Fall Foods! Apples, acorn squash, and kale

I haven’t posted much on food and foodways recently, but I have been definitely been making the most of the autumn season in the kitchen. Since Thanksgiving is this week, I thought I’d share a little about the recipes I’ve been cooking and the stories behind the dishes. As it turns out, the stories about why I cooked these foods are part of what makes cooking them meaningful.

Apple Hill Apple Butter

This fall marks my first visit to Apple Hill—an area  just past Placerville with a large association of growers who attract tons of visitors to their ranches. Besides tasting the apple cider and apple cider donuts (which were as amazing as described!) my priority was to find a great U-Pick apple place and try a bunch of heirloom apple varieties.

I was not disappointed. The four of us who carpooled up there together had an awesome day filled with apple picking.

This was our haul—that’s my bucket with the scarf on the right. That night when we got home, two of us got together and made apple butter. Thus this recipe will forever remind me of Apple Hill Day.

Apple butter recipe*

Ingredients:

5  1/2 pounds tart apples – peeled, cored and finely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Prepare the apples and put them in the slow cooker. Add other ingredients and mix. Cook on high setting for 1 hour. Reduce temperature to low and cook for 9 or 10 hours. Towards the end of this time, check on the apple butter and use a potato masher or a whisk to make the mixture smoother. Place in glass jars and refrigerate.

*This recipe is a variation on the All Day Apple Butter recipe from allrecipes.com. The main difference is that I use about half the sugar and no cloves. I find that two cups of sugar is plenty sweet! It was also all I had in the house at the time. You can also omit the sugar completely—we did this with a second batch and it also turned out well:

This batch was made with much sweeter apples. One thing we noticed with this variation was that it cooked down much quicker—it’s possible that was just due to the crock pot used, but keep an eye on it if you try this version.

bonus apple recipe: apple rings!

I still had a bunch of apples after making apple butter, so I also made apple rings.

Ingredients:

Apples

Instructions:

Core and thinly slice apples. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 200 degrees F for about 30 minutes or until apples appear dry.

I pretty much winged it with this one—I took a look at a couple of recipes online to figure out the gist and then I went for it. If, like me, you don’t have a mandolin or a corer, I suggest slicing the apple whole until you get to the seeds, then core it, and then slice the rest. This worked the best for me. I used a bunch of different apple varieties and found that each takes a different time to cook, so some of my rings were crispy, some were chewy, and the rest were in between. I have no idea how long there would keep, because they were all gone within 24 hours.

 

Acorn Squash Election Night Soup (aka Ba-roth Obama Soup)

I have made this soup many times, but it gets its name from the time I made it on Election Night in 2008. Me and my roommate at the time were both home that night, watching the election returns. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I think it came up that she had pronounced broth (as in the broth I bought to make soup) as “ba-roth” as if it had two syllables. Somehow this turned into a pun on Barak Obama’s name, and before I knew it, my soup had a new moniker:  Ba-roth Obama soup.

[sorry, I don’t have any before photos of acorn squash, except for the little bit you can see in the apple butter photo. Enjoy this alternate squash photo instead.]

Acorn Squash Soup recipe

Ingredients:
2 medium acorn squash
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (er, ba-roth)
1 small lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper, to taste
smoked paprika (OR sazon goya con azafran, if you can find it!), to taste

Instructions:

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut acorn squashes in half with a good sharp knife. Scoop out and save the seeds for later. Set the halves face up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some olive oil on them and bake until tender, about 45 minutes. Put seeds on a separate sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and stick them in for the last 10-15 minutes. When the squash start looking brown they are most definitely done. When the seeds start making popping sounds, they are also done.

Remove squash from oven and wait for them to cool down enough to touch. (I tend to rush this step and I usually regret it). Scoop the flesh from the skin and place into a blender with the broth. Blend.

Pour the mixture into a pot and heat it on the stove as you add the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and smoked paprika. Serve with parmesan cheese and/or roasted seeds on top.

I made this soup again on Election Night 2012 two weeks ago, and it was just as delicious. I’m pretty sure that I have started a new tradition. You can use other squash of course, but I really like the flavor of the acorn. I have no idea what originally inspired this recipe. I know that I first made it with sazon goya con azafran seasoning, which is amazing and which you should totally try. I haven’t had any luck finding it in a local grocery store though, so smoked paprika is my substitute. Still delicious!

Super Bowl Kale Chips

Store bought kale chips seem to be everywhere now (ok at least at Trader Joes and Whole Foods), but I distinctly remember the first time I tried one, it was homemade and delicious. It was at a Super Bowl party this year, and it was one of the tastier things among a sea of typical game day food. Do I remember who was playing in the game? No. Do I remember the kale chips? Yes. Because they tasted way better than I thought kale could taste. I will probably make them myself come January.

Bottom: uncooked kale  Top: cooked kale chips

Kale Chips

Ingredients:

Kale

olive oil

salt and pepper

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 175 degrees F (or 200 if you oven will not go lower than that). Wash and dry kale and remove center stalks. Cut into pieces and place on baking sheet. Drizzle all over with olive oil and turn pieces to coat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the pieces over with tongs. Cook an additional 10-15 minutes until pieces are crispy.

Ok with this recipe the temperature and the timing are actually pretty important. Basically, you want kale to cook at a low temp for a long time. A high temp with burn the thinest parts before the thick parts cook. Keep that in mind and you can’t go wrong!

 

Garden recipes for the lazy

In spite of my vegetable garden’s best efforts to off itself, I now find myself with an abundance of fresh produce. Late August never fails to be a period of peak production among my plots—no matter that they were planted weeks apart. Here’s just some of what I harvested in the last two weeks:

close ups of the various vegetables in that photo:

 

And a different day’s harvest:

If you’re keeping track, you may see that I have corn, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, okra, tomatillos, and four kinds of tomatoes!

