Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

I slept late today and, besides making a big breakfast for Keith and his dad, I've accomplished almost nothing. It's great.

Yesterday's Christmas Dinner was so fabulous I just have to share a picture of it:

That's pan-seared duck breast with red wine and cherry sauce, artichoke hearts au gratin (with gruyere cheese), kohlrabi-fennel salad with capers in a lemon-Dijon vinaigrette, rosemary roasted root vegetables, and steamed broccoli with garlic, butter, and olive oil.

And for dessert, a lightly orangey cranberry pie, served with homemade egg nog ice cream:

Keith and I made dinner together and had a great time, while his dad and a couple of our friends hung out in the kitchen chatting. We played music and had an enjoyable day that culminated in a delicious feast, then ended on movies and a nice hard sleep. Really, isn't that what Christmas is all about?

I'll be back to posting soon, especially as I tackle sewing and some other new projects in the coming year. But first, I'm going to digest all this food and spend today at the arcade goofing off. I've earned it!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Breakfast of Champions

Keith and I have both been GO-GO-GO for the last week, since we put off our holiday prep until the last minute, and now we're playing catch-up. One thing we have noticed is a tendency to get pretty tired if we don't eat balanced meals. This sounds like a no-brainer, but when you're baking and sampling and tasting stuff all day, you forget to eat real food and it all wreaks havoc on your blood sugar. So we've been trying to start each day off right with a balanced breakfast.

This breakfast is another of my favorites; I have it a lot when I'm home alone, though Keith likes it too. It feels like a fully-balanced meal, which it is, but it's simple to make and fits soothingly into a single bowl. It goes very nicely with coffee, and keeps me happy until lunchtime so I don't get any snack attacks. I call it the Breakfast of Champions because it really does make me feel all energized and healthy, and then I go on to a productive morning whenever I have it!

I'm not entirely sure, but I think I was inspired to come up with this recipe once when I was craving the cheese grits of my homeland; polenta, the yellow-corn version of hominy grits, is easier to come by in these parts, and it makes this recipe taste so gloriously Italian. If you don't see polenta or grits (NOT INSTANT! NEVER INSTANT!) in the store, then the coarsest cornmeal you can find will do.

And don't be put off by the directions - it looks like a lot of steps, but it comes together in the time it takes your partner to have a leisurely shower.

Serves 2

2 cups water or broth
½ cup polenta/grits/coarse-ground cornmeal
¼ cup crumbled bleu cheese or parmesan
½ Tbsp butter
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped kale or spinach
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp water
¼ cup spaghetti/pizza sauce
2 eggs
¼ cup pine nuts

Pour 2 cups water or broth into a medium-size pot and bring to a gentle boil. Once it simmers, whisk the polenta in with a fork. Cover, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 5-10 minutes, stirring once or twice as it cooks. If it finishes before you're done with the rest of it all,

Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet, and add the kale or spinach. Saute 1-2 minutes, then add the balsamic vinegar and 2 Tbsp water. Continue to cook until the greens are bright and wilted (this will just be a few seconds for spinach, but it'll be another minute or two for kale). Add the spaghetti sauce and continue to cook until heated through.

Transfer the kale mixture to a plate and rinse out the skillet, or get another skillet. Cook the eggs however you like them - I like mine scrambled, Keith likes his fried, and sometime I want to try this with a poached egg because I think that sauce effect would be nice in this dish. Set aside.

Stir the cheese, butter, and salt into the polenta until melted throughout. Divide evenly into bowls, then top each serving with an egg and half the kale-sauce mixture. Sprinkle with pine nuts and serve immediately with hot coffee or tea.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beefy Pumpkin Stew

This is one of my winter favorites - we both just love it. It's hearty, very filling, warming, and delicious, and so easy! The crockpot does most of the work, and the spices make the whole house smell delicious by dinnertime.


1 small pumpkin or butternut squash (about a pound)
1 lb cubed stew beef *
1 medium-sized rutabaga or potato, cubed
1 medium-sized turnip, cubed
1 large carrot, sliced
¼ onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup pearl barley
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 heaping tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
½ tsp paprika or chipotle powder
¼ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp cinnamon
Hot sauce to taste
4 cups water or broth

* To make this vegan: Use mushrooms instead of beef.

Cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the guts. Quarter each half and carefully cut the rind off until the whole pumpkin is peeled. This is the most labor-intensive part, but if you're slammed for time, they do sell pre-peeled chunks of butternut squash in the grocery store; it won't be quite as good as fresh, but it's still tasty. Dice the peeled pumpkin into 1" cubes and put them in the crockpot.

Add all the remaining ingredients to the crockpot. Turn it on low and cook 8-10 hours. As it nears the end of the cook time, give it a good stir and check the seasonings. Enjoy with hot yeast rolls or cornbread.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Turkey-Leek Pie (with vegetarian option)

In the winter, I often make this vegetarian leek-artichoke pie with excellent results. Today I was craving it, and I had some leeks, but I didn't have any artichoke hearts. So I dug around in the fridge and improvised, taking the opportunity to use some of the huge gallon bag of turkey I had left over from Thanksgiving weekend (we froze most of it, but I had some I'd thawed this week). The result - even better than the original.

And with this crust, it's unbelieveably simple. You don't even have to roll the crust out or dirty up a bowl! It really is "easy as pie." Make it gluten-free with brown rice flour instead of wheat, if that's your thing.

To make it vegetarian, just leave out the turkey and throw in another cup of veggies - artichoke hearts are great, obviously, but so are potatoes or even beans. You could throw in some chunks of frozen tofu as well, and I was just thinking how good pine nuts would be. If you want to leave the egg out, just increase the milk to a full cup. This is a very flexible dish! And soooo comfort-foody. Just serve it with a salad for a delectable dinner.

Serves 4-6

1 cup whole wheat flour
½ cup unbleached white flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
¼ cup + 2 Tbsp milk
¼ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a glass or metal pie plate, combine dry ingredients and whisk to blend. Add the milk and olive oil, then gently mix until it forms a dough. Use your hands to pat it into place over the bottom and sides of the pie plate. (A few tiny holes or rips are fine, just pinch them together if you can.) Set aside.

1 Tbsp butter
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large leek (or 2 smaller ones), white and light green parts, sliced & rinsed
1 cup kale (or spinach), rinsed and chopped
1 medium-sized turnip (or potato), diced small
1 cup cooked turkey (or chicken), diced
Salt & pepper to taste
Dash nutmeg
Fresh thyme (optional)
¾ cup milk
1 egg
2 Tbsp flour, any kind
½ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese, divided

Melt the butter in a big saucepan or wok over medium-high heat, and add the garlic. Saute for a minute or two, then add the leeks, kale, and turnip. Stirring occasionally, cook until the leeks and kale begin to wilt. Season with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and thyme if using. Add turkey and cook another minute or two more.

Whisk the egg into the milk, then add the flour and whisk to blend. Pour into the pot with the veggies and turkey, and stir for a minute until warm throughout. Take it off the heat.

Spread all but 1 Tbsp of the gorgonzola into the bottom of the pie crust. Pour the veggie mixture on top and smooth it out evenly. Sprinkle the remaining 1 Tbsp gorgonzola crumbs on top and bake for 30-40 minutes or until set firm. Let stand at least 5-10 minutes before serving.

Note: If you're pressed for time after work, you can make the filling and crust a day ahead and refrigerate them separately; then just dump in the filling and cheese and throw it in the oven when you're ready.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's Thyme for Gorgonzola Latkes!

It's starting to feel, not just like December, but like the holiday season. It's the doing nice things for people and getting them back in return, accompanied by good food and wintry weather. Like today, for example.

Last night was the last night of Chanukah, so I had a couple of friends over for latkes. I had sweet potato latkes spiced with cumin, served with homemade applesauce and sour cream, with a spinach-tangerine salad on the side. We sipped amazing pear martinis and enjoyed warm, fresh-baked cranberry-apple pie with a ginger hazelnut crumble topping - a la mode, of course!

