Archive for November, 2010

Kitchen Staples: Squash, and further notes on squash varieties


Since reading Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener, I’ve been thinking more about growing things that are staples rather than side dishes. This does not require that I change what I grow. I need to think in terms of putting my vegetables at the center of the plate rather than letting the “side dish” mentality sneak in. Winter squash is a filling, substantial staple and can easily be the centerpiece of a meal.
In my opinion, roasting is by far the best way to bring out the flavor of squash. It keeps wonderfully in the refrigerator for a few days once roasted, and can also be mashed, packed tightly into containers, and frozen for later use. Once properly roasted, it can be made into ravioli or lasagna fillings, form the basis of hearty soups, or just be reheated later to eat out of the shell, so I roast plenty at a time. If roasting smaller squash, I cook several, so that the oven heat is efficiently utilized, or I put them on the bottom shelf of the oven when roasting something else. I love to put maple syrup or agave nectar, a pat of butter, and a pinch of salt in the cavity if I will be eating the squash straight, but if I might use it for something else like lasagna or ravioli or one of the impromptu dishes below, I just rub the cut surfaces with olive oil and salt before roasting. In the picture above, a roasted Kukuza half dominates the plate, with a few grilled mushrooms brushed with oil and soy for a meaty touch and a slice of grilled bread with olive oil and garlic. THis is a great substantial meal to share with vegetarians and vegans, or with nearly anyone.

Here I cut a roasted squash half into thick slices, brushed lightly with soy sauce, chili oil, and roasted sesame oil, and broiled for a minute or two to accompany Asian flavors.

Here chunks of leftover roasted squash join a few chunks of leftover roasted salmon under a cheerfully colored Korean sauce. To make the sauce, chop up 2 cloves of garlic and a 1″ cube of peeled ginger. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a small wok, and when the oil is hot throw in the chopped garlic and chile. As soon as the ginger fragrance comes up, about a minute, put in a tablespoon of gochujang and stir around madly for half a minute, then add half a cup of stock and 2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce. As soon as it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and add a teaspoon of dark sesame oil. Have ready a teaspoon of arrowroot dissolved in a tablespoon of water, and stir in. Let the sauce thicken briefly and serve over a bowl of rice topped with hot chunks of salmon and squash.
If you are going to think of squash as one of your winter staples, you need to find a squash that you can grow well and that you really enjoy eating. A few posts ago, I wrote about the immense harvest of squash that I grew this year because I planted only Cucurbita moschata varieties, which love hot weather and are resistant to squash borers. C. moschata types need a hot summer to do well, and we can certainly provide that here (they are less esteemed in cooler parts of the country). All squash need curing before you eat them in order to taste their best. Needs vary among varieties. In general, I let all squash ripen on the vine and don’t pick it until a frost is expected. Then I set it on shelves to cure. It will cure faster in warmer ambient temperatures but will hold longer in cool places, so I keep some in the house, and some in my cool but nonfreezing garage to eat later. I give the smaller squashes three weeks to cure, and the bigger ones 8 weeks before I sample the first specimen.
Even with the best treatment, squashes vary immensely in quality in flavor. My favorite C. moschata so far is a big turban-shaped beauty called Chiriman. It has moist but not watery flesh, no strings, and a lovely sweet-earthy flavor. The much smaller Kikuza is also delicious, and its small size may be preferable for some. Both are rather shy yielders, and Kikuza has rather thin flesh. Sucrine du berry yielded prolifically, and the flesh is very thick and is a dark and splendid orange-red, but the flavor is poor and the flesh is both stringy and watery, so most of the bounty is going to the chickens. I wrote to the seed company about my experience with it, and they sent back an excerpt from a gardening book explaining that winter squash needs to be vine-ripened and then cured for best flavor. Well, duh. Some squash just isn’t much good no matter how you raise it. If I ever get into hybridizing, though, I’m going to try some crosses of the prolific and bullet-proof Sucrine du berry with better-tasting C. moschatas. I still have splendid 20-lb specimens of Musque de Provence sitting around curing, but I won’t broach those until Christmas, so I’ll report on the flavor and texture after the holidays.
If you save your own seed, remember that squash of the same species interbreed wildly, so consult Ms. Deppe’s book or a good book on seed-saving to learn how to ensure squash that is true to type. It isn’t as easy as just “saving the best one for seed.”

