hard cheese)
2 eggs
1/3 cup cream or half and half
1/3 cup crème fraîche
salt and pepper, to taste

Use a 9 1/2 to 10 inch tart pan with a removable bottom for this recipe. It makes serving it a dream.

Roll out the puff pastry so it will fill the bottom and line the sides of the tart pan. Transfer to pan and trim any excess. Cut a circle of parchment the diameter of the pan and lay over the pastry. Fill up with baking beans of pie beads and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Blind bake the pastry shell in a 350ºF oven for 20 minutes. The beans or weights keep the pastry from puffing – leaving room for the filling. Remove the beans and bake for an additional 10 minutes until golden. Once done, set aside to cool.

While the pastry shell bakes, caramelize the garlic. Put the cloves in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover entirely. Bring to a boil and blanch for 3 minutes. Drain and dry the garlic. Return the pan to the heat, add oil and fry the garlic cloves in it over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and water and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat, and let it simmer for another 15 – 20 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated and the garlic is coated in a lucious glaze. Set aside.

Whisk together the eggs, cream, crème fraîche, salt and pepper in a bowl.

To assemble the tart, scatter the baked pastry shell with both cheese. Sppon the garlic and its syrup over the cheese. Pour the egg and cream mixture over the top. Reduce the oven to 300ºF and bake for 30 – 45 minutes, until the tart is set and nicely golden brown. Garnish with thyme sprigs. Serves 8.

pie beans

tomato heaven

I picked the last two ears of sweet corn form the garden last night. They weren’t quite as tender and sweet as the ears from the height of the season, but I’m not complaining. I got them down just fine. And even though I am just the teeniest, tiniest bit tired of tomato sandwiches, I keep right on eating them. As many as I possibly can. Because pretty soon there won’t be any tomato sandwiches. And I know it will be a very long wait until the next one.
sweet corn
I’m getting pretty good at waiting though. My bees have given me plenty of practice lately. That’s right, nine weeks out, and I am STILL waiting to find out if I have a new queen in the mystery hive. The only thing I know for certain is that Freeda’s girls are really putting my patience to the test. The laying workers and/or ill-mated queen that were busy at work a few weeks ago are no longer laying. At last check there was a complete absence of any type brood. I’m still hanging on to a thread of hope that a new queen has hatched and has merely been out and about, taking her sweet time to get settled in. But if there are no new eggs when I check in a few days, I will most likely reunite the queenless hive with the original Queen Freeda and her gang.
After what we’ve been through, all I can do is laugh at the prospect of backtracking and putting them back together as one. But that’s okay. If that’s the case, they will go into winter as a big, strong colony that will most likely be ready to split in the spring. Which means I’ll get to try and do it all over again! I wish I could say with confidence that I’ll have more experience under my belt next time, but I’ve kept bees long enough to know that experience only takes you half way. The rest is a funny combination of great mystery and dumb luck. I respect that.
freeda's hive
The girls have certainly kept me on my toes the past two months. I probably have a little less honey to show for my nine weeks of effort, but it’s a good reminder that I didn’t get into beekeeping so much for the honey harvest as I did just to have some bees to visit with. I’ve spent my fair share of time at the beeyard this summer, and my take-home message for the season is “wait please, be patient.” Pretty good advice, really. And despite everything, there is still plenty of honey to see both me and my bees through the long winter.
Lucky for me, I’ve also got a stockpile of tomatoes. Canned, salsa-ed, slow-roasted, and sauced. It’s nice to watch the pantry and freezer filling up.  On the rare day when I have had one too many tomato sandwiches, I put my tomatoes to work in a 3-ingredient sauce for a fantastically simple dinner. I stumbled across Marcella Hazan’s recipe last summer at Food 52. A find that inadvertently ended my search for the perfect tomato sauce. I don’t see any reason to ever make another sauce. Ever. This is pure, lick your plate, tomato heaven. Although, I did just read about an older, James Beard version of the same sauce that uses garlic instead of onion. I admit that’s a rendition worthy of a try.
I almost always make a double batch of sauce. Whatever doesn’t get slurped up for dinner gets put into the freezer for a cold January night. Having a dozen or so pints tucked away really takes the edge off of waiting for tomato sandwich season. Just as a slather of fresh comb honey on warm toast bolsters my patience for the bees.
tomatoes
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

2 pounds fresh, juicy, ripe tomatoes
1 onion, skinned and cut in half
5 tablespoons butter
salt to taste

Blanch the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for one minute. Drain, cool, and slip the sinks off.

