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.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Kid in the Store

Hello, my name is TexasDeb and I am a control freak. [cue crowd] "Helloooo Deb!"

This need to exert control means I am fairly uncomfortable the first time I try something. Anything, even things I know I want to do or have been assured are fun or that I will love and will make me feel better about the world and my place in it.

This discomfort, if I am not careful, potentially prevents me from engaging in new activities, even the ones I have decided for myself that I want to do. This discomfort of "not knowing everything there is to know" often finds me procrastinating, listing in my head all sorts of faux reasons not to get started doing something new.

Joining a CSA group was one of those "put it off for various reasons" kinds of things. As it turned out, my subscription to this past season of Tecolote Farms baskets has been a highlight in what has been a pretty great year so far. It was the encouragement of my daughter that got me off the dime and on my computer to find out that the farm's waiting list had shortened after a sabbatical so we could hop right on and get started eating organically grown local produce nearly immediately.

In terms of my next plunge into "Scary New", the compelling shove to get me past procrastinating was a comment from Katie Pitre in an addendum to our last farm newsletter for the season. She stated: "Your veggies came in a bag from Wheatsville, our very favorite local grocery store. Wheatsville is located at 32nd and Guadalupe and is currently undergoing a major improvement project. You'll recognize it by its construction equipment in the parking lot. So, it may not be the easiest place to get in and out of RIGHT NOW, but it is a joy to shop there. In and Out, friendly service, lots of local products, delicious deli items, great cheeses (and cheese prices), gifts, body care products, you name it. They buy produce wholesale from us and have such a small mark-up that they're often selling for less than we do at the farmers' markets! Crazy coop attitude that you're in it for the benefit of your members and not to have a huge financial gain! Anyway, we love them and hope you'll stop in when you're in that neighborhood. I highly recommend the vegan peanut butter-chocolate cups in the middle of the back wall below all the take-out sandwiches and deli items. Yummmmy. Thanks, Katie"

That was the final push I required. I knew once I invested in public declaration combined with financial commitment, I would more quickly move from intention to adherence. So I blogged, I went online and signed a Buy Fresh/Buy Local pledge, and with a weird combination of delight and the teensiest sense of alarm, I piled my shopping bags into my car yesterday and headed to join the Wheatsville Coop. Barring some unforeseen barrier, a membership at Wheatsville was slated to become the linchpin in my determination to continue to spend as much a week of our grocery money each week on local products as possible, and to try see that the products I could not source locally were organic whenever possible and responsibly, sustainably grown and/or humanely treated (in the case of meats and seafood).Despite the construction I easily found a parking space, grabbed my bag and walked in. I asked the first employee I spotted who I needed to see about signing up. I was directed to a cash register, where after a very short wait behind another shopper I was ably assisted and quickly supplied by James S. with a short form to fill out, a quick primer on member numbers and checkout routines, and before I knew it I was released out into the store, ready to make my first local shopping run.

Wheatsville is a sweet place, although a little intimidating to the unpracticed eye in terms of the scope of products offered. I believe that will prove to be a good challenge, offering the enticement of many visits to come filled with surprise discoveries.

Having the good fortune to be gender equipped with organs allowing me to ask for assistance, I am sure I'll be quickly helped to find whatever I don't spot on my own. The adventure of trying new products will be a good balance to the banality of weekly supply runs and overcome some of the frustrations of sticking with seasonal shopping.

Another plus for Wheatsville in terms of my quest for "local" - they display information along with their prices about how far certain foods had to travel to get to their shelves. It doesn't get much easier than that, and I had to fight an unfortunate tendency to move immediately past a sense of self satisfaction dangerously veering towards smugness at how good a person I'd suddenly become as proven by my shopping there.

Those negative heel wearing, crystal toting, condescending shoppers or staffers I'd feared? I'd met the enemy and short the crystal toting and tie-dye "she" was only a projection of my own self, in jeopardy of spraining a wrist as I simultaneously filled a bag with one hand while busily patting myself on the back in approval with the other. Full disclosure: I confess, despite my anxious predictions, Wheatsville did not feel overly crunchy or "more organic than thou" at all. How was it? Delightful, really. Very laid back. It just felt like a really great neighborhood store.

So could I spend my allotted $10 on local products and find what I needed?

No worries. Counting the local beer I bought, I found chevre, a baguette, and pitas from right here in Central Texas, to total $15.73 of "bought local" on my very first trip.

I can also promise you the markup on that goat cheese and the pitas was less than what I've found in certain other routinely patronized and lionized markets in our area offering the same products at higher prices despite being larger and ostensibly better able to provide savings due to the power of bulk buying. I was triply delighted to discover that Wheatsville offers a good variety of responsibly raised and humanely treated chicken, beef and pork products. At last a place I can find all my "turf" options protein wise, without having to compromise my principles or break the bank.

A last hat trick of delights- at Wheatsville, I get a refund for using my own large shopping bags along with a chance to bring in, weigh, and use my own containers for bulk items. And finally, at the top of each receipt there is a thoughtful quote to feed my mind while my shopping feeds my body and salves my conscience.