Books Worth Reading: John Kallas on Edible Wild Plants


The holiday weekend was a great time to read in a warm spot, which reminded me that I should be sharing more of the books that I think are really helpful. I should add that I don’t accept free review copies; whenever I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will. I think that this is essential to an accurate judgment of the value-for-money aspect of the books that I recommend.
With that in mind, John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate is a very good value if you want to get started in foraging. I get a lot of inquiries about wild foods, and this is a book that I can recommend without reservation to any beginner; if you read and pay attention, you will learn to collect a number of common plants safely and prepare them well. Kallas concentrates on leafy greens which are found in most parts of the country, and he organizes them by flavor category in addition to giving accurate botanical and ID information. This is a lot more useful and practical than you might realize if you aren’t accustomed to foraging for greens. A well-balanced dish of greens needs a range of flavor notes, as well as a base of mild greens to build upon, and as you learn the plants from Kallas you will learn the notable aspects of their flavors. In my opinion, nearly any experienced forager could pick up a tip or two here, about preparation if not about identification.
Only greens and shoots are found in this book. If this seems too limited, keep in mind that most of us aren’t going to spend the time needed to forage and prepare wild staples, at least not most of the time. It’s romantic to read about gathering wild rice or arrowroot, or to imagine spending a clear autumn day gathering and storing fruit or nuts, but the wild foods that are widely available throughout much of the country for much of the year and that you can forage in a few minutes on your way home from work are mostly greens and shoots. Besides, if most of us were to make one change in our diets and maintain it, the addition of more green veggies would be a good one to pick. If foraging gets you to eat more leafy greens, this is a good thing.
If, like me, you’re a Kindle addict, this book is available on Kindle. I use the Kindle app on my Ipad so that I can see the photos in color. I daydream about eventually having a large collection of good foraging books on one e-device that I can carry around in my backpack, but unfortunately most of the wild-foods books available for Kindle are not of high quality. This one is.
DR. Kallas’s website can be found here if you’d like to order the book directly from him. You can also read his reviews of foraging books, and his thoughtful comments are invaluable when deciding what books you want to add to your collection.

Books Worth Reading: The Resilient Gardener


There are a lot of gardening books out there, and a lot of books on urban/suburban homesteading and on self-sufficiency. Many of them draw heavily from one another or from older books rather than from actual experience, but every now and then I come across a gardening book that I’m eager to share with others. Carol Deppe’s new book, The Resilient Gardener, is clearly based on years (decades?) of personal hands-on experience and is a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of personal food security. It is not a general gardening how-to book. Ms. Deppe discusses the best ways to improve your own food security by producing your own staple crops, and what makes a staple suitable for home food production with no unusual harvesting, threshing, or milling equipment. This isn’t one of the obnoxious-survivalist manifestos about how to be a country and a law unto yourself. It’s a sensible discussion of how ordinary people can direct their efforts to make themselves better equipped to endure the hiccups that life throws at us, whether environmental or health-related. As I read it, I found myself thinking about the spreading problems in my native Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Nearby cities like Baton Rouge weren’t hard hit by the storm. But Baton Rouge would nearly double in size in a week as evacuees poured in, grocery stores there would be nearly emptied of staple foods and anything fresh, streets would be filled with excess traffic and often impassable, and water and sewer systems would be strained. People with prudent habits were better equipped to help themselves and others through a difficult time.
No book about someone else’s needs and choices will ever be completely applicable to your own situation. Ms. Deppe includes a section on her own nutritional needs and decisions that can best be considered idiosyncratic. But then, as a doctor I believe that everyone’s needs are to a degree idiosyncratic, i.e. unique to themselves. Some basics apply to nearly everyone, but there’s a lot of individual variation. Her choices may have no applicability to you or me. They are, however, an encouragement to think carefully about our own needs and start doing more of what works for us.
I have no desire to be completely food-independent, even if such a thing were possible. But I do get great pleasure from contemplating the winter squash, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that came out of my own soil and will help feed me through the winter, and on winter evenings by the stove I’ll be studying Ms. Deppe’s ideas and planning how to be a more prudent member of my community next year.

