Tuesday, January 31, 2012

molasses in january

Looking at my children now, it is hard to believe I was ever able to carry them around in my belly. This was sort of hard to believe the moment I laid eyes on them, now that I think about it. But dim memory and ample wide-screen photographic evidence suggests that I once did keep them in my midsection. They were good-size babies, and maybe as a result I tended to be slightly anemic while they were under construction. This led to talk of iron supplements. Supplementing with iron is a tricky business; it messes with your digestion something awful, and many believe this is due in part to the fact that non-dietary sources of iron are basically indigestible and consequently unavailable to your body--so you mess things up for no good reason, in the end. My midwife tried me out on a liquid herbal iron supplement that was food-based, but to my pregnant sensibilities it tasted like a juicy blend of marmalade and loose change and I could not choke it down. So to shore up the boost I got from eating like Popeye and cooking in a cast iron pot, I drank molasses. Not straight, mind you, but rather in hot water with a little soy milk. It must have been good for me, because it tasted heavenly and I sucked it down.

Molasses, proceeding as it does from the same source as sugar, can get a little collateral bad rap--but molasses is essentially all the nutrients that have been sucked out of the sugar, in concentrated form. Regular and dark molasses are what’s left after the first two stages of “purification,” and blackstrap molasses comes from the third boiling. Whopping amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron course through all of them. According to various unvetted sources, it’s reputed to cure cancerous tumors, fibroid tumors, anxiety, constipation, edema, heart palpitations, anemia, arthritic pain, joint pain, acne and will reverse the graying of your hair, should you be experiencing any of that. Let’s just say it’s good for you.

If you don’t feel like drinking it, I understand completely. How about gingerbread instead? In muffin form, so you can tuck it into your lunchbox or your mouth with equal economy of motion. Small children can put away a large number of these muffins, which tells you something about their appeal. Please note they do not give you the crested, bakery-window top of other muffins, thanks to a high proportion of liquid ingredients. But thanks to their flat tops they will sit still nicely for a dab of cream-cheese frosting, if you want to throw caution to the wind and call them cupcakes.

Please also note that you can get pretty creative with the dry ingredients here. I substitute flax meal, wheat germ, oat flour and/or almond meal for some of the flour, and usually use a mixture of white and whole wheat flours as well. If they are going down easy, they may as well bring some nutrition along.

gingerbread muffins

1/4 cup canola or other mild oil

1/2 cup molasses

1 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 egg

1 1/2 c flour
1 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

1 t cinnamon

2 t ground ginger (you can substitute or supplement with grated fresh ginger as well)
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to 350 and line a twelve-cup muffin pan with paper liners. Mix the oil, egg, molasses and applesauce together well in a medium size bowl. In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients thoroughly. Combine the two mixtures, divide among the muffin cups and bake about twenty minutes. These keep quite well, tasting not at all like day-old muffins when or if they reach that age.

Monday, January 30, 2012

the loving spoonful

If you are lucky enough to be loved by Millie Chan, you may have received a container of this when your spirit or body was overwhelmed. Millie is a Chinese chef who grew up in Texas, and she is as likely to blow your socks off with spring rolls as pecan pie. It’s a powerful combination of skill-sets, let me tell you.

I am lucky enough to have known Millie almost my whole life. Millie and her husband introduced me to mine. I have seen a lot of pots of congee pass from her kitchen into my family’s kitchens, and when I was asked to make a meal of exceptional gentleness and appeal for a friend in need I went straight to Millie’s book.

There are not many ingredients involved here, and the process could hardly be simpler. If it is Monday, chilly, gloomy or taxing in your world--or the world of a loved one--actually or metaphorically, this may be just the ticket. Enormous reward-to-effort ratio makes it even more satisfying.

rice congee

Adapted from Millie Chan’s Kosher Chinese Cookbook

serves 4; doubles easily

10 cups of water

1 cup long-grain white rice (I used jasmine rice, but any long-grain white will do)

2 t kosher salt

1/2 of a boneless chicken breast

1 t cornstarch

½ t kosher salt

to serve:

sesame oil

tamari or soy sauce

very finely minced fresh ginger

coarsely chopped cilantro

maybe some minced scallions

Combine the water and the rice in a large heavy pot. Bring to a boil, stir quite thoroughly, then turn the heat as low as it will go and simmer gently, covered, for an hour and a half. Really. Stir occasionally to make sure the rice does not stick to the pot. When the congee is done, it will look like a thick, smooth gruel with barely visible rice kernels (think oatmeal) and you will wonder what the hell I am having you do. Stir in the salt. Now you have plain congee, and you can stop there and go straight for the garnish.

