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Sunday, January 29, 2012

vegan butternut squash and pear bread

My daughter's fifth-grade teacher is very very sweet (in addition to being an awesome teacher). She writes me very nice thank-you notes for everything I give her. When I sent muffins to the fifth-grade team, she told me how they all appreciated them at their team meeting, and how the other teachers were so pleased and enjoyed them so much. When I gave her cookies, she told me that her husband had eaten them all in one sitting. When I sent in fudge at Christmas, she thanked me profusely and told me that she was impressed with the variety.

Notice anything amiss? I didn't either...

Until I learned that she is a vegan. Which means she didn't. eat. any. of. the. stuff. I. made.

She didn't want to seem unappreciative, and she didn't want to lie... so she passed it on to her friends and family, and reported back to me how much they loved it all. It was a very gracious way to accept the gifts, in my opinion.

So, this week I decided to make it up to her. I turned one of my recipes for pumpkin bread into a vegan butternut squash version, by leaving out eggs and milk, and using vegetable shortening and apple sauce instead. Then, because the batter seemed a little thick still, I added two shredded pears. The juice from the pears worked well in making the batter seem more right.

For your vegan needs, here it is!

1/2 cup applesauce
2 cups sugar
1 cup butternut squash puree
1 cup vegetable shortening
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pears, cored and shredded

Preheat the oven to 350. Spray 2 loaf (or 5 mini loaf) pans with vegetable cooking spray.

In a mixing bowl, combine applesauce, sugar, squash, shortening, and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients.

Fold the dry ingredients into the squash mixture, and fold to combine. Add the pears and stir just until combined.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is beginning to brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let sit in the pans for about 10 minutes, and then turn out on a rack to cool.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Pumpkin cheddar muffins

When I was a kid, we used to go fishing with my uncle. We caught mainly perch, which were pretty easy to catch in Lake Michigan. Since there was much more catching happening than there was waiting for a bite, it made for a very fun day. We learned how to bait our hooks, how to cast, how to unhook our catch, how to string it up on a line. I got out of learning how to clean the fish, but I don't think my big brother was so lucky. There were enough fish to keep busy and feel successful, but still it felt like a little bit of luck and a little bit of skill when you did catch one.

Where we camp every summer, there is a creek that is stocked with ... umm, I think trout? (I am not a fisher, and I am definitely not well versed in fish species). Anyway, the creek is stocked with fish on a schedule, meaning that the fish are deposited at specific spots, on specific days, at a specific time.  

In other words, if you want to catch a trout in this creek, you go to the spot where the fish have been released, just after they are deposited there. It makes it pretty easy to catch a fish, since you know that there are tons of fresh, befuddled, fish all in one spot. The poor little fish, who just came from a hatchery, gets to swim his little heart out in a big pool, for just a few minutes, when he finds a big juicy worm (or a smear of weird-looking florescent bait stuff) floating in front of him. He takes a big bite of this opportune treat, and some fisherman gets dinner.

It hardly seems fair. It really doesn't seem like sport at all at this point. I really don't see how you can be proud of outsmarting a trout, let alone a trout that has been put there just for you to catch him.

And that is sort of how I feel about eating meat. I am certainly not opposed to eating meat. I have no problem at all with consuming animal. I strongly believe the human is meant to be an omnivore. However, I also strongly believe in buying sustainable, fairly-treated meat.

It doesn't really seem fair, though, to raise a chicken or a cow in a box barely larger than himself, and then march him up the chute at the slaughter house. There are so many things wrong with that. I know that even if a cow is raised in an open field, eating and drinking a natural cow diet, and getting natural cow fresh air and exercise and a real cow life, he still doesn't stand a chance. He is still going to be forced to the slaughter house. Short of making myself a bow and arrow and heading out to the plains, I can't think of a way to make it a fair fight between myself and the animals I consume. However, some time passes between a cow's birth and his slaughter, and it seems like he ought to at least enjoy the life he does have.

With the abundance on vegetables, and the price of free-range organic meat, there are far more vegetarian days in my house than there are meat days.

Tonight, we are eating a pot of vegetarian chili, along with these butternut squash - cheddar muffins. It was originally a pumpkin muffin, and I got the recipe from A Sweet Swiper, and she got the recipe from Chocolate and Chakra, and she got them from the book Baked Explorations. Rather than make you backtrack through all that, and since I made a couple changes, I am going to just give you my version of the recipe here. 

These muffins are delicious! The squash and the sugar add some sweetness, but the cayenne, black pepper, and sharp cheddar cheese balance them with a punch of spice and savory-ness. They make a perfect side dish with chili, soup, or stew.