I didn't hit the deli yesterday because I have a restaurant run for dinner tonight to celebrate my birthday and I have the remnants of my last fully loaded Tecolote basket to eat our way through. I figured I'd save those treats for another day. But I will now stroll into Wheatsville week to week with building confidence, ready to layer in expanding experiences and familiarity as I dive further into the many benefits this Coop has to offer.

I am kicking myself (gently - I don't want to break anything) for waiting so long to get started shopping at Wheatsville. In these days of rising prices it simply makes sense economically to shop where the members own the store and the profit margin and stocking patterns all reflect what is best for the consumer rather than growing a bottom line. Past that, it also makes sense to support a locally owned enterprise supporting other locally owned producers, so that more of my dollars spent stay in the local economy rather than flowing out to some national or international corporation based elsewhere and responsible to people I will never meet.

Let's say you agree and you want to shop locally - what can you do? If you live in Central Texas, consider joining and shopping at Wheatsville Coop yourself. It only costs $15 to join as a member. I went ahead and joined as a vested member with an additional capital contribution because I know that will reinforce my decision to shop there and because it makes sense to me to spend my money to improve and support my local economy and community. Every expenditure we make is a moral contract. How and where I allocate our family's income says a lot about who we are and what we believe in.

If you live elsewhere then check out FoodRoutes and other sources to determine if there is a coop available near you. Look for Farmer's Markets and CSA outfits close to you and support them every chance you get. A study offered by the Austin Independent Business Alliance a few years back determined that when you shop with a locally owned business, up to 45 dollars of every hundred dollars you spend stays where you live, as opposed to 13 dollars out of a hundred dollars when you shop at a national chain.In a tightening economy, that thirty-two dollar difference between what stays and what leaves local coffers becomes even more significant.

I think the quote on my Wheatsville receipt yesterday was prescient: "Fear is the main source of superstition and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." - Bertrand Russell. I may not have completely conquered my fear yesterday, but I took a step in the right direction. I may not be able to claim "wisdom" just yet, but I am certain, with a little help from Wheatsville, I will be shopping smarter in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Basket 18 - All's Well that Ends Well

The Tecolote Farms CSA Basket Adventure is officially over for 2008. I count it an outstanding success all around. The weekly offerings took us into all sorts of previously untrodden produce territory resulting in our accidental introduction to some new favorites. The experience helped deliciously ease our transition further towards eating more vegetables and less animal protein.

We were reminded week to week about the importance of supporting local small scale producers, as well as the necessity to conserve water and support public water policies that will allow for agriculture to co-exist with developement. I have some interesting new ideas about foods to try in our own backyard garden next growing season, and I even have a new native flowering seed bearing shrub to try in the front yard that will hopefully frustrate the "all you can eat" tendencies of our local deer population.

I've eaten a lot of delicious, fresh, healthy food and felt good about where it comes from. I've met some fascinating new folks who share my enthusiasm for responsibly sourced healthy foods. I've gotten new recipes, had a lot of fun photographing beautiful fruits and vegetables, and learned a lot more about my food and where it comes from than typically happens in any grocery store.

For me, the great CSA Basket Experiment of 2008 ended with a bang as the folks at Tecolote Farms pulled out all the stops to give us a memorable last taste from their little corner of Texas. There were many of the usual suspects in this last blast from the Farm; cucumber melons, eggplant, thai basil, more acorn squash, okra, a sweet yellow Granex onion, some Yukon Gold potatoes and a last Galia melon are all old friends.

But there were also a few surprises this last go-round.Most notably in the "takes both hands to carry" category, we each had a large Rouge vif d'etemps French pumpkin in addition to a full sack carefully stacked with fruit and vegetable goodness.

According to our ever helpful newsletter, these pumpkins are tastier, moister, better suited to making soups than being baked, and will last for months if kept cool and dry. Dry will be easy but cool? I am such a fan of pumpkin pie. I might be tempted to go to the extra step of draining the pureé before adding it to pie crust just for the fun of an extra-extra tasty pumpkin pie. Who wants to fit into a bathing suit anyway....

We had a couple of wonderfully smelly epazote stems with the suggestion to use them in making a perfect pot of pinto beans. Apparently epazote is taken from the original Aztec term for this plant "epazotl", often found growing wild here in the US where it is more typically called pigweed or wormseed. Such appetizing names. Epazote is a carminative (like fennel or peppermint) which means it can reduce gassiness. So for epazote to be considered as "essential" to cooking pinto beans is a natural leap.The leaves are quite (ahem!) aromatic. Some compare the smell of the crushed leaves to gasoline or creosote. It is fairly pungent, I'll admit. If I didn't know this was a plant you could cook with I am pretty sure the smell would encourage me to leave it well enough alone. The taste, though, once acquired, means that beans cooked any other way will always be lacking a "certain something" for your palate (and no, by that certain something I do NOT mean flatulence). I have not had a lot of experience with epazote (yet!) but understand the older leaves are more pungent than the younger smaller leaves. Most advise throwing a stem/sprig in during cooking that is to be removed (a la bay leaves) before adding salt to taste at the end of the cooking time.