If you want chicken congee, then while the rice is simmering, finely sliver the chicken breast (a very sharp knife and a partially frozen piece of chicken will simplify this task immeasurably.) Don't try to make it perfect, just chop it as best you can. Toss the chicken in a small bowl with the cornstarch and salt. The attempt to toss will lead to a worrisome clump, but mix as well as possible and it will work out fine in the end. When the congee is done, stir the chicken in and keep stirring, to separate the chicken pieces, until the chicken meat turns white.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with a sprinkle of ginger and cilantro, a light drizzle each of sesame oil and soy sauce, and if you are feeling the need for some heat, a little black bean and garlic sauce from the Asian section of your local Gourmet Shoppe.

Note: Millie says you can also substitute fish for the chicken, by slicing 1/2 a pound of a mild white fish quite thinly and seasoning it with a teaspoon of salt, a dash of pepper and a dash of sesame oil. Portion the seasoned, raw fish among the bowls, and ladle the hot rice over it. This will cook the fish.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

hot-bed of activity

My niece, who visited over the weekend, noted that it was Super Vegetable Week and asked me how this distinguished the present week from the other 51 in my year. “Are you going to post something about dessert today, to reward everyone for all the vegetable stuff?” she asked me. She likes dessert, possibly slightly more than she likes vegetables, a viewpoint which may be reflected in the little snippet of dialogue I have just quoted for you. I have a strong feeling that what I am about to offer you is not the kind of dessert she means, but it is the right dessert for Vegetable Week, in my opinion.

I have been reading Elizabeth David lately, specifically her book about Christmas food, for no particular reason other than it was the one they had at the library and I thought it might have something in it about vegetables in winter. It did.

If you already know all about Elizabeth David, skip this next part and go straight to the excerpt I have excerpted for you below.

If you wonder who she is, I will tell you in the briefest possible terms that she was by her own description a “British cookery journalist,” a food writer of astonishing historical knowledge whose proper tone and decisive manner make me feel as though I have a slightly alarming but fascinating governess in the kitchen with me. David, who died in 1992, lived a wildly unconventional and adventurous life and is credited with nothing less than entirely renovating British food. “She taught us we could do better with what we had,” said Jane Grigson, who is no slouch herself and also worth a google in your spare time.

In her tone, David is kind of Margaret Thatcher meets Mary Poppins--no nonsense tolerated, lots of adventures to tell you about, breezy instructions that must be followed to the letter or certain ruin will follow, and no time for your peevish questions about the details. “If here and there in my account of a cookery journalist’s Christmases a note of desperation is clearly audible, I don’t make apologies. Christmas, at any rate the way we are supposed to celebrate it nowadays, does tend to unbalance people,” she says in her introduction. This either makes it clear why it’s kind of tempting to just re-type the whole book here for you, or makes you glad that I don’t plan to.

With the stern self-control any governess would expect, I am going to limit myself to one story. Thinking about how unnatural it seems to truck vegetables in from other climates for several months of the year had me wondering what people in cold climates ate in this season before such dubious and seemingly irresistible wonders were possible. David quotes from a book in her vast collection (which is now housed at Harvard and seems worth a pilgrimage) called The Complete English Gardener, written by a fellow named Samuel Cooke and published in 1760. It seems the unwillingness to live through winter without salad has some historical roots.

“We have in the conservatory some artichoaks preserved in the sand. There are several sorts of cabbages, and their sprouts, for boiling; asparagus upon hot-beds; and if diligence has been used, you may find some cucumbers, of the plants that were sown in July and August.

“We have this month on the hot-bed sallads of small herbs, with mint, tarragon, burnet, cabbage-lettuce preserved under glasses, and some cresses and chervil upon the natural ground, with which high taste helps the sallads of this season. To these may be added blanched celery and endive.

"There are variety of herbs for soups and the kitchen use, such as sage, thyme, beet-leaves, parsley, sorrel, spinach, cellery, and leeks...Likewise sweet marjoram, dried marigold flowers, and dried mint..."

