Archive for December, 2010

Kitchen Staples: Spaetzle


This is the time of year for warming and filling meals, but often there isn’t much time to fuss with an elaborate dish. This is when I rely on stews like the short rib braise above or my favorite “Sort-of Paprikash.” If you’re a vegetarian, stews of mushrooms and cream are satisfyingly meaty. Stews are wonderful to make ahead, and they hang out happily in the refrigerator for a few days, improving all the while if they were good to begin with. You want a good carbohydrate on the plate to absorb the rich juices and minimize your meat consumption, and one of my very favorites is spaetzle. It’s delicious, and much quicker and easier than homemade noodles. To male spaetzle efficiently you need a spaetzle maker, which is a $15 gadget readily available by mail order. Sometimes you can find one at local kitchenware stores.

I have recently started using a new recipe because I have lovely fresh eggs coming in from my chickens, and the new recipe uses more of the ingredient I grow myself, eggs, and less of the one I don’t, milk. Remember to make the dough at least half an hour before you want to cook it.

For enough to feed four people very generously:

3 cups unbleached flour

6 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1/2- 3/4 cup of milk

1/4 cup melted butter

Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Combine the beaten eggs and melted butter, pour into the bowl, and add half a cup of milk. Stir to combine. you are aiming for a thin dough which will “glop” off the end of the spoon in big lumps but which is definitely thicker than a batter. Add a little more milk if you need to. When combined, set in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to let the gluten relax. You can make it up to several hours before you need it. When ready to cook, bring a large shallow pan of salted water to a fast simmer. Fill your little devise with dough, slide the carriage back and forth, and little egg dumplings will fall into the water below. Fill the device again, and repeat until you’ve used up your dough. If the temperature of the water has dropped a lot, turn up the heat, but a hard boil will break up the dumplings. When they float, they’re done. Usually this takes about 5 minutes. Bite one to make sure that it isn’t soggy in the middle. Drain and serve with stew or rich meat juices on top.

Here’s something I learned in a cooking class in Sonoma, and it really works: after draining, you can spread the spaetzle out on a clean baking sheet and set them aside to cool. They will now keep for a day or two in the refrigerator, and can be reheated when you need them. If anything, they taste better than when eaten immediately. They can also be heated by frying in a big skillet with some clarified butter, so that they get crisp brown crunchy spots, and this is truly good, especially if you toss in some thyme leaves and a small handful of chopped parsley.

Solstice Sunrise

It’s the day after Solstice, and the Sun rose this morning, so I guess it’s decided to stick with us for another year. Avid gardeners may start out on modern time, but after a decade or so we find ourselves living the rythm of the agricultural year. Yuletide is for feasting on our stored abundance, and it’s a wonderful time to sit by the fire and scan seed catalogs and attach some details to our hopes for the upcoming year. In a week or two I’ll be posting on my annual reassessment: what worked, what didn’t. But now is not the time for sober consideration. It’s the time to take unabashed pleasure in what worked really well.  It’s time to do something that you don’t normally do, something that makes you shiver anew with love and reverence for the natural world, not because it is all good and beautiful, but because it exists and we have the good fortune to see it.

For me, feeling reverent rapture (or anything, really) before sunrise qualifies as something I don’t usually do. It takes real effort for me to function early in the morning, and a glass of fresh juice eases the effort.  A juicer puts healthy stuff in your cup quickly, and doesn’t need to be expensive. I bought a reconditioned one and it works fine. Your own stored apples and carrots, or organic ones from the store, make a great seasonal juice. Prickly pear fruits are still perfectly good on the cactuses that we have everywhere, and juicing disposes of the spine problem. One prickly pear fruit, or tuna, will give a dramatic sunrise color to two big glasses of juice. To my palate the fruits don’t have a lot of flavor, but the color is reason enough to use them.

Run four apples, four large carrots, and one prickly pear fruit (two for a deeper red rather than the sunrise shade above) through your juicer. POur the juice into a clear goblet so that the color can be admired. Drink. Dispose of the pulp by burying it in a part of the garden that animals can’t get at- many animals are drawn to fruit sugars, and you don’t want all the horrid little spines in the pulp to torment any animal, wild or tame. For the same reason, handle the pulp with a wooden spoon or thick gloves, not your bare hands.

Organic Matters

The soil at our new house, like many urban soils, was unpromising at best. Rocky, compacted, and highly alkaline, the only thing that really wanted to grow in it was tumbleweed.  With compost, gypsum,  and sheet-mulching it’s already a lot better and improving steadily. Beginning gardeners may be amazed at the sheer quantities needed. To emphasize the point of using enough, I’m illustrating the winter Grand Tetons of my backyard, Mt. Shredder and Mt. Manure. It might look like a lot, but it will be gone by spring.  Over the winter I’ll gradually spread the compost and work it into the growing areas, and mulch paths with the bark chips.  If you don’t have room for big heaps, you can get compost in bags, but get plenty. Apply gypsum per the results of your soil test, and you’re set for a successful growing season.

