Spring Share, Week 1: Still Life with More Lemons

It’s starting to be spring here in Chicago, though you wouldn’t necessarily have figured that out by Friday’s weather–we had rain, sleet, snow, AND hail, at one point or another during the day. Saturday it was cold enough that snow was dusting the rooftops a lot of the morning, even with sun shining on it, but it’s been warming up a bit since Sunday. In addition, the daffodils and hyacinths and all the other spring flowers are bursting into bloom; I sometimes think that I could watch one grow and bloom all in one day if I just sat and stared at it.

The spring farm share has started as well. The spring share is every week, and we started last week with carrots, spinach, greens, and turnips (the greens were red rain mustard greens). As you may be able to tell from that list, even though things like flowers are blooming, and trees are starting to bud, the growing things one can eat are only beginning to grow and are nowhere near producing. Two of the four items in the box were from the fall growing season–the carrots and turnips–but lasted since then, and a third item, the spinach, is hardy enough such that it’s been growing in the greenhouses most of the winter and has been included in the winter shares as well. This spinach has thick leaves; it’s not the tender baby spinach. It’s very tasty, and it’s especially good for cooking, because it doesn’t disintegrate into green mush within seconds, but it, too, is something other than the sprouty stuff we see around us. The fourth item was probably at least started in the greenhouses, and it’s also pretty hardy, I think. What this means, in part, is that eating “seasonally” doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s diet changes as soon as the weather changes.

I used the mustard greens in some chicken broth with orzo last night (I felt as though I might be fending off a cold, so I had some chicken soup), some in the mac and cheese I had for lunch today (a coworker brought lunch), and the remainder will be used as the base for chili, perhaps, as will the spinach. It was nice to add veggies to my lunches in that way, and the greens actually added a purplish tint to everything because of the red in the greens. The carrots are being consumed with the remainder of the white bean, garlic, and sage dip. The turnips got handed off to the hunter, who’s heading off turkey hunting this week and who brings a batch of gumbo and a batch of chili with him to share with his uncles. The turnips can be added to chili or gumbo without adding that brassica note that can be tiresome in mass quantities.

This weekend’s projects are to do some preparation for the coming onslaught and to use up or prepare some items. Item number one is the lemons. I still have a half a dozen lemons in the fridge, and no plans to use them, so this weekend I’ll preserve the peels and freeze the juice. The peels can be preserved in sugar (I can describe that in detail if you want) and then stored forever in the fridge, and the juice can be frozen in cubes and then just bagged, so you can take out a cube of it when you need a tablespoon or two.

Meanwhile, though, check out this article–Bittman provides great resources, and I like the way he discusses the evolution of his cooking and eating habits.

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Third Time Charms

I have found a way to manage the turnips: if I combine them with the wild turkey gumbo that my friend made, the turnips add vegetation to the gumbo but the flavor is no longer overwhelming. Nevertheless, eating them more than two days in a row is a bad idea.

When I worked at the bakery, the owner used to say that it took three tries to get a formula right, and I find that he’s correct. The first time, I’m usually following a recipe of some kind, or at least basing what I’m doing on a formula, and it often is edible at the very least. The second time, I might be tweaking it in some way–changing a few of the ingredients; possibly playing with quantities, proportion, or finishing method (e.g., temperature of the oven; how thin it’s rolled out; the quantity of filling in a crust; how much of the fat I can swap out with flax or pumpkin). The third time, I combine what I’ve learned from the first two efforts and try to settle on a final version. If there needs to be a fourth time, I try to refine whatever I was doing in the third effort that didn’t work the way I’d hoped.

At the bakery, the goal was to settle on a production method that was reproducible and not too finicky, which is important if your goal is, in fact, consistent production. If you have customers coming in for a croissant, those customers want that croissant to be consistent from one day to the next, one week to the next. They want today’s miche to taste like last month’s miche. To manage that, you have to settle on formulae and then use those formulae. Even then, of course, there are variations–I was always a little amazed how some days the dough was really perfect–beautiful lamination, just the right feel, etc.–and other days were more of a struggle. It’s all relative, of course; once I got the hang of it, the range was pretty narrow, all things considered, but the more you do something, the more you notice small variations. (Thus, Filoman, who is an extraordinary baker, could always tell when the flour changed, i.e., when the batch we were using was the first of the new crop.) And, of course, there are always mistakes–something gets left out, say. That happened less frequently (especially if I remembered to taste the raw dough before putting it in the bins–it’s a good way to realize you forgot the salt or the sugar, for example), but it still happened.