He writes about forcing peas in a cold frame and coaxing cherries from the December trees and what types of apples are left (Ambret! Colmar!) and generally makes you wonder how a culture known--until David galloped in to rescue them--for boiling everything until it was grey could have sprung from such concern for year-round access to flavorful tender greens. It's good to know the craving for high taste and sallads of the season connects us over time, even if our present methods could bear some adjusting.

No more peevish focus on vegetables alone--back to regularly scheduled programming now.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

bale out

My husband is away, which among other implications means the morning chores are all mine. I loaded the wood furnace without singeing off my eyelashes--a major victory, considering my record--and fed the sheep. Here are a couple of facts about sheep, for those of you who do not live with them. In the summer, sheep are as finicky as cats. Patches of grass that look lush and delicious even to those of us with two legs and one stomach are passed over with a sniff if that’s not the mood they are in that day. Treats are carefully examined and considered from all angles, and after some deliberation may or may not be cautiously accepted.

All the plants in “my” “garden,” of course, are pre-approved in any season in which they manage to poke their heads up, and are summarily dispatched when access is granted. But I’m not talking old grudges right now. What I meant to tell you is that in winter, sheepy tunes change. My husband hays all summer, which is among both the calmest and most meditative of farm tasks and also the most stressful and arduous. Thanks to this labor of his, every day, all winter long, bale-of-hay is the special of the day, the appetizer, the entrée and dessert in the Sheeptown Café, because it is basically the only thing on the menu.

But do you see a “Hay? Again? Not hay again!” expression on their faces? No, you do not. If they could clap, they would, as you approach with the bale. “Look! Guys, look! She’s bringing hay! AGAIN!”

Treats, too, are suddenly big news and a broad category. Finicky summer tastes fade to memory, as their need for the this-and-that provided by a diet of fresh greens cannot be met in the bale. Their enthusiasm for carrot tops and lettuce butts and apple cores may not surprise you, but the excitement of being handed a pile of lime rinds (we generate a lot of lime rinds) might. My husband reports that after he’s given them a mineral block from the feed store (kind of like a salt lick, but also kind of like a Kit-Kat bar, as they load it with molasses to make it palatable), their interest in these things wanes.

Bringing this neatly back around to Vegetable Week, rest assured I am not suggesting you eat lime rinds or hay. I am suggesting zucchini pancakes. They are entirely unlike a bale of hay in real terms. I make them a lot and everyone is happy to see them regardless, so in that sense they are metaphorically similar. Because I was trying to cast a wide net, wider than my usual bag of old stand-by tricks, I was not going to include them.

But something in her expression suggested that I should.

In the summer, when zucchini are everywhere, this is a nice way to dispatch some. In the winter, when they have to jet in from elsewhere, this means you will not mind if the zucchini are not bursting with summer sunlight. It’s the mint that elevates the goings-on here, makes your mouth happy and wakes up senses that may have been hibernating a bit, so don’t skip that if you can help it. These are more savory and satisfying than the otherwise simple ingredients might have you think. One of my housemates is a confirmed Zucchini Hater, but gobbles these right up. It's the pancake factor, I think.

zucchini feta pancakes

adapted from Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook

3 eggs

4 c coarsely grated zucchini

1 c crumbled feta cheese (about 4 ozs)

2T minced scallions or chives

1T finely chopped fresh mint

Fresh pepper to taste

1/3 c cornmeal (corn, millet or rice flour can be substituted, as can regular wheat flour if you are not avoiding it)

Olive oil for the pan

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. The mixture will be mostly zucchini, bound by a little batter. The longer this mixture sits, the more water will be extracted from the zucchini by the salt in the feta, so it's best for the texture to cook them right up; if you need to do some advance work to make these possible, just prep all the bits ahead of time and then combine them right before you cook. Heat a medium heavy skillet and add oil enough to coat the bottom of it; let the oil get hot enough to race around the pan. Drop the batter in by 1/3 cupfuls and turn the heat down to low-medium; fry the pancakes until they are a nice golden brown and flip to repeat. Take some time to let them brown slowly and well and they will not be hard to flip. These can be kept warm in a 250 degree oven as you go, or eaten at room temperature, and leftovers ride happily in someone's lunch the next day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

salad daze

wishful thinking. all we have now is rain and mud.

My mother has a belief that people in cold climates should not eat salad in the winter. Tender greens are not a natural part of our winter ecosystem, goes her reasoning, and so we are not meant to eat them.