And while we are on the topic of butternut squash, look for lots more recipes this week! I got a butternut squash the size of a hippopotamus, and with it I made these muffins, 5 loaves of "pumpkin" bread, a batch of "pumpkin" waffles, and a batch of "pumpkin" cupcakes. Phew!

Pumpkin -- or Butternut -- Cheddar Muffins
1 cup butternut squash or pumpkin puree
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 eggs
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cups (about 4 ounces) grated sharp cheddar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly oil a 12-cup muffin pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the squash and yogurt. Add the eggs and butter and whisk until combined.

In another large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper and brown sugar.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and fold until just combined. Fold in three-quarters of the cheese.

Divide the batter among the muffin cups. Sprinkle the remaining cheddar on top of the muffins. Bake them for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Let the muffin pan cool on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out the muffins. Serve them warm. Makes 15 muffins.

Friday, January 20, 2012

tom kha gai soup

I am really a bit nervous to write about tom kha gai soup. It is my all-time most favorite soup in the world. I would probably say that it is my all-time favorite meal in the world too, but I want to reserve the right to revise that statement. I doubt it will ever happen, but I may want to pick a different favorite later.

For now, I'm a bit worried that I am going to tell you how amazing and wonderful and perfect it is, and then you aren't going to like it. Which would hurt the soup's feelings. It might also mean that we can't be friends anymore.

Tom kha gai soup is a Thai soup, made with coconut milk, mushrooms, and chicken. It is flavored with galanga root, lime leaves and lemongrass.

Because of all these different flavors, it is testing my ability to come up with just the right adjectives. I feel like I sound like a fourth-grade girl who just discovered the thesaurus.

It is citrusy and creamy and spicy and sweet. It has a bit of saltiness to it, a bit of umami (a word I hate, but what can you do when you need it?), a whole lot of delicious.

I think that if I were Thai, this would be the taste of childhood. It is comfort food at its best, something that makes you happy and warm and satisfied, but also something that can clear your sinuses and cure your cold. The flavor is complex, if I may say that without sounding like a tool. But at the same time it is simple and soothing.

I'm not sounding hyperbolic, am I? I actually don't think I'm doing the soup justice yet.

I must say that it does require some ingredients that you probably don't have on hand. You will have to go to an Asian Market to purchase them (I imagine there are plenty of ways to order them online... but going to an Asian market is like a field trip. It's awesome). If you don't see yourself going to a special market to buy the things you need for this dish, just promise me that you will order it next time you are at a Thai restaurant.

Actually, I went to three different Asian markets in my town, and although I am so lucky as to have three Asian markets within a couple of miles of me, I am not so lucky as to have any that sell Thai ingredients. In other words, it took leaving my town and heading 15 miles out to the grandmother of all Asian markets to get everything I needed. Once you find a market that actually carries Thai ingredients, though, there is no chance they won't have what you need to make tom kha gai.

Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal root, coconut milk and fish sauce will all be in a Thai market, because they are very very common in Thai foods. One-stop shopping, ma'am.

I ended up at 99 Ranch Market, which is apparently a major chain of Asian Markets. Like I said, it was like going on a field trip. That place has everything you could need to make Asian dishes...

Like a whole aisle of soy sauces...

 And a whole aisle of rice...

And for those who like to spend a bit less 
time in the kitchen, an entire aisle of ramen!

But I wasn't there for any of those things. I was there for:

Kaffir lime leaves, which are just what they sound like... the leaves of the kaffir lime tree. Before you put them in the soup, be sure to rub them in your fingers and inhale deeply. The lime scent is amazing. Although these can be chopped up real small and eaten, we are going to leave them whole to season the soup, before discarding them.

Galangal Root is the heart of the soup. Some recipes say that you can use ginger as a substitute, but don't believe them. Galangal is much more subtle than ginger. It is more earthy and sweet and doesn't have the bite that ginger has. Actually, the "Kha" in Tom Kha Gai means galangal. So really, leaving it out makes you a liar. This, too, can be copped finely and consumed, but for this soup, just saw away until you have 5 thin disks, use them to season the soup, and then toss 'em. It freezes well, so if you do go buy some, don't hesitate to buy a big piece.

Lemongrass is another one that can be eaten if it is prepared correctly, but once again we are going to let it flavor our soup and then we are going to toss it. My lemongrass came out of my Abundant Harvest Box, but you can get it an a Thai shop as well. 

Only use the bottom, white parts of the lemon grass. You can throw away the dry woody parts. Cut the thick white parts into 2-inch pieces, remove the outer leaves, and then bruise it with the back of your knife.  This helps release the flavor. Be sure to take a big whiff of this one too, before throwing it in the pot. Lemony paradise.