Coarsely chop the tomatoes into a sauce pan. Add the butter, onion, and a big pinch or two of salt. Cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir occasionally and mash up tomatoes as they cook with the back of a spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing with pasta. Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese for the table. Dresses 1 to 1/12 pounds pasta. Freezes well.

pasta and sauce

stiff competition

I have a dark and dirty secret. It involves the Minnesota State Fair. And a green bean. Before I spill my guts though, I need to rationalize by explaining that I grew up with the fair. It’s in my blood. Even though I’ve been a Wisconsin resident for eleven years, I still make it a point to visit the Great Minnesota Get Together every August.

The amount of things to do, see, and eat is thrillingly overwhelming. But my hands down favorite hangout is the Ag-Hort-Bee building. There you will find giant pumpkins the size of small cars, honey bee demonstrations, and honey ice-cream. You can get composting advice, watch the Ginsu Knife dealer put on an amusing show, and catch a straw bale gardening demo. There is certifiably crazy crop art and gorgeous displays of perfectly shaped vegetables lined up on neat styrofoam trays. And if that isn’t enough, there is the longest green bean competition.

crop art kitty

Every year I marvel at these extraordinarily long beans. So much so that one year, I got the bright idea that maybe I too should try my hand at growing a long bean. I returned home that August brimming with excitement. I did my seed research over the winter months and decided on two varieties – Red Noodle Yard Long and Asparagus Yard Long. I dutifully scoured the rules and regulation handbook for mention of a state residency requirement. Finding none, I enthusiastically sent in my registration, Wisconsin postmark and all. They sent back my entry materials – no question or mention of what state I resided in. All systems go.

The following spring I was so anxious that I even started some beans indoors. No one starts beans indoors. The fact that they don’t really care for transplanting didn’t deter me. I had my eyes on the prize. I spent the summer coddling my plants and sending regular updates to my gardening mentor and self-appointed bean coach, Lorna, in northern Maine. When Mark and I left for the Boundary Waters for a week I put signage around the bean poles so the cat sitter wouldn’t inadvertently pick any contenders. With only a week to go, my longest bean was just shy of 25 inches.

Only then, as I was double checking my complimentary parking pass, did I stumbled across something in the entry materials very clearly stating that all competitors must be from Minnesota and that any competing vegetables must be grown in Minnesota soil. I was sunk.
long green bean

I paced around the garden. Surely I did not have a climate advantage over anywhere in Minnesota. If anything, the cool Lake Superior spring is a growing disadvantage. I couldn’t help myself. I called my brother in Minneapolis. He has a small garden. There must be some green beans growing in it. I explained the situation and pleaded for him to go in cahoots with me. His name, my bean. I think he agreed only because he thought there was substantial prize money on the line. In truth it was merely a $10 purse. I promised that his name wouldn’t be muddied by the press. And then I did it. I sent in a last minute registration in my brother’s name.

