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, February 25, 2010

When Events Conspire....

On the days I am not posting to this or my garden blog either one, under ordinary circumstances (read:full computer access) I am reading other people's blogs.  Lots (and lots) of them.  Many of them having something to do with growing or cooking food.  Or both.

Under that category of Nonposting/Reading days there are two subcategories: 1) Days I read other people's blogs and think to myself "aaaawesome" as I print out recipes to try, and 2) days I read other people's blogs and think to myself "well there you go, I'm glad somebody out there is crazy ambitious enough to try that".

Some recipes are exciting enough, and I'll have the ingredients on hand, so I proceed immediately from my printer to the kitchen.

Other recipes require waiting for a scheduled trip to the store or perhaps a special occasion when I will be motivated to go to just a bit more trouble or expense than usual.  Most of the time I simply won't make a trip to the store "just" to pick up one ingredient for a recipe and I've learned not to try most recipes that call for equipment I don't already have.  Chances are good, after three decades of home cooking,  if I don't already have something, I probably don't really need it.

My idealized recipe is one that uses ingredients I have around routinely, with flavors my family already likes, but in some novel combination that assures elevation to the realm of Repeater.

So recently, when I spotted a recipe for Chipotle Sweet Potato Soup I realized a confluence of events had occurred that was going to reach potential perfection in the form of a pot of soup.

You see, my daughter has one of her oldest friends visiting, who just so happens to be vegan.  To protect her privacy I'll call her FreeSpiritGirl.  FSG enjoys thrift store hunting as much as I do, so yesterday while introducing her to "my" Goodwill store, it seemed a good portent when she found a brand new article of clothing she'd been needing for quite some time while I found a great soup pot over in housewares, just the size I'd been wanting.

Aside: We will go to certain lengths to accommodate guests around here that we rarely extend to immediate family.  Chalk that up to familiarity breeding contempt, or the idea we can bend for a visitor without breaking as opposed to a potentially long term change for family.

At any rate, the Hub, once assured he would not be required to eat vegan for the duration of FSG's visit, has been quite cheerfully willing to try out any number of vegan dishes this week, especially in the form of chocolate chip cookies.  ("That's not vegan, he maintained, that's just a really good cookie!".)

This recipe seemed just the right confluence.  A way to break in my new soup pot, a way to acknowledge the pleasures of non-carnivorous eating, and a wonderful warm meal, all packed into one.  Genius!

Chipotle sweet potato soup

2 pounds of sweet potatoes (about two large or three skinny ones), peeled and cubed 
2 carrots, peeled and diced 
2 stalks of celery, diced 
1 medium onion, diced 
4 cloves of garlic, minced 
4 cups of vegetable broth 
2-4 chipotles in adobo (depending on your heat tolerance) chopped 
1 teaspoon ginger 
1 teaspoon cinnamon 
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 
Juice of one lime 
1 tablespoon of olive oil 
Salt and black pepper to taste 
Non-Vegan Option:  Sour cream 
Cinnamon-chipotle pecans (recipe to follow)

Method: Heat the olive oil on medium low in a large soup pot, and cook the onions, celery and carrot for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute.
Add the sweet potatoes, broth, chipotles, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to the pot. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are tender.

Let the soup cool, and then in batches, purée it in the blender. If you prefer, you can use an immersion blender in the pot instead.

Once the soup has been puréed, stir in the lime juice and add salt and black pepper to taste. Serve topped with some of the chopped cinnamon-chipotle pecans and (optional) a dollop of sour cream. Serves 8.

Cinnamon chipotle pecans
2 tablespoons of coconut oil (non-vegan option: butter)
1 cup of chopped pecans 
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
1/4 teaspoon of chipotle powder 
Salt to taste

Method: Melt the fat in a skillet on low heat. Add the pecans and stir them until they are covered. Add the cinnamon and chipotle powder and stir to coat. Cook the pecans, stirring occasionally, for ten minutes. Salt to taste.