She may have a point, but I find it hard to stick to this as a rule of thumb. For one thing, I get a little wonky when I go too long without a salad. For another, the minors in my care are big salad eaters, to such a degree that our middle child has a Salad Ranking System--“ooh, fennel salad! That’s my fourth-favorite!” I find it hard to say “no” to a child who is begging for salad, even if it means buying lettuce that has a frequent-flier number.

A friend brought a version of this one to a potluck, and the standings were immediately re-shuffled to accommodate it. I am not a fan of cold grain salads, but this one avoids the chalk and sog that turn me off by flipping the proportions around; grains are an accent rather than the base. A power salad is a pretty free-form experience, so this is an approach more than a recipe. Our favorites are noted but it’s a good place to go wild and make it your own.

Start with washed greens sufficient to feed your crowd. In the winter, where garden-fresh leafy greens are not in plentiful supply, Romaine lettuce turns up in the bowl pretty frequently. Its sturdiness makes a great base that stands up well to additions, but add baby spinach or arugula, torn red-leaf or boston lettuce or anything else looking brightly back at you from the produce shelf. Chopped steamed broccoli can be another great addition in months when leafy greens choices are slim.

For a salad to feed 6, toss about ½ c of cooked, cooled quinoa (my favorite), cracked wheat (if gluten is not an issue) or any other cooked, nutty whole grain on top of the greens.

Sprinkle on about half a cup of finely crumbled feta or goat cheese, or choose chopped green olives or capers if you are going dairy-free, or try both, along with the same amount of coarsely chopped roasted nuts, like almonds or pine nuts or pecans.

Now add about ¾ c of chopped fresh fruit. The top pick in our house is a sectioned and de-membraned orange (try a cara cara if you haven’t before) or grapefruit, but a mango would work well, too. Add a chopped avocado if they are looking good when you shop. There's a lot of whining around here when I don't use an avocado.

Dressing this salad is a pretty simple matter, as there is so much going on that little is required. A glug of good olive oil (maybe a dash of flax oil, while you are at it), the fresh juice of half a lemon or lime and a twist of pepper usually do it; a sprinkle of coarse salt or a dash of tamari may be desirable for balance if there is not enough salt in your chosen add-ons.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I had to lay off the Brussels sprouts for a while, but I have just fallen off the wagon. I entered rehab after a love affair with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts led to run of these Brussels sprouts, which are delicious, and from there it was a short slide to a spate of these Brussels sprouts, which you can make with bacon instead and which are insanely addictive, or at least they are to me, and I was all set to embark on these Brussels sprouts when the family staged an intervention, and I cooled it for a while.

But during my Vegetable Week quest, I ran across a recipe for Brussels sprouts in coconut milk, and that sounded pretty good, and I was home alone. As soon as the coconut milk hit the sprouts, though, I knew I had been steered wrong. The reason the other sprouts were so damn tasty was that they are flash-cooked in a little fat, and you get a caramelizing effect on the edges with a bright flavor elsewhere. If you groaned at the mere mention of one of these dollhouse-size cabbages, it is likely because you have been subjected to the odor, flavor and texture of a Brussels sprout cooked in liquid. Let’s just pretend this is a whole new vegetable, because that is what it tastes like.

Furthermore, fast cooking preserves the stupendous nutrient value of the sprout, which is high in sulforaphane, believed to have potent anticancer properties, and indole-3-carbinol, which is reported to block the growth of cancer cells. Who doesn't need a little of that action in their day?

But mainly they are tasty, and in my experience tastiness leads to eating, and this week we are all about eating our vegetables so this is all to the good.

If you have a food processor, it is the work of a moment to shred the little buggers using the slicing disk (be sure to trim the woody end off and peel off the outer leaves first). If you don’t, and I fall into the latter camp, it’s the work of several moments to just slice them up not particularly carefully. My friend Julie gave me a swanky new knife, which made short and pleasant work of the slicing. Incidentally, my friend from Grenada says if you set your knife down and it happens to balance blade-up, it means someone is going on a trip. My knife did, and then my dad called to ask if we wanted to go on vacation with them, so you can see that vegetables are VERY POWERFUL INDEED.