I resumed nervously pacing the garden. My bean, or rather my “brother’s bean” was due for judging at 7:30 am on the opening morning of the fair. I picked my 2 best contenders the day before the fair and laid them out in an oversized cooler on ice. Mark and I headed south. When we reached the border I called my brother to let him know the illicit bean had crossed state lines. We talked over the next morning’s logistics. It occurred to me that I was asking my already overly busy brother to drive across the city in rush hour traffic for a green bean.
I looked over at Mark. I suggested that perhaps, maybe, if he wouldn’t mind, he could stand in for my brother? Then I reminded him of our marriage vows. In sickness and in health, we are a TEAM baby, ’til death do us part. Nothing. I offered up a third of the prize money. Mark countered by asking if they check ID. Probably not, I assured him.
All I can say is that it was a good thing Mark was driving the next morning, because I was a jittery wreck. Mark gallantly led me and my bean to the vegetable staging area and told me to wait in the corner while he went to register. As I was standing in the shadows, sweating bullets, an old-timer waltzed by me with a bean clearly longer than mine. “Nice bean,” I muttered. We met again, post-judging, at the competition table. His bean hadn’t won either. We agreed that it was stiff competition. I was sadly relieved. The blue ribbon would have only saddled me with guilt.
green beans
My garden still offers several varieties of green beans, but I haven’t had the gumption to try long beans since my illegitimate attempt. I play it safe and stick to slender haricots and the occasional pole bean. What has changed, however, is the way I serve beans. I used to just dress them in a bit of butter with a dash of salt and pepper. But now, because I know the daring side of green beans, I sauce them up with a simple homemade Sriracha butter. It’s zingy, bold, and thrilling – just the way a green bean likes it.
green beans
Sriracha Butter Green Beans

1 pound green beans (bush, pole, or if you’re feeling really daring – yard longs)
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar*
2 teaspoons Sriracha
Coarse sea salt

Steam beans until tender. Meanwhile, melt and lightly brown butter in large skillet. Whisk in seasoned rice vinegar and Sriracha. Cook for a minute to blend before adding beans. Toss well and server hot with a pinch or two of coarse salt. Mop up any extra butter with a piece of good, chewy bread.

*Seasoned rice vinegar has a touch of sweetness added to it. If you are using unseasoned rice vinegar, add a pinch of sugar.

long benas

the comeback kid

I got the best sort of e-mail last week. It was from a farmer down the road wondering if I wanted to experiment cooking with fresh red currants. I believe my response was something like “heck yeah!” The farm has recently introduced some currant trials into their thriving blueberry and raspberry operation. But the problem with currants is that they have (rather unfortunately) fallen out of fashion. Luckily there are places like Highland Valley Farm that are making an effort to reintroduce them into modern cuisine.

