Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Warning: this post has nothing to do with food.

Well, almost nothing. Soon I will be posting, hopefully a lot, about Korean food, because any day now I’ll be flying off to Seoul to pickup my new baby.

I’ve alluded to the fact that my son is ethnically Korean, but I don’t think that I’ve said straight out that I’m an adoptive mommy - until now, of course. Anyway, we just got The Call that Baby Brother is ready for pickup. So my posting may suddenly get even more sporadic than usual.

Things will play out quite differently than last time. When we traveled in 2006, my parents came along with my hubby & I, and we knew nothing about Korean food. This time the hubster will stay home with Big Brother, I’ve roped Paula into coming along and I am totally in love with Korean food.

The pre-baby shopping is different this time, too. To prepare for Big Brother, we bought a crib and stroller. To prepare for Little Brother, I’ve bought a mini-HD camcorder and netbook. The plan is to Skype daily with Daddy and Big Bro, but also to record our adventures in eating as Paula and I tromp around Seoul. A friend suggested that we also Twitter on our trip, so if I can I figure that one, out we’ll have that going for us, too. Which is nice.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Trashy Garden

A friend of mine bought her first house last winter, and she’s very excited about planting a vegetable garden. Gardening has been on my mind, too (or rather my lack of preparation for this years’ garden). Since I've been putting together some ideas for my friend, I thought I would share them here, too: tips for recycling trash into the garden.

I'm not talking about composting, although I do that as well; I mean stuff you would throw away (or recycle) that can be used in, or for, the garden. Since it's mostly things that you don't acquire every day (how often do you get holes in socks?) you need to plan ahead and set these things aside as they accumulate. I present you, therefore, with my list of Handy Trash to hang on to:

Plastic containers (like the ones that cherry tomatoes, berries, and salad greens come in): these make great (and free!) seed-starting containers. The tomato and berry ones are my favorites because they already have small slots in the bottom for drainage. The ones from pre-washed salad greens are bigger and will hold more seeds, but you may have to poke holes in the bottom.

We covered this tip in show #7, but here’s what you do: fill the containers ~2/3 full with pre-moistened seed starting mix (most seeds do better in seed-starting mix than regular potting soil, with some exceptions). Add the seeds to the depth and spacing recommended on the package. Put the filled container in the kitchen sink and gently water the seeds (use the use the sprayer attachment, if your sink has one). I like to add just enough water to "flood" the surface then let it drain thoroughly).

Keep the closed containers on a tray with a rim (to avoid drips) in a warm place until the seeds germinate. They don't need direct sunlight, but they shouldn't be in total darkness either. I leave them on top of the radiator, or above the fridge. Check the containers every day and spritz the soil with a little water to keep it moist, but not soggy. As soon as you see the seedlings begin to sprout, open the top of the container and move it to a brightly lit spot. Sunny windowsills are OK but the seedlings lean towards the light – you will have to rotate the containers every day or two. I use a homemade grow-light setup down in the cellar.

When the seedlings are big enough to transplant (usually defined as having two “true” leaves), move them into 3-4" pots filled with regular potting soil. Dump the used seed starting mix onto the compost pile, rinse the plastic containers and recycle them (with your regular recycling waste - I don't re-use them to start more seeds).

Holey socks: When was the last time you saw someone darn a sock? Do you even know what "darn a sock" means? Those socks with the holes in the toes can be turned into great ties for tomato and other plants: they're stretchy and soft, so they don't damage the plants and they even expand a little as the plants grow. (My mom always used strips cut from T-shirts as plant ties, but my family goes through socks a lot faster than we go through T-shirts).

Here’s what you do: cut the toe and cuff ends off of the sock, then cut the sock into rings ~1/2” wide (see my artful schematic). Cut each ring open to make a flat strip. If you don't want the cloth strips to be obvious in the garden, use black or brown socks. (I prefer white socks because it's easier to locate the strips at the end of the garden season – I cut them off and throw them away. If you wear 100% cotton socks, you can put the used strips in the compost pile).

Newspapers: save the regular print pages, not the glossy-paper ads. Newspapers can be used as mulch in the garden, either shredded into strips, or laid down flat. (If you lay them flat, make sure you use at least 5 pages thick to suppress the weeds). You can add a layer of mulch on top of the newspapers to diminish the trashy look.
Shredded newspapers are also great for adding "carbon-rich" material to a compost pile, or as bedding in your worm bin (I haven't set up a worm bin yet, I'm still accumulating newspaper).

Paper and/or plastic milk cartons: use 'em as "plant protectors." Cut the tops and bottoms off, and when you put your tomato seedlings into the ground, slip a milk carton over it. Push the carton into the ground an inch or so. The carton will protect the plant from cutworms, and if you get a late frost you can gently pack a little shredded newspaper into the carton to add insulation.