Finally, I got my fish sauce and coconut milk at the asian market as well. I know fish sauce doesn't sound appetizing. Especially if you have gotten a fishvorce. Whatever you do, don't take a sniff in the direction of the fish sauce. But do use it. It adds most of the soup's saltiness, most of the umami (there's that word again), and it balances the sweet and citrusy perfectly. Just don't try tasting it alone. Believe me, I. do. not. eat. things from the sea. I don't like the taste, the smell, the texture. I don't even like it when you eat a tuna fish sandwich. But I do include the fish sauce, and I have never regretted it.

So, okay. I feel exhausted after gathering our supplies for this soup, but really making it is quiet simple.

And here it is:

two cans (14 ounces each) coconut milk
4 cups chicken broth
5 slices (1/4 inch thick) galangal root
3 stalks lemongrass (lower, white parts only cut into 2-3 inch segments and bruised)
5 kaffir lime leaves
fish sauce, to taste (probably about 2-3 tablespoons)
8 ounces mushrooms (I use regular white mushrooms, sliced, but I believe straw mushrooms are more traditional, if you can find them.)
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts cut into bite-sized pieces
juice from 2 limes
bird's eye chiles are almost always included, but I am a spice whimp, so I leave them out

First, you need to make the most delicious broth ever. Combine the coconut milk, chicken stock, galangal, lime leaves, and lemongrass. Bring it just to a boil and then turn it down to simmer. The longer you can let it simmer the better, but aim for at least half an hour.

Add the fish sauce and let it simmer another 15 minutes or so. This will really give it some salty meaty flavor. If you taste it at this point, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. It isn't great yet. But it will be!

Add the mushrooms and the chicken, and continue to simmer just until the chicken is cooked through. Don't let it get tough. You don't want to be distracted from the deliciousness of it all by having to chew the meat.

Once the chicken is cooked, add the lime juice. Garnish with the cilantro and the chile peppers, if you are using them.

Enjoy every last drop!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Martha Stewart's creamy cauliflower soup with greens

My recipe yesterday was a little bit labor intensive, no? Let's switch things up today, and talk about a soup that is far more rich in the veggies, while taking a fraction of the amount of time.

But first, let's talk about the little miracle in my life.

I work at a preschool, where my duties include... well, everything. I never really know what I am going to be responsible for until I arrive in the morning. I often supervise the playground, shop for the groceries that become the kids'  afternoon snack, or keep the toy storage room clean and organized. I stuff envelopes, accompany kids to the bathroom, and file paperwork. 

And, as it turns out, I do laundry. Due to a series of events that won't interest you in the least, our regular system of getting the school laundry (mainly the cloth covers for the little mats where the kids take their naps) broke down last week. When I arrived in the morning, I was greeted by some teachers in a slight panic, because they were going to have nowhere for the cherubs to lay down at nap time. If you have ever faced 40 kids who need a nap at the same time, you would panic too.

And so I gathered up the dirty items, a stack of magazines from the staff room, and some detergent, and I headed out to the laundromat. There is probably a whole blog post about the people one encounters in a laundromat, but for today, let's talk about my miracle, okay?

After I got the laundry agitating, I sat down with the magazines. I mentally pleaded Come on, magazines. I know that one of you is going to have a recipe that calls for lots of the veggies I have right now... While we're at it, is there any chance it can please be the cauliflower and collard greens? Oh yeah, one more thing. Please don't require a stop at the supermarket, kay?

And guess what!? Martha Stewart Living had a recipe that onehundredpercent answered my little prayer to the magazine gods. 

I introduce you to Creamy Cauliflower Soup. It, of course, uses cauliflower and collard greens. It also uses onion, fresh dill, and copious amounts of garlic, all of which I have on hand, all out of the Abundant Harvest Organics box. Other than that, all it required was olive oil, salt, pepper, and water. Hooray!

As if that weren't enough excitement among the industrial washers, the soup is really quick to put together. Saute the onions and garlic, simmer the cauliflower and collard greens, and puree it all. 

It is creamy (thanks to the cauliflower) without using cream. It is bright and fresh and filling, and the drizzle of olive oil and fresh pepper on top give it just enough heartiness to let it stand as a main course.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Sea salt
1 medium head cauliflower (about 3 pounds), florets and stems cut into 1-inch pieces (8 to 9 cups)
4 1/2 cups filtered water
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
5 large kale or collard leaves, or a combination, tough ends removed and leaves roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat; cook onion, covered, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook for 3 minutes more. Add cauliflower and pour in filtered water until it reaches just below the top of the cauliflower.
Bring to a boil over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons dill. Reduce heat to low, and simmer until cauliflower is just tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in greens, and simmer for 3 minutes.
Let sit for 5 minutes to cool slightly. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons dill. Puree soup in batches in a blender until very smooth, adding more water (about 1/2 cup) if it's too thick. Return to pot and reheat. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with dill, black pepper, a drizzle of oil and a pinch of sea salt.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

homemade butternut squash ravioli

I made a few New Year's resolutions this year...