However, since it is still in the mid 90s most days, I don’t often feel like spending a lot of time cooking. Which is why the foods I make with my garden bounty this time of year are really super basic. Lazy even. But they work, because if you are using fresh stuff that you love, sometimes it’s best to just enjoy it in its purest form.

Stoplight Salad (tomato, cucumber, pepper salad)

I have an embarrassment of tomatoes (especially big beef and shady lady) and a surprising number of resilient cucumbers (more lemon ones that Armenian). The easiest thing to make with them is this salad:

This is about as basic as it gets—cut up the tomatoes and cucumbers, add vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, and eat. It gets even better if you can chill it for like 30 minutes and let the vinegar soak in (but not too long—we’re not making pickles here). Any vinegar will work, but my favorites are rice vinegar and balsamic vinegar. I used rice vinegar in the version pictured. You can also add pretty much any other vegetable you that would eat raw in a salad to this dish, like bell peppers and green beans. Since my lemon cucumbers are yellow, this is why I think of it as “stoplight salad”:

Besides the beautiful colors, this salad has the benefit of being highly adaptable—there’s really no minimum amount of vegetables you need to make it. You don’t even need anything beyond tomatoes if, like me, you grow them in enough different colors:

Ok, so I didn’t even combine these guys in true salad form—really that photo is just an excuse to show off my multicolored tomatoes! (From top to bottom: green zebra, kellogg’s breakfast, shady lady)

Smokin’ a Corn Cob

This is the first year I successfully grew corn. Corn! I really doubted these stalks for a while, but I was thrilled at what I found when I shucked the first ears. How thrilled? This thrilled:

 

This corn is best when eaten super fresh—it’s much sweeter and less starchy that way. So as soon as I picked it, I rinsed it, wrapped it in foil, and stuck it in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Yes, I realize this requires turning the oven on in August. But itt also requires basically no other prep and thus little time in the kitchen. When it was done, I added butter, pepper, smoked paprika and smoked sea salt for a delicious, smokin’ ear of corn:

I ate it with some spinach feta ravioli and some sautéed mushrooms and okra (and yes, that is the red okra from the garden—since I only have a few plants, I  often add it to whatever I’m cooking). Delicious.

Isabel’s Salsa Verde

This recipe is slightly less lazy than the other two, but I did make it for the first time while in a hurry to get to campus, so I don’t think it’s that involved. Also: so worth it. And since I changed it enough from the other recipes I found, I think it’s fair to call it my own green salsa recipe (Isabel was my “Spanish name” in Spanish class throughout most of high school, since my name doesn’t exactly translate).

I love green salsa, and I didn’t get a chance to use any of the tomatillos I planted last year. I was disappointed. And then, out of nowhere, they came back this year. As it turns out, heirloom tomatillos are the glitter of the plant world—once you plant them, good luck ever getting rid of them. If one overripe fruit falls on the ground and seeds itself, it’s over—tomatillos everywhere.

I used a combination of these instructions from andrea’s recipes, this other recipe, and my friend Amber’s “salsa concept” list (see below) to get an idea for how to make green salsa. I’m especially proud of my creativity in substituting what I grew in my garden for other ingredients—except for the garlic (which was thankfully leftover from making quesadillas), everything below came from my yard:

 

Ingredients  (approximate amounts as I remember them):

6-8 tomatillos, husked, washed and halved

2 cloves garlic

1 small onion (or equivalent thereof)

1/4 to 1/3 cup cilantro

2 thai dragon hot peppers, dried and with seeds removed

about 2 Tablespoons juice from a grapefruit

salt and pepper to taste

 

Using my cast iron skillet lined with foil, I roasted the tomatillos and garlic for a few minutes on each side, until they were a bit browned:

 

Meanwhile, I chopped up the other ingredients, taking care to wear gloves and using a separate cutting board for the Thai Dragon peppers, because they can be hot (50,000 to 100,000 scoville units if that means anything to you).When all of that was ready, I threw it in a blender for a minute, maybe less. That was it. Done:It didn’t make a ton of salsa, but I was looking to see how this recipe turned out before making a huge batch. The results were excellent— exactly what I was hoping for. And it made just enough to almost fill my old salsa jar, which was plenty for me. Despite the “medium” label on the lid below, I would classify this salsa as “hot.” Not too hot, but it definitely had its share of heat, depending on how many pieces of hot pepper in your bite. I think it would be just fine without the peppers if capsaicin is not your thing.

If you want to improvise ingredients with salsa, I recommend my friend’s salsa concept list, which she describes thusly…

“here’s the concept:
1) something to bulk it up and provide most of the flavor (tomatoes, tomatillos, grapefruit, mango, avo, etc.)
2) a hot pepper (jalapeño, serrano, bird chile, habanero, ancho, etc.)
3) an herb (usually cilantro, but sometimes other stuff works)
4) minced onions (whatever seems to work best with what you’ve got, scallions, red, white, shallots, etc.)
5) lime
6) salt
optional: additional spices/ flavors (garlic, booze, cumin, etc.)”
I would even add that you can substitute other citrus for lime, especially lemon or grapefruit, in a pinch.
I still have plans to make some slightly more involved recipes with my vegetables. But for now, I’m sticking to (mostly) lazy recipes.

 

 

 

 

 

Garden of Doom

Ok, so it’s not exactly ALL doom and gloom. But let’s just say I’m reaping a whole lot of fail in the garden this year—more than I have in the five years since I started. Even though most of the factors are out of my control (and compared to farmers across the country this year, I’m actually faring pretty well) it still feels like I should be salvaging more. I promise there is at least one happy garden story at the end of this post. But as it is my habit to record everything, let’s look at many minor disasters of the summer 2012 vegetable garden.