Wine corks: put them in the bottom of pots for drainage. They weigh less than rocks, and I know that they take a VERY long time to break down because I tried adding them to the compost pile. Three years later I am still finding intact corks in the garden. Of course, you will have to drink an awful lot of wine before you accumulate enough corks to make a 2” layer in an 18” pot, but these are the sacrifices that must be made.

That's it. Try it out...if nothing else, a bucket of wine corks and pile of socks on the back steps is a sure-fire conversation starter for visitors.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What's Up? Garden Edition

Last week it was unseasonably warm and sunny. I took the opportunity to run around the garden, pulling off mulch and searching for signs of spring to come. Now that the weather has retunred to reality (40 degrees F and raining), I'm glad that I took these pictures. Knowing that something is happening out these will sustain me until I can get into the garden again.

This is sorrel. Do you know it? It's a hardy perennial that can be used as a salad green, which is why I planted it. Here in zone 6, by the end of March it has usually revivied enough to start spiking salads with its lemony/sour flavor. Later in the year I cook it with spinach, or make sorrel soup.

I use fallen leaves as mulch in the veggie beds - a tip that I picked up from my sis-in-law, Sue. My son "helped" me take the leaf cover off, and what did we find lurking there? A few mache plants (pronounced "mosh" - aka lamb's lettuce, aaka corn salad) planted last fall and apparently forgotten. That mache is some tough stuff.

Another surpising find under the mulch - the chives are sprouting. Well, beyond sprouting and into sprouted. The garlic chives are a little behind them; nothing photogenic yet.

And finally, another perennial (ha, ha) favorite - alpine strawberries. These little fellas rival mache for their toughness. Can you see the reddish crown? By June the plant will be making tiny, fragrant berries continuously until late October/early November.
That's it for now - but all in all, not bad for a very early spring garden. Off to read seed catalogs, and dream.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We've Got the Beet

Do you know what red beet eggs are? Here's a clue:

In addition to the glorious fruit I bought last summer, I bought 10 lbs of beets. Why? Well, Hubby Dear loves to have salad for lunch everyday, and also loves pickled beets as a salad topping. Since I am trying to eat more "local" food year-round, making my own pickled beets seemed like a good idea (and one that would assuage my guilt at packing his grown-in-California-and-shipped-across-the-country-salad for lunch every day. Yes, I want greenhouses; no, I don't have them yet).

I'll post the recipe if anyone really wants it (but who would that be? Does anyone besides MY Hubby Dear truly LIKE pickled beets??) but the jist of it was as follows: roast beets. Make tremendous mess that permanently stains hands whilst peeling beets. Prepare brine with vinegar and salt and a few other flavorings. Choke on fumes of simmering vinegar, then quarter beets, add to hot canning jars and fill with vaporous hot brine. Process in a boiling water bath in the heat of August while you question your sanity over the decision to revive home canning as a domestic pursuit ( if the hour of roasting at 400 F doesn't get you, the boiling cauldron of water for processing will).

I bought 10 lbs of beets because my recipe said that 10-12 lbs would give me 6 pints of pickled product. Not true...just half of the beets filled up 6 jars on their own. I had to to do the whole thing over again, ending up with 11 pints and change. That, my friends, is a lot of pickled beets.

There is a bright side, well actually two bright sides. The first is that I did, in fact, accomplish my goal: hubby has been happliy eating locally grown, organic beets on his salads all winter long. The other bright side is that some small part of my brain recalled that my mother used to make red beet eggs. I don't know exactly how she did it, but every so often a jar would appear in our refrigerator which contained a few hardboiled eggs and a slice or two of cooked beets.

I decided to try "repurposing" the vinegar brine from the pickled beets to make red beet eggs. It worked out great...after I finsih up a jar of beets, I add as many hard boiled eggs as will fit into the jar (usually just 3-4 eggs). I let them sit in the fridge for a few days, and them...the eggs shrink slightly in size (due to water loss in the salty brine?) and turn a glorious, shocking pink color (see photo above). They also taste great - the vinegar is not overpowering, the salt is just right. Sliced up, the pickled red beet eggs are also great on a salad. And, as I've just discovered tonight, they make a great snack when a martini has made you feel peckish.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Garden Variety Leftovers

I got a little carried away last fall.

Throughout the growing season, our veggie CSA gives you the opportunity to purchase certain items in bulk. This is a real perk for those of us who love pick-your-own operations but are unable to patronize them due to our toddler’s wanderlust in the orchard. I was, therefore, quite happy to buy raspberries by the flat, peaches by the peck and tomatoes by the ton, all summer long. (Just kidding. I only bought 20 lbs of tomatoes).