I thought about things like never eating meat, or always riding my bike to work. I thought about promising myself that I would give up sugar or exercise three times a week.

I know, though, that those things would last for maybe a month or two.

Instead, I set a couple of goals for things I would like to do before 2012 is over.

One is to try to establish a vacation fund. One of me kids has never even been on an airplane, and the other two were babies the last time it happened. We go camping a couple times a year, but I would like to take them somewhere a bit farther afield. The kids and I are thinking of Washington DC.

Another is to try making yogurt and cheese. I keep reading that it really is the simplest thing ever, and that if I try it once I will never buy yogurt again. We'll see if that pans out! I have nearly a year to work up the courage.

One goal I can already cross off the list was to try making my own pasta. It was awesome! I'm not saying that I am going to quit buying pasta (because at a couple of dollars for a pound, there is just no reason not to go ahead and buy it instead of making it). But I am saying that once in a while, for something fun to do, I am going to make my own. It isn't difficult, it didn't require any ingredients I didn't already have, and I thought the results were delicious.

I LOVE ravioli stuffed with butternut squash, and I happened to have a large butternut squash from my AHO box this week, so I went for it.

I started with this recipe from Family Fun Magazine.

All told, it took about two hours from start to finish, although not all of that was active time. I wouldn't do this on an ordinary weeknight, that's for sure! But I had a lazy, relaxed morning at home, and my daughter helped me with cutting and folding the pasta. We had a good time working together; I guess the process was just as important as the product!

Here is how to make the filling:

2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon milk
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup ricotta cheese

Preheat the oven to 350.

Peel a butternut squash, remove the stringy, seed-y stuff, and cut into 1-inch cubes. You will need about 2 cups of these cubes for the ravioli... I went ahead and roasted it all. I put two cups on one baking sheet,  and left them plain for pureeing into ravioli filling. I put the other half on another baking sheet, tossed them with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese. Those, I snacked on all morning while I made the ravioli! Just be sure to line both sheets with foil, or you will have really stuck squash and a really tough pan to clean.

Place the squash in a single layer, spaced out a bit, on the baking sheet. Roast for about half an hour, or until a fork can easily pierce the squash pieces.

In a food processor or blender, puree the squash with all of the other ingredients. You want a nice, smooth, even consistency.

While the squash is roasting in the oven, you can start making the pasta.

Ravioli Pasta:

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs

Making sure you have a nice clean counter, mound the flour directly on your work surface, and make a well in the middle of it. Lightly beat the eggs and salt together, and then pour into the middle of the flour.  Using a fork, sonly and carefully incorporate the flour into the egg, until there is no dry flour left. You can then get your hands (and a dough scraper) in there, and knead and mix it, until it is all mixed into one smooth, round, ball.

Divide the dough into halves, and form each half into a disk that is 1/2 inch thick. Wrap each of these in plastic wrap and let them rest for 30 minutes.

After the dough had rested, take one disk, halve it again, and roll it out. It is very easy dough to work with... it doesn't tear or stick. Just make sure to lightly flour your work surface and the rolling pin. Keep rolling and rolling it, until is is only as thick as a dime.

Once it is rolled out, you can cut it. I used a cookie cutter that is about 2 inches across. It occurred to me later that it would be just as nice, and perhaps easier (with less waste) to cut it into squares, using a knife. Either way is pretty simple and effective. If you like circles, use a cookie or biscuit cutter, or even the top of a drinking glass. If you like squares, then by golly, cut squares.

Do this again with the remaining dough. In all, you should roll and cut four sections of dough. I got 14 circles cut out of each piece of dough, which will make 7 ravioli. So, all in all, I got 28 ravioli.

Once your pasta is rolled and cut, and your squash roasted and pureed, let's put them together!

Pick up a pasta circle, and using your fingers, pinch it all over a bit, to make it just a teeny bit thinner and bigger. By all means, though, do not try to stretch it. Your dough will break in half, and you will go lay down and cry.

Once it is a bit larger and flatter, you are ready to fill. Dip a finger in some water, and wet the dough all around the edges, in order to form a sort of glue for holding the two halves together. Place about a 1/2 teaspoon of filling onto the dough, in the middle of the wet edges. Pinch one more circle, and put it on top. Using a fork, crimp the pasta all around the edges. This will seal it all up nicely!