I made the soup yesterday with plans on serving it today so the flavors had time to throw their own get-acquainted party overnight. I used 3 chipotles, which after tasting I decided is several clicks past "too spicy" for the rest of the family, so for my daughter and Hub I will stir in some dairy to take it down a notch or three. Yes, yes, that will make it non-vegan, but my sweet family aren't vegan now and likely never will be, so no real harm done.  

I will make the pecans right before serving so they'll still be warm, and I plan on using coconut oil to keep the nuts on the straight and narrow, vegan wise.  

While this was cooking it made my house smell like pumpkin pie - the spices were amazingly aromatic.  Now I can barely wait to ladle this into bowls and serve it up to friends and family.  

I hope you'll treat yourself to this sooner rather than later. This recipe is cinchy and could be table ready in about an hour if you were in a hurry for something warm and spicy and delicious and healthy for your own lunch or dinner. 

You surely won't want to wait for a vegan house guest or a new soup pot to try it.  But, just in case you do have either one around your house, then you and this soup need wait no longer.  Let serendipity rule.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What I Did for Love...

I got a very thoughtful emailed heads up from a fellow blogger today indicating the reason I might not have received any comments expressing Valentine's Day wishes on my rosy posey post Sunday was because I had somehow inadvertently tinkered with the comment settings in a not so helpful way.

Truth is, I had not yet checked for comments on that post.  Partly I was busy with family plans, but partly I fell prey to the lingering scars of Valentine Days past, particularly one nasty Valentine's Day in elementary school when I first learned about unrequited affection.

My teacher that year may have had her own ghosts of Valentine's Days past (in those days all the elementary school teachers were female). Perhaps she was inexperienced, maybe she was embittered beyond caring, whatever the reason behind it, she did not, as had all my teachers before then and all the teachers after that, clearly insist every student in the class make or bring a valentine for every other student.

In the late 1950's through the 1960's a Valentine's Day student exchange was such common practice juvenile valentine cards were sold in packs of 25 conforming to the state mandated elementary school class size.  Each selection featured a slightly larger "To Teacher" version as part of the set.  You bought a pack, you signed the back and filled out the "To:_____" on the envelopes with the assistance of an aromatic purple smudged mimeographed list of names sent home by your teacher the week before.

Other than the missing admonition to bring a card for every student, my teacher that year followed the well prescribed routine.  At the beginning of February we were told to bring a shoebox from home.  We spent our art periods both weeks prior to the 14th swimming among doilies, adrift in a sea of pink and red construction paper provided so we could sufficiently smother our our mail box with gluey hand made hearts and flowers.

This year our teacher stated simply that on the day of our party we would start our studies ten minutes after the morning bell to allow us time to deliver our valentines.  She announced further to our mounting excitement we would have punch and cookies provided by our Home Room Mother right before the final bell of the day.  This was it, our Valentine's Class Party, during which time we could open our mailboxes in sugary bliss.  There were giggles and squeals.  A party!  At school!  The novelty was nearly excruciating.

It would never have occurred to me at that age to buy a full pack of valentine cards and not distribute every last one of them.  To buy and not use was unheard of in our home.  To leave anybody out intentionally was simply not our way.  My brother and I were similarly instructed we could invite everybody [or nobody] to birthday parties.  The cruelty, recognized or not, to intentionally select some and ignore others was simply not a feature of The Universe According to My Mom.

That this was not necessarily the case for all my school mates was soon to be discovered.

The day arrived, the party began and it was rapidly apparent that I, among others, did not have as many cards as there were students.  Some of my valentines were unsigned, making it impossible to know precisely who had smiled and who had withheld, but glancing around, I, along with a few other girls just savvy enough to know we'd been snubbed, all sat there mutually red faced for an excruciating 10 minutes while we waited for the bell to signal our release.

I learned a lot that year, some of it about arithmetic and capitals, spelling and chief exports.  But most of what I remember learning that year was about how cruel the world can be when left to its own devices.  I began that year to understand the heart as a vulnerable organ.  I was beginning to see how much courage it took to express affection with no guarantee of return.

That trauma aside, I took my lumps and heeded my Mother's philosophy.  The best measure of love, she taught us, was if we had given the ones we loved our all, with no thought to what we might gain in return.  She insisted love is only love if it is freely given, with no strings and no expectations.