The CSA also offers items for winter storage in bulk. With visions of a well-stocked root cellar dancing in my head, I bought a bushel of apples, a bushel of butternut squash, 25 lbs of carrots, 5 pounds of celeriac, 50 pounds of cabbage, 10 pounds of parsnips, 50 pounds of potatoes, 50 pounds of onions, and a half-bushel of sweet potatoes. I told you, I got carried away.

Lugging all that food into the car and into the house was an exercise in, well, exercise. I didn’t attempt to store it all – most of the apples were shortly turned into applesauce (which was frozen), a third of the cabbage was sliced up for saurkraut, and ~12 lbs of potatoes were drafted for emergency duty at Thanksgiving. Still, I had a lot of food on my hands.

The CSA website has some good ideas for stashing veggies around the house. I’d also read Root Cellaring (a book that makes me drool and wish for a real root cellar) so I had some ideas about where to put what. I’d already established that the unheated closet room on the north side of the house was ideal for squash. Root Cellaring recommended that the sweet potatoes be kept in a relatively warm & dry spot, so they went to the top of the cellar steps; the onions prefer cooler conditions and so rested at the bottom of the same steps. That left me with the Four Vegetables of Cold and Wet Conditions: carrot, turnip, celeriac and parsnip.

I set up a veggie storage area inside this scary-looking closet in our cellar:

I suspect that this cupboard was originally built to be a root cellar. (We tried using it as a wine cellar but we kept drinking up all the wine). It’s not quite cold enough in there for carrots – the temp never gets below 40 degrees F, even in the dead of winter. Still, I thought it was worth a try. I’d read that carrots and the like can be stored in damp peat moss, so I bought some cheap styrofoam coolers, loaded 'em up with veggies and covered it all with peat moss. Then, every week or so I poured some water over the peat moss to keep it moist.

Here’s what the setup looked like (this pic was taken a few weeks ago):

How did it work? The veggies kept surprisingly well. I think they would have kept even better had we not experienced unseasonably warm temperatures in November, right after I loaded up my cellar with produce. It was over 50 F in the closet for several weeks before things finally chilled down outside.

I could not fit all of the carrots into the big cooler so some of them went into a plastic bag in the fridge; surprisingly, the carrots stored in the peat moss held up better over time. Another surprise was that the mice that live in the cellar (the house is 130 years old; there’s going to be mice, people) didn’t eat the veggies at all.

You may have noticed - the carrots have begun to sprout. I think this was again due to our warm fall, and the approaching spring has hastened the process. So I am in a rush to use everything up. But what’s everything?

The potatoes are pretty much gone, as are the onions and turnips. I’ve already told you what happened to the squash. What I mostly have left is lots of carrots, parsnips, and celeriac. They are still edible, though the quality has suffered a bit since they’ve been stored in a too-warm area. I don’t want to throw it all onto the compost heap, therefore I am making a really BIG batch of vegetable stock.

Will I do this again next year? Probably. When the coolers are empty, I’ll bring them out to the garden and use the peat moss to mulch my blueberry bushes. I suppose I could re-use it in the cellar but it seems safer to recycle it and give the coolers a good cleaning. I’ve learned that 25 lbs of carrots is entirely too much, so I’ll try to grow them myself instead of doing the bulk order. Also, bulk sweet potatoes AND squash is more beta-carotene than my family can consume, so I’ll grow the squash and order the sweet potatoes. Unless I can convince my hubby to build me a real root cellar, of course.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Great Tastes Don’t Always Taste Great Together

I decided that I need to share more of my misadventures in the kitchen. As I’ve gotten more experience with cooking, they don’t happen as often, but oh yes they do happen. Tonight’s dinner didn’t turn out quite as I’d envisioned – but that’s OK. It was educational! In this case, I tried out two recipes that worked out just fine, they just didn’t work well together.

Recipe #1 was the pork chops with vinegar peppers that Paula posted recently. It was very tasty, just as she promised, and quick and easy to make. Recipe #2 was a baked risotto with butternut squash.

Why, exactly, did I think that the squash risotto would be good with the peppery pork chops? To be honest, I didn’t think it would be good. I didn’t think that it would be bad, either. I had risotto on the brain because I’m trying to clean out my pantry and I had a little arborio rice, and also because I’m trying to clean out the cellar and was making vegetable broth. I also had some squash puree on hand because I’d already cleaned out my closet. And finally, I wanted to try a baked risotto because the stove was tied up with vats of boiling veggie broth.

I poked around on my beloved Internet and found a recipe that looked pretty good. Because I ended up modifying it quite a bit to use the ingredients I had on hand, and because it turns out that some people we know have no love for the Food Network, I’m not going to bother to post a link to the original recipe (unless you really, really want to see it – in that case, click here).