Kitchen Staples: fresh pasta


Now that my chickens are laying and I have all these lovely fresh eggs around, I’m trotting out all my recipes that use up eggs. One of my very favorites is fresh pasta, and I can’t think of any kitchen skill more worth acquiring than pasta-making.
I used to make and roll pasta entirely by hand, and so I made it about twice a year. If you want to do it all by hand, you can get directions from any of several excellent cookbooks, and I particularly recommend The Splendid Table or Essentials of classic Italian cooking. My own current method is (surprise!) a lot more rough and ready, and relies on my Kitchenaid mixer. If you have one, get the pasta roller attachment (expensive but it works really well) and you’re all set. I use the Pro 600 mixer. I don’t know if the lighter ones will do the job. This is still a time-consuming undertaking, best suited to those relaxed weekend days that I think of as Domestic Goddess days, but it’s worth investing some time for a really delicious result.
The quality of the eggs is important. If you don’t have your own hens, make an effort to get real free-range eggs (not the supermarket kind.) Start with the bowl in place on the mixer and the regular mixing blade. I usually start with three cups of flour, which makes 4 main-course servings or at least 6 first-course servings. Have about six eggs handy. Put the flour in the bowl, crack one egg into the mixing bowl, and start running the mixer at the lowest speed. After the first egg is incorporated, about half a minute, crack in the next one. Keep adding eggs until you have yellow shreds of moist-looking dough and some dry “crumbs” in the bowl, as shown here. Usually I use five eggs, but a lot depends on the flour, the size of the eggs, and the weather. If the dough won’t come together smoothly when you switch to the dough hook, add another egg and try again.

Now switch to the dough hook. Run the mixer at the lowest possible speed until the dough comes together into a ball on the hook, and keep kneading for at least five minutes. This is where I don’t know if the light models will work. Even my pro model strains pretty hard. It’s a stiff dough, much harder to handle than bread dough.

When the dough is smooth and thoroughly kneaded, dust the ball lightly with flour, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for at least an hour and up to eight hours. When ready to roll it out, attach the pasta roller attachment. Cut the ball of dough into pieces about the size of a lemon, and dust each lightly with flour. SEt the rollers as wide as they will go, start the mixer at lowest speed, and start feeding the balls of dough through. I like to do all the balls through the widest setting, then all through the next setting down, etc. Now this is where a trick comes in handy. You are going to need a lot of hanging room for the sheets of dough. Wooden racks are sold for this purpose, but I got a metal laundry-drying rack instead and took the nylon mesh “shelf” off the top. It’s easy to clean due to the smooth surface, HOlds a lot more than most wooden racks, and folds away neatly when not in use. The sheets of pasta look absurdly charming hanging from their rack.

When they are all as thin as you want them, let them hang until somewhat leathery. This may be 15 minutes or may be an hour, depending on humidity, breeze, etc. When they are leathery but can still be folded without cracking, you are ready to cut the sheets into noodles. The pasta roller has an attachment that will do it for you, but I greatly prefer to do this step by hand. I like the unevenness that results, and I can cut anything from thin linguine to very wide papardelle, depending on the meal that I have planned. Work on a lightly floured surface, roll the sheets around your hand to form cylinders, and cut across to make noodles, as wide or thin as you like. Unfold them and lay out on clean dishtowels spread on the counter for the purpose.