It was a lovely evening, and I baked an extra pie for the guy at the coffee shop, who's been a huge help as I sit there for hours every other day working on my business plan for my startup. This morning, I got an idea for gorgonzola latkes with fresh thyme, and I remembered him saying how much he liked latkes, so I whipped up a batch of the new recipe and plated them up with applesauce and sour cream. Miraculously, the latkes remained reasonably crisp and the pie held up as I walked the whole spread up to the coffee shop, where I was greeted with an enthusiastically appreciative reception and an enormous peppermint mocha.

Of course I ate a few of the gorgonzola-thyme latkes myself, and they're MIGHTY tasty. They might be my favorite latke recipe from now on. Try it yourself and see what you think - it doesn't have to be Chanukah for you to enjoy the miracle of oil!

Serves 4

3 medium-sized Russet potatoes
½ a small onion
½ cup crumbled gorgonzola cheese
1 egg
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 Tbsp flour or matzo meal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder (optional)
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp baking soda
Dash of black pepper
Peanut oil (or veg or canola) for frying

Peel the potatoes, dropping each one into a bowl of water as you finish peeling it to keep it from discoloring. Pat the potatoes dry and grate them with the coarse side of a box grater, or run them through the food processor - you want them very coarsely grated, not minced. Working quickly, pile the grated potatoes into a colander lined with a towel, and squeeze repeatedly until you get as much moisture out of the potatoes as you possibly can.

Transfer the dry grated potatoes to a large bowl, and grate in the onion. Stir in the gorgonzola, egg, and thyme leaves.

In a separate bowl, combine the matzo meal (which is MUCH better for this than flour), salt, garlic powder, paprika, baking soda, and pepper. Whisk so it's evenly blended, then add it to the potato mixture and mix well. Set aside so the matzo meal can soak up the remaining liquid while you heat the fry oil; turn the oven on to about 250 F.

Pour the oil into a heavy skillet, so the bottom is covered by a quarter-inch or so. Heat over high heat until a small piece of potato sizzles vigorously when you drop it in. Scoop up the latke mix between a spoon and your palm, about two tablespoons' worth, and roll it into a rough ball shape so it holds together; drop that into the oil and flatten it with the back of your spoon. (Make sure the middle is quite flat so the inside cooks through.) Fry for a few minutes until the sides start to look golden-brown, then flip to cook the other side, and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Depending on the size of your skillet, you should be able to do 2-3 latkes at a time.

As you work, pop the drained latkes into a dish in the oven so they stay warm and crisp until you're ready to serve with sour cream and applesauce. A fruity saiad with a vinaigrette complements the latkes very nicely!

Saturday, December 4, 2010


It is EXTREMELY December out there. The sun is shining, but the temperature is 40 with a wind chill of 25; the winds are strong enough to knock you back a few steps, and I can hear it blowing from inside the house. Today I woke up watching our massive Douglas fir, swaying like a yoga teacher through the skylights over the bed, and then I bundled up in several layers of jacket, coat, hat, scarf, gloves, warm thoughts, and headed out to the farmers' market.

First stop at the farmers' market was hot coffee, and then I hiked briskly through the wind while thinking back on the summer of peaches. No more peaches now, that's for sure. I noticed quite a lot of turnips but almost none with the greens, which are my favorite part, so I asked and one lady told me that the weather had already wrecked a lot of the greens. It's pretty early for that, but there's one more sign we're in for a hard winter.

Once I got home, I snuggled down, and here I am for the rest of the day, sipping hot tea in my jammies with cats piled all around me. I'm about to work on screenwriting for the rest of the afternoon, but first, some pictures I've taken since the start of December...

The ultimate winter meal, pot roast cooked with potatoes, turnips, and carrots in rosemary and Black Butte Porter.

Fry and Davey, snuggled up warm in a little chair in my sewing room. (They do this a lot.)

Leftovers Soup, made with leftover pot roast, potatoes, and carrots with barley and lentils, in a broth made from red wine and leftover gravy. Unholy delicious on a cold rainy night!

Our hens snuggled up out of the wind on a chilly night.

And finally, my little fire, which I'm going to try and keep going as best I can while I sip hot tea and knock out the rest of this screenplay.

Happy Chanukah!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quiche: Delicious and Nutritious, and Dairy-Free!

Here's me on the last day of the Naturally Frugal Challenge, squeaking in my big entry at the last minute. But I have a decent excuse, besides the business and travel I've been up to this month! See, the idea of the contest is to come up with an all-natural, in-season entree (no problem there) without using dairy (eeeeep!).

I knew my entry would have to be a pie of some kind. So of course I set myself the ultimate challenge - can I make quiche without milk, including soymilk or almond milk, which might count as processed foods?

My first attempt, while edible and not too bad, was not a winning contest entry. Simply leaving the milk out of the quiche doesn't work, since the milk is what fluffs up the eggs and produces that light, melt-in-your-mouth texture. What did work, on my last attempt, was separating the eggs and beating the whites separately. Air is even lighter than milk, and it will fluff your quiche beautifully with only one extra step!

Also in the first attempt, I tried to make the quiche gluten-free and wholegrain by making a crust out of brown rice and eggs. It was decent, and I could've made it work, but it made the whole dish a bit heavy on the egg front, and to be honest I like a nice pie crust under my quiche. I do make an excellent gluten-free pie crust (the recipe is at my other blog), which has butter, but this time I used my regular whole wheat crust and tried it with coconut oil. It worked beautifully. You use whichever homemade, whole wheat or gluten-free pie crust you like for this one.

The result of all this experimentation was the Ultimate Autumn Quiche. A variety of seasonal ingredients play off each other so that each bite is a unique experience; sometimes it's fruity, sometimes it's warm and toasty, sometimes it's complex and spicy. The ingredients may look sweet, and it does have a pumpkin pie texture to it, but the eggs, spices, nuts, and arugula just perfectly balance the cranberry and apple. I will definitely make this for company at the first opportunity!


1 frozen homemade pie shell
1 cup pumpkin puree
3 eggs, separated
¼ cup natural or homemade applesauce, unsweetened
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp Dijon mustard
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
⅛ tsp paprika
1 cup arugula, chopped
½ cup dried cranberries
¼ coarsely-chopped hazelnuts or pecans
1 Tbsp finely-chopped hazelnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Leave the pie shell in the freezer for now.

Combine the pumpkin, egg yolks, and applesauce in a large mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly to blend. Add the nutritional yeast - you don't have to use it if you can't find it, but it does add a nice cheesy dimension - as well as the maple syrup, mustard, and spices. Whisk again until it's all evenly blended.

One at a time, stir in the arugula, dried cranberries, and coarsely-chopped nuts. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold into the pumpkin mixture. Retrieve the pie shell from the freezer and carefully pour in the filling; sprinkle the finely-chopped nuts over the top.

Bake at 400 F for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 F and continue baking another 25-30 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Suggestion: If you have to have meat in your entree, this is an excellent use for leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Just add ½ cup diced turkey when you add the arugula, cranberries, and nuts!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Spiced Pumpkin Oatmeal

This is not just a breakfast post; it's also an attempt to win a gorgeous set of holiday bakeware as part of the Naturally Frugal Challenge blog event!

After all the indulgence of Thanksgiving weekend, it was time for a healthy and nutritious breakfast. But it was also a lazy Sunday morning. We wanted something rich and delicious, and we didn't mind waiting half an hour for it. Enter steelcut oats.

But not just any oatmeal - this is fall, after all, when the fireplace crackles all morning and we watch the rain beating down the last of our garden. So it had to be a pumpkin oatmeal, warm and spicy with a nutritional boost from one of nature's healthiest veggies. Top it with some toasted nuts and dried fruit, and you have a decadent breakfast (or, what the hey, dinner!) that's actually good for you.

serves 4

4 cups water
2 Tbsp coconut oil (or butter)
1 cup steelcut oats
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/3 cup almond milk (or any milk)
Maple syrup to taste
Toppings of your choice (see note)

Heat the water in a kettle or pot until it boils.