Garden plot 1, planted April 22: Tomato, basil, pepper.

July 4

Here’s the first plot a few weeks ago. Not too bad, right? You can just see the first red tomatoes peaking out in the middle, and the basil is doing well.

Fast forward to July 26:

Ok, not bad—so the basil is bolting and that one wild plant I let grow on the left has taken over. The real damage is something you have to get closer to see.

Holes—holes everywhere. I found the bugger (a tomato fruitworm, I believe) who was doing it—but not before he tasted tested half of my tomatoes. The first few that ripened rotted from mold that got in the holes. The one spot of good news is that I learned that some of the tomatoes are salvageable, if not always in the ripest state…

I’m finally getting some ripe tomatoes without holes in them though, so perhaps soon I will get to eat a whole tomato (these were big beef but shady ladies are ripening too).

Garden plot 2, planted April 29: corn, beans, squash lemon cucumber

July 4

On Independence day, this plot was doing fantastic! Ok, so the green beans hadn’t flowered and I had only picked one lemon cucumber. But everything seemed to be going well with the three sisters…

July 26

And then the winds came. Like most of the country this year, I am having trouble with my corn—but instead of a drought, I am battling the winds. I thought they’d be a good thing, considering corn is wind pollinated. But I have had to prop the corn up twice—in either direction. I’m not sure how many of the stalks are still fully intact, because I don’t want to battle the vines to find out. On the one hand, I am finally getting green beans. On the other hand, their weight is making the corn situation worse.

Well, at least this plot is productive…that’s more than I can say for the next two.

Garden plot 2.5, planted April 29: sunflowers, corn, onions

July 4

Again, not bad in this photo—everything is growing slow but steady.

July 26

So here we are three weeks later and not much has changed. The sunflowers are taller but none have opened. I had to pull up the onions, but those should keep for a while. And the corn…got overshadowed by the sunflowers and appears to be stunted. Alas.

Garden Plot 3, planted May 6: Cucumber, squash, okra…but mostly a lot of volunteer tomatillo

May 17

This plot has pretty much always struggled with an identity crises of some kind or another. Am I growing lemon cucumbers or squash? (turns out, squash—there was a mix up). Are any of my okra seeds sprouting? (only 3—all red okra). What are these random seedlings popping up all over me? (TOMATILLOS, the glitter of the garden world. You will never be rid of them.) And what is this random plant added to my back corner? (Armenian cucumber—I ran out of space).

July 4

So this quickly became the plot dominated by tomatillo and squash plants. I could do without the tomatillos, but I was looking forward to yellow scallop squash, and cukes. Just check out these guys:

July 26Despite taking over the nearby sidewalk, this plot has done almost nothing since then. I’ve had no more cucumbers, and that one scallop squash was stolen. STOLEN. I know this because I watered the garden one afternoon and saw it, and came back to show it to my friend an hour later…and it was gone. Not gnawed on like I’ve seen happen to my neighbor’s vegetables, which would indicate an animal. No, it was picked clean off. I cannot tell you how sad I was. The only thing that makes up for it is this guy:

This is my first and so far only okra pod, but it looks like a few more are on the way. I hope they get big enough so I can cook them all at once!

Garden Plot 4, planted May 13-?: tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro and volunteers

May 17

This plot had broccoli that matured really late in the spring, so it got whatever random plants I had left over that hadn’t found a home by then. In this photo there was only the green zebra tomato, the kellog’s breakfast tomato and the cilantro.

By early July it had a crapton more—bell peppers on the left, heirloom tomatoes on the right, cherry tomatoes  (sungold?) in the back, and a couple of volunteers—tomatillo (of course), sunflower, and some unidentified cucurbits. But aside from the bell pepper plants (which all came pollinated—a late purchase I got for the grand total of 70 cents), nothing was fruiting because I planted it so late.

July 26

Now this plot is finally looking nice! Sunflowers and naked ladies (the pink flowers), and some fruits on the tomato and the cucurbit.

I think the green zebra (with stripes) will be ripe soon—true to their name, they only get a yellow blush with green stripes. The Kellogg’s breakfast supposedly will turn orange. So far, so good for this plot. Except for the beetles.

Despite their name, these striped cucumber beetles are having a field day with the tomatillos. There were some in the other plot, but these were absolutely infested. I guess I should be happy that they’re mainly attacking a plant I don’t much care about, right?

The garden’s silver lining—succulents hanging baskets

As promised, this is a happy story. Way back in May, I got to go on the Cambra Garden Tour. I saw some amazing and inspiring things there, but what most stuck with me were the succulent arrangements the creative hanging of plants.

My mom did a much more direct replica on the succulent boxes we saw (like the first photo), but I managed to incorporate these ideas in a much more limited way:

I added this little guy to my porch—and it has kept surprisingly well through the heat of summer. The lobelia died back, but the snapdragons and the many succulents are doing quite well. I really like mixing in succulents with regular plants instead of separating them. I’ve found several new succulents in pots that people have tossed into greenwaste piles—I salvaged those and saved the pots from neighbors who moved away, so hopefully there will be more interesting succulent combinations in my future.

Summer vegetable gardening: Before and after photos!

I have been so busy with planting my summer vegetable garden, one plot at a time, that I have not had time to share the results with anyone.  But as I’ve been planting since April, I have some great progress photos! This season I’ve been focus on companion planting and making the most of tiny spaces and uneven amounts of sun. So allow me to introduce you to my 2012 garden.

Garden plot, 1 planted April 22: Tomato, basil, pepper.