And last but not least, the smallest and perhaps more delightfully bizarre of our basket offerings for the season, a Devil's Claw seed pod. Proboscidea louisianica, is also known as Ram's horn, or Unicorn plant, all names referring to the woody seed pod left after the fleshy fruit falls away and then splits as these have. It grows wild in Texas and Mexico as an annual, and has reportedly been cultivated for centuries by Southwestern Native Indians for use in basketry as well as a food source. The black seeds found inside the pods can be cracked open to reveal a small white kernel that tastes quite a bit like a pine nut.According to one source, an infusion and/or powder form and capsules prepared with the active ingredients from Devil's Claws are marketed medicinally in Europe as an anti-inflammatory agent against rhematism. These active ingredients, mostly sourced from a variety of the plant found in Namibia, are believed to be iridoid glycosides called harpagosides, which are found in the secondary root.

While it always fascinates me to learn how so many of the oldest plants known have medicinal as well as nutritional uses, I am going to forgo the pharmaceutical and the snacking route, saving most of my seed to plant in my front yard. There I am hopeful the deer will find Devil's Claw a top contender for their constantly evolving "Deer Usually Avoid" list. We have worked hard to take out all the St. Augustine from the beds in front. I am always on the lookout for native plants that will flourish on low water, be interesting in form or flower, AND not simply end up as a main component for Bambi's Salad Bar. Our neighbors have been very kind and patient with us as we've worked to create an interesting variation on the standard swath of water guzzling green. It will be fun to have some Devil's Claw out there in the mix next year, a subtle reminder of the many ways we feed and are fed by, local crops.

Finally, I just couldn't stand the idea of being "all done" with eating locally or seasonally so I decided to do something concrete about that. I have plans to join the Wheatsville Coop. This is something I have meant to do for years, sort of like I'd meant to try out CSA baskets and/or shop at the Farmer's Markets more regularly, and I figure there is no better time than NOW to sign up.

I will be back to you later, reporting on my trip over to Wheatsville where I hope to live through the discomfort of subjecting my newbyness to the ever so much more "crunchier than thou" "I was here long before you" crowd. I may be doing everybody there a huge disservice with that characterization, and I'll apologize right here on this blog if I have, but I will admit it is my fear of encountering a vast array of unknown products and having to ask questions that will trigger condescension bordering on scorn that has kept me out of there for far too long.

Another part of reinforcing my continuing wish to use our food dollars to invest in local, renewable, sustainable and healthy produce involved going online to the FoodRoutes.Org site to take their Buy Local Challenge. I chose to sign up as pledging to spend 10 dollars a week on locally produced food for the rest of this calendar year. As I did that and noted a listing of folks who have taken the pledge by states, my competitive nature kicked in. There is this scoreboard, and as you can see when you go there, Texas is not making too good a showing in terms of folks willing to sign up and pledge their dollars towards supporting locally produced foods.

I'd be really truly shallow to suggest that if you have any stirrings of Lone Star pride in you that you should visit and put your own pledged dollars into the mix to improve our state's standing. I'd be shallow and pushy to imply that if you were any kind of REAL Texan, (or Idahoan, or Indianian or whatever it is you actually are), that you would want your home state to be riding up towards the top of the list to prove to the world how wonderful you and your fellow Texans/Indianians, etc. are. Because at the moment those Californians have the top spot all sewn up and although I have wonderful dear friends there, I simply don't think we can let them get away with that.

At the same time I do realize it is much more important to SPEND that money on locally produced foods than it is to sign a pledge on a website, but I also know that every time I take a step towards a more public proclamation of my intention to eat locally produced foods, I am that much more likely to follow through and not succumb to convenience or comfortable old patterns of just going to that nearby chain market and buying whatever is cheapest on their shelves.

And the more I read, the more I see that even the best local players on the largest scale when it comes to supermarkets, have their own issues with responsibly sourcing food for the masses. Our homegrown gone national giant, Whole Foods, has it's issues:
Supermarkets Failing to Adopt Sustainable Seafood Buying Practices:Report.

Worthwhile pursuits are rarely quick or easy. Signing up for the CSA baskets pulled me out of my comfort zone, but as so typically happens, I am better for the stretch.The vast majority of people I've met who are interested in eating responsibly and supporting local farms are not all overpiced negative heel shoe wearing, tie dye t-shirted, crystal toting, aging hippie flakes, so much as they are kind and thoughtful people of all ages and stages who have taken time to learn about and understand the impacts of their economic choices.

So it is with some unexpected sadness that we bid a fond farewell to CSA Baskets from Tecolote Farm for this year, and move on to Wheatsville and the Farmer's Market. Stay tuned to see if I can make good on my pledge to spend $10 dollars a week on locally produced food for the rest of 2008.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Away Game

I am going to shamelessly stoke my ego and assume that not only have you been checking here regularly and expecting the usual near daily fare of new posts, but also that you might have done so for the past week and, not noting any new content wondered, "where the hell is Texas Deb?".Well I'll tell you - I've been in Ann Arbor, y'all.