These ravioli can now be refrigerated for a day or two, if you want. Or you can just boil them now.

Put them into a few quarts of boiling water. They will sink at first, then slowly rise to the top. Give them about 5 minutes after they float, to make sure the pasta is cooked through.

While they are boiling, melt a stick of butter over low to medium heat. Add some sage (either slivers of fresh sage, or a half-teaspoon or so of dried sage powder). Let it all cook until it is browned and smells delicious.

Lift the pasta out of the water with a slotted spoon, and serve with a bit of the browned butter drizzled over it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

winter stew

My vegetables are telling me it's winter. They are coming up from underground, where the cold temperatures are helping them produce sugars, which make them nice and sweet and tasty.

The carrots I got this week were, by far, the very best carrots I have ever eaten in my life.

This week I got potatoes, rutabagas, beets, and carrots from under the ground. I also got a lot of other stuff, but for now let's talk about these bottom dwellers.

These root veggies just beg to be cooked slowly for a long time. They want to be roasted or stewed, releasing heat and aroma into the house for hours. It is just the thing you want for a long, cold, winter day,

Despite the fact that it has been rather warm and sunny here in southern Cali, I went ahead and made a stew.

It seems like the new trend (and by "new trend" I mean "back to the good old days") is to not use a recipe.

I have been reading quite a few cookbooks lately that actually provide very few recipes. They are centered on teaching the reader how to cook, rather than just giving measurements and instructions for one particular dish.

So, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. After reading the chapter called "Stewing, Braising and Steaming" in the book Kitchen on Fire, I felt equipped curious to test their instructions, and to take my winter veggies and turn them into a stew. 

Plus, I have a whole bunch of chicken stock just begging to be used.

First, I went to the store to buy some stew meat. Although stew meat is usually the toughest (which is fine if you are going to stew it for a long time), and therefore the cheapest meat, I found that my market had tri-tip on sale for even cheaper than the stew meat, so I bought that.

I cut my pound of beef up into bite-sized chunks and browned it in a little bit of olive oil.

Once it was browned, I cut up my veggies and added them. I used, from this week's Abundant Harvest Box, three potatoes (peeled), two rutabagas (peeled), four carrots, one large leek, and one onion, all cut into bite-sized chunks.

I cooked this all on high for about 10 minutes, so everything could get a teeny bit browned and tasty. Then I added 3 cups of chicken stock and a small handful of fresh rosemary. Just before it started to boil, I reduced the heat and covered it, and let it simmer for about and hour and a half.

It turned out nice and sweet and delicious!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

happy birthday to a happy happy guy.

My youngest son turned six today. I can hardly believe that I am writing that.

When I had babies (I think... yesterday?), I would look at those people who had kids, (you know kids, those age 5-12 people) and think What do you do with them? They're ungainly, their teeth are too big and they are skinny and smelly and they talk too much.

Now my babies are all of a sudden kids. They do have big teeth in their little faces, and they do smell sometimes. I can admit that once in a while I wish they would just shut up for a minute. But, they are so wonderful. They are intelligent and they keep me on my toes with their questions and their observations. They are funny and warm and helpful to each other. They are learning at amazing speeds and trying new things out all the time.

The baby of the family is Andrew. He is funny and witty and charming. He is a people-person to the extreme. He can quickly gauge a person, find out what he or she would like to see and/or hear from him, and deliver it. I don't mean to make him sound like Eddie Haskell, because he's not. He doesn't want to simply make you like him, he just wants to make you happy. As a two-year-old, I actually called him reasonable. I don't know many reasonable two-year-olds. He also definitely realizes that life is much simpler and more pleasant when everyone is happy. He rarely fails to do what he is asked, and he often doesn't have to be asked, before doing chores or being helpful. He gets himself up and ready for school, completely independently, every morning. He notices when I have folded laundry, and puts it away on his own volition. He holds the door when my hands are full, says please and thank you, and willingly shares his toys and snacks. He cleans his room, does homework, and practices piano, without my having to nag him.

Of course, there is a flip side to this, too. Because he can read others so well, he knows just how to push their buttons; a skill he uses readily with his older brother and sister. He can needle them and drive them to violence like nobody's business. 

He is physically coordinated, and although he may never be a star athlete, I feel confident he won't embarrass himself, either. He's comfortable with a ball in his hand, he is ready to take on any challenger at dodgeball or tetherball, and he holds his own on his baseball team.