Day 1 (April 22):

Day 27 (May 18):

As you can see, the marigolds died off, but the rest of the plants have thrived.  On the right are two shady lady tomatoes, and the tomato in the center is a big beef (I think…). The three basil plants are sweet basil all divided from one plant I bought at Trader Joe’s.  The three pepper plants around the edges are all thai hot peppers.

I read up on companion planting this spring (see here and here) to determine that these were the best three vegetable starts to put together. This plot is on the side that gets more sun in the morning than the afternoon, but since most of the sunlight casts a shadow toward the north (the side with the marigold 6 pack on the cement), I tried to put the shortest plants on the southern side. Unfortunately I didn’t read up enough on the center variety of tomato/I forgot what it was….its probably going to overshadow the hot pepper on the far right. But so far everything is doing just fine.I even have my first green tomato on the big beef!

Garden plot 2, planted April 29: corn, beans, squash.

Day 1 (April 29):

Day 22 (May 18):

This plot has really taken off! But it has also deviated the most from what I thought it would look like. It’s my first really attempt at the oft-mentioned three sisters garden, so called for the corn, beans and squash used together to mimick a number of Native American methods of companion planting (historian note: If you’re interested in the history part, Hurt’s  Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present would be a good place to start. For a philosophical/more accessible reflection, look at Nabhan’s Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Preservation).

I used corn starts and (mostly) squash and bean seeds for this plot, looking at this website for its diagram and directions for planting. The corn is supposed to be 4 inches tall before the beans and squash seeds go in, so that was well timed. But I also added in some corn seeds later, taken from a random dried ear of corn I saved from a neighbor last year, since I’m worried about having enough corn for pollination. I had to really plant my corn seeds deep, because this is a plot that is west facing and gets a full dose of afternoon sun, and the corn really needs moisute to germinate.

I said “mostly” for the squash seeds because I also planted two of what I was told were two scallop squash seedlings from my neighbor…but I am 95% sure she got them confused with the lemon cucumber seedlings she gave me, since that is what they look like. Oh well. Those are in the front and left groupings.

Likely lemon cukes  on the left, suspected scallop squash (in a different plot) on the right:

All of the beans are pole green beans, but I planted a variety of squash from seeds. They are

back and right squash seeds: zucchini

left seeds: acorn squash

front seeds zucchini? I’m not sure here…

So I’m still not 100% diligent in recording what I plant. I figure that’s part of the fun of amateur gardening—surprise vegetables!

Or sometimes, like below, an entire plot full of surprises…

Garden plot 2.5, planted April 29: sunflowers, corn, onions

Day 1 (April 29)

Day 22 (May 18)

This tiniest plot wasn’t even supposed to be planted at all. It was where I was doing my in ground composting (option 2) this winter and early spring. But when I dug up plots 2 and 3 to plant summer vegetables, I couldn’t bear to pull up all of the onions for good. The decent sized ones are drying in my storage unit, but I transplanted all of the small ones to this little scrap of dirt on a whim. I know onions can keep on living in less than ideal situations, which describes this plot—it’s minuscule, its only source of fresh nutrients in years were my food scraps, and it barely gets enough sunlight. Seriously—all of my “after” photos in this post I took around 1 p.m., and most plots are in the sun by that hour, but not this one—it only gets sun from about 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. these days. Six to 8 hours is the ideal. And yet, I held out hope that my onions would survive there and slowly get bigger. Just for good measure, I threw some sunflower seeds and corn seeds in with them, both saved from last summer.

And to my great surprise, the onions and the seeds are doing well! It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but the corn and the sunflowers all lean about 10 degrees to the west, because that’s the only direction sunlight come from. I may have to stake them when they’re a bit taller so they don’t fall over from their own weight. But there they are, defying the odds.

 

Spinach and berry salad: three ways

As you may have seen in my last post if you waded through all of the garden photos, I had a lot of spinach from my winter garden. It’s going to flower soon but I thought I’d share my favorite way to eat it—well, really three ways to eat it :

1. Spinach salad with strawberries and blueberries

Ingredients: 

fresh spinach, 1 1/2 to 2 cups

sliced strawberries, 1/2 to 1 cup

blueberries, 1/2 to 1 cup

(note: all measurements are approximate, I always just eyeball it)

This salad has a small story to it. It was the first food I prepared for myself after being in a major car accident seven years ago. I was still on crutches but out of the hospital, and an occupational therapist was helping me learn how to get around a kitchen with my injuries. She had me make a version of this salad as a project, to get me used to doing everyday tasks again.

I’d never had this salad before then, and it has become one of my favorites. It’s like the best of a green salad and a fruit salad combined. It is so refreshing. I know people who don’t like sweet things in their green salads, but these two berries are flavorful without being that sweet. And there’s something about the deep green, blue and red colors together that just looks nice. If you add enough berries, you almost don’t need dressing. Plus, I got lucky this week because strawberries and blueberries were both 99 cents at grocery outlet, so this salad was incredibly cheap to make.

2. Spinach salad with strawberries, blueberries, almonds and vinaigrette 

Additional ingredients:

sliced almonds, 1/2 cup

balsamic vinegar, 1/8 cup

extra virgin olive oil, 1/8 cup

Nuts go well with this salad—I probably would have preferred thinly sliced ones as opposed to these slivered ones, but that’s what I had on hand. I think walnuts or pecans would probably also go well in it.

I can’t remember what kind of vinaigrette was on this salad the first time I had it, but I usually make a balsamic one. Go easy on the dressing, as the salad is tasty as it is. I would love to try a lemon vinaigrette on it sometime, which seems like it would be a nice refreshing pairing with the salad—but I’m sure its obvious by now that I like all things lemon.