Rarely is yours truly persuaded (read: forced by circumstances beyond her control) away from computer and homestead long and far enough to experience much outside the Austin/Central Texas culinary world. But this past week found me handing off my CSA basket to a family friend (thank you Alycia!) and joining my hub and daughter, hopping on various planes flying us to Detroit to visit the gorgeous little burg of Ann Arbor. As in Michigan. As in sure enough cold in winter but delightfully cool (to us) in the summertime.

Sidebar - "hopped on a plane" - where did that phrase come from? Can you imagine any activity more likely to invite a strip and/or cavity search? Especially with our current "Orange" security level. I use the phrase with a huge pinch of "don't take me literally" salt certainly.My family and I are all such total control freaks that arbitrarily relinquishing the amount of say over what we do and how we do it to so many others in order to fly anyplace has us engaged in activities that look a lot less like hopping and a lot more like intentionally zoning out.

Travel stressors aside, there we were in Ann Arbor, checking out the place and trying to find a new spot for our youngest to call home for the next three years while she attends the University of Michigan Law School. (Did I just casually work in another Mommy Brag about one of my kids? Why, yes! Yes I did, and thanks for noticing.)

Our crash course in assessing properties and talking "lease legalese" often took on a somewhat Gilligan's Island surrealism. (a..... three.....hoour........tooooour.....")Leasing, something none of the three of us had actively engaged in for some (cough!) decades is a fascinating/creepy enterprise. You drop off your driver's license just to look at a unit after which you are asked freely share the very same information you'd ordinarily closely guard with a succession of Red Bullish peppy, falsely enthusiastic/confidential leasing agents. All this just to figure out if they'll allow you the extreme privilege of paying extra for a covered parking space in their "community".

While there we also toured the Law School which reinforced our understanding that while our daughter will be living in Ann Arbor and actively engaged in scholarly pursuits, she will be doing a lot of reading... and studying....and after making the payments for tuition and her abode with it's add on charges for pets, covered parking, doors and windows, she will have little if anything left over for the amazing array of wining and dining opportunities Ann Arbor has to offer.

As her loving parents, we asked her to investigate the hot spots she'd like to try out on us during our first shared visit.  She set certain price parameters on her own and choose our venues for lunch and dinner accordingly.

Sure, I'm her Mom and I think her grocery lists are brilliant, but my daughter did a fabulous job of finding just the right combination of "local", "responsible philosophy of food", and "deliiiiicious". 

Here they are, a quick run down of our short list of some of the best eating available in Ann Arbor without breaking the bank, a saga in 4 meals.

Dinner Day One: Our family has a dangerous tendency upon arriving in a hotel after a day spent traveling (aka:freaking out see above) to simply unpack, put our feet up, and reach for the room service menu. Seeing as we were only spending 3 full days in Ann Arbor, the alluring convenience of room service had to be overcome by something equally appealing. Enter the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company. [Grizzly Peak Brewing Company 120 W Washington Street ]Catch this as incentive to ignore room service:Fresh Brewed Beer to go!  We indulged in an after dinner "Growler" - 64 ounces of glass jugged brewer's best takeaway.Dinner Day Two: Noting the philosophy of the Arbor Brewing Company Pub & Eatery [114 E Washington] who had no online menu because they were busy regearing their kitchen and resourcing as needed to implement an all natural/local when possible/organic/make it from scratch rebellion, we were not at all discouraged by the need to sit out a 15 minute wait for a table at their historic bar.The beer battered onion rings we ordered for the table set the tone for another delicious foray into a second fresh/local/organic/responsible dinner for three.And another Growler.  Go Blue!

Brunch Day Three:Our last full day in Ann Arbor found us selecting "the" spot for our daughter's new home away from Texas, and to reward ourselves for such diligence and industry we were slated for brunch at the locally famous Cafe Zola [112 W Washington]followed by our official University of Michigan Law School Tour.

Cafe Zola has a simply amazing menu. Despite weathering the "worst performance by an employee impersonating a waitress", we thoroughly enjoyed our choices of various crepes and an omelette worthy of it's own zip code.Dinner Day Three/Meal Four: Had we peaked? Was there anything left to stun our somewhat sated palates after amazing brew pub eats, two growlers and the brunch to end all brunches? Why yes! There was still our piéce de resistance, Vinology [100 South Main Street].I will let their website speak for itself. We think this sweet spot of the unheralded food centric Ann Arbor stacks up favorably to the highly touted Bin 36 in Chicago. We had a series of amazing small plates at Vinology, a decent yet affordable Montepulciano d'Abruzzi, and finished with a shared panna cotta dish and cheese/fruit platter that filled and thrilled without our regretting a single sip or bite.

