Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

(not) Cracking the Books

I believe I have already acknowledged I get many of my recipe ideas from the folks posting at the Serious Eats website.

Serious Eats is - well here - let them speak for themselves: "Serious Eats: Passionate, Discerning, Inclusive....Serious Eats is a website focused on celebrating and sharing food enthusiasm through blogs and online community. Our unique combination of community and content brings together the distinctive voices of food bloggers, compelling original and acquired food video, and spirited, inclusive, conversations about all things food- and drink-related."

I am not nearly so "passionate" about food as most of the SE writers seem to be. They really have it IN for Paula Deen, for one thing. There is a recurrent thread "Paula Deen is trying to kill us" and some folks get pretty high on their horses about certain ingredients or quantities or techniques she favors. I will admit to a certain regional testiness this brings out in me. She comes from Georgia and I hail from Texas, but we aren't called the Southwest for nothin'. My daughter and I agree we love anybody who uses "mayonnaise" as a verb for starters. As in "I am just going to mayonnaise my bread now".

Whenever the Serious Eaters begin clambering on Ms. Deen's case it leads me to think - gratefully - "whew - I am not SO serious as THIS!". Other of the SE threads also occasionally fall further into the "spirited" than the "inclusive" category. That is more an observation than a complaint though. People get to like what they like. As long as "people" includes me.

Another measure by which I seem to come up light upon the "serious" scale, is the reliance of regular posters on their cookbooks. They must all have scads of cookbooks - recent ones - and they seem to have read all the way through every one of them.

I have cookbooks, don't get me wrong. You can't tell by the teensy photo at the start of this post but I have a slightly less than comprehensive collection of the 1992-2001 Southern Living Annual Recipes books, among others. I don't know what happened in 1993 - maybe I was sick. I also have some treasured books from my Mom and my Mother-in-Law that I don't so much refer to as venerate.

When it comes to actually cooking, I have a notebook filled to overflowing with recipes I have printed out off the internet that I either regularly use (and then lose - that notebook is black for a reason - it is a black HOLE of a filing situation) or MEAN to use. Soon. Really.My newest favorite recipe, Ginger Fried Rice, is one I printed out, one that will soon disappear (hopefully only temporarily) into the Black Hole Recipe Notebook and it "came" to me by way of one very Serious Eater, Nick Kindelsperger, aka one of the co-founders of the Paupered Chef, who also regularly writes for the "What's for Dinner" feature for SE.

Kindelsperger took this recipe out of "Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges" by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. I'm no name analysis expert by any means, but you have a mini-United Nations right there, don't you? Asian flavors by a guy with a French first name and a what - German (?) surname? And shhhh, yes children, I know, if I was a SERIOUS Cook or Eater and had not been living in a cave in front of a computer for too long I'd probably know all about this Vongerichten guy.But I don't (or I didn't) and that's partly my point. I already have that shelf full of cookbooks. I don't want to buy any (more) cookbooks, even ones written by highly decorated and respected chefs. That is what my cave with the internet is FOR, people. I can hit SE or other sites and find the recipes posted by folks who have skimmed through the books, found the few recipes calling for less than 45 ingredients, two specialty knives and 3 hour length prep times, and save myself a lot of time and trouble.

Back to the Ginger Fried Rice. I saw this post, read the list of ingredients, which I already had more or less on hand, and fell instantly in deep like. I knew we had to have this for dinner and soon. I stopped reading mid-post and actually went to my kitchen to start some rice cooking.

We love us some fried rice around here. Sure, sure, it is Chinese-American Junk Fast Food to some extent but that suits us to a "T". I have been using my own bastardized version of the basic fried rice recipe in the Joy of Cooking for years. It is my go-to solution for left over meat and vegetables. I don't open the cookbook to get to that recipe though. Again, I printed out my own version of the recipe in the cookbook and that lurks in my Black Hole Notebook.

This recipe however, took the fried rice in a bold new direction - AND it called for a cup of leeks which I just happened to have thanks to my CSA basket last week.

So to follow is the recipe and here's the photo that sold me on trying the recipe: Ginger Fried Rice

- serves 2 -
Adapted from Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges by Jean-Georges Vongerichten
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
1 cup leeks, thinly sliced white and pale green parts only
2 cups rice, preferably day old or at least cool
1 teaspoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons soy sauce
2 large eggs
1. In a large pan pour half of the oil in over medium heat. Toss in the leeks and cook until they are softened, but not browned. It should take about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-low if they start to develop any color. Season with salt.
2. Dump in the rice and stir it together with the leeks. Cook until it is hot, just a few minutes. Turn off the heat. Divide the rice into two plates. Drizzle each with half of the soy sauce and sesame oil.
3. Meanwhile, in another large pan pour the rest of the canola oil over medium heat. When hot, add the garlic and ginger. Stirring occasionally, cook until the garlic is nicely browned, just a few minutes. Remove the garlic and ginger and drain on a paper towel.
4. Fry the eggs sunny-side up in the remaining oil left from frying the garlic and ginger. When done, place one egg on each mound of rice. Sprinkle the garlic and ginger on top. Season with salt. Add more soy sauce or sesame oil if you so desire.

Here's MY results. You may note I did not manage to prevent my leeks from developing any color. I also added another egg to the top because I'd skipped lunch yesterday and was starving when I finally cooked dinner which is a BAD practice, a BAD idea and kids do NOT try that at home. Because of the MEGA EGGS on top you can't see that I actually managed to get that plating trick pulled off - molding the rice in a bowl so it served up in a nice little mound.

I got a little soy sauce happy at the end. I did SO desire to add more. A lot more. My husband, who is pretty much a salt fan, thought I'd overdone that. He still managed to clear his plate (brave fellow!) and we both agree this is a dish we'll want to try again very soon. The finished dish has a very clean taste to it, cooks up easily and quickly especially if you don't argue with your leeks about coloring too much. [Arguing with Food Score To Date: Leeks 1: Cook 0] The minced ginger/garlic pieces that you fry and then remove to add on at the end was not as fussy as I'd thought it would be. The fried bits were delicious and they imparted a nice flavor to the oil that you then cook your eggs in.

This turns out to be a great version of a family favorite. It didn't heat up the kitchen too much and even short my food deprived brain's "Two eggs would be BETTER/MORE soy sauce!!" demented version, the dish is nicely filling. We had ours with what was left of an Asian raw beet and apple ginger slaw that made for a pretty spiffy combination.

I will not be buying any new cookbooks anytime soon. I will keep cruising the internet, waiting and watching for other folks to try recipes out and then tell me how they worked. Opportunistic? Maybe. Is this an older version of those high school students who mostly squeak by only reading the Cliff Notes version of the books they are assigned? I hope not.