Cook soon for best quality, use plenty of salted water, and start testing for doneness as soon as the water returns to a boil. Sauce them simply to let their quality shine. In the near future I’ll post on my favorite mushroom sauce for fresh pasta, but for your first effort you might want to dress them with butter, cracked pepper, some chopped parsley, and the best Parmesan you can find. There is no simpler, or better, flavor.

Chickens are still legal residents of Albuquerque


I don’t usually use this blog for anything remotely political, but I received some worried inquiries about our city’s HEART animal ordinance, and whether it bans or limits chickens in the city, so I feel compelled to set the record straight. Don’t worry, backyard farmers, your chickens and mine are safe. The HEART statute controls and limits the possession and care of companion birds, but it carefully defines “companion birds” within the ordinance, and chickens are specifically excluded, as are ducks, geese, and a lot of other birds. The relevant section reads as follows:

COMPANION BIRD. A bird commonly kept as a pet by humans and confined on the property of the Owner, including, but not limited to, parakeets, canaries, lovebirds, finches, parrots, macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels, toucans and lories, but excluding:

(1) all of the family Anatidae (waterfowl);

(2) all of the family Tetraonidae (grouse and ptarmigans);

(3) all of the family Phasianidae (quail, partridges and pheasants);

(4) all of the family Meleagridae (wild turkeys) except for the domestic strains of turkeys;

(5) all of the family Perdicidae (francolins);

(6) all of the family Gruidae (cranes);

(7) all of the family Rallidae (rails, coots and gallinules);

(8) all of the family Charadriidae (plovers, turnstones and surfbirds);

(9) all of the family Scolopacidae (shorebirds, snipe, sandpipers and curlews);

(10) all of the family Recurvirostridae (avocets and stilts);

(11) all of the family Phalaropodidae (phalaropes);

(12) all of the family Columbidae (wild pigeons and doves) except for the domestic strains of pigeons; and

(13) ducks, geese, chickens and other poultry.

Therefore, existing laws about chickens permitting us to keep up to fifteen chickens (only 1 rooster among them) prevail. Thank goodness, because there’s nothing like those fresh warm eggs.

Vegetable dinners: a roasted melange, and notes on gochujang


On frazzled days, one way to save time when making dinner is to put food in the oven and pretty much forget about it until it’s done. Many vegetables respond beautifully to this treatment, especially if flavored a little. I have a large clay Spanish cazuela about 14″ in diameter that I use for these impromptu roasts because I’m convinced that the clay improves the flavor, but you can use your standard 9X13 pan if you prefer. I am using a lot of sweet potatoes right now because I dug a lot of them recently, but I’ll include suggestions for substitutions. The idea is to use what you have and like.

You will need:
for the vegetables: 4 medium/large sweet potatoes cut in 1″ chunks (I scrub them well and leave the peel on), or a medium-sized winter squash peeled and cubed, or 6 large carrots scrubbed well and cut in 1/2″ chunks, or some combination of the above. I used sweet potatoes.
For the greens: 1 bunch of kale cleaned and cut in 1″ slices crosswise, or half a small green or red cabbage cut in thin slices, or 3/4 pound of sturdy leafy greens cleaned and cut in 1″ slices, to total about 3/4 pound. I used half Tuscan kale and half sliced green cabbage.
For the seasoning:
a handful of bacon, bacon ends, or pancetta, cut in little cubes. I used the tail end of a bacon slab.
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of Korean gochujang paste (see below) or a teaspoon of Tabasco or other red chili sauce, or a teaspoon of red pepper flakes
about half a teaspoon of salt, or to taste
1/2 cup good stock or water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prepare the vegetables and toss them in the cazuela or pan. Mix the seasoning ingredients and pour over the vegetables, tossing with your hands to distribute. Try to end up with the chunky stuff mostly on top and the green stuff mostly on the bottom. Put the cazuela in the oven. Half an hour later turn the veggies with a spatula, and if the bottom seems dry and things are starting to stick, add a little more stock or water. Again, try to keep the greens mostly below the other stuff, where they won’t dry out. After an hour, check the vegetables for doneness. You don’t want them crisp for this dish; they need to be cooked through, a little soft, and well impregnated with the seasoning ingredients. When done, drizzle a tablespoon or so of your best olive oil over all, bring to the table in the cazuela, and eat with a crusty baguette or toasted whole-wheat bread, as you prefer. It couldn’t be easier or healthier.
You can leave out the bacon or pancetta and have a vegan/vegetarian meal. I don’t recommend it, because the pork has a wonderful alchemy with the sweet winter vegetables and the chili paste, and creates a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Now and then we find an ingredient that represents the Platonic ideal of its kind. For me, the Korean chili paste gochujang is the seventh heaven of the chile pepper. There is nothing quite like its deep, intense, fermented flavor, unctuous texture, and exquisite mahogany color, and it has a special affinity with pork and a thousand uses outside of traditional Korean cooking. These days the only gochujang that I will use is the one from Mother-in-law’s Kimchee, which does have some sugar in it but no high-fructose corn syrup and is properly fermented and deep and delicious. If it isn’t available in your area, you can order it online. I like the original one, called “concentrated” on the label.