Meanwhile, melt the coconut oil in a separate pot over medium heat, and stir in the oats. Toast the oats for a minute or so, then add the spices and continue to toast until it all smells warm and fragrant. Pour in 4 cups boiling water. Stir, cover, and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let it simmer 15 minutes.

Take the lid off and mix in the pumpkin until evenly blended in with the oats. Add the almond milk and continue cooking, uncovered, for another 5-10 minutes or until the oats are creamy and rich and excess liquid has cooked out. Serve it up in individual bowls and top with maple syrup, plus the toppings of your choice.

Topping Ideas: Dried cranberries, currants, or raisins; toasted nuts of any kind; all-natural or homemade applesauce; apple butter or pumpkin butter; a spoonful of jam; toasted coconut; fresh chopped apples or other fruit; candied ginger... use your imagination. And if you have a great topping idea, please share it in the comments!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Just in Time for Thanksgiving: Boozy Sweet Potatoes!

Stay tuned, y'all, apparently I'm in a generous mood because I'm sharing all my greatest hits this week.

My boozy sweet potatoes are probably my most popular recipe. I've been making them for every Thanksgiving, and almost every Christmas, for about ten years now and I've never had any leftovers the next day.

Don't worry about the name; the alcohol cooks out, but it leaves a strong flavor behind. What that flavor is, is up to you. I nearly always use rum, and occasionally spiced rum, but every once in awhile I substitute brandy instead and it's still good. I think I prefer the rum flavor, personally - it's stronger - but if you have brandy on hand, use it, because it's delicious.


2 to 3 lbs sweet potatoes
½ cup maple syrup, brown sugar, or honey
2 eggs
⅓ cup milk
1 Tbsp vanilla
½ cup melted butter
⅓ cup dark rum or brandy
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup flour
⅓ cup melted butter
½ cup finely chopped nuts (optional)

Peel and chop sweet potatoes, and place into a large pot. Cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft enough to cut in half with a fork. Drain the sweet potatoes and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Use an electric mixer or a potato masher to thoroughly mash the sweet potatoes until they're smooth. One at a time, mix in the maple syrup, eggs, milk, vanilla, ½ cup melted butter, and rum/brandy. Once thoroughly mixed, pour into a casserole dish (*see note).

In a separate bowl, mix brown sugar, flour, melted butter, and nuts if using. Using your fingers to break it up, sprinkle this mixture in small chunks over the top of the sweet potato mixture, covering the surface as much as possible. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until the streusel topping has browned into a soft crust. Let cool for at least half an hour before serving; it'll be best if you give it a few hours to come to room temperature.

Bring this one to a potluck - it travels really well!

*Note: You can use any size casserole dish here and it'll be fine. If you use a 9x13 or similarly large one, double the streusel topping. If you use a smaller one, the potatoes will be a little deeper and hence cook a bit longer, which is fine. It's really hard to screw this one up.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

Perfect Pot Roast

Inspired by a friend the other day who was having trouble producing a pot roast, I decided to treat Keith and his dad to one of my own, setting a challenge for myself in the process. See, the easiest way to make a pot roast - BY FAR - is in the crockpot. Slow-simmering at low heat keeps the moisture with the meat, preventing it from drying out as it often does in the oven.

But here in Redondo, we don't have a crockpot. So I had to take a leap and see if I could produce a moist, juicy roast in a dry heat. I am pleased to report that it was a resounding success; Keith proclaimed it the best roast he'd ever had, and I can't say I disagree. So here's the tricks I figured out.

First: The meat. Chuck roast is best - and, fortuitously, cheapest. You actually want a fatty cut here. Don't use nasty cheap feedlot beef, of course, but since you're paying the higher price for organic/grassfed, take some comfort in the fact that you're getting the cheapest cut of it. The tougher meat and chunks of fat are going to break down together in the oven and make that succulent, tender pot roast you've been daydreaming about.

Second: You need a TIGHT seal. Use the smallest container that will fit the roast, which means a small casserole dish and not a huge roasting pan for your 3- or 4-lb. roast. Then, just before you pop it in the oven, fold a sheet of foil in half and cover the top of the dish before you put the lid on. This makes a tighter seal and keeps the steam from escaping from around the lid.

Third: Let it rest, still sealed, for half an hour when you pull it out of the oven. This allows the steamy goodness to settle back down into the meat, rather than poufing out in a huge cloud when you take the lid off.

And now for the recipe.


3 or 4 lb chuck roast
1/2 tsp salt (no more!)
Fresh-ground pepper to taste
Garlic powder and/or onion powder to taste
Worchestershire Sauce
Hot sauce of your choice (I had Cholula)
1 Tbsp organic canola oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bottle of GOOD beer
2 Tbsp flour (white or whole wheat, doesn't matter)
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Sprinkle the seasonings all over the meat and rub them in. Be generous with the Worchestershire, liberal with the hot sauce; whatever your tastebuds can handle. Meanwhile heat the oil in a heavy skillet until it's quite hot, then sear the meat for two or three minutes on each side.

Remove the meat to your casserole dish. Tuck the rosemary in with it, pour what's left in the skillet over it, then open up the beer and pour it in until it almost, but not quite, reaches the top of the meat. (You should have just a little beer left over to drink.)

I can't stress enough how important it is to use a decent beer - this is NOT the time for Bud or Coors or whatever you might drink while watching the game. Break out something darker. Last night I happened to have Sam Adams Cherry-Wheat Ale, which was just okay for drinking but the sweetness really brought a lot out of the beef. Better beer would obviously be better.

Cover the casserole dish with the foil and then the lid like we talked about before. Leave it in the oven for about an hour per pound of meat (cutting it short by 15 minutes or so is fine if you're rushed). Take it out of the oven and set aside, without removing the lid, for 30 minutes. Then transfer the meat to a plate and strain the juices into a measuring cup or bowl with a pour spout.

Heat a skillet to medium and toss in the flour. Give it a minute or two to toast a bit, and then add the butter or olive oil, whisking with a fork or whisk until it makes a smooth paste. Splash in a bit of the strained juices, whisk smooth, then add the rest of the juices in a steady stream while whisking continuously. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, until it thickens - this will only take a minute or two. Serve the gravy with the pot roast and your favorite mashed potatoes, with a salad or green veg on the side.

And just because I gotta gloat: This is the dessert we had after the pot roast dinner last night. It's an experiment I've been kicking around for awhile, maple-bacon cream pie, and I have finally declared it a smash hit. The pie is filled with a smooth, delicious maple cream and topped with chopped bacon, which has been candied in maple and brown sugar. The sweet-salty-smokey flavors all play so nicely off each other, and it was the perfect ending for this dinner in particular - especially since we had it with port!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Outta' Town Banana Muffins

(Apologies for the pic - I had coffee on the brain at 5:30 a.m.)

'Tis the season for holiday travel! We got a jump on the season yesterday, when Keith got a quick job in L.A. and I decided to join him just to get out of town for a couple of days. So yesterday we hit the road about 5:45 a.m. and hauled our exhausted selves into Redondo Beach just after 11 p.m. Of course there was a nasty weather system which drifted south along with us, so we spent most of the day wrestling rain, snow, and high winds, and just for good measure another storm blew into Redondo in the wee hours of the morning, waking us up with a chilly bath from the window.

But it's sunny now, and we're well-rested, and we're also well-nourished. We do this road trip thing fairly regularly, and I'm a seasoned road tripper in my own right, having crossed two continents all by my lonesome on several occasions. So I've learned a lot about travel, especially the fact that there is precious little to eat out there by the highway.

Oh sure, there's a fast food joint at every exit, and the gas stations are loaded with candy and chips. But c'mon, when you're spending an entire day with one eye on that swerving semi and the other on that cop in the rearview, you need FOOD. Something that's not going to drop you into a bloated coma ten minutes after you eat it; something that's not going to gas your travel companions out of the car. And even if you're flying (though I can't imagine why you would nowadays), you still need inexpensive fortification to get you through the journey in good health and cheer.