I'd hate to think I am completely missing the point of cooking by not reading every new cookbook that hits. I do enjoy reading and I have enjoyed reading cookbooks in the past. So maybe, just maybe, I will buy a new cookbook one of these days and sit and read it and then cook my way through, as so many others have notably done.

For today? I have many errands and chores and dinner to get on the table. I'll crack the books later. Soon. Really.....

Monday, May 26, 2008

Basket Number Nine-The Power of Two?

If you try to determine the origin or history of the phrase "dressed to the nines", you are mostly out of luck. They (meaning the folks who are apparently paid to do research on this and other similarly troubling questions) simply admit they don't know for sure.

Nine, being the highest ordinal single digit numeral often represents perfection. (cue "Love Potion Number Nine" by Lieber/Stoller aka "The Searchers"). There are theories about the 99th regiment being a sharp looking group, nine yards of material being required for a properly tailored shirt (really!!!?) or a suit (more likely).

At any rate, Tecolote Farms Basket Number Nine, if not perfect or at the height of current fashion, is yet a beauty to behold.

Despite their potential for continuing water woes, the Pitres got us a pip of a basket this Memorial Day, and it is a fine way to celebrate the kickoff for summer in our region.

Two kinds of wonderful squash, two kinds of cucumbers. Two pounds of green beans, thai basil (where the flowers are as well used as the leaves - so a double threat, flavor wise). A really (REALLY!) big bulb of fennel. Red beets and Rainbow chard. To bring up the parade this week is a gorgeous bunch of tender crisp carrots and some german red garlic.

In the midst of the "now you see it now you don't" water worries facing Tecolote Farm, they are joining many others in the farm/market/restaurant triumvirate of the Austin economy to raise funds for Sarah Rowland (Hairston Creek Farm), battling on two fronts. Cancer, and a mounting pile of unpaid bills.

Perspective in life is a great gfit.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Loave It or Leave It

Maybe you recall that commercial from the 70's for Faberge's organic shampoo?  A comely blonde chirps that she told two friends, and they told two friends and "so on, and so on" as her image multiplied relentlessly on your screen.  While it started out as a cute and catchy gimmick that rapidly increased the brand recognition of the product, after a while the commercial began to feel a little too Stepford Wives or Westworld.  

It called up fears of cloning and science run amok.  It aired, went viral, then turned in upon itself, destroying it's own cachet by becoming too commonplace.  And what does that have to do with food, or fun?

Perhaps you are blissfully unaware of the baking world equivalent of that commercial?  Amish Friendship Bread is a form of starter dough that is handed over from one "friend" who then gives more to three more "friends" and so on and so on, every 10 days, presumably with a loaf of the finished product and printed instructions to endlessly reproduce the results.

This is not just a warm way to share baked goodies with your friends (and eventually, relatives, neighbors, random strangers in front of the grocery store...).  I think this so-called "sharing recipe" purportedly from the Amish, was really the ground test for somebody wanting to see how far a pyramid scheme would run before collapsing.

You see, you don't just get a loaf of bread here.  You get a loaf of deliciously sweet bread that your family will love and want to have around at all times, plus a bag of starter so you can deliver more of that bread to your now sugar delirious brood every 10 days.  

The catch is, under the guise of "Baking Day!" is also the generation of not one, but FOUR new bags of starter.  So unless you have plans to open your own ultra narrow Niche Bakery (All Amish Bread All the Time!) in a few weeks, you will have to be searching out three new friends every ten days who are willing to join the Amish Friendship Bread Coven, er, CIRCLE (and so on...and so on....).  

Why, you might ask yourself, don't you simply throw the starter out if you don't want to pass it along?  Well, sure, you COULD.  But that is throwing away "perfectly good" food, or the starter equivalent, and for more on that see a couple of previous posts about the karma that unleashes.  

OK then, you offer, just do the math and make only enough starter to bake yourself bread and have one batch left over.  

And that is usually what I do until I can't take the smell of sweet loaves baking without breaking into a cold sweat.  About the time I realize I am only wearing pants or skirts with elastic waists (when I am allowing anything at all to touch my ever expanding middle) I snap, and toss the whole thing out with a shudder.  

But this is called "FRIENDSHIP" bread for heavens, sake.  So not sharing it just seems churlish. Who wouldn't LOVE a loaf of bread and the chance to make more?

And so, a pyramid is born....

There are all sorts of recipes for various types of loaves out there, but the one I prefer is a version I pretend is healthier because it contains nuts and apple bits and I use some applesauce in place of the oil called for.  

Putting nuts into the batter completely undoes that little bit of "fewer calories from fat!" dodge, but shhhhh....  If I don't think about it, it won't matter. Besides, this supposed bread is really a loaf cake, moist and sweet and let's face it - dessert - no matter what you call it. 

I recently got a batch of the starter from one of my favorite people, and she even asked me ahead of time if I would accept the starter along with the loaf.  Her husband told me their youngest daughter had "helped" him bake, so the loaf may ("or may not") have an extra cup of flour - or sugar - in it. "But we tried a loaf and it tastes good!" they assured me. In the face of such a charming tale of familial baking, how could I refuse? I took a [deep] breath and said, "sure!".  

It is fun while it lasts, and because I just visited this treat upon two of my neighbors I will record the recipe here for them to retrieve as needed.  If you wish a bag of the starter, let me know.  If you are in my area just ask (PUHLEEZE!)- and I will happily give you a bag (or three!!!) in 9 days. If you are not in my area, here is the starter recipe and you can be ground zero of the Friendship Bread phenomenon in your own neck of the woods.   

Ladeez and Gentz! Amish Friendship Bread

Day 1 - relax - do nothing - keep the closed bag out at room temperature - do not refrigerate
Day 2 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 3 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 4 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 5 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 6 - Add to bag 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, squish-squash, blah blah blah
Day 7 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 8 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 9 - squish-squash and mash the bag
Day 10 - BAKING DAY! Mix and divide starter as follows:

Pour entire contents of bag into large nonmetal bowl and add 1 1/2 cup flour, 1 1/2 cup sugar,
1 1/2 cup milk. Do not use metal to measure or stir. Measure out 4 separate batches of the starter batter, 1 cup each, into 4 separate one gallon size resealable bags. Keep one for yourself and give the other three to friends along with a copy of the instructions. Mark bag with day 1 date if you don’t give it away that day.