Ann Arbor is not your run of the mill sleepy little college burg. They have a bustling downtown filled with exciting places to eat and drink including a lot of ethnic food that we didn't have time to explore. They have cutting edge design appearing in unexpected places, such as this new local library branch that has local tongues wagging in a heated debate over "cool" vs. "ugly". They have an adorable water tower and regularly occurring visual surprises such as this Montessori school fence.Ann Arbor has an annually occurring event featuring four simultaneous juried art fairs that runs mid July. This fair is known nationally, featuring as many as 1200 artists and drawing upwards of a half million visitors. Apparently they block off most of downtown to anything but foot traffic, and nearly every flat surface of any size is transformed into gallery space. I am grateful we missed the fair by a few days, not desiring to share this small space with that many other tourists on our first go-round, but smiled to note one home just west of downtown that had not quite made the transition back to whatever passes for "normal" in Ann Arbor.

Did our visit go off without a single hitch? Nearly. Forgetting in one early morning pre-coffee haze that we were in the Land of Kellogg, renowned Clairvoyant Physician, my sweet husband tried to order a non-Kellogg cereal for breakfast in our hotel restaurant. Fortunately the waitress (who seriously pulled a face that looked as though she was struggling to recall if she had ever even heard of our family favorite Honey Nut Cheerios) was not inclined to judge, much less punish, and we all lived to tell the story.

Michigan was a beautifully green and cool respite for our three sets of July heat glazed Central Texan eyes.  I am looking forward already to our next visit and a chance to try out more of their amazing array of eateries.

Meanwhile, Monday I pick up my very last CSA basket of the season.  I'll be back to report on the bounty available from an organic farm after some tropical storm rains perked up the produce. It was fun to have played around some in the cool green of Michigan in July, but it is sure great to be back home!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Talkin' Bout My Cucamelon

(to the tune of  "Talkin' Bout My Generation" with apologies to the Who - and ok to you as well if you are that easily offended..sheesh!.)

In our CSA baskets this summer we have gotten a wonderful array of cucumber melons, dubbed "cucamelons" by David Pitre of Tecolote Farms. These are Italian precursors to the more familiar and readily available hybridized cucumbers you'll see everywhere, but size and a few treatment considerations aside, they are just about identical in taste and texture to the garden variety cuke. Grown since Roman times, they have become popular again as many gardeners and farmers are turning to the heirloom varieties for their proven endurance.I like them for two reasons. First, they are Italian! What's not to like about that? I am discovering, via the newsletter reporting of the Pitres as an adjunct to our weekly baskets, that a lot of the Italian heirloom fruits and veggies do pretty well in our hot Texas summers.

Secondly, they are HUGE. I wish I could carefully avoid any potentially tasteless "would you get a look at the size of those melons" type riffs, but seriously, these cucamelons are in Dolly Parton territory easily. Gotta love larger when it comes to delicious summertime treats.

With a preponderence of cucamelon on hand, I have been keeping a watchful eye out for potential ways to enlarge my cucumber repertoire. I've already covered how much I like cucumber sandwiches. I've already waxed poetic over the delights of gazpacho. I've shared my favorite cucumber salad with you and yet I STILL had more cucumbers to use. What do to?

Enter Avocado-Cucumber Soup, a recipe I stumbled across recently on the Serious Eats website. This recipe intrigued my interest for several reasons. First, sure, because it would help me use up my cucamelon stash. But the simplicity of the recipe, and the inclusion of several ingredients I have growing my back garden already (although many of them stubbornly unready for harvest yet), pushed this over the top. Even though my sweet husband has declared his steadfast dislike of chilled soups, I took the note off the SE site seriously that as well as a chilled appy for two, this recipe would make a perfectly acceptable meal for one person. Off I went.

Here is the recipe and to follow it I offer a little primer on handling cucamelons and jalapeños for the uninitiated: 

- Serves 2 as an appetizer or 1 as an entrée -
Adapted from Serves One by Toni Lydecker.
1 Hass avocado
1 cup peeled, seeded, chopped cucumber
2 tomatillos, quartered
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 small serrano or jalapeño chile, halved lengthwise, stemmed, and seeded, membranes removed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chopped cilantro (optional)

Procedure:Run a knife lengthwise around the avocado and twist to separate the halves. Lightly strike the pit with a knife blade and twist to remove. Score the flesh with a knife and scoop it out with a spoon.In a blender or food processor, combine the avocado, cucumber, tomatillos, onion, chile, and salt. Add 1 cup water. Blend until the mixture is pureed, adding more water if necessary for a soupy consistency.

Chill well. Sprinkle with the cilantro, if using.

So how do you handle this ginormous melon of a cucumber differently? Easy as this...you cut the melon in half.Then you scoop out the seeds. After that, you peel and slice as you would any other cucumber.

You'll note the recipe calls for a small serrano or jalapeño chile, halved, stemmed, and seeded. If you have never tried this on your own, let me share with you the need for a little respect when it comes to capsaicin and peppers.Capsaicin is what puts the varying degrees of "pep" into peppers and not only renders peppers as inedible to most predators, but has an array of healing properties as well. You can spend all the time you wish learning more about capsaicin, but centrally what you need to know when cooking with peppers is that you want the capsaicin to stay on your knife and/or cutting board and OFF your hands.

The very best way to do this and avoid a chemical burn story all your own is to wear gloves. Seriously. You can try to not get any on your hands and you can try to wash it off your hands but you can still burn your eyes or your nose by touching them even hours later. Using gloves while handling peppers allows you to skip the painful lesson.