At home, the criteria are a little different. Take these crackers: the first time, my sesame seeds were old-smelling, so I used the KAF Harvest Grains instead of the sesame seeds, and I put a little sea salt on top. The second time, I had new sesame seeds, so I left out the Harvest Grains. I think I added some semolina flour, too, though not much; less than 20% of the total flour, most likely. I didn’t put salt on top. I also didn’t like those crackers nearly as much. The third time I made them, I used the Harvest Grains again, and I put a mixture of sea salt and praline pumpkin seeds on top (a KAF product). Those were quite good, especially the sweet/salt mix, but there wasn’t quite enough of the sweet. Today’s batch incorporates some of the praline pumpkin seeds in the mix, as well as some ground barley flakes in place of a little of the flour. (That’s primarily to add a little fiber; I only replaced about 12% of the flour with the ground flakes.) I used a combo of sesame seeds and Harvest Grains. I’m also going to use the sea salt and praline mix on top, and I expect these to be the best yet.

Except.

KAF has the praline pumpkin seed mix on sale (I bought five bags of it), which leads me to believe that they’re going to eliminate it from their product line, just like they eliminated the Bak-O-Mega ground flaxseed flour, which I loved and of which I only have a little left. (Some of that goes in the crackers, too, in lieu of the ground flaxseeds called for by the recipe; that substitution seems pretty minor to me, as ground seeds or flax meal will likely work just fine.) Which means, if I’m right, I’ll eventually need to figure out how to replace the praline pumpkin seeds in the cracker dough. That’s a problem for another day, though.

Today’s other two tasks are a trip to the grocery store–I realize that I have been sadly lacking in green vegetables of any kind, and I am positively craving spinach and broccoli, and I do not want to wait until I get some spinach in the farm share on Thursday–and making some chocolate cookies. I’ve been trying to make some efforts to fit into my clothes again, but I still need my sweets. I’ll probably start with this recipe, but I know that I want to use whole wheat flour (and possibly a little barley flour) instead of all-purpose; add some flax meal to it, possibly in place of some of the butter; and possibly change up the sugar. For example, if I use malted barley syrup instead of sugar, it might get that nice roasty taste of a good porter or stout. I might also add some dried cherries or dried cranberries (have to see what’s in the cupboard).

Are you rolling your eyes at me yet? Because I am, a little. Here’s a perfectly good recipe–based on other things I’ve made from the website, it’s probably an excellent recipe, and it probably produces very good chocolate cookies. So why can’t I just USE that recipe? I ask myself that question a lot, and I even have an excuse answer. For one thing, I want to use whole grains whenever I can. For another, I want to add flax and fiber whenever I can–the whole grains help with the latter, and a little flax is easy to add to a recipe that has an intense flavor of some kind. I’ve been experimenting with malted barley sugar, just because, and I like the chocolate-cherry combo, in general. Each of the little tweaks swaps in something that ups the nutritional aspects of the cookies (except the barley sugar, which is more of a flavor experiment) and provides the treat I want but with a little less . . . damage, I guess, to my overall health goals. It’s still a cookie, at the end, but it’s less of a fat-and-sugar bomb and, I hope, more of a sweet-tooth-satisfying-but-not-crazy-caloric treat. We’ll see; it could fail. But it could also be awesome.

Welcome to Turnip Town

When I first started cooking a lot, especially when I was cooking from vegetarian recipes, I was a bit confounded because many of the recipes include bell peppers. I cannot eat bell peppers of any color; they do not like me, so we have a mutual non-aggression pact (I don’t eat them and they don’t bother me). I could never make those recipes the way the recipe said (yes, I did used to follow recipes more religiously, which is part of how I can disregard them more easily now), and I had the sense that I was making it “wrong,” somehow, that I didn’t know how it was supposed to taste. Eventually, though, I realized that what I was producing tasted quite good, even if it didn’t have an ingredient that the recipe’s creators included, sometimes in large quantities–which meant that I wasn’t making it wrong, after all.

Sometimes, in such recipes, I’ll make up the bulk that the peppers would occupy with more of the recipe’s other ingredients (onions, for example, or one of the other vegetables), but that’s rarely necessary. And, in general, I throw in more onions (and more garlic) than the recipe lists, no matter what the recipe is. But the spices and/or herbs, and the main ingredients themselves are what give the dish its flavor, and the peppers aren’t missed, at least not by me. I’m not going to make something where peppers are a main ingredient–stuffed peppers, for example–but that’s no different from not making any recipe because you don’t care for the main ingredient; the flavor of the main ingredient will overwhelm everything else you throw in, and there’s no rescuing it if you don’t like the main ingredient.