Recipe 1: Apple Nut Friendship Bread Yield: 2 loaves
2 cups all purpose flour 1 cup Friendship Bread starter
1 cup white sugar 3 eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder 4 oz container of no sugar added applesauce
1 teaspoon baking soda canola oil added to applesauce in cup to measure 2/3 cup
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon (OR 2/3 cup canola oil)
1 teaspoon salt 1 cup chopped nuts
1 tablespoon vanilla 2 apples, peeled, cored, finely chopped

*For pan prep: 1/2 cup sugar with 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease two 9x5 loaf pans (baking pans can be metal). “Flour” with half of sugar/cinnamon mixture from “For pan”. Set aside rest of mixture for topping batter before baking.

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt, set aside.

In a large nonmetal mixing bowl, stir together the Amish Friendship starter, eggs, vanilla and applesauce/oil mixture. Gradually stir in sifted ingredients until just blended. Stir in chopped nuts and apples. Divide batter evenly between two prepared pans. Sprinkle rest of reserved cinnamon/sugar mixture on top.

Bake at 350° for 45-50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes then run spatula around edges of pan and release. When room temperature keep in closed container or wrapped.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How Dry I Am, or What Would Jesus Drink?

In an article in the Austin American Statesman today, Asher Price is reporting on the very real threat that our sweet local CSA venture, Tecolote Farms, might be forced off their property and run out of their family's organic produce business due to their well drying up.

Now you could take a jaundiced view here and say something about how all farming is a risky venture, the amounts of rainfall and the varied climatic situations are always threatening agriculture, etc. but that isn't the whole story.

Sure, less rainfall is partly to blame for the Farm's well going dry, but the larger culprit is a shocking lack of water use regulatory policy in Texas. We may tout "Texas - It's like a whole other country", but out in east Travis county, we are more like "Texas - Whoever has the biggest pump wins.".

At the moment, the big water draws in East Travis County belong to a commercial provider - and to the county itself, taking water to irrigate playing fields for the East Metropolitan Park, which will eventually encompass, according to a recent bond program approved: "... recreational facilities...include: two multi-use ball fields, three youth baseball fields, one adult baseball field, two soccer fields, one covered basketball court, playscapes, concessions facilities, restrooms, hiking trails, and three ponds that will support catch-n-release fishing programs. The ball fields and soccer fields will be ready for play this fall after the turf has time to establish itself. The master plan for the park resulted from an extensive public outreach effort that elicited ideas about park design and layout from throughout Travis County.

The 2005 Bond program allows for the completion of the park’s master plan and will include additional baseball fields, soccer fields, concessions stands and restrooms, a meeting facility, a tennis court, shuffle board courts, an 18 hole disc golf course and additional trails."

I am a native born resident of Austin. My husband and I came back here in the midst of the economic slump of the 80s and we raised our two children here. I am not reflexively against growth and I am a huge fan of the public parks in our area. BUT....

The idea that we can allow unregulated subdivisions to explode around us, to have the county itself as well as other commercial pumping outfits making a profit off the groundwater at the expense of other pre-existing local businesses, especially local organic farms, just doesn't make any sense to me.

The Pitres are trying to find a way to buy some of the water that is actively being sucked away out from under their own land, but hoping to do so at an agricultural rate. So far, they are out of luck. Katie Pitre remarked she was told when checking with a local water supplier "most farmers rely on Jesus.".

This is ironic considering Tecolotes Farm's neighbor, Manville Water Supply Corporation, says on their website they began as a group of farmers after a prolonged draught in 1967, originally calling themselves the "Farmers Home Administration Water System.". In a state where agriculture used to reign supreme, in a county where farmers were organizing as recently in the late 60's to preserve their water supplies, how could we have allowed ourselves to neglect to regulate water use?

In a paper prepared for the Peak Oil Preparation group, Nancy Dennis took a look at whether or not Austin already has more people than can be fed with food grown locally. In her research about how many acres of irrigated land there are in our county, Dennis discovered a huge shift away from agricultural to other uses for land county wide. Looking at the county's figures as reported in "Texas Environmental [County] Profiles", and figures reported to the federal authorities, there are 1300 acres dedicated to "irrigated croplands" and 38,000 "cultivated" acres of county wide. Looking at all the 2020 projections for use, the only number that goes down is that for irrigated water use by sector (from 1224 in 2000 to 622 in 2020[acre feet]).

So who might be of assistance? LCRA? They are the ones selling water rights in the area, but according to their new, supposedly more "green" GM, Tom Mason, help won't be coming any time soon from the LCRA, either.

Quoted in an article in January ("Full Stream Ahead"), Mason states LCRA won’t take the initiative on sustainability unless a higher authority says it must. “That’s for the state to decide,” he said. “The state water code sets priorities of uses, how you can use the water, under what circumstances you get a permit. The Legislature tends to lag behind people’s needs, and they respond to constituents’ concerns. That’s where I think we’ll see changes in water conservation. It needs to be done on a statewide basis. Groundwater and surface water are separated by law, but in reality, they are connected. There’s a finite amount of water around. When water gets so expensive, if you can’t construct a reservoir—many water planners will tell you there’s very few reservoir sites left in the state of Texas, for all sorts of reasons. That leaves conservation, conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water, desalination, which right now is very expensive because of energy costs, and changing human behavior. At some point, as it has in the past, the Legislature is going to change laws and direct us in a certain way because it is inevitable we need to manage a finite resource in a slightly different way.”Apparently decisions have already been made that will affect all of us whether or not we care about what we eat or where it comes from. These land use policies are being underwritten by a lack of actual decision making with regards to water use. Travis County will gradually, inexorably move from a county with ample groundwater to support irrigated land capable of generating food crops, to our current worsening status of a county whose policies support only "other" uses, providing for increased subdivisions, manufacturing, mining, livestock, and, oh right, parks.

Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis is quoted in the newspaper article as saying, ""We all benefit from that park," "Listen, before this park came about, the folks in that part of the county, they either had to go to Bastrop or all the way into Austin to entertain their families with park events." Which "folks in that part of the county" are we talking about here? Those "folks", would they be the same ones whose family farm, operating since 1993, has just run out of water?

I guess, sure, with no water meaning no work to be done, there would be loads more time for the Pitres to spend playing in the park with their children. As long as they don't plan to try and shower or get a drink of water at their house, afterward.

Bottom line is this, according to Ron Davis. Parks or food. He is apparently not willing to see any way to provide for both. Fresh, locally grown vegetables or more land supporting a monoculture of grass for people to play and sit on. Is that a tough choice for anybody else? Davis is not a bad guy in my book, don't get me wrong. He has stood up for the folks in Eastern Travis County for years, when other folks were content letting them live in the midst of unregulated landfills. So sure, get your folks a park, Mr. Davis. But keep an eye on how big that park will be, how much water it will take to keep those fields green, and watch out for your farmers, too.