I talk a lot about making dietary and lifestyle changes slowly and one at a time. This is a great time to start thinking about eating more green leafy vegetables. Salads are great, but cold weather is a perfect time to incorporate more cooked greens as main dishes, side dishes, or soups. If you garden, kale and cabbage will help get you through the winter. If you forage, dock, chicory, and dandelion greens are among the few wild foods available in winter in our area (plan to mix them with milder greens from the garden or store.) If you buy at the store, Tuscan kale is everywhere, and since there is no better leafy green, go for it. I do recommend sticking to organic greens wherever possible. If you always have garlic, olive oil, and a little good bacon or pancetta in the house you are always ready to make a lovely dish of saute’ed greens, and there are lots of variations. Check out my “greens” category on this blog for more recipes. I know I have said this before, but I’ll keep saying it: don’t undercook them. The thicker tougher greens like curly kale are acutely unpleasant to eat when undercooked and tough, so taste before sending to the table, and if chewing requires a ruminant level of effort, cook five minutes longer and taste again. Mark Bittman is now galaxy-famous as the author of many authoritative cookbooks, but few people are aware that his first effort was a little gem called “Leafy Greens.” You can still find it second-hand, and it’s worth tracking down. Read it and use it, and your family’s health will benefit.

Vegetable dinners: add an egg! and notes on feeding chickens


Like the British cookbook writer Nigella Lawson, I am both greedy and lazy, so I’m full of timesaving tricks for making real food in a hurry. Now if I also looked like her, that would be nice, but two out of three isn’t bad. One of my favorite time-saving tricks is to make a small batch of yeast dough and stick it in the refrigerator with no clear idea what I’ll use it for. Most recently, I used it to make a variation on a hortapita, filled with mixed greens. Since my chickens have started to lay, I decided to incorporate eggs. This isn’t really a recipe. This is the sort of thing you throw together by instinct on days when you need the comfort of the kitchen but if you think too much more, your brain will break.