So pack a bag. Yesterday on our trip, I brought some cashews, cheese, sliced carrots and kohlrabi, two refillable water bottles, and a batch of these rich, moist banana muffins. I think I can safely say I'll be bringing these muffins on every trip from now on. They're the perfect road snack - easy to eat one-handed, a little sweet but not sugary, with whole grains to keep you full longer than a sugared white-flour muffin would, a dose of protein from nuts and eggs, and a rich soft texture that makes them feel like a treat. They travel well and don't dry out (actually, they get more moist as they sit).

Bring them on your next road trip, flight, train trip, or walk around the neighborhood. Don't forget the coffee.


2 large bananas, very ripe (soft spots okay!)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup or honey
1/4 cup applesauce
2 eggs
1 Tbsp vanilla
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup flax meal
1/4 cup ground nuts or nut flour* (see note)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup dried cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, or raisins

* Note: You can buy almond flour, hazelnut flour, etc. But it's a lot cheaper to just get whatever nuts you like (pecans are cheap) and grind them yourself; they don't have to be as finely ground as a flour, a coarser grind is just fine. Just toss them into the blender or food processor for a minute.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Break up the bananas and toss them in the food processor or blender. Add the maple syrup (or honey), applesauce, eggs, and vanilla; whiz it all up until smooth (a few banana chunks are fine).

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients except for the fruit, and whisk together with a fork until evenly blended. Pour in the wet mixture and stir gently, just until blended - don't overmix. Fold in the dried fruit and spoon into the muffin cups, filling to the top. Bake for 25 minutes or until done. Leave them in the pan to cool on a wire rack, then wrap individually or just throw them all into one gallon-size bag like I did.

These last for a few days outside the fridge, and can also be frozen for later.

Safe travels!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Biscuits (Gravy Optional)

I've probably mentioned before that Keith and I have a biscuit tradition. Whenever he goes out of town for work, his first morning home again means biscuits and gravy. This has given me plenty of opportunity to perfect my biscuit technique, and I don't mind saying that I make the best biscuits we've ever had.

The gravy varies a bit, but the biscuits don't; once you've perfected a recipe like this one, you don't need to mess with it anymore. Today I had the chanterelle mushroom duxelles that I made on Monday, so I stirred them into my usual and made mushroom gravy. And then, upon discovering that I've never actually shared my recipe here, I decided to go ahead and gift it over.

There are some tricks to perfect biscuits. The big one is the frozen butter - when I first made biscuits I couldn't get that lovely flaky texture until I decided to treat biscuit dough like pie crust, and it worked. Lumps of frozen butter go into the oven solid and then melt as the biscuits bake, creating air pockets and that gorgeous flaky melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

The other trick is to place the biscuits quite close together on the baking sheet or in the pan. This will keep them from spreading outward, and they'll shoot upward instead, getting thick and fluffy like this:

Makes 4-6 biscuits, depending on size.

3/4 cup warm water
1 1/2 tsp sugar
1 heaping tsp yeast
2 cups unbleached white flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
5 Tbsp frozen butter, divided

Pour warm water (not hot) into a small bowl and add the sugar and yeast. Whisk it up with a fork until the yeast is mostly dissolved, then set in a warm place (such as on top of the stove with the burners off).

In a separate mixing bowl, blend the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside 1 Tbsp of the butter; take the remaining 4 Tbsp and grate it into the bowl with a cheese grater. Use your hand to gently mix the butter into the flour mixture until it's evenly distributed but the butter is still solid and chunky.

By now, the yeast water should have a thick bubbly layer on top. Pour that into the flour-butter mixture, then gently stir it in until the dough gets too thick to stir. Knead it with your hands until it's even and all the flour has been worked in; at first it'll look like too much flour, but as you knead it, the whole thing comes together. Don't knead it for too long, just until the dough holds together and looks even throughout.

Sprinkle a little flour on the counter and run a floured hand over your rolling pin, then roll out the dough to about an inch thick. Cut circles with the top of a glass and put them close together in a cake pan or on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Roll the scraps together and cut until you only have enough dough left for one biscuit, and then shape that one with your hands. They don't have to look perfect - uneven is okay. (If you have little bits of scraps left over, and you know anyone with chickens, they LOVE biscuit dough.)

Preheat the oven to 450 F and set the biscuit pan on top of the unlit stove. Let the biscuits rest and rise for about 15-20 minutes. It won't look like they're rising much, so don't worry if yours don't double in size like bread does. Just give them the time and then pop them in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until they're golden in color.

Melt the remaining 1 Tbsp butter and brush it over the biscuit tops as soon as they come out of the oven. Serve immediately while they're still hot. Top them with any gravy you like, or go the other way and drizzle them with honey, or spread them with jam. They'll make a great little breakfast sandwich - go all out and stuff a biscuit with fried chicken and honey for a decadent treat!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wild Foraging: Chanterelles

Yay, today I'm writing for TWO blogs! This is also a guest-post on my friend's urban foraging blog, First Ways. I follow her blog avidly even though I'm not much of a forager yet - I eat the dandelions out of my yard, but I still have no idea where to find burdock or watercress in Portland, even though I know they're growing wild around here. One day I will take her class and learn. In the meantime, I'm here to crow about my very first wild foraging expedition!

That's me there, yesterday morning just after dawn, soaked with heavy rain out in the woods, bagging up chanterelle mushrooms. They're going for a relatively cheap $10 a pound at the farmers' market nowadays - I've seen them for two or three times that - so it's worth a good hike to go pick them yourself if you know where to find them. I didn't, but we have a friend who does.

If you know any mushroom hunters, or if you've read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, then you know that mushroom hunters will go to any length to avoid telling anyone where their spots are. It can be incredibly frustrating for the novice mushroomer, to beg and plead for a lesson only to have someone politely change the subject. This time I got a promise back in the summer, when I first floated the idea of killing and eating our seven excess chicks; friends offered to take us mushroom hunting in exchange for chicken processing experience and two of the chickens.

So chanterelle season rolled around, time for us to collect on their promise. Everyone was busy with one thing or another, so it was only yesterday and quite late in the season when we all drove out to an undisclosed location in the woods (hey, I swore I wouldn't tell). We left well before dawn, and there was only just enough light to see through the hard drizzle when we parked the car. We set off with bags and buckets for a relatively easy hike, a few miles down a smooth trail, and then there was the first chanterelle - just sitting there, growing right next to the road.

As we went deeper into the woods, we found them everywhere! They seem to favor the places close to tree stumps and live trees, without too much undergrowth (other spots were carpeted in ferns, and there were no chanterelles there). We found most of them in the wetter spots - yes, even in the same forest, one spot can be considerably wetter than a spot just a few feet away - and they didn't hide underneath logs and such the way that some other mushrooms do. There'd be dark brown leaf litter and the yellow-orange mushroom standing bold against it.

I understood pretty soon why mushroomers guard their spots so jealously; the mushrooms make so little attempt to hide themselves that there would be none left for anyone if the word got out where they were.

By the end of the day, our experienced guide had scored just over ten pounds, and Keith and I had bagged about half that. Had it been earlier in the season, we would've gotten plenty more, but I'm thrilled with what we got! We had a wonderful time tromping around in the woods, and so far we're enjoying ourselves just as much eating these delicacies in our warm dry house. A couple of them even found their way into our scrambled eggs this morning.

But I spent the afternoon turning the bulk of them into duxelles. This is a lovely way to preserve mushrooms of any kind; the French use it to stuff meats and vegetables or to spread on omelettes, and the British use it for Beef Wellington. I now have a pint and a half of luxurious chanterelle duxelles, which I intend to stir into risottos and which will probably find its way into the cornbread stuffing and the gravy this Thanksgiving. (And now I'm all on fire to make a Beef Wellington too.)