Didn’t get a soil test? I have to admit that I didn’t either. On soil that hasn’t been gardened before, I apply gypsum according to the directions on the bag, putting a little more where I’ll be growing calcium-lovers like broccoli and spinach. I also use extra on the potato patch, to get the pH down into a range that the potatoes can tolerate. Where soils are acidic I’d be using lime instead, but our very alkaline high-desert soils usually need a dose of gypsum to make them liveable for vegetables. Then I put on a scientifically determined amount of compost: all I can afford. Unless it’s really well aged, I keep it off the potato area. Instead, I dig all my neighbors’ discarded leaves into that area. No doubt it leads to comment when I remove the leaf bags on the night before green waste pick-up day, but as I see it, worse things could be said about me, so I’m lucky if people are only talking about my leaf-snatching habits. Needless to say, nothing should be touched unless it’s set out by the curb for pick-up. When in doubt, ask. But there’s no reason to pass up free organic matter that others are trying to get rid of.  Think of yourself as the Guerilla Gardener, and you may feel dashing instead of disheveled and a bit silly.

Root vegetables Chairoscuro


This time of year, parsnips are your friends. They are sitting patiently out in the garden waiting for you to get to them, never demanding any special attention or winter storage. During hot weather they weren’t worth eating and you tended to forget about them, but while you were catering to the flighty tomatoes and peppers, they were biding their time. When the needier vegetables gave in to the frosts, they started to convert their stored starches to sugars. Now, whenever you can pry them out of the cold ground, they’re ready to meet you halfway with a sweet flavor that repays your labor. I love them roasted, but for whatever reason I’m not big on white vegetables, and I started looking for something to relieve their snowy monotony. Finally I settled on their visual opposite, the deep purple carrots that become almost black when roasted, to create a dish with a little drama.
Clean two big parsnips and cut them into chunks no more than an inch on any side. Thoroughly scrub 3 large purple carrots and cut them into chunks somewhat smaller than the parsnips. Combine a quarter cup of good olive oil, a few tablespoons of white wine, half a teaspoon of salt or to taste, and two cloves of chopped garlic. Now this part is important: Put the carrots and the parsnips in two separate bowls and toss each with half the olive oil mixture. Don’t toss them together, because the carrots will “bleed” and stain the parsnips an unattractive magenta in places. If you are using regular orange carrots, separation doesn’t matter. Put the pieces in a cazuela big enough to hold them in one layer, or use a 9X13 heavy pan lined with parchment paper. Roast at 325. Don’t toss them around during roasting, because of the staining problem from the anthocyanins in purple carrots. The timing will vary a lot depending on the tender/tough ratio of the roots and on your personal taste. I like winter root vegetables roasted until they are soft and well caramelized, and it usually takes close to 2 hours at this low heat. If you like yours with some crunch you can stop cooking them sooner, but taste them before turning the oven off. These are not the tender roots of summer, they’re big meaty winter roots, and you may not like the amount of crunch they retain. If necessary, cook longer. Sprinkle a little bit of minced parsley over the top. If you want to be sure they’re done in time for dinner, cook them a little earlier in the day and leave them slightly underdone, then return to the oven for a final 20 minutes before dinner.

A big serving of these “white and black” roots on a red plate makes a great main course with a little piece of something meaty in the center. A few thighs of good pastured chicken seasoned with thyme, garlic, and olive oil can be roasted in the same oven for the last hour or so of cooking and will accent the roots nicely without overwhelming their flavors.