3. Spinach salad with strawberries, blueberries, almonds, vinaigrette, and grilled meat

Additional ingredients:

option 1:

1 small to medium sized steak

steak seasoning or salt and pepper, to taste

option 2:

1 small to medium sized chicken breast

soy sauce, 2 tablespoons

chicken seasoning, to taste

Yep—this salad is great on its own, but delicious with grilled meats. My dinning hall in the dorms regularly held “sizzling salad” nights where they would make whatever crazy combo of  salad vegetables you wanted and top it with the meat of your choice. This taught me that just about any salad tastes good with grilled meat on top.

In the version pictured, I just grilled a fresh steak on my George Foreman grill for a few minutes with steak seasons on either side, then let it sit for a few minutes before I cut it into strips. I meant to make it more medium rare than well done, but what can I say, I was multitasking in the kitchen and I’ve only used the foreman a few times. Either way, it tasted delicious.

Normally, I top this salad with chicken, using frozen chicken breasts I have on hand. It may sound like shoddy cooking to some, but here’s how get it ready fast: I microwave it. First, I defrost it according to however long it suggests (3-4 minutes usually) then I set it to full power and cook it (also about 3-4 minutes). I aim for a little bit on the shorter time for the cooking part, pierce it to see if the juices are running clear to indicate doneness, then add the soy sauce and chicken seasoning and zap it for another 30 seconds to a minute.

I know it sounds meh to cook chicken like that in a microwave, but what can I say? By the time I am hungry for this salad I often don’t want to wait too long for it. The chicken turns out tasty and I haven’t died yet! Depending on how much meat you add and how much salad you make, this can qualify for a meal in my book.

Spring Part 2. Garden blooms and worm compost

I’ve been so busy with knitting and gardening that I haven’t had time to blog about either of them! I decided to break it down into small chunks, so even though I have already finished my cowl from the bean-dyed blue yarn, made significant changes to and progress on my custom fit raglan sweater and even planted the first plot of my summer veggies (!), I am going to save those for later posts.

Front yard flowers

This was how my front yard looked last week—and it has only bloomed more since then. The lavender and geraniums in the background are the only plants that were here when I moved in, and they were pretty scraggly. Since then I’ve been adding more flowers each year, like the purple and yellow columbines in the foreground…

these mini pink old fashioned roses…

these magenta colored sweet peas…

and this pink and yellow blooming echeveria, a succulent (unrelated to the trailing green succulent in background, which should be in bloom with small pink flower soon).

What do these plants have in common? They were all free! Free is an important priority in my garden. These plants came from giveaways, neighbor’s yards (with permission), or wild seeds.

If you want plants that are free and easy to care for, I highly recommend succulents, those fleshy, water retaining plants (cacti are only one type of succulent, and perhaps my least favorite). Many of them will start from pieces broken off from their original plant. They seem to thrive on neglect—my front yard is only partly sunny and I’m bad about watering it regularly, but the succulents just keep on living and even reproducing. Mine have come from my neighbors and my mom mostly, but I scavenged some beautiful ones from a green waste pile. I can probably break you off some of the more abundant ones if you like!  I’m partial to floral shaped ones, but I actually have quite a variety:

Since the rains came late this year, I’m getting spring flowers while I’m still harvesting my winter vegetables. I didn’t harvest too much this year, but what I did get was delicious:

Spinach did fantastic in this spot—my favorite use for this has been salads with strawberries, blueberries and vinaigrette.

Broccoli finally came in. Just in time too, if it had waited another week it would have probably flowered in the 90 degree heat.

And onions—I planted these all over the place in the fall, some like these are ready and some are not even close, so I will probably continue to harvest them throughout the spring if I can.

Worm compost

The new addition to my gardens this year is actually one you won’t notice: compost from my worm bin! The purpose, of course, is for the worms to create some soil building compost from my fruit and veggie scraps so I can use it in my garden. I went to a workshop put on by Project Compost at the beginning of March (they do one once a quarter on campus), where I got my very own free worm bin and worms. It fits nicely under my sink.

I thought I understood the basics of composting, but it works a little different for vermicompost.  For worms, the bin has to have holes drilled in it for air, shredded damp newspaper inside for them to move around in, some sand they can use to digest their food (without teeth), and the right amount of food scraps. Right now, my worms eat about 1/2 -3/4 cup of food scraps a week. At this rate, I hope to harvest a decent amount compost from them by the end of May.The worms are red wigglers, which are different from earthworms in that they can survive in this kind of non-soil environment and they can eat a ton and reproduce quickly. I noticed a bunch of tiny baby worms in here recently, so they seem happy to me!

 

I also went to a composting workshop put on by the City of Davis, which had excellent info on worm bin composting including how to construct a bin and where to get your worms. For instance, I learned from the city workshop that the holes drilled in my bin from project compost were too big and would let fruit flies in. I have since taped strips of window screen material over the holes, so that air can still get in but flies cannot.

Another cool thing I learned from the city workshop: seeds left in the compost bin often germinate. The damp environment and the rich compost are apparently an ideal combination. So I decided to see for myself: I left some bell pepper seeds attached to the scraps. Two weeks later, I had lots of crazy looking seedlings that I pulled out of the bin!

As you can see, the leaves were a sickly yellow color from the lack of sun, and the stems were all twisted. Also, apparently I had a random squash or cucumber seed you’ll notice in the bottom righthand corner. Of course, once I pulled these out of the bin, I had to try planting them. I put them into some starting medium and stuck them under my grow light. I didn’t expect all of them to live, but the results were actually pretty good!

Most of those are the bell pepper seedlings, along with the one unknown squash like seedling in the top left corner and a few tomato seedlings on the right. The tomatoes look similar except they are light green and have straight stems (I had tomato plants that were much further along, but I set them outside too early and they died).