Go get your own delicious mushrooms - chanterelles are the best but use whatever edible ones you have available - and make up a batch of duxelles. It'll give a rich boost of earthy flavor to almost anything. Here's my recipe, adapted from Well Preserved by Eugenia Bone.


3 Tablespoons good olive oil
3/4 cup minced onion
2 lbs mushrooms, best available, washed & finely minced
1 sprig fresh thyme (optional)
1/4 cup chardonnay
1/4 cup dry vermouth
1 heaping tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh-ground black pepper

Get down your biggest, heaviest skillet and heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in it. Add 1/3 the mushrooms and onions and saute; the mushrooms will let out a good deal of liquid, so keep cooking until the liquid evaporates. Transfer to a clean bowl, add another 1 Tbsp olive oil and half the remaining onion and mushrooms. Saute until the liquid evaporates, transfer to the bowl, then repeat with the remaining olive oil, onion, and mushrooms. When the last batch is cooked through, put the first two batches back in the skillet.

Add the whole sprig of thyme and all the other ingredients. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have absorbed all the liquid; they should be a thick chunky paste by now. Fish out the thyme sprig and discard.

Spoon the duxelles into clean jars and refrigerate or freeze. You can also spoon it into ice cube trays and freeze into small servings, which can be added to gravy, pasta, eggs, etc. or just heated to thaw and spread on toast. If you want to save the duxelles in the fridge for more than a day or two, pack it densely into the jar with as few air pockets as possible, then cover it with olive oil and seal. The oil on top will keep it fresher for longer.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Incredible Autumn Risotto

When I'm feeling contemplative or morose, or when I just need some "me-time," I make risotto. There's something about that peaceful stirring and watching, ladling and absorbing, that makes the kitchen experience very zen for me. Risotto has an undeserved reputation for being difficult and time-consuming. It isn't! It does require your rapt attention, but only for 30-40 minutes, and that time can be a peaceful respite from whatever's going on.

And at the end, you have the ultimate comfort food.

This one I made last night was particularly incredible, loaded with apples, chanterelle mushrooms, turkey bacon, and gorgonzola cheese. The different flavors played off each other so well, and gave the dish a variety of textures to offset the lovely creaminess we all love in a risotto.

I failed to get a picture because Keith and I devoured it as soon as it was ready. Oh well, risotto isn't all that photogenic anyway. But it sure is delicious! I offer this recipe now in case anyone else needs a few minutes of kitchen P&Q and a warm autumn comfort dish.

(serves 2-4, depending on your side dishes)

2 strips turkey bacon (or pork, if that's your thing)
4 cups good-quality chicken or vegetable broth
3 Tbsp butter, divided
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup finely-sliced mushrooms* (about 1.5-2 oz, see note)
1 cup apple, peeled and finely diced
1 cup arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine
Scant 1/4 cup gorgonzola or bleu cheese
1/4 tsp nutmeg
Salt to taste

*Note: Use the best mushrooms you can get. I got a good deal on chanterelles, which are normally pretty expensive but you only need a couple ounces so you can splurge. If you can't get a few chanterelles, then go for shiitakes or baby bellas, just don't use the cheap white ones - and for the love of G-d, don't use canned! Good mushrooms will really make a difference here.

Fry the bacon in a deep, heavy dry skillet until mostly cooked on both sides. While it's frying, add broth to a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a low boil. Once it's boiling, cover it and lower the heat so it stays at a nice low simmer.

When the bacon is done, drain it and wipe out the skillet if necessary (it won't be necessary with turkey, it will be with pork). Chop the bacon into little pieces and set aside.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-low and melt 2 Tbsp butter in it; add the onion and saute until the onion begins to soften. Add the bacon and mushrooms, and continue to saute for another minute or two, until the mushrooms soften a little; add the apple and the rice, and saute another minute or two. Pour in the wine and stir until the wine is mostly absorbed.

Now we get into that peaceful risotto action. Ladle in about a half-cup of the simmering broth (I use a soup ladle), then stir slowly until the rice absorbs it. Ladle in another half-cup of broth, and stir until it's absorbed. Continue in this fashion until you're out of broth; this will take about half an hour. Pour yourself a glass of the white wine you just used and sip it while you stand and stir. Play a little music. Think about life. Enjoy your peace.

When you're out of broth, the rice should be cooked through and your risotto should look nice and creamy. If you still need to cook a little more, use water or more white wine (a half-cup at a time, just like the broth) until the rice is done.

When it's ready, add the remaining tablespoon of butter, the grated or crumbled cheese, a little salt, and the nutmeg. Stir until it's all melted and blended together, then serve immediately. You'll probably want a light salad or a little something green to go on the side, so hopefully you already made it, or had someone else make it.

Enjoy your bliss, preferably with some fuzzy socks and a crackling fire.

Monday, October 25, 2010

This is getting ridiculous.

It's been a busy time for me these days, which is why I haven't been blogging as much. It's been a busy time for the FDA too - the jackbooted thugs are out in droves once again, holding children at gunpoint, confiscating hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of inventory from small family farms, illegally stealing computers and office equipment without warrants, and generally doing what they do best, which is eliminating the competition for Big Ag.

The current target is raw dairy, and cheese in particular. It started with an illegal raid on the private food buying club Rawsome Foods in California. I'll let you read the article so I don't clutter this space by repeating information, but this baseless raid resulted in the (illegal) confiscation of certain raw cheeses produced by Missouri's Morningland Dairy. Those samples sat around for 30 days - a few months after leaving the dairy - and then one of them somehow tested positive for listeria even though none of the dairy's thoroughly-tested equipment was contaminated. No, I'm sure no one tampered with that sample...

So anyway, now the FDA is out to destroy Morningland Dairy. This tiny family farm has been prohibited from making or selling any cheese since August, and they've been ordered to destroy over $250,000 worth of product, which would completely put them out of business. For six weeks they were forced to dump their milk - remember, we live in a country where children are suffering from malnutrition in an economy that makes it difficult for many people to buy whole foods, and six weeks' worth of fresh milk is a lot of nourishment to feed the sewer. Eventually Morningland was permitted to sell the milk for pasteurized, homogenized distribution, which nourishes no one, may cause heart disease, and does not generate a significant profit for the dairy, but they take what they can get while the government holds them hostage.

Now they're after another farm, the Estrella Family Creamery in Washington state. Same shit, different day - the FDA shuts down the dairy and orders the destruction of massive amounts of high-quality cheese that carries no pathogens whatsoever, ostensibly because someday it might.

It should be noted that the Morningland Dairy has been in operation for over thirty years, and the Estrella Family Creamery for nearly ten, and not one person has ever been sickened by their award-winning cheeses. Can Kraft say the same?

It's worth contrasting the FDA's actions here with their handling of the recent salmonella outbreak at Umpqua Dairy, a pasteurized-homogenized industrial "milk" company here in Oregon (they sell their products at supermarkets throughout Oregon, Washington, and northern California). Back in August, the state of Oregon issued a press release warning that 23 people had been infected with salmonella as a result of consuming Umpqua's products. Two of them were hospitalized. If you're waiting to read about the FDA raiding and shutting down Umpqua in the name of public health, well, so am I. Instead, a voluntary recall was issued, and government officials bent over backwards to soothe the public about how low the risk of illness actually was.

It all makes you wonder what the FDA's true agenda is - public health, or industrialization? And it also makes me worry about the Food Safety Modernization Act, currently before the Senate. This act, designed by Monsanto's own Michael Taylor, would give the FDA unprecedented and unconstitutional powers and allow them to act completely without judicial oversight. This bill would spell death for organic farming, farmers' markets, and small local food. (Monsanto's own power and influence would also, of course, increase exponentially, delivering the last nail in the coffin of family farms.) As Hartke says of the FDA, "If they get more power through S.510, they will regulate the family farm and real food to death and give you Cheez Whiz and Twinkies as government approved food."

That's not what I want or need. Think hard when you cast your ballots next week, and remember - if we don't speak up for Morningland or the Estrellas now, who will speak up for us later?