stir-fried Brussels sprouts with coconut, chile & lime

About a pound of Brussels sprouts

2-3 T unsweetened shredded coconut

2-3 T vegetable oil

1-2 cloves garlic, minced or chopped

a fat pinch of coarse salt

a fat pinch of dried red pepper flakes

to serve:

a wedge of lime

Trim and whack up the sprouts, by hand or machine. Have a serving dish ready near the stove. Heat a medium heavy skillet over medium heat and put the coconut into it. Stir and toss for a moment or two, until the coconut is lightly toasted. (This is not a good time to space out and wander off, as I am telling you that a few moments is all that stands between you and burned coconut). Immediately remove the coconut to the dish. Now heat the oil in the pan for a moment, and toss in the remaining ingredients, Stir well to combine and fry until the sprouts are lightly browned in places and bright green and tender-cooked throughout. This takes about 3 minutes.

Turn off the heat, toss the coconut in and stir it around, and then remove it all to the serving dish and squeeze the lime on top. Serve immediately as a hot side, or room temperature as a salad.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

winter greens

There is an email that makes its way around as such things do, on a certain cycle, that may or may not have originated with an actual contest in the Washington Post years ago. Do you know the one I mean? The challenge in that mythical contest was to create a new word by changing one letter of an existing one, and the list is one of the few seasonal emails I am generally happy to see, because it has some great words on it. As will happen in the Great Age of Computers, some enterprising soul who was tired of the same email coming around announcing a contest that wasn’t happening anymore, if it ever did, revived the thing. I have just wasted ten minutes I will never get back choosing (in my entirely objective opinion) the best of the words in this year’s contest. I present them to you so you can immediately begin using them. No need to thank me for saving you the trouble of culling the list yourself, and if you prefer to waste your own time directly, the full list can be found here.

automagically - a thing that just happens mysteriously

carcolepsy - the chronic inability to stay awake while riding in a car

eblaborate - oversharing at length and with no clear thesis

jobstacle - when work gets in the way

pregret - Regretting something that you haven’t done yet

All good ones, right? But the ultimate winner, I feel, is this one:

crapacity - Upper limit to the amount of BS you can tolerate

Perhaps you have reached yours, so let’s talk about bitter vegetables. Family legend has it that when I was served an endive at a tender age I did not find it pleasant. I began to refer to anything too bitter to enjoy as “derve,” and that word has persisted in my family’s lexicon ever since. It’s a good word, I think, perhaps not on the order of “jobstacle,” but one I continue to use for things that are too bitter to be palatable.

Very few vegetables these days get the diagnosis, though. I love endive and radicchio and dandelion, and even the most casual research will tell you these are definitely vegetables that will love you back: they are high in minerals and immune-boosting antioxidants, and stimulate your liver to be a better sanitation device.

But that’s worthless data if you can’t make them tasty enough to eat. My favorite way to eat broccoli rabe has always been to blanch it in salted water, then sauté it with garlic and olive oil and and lots of salt. If the very bitterness of this common Italian restaurant treatment has put you off it before, though, fly in the face of your pregret and try eating it raw.

My friends Naomi and Ron served this salad at one of their periodic, epic potluck dinners, and I have been making it ever since. This amused Naomi when I told her, because she forgot she ever made it at all. She is the Queen of Greens, and it is probably hard to keep all her incredible salads straight. Contrary to what you might expect if you have gone to lengths to cook its bitterness away, raw rabe is much sweeter. And the salty-sour dressing makes it go down nice and easy.

broccoli rabe salad with pesto and lemon

1 head broccoli rabe

about half a cup of prepared pesto

the juice of at least one lemon

coarse salt to taste

Trim the woody ends from the broccoli rabe stalks and tear/chop the tender upper parts into bite-size pieces. The leaves and little florets are of much more use here than the thicker parts of the stems. Wash and thoroughly dry. Mix or shake the pesto, lemon juice, and a perhaps a little extra olive oil, depending on how thick the pesto you have is, in a little jar or dish and pour this over the greens, along witha good pinch of coarse salt, tossing or mixing with your hands until everything is well-coated. Pesto can vary quite a bit, so taste for the right balance of sour, salty and pesto-y, and correct accordingly with more of whatever you require.

Monday, January 23, 2012

that cosí feeling

I know about 28 words of Italian, not including words like “rigatoni” and “prosciutto.” They are very handy words, most of them, comprising survival-oriented sentences like “do you have these shoes larger, and in brown?” and “I'd like apricot, but with whipped cream, please.”