As for Katie and David Pitre relying on Jesus for water to grow and clean their organic produce in preparation for sale locally, I guess I see where that comment is coming from. After all, according to the Bible, at the very beginning of our combined history on earth - that is, the combined history of humankind and everything else living on this planet, "Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.". I don't read anything in there about 18 hole disc golf courses or shuffle ball courts.

So yeah, maybe Jesus is the last recourse for anybody trying to grow food these days. It sure as shoot isn't going to be somebody like, say, County Commissioners or the LCRA who will give them any help.

Why should YOU care?

There is an ancient saying, "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." ( Pericles, 430 B.C.).

Just because you might not have a CSA share that is threatened by water use in eastern Travis County doesn't mean you won't be impacted by the "if we have water we gotta sell it" policies we currently suffer under. If you think food prices are high now, consider how much higher they will rise when oil prices stay up and all the food you can buy to eat - even at a farmer's market - has to come to you from property outside the county. You can at least make a choice about driving (or not) to play at the park.

Think about living in the Houston Metro area where the concept of a farm is something you'll only see on bulletin boards or hear about in grade school classrooms as they talk about Texas History.

Food or parks? I say we need both/and, not either/or. You with me on that?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Apparently my Mom was right to be fretful over wasting food. In an article running in the Times this past weekend, "One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal" by Andrew Martin, he notes that in the midst of food shortages and riots world wide, Americans throw out the equivalent of a pound of wasted food for each man, woman and child, every day.

I'm going to repeat that because it bears a little sinking in time.

Every day, every single day, Americans discard the equivalent of ONE FULL POUND of wasted food PER PERSON.

Grocery stores throw out food with minor blemishes or early signs of spoilage. Restaurants throw out what they don't use or what is left untouched on customer's plates. Consumers (that's you and me, bub) throw out that too brown banana, the yogurt just past the expiration date or the lettuce that wilted before we got to it. That extra portion of Chinese take out from last week? The last couple of tablespoons of sour cream? Those heels from the loaf of sandwich bread? Into the trash it all goes. A pound a day per person. Food waste is the third largest source of generated waste by weight in America. That is simply staggering.

Last night I was with a gathering of folks planning a special PRIDE Worship service to be held here in Austin in early June. One person at our table ordered a piece of Italian Cream Cake and was brought a piece of carrot cake instead. He kept the carrot cake, despite it being brought to him in error, because he knew if he sent it back, even untouched, the kitchen policy would be to throw it out and replace it with a slice from the cake he had originally ordered. He just didn't want to be responsible for the wasted food.

How has it come to this? How is it that the "responsible" thing to do is now to eat whatever mistakes are served rather than know you are adding to an ever growing pile of discarded food thrown out in sight of people who won't get enough to eat day to day?

There are many answers to that question but many simple solutions as well and some of them are bound to work for you. One is to compost rather than throwing out unused food. At this time only 2 percent of food waste is composted as opposed to some 48 percent of yard waste. Our daughter lives in a tiny condo and has no outdoor space to establish a compost pile. She stores her food scraps in a tightly covered container and brings them here once a week to add to our compost.

Another answer is to order less fast food with the typically too large portions. Don't SuperSize anything.

Try to buy less at a time in the grocery store in the first place. Buying in bulk to save pennies and then throwing out the excess is not really saving anything in the long run. You aren't just throwing out that food - you are throwing out all the energy expended in raising the food, harvesting it and then transporting it to market. All those costs are passed along - to YOU.

Exercise discipline in using up what you have before you buy more. The carbon from an extra trip to the store may well be mitigated by the resulting decrease in combined methane emitted from landfills "cooking" all our discarded food. If you can't use a half dozen eggs within a reasonable amount of time, considering splitting up some of those more perishable purchases with another person. Both my kids have their own places, but since we all live in the same metropolitan area, we often split up larger food purchases to save money and reduce waste. My husband and I can't finish off a bag of organic apples by ourselves, but in combination with my adult kids we can easily divide up the bag and use the apples before they spoil.

Be realistic about how important appearances are to you in terms of what you eat, and buy accordingly. This is something shoppers new to "buying organic" have to adjust to. We've been brainwashed into thinking food must look perfect on the outside and have a long shelf life rather than requiring good taste and loads of nutrients. The preference for food that looks good on the outside has long dominated the chain grocer's produce section. Understanding that vegetables beginning to look past their prime can still be used to make stock, reassess what must be thrown out. And, speaking of stock......
Making Stock - IF you are using organic vegetables you can use all sorts of "past their prime" bits - soft carrots, dried out onions, the stems and leaves of nearly every vegetable will release some sort of nutrients when cooked. One exception to that rule is carrot leaves and stems - they become bitter. Everything else is pretty much fine. You can use potato peels, carrot peels, those stem and root ends of onions - even the skins! IF they are organic. If they are not, then peel and compost the skins and leaves and roots because they might contain trace elements of pesticides. You are looking for nutritious stock, not some noxious chemical stew.

If you have been getting your organic veggies from a farm or farmer's market, when putting together your organic bits, do check carefully for hitchhikers. The occasional creepy crawly makes it all the way to your kitchen buried down in the larger leafy parts, so unless you are OK with unanticipated protein in your stock, keep an eye out for intruders.Pile your veggies in the pan and add enough water to cover. I tend to add "lumps first, leaves second", meaning I put root and stalk veggies in first and follow with leaves towards the end since they tend to cook down faster. Keep at a low simmer until everything begins to soften and release flavor into the pot. Don't add salt until the end or it can become too concentrated.

Once your stock is no longer clear or transparent, you can remove the vegetable pieces and if you have not added any meat to the mix, once those vegetable solids have cooled you can toss them into your compost heap for further decomposition. Strain the stock a couple of times to get the particles out and then cook it down until it has a nicely concentrated flavor. You can make soup from the stock right away or freeze it for later use. A great idea is to freeze it in an ice cube tray so you will have little flavor bombs to toss into future sauces, soups and stews, without having to defrost the whole shebang. For further information check out: Making Stock
Bottom line is this. If we do not control our habits, eventually our habits will control us. And when it comes to food, you ought not eat more than you need to satisfy your nutritional requirements or your hunger, but you also ought not buy so much that you end up throwing out unused food. That wasted food will always come at somebody else's expense.

Blogger Jonathan Bloom who is writing a book about wasted food in America sums it up thusly: "To a certain extent, it’s true that capitalism encourages waste. But my response to supermarket waste is: If restaurants can use software to (somewhat) accurately predict demand and make ordering more precise, why can’t grocery stores? And when they do have to bump perfectly good produce, donate it!