UPDATE: As of today, it looks like Morningland is going to court. It also appears as though it is a crime in the state of Missouri to request justification before obeying a government order to commit suicide. This has terrifying implications for all Americans... whatever happened to due process?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Strawberry Harvest, Round 2

Strawberries are pretty much done this season, I know. But if you haven't already, it's not too late to harvest the leaves!

You can start picking strawberry leaves in the spring and throughout the summer; the younger, tender leaves have the best flavor. But if you're like me and you forgot or didn't know, you can still get a harvest in before the frost kills off the plants. Just take some scissors out to the garden and clip off just the leaves. Make sure to leave some behind so the plant can sustain itself - don't pick it bare! - and don't take the leaves with mold or spots on them. Of course it goes without saying that you should not be harvesting leaves that've been sprayed with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or other poisons.

Once you've got a bowlful, bring 'em inside. Run a few inches of cool water in the sink, and rinse the leaves carefully, using your fingers to go over each one and remove all the dirt, grit, little bugs, etc. Once they're all clean, you can use them right away or dry them for winter. To dry them, either spread them out in your dehydrator or spread them in a dark, dry place with plenty of circulation. Once dried, store them in a Ziploc baggie in the pantry or somewhere dark. Make sure they are fully dried. Fresh is okay and fully dried is okay, but when only partially dried, the leaves are toxic!

To use the strawberry leaves, make a tea. You can put a tablespoon of the dried leaves (or a bunch of fresh leaves) into a cup and top it off with boiling water, letting it steep for 15-20 minutes. Or, for maximum health benefits, put one tablespoon dried leaves per cup of boiling water in a jar, and let it steep overnight. You can drink this cold the next day, or reheat it if you like. A bit of raw honey boosts the health value and also makes it a little sweeter.

So why do you want to do this? Well, strawberry leaf tea is pretty tasty. But it's also packed to the gills with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, iron, and calcium - making it an ideal tonic for just about everyone, especially pregnant women and nursing mamas (for the latter, it's also said to boost milk production). It soothes the digestive system and works as an excellent natural remedy for indigestion and diarrhea, and some use it as a mild remedy for arthritis and eczema.

Flu season is right around the corner, which means that anything packed with vitamin C is a good idea to boost your immune system. Once it freezes here, I'll be harvesting rosehips and drying citrus peels too, for even more powerful C-food.

Isn't it cool how nature gives you what you need, right when you need it?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Yard Food

I got back from my trip late Wednesday night. Thursday I woke up hungry and went looking for something to eat. The pantry was full of staples - flours, barley, spices, etc. - but there wasn't much for a quick bite.

So I went out to the yard.

I gathered up several eggs, picked a bunch of greens, discovered that OH HAPPY DAY a few tomatoes are finally ripening, and I collected a few pounds of white pattypan squashes. Once I had it all inside, I decided to save the squashes, since I found a few slices of wholegrain bread.

Behold my Backyard Sammy: Eggs scrambled with hot sauce and Dijon mustard, on toasted wholegrain bread, with fresh-picked tomato, arugula, and two kinds of sorrel. I can't even tell you how delicious it was. And I didn't have to go far to the store.

That's the most satisfying thing about yard food. It's always there, cheaper and far more tasty than you could get if you schlepped it through the checkout lane. And it's always seasoned with that savory satisfaction that comes from self-sustainability.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Well, I'm back. I've got some pleasant settling-in things to talk about, but first I need to mention the ever-increasing threat of the passage of the Senate's ironically-titled Food Safety Enhancement Act (what a perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak).

Click this link to get the info.

Then call your Senators, your local newspaper, and all your friends and family. We need to raise holy hell over this. If EVER there was a time to step up and scream "NO!" - this is it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Goin' Down South

Haven't been back to Dixie in two years, but I'll be there this afternoon. My mother has generously flown me out to see my family for a week; this morning I caught a quick shuttle to Seattle and in a couple hours I'll be airborne for Memphis.

Every time I go back to Memphis (since moving away over six years ago), it's a different town. I've never seen a town change so much. I'm interested to see what's changed this time. And I'm REALLY looking forward to the drive down into Mississippi to see my brother, who's in college there - I have a deep love for rural Mississippi, especially when I get off the interstate and amble down old highways through towns with drawling names like Holly Springs and Tupelo, names that pour from the tongue in a thick slow stream like sugary tea.

Holly Springs is also the former home of my favorite Delta bluesman, R. L. Burnside. All day I've had one of his songs in my head, "Goin' Down South"...

Last night I had to use up the veggies in the fridge before they went bad, so Keith and I made a big veggie feast together. It turned out in my usual style - Southern with a Northwest spin - and we had a couple of friends over and had a wonderful time. The mostly-vegan menu:

BBQ Blackeyed Peas (with molasses and chipotle)
Cucumber Salad with Dill & Green Zebra Tomatoes
Apple-Kohlrabi Slaw
Grilled Eggplant
Grilled Potatoes
Collard-Turnip greens
Steamed Romanesco (with vegan "cheese" sauce)
Butter-Creamed Corn
Hazelnut Pie Brownies (made with bourbon and brandy)

It was a pretty good send-off, and now I'm in the Seattle airport waiting for my flight. Ironically, I'm flying Delta to the Delta. I hate to fly SO VERY MUCH but I've got the latest Hemingway (hee hee, his last novel) and some of my own writing to keep me occupied, so hopefully four and a half hours in a tiny seat will go quickly. Knock wood.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Autumn Approaching...

Yeahhh, it's autumn. It was a chilly and rainy night, so Keith stopped off and restocked us on pellets, and now there's a nice warm fire to doze in front of. Roxy's breaking it in already.

It feels like summer just started. Sigh... usually I welcome autumn with open arms as my favorite season, but dangit, I haven't even canned tomatoes yet. My tomato vines are covered with green fruit and yellow flowers; I still have squash flowering and I JUST harvested the first of my pattypan squash! We really got gypped on summer this year. Oh well. Next year should be better.

This winter is supposed to be cold and snowy. I hope so. We missed that last year too - the east coast was freezing under several feet of snow while I was outside in a hoodie and flip-flops. Crazy wacky climate antics!

It's almost Yom Kippur, so to all my fellow Jews, G'mar Tova Chatimah - may we be sealed for a good year.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Midnight Meeting

I keep thinking of things to blog about, and then I get busy. I have a lot of irons in the fire these days, but I need to get better about blogging more than once a week. Because I have a lot to share here and I hate when I forget and miss it. Like last night, for instance.

Last night I had occasion to be walking home from the bus stop just after midnight. Our neighborhood is well-lit and very quiet, and I was strolling along under the streetlights, bouncing my backpack, enjoying the soft silence around my steps crunching in the gravel. And then a dark shape streaked across the street, from one driveway into another.

"That wasn't a cat," I thought. I watched the place where the shape had gone, and guessed I knew what it was.

As I got closer, I saw that I was right. The opossum had climbed to the top of a low chain-link fence, and he was watching me approach. It felt like no one else around was awake, just him and me, and I felt drawn to him for a better look. I've never seen a live opossum up close. The driveway sloped down slightly, so that when I got to him, he was just above my eye level, his head turned back the way I had come.

I could've touched him - I didn't, of course, but I could have. I could see the fingerprint pattern in his thick rat-tail, the coarseness of his wiry fur, white and mussed. Then, slowly, he turned his head and looked at me. A drop fell from his nose as he fixed his eyes on mine. His face denied fear; he was not afraid of me. He just watched and waited to see what I would do.

For another long moment, I stood there in a stranger's driveway, one of my neighbors and yet a person I don't know, while this opossum and I shared a mutual acknowledgement. He looked old, but tough; he was a survivor. Before this moment, I'd only known opossums as dirty roadkill, but this guy was alive in a way that most of the animals I've encountered are not. He was wild, and he knew where he was going and what he'd do when he got there, and he was simply waiting for me to leave him to it.