Now, though I try to avoid clichés, I tend to go all out for Valentine's Day.  I still perform what is, for me, a version of that "a card for every student in the class" mandate.

This year that took the form of a delicious Niman Ranch ribeye dinner along with specially selected gifts for my loved ones.

I went all out (for me), making herbed butter, harvesting lettuces from the garden for our salads.

I even baked a cake for dessert.

I'm gratified it all tasted good, but because I did what I did with love, for people I love unconditionally, this particular dinner and by extension our shared St. Valentine's Day celebration was a success long before the food hit our plates or our palates.

I am hopeful your history with Valentine's Day is not a checkered one.  But whether or not you count yourself as the fortunate participant in a string of requited loving exchanges, I wish for you the freedom to express all the love you have without fear that its measure is somehow in the hands of others. I promise you, my Mother had it right all along.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

To all of you out there from everybody here - have a sweet day.....

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stupid is as...

When I get extremely frustrated, I lose IQ points. Lots of them. More than I can afford to.

So this morning when I decided to try a recipe simply because it called for two and one-half cups grated cheese, hand grating the cheese being my strategy to stay warm(er) in a progressively cooling house while sitting through the fourth visit in as many weeks to try and fix our sputtering heat pump, I should have expected the outcome.

Mistakes would be made.

I read, in the list of ingredients, "2 cups quick-cooking grits". The first step in the directions (after preheating the oven) was to cook the grits according to the directions on the back of the package.

I had some cooked leftover rice already on hand, so, feeling very clever,  I figured out in my head how much less of the two cups of grits to cook (ballparking the cooked rice available to substitute in for one half a cup of uncooked grits).  Smiling to myself, I measured the 1 1/2 cups of grits out, and put the water on the heat.

I grated the cheese, warming up from the effort as was the initial incentive for the dish.  I assembled the other ingredients. With a slightly warmer brain to my advantage I then noticed how, although the photo for the recipe was clearly of an 11x13 casserole, this recipe specifically directed me to butter a 9 inch baking dish.

I stepped back and took a better look at the volume of my now cooked grits after stirring in the rest of the ingredients called for, and gulped. This recipe was only meant to produce four servings.

Looking at the mass in the pan I realized, unless this was a special dish meant to provide four servings for premeet college track stars or marathoners desiring a carbohydrate blitz, I'd way miscalculated.  Way.

I read the ingredients again.  The recipe obviously (now) called for two COOKED cups of grits, not two uncooked cups of grits.

Sigh. Cheese grits are very forgiving I decided. I took a deep breath and slid the casserole into the oven. Whatever I had now, I sure hoped I liked it because in an hour I would have an awful lot of it.
Happy ending. I'd overcompensated with jalapeño peppers because I only had pickled slices on hand, so at least the pepper component of the dish was spot on.

If it lacked a certain almost overbearing salty cheesiness I was accustomed to from other recipes, this misread mixture made up for that with a delicacy of crust and interesting texture I attributed to the rice added in with the grits.

Now I am keeping my fingers crossed the rest of the folks around here respond well. Otherwise I am most definitely going to get my fill of grits in the days to come.

So here is the recipe (mostly) as written.

Jalapeño Cheese Grits
2 cups quick cooking grits
2 1/2 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar
1 stick unsalted butter
1 tablespoon hot sauce (I used Tabasco)
3 large eggs well beaten
2 jalapeños, finely diced (here is where I went nutso, dicing up a 1/3 cup at least!)
4 ounce can chopped green chiles

garlic salt (I used powder - I don't buy garlic salt)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook grits according to the directions on the back of the package (and yes, this was where it all went terribly off track). Remove from the heat and add the next six ingredients.

Stir well and season with garlic salt to taste.

Pour into a buttered 9 inch baking dish and bake for one hour. Let cool slightly before slicing and serving. 

Serves 4.

If any of you manage to make this correctly, I'll be interested to hear if you like it. I may yet try this out in the far future. It will take at least 5-6 days to run through the massive quantities of baked grits already on hand, but it would be fun to know what this recipe is meant to taste like!