If you don’t happen to keep dough hanging around, you can use ready-made pizza dough from the Co-op, but making your own is a cinch. My basic recipe is 2 cups water, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast, and 2 teaspoons salt. Mix together, knead on a floured surface for five minutes, form into a ball, pop it into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap, and set in the refrigerator for 1-2 days. On the second or third day, take the bowl out before you leave for work and leave it at room temp for the day. When you come home, it will be ready to use for a homemade pizza or hortapita.
Besides the dough, you will need:
about a pound of mixed greens OR a pound of frozen organic spinach and a handful or two of stronger-flavored greens or herbs to give flavor.
an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic
a packed cup of crumbled feta or shredded parmesan or some flavorful but not stinky cheese. Idiazabal, mild cheddar, or mild gouda would all be reasonable. I used Idiazabal because I usually have some around.
3-4 eggs
some olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425.
For the filling, I took a major shortcut and started with a pound of frozen organic spinach. Then I picked some very mature arugula from the yard to give it that wild strong flavor, but since 6 or 7 big leaves will do the trick, the cleaning time was about 5 minutes for the greens. If I didn’t have arugula in my yard, I’d just chop up a small bunch of parsley or the tops of a few green onions for a different but equally “green” flavor. Chop and saute an onion in olive oil, remembering to stir frequently. Between stirs, shred the arugula or whatever you have into chiffonade and put it in a nonmetal mixing bowl with the frozen spinach. Microwave the mixture on high for two minutes. There may still be some frozen chunks of spinach. Ignore them. Squeeze the mixture over the sink, handful by handful, to get out as much moisture as you can, and return the dry greens to the bowl. At this point the onion should be cooked. Add a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, saute until the garlic is cooked, and add to the greens in the bowl. Add the cheese, toss all together with your hands, and taste. It may need some salt, will surely need some freshly ground pepper, and may cry out for a little thyme (to me, most foods cry out for a little thyme, and so there should always be some in a pot somewhere or in the refrigerator.)
On a large baking sheet, smear around some olive oil and dump the dough on top. Pat it out with your hands, using vigorous stroking motions to spread it out into a big oval without tearing it. When it is about 1/4 inch thick and nearly as large as the pan, pile the greens mixture on half of it and make 3 or 4 depressions in the greens. Crack an egg into each depression, salt the eggs lightly, and fold the other half of the dough over the top and pinch the edges together. Smear a little more olive oil over the surface and stick in the hot oven until done, somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. Eat with the knowledge that a tough day didn’t get you down. A glass of good strong red wine will help give you the wherewithal to face tomorrow. If you have just a little more energy and half a bunch of parsley, pound a clove of garlic, the parsley chopped, and the juice of half a lemon in your faithful big mortar and pestle. When somewhat pulverized, add enough of your best olive oil to make a chunky puree and salt to taste. I love this simple sauce/dressing/relish beside almost any vegetable or egg dish, but it’s especially good for bringing a makeshift hortapita to life. If you don’t have a big mortar and pestle yet, a food processor is okay.

My eggs come out of my back yard now, and I give a fair amount of thought to feeding my chickens. If you want your eggs to be highly nutritious, you have to give the chickens the nutrients to make good eggs. For maximum security from predators my coop is fixed and nonmobile, so I cut grass and clover from the yard daily to supplement the laying mash. All the vegetable trimmings from garden and kitchen prep go to them, too. Any pumpkin or squash “innards” go to them so that they can eat the seeds. The chickens get oystershell for calcium, and they get any nutritious table scraps that would otherwise be wasted. For example, they will happily devour leftover salad, for which there is no other use, and rice or stale bread or bulgur are right up their alley. If I have leftover oatmeal or yogurt, they wolf it down. Now that we’ve had several frosts there aren’t many green things left in the yard, so I give the chickens some flaxseed every day to keep the omega-3 content of their eggs up (this is how the commercial high-omega 3 eggs are produced.) Flaxseed is expensive, so rather than give it to them dry and permit it to be scratched around and wasted, I mix it into yogurt or chopped vegetable scraps to make a slurry that they can eat out of a small dish.
I also feed their own eggshells back to them for calcium, but I never just throw the shells into the coop, because this trains them to eat their own eggs (yes, healthy chickens with lots of room and food will eat their own eggs if they learn how, and once a flock has learned to eat eggs there’s no good way to stop them.) I set the shells on a plate and microwave them for one minute to dry them thoroughly, then let them cool and set them aside in a bag. When I’ve accumulated a dozen or so, I crumble them roughly by hand and then put them in the blender and grind them to a coarse powder. The powder is added to yogurt or leftover oatmeal and stirred in well. The chickens gobble it up and it helps them make strong eggshells.