The capsaicin mostly resides in the seeds and membranes of any pepper which is why you will see a similar instruction to "halve, stem, and remove seeds and membranes" in most recipes calling for hot peppers in the mix. The pepper half on the right is a little capsaicin bomb, ready to burn anybody careless enough to get close. The pepper half on the left is still plenty much heat bearing, but used that way in a recipe it will not actually burn your mouth in the soup the way touching it will chemically burn your eyes. Even after the seeds and membranes are out, I don't touch the peppers while I am chopping them. I've already proven to myself that my eyes are not magically immune to the horrors of a capsaicin exposure just because I have a high tolerance for eating hot peppers.

One other note. You may be saying to yourself, "well, hmmmm, I haven't seen a red jalapeño before- maybe she is confused about what kind of pepper she's got and I can ignore the other things she is saying about caution and peppers?". I feel you there. These were the first red jalapeño peppers I had ever seen either and I know they are jalapeños because they have come off the plants in my garden.

Apparently, when you leave a plant on it's own indefinitely they will not only grow peppers but those peppers will eventually turn red, just like a bell pepper will if it is left on the plant long enough. It does not seem to have affected the heat or taste at all, they are not especially sweet I don't think, but maybe a little less testy than a green pepper might be? It is my experience that different plants in different soils under different growing conditions produce different peppers in terms of their heat, so there you go.

Here is the soup - beautifully green despite the little red pepper I used.It is amazingly rich and delicious and maybe I am crazy but it has this salty lively taste that makes it an almost meaty experience in your mouth.  This little soup is a powerhouse of flavor that is ready in under 15 minutes, glove time included.Even if you don't have tomatillos, jalapeño and onion in your back garden, or cucamelons lurking in your vegetable bin, this deliciously fresh recipe is well worth a run. In terms of summery goodness, this soup hits an awful lot of high notes. Try it and see- soon you'll be singing it's praises on your own.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I Did It My Way

If this is not your first visit (and if it is - WELCOME!) then you already know I rarely just take a recipe and follow it as written. Pish, how easy would that be?!

I almost always end up changing something about a recipe and there are lots of reasons for this. Laziness, lack of ingredients, lack of a certain tool or piece of equipment, substituting in an ingredient for one I know somebody won't eat or substituting in an already prepared element for something a recipe prepares from scratch, reducing the quantities for our little party of two. They all apply from time to time.

Generally the direction I head with tweaking a recipe moves it from difficult to easier, from lengthy to quicker. But last night? Not so much.Last night I had planned a sort of Resort Adventure Dinner for my sweet husband because this summer we aren't taking any full on vacation trips. We are amongst the many this year who are trying out a "staycation" instead. Hubby and I used to take our family to the Big Island of Hawaii every summer for a stint at the Kona Village Resort where we all, young and old alike, could relax and play and eat and drink to our heart's content in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I figured OK, we aren't going away, but that doesn't mean we can't have a wonderful evening meal. So when I spotted this recipe for Roasted Poblanos with Creamy Shrimp Stuffing in the Whole Foods newsletter I knew I had the start of something good.

You will note the WF version calls for frozen pre-cooked shrimp. Ordinarily I would be a fan of such a move. But now, when I am trying very hard to be more aware and more responsible with sourcing our food, especially our protein, it gets harder and harder to buy convenience foods with a clear conscience. So ix-nay on the frozen aybeebay shrimp and hello to the bag of wild caught, responsibly netted shrimp already in my freezer that required cooking and shelling before I could begin to prepare the dish. Buh-bye speed and convenience, hello ability to sleep at night. Onward.

Here is the recipe as written. Following it I will list the other tweaks I made to produce a lovely resort style dinner at home.

Roasted Poblanos with Creamy Shrimp Stuffing

Baby shrimp are widely available frozen and precooked, so keep a couple of bags in the freezer for a versatile ingredient for a variety of meals. Mildly spicy with a creamy filling and a crunchy golden cheese topping, these peppers are sure to become a summer classic. Serves 6

6 large poblano peppers
1 (12-ounce) package frozen precooked baby shrimp, thawed and drained
1/2 cup sour cream
3 green onions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups tomatillo salsa
1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Move broiler pan about 6 inches away from heating element and preheat broiler. Place poblano peppers on a baking sheet and broil, turning often, until tender and blackened all over, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside to let steam for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, put shrimp, sour cream, green onions, cilantro, cumin, salt and 1/2 cup of the tomatillo salsa into a large bowl and toss to combine; set aside.

Using a paring knife, scrape off and discard skin from peppers. Make one incision down the length of each pepper and carefully remove seeds. Stuff each pepper with some of the shrimp mixture. Pour remaining 1 cup tomatillo salsa into a large baking dish and spread out with a spoon to cover the bottom. Arrange stuffed peppers in dish and top with cheese. Broil until cheese is bubbly and peppers are hot throughout, 5 to 7 minutes. Serve peppers with more tomatillo salsa spooned over the top, if you like.Nutrition Info: Gluten Free
Per serving (about 6oz/171g-wt.): 220 calories (80 from fat), 9g total fat, 4.5g saturated fat, 21g protein, 16g total carbohydrate (4g dietary fiber, 3g sugar), 135mg cholesterol , 340mg sodium/Copyright 2000–2003. Whole Foods Market IP, L.P.Now for my tweaks.