I can’t believe how productive this compost bin has been already–and I haven’t even harvested the compost from it yet!

Spring part 1. April fools baking, Easter decorating

This is what happens when I put off posting on this blog: too many things to write about! I narrowed it down to just these two topics for the moment.

April fools baking: surprise sugar cookies

I’m a fan of (harmless) April fools pranks.. In my elementary school diary, I kept track of which jokes worked and which didn’t (turning on the windshield wipe and turning up the car radio in my parent’s cars before they went to work: yes getting anyone to drink the “lemonade” in the fridge that I made without sugar: no). So apparently I have always celebrated this holiday.

This year, April 1 happened to coincide with the season premiere of Game of Thones: Season 2. I was already thinking about making cookies to share for those of us watching it. But for some reason I remembered these cookies my mom made for us one summer: I remembered them as sugar cookies with a “mystery” center, usually something delicious like chocolate or peanut butter. So I set out to recreate these cookies, upping the ante. I would make ALL THE FLAVORS. Well, at least every flavor in my cupboard:

I used this recipe for the sugar cookie part, mainly because it makes a ton and I was going to use one cookie on the top and one on the bottom to make them. Coming up with mystery ingredients wasn’t too hard: I made most of them “good flavors,” as you can see: blueberries, chocolate, jelly beans, etc.

But I also made a few “bad/weird” flavors, like carrot, peas, and mustard.

The hardest part about doing this was rolling out and cutting the chilled dough (with a drinking glass) before it got too warm and sticky to work with.

The results? It really is hard to tell which is which! the responses I got were mixed, but personally, I liked the surprise factor. I ended up with extras, and I’ve been including a cookie with my lunch this week.  I had the mustard one yesterday…I can’ t believe I’m saying it, but that was a good cookie! Who knew?

Easter decorating on the cheap

I was cleaning my apartment the same day I was making the April Fools cookies, and I was inspired to do a little spring/Easter decorating when I came across a plastic Easter egg. Unfortunately, that was the only decoration I found. So I decided to get creative. I pulled out a grapevine wreath and decided it looked like a nest. Which meant that it needed some eggs:

Those are two of the eggs I used while making the sugar cookies. I had never blown the insides out of an egg before without using specialized tools, but after  googling how to do it and reading the first tutorial  I came up with, I found out that it was pretty easy. I used two different sized sewing needles to make the holes at either end, an unfolded paperclip to break up the yoke inside, and a regular plastic straw to blow the inside of the egg into a bowl. The eggs didn’t break.

After that, I decided I wanted something inside as well. As it happens I have some old calendars that I keep for arts & crafts purposes, and one of those was a Peter Rabbit calendar. So I cut the front and back cover off together and made a little standup rabbit to guard my one plastic egg.

I don’t know why, but I like having him on my coffee table. There was a little stuffed lamb there to, but Jo decided that was her new toy.

Ok, next post will be Spring Part 2: gardening post!

 

My first sourdough bread and a blue yarn update

Last weekend, I had one major goal—to make my own sourdough bread from scratch. And I did it! I’m not going to lie, it takes a LONG time to make. It’s not something I would do every weekend. But the results were delicious.

Here are the details on my sourdough bread making experience.

Sourdough starter

The starter I used was Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough starter—you can get it for free from Carl’s website. It came dried in an envelope, and I revived it used the instructions on the website. The most essential part is the following:

Get a small container.  Begin with one tablespoon of lukewarm water, stir 
in 1/2 teaspoon of your starter and let stand for a few minutes to soften 
the start granules. Then mix in one tablespoon of flour. Depending on the 
flour, you may need to add an additional teaspoon or two of water. You want 
the mixture to be like a thin pancake batter.  When the mixture gets 
bubbly, put it in a little larger container.  Then stir in 1/4 cup of water 
and 1/4 cup of flour.  When that mix rises up add 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 
cup of flour.  When this bubbles up, you will have about one cup of very 
active starter that is ready for use or storage in your refrigerator.

I mixed it in glass jar with a plastic spoon. When I did, it looked like this:

Those spots are bubbles, and they’re a sign that the starter is active. I have to admit something here—using just water and flour didn’t give me bubbles. But I read in the Carl’s brochure that a little vinegar would kick the starter into high gear. After reading that, I realized it would probably be a good idea for me, since my tap water is both hard and alkaline, two aspects that starters don’t respond well to. A small amount of apple cider vinegar did the trick. I used anywhere from a few drops to 1/4 tsp depending on how much water I was adding, and I did this every time I added water to the recipe too.

The recipe

For my first attempt at sourdough, I chose a recipe from Carl’s website called  Simple Sourdough Pan Bread, Hand Mixed with a Low Knead Procedure. It’s the second on the list in the above link (PDF here). I chose it because it really did seem straightforward: four ingredients, two bread pans, and only a little kneading. I wouldn’t recommend making sourdough bread if you’ve never made bread before in your life, because many things are left to the baker’s judgement in this and other recipes. But you don’t need to be pro to do this either. I’d recommend baking some other bread first if you haven’t done so before.

Here’s the ingredient list for the recipe—don’t do what I did and almost run out of flour!

Ingredients

• 1 Cup Active Sourdough Culture

• 2 Cups Water
• 5 to 6 Cups Flour (divided)
• 1 Tablespoon Salt

The directions are rather lengthy at this point, but they are divided into sections, so instead of reprinting them all I am going to just write down the section and what time I started it, with photos.

It took longer than the recipe said because a) it is still cold here, and most of the rises require warmth and b) I have a life and could not always do each step at the exact time. Again, this is a long process—do it on a day where you have lots of random stuff to do around the house (for me, grading papers).