All of which is a preface to the turnip adventure. I finally got around to cooking some of them yesterday–the purple-tops; I left the hakurai for another day–and no matter what you do to them, they’re still turnips. For those of you who are interested in trying this at home, I cut up a lot of onions–three cups, maybe? possibly more–and garlic. I sweated them in a combo of butter, coconut cream (I got some of the box at the bottom of this on sale, and have been experimenting with how to use it), and olive oil–probably a half a tablespoon of each, then threw in the smashed and chopped garlic for awhile.

I added spices: ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, ground coriander, a pinch of cloves, some grated orange peel I had in the fridge that had dried up, some candied lemon peel and orange peel (I had made the first one, but the second was from KAF), and a handful of leftover roasted pineapple. I also had some carrots–I cut them into strips in the food processor. I took the new one for a spin yesterday, and sliced up radishes and watermelon radishes for roasting, the carrots, and all the damn turnips, after I peeled the latter two. I tossed the carrots with a little butter and coconut cream, and some ginger syrup (also made that and had it in the fridge with candied ginger) and roasted them. I would NOT have taken that step if the oven hadn’t already been on for the crackers and the radishes (and, later, the bread), but I figured I’d give it a shot. After they had roasted a bit, I cut them up very small and threw them in with the spices. I threw in the sliced turnips and about a cup (probably a little too much) of chicken stock from the freezer, but you could just as easily use vegetable stock or water.

So how did it come out? Unfortunately, it still tastes overwhelmingly of turnips–that sharp, brassy, brassica taste, the one that I love in broccoli and cauliflower and cabbage, and even in brussels sprouts, if they’re prepared well and not overcooked. I’ll end up eating them, because the only alternative is throwing them out, and I can’t bring myself to do that, but damn, I am tired of dealing with turnips. Yes, they’re very good for you; yes, I’ve managed to add enough stuff to them to complement the flavor a bit (and I’m hoping that improves as they sit in the fridge); but they’re still . . . turnips. I suppose I could have made more of a curry sauce–more coconut milk, for example–but that starts to increase the fat content rather dramatically. I’ll probably eat them with some brown rice or some bread, both of which break up the brassica taste a bit.

I also made some more braised cabbage and venison ring bologna last night, which I ate with some freshly made whole wheat bread, and it was just awesome. That recipe is such a keeper–and handy, as I got three more cabbages in my farm share box this week.

What else came out of the kitchen this weekend? More crackers! I made them with the KAF Harvest Grains again, and I like that version better than the version with sesame seeds, though I’ll probably try a half-and-half version at some point. And some whole wheat bread, except I replaced some of the flour in the soaker with barley flakes and cracked wheat, and I put a little spelt flour in the whole thing when I made the final dough. (We’ll talk about bread in more detail in some future post.) I made two smaller batards rather than one big boule, and I threw one in the freezer. The aforementioned radishes I sliced in the food processor and tossed with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and let them roast in the oven for, oh, 40 minutes or so? I’m not a radish fan, but I find that roasting them makes them a little less biting.

So, all in all, the curried turnips were . . . a success? Sort of? I mean, they’re still TURNIPS, and I couldn’t disguise that fact, but not every one of these projects is going to work as I hope. Which circles us back around to my original disquisition on peppers. On one hand, there are foods I simply wouldn’t buy–peppers are notable in that list–because I cannot eat them. When they show up in the farm share, I give them away, because there’s nothing I can do to them that will make me be able to eat them. There are other foods I wouldn’t buy on my own–and turnips are at the top of that damn list–but that will show up in the farm share over time. In the case of turnips, I can’t even “forget” about them in the fridge and then throw them out when they turn into a science project, because they last forever. (I also don’t like to do that, because it’s just wasteful.) In those cases, my project is to at least make them edible. They’re not likely to become a favorite food, but at least I’m not throwing them out. Obviously, if you don’t have a farm share you’re not going to run into this problem, but farm shares are becoming more popular, and they’re really awesome, so I doubt I’m the only person with an ingredient problem–and, more specifically, a turnip problem.

Now if I could just figure out what to do with all of the Asian greens (bok choy, tatsoi, tokyo bekana, etc.), because they’re all brassicas, too.

O Joy

Like many people, one of my first two cookbooks–a gift from my grandmother, inscribed to me, so personally meaningful to me–was Joy of Cooking. This was back in the mid-70s, so it was the last version pre-major-revision, and it still has instructions on dealing with small game like squirrels and raccoons, as well as a significant section on freezing and canning. I don’t use it as much as I once did, but it still provides a lot of basic information about specific foods and specific techniques. (For years, I read the description about how to make croissants, and didn’t quite believe it. Is that really how you do it, I wondered? And then I got a job making thousands of croissants a week, and, yes, it’s really how you do it.)