We not be able to completely avoid food waste, but we can do a whole heck of a lot better."

And we means YOU. And me. Let's not waste time on top of the food we've been thoughtlessly throwing out.

Read more about it/find out how to help:
America's Second Harvest
Capital Area Food Bank
Mother Earth News articles: "Compost Made Easy"
"Is it OK NOT to Compost?"
Food Waste Facts

Monday, May 19, 2008

Basketabulous - Week 8

What's in the basket for week 8? All sorts of yum, that's what.

Salad mix, always welcome, full sized carrots now (sigh - they grow up SO fast), a double bunch of sorrel (which I KNEW would happen seeing as I haven't found a way to prepare this yet to please my significant other), "new" potatoes (more on them in a second), sweet basil, leeks, red spring onions, golden beets, and zucchini "Romanesco". The golden beets have a particularly chard like leaf, and I am stretching my comfort zone a bit by using the stalks and leaves in a giant pot of stock I am making rather than tossing them into the compost. (More on that in another post to come.)

I am so pleased to be seeing more ingredients I recognize on sight now as opposed to ID'ing things by process of elimination as sometimes happened at the front end of this venture into the unknown. Potatoes! I love potatoes. I know all sorts of delicious things to do with potatoes. It is a relief to have a basket bringing known quantities to our table.

I knew going in these seasonal baskets would present challenges to my cooking and our eating habits, and I believe we have risen more or less nobly to the occasion. I will simply admit here and now that having a little less exploration to do in terms of recipes and technique combined with more predictable results is something I am happy about.And for those of you who did not have a father in law who while in his gardening prime grew the best truly "New" potatoes in the universe and had happily shared some of his vast knowledge with you seeing as the rest of his family had long ago grown tired of "talking dirt"...? Truly designated "new" potatoes cannot be bought in any grocery store. A legitimately labeled new potato has been freshly dug by hand out on a farm or from a garden. The skins are not hardened off and won't withstand mechanical harvesting, and they do not store long. New potatoes are meant to be enjoyed quickly, and you just won't ever find these in a standardized grocery store, no matter HOW fresh their produce claims to be.

And while I am mentioning my father in law, I will admit that although I listened with mostly rapt fascination to his explanations of why things are called what they are, why this one variety would grow well for him and another would not, I did not pay nearly enough attention. Here I had a gardening authority extraordinaire right at hand, with all the information I so often futilely search for, all at the ready, and I simply did not take the time to ask him to share, or record, much of what he knew about growing a vast array of delicious fruits and vegetables. Same goes with my mother in law, who was a truly inspired Southern style cook and old school canner and preserver. She made the best pickles I've ever tasted, and most of what she knew about cooking and canning has gone back into the dirt with her.

A word to all you youngsters out there. While you may find some of your parent's gardening and cooking arcana eye rollingly boring? Eventually you will turn INTO them (it happens, kids - resistance is totally futile) and if you don't bother to get that information recorded in some way you will have to work much harder later to try and ferret it out. Do yourselves a favor. Sit down and talk with your folks or your in laws. Right now. Listen to them, and learn.

The final treat I will highlight from basket number eight (cesta numeri otto) is the Zucchini Romanesco. Katie and David Pirie report they imported the seeds for these beauties from an Italian Mom and Pop seed company. I love that for all sorts of reasons - I am half Italian, so had at least an Italian "Pop", and I believe the saving and sharing/selling of these less common and often heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables may be one of the few steps that will save our sorry butts from having lazily allowed "agriculture" to devolve into "agribusiness". The Pitres pointed out in our newsletter that our humid spring-summer is not a great match for these veggies who are used to a more typically "Mediterranean" climate (we should all be so lucky), but they will have these firmer nuttier tasting zukes for at least a shortened season and that is always a worthy effort.

This zucchini is known as the "San Pasquale" version, perhaps named after the patron saint of the kitchen and of cooks, San Pasquale Bailon?Nevertheless, ongoing kudos to all serious gardeners and small farmers who are still working the land, braving wild hail storms and uncertain rainfall amounts, wildly swinging temperature ranges and a fiercely competitive marketplace. You are serving as latter day food prophets, doing what little can yet be done, speaking and working against our horde consumption culture of mindless busyness served by convenience eating. 

Yeah yeah, I could be standing wild-eyed on a street corner wearing a sandwich board reading "Know your Food!" on one side and "Know your Farmers!" on the other.  But I'm not.  I've got new potatoes to cook and a pot of stock bubbling away on the stove.  You'll just have to save yourself....

Sunday Dinner - Balsamic Braised Beef

Our family dinner at Jeffrey's recently was remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which was the amazing Balsamic Braised Short Ribs that our son's girlfriend ordered.  We all traded tastes of our entreés, and hers won general acclaim.  That extra layer of balsamic flavor onto the already deliciously concentrated braised beef, was really, truly, satisfying.

I was coming off a series of new recipes that had not quite won any hearts or palates around here, so I was ready for a dish that I knew ahead of time would be well received. Balsamic braised short ribs to the rescue! I set about finding a recipe to get us a "close enough" home version of Jeffrey's BBB and came up with two likely candidates. I asked my son's advice about which one would find us closer to the wonder of a dish we'd tasted at Jeffrey's, and  this is the recipe he pointed me towards. I found this on Chowhound, and my husband and daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the results last night for Sunday Dinner.  My notes to follow....
Ana Sortun's Braised Short Ribs
"Oleana", Cambridge, MA - taken from "The Way We Cook" 
by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven.

Cook these shortribs at least 1 day before serving.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
4 large Spanish onions, halved and thinly sliced (may use 8 yellow onions)
1/2 tsp coarse salt, or to taste
1/2 tsp black pepper, or to taste
2 cups balsamic vinegar
1 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
8 shortribs (or 4 Lb of some other tough cut of beef that's good for braising, like chuck roast)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 whole star anise (optional)
1 bay leaf

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Cook onions with salt and pepper in a large oven-safe casserole in oil and butter on med-high heat, stirring occasionally until softened, about 5 minutes. Turn down the heat to med-low and cook another 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove onions from the casserole and set aside.

Pour vinegar, soy sauce, wine, water, sugar, garlic, anise, and bay leaf into the casserole and bring to a boil. Add short ribs and cover them with onions and return the liquid to boil. Cover casserole and transfer it to the oven. Cook for 3 hours or until fork tender. (It's even better to cook it longer at a lower temperature- 6 hours at 275F.)

Refrigerate meat and liquid separately overnight. The fat on top of the liquid will solidify. Carefully lift it off and discard. Combine as many shortribs as you are serving that day with some of the balsamic soy liquid and simmer on the stove top until reheated.