He loves to be the center of attention, and he is pretty skilled at doing so without being (too) obnoxious. He will put on antics and try ever-more daring feats, if he knows he has an audience. He can tell a whopper like no other, as well. All through preschool, his teachers would have to ask me to clarify if his stories were true or not. Some, like the skiing mountain in his backyard, and the twin brother named Jeffrey, are clearly just tall tales. Others, though, can be pretty believable (like the swing set he and his dad are supposedly building in the garage, and the reptile show that allegedly came to school and let him hold a snake). As a matter of fact, I guess I was checking with his teachers to find out what was true as often as they were checking with me. There were two weeks where he came home every day to tell me about a new student. Daily he told me what he and Jacob had been doing together. I was happy to hear the had such a great new friend for a quite a while... until the teacher informed me that there was indeed no new student.

He strives to be cool, and to act older than his age. He won't kiss me goodbye in front of his friends, or hold my hand on the way to to school. He loves surfers and skaters, won't wear anything with stripes (too babyish) or a collar (too nerdy). He is up-to-date on current music and movies, and won't cry in front of anyone. 

He is in kindergarten now, and although he is reluctant to learn to read, he is growing in leaps and bounds in every other arena. It is amazing to witness. He is engrossed in math, loves the songs they sing in the classroom (although he is too cool to actually sing them while he is at school), and believes wholeheartedly that "Zero the Hero" comes to his classroom every 10 days to leave treats for the kids.

I count myself lucky indeed to be able to spend this kid's childhood with him. He makes my life so very much more fun, day in and day out.

And fairly often, at night, he really is still my baby, when he falls asleep on my shoulder.

We are having some friends from school over next week to celebrate his birthday. Today, though, was meant to be special in every way for him.

He got to choose breakfast (donuts), lunch (McDonalds ... yuk), and dinner (Islands). I notice he didn't give me any opportunity to try and get some veggies on a plate for him. Don't you worry, though... I fooled him (and I'll get to that later).

My husband took the kids for a tour of a local farm preservation/museum this morning, and this afternoon we went to a local candy shop. He had proclaimed that he wanted "a big, swirly lollipop" instead of a birthday cake.

However, you can't put birthday candles in a lollipop. 

So, of course I went ahead and made him a cake.... 

I made a chocolate cake with a peanut butter filling. I am not a cake decorator, by any means, so I left it unfrosted, with a layer of chocolate chips baked into the top. It was a bit too crumbly for me to try to frost it and have it come out looking decent at all, so I didn't attempt it (and risk a total failure).

But here is the biggest secret of the whole day... and if you ever tell any of my family members, I will never ever speak to you again.

Chocolate Beet Cake

Oh, yes, I did. Stop looking at me like that. He didn't even want a cake in the first place, remember? And he doesn't know I fed him beets.

I got this recipe from the Abundant Harvest Organics newsletter (tell me it wasn't providence that a chocolate cake recipe came the week of Andrew's birthday), and I didn't alter much. The only changes I made were to make it in two round layers (9-inch pans) and to add a layer of peanut butter cream in between (I thought this would help in case it tasted too beet-ish, but it didn't).

Unless you knew there were beets in the cake, I don't think you would notice anything was different. Certainly my family didn't. There is the tiniest earthy edge to it, but the chocolate is so rich that you really aren't thinking about anything but chocolate while you eat. 

Here is the recipe from Abundant Harvest:

    • 1 ¾ cup flour
    • 1 ½ tsp baking soda
    • ¼ tsp salt
    • 3-5 steamed beets, quartered, save liquid
    • 1 ¼ cup sugar
    • 1 cup oil
    • ½ cup juice from beet cooking
    • 3 eggs
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • 4 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
    • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9 x 13 baking pan. In a bowl mix flour, baking soda and salt together. In food processor puree cooked beets that have been drained, should be about 2 cups. To the beets add sugar, oil, ½ cup of beet juice and beat on medium speed until well combined. Add eggs and extract. Add the flour mixture to beet mixture and mix until well combined. Add melted unsweetened chocolate. Pour mixture into baking pan and sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over top of batter. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Let cool. May be sprinkled with powdered sugar if desired.

And here is the recipe I used for the peanut butter layer:

Cream together 1/2 cup peanut butter, 1/2 cup butter, and 1/2 cup powdered sugar. Spread on bottom layer before placing top layer on the cake.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

simple chicken stock (or vegetable stock) made with vegetable scraps

Remember the book The Giving Tree?

If you don't, it's about a tree that gives a boy her shade, her apples, her branches, her wood, and finally, when it seems like she has nothing left but a little stump in the ground, she surprises you by offering her stump for him to sit on.