Baking bread, step by step

1. Make the sponge,  1:30am Sat

Before I went to sleep on Friday night, I made the sponge. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this stage. I remember that it was very bubbly the next morning, but when I mixed it it was the same thin pancake batter consistency of the starter. Recipe says do this 6-10 hours before the next step.

2. Make the dough, 1:15 pm Sat

I wasn’t exactly sure what they meant by a “medium” dough, but this dough was really sticky, and I read that this is a good sign for sourdough.

3. Knead the dough, 1:45pm

No photos of the action because I was doing this by myself, but I used the technique in this video that I wrote about in my previous post on bread. The difference I noticed with sourdough is that, due to the stickiness, flouring your hands will not keep the dough from sticking to your hands. You either need to wet your hands and keep re-wetting them as you knead, or lightly oil them. I tried both and I prefer oil a little more, but I tried both and either works.

After this it had to rise by 50%, when it looked about like this:

4. Stretch and fold, 4 pm

No modifications to this technique—oiled surface made things go smoothly. After this step though dough needs to rise until it has fully doubled. I had to put it into a bigger bowl. Here’s the before and after fully doubled:

5. Shape the dough,  8:25 pm

Here’s where you divide the dough, let it rest, then put it in loaf pans. My bread pans are two slightly different sizes, which is why they look a little weird.

6. Final rise, 9:30 p.m.

Once the dough rose enough to touch the plastic wrap, I made expansion cuts and put them in plastic grocery bags for the final rise. It sounded weird but it worked well—this photo is from near the end of the final rise:

7. Bake the bread, 1 am Sunday

Finally, the baking part! While the recipe said 40 minutes at 375 degrees F, mine took closer to an hour. I blame the small bread pan and the fact that my oven runs hot, but since I don’t know how hot, I have to cook everything at much lower temps than suggested.  But with some watchful baking, I managed to get it to a lovely golden color outside, with lots of awesome little air pockets inside!

8. Eating the bread for breakfast! Sunday…brunch (ok it was after noon)

The best part about the bread, of course, is the taste! This bread has some of that nice sour flavor without being overpowering, and its spongy without being squishy or underdone. Sourdough is probably my favorite bread for toast, so I made toast with our homemade marmalade from Christmas, eggs (one over easy one scrambled cause I broke the yoke…), and tea with milk. It seemed a rather British brunch indeed:

 

Blue yarn update!

While this post is already quite long enough, I wanted to live up to the title of this blog and post about some knitting.

First, I finally decided what to make with all my blue yarn! I’m making the Wave Cowl by Rebecca Hatcher. And just to prove it’s actually a work in progress, here’s a photo of it on the needles!

(btw, that little spot of green in the corner is the subject of an upcoming gardening post :c)

I am probably going to end up making the Cranberry version of the cowl, with its flare at the bottom. I had been wanting a pattern inspired by either the sea or the sky because that’s what the blues of the yarn remind me of. I also needed something that didn’t require more than 1 skein, and preferably one that could work with small amounts of different hues. The awesome knitters over at Reddit (the knitting subreddit to be specific) suggested an ombre pattern that arranged the yarns from light to to dark. I thought that was the perfect idea! However, as you can see from the photos in my earlier post, I had a large chunk of the yarn that was all the same hue. So two weeks ago, I divided that  up into 1/2 oz. parts and attempted to overdye it to varying degrees to get some more color variation. Here’s the result:

I was going to write a post on how the overdying process went, but I think I can sum it up in one sentence: Unless you are desperate, don’t do it. It was a huge pain. Mordanting the yarns again turned their original blue-gray into gray. Then they needed to be in the black bean dye that was quite strong, and they needed to be in there a long time. It smelled much worse than last time. And for all of that, some of them came out with uneven coloring or hardly differentiated. In some good lighting, you can tell the difference, but even then it is subtle:

Those are the same three, in slightly different lighting. Gah, Too much work for such small results. At least I did get some different shades of blue out of it. But the best part was the fact that this time, I rinsed the beans right after soaking them for their dye, then immediately put them in the slow cooker with some chicken broth, canned tomatoes, onions and a bunch of spices. That’s right—this time I made black bean soup! And once the sourdough bread was ready—lets just say it was a tasty combination:

That’s right, I added peas and a lot of sriracha sauce to my soup. Laugh if you want, but it tasted awesome!

I love lemon: five lemon recipes that I have made

I recently transfered my photos over to a new computer. Unfortunately, I did a terrible job moving them to iPhoto and the order is all jumbled. Fortunately, this made me notice that I have a lot of lemon recipes to share! (You may have noticed this from my post on making a caramelized lemon tart for Thanksgiving). It helps that there is a lemon tree not far from my apartment that had a good crop this year. Lemons are still in season, so it’s a good time to make something other than lemonade.

I’ve got five kinds of recipes to share, (starting with the most recent): pizza, cupcakes, cookie(s), biscotti, and lasagna. The photos aren’t always the greatest, but I’ve tried to include links to the recipes and notes on my mistakes on modification.

Recipe #1 Brussels Sprouts-Lemon Pizza

This recipe is from the March 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living, and it doesn’t seem to be up on their website yet (EDIT: I feel weird about posting it here because of this, but you can find a version of the recipe over at this blog). I really liked this pizza, but I made a few errors and I would also make some changes. First, my own mistakes: I used 1 lb of dough instead of 3/4 as suggested because I was in a hurry, not noticing that my pan was also a little smaller than the one in the recipe. The result: this photo looked great, but I had to cook it for another 15-20 minutes for the dough to cook! By that time the brussles sprouts were extra crispy.

My only change beyond that was substituting grated parmesan cheese for the grated romano, which worked fine. The change I would make next time: MOAR lemon! Seriously, 1/2 a lemon on this pizza wasn’t enough for my taste. But then again I love lemon. A lot.