I am going to teach you seven of them today, and then move on to dinner. Apologies if you know them already.

Years ago, I was in Sicily with my parents and a school friend. We were staying in a breathtakingly beautiful old monastery, which had been converted into a decidedly not-monastic hotel. In Sicily, super delicious olive oil basically runs out of the faucets, and everything you eat is drenched in it, and your skin feels and looks fantastic, and there is no chance you could possibly need to eat when you get back to your room or before you leave it, because the food everywhere you go is so good.

Even so, for some reason I can no longer recall, my friend and I noticed that our in-room refrigerator was not working properly, and felt the need to have that corrected. I cannot imagine what it was that we needed to keep cold, but the refrigerator refused to do anything other than shield whatever was inside it from the ambient room temperature, no matter which knobs we twiddled. We called the desk, and in the fullness of time--probably the next day--they sent a man up to have a look. He looked.

“Non é freddo,” he pronounced. [“It is not cold.”]

This was not news to us, it being the reason our little summit had been assembled, but he did not tell it to us in a tone that suggested it was new information. Nor was it an apology, it should be noted, or really a diagnosis. It was clearly the first part of a statement that was about to continue.

“É fresco,” he continued. [“It’s cool.”]

He looked at us. “E basta, cosí.” [“And like that, it’s enough.”]

He left. Whatever we needed to keep cold learned to thrive at room temperature, or we learned to love it that way.

I was thinking about that little episode this morning, and then I went to yoga. This is a new activity for me, and it is succeeding as a venture because I finally found both the motivation to look after myself (pain, because I haven’t been), and the right teacher. Ilana always starts us off with a little direction, mentally speaking, and so far her hit-rate in terms of what I came through the door already thinking about is hovering around 100%.

Today she said: as you twist yourself up in pretzels for the next hour (OK, I am paraphrasing), think about giving yourself permission to see what you are doing as just enough, just the right thing to be doing to take care of your body and your needs. Don’t keep your eyes on some ever-elusive Bigger Goal, just dwell, in this moment, on the idea that you are already doing what you need to do.

Basta, cosí.

So, turning our attention from Italian refrigerators and Eastern philosophy to the stove, welcome to Super Vegetable Week. Here in the finally-snowy Northeast, it’s hard to get very excited about vegetables in the winter. They have traveled a long hard road to reach us, maybe been iced down for a good while in the process, and taken a chunk out of the wallet on their way to our plates, too. But it’s good to love your vegetables. They love you back. I was reading yet another “EAT THIS WAY OR DIE” manifesto the other day, and amid all the statements contradicting all the other credos I have encountered prior, the author said “your body owes 70% of its health to diet.” Whether there’s meat on the plate or not, the vegetables ought to play a major role. We all know that. And if you live west of the Produce Line, which bisects the nation more or less where the Long Underwear Line also hits, maybe your access is unrestricted and consequently your enthusiasm never wanes.

Super Vegetable Week is for the rest of us. Kind of like Date Night for your relationship with the Food Pyramid.

My default position on squash is to split it, gut it, and roast it face down, then butter it. It gets eaten, and it is tasty, if not especially exciting. I read a recipe this week that went in a whole new direction, but had too many steps to make use of in a hurry and used spices that did not appeal. So I punted, combining the idea and the amount of time I had to spend on it to come up with this. My friend Laura recently reported, re: a recipe that asked her to toast cumin seeds, that it caused her to roll her eyes at the extra work--but when she gave in and spent the extra three minutes doing it, the aroma made her "understand why the entire age of exploration was fueled by an interest in spice-trading." Good payoff in terms of time invested, I reckon. But toasting the spices, or not, is your call. Tasty regardless and, of course, either way is the path of enlightened self-care.

roasted squash slices

1 medium to large butternut squash

1 t whole cumin seed

a pinch of whole fennel seed

½ t nigella seed, also known as kalonji or black onion, or substitute whole coriander seed (you can also use both)

a pinch of red pepper flakes, if you want a little heat

a pinch of coarse salt

1T vegetable oil

optionally, a lime (and a kaffir lime would do well, too)

Preheat the oven to 400, and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Chop the neck of the squash from the bulb, then put each of these sections down on their cut side and split lengthwise. Scrape the seeds, and cut the squash in horizontal slices not quite ½ “ thick. Plop them in a medium bowl that leaves room for tossing.