I haven’t tried baking risotto before. I suppose that it can’t possibly be as creamy as the real, laboriously-stirred version, but this was pretty darned good. The squash and the crème fraiche gave it a really creamy texture. It was too sweet and rich, though, to pair well with the vinegary peppers on the pork chops. Next time I’ll try it with chicken or a nice beef stew. I think a pork stew would be OK, maybe this one with fennel. Or that pork confit. Mmmmmm.

Baked Risotto with Squash
(Makes 4 side-dish servings, based on the fact that hubby and I ate half of it for dinner)

2-1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, chicken broth, or water
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup pureed cooked winter squash or pumpkin
~1/4 cup vermouth or dry white wine, optional
~1/4-1/3 cup crème fraiche (or mascarpone cheese, if that's in your fridge)
Salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg
Grated Parmesean or other cheese, optional (Gruyere would be nice)

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Heat the broth in a saucepan on top of the stove, or in the microwave, to warm it up.

Place 2 cups of broth, the rice, squash, and vermouth into a 2-quart baking dish or casserole. Stir well and cover with the casserole lid (or use aluminum foil).

Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. If the broth is boiling too vigorously, turn the heat down to 325 F. Bake until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender.

When the rice is cooked, stir the risotto. If you are not serving it right away, pour the remaining ½ cup broth on top and set aside (I put it back in the oven, with the heat turned off, until the pork chops were done cooking). When you are ready to eat, stir in the remaining broth, the crème fraiche, and a pinch of nutmeg. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Eat (preferably NOT with vinegar peppers).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Nintendo > Squash

1. We are awash in squash over here. I had ordered a half bushel of butternut squash from our CSA last fall, and we’d eaten our way through two-thirds of it before I hit a wall and we took a little break from it.

2. My 3-year-old son has had a nasty cold all week. Not bad enough to actually slow him down or induce long naps, but sufficient to meet his school’s criteria for “keep your snotty-nosed kid at home.” So yesterday afternoon we were looking for things to do, and I decided it was time to clean up the house a bit. (This is an Event. I Cook a lot, but I don’t Clean very often).

3. In addition to the nasty cold, my son has some sensory processing things going on. He loves the vacuum cleaner, and it turns out that vacuuming is a “heavy work” activity which improves the vestibular sense. So, for my son, vacuuming is therapeutic. Woohoo!

Yesterday morning, after we’d vacuumed nearly the whole house, we moved on to the little room at the top of our stairs which has housed squash for the last few months. It’s unheated, and if I keep the door closed the ambient temperature hovers around 55 degrees – perfect for squash storage (but a little chilly for ironing, the other major function of the room).

While we were cleaning out the closet room I noticed that some of the half-dozen remaining squash were starting to “go.” Not wanting to waste them, I decided to cook them and freeze the puree for later use. My son very helpfully carried the squash downstairs, one at a time (more heavy work!) and had great fun playing with them in the kitchen. When I cut open the squash, he noticed that the seeds and strings looked a lot like sea anemones (another of his favorite things). I scooped the seeds into a bowl and let him rub his hands in them for - still more - sensory input. (Note: I’m onto something here. The sensory potential of vegetables is completely ignored in “The Out-of-Sync Child has Fun”).

I put the squash in the oven to bake, and while my son napped I scraped the flesh into a bowl. Later, he had great fun helping me make the squash puree by pressing buttons on the food processor. We used some of the puree to make a “pumpkin” pie, and he enjoyed mixing all the ingredients together.

My point? My boy spent almost *all afternoon* playing with butternut squash in its various forms, and had a fine time doing so. This isn't anything new for him, though, as he has akways had a love for vegetables since all he sees mommy doing is cook (remember? I don't clean).

This morning, my son mentioned that a little boy in his class (we’ll call him Benjamin) had a nifty toy with him before school one day. Then he said “Take squash with us.” (We didn’t cook all of them– two specimens are still intact). I asked, Do you want to bring a squash to school to show it to Benjamin? He nodded yes. This was something of a milestone because up until now, he hasn’t really paid much attention to the other kids in his class, let alone wanting to share a squash with them. (Truthfully, I don’t know if he wanted to share the squash, as in “Isn’t this cool!” or show it off, as in “Nyah nyah, I have a squash and you don’t”). At any rate, Mommy got all choked up. My baby is becoming social!

(Aside: hubby just read a draft of this post and suggested that I play up the “milestone” aspect even more. It was a big, big thing that our little boy wanted to interact – in a positive way - with a kid at school).

So off we went this morning, my son proudly carrying his squash into school. As we walked through the doors, he began calling “Benjamin, Benjamin!” in a sweet, pleading voice. He was just sooo excited about the squash!

And where was Benjamin? With a group of five or six boys, clustered around somebody’s older brother who had brought in …a Nintendo DS.

Splat. No contest.