Postscript: The heater repairman has been here for four and a half hours. If he doesn't pronounce us "repaired" pretty soon I suppose I'll ask him to sit down for a late lunch of grits, maybe put a cot out in the hall by the furnace. It might not be warm in this house but at least we won't starve!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I heart hand made

I have always been a bit of a patsy for the hand made card or gift. At no time is that more applicable than St. Valentine's Day.

To me, a rhyming couplet on a glossy card never trumps hand written heart felt sentiment. When it comes to expressing love, words or gifts should clearly communicate "I know you well enough to know what you want, what you need, what you have been dreaming about". Or even better yet, a gift that indicates "I have been paying such good attention to you that I knew you wanted this even before you did".

When it comes to presenting a gift, a big part of the fun for me is finding some way to conceal the gift that yet reveals the relationship.

Case in point this repurposed map that will serve as the canvas for a hand stamped customized wrapping paper.I decided to revisit my crafting past and use a lowly potato to carve a stamp.

Nearly everyone has a potato and small knife around, and this is a fun way to channel my inner third grader. If you are lucky enough to have an eight year old around to play with, this is an even better project to share. Eight year olds can be careful with a knife, but aren't too cool to appreciate and enjoy simple fun like this.Materials needed for this are a medium sized potato, a small knife, a pencil to get the pattern started, and some paint to use as a stamping medium. I used acrylic paint here but poster paint works fine and I've heard you can use a stamp pad but haven't tried it that way.I like to keep my stamp shapes simple. I start with a larger version than I'll need because I typically end up having to size down as a result of over zealous carving.

If you do decide to try this, do as I say, not as I did. I used a tile table that was uneven. For the best results it takes a level surface to work on so the stamp will fully meet the paper. If you are not absolutely certain your paper won't bleed through, then place newsprint or something under your paper to protect your table surface. My tile table cleans up easily, so I'm fairly careless as you can see.

I like to start with a few practice stamps around the perimeter. That gives me a feel for how much paint or ink to use, how much pressure I want, and I can experiment with whether I like a well covered distinct area or a fainter stamp image that lets the map show through. I can always fill in with more if I want to later.

I let the paper dry completely before trimming and wrapping the gift.

Now comes the fun. I like to experiment with placement and set my imagination loose a little here.

Maybe I want to have a destination centered on top that is a place the recipient has already visited, or dreams to visit? Or maybe my choice will be driven by the colors or shape the top of the gift offers me. I was wrapping an oddly shaped gift that was not boxed but was rather surrounded by bubble wrap, so my gift did not have clear corners or sharp edges play with. If I am wrapping something in a box and the paper size and pattern allows it, I like to play with having the image on top be framed by the edges.

Et voila! I think this will warm the heart of my loved one before they even see what is inside.However (or whether) you celebrate, I do hope you will make it your priority to show those people who are special in your life that you love them over the next few days. Whether or not it is a hand made or store bought or no gift at all that would be your personal preference on St. Valentine's Day, we can all stand to be told in no uncertain terms that we are loved.Postscript: Love is a word some people throw around a lot. I am as guilty as the next one on that count, but I really do enjoy blogging and I especially enjoy the idea some of you visit regularly and let me know you've read and appreciated these posts by commenting. Thanks to each and every one of you and I hope you all have a wonderful warm weekend and feel appreciated by those who love you.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Weeping in the Kitchen

Yesterday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day (except for when it wasn't).

The downhill slide started with a hotel reservation snafu that required 16 emails and two phone calls to resolve.

While I was fuming, I realized the house felt chillier than it should, and when I went to check the thermostat?

All I got was a teeny tiny blank screen of death. Which meant the heating system had gone offline. For the second time in the span of 30 days.When I get frustrated and angry I do snarl (oh yes I do!). I do take the Lord's name in vain and I do shake a fist and curse. But more centrally to our tale today, when I get frustrated enough, infuriated beyond measure, I veer into tearful territory.