Obviously, I boiled, shelled and chopped my own (harrumpf!) responsibly netted shrimp. I reduced the recipe in half seeing as there are only two of us set to enjoy the results. I will admit that although I am warming some, I am not a huge cilantro fan. To me, when overused, it comes across as a soapy flavor that is way too reminiscent of certain episodes from my childhood when I repeated a term I'd overheard used by grownups that I was convinced would provoke gales of laughter and mostly provoked a quick swish with Ivory Soap as supervised by my Mom, instead. I had basil on hand, plenty of it, and had recently really enjoyed a shrimp with basil and jalapeño dish at Suzi's Chinese Grill. So cilantro was out, and basil was in. I had onions from my garden that were not green but are still fairly young and sweet so buying special onions was out and using the ones on hand was in.Finally, I just roasted the peppers on my grill because I wanted to work ahead and have the peppers sitting in a dish ready to bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes while my husband and I sat out on our back deck to enjoy our view and a glass of wine, which we did.

Let's recap. I halved the recipe. Subbed in my own freshly boiled then shelled, cooled and chopped shrimp. I used basil for the cilantro, regular onion and oh, that's right- I served mine with sour cream rather than more salsa on top. I did spoon some of the salsa from the pan on top first but that seemed gracious plenty to me. I baked the recipe in the oven rather than sliding it up under the broiler. If I had used the broiler and left it on during the additional prep time it took me for the shrimp, I would have pretty much rendered my kitchen into a heat island all it's own. No thanks!

All the tweaks yielded a deliciously crisp yet creamy, mildly spicy reasonably light meal for two. I used up some of the rest of the eggplant casserole made earlier this week, it reheated beautifully in the oven right along with the peppers and was a nice balance to all the pepper biz going on in our entreé. I finished up with some chocolate covered macadamia nuts plated with an orchid flower for fun. Not quite a trip to the islands, I'll grant you, but faster, less expensive, and a delightful finish to the work week and kick-off to a weekend of fun together in the Texas sun.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Long View/Grow Your Own

Update: This Grow Your Own entry to follow made it late into the roundup due to a technical glitch, so graciously guest hosted by Jai and Bee of Jugalbandi. Special thanks to them for being so conscientious to add in those entries that somehow got lost originally.

You really won't want to miss the amazing lineup of sweet and savory delights folks have come up with, even in the heat of July. I will admit to a bit of "tomato envy", our plants here in Central Texas are not setting much fruit this year. In a few minutes I head off to the Farmer's Market to see if more experienced growers are having better luck. Meanwhile, enjoy the Grow Your Own RoundUp!

I really enjoy the internet.  I can barely remember how it was to try to shop and prepare food without the opportunity to sit down at a computer, enter the name of an ingredient or style of dish, and have the resources of all sorts of amazing amateur and professional chefs popping up on my monitor in a neatly arranged list, just to help me get the best out of my dinner plans.

That said, occasionally I run across an ingredient that seems to have shunned even it's internet 15 seconds of fame.  
When I began to look for recipes for the Chinese Long Beans I got in this week's CSA basket for instance, I was able to find several resources telling me about the beans, but not so many simple recipes that didn't call for ingredients I didn't already have on hand or more time than I had to spend.

If I were a more knowledgeable cook, or had a better stocked pantry, I'd probably have had more luck locating a recipe I could easily duplicate. But if those conditions applied, I probably would not have been sitting in front of my computer last night searching for simple recipes to prepare Chinese Long Beans in the first place. 

So there I was, looking for some reasonable way to prepare the beans, but wanting a full on recipe, not simply comments along the lines of "these beans are often best stir-fried".  Then I found it.  Jaden's Steamy Kitchen.  Or rather, I found the recipe on her web site for Stir Fried Chinese Long Beans.

It was everything I needed.  A simple preparation style, short ingredient list, and the finished dish would be ready in barely 15 minutes including time to prep the beans.  

Going in, I knew I had to make two major accommodations.  First, I don't currently have a wok.
I know, I know, stifle your squawks and protestations.  If I was any kind of  a "real" cook, blah blah blah.  We currently have a ceramic cook top/grill combination for a stove top, all electric, no gas.  I tried a wok with a ring over the ceramic cooktop and it didn't work so I got rid of it years ago.  I've been knocking out meals wokless from this kitchen for over two decades now and nobody has starved to death yet.  

Second, this recipe calls for three tablespoons of fish sauce.
Folks, I just bought my first ever bottle of fish sauce a couple of weeks ago.  I tend towards the "Gack!" end of the "Loving/Hating It" scale when it comes to pronounced fish flavors.   I am one of "those people" who order their Caesar salad anchovyless.  The closest I've gotten to sardines as an adult is to occasionally buy and then open a can of them for my husband to eat, in the other room, smashed on crackers (the sardines, not my husband).  