pink, red, white currants

I have to admit that a fresh currant has never managed to make its way into my own kitchen. Which of course, made me wonder why. Magdalen, at the farm, directed me to asktheberryman.com for a brief history lesson. I learned that there was actually a federal ban on growing most strains of currants (and their cousin gooseberries) from 1900 until 1966. And even still, many states prohibit the cultivation of black currants. Evidentially, the shrubs can host a serious disease harmful to white pine trees. And since the white pine was a major player in the timber industry at the turn of the century, currants and gooseberries were forced to take a back seat. In fact, they pretty much got ditched all together. The white pine blister rust that the shrubs can carry is still a concern, but modern day commercially available cultivars generally have a greater resistance to the disease. Whew.
I was now feeling educated enough to head over to the farm to pick up my berries. Magdalen had told me they have a few different varieties, but what she didn’t mention is how positively gorgeous they are. I was expecting a carton of plain-jane little red berries. But what I got was a mix of stunning jewels – Pink Champagne in the most perfect shade of light pink, striking ruby red Rovadas, and almost translucent white Blankas. I had my fingers into each bag before I was even out of the driveway.
All of the berries were juicy and tangy – sort of like miniature grapes with a tiny seed. But right away I could detect subtle differences between the varieties. The white Blanka berries are firm and have a soft, more subtle seed. The lovely Pink Champagne seems the most delicate of the three – soft, but with an exciting flavor twist. Is “pink” a recognized  flavor? Because they taste pink. And the Rovada reds are a perfect blend of both. The berries are tart, but not overwhelmingly so. Of course I’m the type that also enjoys sour cherries right off the tree. I love the rush of something tangy on my tongue.
After I ate my fill of them raw, I realized my education was only half complete. I had no clue how I was actually going to cook with them. I flipped through the indexes of about a dozen cookbooks. Nothing. Not even in The Joy – my standard go to for all things old fashioned. Searching on line yielded a bit more, but I was hard pressed to find anything much beyond jam and jelly recipes. Not that I’m opposed to preserves, I just wanted something a little more adventurous. Which meant I was on my own with this comeback kid.
I decided to start by baking them – straight up. I wanted to keep the currants as unadorned as possible to see how their flavor might change in the oven. So I made simple little rustic cornmeal tart shells for the berries to rest in and laced them with just a bit of honey. The tarts were lovely, and as I suspected, the currants mellowed somewhat in the oven. There was more of a caramelized sweetness shinning through, but still enough of a tang to warrant a small scoop of vanilla on the side. I can certainly see kicking this up a notch and making a custard based tart studded with these little gems.
currant tarts
As I was enjoying my tart, pondering what my next experiment might be, I remembered a great appetizer that my friend Kris made a few weeks ago. She simply plated up some soft cheese, scattered red currants about and drizzled honey over the whole shebang. A delicious accompaniment for a basket of pita crackers. So simple, yet elegant and complex tasting. The flavor combo was such a knockout that I decided to take it one step further and turn it into a savory scone. I knew it would involve some Sassy Nanny chev and a bit of honey. But my real dilemma was which variety of currant to use. The bright red Rovadas would be the showiest for sure, but something in me really wanted to use the white Blanka. I liked the idea of a scone riddled with secret little land mines of flavor. It worked, just as I had hoped. A little bit tangy, a little bit sweet, and all with an element of surprise.
currant scones
I had some leftover berries mixed with honey from the tart trial, so next I decided to cook them down a bit on the stove and make a currant syrup. I learned in my online research that currants are naturally high in pectin, meaning the juice thickens up nicely on its own. I opted to slow simmer them just for a bit before taking them off and straining them though a jelly bag. I think you could cook them down longer for a thicker sauce for meats or spooning over yogurt, but I wanted a nice light syrup to add to a glass of soda water or lemonade. I set the syrup in the fridge to chill while I went to the garden for some sprigs of chocolate mint. I muddled a few leaves of mint in the bottom of a glass, filled it with ice, and proceeded as planned. Not only was my drink striking, I felt especially good knowing that I was getting a healthy dose of vitamin C and potassium to boot.
fizzy-currants
Thinking about the currant’s great nutrient value reminded me that I should not overlook using them raw. They make an amazingly bright addition to my morning granola. And I can easily see tossing them into green salads and grain based pilafs. Which lead me to the idea of using them in a fresh salsa. I had an avocado in waiting on the window sill. So back to the garden I went, for a jalapeño and cilantro. I mixed this all together with my usual culprits – honey and garlic – for a cooling summer salsa. This time around, I knew without hesitation that I wanted to use the Pink Champagne berries, simply for the preppy pink and green color scheme.
chip with salsa
Even after all of this playing around, I still had a few leftover berries for the freezer. Which will be perfect to make a small batch of David Lebovitz’s currant jam. I love the simplicity of his recipe. And If I don’t get to it, that’s okay too. I’m perfectly fine with having a bag of zesty jewels in my freezer. It’s nice to have a secret weapon tucked away.
I’ve had a great week welcoming this newcomer into my kitchen. We are strangers no more. Though I’ll be honest that it took a while to get my head around the little seeds. They add a certain chewiness that can be awkward at first. But it’s sort of refreshing to be introduced to a new texture. And let’s face it, currants haven’t exactly had an easy go of things. I sort of like the notion of eating such a renegade berry. And how lucky we are to even have the chance to do so. I say hats off to places like Highland Valley Farm and home gardeners willing to give currants a second shot.
Fresh Currant Tartlets 
Note: Be sure to use a parchment lined baking sheet. I definitely experienced some honey ooze from the filling. If the thought of this frightens you, and/or your currant/honey mixture seems particularly juicy and runny, you can add a teaspoon or so of cornstarch to thicken it up.