Kitchen Staples: Real Butter and Cheese


Recently I noticed a package of soy-based cheese in the dairy case at my local co-op, labelled “The Good Health Alternative!” and I picked it up to scan the ingredients. I was so intrigued by what I read that I bought it just so I could transcribe the ingredient list accurately: Soy base, casein (milk protein,) canola oil, natural and cultured flavorings, organic rice flour, sodium and calcium phosphate, sea salt, citric acid, carrageenan, lactic acid, sorbic acid, potato starch added for anticaking. The taste was appalling, if you know and like real cheese. I’d eat it if I were starving- I’d eat almost anything if I were starving- but I wouldn’t call it real food. All this proves to me is that unreal food is a problem in healthy-food stores as well as supermarkets.
I like 100% grassfed butter and cheese, and I order mine from the Pastureland people in Minnesota. They remain grass-fed during the winter, feeding hay and forage, but they only make cheese and butter in the summer when the cows are eating pure pasture and nothing else. The taste is wonderful, the method is better for the cows, the environment, and the eater, and the ingredients list is very, very short. This is a good time of year to order because the weather is cool. They ship in styrofoam insulated cartons, and they include a prepaid UPS label so that you can ship the empty carton and gelpacks back for reuse. I order a lot of butter at a time and seal it carefully to keep in the freezer. I also buy their mild cheddar in 5lb blocks to use as my “melty” cheese and general snacking-cooking cheese. The more aged cheeses are good on the cheese platter.
Naturally, it isn’t cheap. It takes a lot of good pasture to make this stuff, and good farmland is anything but free.
To those who argue against having food shipped from other places, I reply that if somebody would make a product of this quality locally, I would certainly support them by buying it. But keep in mind that to maintain this quality, the cows have to be eating real grass. Not hay, not silage, but grass. If somebody in my area will start doing that, I’ll line up to buy it. Until they do, I’ll support Pastureland. This is a rare and unique product and there isn’t much like it available in the US.
Regarding the CLA, omega-3 fatty acids, b-carotene, etc. that are found in grassfed butter, I would only say that I’m hard put to think of butter as a health supplement. I do think this is healthier than most butter, but moderation is still called for. The bottom line is that it tastes very, very good.

Kitchen Staples: Cornbread with more corn


Like any Southerner and lots of other people, I’m an ardent fan of cornbread. I’ve probably tested dozens of cornbread recipes in my life, but I keep coming back to my favorite one, which uses about half cornmeal and half white flour. Since reading The Resilient Gardener, I’m making some moves toward utilizing more staples that I could eventually produce for myself. I don’t grow field corn currently, but I might in the future, and besides, I reason that using a higher percentage of corn might give a purer corn flavor. Certainly, the less white flour we eat the better, and the cornmeal that I buy is whole-grain. I would also add that if there’s one thing we do really well in the US it’s grow corn, so growing better types and using them in better ways is not a bad idea on a national as well as personal level.
Right now I’m experimenting with lots of different cornmeals, and they offer a range of flavors, colors, and antioxidants, but my husband loves the cheerful sunny color of yellow cornbread, so that’s what I chose for my first experiment in more-corn cornbread. I use a fine meal ground from flour corn, and this type of cornmeal definitely tastes better with some sugar in the recipe, but leave it out if you insist.
I must say that I really liked the flavor and texture and it rose nicely. I was afraid that I might get a corn-brick, but the texture was only slightly more dense than my usual recipe. Try it. My next cornbread recipe will be all-corn, and I’ll keep you posted on how it comes out.

Mostly-corn Cornbread

3 cups fine yellow cornmeal- whole-grain meal ground fairly recently is important to the flavor.
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder (our altitude is about 5000 feet. Down lower, you might need twice this much leavening)
4 tablespoons sugar (see below)
2 1/2 cups buttermilk
4 eggs
3 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and put a 12″ cast-iron skillet in to heat. You could also use another type of pan if it’s heavy and will hold heat. Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl. In another bowl beat the eggs enough to blend them and stir in the buttermilk. When the oven reaches temp, take out the skillet and throw in the butter cut in pats. It will melt quickly and proceed to burn if you don’t have everything else standing ready. Stir the wet ingredients rapidly into the dry ingredients. Don’t worry that some smallish lumps remain. Pour the batter immediately into the skillet and put it back in the oven. Bake until done, testing with a cake tester or knife blade to be sure the middle is finished. Remove from the oven, and have a rack ready. Invert the pan and the bread will fall out onto your waiting oven-gloved hand. Now invert the bread again onto the rack, so it ends up right side up. Now it can cool a little without the bottom crust, which you took pains to make crisp, getting soggy. Eat in bliss, with butter and good raw honey.
Regarding the sugar, my favorite with corn is a specialty sugar called Heavenly Sugar. I get it at my local Co-op. It’s a whole-cane juice product like sucanet but without the strong flavor, and it perfectly accentuates the flavor of good cornmeal.
The Resilient Gardener is a book that I can’t seem to shut up about. Anybody interested in the issue of personal food security should read it. Here in the Southwest, where corn and squash are traditional crops well-suited to our climate, it’s especially relevant. I am continually impressed with the asides that suddenly make sense of something I’ve puzzled over. For instance, I’ve often wondered why some cornbread tastes bad to me with sugar in it, and some tastes bad without it. Ms. Deppe points out that flour corns taste better with some sugar, and flint corns taste better without it. Simple, really, as long as you have real knowledge of your ingredients.

Addendum: I’m trying this recipe with a lot of different cornmeals, because it lets the flavor of the corn be foremost and it’s surprising what flavor differences there are. Below is the same recipe made with fresh blue cornmeal. The good part is that it’s very flavorful, with a deep earthy taste, and packed with fiber and antioxidants. The bad part is, well, it’s, uh, blue.  You will have to decide for yourself whether that bothers you. I’ll be interested to see how red and purple cornbread turn out..