My second cookbook was the first Moosewood Cookbook. I was in college, at a party at the dean of students’, and there was a spinach cheese pie. I asked the food service person about it, and he told me where the recipe was from, and I promptly went out and bought the book. I have at least a half a dozen Moosewood cookbooks, and it is one of my life dreams to go the restaurant to eat. My personal favorite is the Moosewood Low-Fat Cookbook; it is absolutely chock full of fabulous recipes, and it doesn’t rely on the wads of oil and cheese that are in some of the other books. It also has a lot of different flavor profiles in it, from many parts of the world, which is useful for figuring out what you like. It’s actually one of my favorite cookbooks of any kind.

That said, for all of the cooking I do, you’d think I’d have (and use) a lot more cookbooks than I actually do. I tend to lean on a few favorites, if I use a cookbook at all, and I supplement all of the cookbooks with online browsing (epicurious.com, because it has a lot of recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit; the King Arthur baking site). When it comes time to actually apply heat to ingredients, however, at this point I am just as likely to make it up as anything else. I still like the cookbooks, though, because they often provide guidance on a particular technique, ingredient, and/or flavor profile, which helps me not make the same things over and over. I will still sit and browse through my favorites, on occasion, just to jog my memory about what’s in them.

All the cookbooks in the world can’t help with the Turnip Problem, however. Specifically, I have a refrigerator drawer full of the damn things. They keep forEVER, so I can’t secretly wait until they rot, and then throw them out, and, just to make things fun, I’m getting more of them next week, as the first CSA delivery is Thursday. The first share will have carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic, a jar of tomatoes, and the aforementioned turnips. I think what I’m going to try is some kind of curried turnips, perhaps with a little coconut cream, and probably onions, garlic, and carrots as well. (I still have onions, garlic, and carrots from the last of the fall share.) Normally I’d add some beans, too, but beans AND brassicas is a prescription for, as they say, intestinal distress.

This morning I used the last of a stale loaf of dried-cranberry-swirled whole wheat bread to make French toast (some roasted pineapple and blueberry compote in the fridge helped round that out), the leftovers of which will be breakfast a couple of days this coming week. To make blueberry compote: dump a bunch of frozen blueberries–300-500 grams, or a bag of frozen from the store, or even fresh if that’s what you have–in a saucepan, with a little lemon juice or grated lemon rind or even preserved (in simple syrup) lemon rind if you have it, and a little swirl of honey, and cook it on low heat for a half hour or so until it simmers and reduces. It won’t be as thick as jelly while it’s still hot, and you can make it as thin or as thick as you like, but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks before getting moldy, and it’s fabulous on top of pancakes or french toast, in crepes, or in oatmeal. It would probably work with peanut butter, too.

This afternoon I’m mixing up another batch of crackers. I bought sesame seeds the other day and will make the recipe as written, more or less. Tonight’s dinner starts with a recipe I found in a sample issue of the Cooks Illustrated spinoff–something like Country Home Cooking, or Cooks Country, or something. (I’m too lazy to go look it up.) It’s simple as anything, and it’s a great way to use cabbage–which you may remember is also in my fridge. I have since modified the recipe a bit.

Chop and start cooking some onion; I like to leave it in thin slices rather than chopped for this recipe, but whatever suits you. (And I nearly always cook my veggies in a combination of olive oil and a little butter; I like the flavor of butter, but the olive oil has a higher smoke point and is somewhat healthier, so the combo is a perfect compromise.) When the onion has started to caramelize, add some garlic if you like it, cook it a minute or two more, then add some chopped up venison ring bologna, leftover ham, sausage, whatever. You can completely do this without meat–the original recipe did not have meat in it–but it’s also fabulous with the ring bologna. I would not use ground meat, though.

Add a tablespoon of good spicy mustard–again, whatever kind is to your taste and/or in your fridge–and some thyme if you have it. (I rarely do, and so just leave it out when it’s not around.) Also add a half cup of beer; the recipe calls for a light-bodied lager. You can use anything here, too, though I strongly recommend you avoid anything that’s very hoppy; an IPA, for example, is likely to make the whole dish too bitter, even for us hops-lovers. While the onion was cooking, you were coring and thinly slicing the cabbage; after the beer mixture cooks for a minute or two, put in the cabbage and cook it covered for ten minutes or so. The recipe also calls for two teaspoons of cider vinegar, but I bet I’ve left that out a bunch of times, too. With a hunk of crusty bread or a pretzel roll, it makes a really nice winter dinner, and the leftovers make good lunch fare, too.

The other thing I’m starting today is some pretzel rolls, using a combination of the recipes in the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book, a version of Peter Reinhart’s soft pretzels I found online, and the formula I got from the bakery. I will use at least half whole wheat flour, possibly all whole wheat, and I will make rolls rather than pretzels.