Filling
3 cups fresh currants (ideally a mix of varieties)
1/2 cup honey

Gently mix together in a bowl and set aside.

Crust (adapted from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain)
1 1/2 cup very fine cornmeal
1 cup flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cream
2 egg yolks

Sift dry ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer. Add in butter and mix until the butter is coarse and mostly broken in, increasing the speed a bit as you go. Add the cream and egg yolks and mix until combined. The dough will be crumbly, but it should come together nicely when turned out onto a floured work surface. This dough is best shaped right after making while it is still at room temperature. Form the dough into a clump and divide it into 10 equal pieces. Use the heel of your hand to flatten each piece into a 5-inch round circle, making the edges slightly thinner than the middle. Use a bench scraper and flour to aid in working with the dough. Transfer discs to a parchment lined baking sheet. Working with one tart at a time, spoon about 1/4 cup filling onto the dough and gently fold edges up toward the center. You want an imperfect, slightly ruffled looking  edge. The dough is pretty forgiving, so just work with it as you go. When all the tarts are filled and formed, bake in a 375º F oven for about 35 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and the edges are slightly browned.  Makes 10 3 1/2-inch tarts.
currant tart

– –

Savory Chev and Currant Scones

2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup cream
1 egg
3 teaspoons honey
1/2 cup crumbled chev (soft goat cheese)
3/4 cup fresh currants
cream and honey for wash

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to mix. In a separate bowl, beat together the cream, egg and honey, then stir. Add the butter cubes to the food processor and pulse just long enough to cut in the butter. There should be some pea size pieces of butter remaining. Dump the dry butter mix into the cream and egg bowl, along with the chev and currants and mix until the batter is just combined and comes together. Again, you still want to have some nice flecks of butter. Turn the dough out on to a floured work surface and pat it into a round disc that is about 1 inch thick. You can make one 8 to 9 inch disc or two smaller 6 inch discs for 2 rounds of slightly smaller scones. Brush the top of each disc with a bit of cream and a drizzle of honey. Cut each round in half and then portion each half into thirds for 6 larger or 12 smaller scones. Transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet and  bake in a 350º F oven for 15-20 minutes until scones are just slightly golden and brown. Makes 6 large or 12 smaller scones.

scones

– –

Red Currant Syrup

Fresh currants
Honey, to taste

Put currants in a saucepan and drizzle a spoonful or two of honey over berries. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook over low heat, sort of mashing up the berries as they cook. Taste occasionally and added enough honey to reach your desired sweetness. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes. remove from heat and strain mixture through a jelly bag of fine meshed sieve. Store syrup in fridge. Add 1 to 3 tablespoons syrup to club soda, lemonade, or vodka. Garnish with mint or lime.

Alternatively, cook down the currants further and use it as a sauce for meats, yogurt, or ice cream.

– –

Currant-Avocado Salsa

2 avocados, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch chunks
3/4 cup fresh currants
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1-2 tablespoons honey
1 minced jalapeño
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup sweet onion, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix lime juice, honey, and jalapeno together in a bowl until well combined. Stir in remaining ingredients and gently mix. Serve with tortilla chips or pita crisps. Serves 4

salsa

ka-boom!

Fourth of July for me means two things. Sugar snap peas and tart cherries. Which is why I always resist traveling on this particular holiday. I swear the snap peas time it so their sugar content is the absolute sweetest four days into July. And after all they’ve been through, it’s just not right to let the peas down by not being available to pick them. Only recently have I been able to honor this commitment.

tart cherries
And so it was that I spent my fourth ever Independence Day at home, gorging on peas and cherries. To each their own, right? My holiday was particularly lovely this year because I had Earl to keep me company. He’s as about as quiet and reserved as I am. We’re a good match that way.