Optionally, put a small skillet over medium heat and when it is heated up, drop the spices in and toast for less than a minute, until one or two seeds pop and the fragrance rises. Dump them into a small mortar or into whatever you will use to very coarsely grind them if you don’t have a mortar. They should be cracked, but not powdered. In a mortar, that took me about 40 seconds. Dream of sailing to Madagascar, if you like.

Pour the crushed spices (toasted or not) and the oil and the salt over the squash slices and toss to coat. Spread in a single layer on the prepared pan and roast for about 15-20 minutes, until the slices soften and brown a little. Squeeze a little lime over them, or not, before you serve them at whatever temperature suits you.

A note about the Nigella seed: it is generally not hard to find in the Indian section of your Gourmet Shoppe, or buy it online here or here, among other places. If you are ordering from Kalustyan's, you may as well add a few ounces of the spice known temptingly as 'grains of paradise' to your order, because you can put it in your peppermill instead of black pepper and be very happy you did so.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

three of three

Speaking, as I have done twice already, of things you may be surprised to learn you can do, I washed a chicken. Not one I was planning to roast; I washed the chicken you may recall has been enjoying some spa time indoors thanks to her present health condition. She has been indoors with us for quite a while now, long enough to have greeted my friend Adair, who stopped by last week to deliver some of her homegrown roasting chickens for my freezer. You may imagine that Adair wondered why a farmer, or even a “farmer,” would keep a chicken in precarious health lingering on, outside the soup pot and well inside the boundaries that normally exclude her ilk (namely, the front door.) You would be right. She wondered. I couldn’t tell her much. We raise some animals that get eaten, but none of them are chickens. The chickens have names and after their egg-laying days are over, they retire on our nickel here where they hatched. We eat chicken, but we eat other people’s chickens. It takes all kinds to make the great world spin, I suppose.

Anyway, Tippy Tina had taken on a certain odor, as one will when one lives in a box and sometimes cannot stand up straight, and if she was going to stay indoors it was time for a shampoo. She is the second chicken I have washed, and though you may be surprised, as I said, to learn that chickens can be washed, you will perhaps be more surprised to learn that they like it. How surprised will you be to learn that the complimentary blow-dry offered in the cooler months (so she shouldn’t get a chill, you know, and maybe die or something) is the chicken’s favorite part? I imagined the chickens would cower in terror of the blowdryer. In fact, they work it like runway stars, turning this way and that to make sure you get all the areas that need attention. I learned this on the first chicken I washed, and now that I have a sample of two in my study, I feel confident saying you can generalize.

Maybe you stopped reading up there when you learned I had bathed a chicken. That’s fine, because it really has nothing to do with today’s post, other than the thin thread of Things You Can Do Yourself.

What I meant to tell you about was the soup you can make with the whey that results when (notice I do not say “if,” in this context, because you need to make the cheese to make this soup) you make ricotta. I think you can use the whey in place of broth in any number of soups and be happy--potato soup comes to mind, especially. But what I made was lentil soup, because I love lentil soup. The whey doesn’t make it creamy, and therefore too rich and heavy to be enjoyed in quantity (I always like the idea and the flavor of a cream soup, but can’t eat very much before wishing I had stopped sooner.) The whey just makes it more savory and full-bodied, as well as a nutritional powerhouse, and more than what you can do with the whey left after you make the cheese, it is reason enough to make the cheese in the first place.

lentil soup with whey

2T olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

I large carrot, finely chopped

1 stalk celery, finely chopped

¼ c tomato paste (preferred) or ½ c ground peeled canned tomatoes

1T cumin

3t pure ancho chile powder

3 c small green French lentils, or small brown Spanish lentils

whey from 1 gallon of milk that became ricotta

salt to taste


1 medium potato, diced

1 large carrot, chopped

¾ c pearled barley

3 handfuls of fresh spinach or kale leaves, chopped or torn coarsely

grated cheese for serving

Preheat the oven to 325. In a large dutch oven, sauté the finely chopped vegetables in the olive oil until they soften. Add the spices and tomato paste and stir for a moment over medium heat. Now add the lentils and the whey and bring to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pot and put it in the oven for about an hour, stirring occasionally if you are around to do so. I think you could also do this in a slow cooker, but I don’t have one, so I use the oven. Cooking them slowly and covered produces a far superior soup to simmering on the stove. I don’t know why.