The moral of the story is something about how wonderful it makes you feel to have a best friend for whom you would do anything, and that no matter what, a true friend will always be there for you. The flip side of the story, the message we're not really supposed to take from it, is that no matter how much you have taken from and used something, there is a chance that you can probably take even more. There is no need to quit asking and taking! Just get creative, and surely you will find that there is something more you can force out of it.

I think that a chicken is much like that tree. I don't think that Shel Silverstein would have sold quite as many copies if he had written "The Giving Chicken." I just don't think that illustrations of a chicken carcass being roasted, sliced, diced, shredded and finally boiled would have the same effect. But the story is the same. The almighty chicken, staple of dinners all across America, can give us so much more than we usually demand of it.

Let's pretend we are that little boy, and we'll take a chicken for all she is worth. It's fun. Because just when you think that your little Henny Penny can't give you anything more, you get to take her lifeless pile of bones and use them up too. It's rather uplifting, no?

By cooking a whole chicken, I find I can usually make three to four meals of out it. We will have chicken for dinner one night (with some vegetable sides), a chicken-heavy meal the next night (say chicken enchiladas or chicken casserole), and then a night or two of lightly-chicken-based meals (chicken on barbecue pizza, or chicken in an Asian salad).

By this point, I have grown quite attached to Henny Penny and all that she has done for us. Likewise, by this time my family is ready to evict her (and perhaps me too). However, I don't have to give up yet. Henny Penny is just a pile of bones, now. Okay then, I'll use her bones.  At this point, I can make a stock. 

I usually get pretty squeamish picking every little bit of meat off the bones. Since I will be soaking every living bit of flavor out of them, though, I can leave them not-quite-clean and still not feel guilty. In other words, be lazy! It's okay to skip digging cold chicken out of the little nooks and crannies in your chicken's nether regions.

Making your own stock couldn't be easier. It is virtually free (if you save all of your scraps from vegetables and bones from chicken). And it is SO much better for you than the stuff you buy in a can or a carton (especially if you have organic veggies and chicken, but even if you don't.)

If you can't already think of a bunch of recipes that use chicken or vegetable stock, here are some suggestions for how you can use it:
in soup
to cook rice or quinoa (they turn out so delicious cooked in stock instead of water)
to make pasta sauces
in casseroles

The basic premise of stock is that you take a bunch of water, and simmer it with vegetables and bones. The idea is to get every last bit of flavor out of the veggies and the meat, and into the water. When you have done that, you throw away the veggies and the bones, and you save the flavored water.

I use almost all the scraps from the vegetables I chop. This can include at any give time:
Tops and tails from: zucchini, carrots, parsnips, asparagus, bell peppers, green beans, leeks
Peels from: sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions
Stems from: broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, fennel, spinach
Leaves from: celery, carrots, broccoli

All of those bits you cut off here and there have lots of flavor and lots of nutrients. It is a shame to throw them away, but they aren't very appealing to eat. As you cut off these scraps, throw them in a plastic bag in the freezer. When you have a bag full, or some bones, you are ready to make stock.

I usually make stock after I have roasted a chicken.

Around here, we eat more vegetables than we do chickens. If my bag of veggie scraps gets full before I have chicken bones, I just make veggie stock. Either way, it is a great way to get one last hurrah out of your food before you give it up for dead.

The method is basically the same for either veggie or chicken stock. If you are doing chicken stock, you will want to let it simmer for much longer, though. You need time to get all that flavor out from the marrow and the bones. If you are doing veggie stock, cut the vegetable pieces up smaller (almost diced), so they can release their flavor much more quickly. If you are doing chicken stock, keep them larger, so they don't totally disintegrate while the chicken bones slowly release their flavor. In the end, you are going to strain out the vegetables and bones, so you don't want the pieces to turn all to mush.

Here is how you do it:
Put your chicken and vegetables in a large stockpot. Cover them with about 4 quarts of water. You can add some herbs if you want (like maybe some parsley, or some thyme). You don't really need to, though, especially if you have a good variety of vegetables. (I often have some little bits of garlic and parsley stems or cilantro stems in my bag of frozen vegetable pieces). You can always add seasoning to the dishes you make later, when you use this stock.

Here are my veggies just starting to simmer. Bright green veggie pieces in clear water.

Now, just put it on the stove! Let it simmer (not boil) for a good long time. Vegetable stock will be done in about a half an hour, but chicken stock should simmer for a good 2-2 1/2 hours.

Stock after a couple of hours... the color has all gone into the water!

Once you think the veggies and bones are worthless, you can take it off the stove.

The thing on the left used to be the bright green stem of some
yu choy sum, the thing on the right used to be the very bottom piece
of a head of broccoli, and the white thing in the middle used to
be part of a cabbage core. See how dull and lifeless they are? They
gave everything they had to make us some delicious stock. Thanks
guys. We'll always remember you.