These shortribs freeze beautifully. Just freeze the meat and liquid separately.
My Notes: I found the 4 large onions rendered too much liquid to move from softened to "golden" in the pan en masse. We took 3/4 of the onions out of the pan and cooked them a batch at a time to get a golden finish. There are no real directions about removing the onions from the liquid prior to serving so I left them in to reheat and just drizzled a few over the meat at plating. They were pretty much liquified, but still had so much flavor I decided not to pitch them out. I plan to pureé and freeze whatever is left at the end into cubes to use as a flavor boost for future sauces. (More on sauces in a post soon to come.)This was not a particularly labor intense recipe. It takes a long time to cook - we opted for the 6 hours at 275 degrees version - and then you have the overnight wait to take the fat off and reheat to serve the next day. The beef was fall off the bone tender, and the flavor was rich, intense, and extremely satisfying. This is the kind of dish that mashed potatoes or celery or parsnip pureé or egg noodles were created to accompany. I might not trot this out again now that the weather has snapped back into the 90s for afternoon highs, but I envision chilly days to come with a kitchen nicely warmed and filled with tantalizing aromas of braising beef.

This recipe would particularly lend itself to having folks over for dinner. You do the lion's share of the work the day ahead and then have a rested and relaxed cook the night of, assured of a delicious dish already prepared and only sides to wrangle for the meal itself.

We had this with a simple salad, good crusty bread, and cheesy mashed potatoes. The short ribs have a wonderfully deep and complex flavor so you don't need much else going on to compete. We all ate our fill with 1 1/2 to 2 ribs each. I will have braising liquid left over after the meat is gone, so might try preparing more than the 8 ribs called for in the recipe next go-round, especially with their comment at the end about it freezing well. You could concentrate the labor into one day's effort and have 3-4 delicious meals in the bag to show for it. Nothing wrong with that!

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Most Unreasonable Season

My Mom grew up during the Great Depression. She had a deep aversion to wasting things, especially food. She passed this along to me and I dutifully yet unconsciously draped a special "wasting perfectly good food" shaped millstone around the necks of my own children.

This has added no small weight to my CSA Basket challenge this Spring. Using all the fabulously fresh veggies up before they begin that sometimes treacherously rapid transformation from plate-worthy to compost has not always been easy. In my inherited emotional landscape, allowing good food to go bad is a moral failing surely indicative of other, hidden, more serious character flaws.

Our familial scarring aside, this issue of preserving fruits and vegetables that cannot be immediately consumed has long been a problem for folks who grow their own food. In even my limited gardening experience I have noted three stages of harvesting. First, you have too few of whatever is ripening to do much more than snack and admire. Next, you have the "just right" stage with plenty enough of whatever it is to try several different preparation methods and feel pretty happy with your choice to grow your own.

Finally there is the floodgate stage, where you and your kitchen's storage spaces are all swamped by a rising tide of harvest bounty. Our loquat trees provided that first tsunami of fresh this year, and as I watch my little back yard vegetable plants flower and begin to set fruit, I have been anticipating what will be the next wave of "ready".

As part of that looking ahead, I knew at some point this year I'd be submitting something I'd done with my (hopeful overload of) home grown tomatoes to Andrea Meyer's fun monthly round-up "Grow Your Own".

I just hadn't figured on a chance to do it so soon.The unfortunately violent yet seasonable Spring weather had other plans.

Recently Central Texas played host to some pretty rough storms, even by our standards. We had hail ranging from golf ball to tennis ball sized, and the ice chunks sounded quite lively on our (now significantly dented) metal roof. Damage estimates for our area are hovering in the 30 million dollar range, although as insurance adjusters scramble, scheduling visits to assess what repairs will need to be made, those figures continue to climb.

The City has power crews working 16 hour shifts for the third straight day and a special curbside Saturday pick-up has been arranged for people to get rid of their power-outage related spoiled food. I was thinking about my Mom on Thursday as I kept careful track of how long my refrigerator/freezer was going without power, doing my dead level best to keep that door SHUT with the cold air trapped inside. I was very grateful not to have lost any of our food to the power outage.

Out in the garden however, I was not quite so fortunate. I have some significantly shredded chard, a broken off dill plant, and I lost fully half my tomato crop to the crashing balls of ice. OK, perhaps "crop" is a bit of an over statement. But the fact remains that two of my four earliest tomatoes were bashed. They were extremely green, still babies, and now that they had sustained significant breaks in the skin of the fruit, they had to be picked before insects discovered and took advantage of such an easy meal.

So here I found myself, with the power back on, our roof mostly intact (as long as it is not raining, anyway) and two smallish very firm green tomatoes sitting on the counter. What to do with this unexpected early harvest?

I like fried green tomatoes as much if not more than the next person. But these tomatoes are small, and I am trying to be a less frequent fryer. I looked at the tomatoes and the dill and it struck me. Pickles!

My son (the chef!) had told me previously that quick pickles were a snap to make, and are generally ready to eat in under 24 hours. We had talked of this while I had loads of loquats on hand, but I had plans for my loquats already, so I honestly had not paid adequate attention.

These two small green tomatoes seemed good candidates for a small batch of exploratory first run pickling. Rather than admit to my son that I paid anything short of rapt attention during his earlier attempt to teach me a new trick, I googled to see what recipes were out there and to get more detailed instructions. I was frustrated not to come up with anything that sounded like the process he'd described.

Admitting defeat, I called my oldest to explain my situation and get more specific directions. To his eternal credit he passed by the opening to parrot back to me any typically snarky comments I've doubtless dished out in years previous when the tables were turned. He even resisted prefacing his remarks with "If you'd been listening the FIRST time I told you....".

[Current moral high ground score: Son 1/Mom -549]He explained that, in contrast to the dire warnings featured on many canning sites, the technique for quick pickling is very approachable on a small scale, even for a novice such as myself. You have to be aware that the "quick" refers not only to how much time and energy and effort you will have to put into your pickles, but also to their shelf life. These pickles are not processed in a hot water bath and the acidity will vary greatly, so this is a "prepare and enjoy" situation, ideally suited to small portions geared towards an upcoming meal.Here are the bare bones:

Thin slice your potential pickles to determine the amount of pickling liquid you will need to cover. Set aside.

Prepare pickling liquid by combining equal amounts of vinegar and sugar, along with whole spices or herbs as desired in a small saucepan. Heat just to a low boil, then remove and allow liquid to steep for 20 minutes.