If you have time, let the soup cool at this point. Another mystery of lentil and bean soups is that cooling and then reheating improves the outcome enormously, which is why making a large pot at the start of the week will serve you well. If you don’t have time to let it rest, it will still be tasty. Season with salt to taste, and if you like, add the diced vegetables and barley and simmer on the stovetop until they are tender, and the texture of the soup pleases you, and then add the kale or other greens. It’s tasty without any of these things added, too. Serve with cheese grated on top, and maybe bread for dunking, and a nice big salad.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

whey to go

My friend Alana is making a name for herself leading us toward making things instead of buying them. In the spring her book on this topic will be out, and I can hardly wait. As a result of this focus of hers, she has brought joy to many, and I think also sees some people skulk away from her in the grocery store, shielding their cart from her gaze. When she makes lasagna, she makes the ricotta and the mozzarella and the noodles. She does this in the middle of a busy life, and she wants you to know that you can, too. On a smaller scale, I sometimes find myself reassuring people that they don’t have to justify their store-bought bread or cookies or whatever it is they buy, yet when I saw Alana on a day I was responsible for creating a lasagna myself, I avoided eye contact. All sub-ingredients had been purchased.

I confessed. She laughed. She said, I just want you to make things that make you happy! However you get there is OK with me! I am of like mind, you might say, and so together we have puzzled over mozzarella and ricotta and pressure-canned tomatoes and cheese crackers, up to our elbows in them and in long, theoretical emails and phone conversations that I hope no one taped to embarrass us with later. The idea is not, as I am often teased about personally, to make the maximum amount of trouble for oneself and avoid convenience at all costs. I do not thresh my own wheat, thank you very much, no matter what you have heard. The idea is to make it simple, to demystify our access to the pleasure and satisfaction that toddlers know lie in doing something ALL BY SELF, and also to make things that are good to eat.

There are skills you can master, like Italian meringue buttercream and an omelette, which will elicit big rowdy whoops of self-congratulation when you get the hang of them (I think--I am still working on both). But you will have to break a lot of eggs, and perhaps cry a little, and learn Life Lessons as you go (“do not start buttercream you are unsure of two hours before child’s birthday party,” e.g.). Godspeed to you if you aim for a skill like that. I applaud the effort and think you will enjoy the results, if not the Lessons.

Then there are things you can master that are not hard, just unfamiliar. The bang for the buck ratio works soundly in your favor and in approximately no time at all tail-wagging levels of pleased-with-yourself happiness are yours.

I would say without a doubt that making your own ricotta falls into this camp. You need milk and lemons, and a thermometer and some cheesecloth. You are rewarded with ricotta better than any you have ever purchased, and a gallon of whey that you can use to make soup that is transcendentally delicious, all for the investment of about 30 minutes. Also, it is fascinating. Furthermore, you can then go around saying you know how to make cheese, because you do.

If you would like to try it, head over to see Alana, and know that if you want to end up with about a pound of ricotta, enough to make lasagna ALL BY SELF, then use a gallon of milk and half a cup of lemon juice when you follow her instructions. Heating slowly as she recommends produces a superior texture, so don’t argue with her about the time factor. It still doesn’t take very long.

If you would not like to try it, at this moment, but do want to make a simple winter dessert, then with my blessing go buy some really good ricotta (hint: not in a plastic tub, which is where you and me both can find the kind we use to make a big lasagna for the sixth grade basketball dinner) and go to town this way:

baked pears with ricotta & lemon

serves 4, depending on greed levels and who is watching

4 pears, firm-ripe (Bartlett or Anjou are nice)

1 c excellent ricotta

2-4 T honey

2t lemon juice (a Meyer will reward you tremendously here)

finely grated zest of that lemon (as above)

butter to grease the baking dish

Generously butter an 8x8 or comparable oven-proof dish. Preheat the oven to 350. Peel the pears, core and quarter them, and put them in the dish. Sprinkle the lemon juice over them, and drizzle about a tablespoon of honey over them, too, and grate the lemon zest over all that. Gob the ricotta here and there on this mess, and drizzle the rest of the honey on top of it all. Bake about 15 minutes, until the pears soften, the cheese browns a little and the juices are bubbling. Try not to burn your mouth. Wag your tail.