And that, friends and fellow bloggers is precisely how I found myself yesterday by mid morning. Tearful. Everything simple had become complicated, everything easy had become difficult, and I was so frustrated with the indignity and injustice of it all (OK OK I know this was me getting overblown, I have not forgotten Haiti or world hunger, relax) that I had tears stinging in my eyes.

I thought to myself if anybody Mary Poppinsed their way into my presence and told me brightly "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!" I would gladly have punched them for their trouble. (Then apologized. I was frustrated, not brutish.)

So I began to play with the phrase to distract myself from how long it might take the repair service guy to come look at our stupid STUPID nonfunctional heater.

"If life gives you tears, make.....".

..................... Sigh. Sniffle.
(insert light bulb here).

French Onion Soup! Mon Dieu! Naturelment! I'd been meaning to make onion soup for ages.I like it, the Hub loves it, and even though I had not yet stumbled across THE recipe, every iteration so far had been not only edible, but credible as a representation of the genre.So out came the previously printed recipes, the sharp knife and the large cutting board. A bag of onions fetched from their garage storage spot, a bouquet garni cobbled together from herbs snipped from our garden in between rainy spells, some organic beef stock I'd nabbed on sale at Wheatsville, and I was just about set.

Chop chop, sniffle sniffle. Yesssssss.

As it turns out, the heater required two service visits. Service guy number the first was apparently so overwhelmed by the onion fumes in our house that he may have missed something. Service guy the second was a sport, didn't charge additionally for his visit or efforts, and I ended up with onion soup plus a functional heater.Win/win.

Side note: In support of the conceit that I make a wide variety of dishes for dinner (as opposed to a sinking feeling some nights that "If This is Tuesday it Must Be Meat Loaf"), I'd been recording our dinner entrees on the calendar for the past few weeks just to keep track.

I mean, seriously, can you recall what you had for dinner night before yesterday? Four days ago? If so, great for you, be sure to leave the blueberries for the rest of us forgetful types, because without writing it down, the lineup of My Dinners Past predictably evaporates into the ether.

It's been a fun prospect as it turns out. Looking back on three weeks of dinner is at the very least enlightening as to our patterns. It has also provided a good counter argument to certain younger diners who consistently try to make a case for fast food with the contention it has been "ages" since we had fill-in-the-blank-fast-food. Unless by "ages" they mean days. Which, given the stretchy tendency of some days, I totally get.

I digress.

Looking back?We've had, in no particular order, Seafood Lasagna (an experiment that fell into the "meh-OK" category), potato onion soup, grilled lamb sirloin, ginger fried rice, brats, sliders, roasted chicken and bolognese on pasta. Plus take-out barbeque, fried chicken, pizza, and more pizza.

Once I had onion soup doing a Vulcan Flavor meld in the refrigerator, the heater back online, and the hotel reservation snafu unfued, in a rush of largesse I decided to treat everybody (read:long suffering me/myself/I) to a simple chocolate cake as a celebration of our Saved from the Trashbin Wednesday.The recipe that follows is from Sweet Paul's website and is just as he describes it - a wonderful brownie style cake, delicious served warm as a delivery vehicle for a scoop of ice cream. And as it turns out, just the thing to celebrate a Wednesday yanked out of the dumpster.

Simple Save Wednesday (aka)
Sweet Paul's Easy Chocolate Cake
1 stick melted butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons baking cocoa
3/4 cup AP flour

Pre-heat your oven to 320F, 160C. (I set my oven for 325 degrees...)
Stir butter and sugar until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the eggs and mix well.
Stir in vanilla, cocoa and flour. (I added chopped pecans just because...CHOPPED PECANS!)
Pour the batter in a buttered cake tin and bake for about 30 minutes.
The cake is best if its a little underbaked in the middle, like a soft brownie.
Take out and let cool a little.
Serve while still a little hot a la mode or with some whipped cream.
Yum. Wednesday may never be the same.

So how about you? Can you remember what you had for dinner three nights ago? Four? Fess up in the comments section and while you're mulling, do consider trying this great simple cake to celebrate "just because". You DESERVE it, you know you do.