Place your sliced pickles to be in a clean container that has a tight fitting lid. Pour liquid through a fine strainer to remove solids over your prepared fruit or vegetables. Cover, and allow to macerate for 4 to 24 hours refrigerated. Then, enjoy!Some considerations: The type of vinegar and the kind of sugar you choose will produce varying balances of sweet/acid. In addition, the combinations of whole spices and/or herbs you steep in the pickling liquid will lend complexity to your finished product.

If your memory is spotty like mine, I suggest keeping a record of various combinations until you develop a "go to" recipe. I am beginning very simply, and as I go along I will experiment, adding in components as I get a feel for what we like and how various flavor profiles develop.

For this my First Ever Green Tomato Pickles, I used white wine vinegar, organic sugar, one star anise, a little of the homegrown dill also broken off by the hail, and a smattering of whole black peppercorns.

If you are wanting to accentuate the flavor of any whole spice, you can slightly smash them to release essential oils. If you choose to do so, you will have to exercise more care with the straining process later. You want to avoid teensy UFOs in your pickling liquid.

My pickles were deliciously ready to enjoy after about 5 hours in the refrigerator. I have plans to use the majority of them as part of a deconstructed tuna salad for today's lunch. The rest will go on the table as a side for balsamic braised beef short ribs for dinner tomorrow night. I think the pickles will be a great accent to the rich beef, the wonderful green color and crisp texture providing an interesting contrast to the deep brown glaze and falling apart on your fork texture of the meat.

I haven't yet determined what would be the "up" side of having a hail damaged roof or shredded and torn oak trees in the height of oak wilt season. On the other hand, everybody in my family is fine. The roof will be replaced in due time. The oak trees have survived for thousands of years despite everything humans could do. Today and tomorrow we will enjoy some early bounty from our garden. All in all, not a bad outcome.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Steerike Three!

Well - the soup and beet stacks plated up beautifully - wouldn't you agree?

I thought the soup was great - really fresh, light, a nice way to start a meal without being too filling. A beautiful color, something to please the eye as well as the palate.

My husband was less enthusiastic. He is just not a chilled soup fan as it happens. (He did like the bacon on top.) And when it came to the beet stacks - another swing and a miss. My husband likes roasted beets. He likes herbed goat cheese. Somehow though, he didn't like the end effect of having the two together, snuggled in a blanket of fresh sorrel. Go figure.

I thought the blend of the tangy creamy cheese, the sweetness of the beet, and the fresh slightly lemony taste of the sorrel leaf all worked together pretty brilliantly. It was a great finger food. The toothpick holds it together neatly for that first grab off the plate, then the leaf on the outside means you can safely hold it snugly in your fingers to daintily take two bites without getting your hands messy. This would be a great appetizer for a party. Easy to put together, pretty quickly assembled once you get the beets roasted and cut. Great potential color combinations. I could see how a platter of these stacks made with different colored beets could yield a pretty snappy looking tray.

But the soup...I had some left over. I wanted to try once more (with feeling!)...

So today for lunch I heated up some of the remaining sorrel/leek/pea soup. I threw more bacon on top and this time a little grated Gruyere for additional garnish on top. My husband liked it "better" warmed, but is still not a sorrel fan.

One thing I learned. When making a soup that will be served chilled, it is important to recheck the seasoning before serving. Once the soup chilled, it lost some of the layers of flavor I noted when it was hot out of the blender. So a chilled soup will perhaps require more seasoning than a hot one. The taste is simply more pronounced when heated it seemed.I regret to say, "rumex scutatus", "French Sorrel", will not take a place in the pantheon of family favorites. I feel quite certain that IF my husband was going to like it, he would have liked it one of the three ways I've tried so far. I will keep checking for recipes - I am nothing if not stubborn - but once cut, sorrel doesn't stay workable very long, even in the refrigerator. I feel fairly certain if I don't find some other "can't miss" recipe this afternoon, the last bit of the remaining sorrel will be heading out back to the compost bin.

If I had grown this sorrel from seed I'd have a hard time letting this go. Even if I'd only researched recipes and then bought some at the store, I'd probably feel somewhat personally offended that it was poorly received. Since it just randomly appeared in our CSA basket, and I know I did my dead level best to find the "most likely to be liked" presentation? I can be much more detached, philosophical even, about the entire failur, er, process. One last note. With dinner, I had a glass of a delightful Portugese white, the Santola Vinho Verde. Inexpensive, less than $8 a bottle locally, slightly effervescent and nicely balanced for warm weather eating especially. Try a bottle out - with or without sorrel - you won't regret it. And if you like the white, do try out the rosé.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Warming Up to Cold Soup

We made a trip to Jeffrey's this past weekend, to celebrate Mother's Day and my son's birthday which was Saturday.

We were especially impressed with the various soups we were served. One, an amuse bouche of cold avocado soup with smoked salmon and cucumber, was the last in a series of cold soup experiences that have slowly but surely moved me into the chilled soup fan base.

So today, when I began my exploration of what to do with the sorrel that arrived in our weekly CSA subscription basket, I was more interested than usual in a cold soup recipe I found at epicurious.com, "Sorrel, Pea, and Leek Soup".

This recipe originally ran in the April 1996 "Gourmet" magazine. Surely if any deaths resulted we'd have heard about it by now. I felt quite secure in progressing even though sorrel and I are just barely getting acquainted.

The recipe ingredient list begins by calling for the white and pale green parts of 3 leeks (about 3/4 pound). As it turns out, in this week's basket we received 4 leeks. The rest of the ingredient list was already sitting someplace in my pantry or refrigerator, so I figured I was meant to make this soup. Destiny was calling and she was holding a soup spoon in her hand.My one comment so far on this recipe is that the 45 minutes or less prep time it predicts fails to take into account my typical snail's pace when preparing a new recipe with a novel ingredient. I have been preparing dinners for a family for three decades now. I am no stranger to a knife, but the process of taking the stems and center vein out of "enough" sorrel to yield three loosely packed cups of chiffonade leaves was not a rapid process. Maybe next time I'll clock in closer to the 45 minute mark. This time it took me closer to an hour to gather my ingredients, read and re-read the recipe to make sure I had a good grasp of the steps, and then finally to blend the cooked and raw ingredients into what looked to me to be a "very smooth" consistency.Side note: I may have totalled my blender this go-round. I carefully placed the work pitcher in the dishwasher and am waiting to reassemble it and see if it still does anything other than make noise. We may be in the market for a new appliance soon. Anybody know of a good use for a defunct blender?

I did taste a bit of the soup warm. In the reviews of the recipe I noted a few who served it warm because they lived in cold weather spots and weren't in the market for a chilled soup. So I felt certain if I liked it warm, I'd be more confident serving this to my husband chilled and swirled with Crema and topped with crisped bacon.