Recipe #2 Lemon yogurt cupcakes with lemon buttercream frosting

This is the second time I have made these cupcakes, this time for my friend’s birthday party. It’s a recipe from food.com—and it’s a keeper. It’s got a nice lemony flavor without being too sour or too sweet. The frosting recipe is also on the website, though supposedly it came from the company Sprinkles. It is quite delicious, the perfect pairing.

I only made one mistake this time but it was a big one! I forgot to check that the oven rack was in the center of the oven, I had moved it down for another recipe but hadn’t put it back. I made some mini cupcakes as you can see above, but a number of them (all without blueberries) burned on the bottom and never made it to the party.

My own changes to the recipe: The obvious one is that I added blueberries to some of the cupcakes and topped those cupcakes with blueberries. I made a double batch, so one with 1/2 cup frozen blueberries and one without. I think the frozen factor helped keep the mini versions from burning. My other change is to the frosting recipe—I only made one quarter (1/4) of the original recipe. For a double batch of cupcakes! The frosting recipe said it makes 12 servings, same as the cupcake recipe, but I think that’s only true if you pipe an inch or two of frosting onto every cupcake a la Sprinkles. If you do not, you won’t need that much frosting!

Recipe #3 Vegan Lemon Cornmeal Poppyseed Biscotti with Lemon Glaze

Yes, something for the vegans! This is from the book “Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar,” and you can read the recipe here. I didn’t make any mistakes that I know of, but I did make changes.

First, I added dried sweetened cranberries. The cornmeal is nice but the flavor is strong and the texture is dry, so cranberries helped balance that out. Second, I added a lemon glaze after I took this photo. I don’t remember which recipe I used but this one would work fine. Basically, I wanted more lemon flavor! These were Christmas gifts for family members this year, so I wanted to make sure they were really tasty.

Recipe #4 Lemon Cornmeal Sheet Cookie

Lemon and cornmeal together seem to be a theme here, as seen in Martha Stewart’s recipe. The only change I made to this recipe was removing the anise seeds altogether—not my favorite flavor and they didn’t seem necessary. I would say that “serves 4” is a bit generous—my sheet cookie came out smaller than I expected. But we had it for dessert on New Years Eve and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

Recipe #5 Sausage, Chard, and Lemon Lasagna

Another poor quality cell phone photo, but a great meal! Once again this is a recipe from Martha Stewart Living. Perhaps a little more involved of a recipe, but worth it. We made this quite a while ago but I don’t recall any changes—only that we had to look around a bit to find no-boil lasagna noodles. Perfect flavors to compliment the lemon slices. It was so tasty I didn’t get a photo until after some was eaten!

I hope you find a recipe you’d like to make. I think my next few blog posts won’t be about food though—I’ve got some knitting projects to share, and I have a whole new topic to write about now that it is almost spring: gardening!

Breads! etc.

It’s funny to me that I post much less on this blog when I’m on vacation. I have more time, but I use this blog as a way to channel my procrastinating instinct into something productive—and there’s been no need to procrastinate on holiday 🙂

Anyway, I’m back with bread recipes!

As a disclaimer—I had very little hand in baking the breads. These are very much Keith’s handiwork.

Tips on baking bread

Keith says the key is  baking bread is just experience, but did have a few tips to include:

1. Make sure your water is warm and that you dissolve the sugar in it first, then mix the yeast into it. Don’t use this mixture until it starts frothing! Otherwise it won’t have a good rise.

2. For kneading, look at this epicurious video on youtube. He said the motion of the kneading was important to get down, but that your dough consistency will probably not be as perfect as the recipe says, so try not to get too caught up on it.

3. This is my personal addition: if you are baking a round loaf on a cookie sheet, put parchment paper underneath! It can leave a seriously annoying to clean mess if you don’t.

Enough talk, moar pictures!

I try to take photos of what he or I make these days. They may not be great quality but it helps me keep track of what I liked and didn’t. I used to say that they were for my non-existant food blog. But now I guess I’ll have to change the name. 🙂

So here are some of the breads that we’ve eaten in the past few months:Ok, I will admit I don’t know what recipe was used here! It’s some kind of  round whole wheat bread. I loved the oatmeal and flax seed on top—egg wash is a good way to get them to stick. I think he made this twice.This is a whole wheat bread in loaf form, using a recipe from epicurious.  It was equally delicious and went well with the soup. Poppy seeds and oatmeal made a nice top for this one. The soup was turkey barley vegetable soup he made from scratch using the carcass of my Thanksgiving turkey (thanks mom!)These were two whole wheat baguettes made using this recipe from diary of a locavore. They made awesome little toast slices for the lemon curd—which was basically just the left over lemon filling from the lemon tart (see this post for that recipe). I didn’t get a good shot of this one because there were a bunch of us eating it and it went fast! This is an Irish brown bread he made from this recipe. He was inspired by the bread served at deVere’s Irish Pub as there’s one in Davis now as well as Sacramento.Which is probably while it went delicious in this beef stew (again, sorry for the photo! hunger triumphed!)The key to this beef stew was a) Martha Stewart recipes (he took the best from two, not sure which) and b) red wine reduction. So delicious!

Finally, the most recent and perhaps one of the tastiest yet, was this:It may not be as visually striking as some other breads, but this is an impressive bread. It’s a rye bread made from this recipe, with a crucial addition of 2 T caraway seeds. I didn’t remember liking rye bread as a kid, but this bread made me change my mind. Without the distinctive caraway seeds for flavor, I think this would be an amazing bread for sweet toppings as well.

I was going to include some sweet recipes here too, but I think this is enough baking for one post. Hope you are inspired to try making bread this year!