But I am stretching myself with this whole CSA basket experiment to begin with, so boldly going into fishy territory where I have never been before is just part of the (cough!) fun.  So. OK.  This recipe calls for three tablespoons of fish sauce.  I figured I would use one tablespoon of fish sauce and substitute in low sodium tamari for the other two tablespoons. I don't have a wok but I do have an electric skillet that heats up really quickly, has a good lid, and will allow me to just as quickly reduce the heat to finish the recipe.  

Then I had a brain flash. If I included one of our home grown jalapeño peppers in the dish, I could expand the deserved exposure of this particular recipe and some of these amazing websites generally as part of a Grow Your Own submission. A great side dish, a GYO post, a chance to tout some of the amazing food blogs out there. A blogger's hat trick if ever there was one. Onward.

Here is the recipe as written:

[Recipe Correction: Please note in the recipe to follow, the correct amount of fish sauce is 3 teaspoons, not 3 tablespoons as pointed out by Jaden Hair of the Steamy Kitchen herself in the comments below. As the originally reported recipe was central to parts of the post, I left the quantities unchanged in the recipe copy per se. /Deb] 

Stir-Fried Chinese Long Beans
1 lb Chinese Long Beans, washed and trimmed to 3″ lengths
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/4 c Water
3 Tb Fish Sauce (Three Crabs Brand)
1 tsp Sugar

Heat up your wok, add oil. When barely smoking, add minced garlic. Fry just for a few seconds until fragrant, but not brown. You want to make sure that you don’t wait too long before adding the garlic to the oil, otherwise the oil will be too hot and the garlic will burn.

Add your long beans, fry in wok for 30 seconds, incorporating the garlic throughout the beans.

Add water, fish sauce and sugar. Cover the wok. Let the beans steam for 5 minutes on medium heat. Check to see if beans are almost tender, but not too soft. If not, re-cover and steam an additional 1 minute. Uncover, let the rest of the liquid evaporate, about an additional minute. Serve.

And here is how it looked when I tried this MyWay.  I served the beans as one of two sides with grilled jalapeño nilgai sausage.  Since I had the spicy sausage, I threw the seeded, minced, red ripened jalapeño from our garden into the beans along with the fish sauce/water/sugar combo to echo.  The little red jalapeño was not especially hot and it pretty much just melted into the bean sauce, as I'd hoped.  

Since I had two pepper spiced dishes in the meal, I countered that a bit with a first run at an eggplant casserole recipe from that little church cookbook I picked up a few weeks ago.  The casserole was rich and creamy, just the thing to counter the garlicky beans and the spicy sausage.  
The beans were delicious but I think even the low sodium soy concentrated in the cooked down sauce was just a bit too much saltiness in combination with the garlic.  Although the tablespoon of fish sauce was extremely aromatically fishy going in, the final flavor of the dish was richly layered and complex.  There was not really any one note or element you'd put your finger on as "fishy", the garlic pretty much took care of that.  I may have been a bit overgenerous with the garlic in retrospect. I am a lifelong garlic lover and as careful as I might have been with adding in fish sauce, that is just about how lackadaisical I was with measuring the amounts of garlic I used in this recipe.  

Next time?  On the next go round with long beans I will try two tablespoons of the fish sauce and leave the soy out altogether.  I will watch the garlic and stick (closer) to the amount called for and see where that finds us.  I'll definitely keep the jalapeño in, and if they are out of season I'll sub in pepper flakes.  

If I decide to grow long beans in our garden next year, I will hopefully have all the time and beans I will need to range further afield into the more complex recipes I unearthed in last night's search. While reading about the beans (and not finding recipes), I discovered they are prolific producers, very tolerant of hot temperatures.  That makes them just about a perfect candidate for Texas summers in small gardens.  Could be next July I'll be doing a Grow Your Own post with my own beans and jalapeño.  

Finally - a few words about some of the amazingly professional and ambitious blogs out there.  

I confess - from time to time I suffer big time blogger's envy.  Ms. Hair is not only an amazing cook, but she is writing her own cookbook, does all her own food photography and staging for both the book and the blog, has several newspaper columns on food, and appears regularly doing live cooking demonstrations on morning TV.  She has a service on her blog where she will even help you learn how to and then create and send your own cards.  Physically apparent three dimensional ones, not the electronic sort.  I didn't quite get all the way in to every aspect of her site but would not be surprised on going back to discover a section detailing "How I Spin Straw Into Gold".

Ms. Jaden is an extremely talented and prolific person.  Having my very small scale blog appearing on the same internet as Jaden's Steamy Kitchen, Andrea's Recipes, Jugalbandi and so many other incredible blogs on food and cooking is, well, a bit chastening.

It all calls into mind a t-shirt I spotted recently.  
So why do I seem to care? Because it's fun, that's why. And it's great to be in such good company, actually. I don't confuse what I am doing with the likes of Jaden or Andrea or the folks at Serious Eats or Mark Bittman of the Times. I simply enjoy the gardening, the CSA baskets, the cooking, the eating, and then sharing all that with you. And that is enough for me.