The bacon is my own innovation. The recipe calls for chopped hard boiled egg and more sorrel on top. I figure the sorrel I tasted was pretty lively, and chopped egg is not going to win a friend the way chopped crispy bits of pork will. Hence the substitution. Plus I was able to find a responsible all natural nitrate and nitrite free bacon source at the market which is local, from Hamilton, Texas. To boot, Pederson's Natural Farms is a certified humane facility. Besides holding a soup spoon, my version of Destiny loves her some bacon. Pederson Farms makes it possible for me to have my bacon and enjoy it too!We will see how the completed, chilled, bacon topped dish is received as a second course for dinner this evening. I also have some Sorrel-wrapped goat cheese and beet stacks planned as appetizers. After that we will have a pretty pedestrian fare of grilled chicken and perhaps a salad or some rice. The whiz-bang for this meal all comes front loaded.I will report back on the premiere of this gorgeously green soup. And our beet stacks. The recipe will make 60 appetizers which is about 56 more than I'll need, so I will be spending some time reworking the instructions. However, since this is mostly a matter of piling food up once you get past roasting the beets, I am optimistic I have not gotten too ambitious for a nice dinner featuring our new weekly star, Sorrel.

Monday, May 12, 2008


When it comes to fashion, I like separates. Mixing different shirts and sweaters [tops] with pants and skirts [bottoms] makes it easier for me to stretch my dollars and my wardrobe and it helps keep me from getting too tired of any one look.

Our basket this week reflects the vegetable version of that in terms of encompassing an array of vegetables, some of which are known for their "tops", or greens, and some of which are exciting because of their "bottoms", or roots. Today's harvest in Basket Number Seven, yielded a lovely large head of romaine, cilantro, (tops if you will) and two yellow granex onions, leeks, carrots, and a head of garlic (bottoms) , all of which I know just what to do with.

The stretch in this week's basket will be a large bunch of French Sorrel, which I have zero experience with (so far). Our newsletter included a recipe for Sorrel Vichyssoise, but my partner in basketry here is not a huge Vichyssoise fan. So it's off to the internet for me to find out more about Sorrel, to review several recipes, and to find one that seems to hold promise for our first ever venture into Sorrel Appreciation. This Searching for Sorrel will take me hopefully more in the ready to wear category of recipes, and not too far into haute cuisine. I know these vegetables have been appearing on farm tables for centuries. That is the kind of approach I want to find. Something simple, respectful of the freshness and nutritional bounty the sorrel can bring, as opposed to one of those page long recipes calling for a specialty pan, a twenty dollar bottle of vinegar and a pinch of some spice I'll need an ethnic grocer to supply.

We also got some golden beets which are prized not only for their own sweetness, but also for their greens. Our newsletter pointed out that beets and Swiss chard are essentially the same plant - one bred for leaves and the other for roots. Now that was a news flash for me, and it helps me to better understand how to use the beet tops now that I know they are just chard with an over developed root on one end. And that is something I realize is my "next step". I've been pretty good about using all my vegetables but there are a lot of greens I put into my compost pile that other people have cooked and eaten. While I am giving myself a free ride for a bit on that count - I am making good progress - I know I still have a way to go in my education in local eating. The Asparagus Army watches and waits....

Learning to do something new well includes running the risk of the occasional "C-" for a few dishes that don't quite please all palates- but at least we get to eat the homework. To recap my assignment: Find a recipe or preparation technique for Sorrel that will have us wondering how we lived without it for so long. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Birthday! Happy Mother's Day!

Today is not only Mother's Day, but also the day after my elder child's birthday, my first "qualification" to celebrate Mother's Day to begin with, some 29 years ago.  

We decided to go out to eat someplace special tonight as a double celebration, something we do fairly regularly for birthdays.  We chose Jeffrey's because somehow in all the special family meals we have celebrated with our adult children, we'd never treated them to Jeffrey's.  Fino, Wink, Vin Bistro, Uchi, Zoot, we've eaten around pretty thoroughly, but until tonight, no visit to this long time star in Austin's dining crown.  This is an oversight we are happy to correct. 

While I am certain without even checking their menu that Jeffrey's has amazing desserts to go along with their outstanding dinners and respectable wine list, for my son's birthday, for as long as I can remember, no celebration would be considered complete without his favorite; Lemon Quick Cake.  
This recipe is an old one that came from a co-worker at my first full time job working at M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute.  It dates from my earliest days in the kitchen, when I was a new wife, suddenly trying to cook in ways to please palates other than just my own.  These were days when most of the women I worked with were always looking for a shortcut, some easier way to arrive at "delicious" without spending all day doing it.   I still have the photocopy of my fellow employee's original recipe card  in my notebook.  DK?  Wherever you are - here's to you!

Lemon Quick Cake/Betty Crocker

1 package yellow cake mix (plain - not butter mix)
4 eggs

1 small package Lemon Jello in 3/4 cup hot water.  Add to mix alternately with 3/4 cup vegetable oil.  Add 2 teaspoons lemon extract.

Put mix in greased and floured Bundt pan and bake at 325 degrees for 50-60 minutes.  Ice while hot.

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (1 1/2 lemons)
Pour on while hot.

I have made this cake and taken it to families with new babies, to wakes, to pot luck dinners, and I have made it every year for my son for his birthday since he was 8 years old.  

This year I opted to incorporate a nod to my recent efforts to eat locally and organically whenever possible. I used some edible flowers from our garden and candied some organic lemon to decorate the cake. I realize there is little else "local" or "organic"  about this recipe, but Lemon Quick Cake is a time honored family tradition. In certain situations, I believe it is the emotional connotation of a dish rather than it's correctness, that makes it the best choice.

The candied lemon was easy although I ended up with half rounds rather than round slices due to the extremely seedy organic lemon.  I would ordinarily have gone out early this morning to snip the flowers at their peak, but we had a sudden thunderstorm with hail move in on us last night so my husband and I had to rush out and cut flowers so we'd have choices that had not been battered to the ground by rain and hail.  We make plans and God laughs. 
The recipe for the candied lemon is as follows:

Thoroughly wash and then thinly slice one organic lemon.  Combine the lemon slices, one-half cup organic sugar, and one quarter cup organic lemon juice in a small saucepan.  Over medium heat, bring to a low boil and cook, stirring constantly, seven to ten minutes until sugar has dissolved and mixture has slightly thickened.  Cool about 10 minutes.  Place lemon slices in desired intervals on cake and pour syrup over to glaze.

And here it is - the Lemon Quick Cake, updated ever so slightly with candied organic lemons and edible flowers from our garden. Happiest Birthday, Chris!