So I did. With a respectful nod, I went on toward home. He watched me go, but when I was a few houses away, I looked back and he was gone.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The High Cost of Cheap Eggs



Kinda says it all, doesn't it?

If you haven't already seen the excellent 2005 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, drop what you're doing and go watch it. Now. Every American needs to see it, and most of the rest of the world does too.

Now that you're back... I had to share this excellent article, "The Price of Cheap Wal-Mart Eggs." While this is not just a Wal-Mart problem (and invoking the name of the Evil Empire unfairly lets other less infamous retailers off the hook), the article does explain the reason why cheaper is NOT better when it comes to food production. Be sure to follow the links within the article.

And just for contrast, a funny story:

Our hens have a clearly established pecking order, with Lucy on top, Jane in the middle, and Lana far below both of them. This means that Lana rarely gets to enjoy any of the treats. Jane is fine as long as she gets hers, but Lucy will go out of her way to make sure that Lana doesn't get any treats at all, even if it means she herself misses out. (Notice in the picture above how Lucy and Jane enjoy that nommy corncob while Lana hangs back for the grass.)

So the other day, I was pickling beets - ten pounds' worth, so I had a huge bowl of peels and trimmings to take out to the hens. They dove right in and spent much of the day nibbling at those beets. Later in the afternoon, Keith stepped outside to check on the garden, and was startled to see Lucy looking like a lion at a carcass. The feathers all around her mouth and face were dripping red as she gobbled those beets.

At this point, along comes Lana, deciding to see if she can step in and have some beets too. Lucy roared up onto her tiptoes, wings spread, bloody beak open like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park; Lana shrieked and bolted across the yard, and Keith said for a second he almost did too.

I'm happy to report that our little dinosaur is no longer beet-stained, although the inside of the coop kind of looks like they're all dying from massive internal bleeding. But it's not true. In our case, though not in Wal-Mart's, it's just beets.

I pray that more healthy chickens may soon quarrel over fresh veggies on a sunny summer day.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

Whew, it's been a canning week! And freezing, too. I've put up enough rhubarb for three or four pies, I've pickled peaches, I've pickled beets, I put up ginger-beet relish, I made mozzarella cheese, I made bread, I made biscuits, I blanched and froze 20 ears of corn (some on the cob, some cut off), and I pickled 20 pounds of cucumbers. I now have ten quart jars and sixteen pint jars full of pickles - half kosher dills, and half bread-and-butter. They're cheerfully pickling away on my kitchen table at the moment.

Yesterday was interesting; Keith and I took a break from canning to help a friend of a friend cull her chicken flock. She had several old biddies who weren't laying eggs anymore, and there were more chickens than her coop could handle, so some of them had to go. This was the first time any of us had seen inside an older hen, and let me tell you, it's NOTHING like the inside of a little one! It was an egg machine in there! Dozens and dozens of yolks in varying sizes, a big veiny egg sac, just some very complex works.

I always kind of thought the egg was a byproduct and they just made one at a time, but I have a whole new respect for my laying hens now. The female chicken is built to make eggs, and lots of them. I'll always remember seeing all those yolks, some full sized and some smaller than a dime.

Today I'm giving the house a much-needed scrubbing and then making some pizza dough and biscuits for the freezer. Maybe a pie crust or two, as well. I also need to stew the aforementioned hen. She's too old to roast (her meat will be all chewy), but she'll be full of flavor and make an excellent stock when simmered for six hours or so with some veggie scraps. I like to reduce my chicken stock until it's thick and strong, then put it into ice cube trays and freeze it. I load the chicken stock ice cubes into a big freezer bag and throw one or two of them into almost anything - pasta water, risotto, gravy, whatever. It's a handy way to keep it.

So happy Labor Day to all who labor. I'm right there with you today!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Happy Times

Apropos of nothing: Here's a baby zucchini in my garden.

Apparently, I post on Sundays now. I keep meaning to post more often but man, I am SLAMMED! With work, and writing, and cooking, and of course, canning.

I'm up early today to put up some salsa verde before I go to work, and then we're heading to Sauvie Island for a 10 lb bag of pickling cucumbers to go with my 10 lb bag of beets. Half the beets are going to be pickled, and half will become beet relish. I also want to pickle some carrots, after nibbling some spicy pickled carrots yesterday...

Ahh, yesterday. Nearly a perfect day! We started out at the farmers' market for a nice long breakfast and some lingering shopping. I treated myself to a cup of lucious French press coffee, and a transcendent caprese salad - juicy, candy-sweet cherry tomatoes, halved and mixed with fresh mozzarella, fresh basil, and torn chunks of a gloriously salty crusted baguette, all tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Unholy.

After we loaded up on fresh produce - OH MY G-D, the tomatoes are FINALLY in at a reasonable price! - we took a little walk downtown and browsed through Powell's Books, the world's largest independent bookstore, and then I went to work. Decent day there, and when Keith picked me up, we headed up to Mt. Tabor (Portland's volcano) for a brief hike; we left Mt. Tabor for The Moon & Sixpence, our favorite British pub, for dinner over the newspaper and the crossword. And then we saw the new Todd Solondz movie, Life During Wartime, which I've eagerly anticipated for over a year. All told, a fabulous day.

Does mean I have to catch up on the canning though, and I've also got some extra cream I skimmed off our raw milk, so tonight I'll be whipping up some butter. Now's when I miss having a food processor - it's so easier to make butter with one - but I'll get by.

Gotta love a weekend that is this pleasant AND enjoyable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Yes, I Can! (A Lot.)

I have a hunch that very soon, I'm going to have enough grapes to share a few.

We need to get some carboys and get ready to make some white wine, I think!

I've been canning like it's 1899 these days. More corn salsa, some more peach salsa coming up... I've also put up blackberry jam, ginger-blackberry chutney (which is really too thin and runny to be called a chutney, but it'll taste good poured over baked brie at the dinner gathering I'm having tonight), some cherries in wine, and more.

We've been picking blackberries almost every day, since they're growing wild and abundantly all over the neighborhood; on Wednesday we went up to Sauvie Island to pick blackberries and lie on the beach for awhile. It was a nice break from work and cooking, but the canning work continues. Every time I get caught up, we go to the farmers' market or find a blackberry bush, and I'm off again.

I'm hoping to get started on pickles and tomatoes this week. I recently learned that the FDA, in their infinite... uh, wisdom, requires all tomatoes and tomato sauces to be canned with BPA in the can lining. Even the organic ones. As a woman who's hoping for pregnancy, I'd rather steer clear of BPA when I can, so that means I need to put up tons of tomatoes now because I use the heck out of canned tomatoes in the winter! Thank you, FDA, for giving me still more busywork. You never fail to impress me with the deepest depths of your competence.

And the pickles. Ahh, pickles. I'm currently looking at a 10 lb bag of beets we got for $9 on Sauvie Island, which is destined to become beet pickles and beet relish. And the pickling cucumbers are coming in, so I'll be putting up some dills as well as bread and butter pickles, which Keith has requested since we sampled some awesome bread and butter pickles at the farmers' market.

I had wondered just a month or two ago if canning season would come at all. Hilarious.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Peach Summer

This is the summer of peaches.

Last summer was all about cherries, due to the snowstorm we had the winter before. We dehydrated cherries, we ate them fresh, we canned them and froze them. We stayed up into the morning on nights too hot to sleep, pitting and slicing cherries until our hands dripped with a Shakespearean stain. And by winter, when they were gone, we wished we'd put away more cherries.

There wasn't a bumper crop of cherries this spring, although we've had our share of fresh ones, so juicy from our excess rain that they burst bloody in our mouths. I preserved some in spiced brandy - they'll be ready around Thanksgiving or Christmas - and I got some more today that I'll preserve in red wine with orange and cloves. But this summer, we're mostly about the peaches.

It started a couple of weeks ago when I won a free flat of them in a contest: "Tell us a little-known peach fact, and the best one wins a flat!" My peach fact, which I learned from The Little House Cookbook, is indeed an interesting one - back in nineteenth-century America, before tropical vanilla became widespread, peach leaves were often used as the standard flavoring for custards, pies, and other desserts.