At four o’clock, I cracked a bottle of French rose and retired to the shade of the patio with Earl, a book, and a basket of peas. I should mention that Earl was looking particularly festive, sporting his new red-starred-spangled neck buff. My friend Julie surprised Earl with this chic gift when she came to dinner a few weeks ago.

star spangled earl
I wiled away the late afternoon, indulged in my book, but still managing to keep my glass full and slip Earl an occasional pea pod. Before I knew it, afternoon turned into evening and I realized I had no plans for what to have for dinner. Until I remembered the dish of roasted tart cherries in the fridge.

I had made them the other night, on a whim, when I had the oven on for something else. Fresh cherries, honey, vanilla, and a splash of wine, simply roasted until they are soft and bubbly. This is actually a riff on one of my favorite ways to eat spring rhubarb – a recipe courtesy of The Canal House. So with rhubarb on the way out and tart cherries moving in, I thought I’d swap them in. Ka-boom! An explosion as good as any fireworks display.
roasted cherries
The preparation is ridiculously simple and it’s one of those where the complexity of each flavor really shines through. The roasted fruit is perfect eaten plain by the spoonful right out of the pan (my usual approach), and great spooned over ice cream or plain yogurt – which made for a refreshing, low-key Independence Day dinner.
This was my first Fourth of July with Earl, but I suspected many months ago that he might not appreciate fireworks. My hunch was undeniably confirmed. But we settled in together and made the best of it. Luckily we discovered his buff can provide ear protection as well.
earl hates ka-boooms!

Roasted Tart Cherries

1/2 pound tart cherries, pitted
2-3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons wine (rose is a lovely match, but white or red works too)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or 1 small vanilla bean, split
1-2 teaspoons cornstarch or tapioca flour (optional)

Mix together in a small oven proof roasting pan. Bake in a 350º F oven for 30 – 50 minutes until fruit is soft and bubbly. Depending on how juicy your cherries are, and considering if you want a thinner or thicker consistency, you may want to add cornstarch or tapioca to thicken it up. This can be done before it goes in the oven, or at any point during baking. Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature, depending on your mood and the weather. This makes enough for two nice servings. Double, triple, or quadruple as needed!

Earl


antidote

I’ve been traveling this week. I don’t particularly like traveling. Sure, I enjoy a good dose of city culture. And it’s always great to see our families and old friends. But really, I’d almost always rather be at home, taking advantage of a quiet sunbeam with my little cat, Smudge. There is one thing thing though that gets me fired up to travel. You guessed it – food. And not just dining out. I’m talking grocery stores, co-ops, markets, road side stands. I always travel with a cooler. Because you just never know what you might find or how many left overs you’ll need to tote home.