Strain it through a fine mesh sieve (or some cheese cloth) to remove all the bits and pieces of flora and fauna. Throw those away, and hold on to the hot stock.

Let it cool as much as possible before refrigerating. (In the winter, I just put it in the garage -- covered, of course, -- instead of ever putting it in the fridge). You just don't want to put a huge pot of hot liquid in your refrigerator. Your fridge will thank you, your electric bill will thank you, and all the food that would have been adjacent to the big hot pot will thank you. Once it is pretty cool (you can put it outside, in a few smaller pans, or in a bath of ice water if you want to speed things up), put it the refrigerator overnight. This will let it all settle and let the fat separate, and rise conveniently to the top of the stock. If it is veggie stock, there will be no fat to speak of, so you can consider it done at this point.

Here is the hot, fresh stock. You can see the fat already gathering around the edges.

If it is chicken stock, I like to take the fat out of it. You don't have to, but I think the fat looks yucky and really isn't that great for you. Do this with a fat separator, or by skimming the fat off the top, with a spoon. This one is great because it has measurements on the side, so I can pour it into the bags in set amounts (then I know how much to defrost later for using in recipes).

Now, your stock is done! You can use it right away or freeze it for later. I like to freeze it in 2-cup amounts in ziploc bags. I know using a disposable bag isn't the best thing to do. If you have enough food storage containers in the right sizes that you can spare a few to hang out in the freezer, go ahead and do it that way. Otherwise, the plastic bags work great and don't take up much space. Use a cup or a jar to hold your bag upright for you while you fill it.

Let them lie flat while they are freezing.

Once they are frozen, you can stand them up, lay them down, build card houses out of them.... it's your freezer to organize as you like!

If you try this, let me know! I would also love to hear how you use your stock!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

sautéed yu choy sum with plum sauce

I know you may be wondering what the heck yu choy sum is, but I will get to that in a minute.

First, let's talk about me.

I was craving vegetables this week. Abundant Harvest Organics took the last two weeks off from delivering veggies for the holidays, and I used the time to clean out what we have stored. (There seems to be a problem with our secondary freezer, and we are hoping that defrosting it helps). I also wanted to make sure that we were at zero veggies in the fridge, so that there would be room (in our crisper drawers, our bellies, and our hearts) for AHO to come back. So, by the time we got our delivery this last Saturday, I was more than ready to eat something fresh and green.

As I was emptying the box (an event which truly does seem like a little mini Christmas every Saturday), I had to stop halfway through and start eating. There was a bunch of yu choy sum that was begging to be enjoyed as fresh as possible.

I learned, on my visit to Peterson Family Farm (the headquarters of Abundant Harvest), that the veggies that I get every Saturday morning were picked on Thursday, sorted on Friday, and head off the farm at the break of dawn on Saturday morning. Since the farm is some 150 miles from my house, and since I receive my box at 8:00 in the morning, I suppose those truck drivers actually leave long before dawn breaks.

Anyway, I know that the vegetables I receive are, at the most, two days out of the ground. It seems like some of them ought to be eaten right away, and others (say, turnips) deserve to sit around in my fridge a while before I decide what to do with them.

The yu choy sum didn't spend a second in my house before it was on its way to the lunch table.

So, what is yu choy sum, you ask? Let me tell you what I learned.

First of all, it isn't yu choy, of course. Yu choy would just be the leaves, silly. What I had included stems and flowers, and therefore was yu choy sum. (I learned that choy sum translates to "flowering stem.")

It is related to bok choy, of course. They are both members of the choy family, and the choy family is related to cabbage. And I love cabbage.

Let me put it to you mathematically:

I like cabbage. Yu choy sum is cabbage. Therefore, according to the transitive property of addition, I like  Yu Choy Sum.

And you should too.

So, given that I had some yu choy sum that I was destined to love, I dove right in. I sautéed it and had it for my lunch Saturday (such was my craving for a vegetable), but it would really make a better side dish, especially with an Asian meal.

That was the best lunch I have had in weeks! (Except, of course, the chicken salad you made for our picnic the other day, Mom. Ahem.)

I took the tender yu choy sum, and sautéed it lightly in olive oil. Don't use too much oil, or the sauce won't stick at all. Once it is getting a bit tender, and starting to brown on the leaves, turn it over and let the other side get some heat. When both sides are a teeny bit brown, take it out of the pan, and drizzle it with plum sauce. I used the sauce I made during the great plum invasion last summer, but you can buy it in most supermarkets. Just drizzle a tablespoon or two (depending on how you like it).

The yu choy sum is sweet and tender, and delicious! Enjoy!