That tidbit launched a love affair with Baird Family Orchards peaches. We blew through that first flat in two days and are halfway through our second one; as we picked up our box of peaches from the Baird stand at the farmers' market yesterday, Keith mused, "I think I found my brand." Yeah, I grew up in the South, but I can't recall ever having such juicy, succulent peaches in my entire life. You could get high just sniffing them like glue.

Keith took a bite yesterday, moaned, and sighed, "This is the kind of fruit that launches wars."

So sure, we've eaten them fresh, drenching our shirts, slurping from our fingers as our elbows grow sticky. But I'm saving some too. I combined them with some of the hot peppers from my dad's garden, several different kinds, with a bit of lime, garlic, and cumin, in a sweet-firey peach salsa that I wanted to call "Atlanta Is Burning."

Others went into a frozen pie filling with marionberries, tapioca, and a bit of cinnamon and cardamom; that'll be delicious later in winter. Later I'll be preserving some in brandy for our waffle brunches, and I'm sure I'll think of more ways to keep them, because these peaches inspire hoarding.

Soon, when it's thirty-four degrees outside in the drizzling rain, dark at 4 pm, perhaps one day I'll open a jar, or bake up a pie. And then we'll remember the summer we spent dripping peach juice and sweat. Already it's a warm baking memory.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chicken Processing (Warning: Bloody)

Don't read this post or look at the pictures if you're squeamish!

On Sunday, we processed five of the seven chicks that were hatched in our garage back in April. One was too small to be worth killing, and the other was a Thank You gift to Dawn, the woman who brought her two kids into town to show us how to do this. (She preferred a live pullet to lay eggs, so that one also lived.) It only took us a couple of hours to completely process all five birds, but it most certainly made for an interesting day.

I was a bit anxious in the morning, worried about how it would go. We went to breakfast with some friends of ours, but first I whipped up a pie crust, and when we got home from breakfast I channeled my anxiety into a strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was just coming out of the oven when it was time to get our day started, so it cooled in the kitchen as we worked outside.

This is the killing cone, which we borrowed from the Urban Farm Store for free and hung on the fence. Underneath it are two gut buckets - one for the feathers and guts, and another to catch the feathers and heads during processing. We had planned to slit the birds' throats in two places, which is what Joel Salatin and some others recommend, but beheading turned out to be much easier. You can behead a chicken with a filet knife, or a paring knife! I had no idea!

We were joined not only by Dawn and her kids (who seemed to have a healthy respect for the process, but were not the least bit squeamish about it), but also by our friend Kelley, who has been primarily a pesco-vegetarian for many years and whose toddler daughter had never eaten meat before. Kelley also has egg-laying hens and has been debating whether to raise meat birds next summer, so this whole process was kind of a trial run for both of us to see if we could handle it. While we waited for Dawn to arrive, we sipped beer and wondered if we would pass out or scream.

Then it was time.

Dawn's teenage son processed the first bird, and then we did the rest, though Keith had to do all the killing of the other four (Kelley and I weren't quite ready for that yet). It was easier to get ready than I thought it would be; you simply hold up the chicken by its feet, and after a couple seconds of flapping around, the blood goes to its head and it loses consciousness. Then you slide it headfirst into the cone, so that it's neatly contained and the neck is easily accessible.

Then, you take your filet knife (or paring knife) and in one quick stroke - THWACK.

Now you leave the chicken there for a couple of minutes to bleed out. This is pretty quick and a lot less gory than I anticipated. There is a surprisingly small amount of blood in a chicken (and thank goodness for that). When it's done, you take your headless chicken, as Kelley does here...

...and dip it in some hot water for a second or two. This makes plucking a lot easier. Despite the blood and guts, I think the plucking was my least favorite part - most of the big feathers just come off in handfuls, but then you have to pick off all the little pinfeathers, the fluffy ones around the legs, and the soft hairy ones on the roosters, and you have to do it without ripping the skin. Two of them, we tore the skin and decided to take Dawn's advice and just skin them. It's a lot easier but you don't get the delicious chicken skin that way. So most of them, we plucked.

Ready for butchering now? This is when you cut off the feet, neck, and oil gland, and trim the wings. Here's Keith and Kelley double-teaming this process, while I helpfully snap pictures.

Now it just looks like meat! This is when you eviscerate them, cutting around the vent and scooping the guts out. Most of the innards come out easily in one scoop with your hand, but you do have to dig around in there for the trachea and esophagus, and you have to use your nails to pry the lungs off the ribcage. Those lungs really stick! And they're so very tiny, just about the size of a man's thumbnail. Hard to believe they can crow and cackle as loudly as they do, with those teeny little lungs.

If I were true to my heritage and the spirit of this process, I'd have saved the livers and hearts to fry up or cook into stock. But this is me, and I don't like organ meats. So they went into the gut bucket with the rest of the guts.

Rinse out the bird, take a good look to make sure you got everything out...

...wrap the bird in a plastic bag, and you're done!

It all went really quickly. Neither of us passed out; we handled the whole thing really well, despite not being ready for the killing ourselves. Keith did the killing just fine. There was one unpleasant moment when he hit the bone of one chicken and took two or three loud squawking strokes to decapitate it, but generally we all performed quite well and didn't let the carnage get to us.

(I do have a picture of the inside of that bucket. I decided against posting it. I also have some video footage, which I also haven't posted, but if y'all express an interest in seeing it, then I'll upload it for you.)

When all five birds were processed, Kelley took hers and went home to her family. Keith got the deck cleaned up...

...while I got started on dinner. Remember the Cuckoo Maran rooster, in the foreground of Saturday's picture? He woke me up on Sunday morning crowing enthusiastically, and on Sunday evening I rubbed him all over with schmaltz, sprinkled him with salt, and stuffed his cavity with salted lemons, fresh herbs, and elephant garlic. I roasted him up, made a lucious gravy with the pan juices, and served him with hot potato salad and that amazing gravy.

Kelley made beer can chicken with hers that night, outside in her lovely yard.

The verdict? Obviously the chickens were tiny, as these aren't bred for modern meat production and they take more than a year to reach full-size. Next year, we may get meat birds that grow faster. Each bird made multiple meals for our two families, though, so we can't complain about size.

The meat itself was quite chewy; I later learned that it's better to refrigerate the birds for 24-48 hours after processing to relax the meat. (Rigor mortis makes for chewy muscle!) So the next ones I cook should be much better. Despite the chewy texture, the flavor was incredible. We've got a running joke in our culture about the taste of chicken, or rather the lack thereof, but this chicken had a distinct and delicious flavor that must be what caused our ancestors to domesticate this bird in the first place. Think of the best European chicken stock you've ever had, then solidify that flavor into meat. I really enjoyed it.

On Tuesday I took the leftover carcass from my roasted chicken, all the lemons and garlic that were in it, some veggie trimmings and fresh herbs, and the chicken necks from Processing Day, and I made stock. I now have quite a lot of really awesome stock that I can use for a long time to come. And I still have two more chickens in the freezer!

So I feel pretty good about Sunday's work. It was deeply spiritual in a very earthy way; this is what eating meat is supposed to be like. I wonder if a lot of our social disconnect with murder and violence is rooted in this detachment from the death we eat. Factory birds, drugged and diseased, dismembered by machines and wrapped in plastic at the supermarket... Yeah, I can now say I consider that to be far more barbaric than the natural way. I have finally looked my meat in the face and taken responsibility for it, and I found it to be a positive and uplifting experience.

And that strawberry-rhubarb pie I channeled all my earlier stress into? I am pleased to say it didn't taste like stress at all. Once dinner was done and the kitchen cleaned, that pie tasted a well-earned reward for a good day's work (or a couple of days, if you count the day that Kelley and I spent picking and freezing the strawberries last month).

(I just noticed how many of my happy blog posts end in pie!)