This particular trip was only to the Twin Cities for more eye related business, but it did involve a fair amount of restaurant dining. My husband Mark and I don’t eat out very often when we’re on home turf. But when we do, we know we need to arrive at any given establishment at least by 8 pm, if not earlier. So I take secret pleasure in waltzing into a restaurant at 9:45 on a Friday night and being in the heart of a hip dinner crowd. Which was the case at Cafe Maude, where I thoroughly enjoyed a late night duck confit flatbread with blue cheese, chicory and balsamic. Oh my.
Despite my late night escapades, I must admit my favorite meal to have out is breakfast. So I was thrilled to catch up with my sister and brother-in-law and niece over a breakfast burrito at  Bryant Lake Bowl. But what’s even better than than the BLB’s luscious bean and egg burrito is the jalapeño studded fried potato slices that come along side it. And the 17 cups of really good coffee I consumed. At least it felt like 17 cups. We had lots of catching up to do. I relished every sip.
Somehow we managed to find room later in the afternoon for a couple of small plates of pork carnitas and refreshing salt rimmed margaritas at Bario’s Tequila Bar. And all before an evening of devouring Thai take-out from the Linden Hill based Naviya with my brother and his family. I love Thai take-out with my brother. He doesn’t mess around. An order of green curry, and another of red. A side of turkey egg rolls. Crazily good sesame infused lettuce wraps. Pad thai. It all gets spilled out onto the table for everyone to dip into. No one ever walks away hungry.
For better or worse, a series of appointments at the U of M put a temporary quell on our dinning spree. By the end, we only had eyes (npi) for home. We fled the city, but not without first fortifying ourselves with an above average basket of fish and chips and a pint of Furious on Repulic’s sun drenched patio – a new West Bank destination. It was so perfectly lovely that we almost stayed. Almost.
Back at home base we realized we had completely blown the April food budget (and then some). And only four days into it to boot. But that’s okay, we’ve had our fill. And honestly, after a few days of eating out, the thought of it doesn’t even appeal to me. Which is why I was especially thrilled to find a note from my friend Ella waiting in the mailbox with a recipe for one of her favorite salads enclosed. I skimmed the recipe and knew instantly that it would be a hit. Partially because I had everything I needed waiting in the fridge and also because it looked bold and fresh and raw. It was the perfect antidote to our gluttony.
There was no question that I was going to love the combination of flavors in this African salad, but until I tasted it, I didn’t realize exactly why. One bite though and it was perfectly clear. It has just the right amount of heat, a gentle bitterness that only arugula can provide, rich saltiness from the feta, and a tinge of sweet from the occasional rogue raisin. I’m pretty sure I could eat this over and over and taste something slightly new with each bite. There’s a lot going on is what I’m getting at.
I made a half recipe for the two of us and we pretty much polished off the entire platter. I even had a warm loaf of good crusty olive bread that I had picked up in the cities, but it sat mostly untouched. Warm loaves of good crusty bread hardly ever sit untouched in our house. Are you catching my drift here? This salad is amazing, in and of itself. I tried to think what I might serve it with at a dinner party. But all I could come up with is a glass of cold, crisp Sauvignon Blanc. It doesn’t need anything else. It doesn’t want anything else.
I think you could easily get by with halving the dressing – unless you like a heavily dressed salad. I made the full amount and had plenty left over. Which I guess is okay, since it means I will be soon be tossing up another bowl of veggies to pour it over.

North African Cauliflower Salad

Charmoula Dressing

3 cloves minced garlic
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoons caraway seeds, ground or crushed
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4  teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (use less if not kosher)
2 lemons, juiced
3/4 cup olive oil

Combine everything but lemon juice and olie oil in a medium bow. Whisk in lemon juice and oil. Let stand 30 minute or so while you prepare the salad

Salad

1 small head cauliflower
2 large carrots, grated or julienne
1/2 cup raisins
kosher salt to taste
1 large bunch of arugula
1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled

Separate the cauliflower into floret and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices. Either use raw, or steam for just 1-2 minutes until crisp-tender. Place in large bowl. Toss in the shredded carrots and raisins. Pour about half of the dressing over the vegetables, using a rubber spatula and mixing well. Add more dressing and salt to taste. Add in the arugula and toss lightly. Top with feta and serve. (Makes 6-8 servings)

living proof

I’m busy. Have I mentioned that? I have temporarily bitten off way more than I can chew. I’m not complaining – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s dim, but if I squint, it’s there.

My primary source of entertainment for the last 2 months has come in random 28 minute snippets when I sneak off to stream old Office episodes. I’m pretty sure I’ve subconsciously started channeling Dwight Shrute. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I am considering painting my office walls black to intimidate my subordinates. Wait. I don’t have any subordinates. Damn. Maybe I’ll just put a bouncy castle outside my office instead.
The other night I put on a pot of brown rice, sauteed up some garlic and kale, fried a few eggs, piled it all together and topped the whole shebang with a mound of spicy kimchi. I was so pleased with my accomplishment, I thought I was worthy of a James Beard award. That’s how much cooking I’ve been doing lately. The kimchi was homemade though. It was my last kitchen fun before all hell broke loose. I often find myself going to the fridge mid-day for a forkful, dreamily recalling the days when the produce was plentiful and I had time to spend in the kitchen.
Last night I bundled up at dusk to harvest the last of the kale, chard, and brussel sprouts. I’ve kept them covered with tattered bed sheets, but the jig is finally up. The temperature has been hovering at 26º F for the last few days and the skies have been grey and laden with snow flurries. I’m pretty sure I audibly sighed as I put the last of our bounty into the crisper drawer. It’s not that I don’t appreciate winter and everything it brings, it’s just so hard to say good-bye to the garden. On the most basic level it’s like my own little convenience mart, ready to serve me 24/7. But on a deeper level, it’s my place to go. My reprieve.
But still, I guess I have the crock pickles, the kraut, and the kimchi. Actual living proof of the garden. Sure, there’s squash, potatoes, and beets too. But somehow those seem less dramatic. Less zingy. My foray into fermentation as a preservation method is relatively new one, but I couldn’t be more excited about it. First off, it’s easy. Way less fuss than canning. But more importantly, the food tastes different. It tastes, well, alive. Because it is. And it fills that deep craving I have for fresh, home-grown food.
This wasn’t always the case, mind you. For the first half of my life, I wouldn’t go near sauerkraut. And kimch? Never heard of it. When I eventually did, I didn’t really want to know anymore. At some point I got radical and granted them “condiment status” on my plate. And luckily, somewhere in there, I was treated to tasting real, home-made versions. They were like completely different foods. And now – now I generously pile them onto sandwiches, stir them into rice, mash ’em into potatoes, top off meat dishes, and stand at the the open fridge door for a quick forkful.
My go to fermentation book is Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation. I’m sure I’ve mentioned him before, but one of the things I appreciate is his simplistic, small scale approach. I can crank out a quart of kraut or kimchi in less than a half hour of real work, and even then, my Cuisnart does most of it. There is some checking and periodic tasting involved, but if you forget about it for a few days, it doesn’t matter. For the most part, it just sits inconspicuously in the corner while the fermentation does all of the real work.

Spicy Cabbage Kimchi 
(adapted from Wild Fermentation)

1 pound napa cabbage
a handful of red radishes
2 carrots
sea salt and water

Grate or chop the vegetables. I think kimchi is traditionally pretty coarse, but I prefer a finer version (a Cuisnart does a marvelous job at this – especially if you happen to be busy!) Mix up a brine by combining about 4 cups cold water and 4 tablespoons salt water. Make sure all the salt dissolves and then taste it. It should taste like the sea. Put your vegetables in a large ceramic bowl and pour the brine over them. Use a plate with a weight on it to completely submerse the vegetable. Cover with a clean dish towel and let soak over night.

Next you need a spice mix. Definitely tailor this to your taste buds. This is my latest favorite combination.

1 small onion plus a handful of shallots, chopped
1 head of garlic, chopped
4 hot chilies (in my last batch I used Chillipeños, but use whatever you have, fresh, or dried, seeded or not)
2-3 tablespoons fresh gingeroot, grated
a splash of fish sauce

You want everything in the spice mix all pretty finally minced and mixed together into a paste. Again, the Cuisnart is invaluable for this.

Drain the brine from the veggies, reserving it. Taste the vegetables for saltiness. You want them to be decidedly salty, but not unpleasantly so. If the seem way too salty, give them a rinse under cold water. If they don’t seem quite salty enough, sprinkle a few teaspoons of sea alt on them.

Mix the spice paste in to the veggies and work it in so everything is combined. pack the mixture tightly into a quart jar, pressing down on it as you go so that the brine begins to rise above the vegetables. And that’s it, your work is basically done. Now the jar sits in a quiet, out of the way place in your kitchen for 1 to 3 weeks. The only ting you have to be sure of is that the vegetables stay below the brine. You can do this by just plunging them down back into the brine every day with your hands, or use a weight – like a smaller jar or ziplock filled with some of the reserved brine. Cover the jar with a clean towel and check it every few days to see how it is progressing. Over the corse of a week or more (depending on temperature) the kimchi will start to ripen and get that nice little zing. When it gets to tasting how you like it, cap the jar with a lid and store it in the fridge.