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The Color of Our Thumbs

Jer, despite being a video game playing techie, has a fair bit of gardener in him. On a little shelf by our front door there is a small tin of dried rose petals. You might think these came from some bouquet he gave me, or perhaps our wedding, but actually they were there long before I came around. The petals came from roses that Jer grew himself at a house he lived in several years ago. He loves roses and would enjoy having the time and space to grow more again.

I, on the other hand, am not a gardener. Between my allergies and my general bookishness, getting outside and digging around in the dirt never held much interest for me as a child. Just being outside when a neighbor is mowing their lawn is enough to send my head into an allergy fit. My grandma was a master gardener and when my parents lived with her they helped put in twenty raised garden beds in her large backyard. Every summer there would be lettuce and beans, zucchini and tomatoes, fresh out of the garden. I enjoyed the glut of zucchini, but never spent much time helping in the family pasttime.

Now I am more concerned with health, organics, price of food, and sustainability. Despite my desire to live as a black-thumbed urbanite, I have to admit that growing your own food is the best thing to do, both economically and ecologically. So, here I am, my newlywed self, with a patio full of pots holding myriad vegetables and herbs.

My weekend thrill was the first flowers blooming on my tomato plants. I don’t even like tomatoes that much (I love to cook with them, but raw tomatoes don’t float my boat) but I posted on facebook and jumped up and down a little at that first smiling yellow bud. I cried a little inside when my thyme died, and I am praying that my basil flourishes. Every day I go out and look at my zucchini and broccoli, my lettuces and squash. I talk to them like pets: “Hi little guys! How’s the weather?”

To be fair, Jer has done most of the work planting, watering, and tending our mini garden. I figure this is necessary for them to grow, since my skills are quite limited. But I figure that I can use my kitchen skills to make the best use of the goodies that Jer’s garden produces. Depending on how long we stay here in this house, we might do some work on the backyard that will enable us to plant more vegetables next year, instead of being limited to our containers. So many possibilities. But wherever we end up living, I am pretty sure that I will continue to grow good things for use in my kitchen. Who knows, maybe my kids will enjoy it.

So here I am, my posh urban banker self, getting a little glee out of a garden. I think, I hope, that somewhere up in heaven it’s making my grandma smile.

This post is part of the Food and Faith: Local Farms challenge on The Local Cook.

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Posted by on June 14, 2010 in Things Edible, Things Verdant

 

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The Triumph of the Sourdough Starter

When I moved out of my parents’ house I was no stranger to yeast. My mom is an excellent baker and has taught me the ways of leavening quite well. When I lived with the girls at the Yellow Cottage I would usually bake bread a couple of times a month. I settled on my favorite multigrain honey bread, a recipe which required that I make at least two loaves, because the first one would usually be gone within 10 minutes of my roommates getting their hands on it.

When I married Jer, I figured I would continue making my sweet bread of yeasty goodness. But Jer has other ideas. Confident in my baking powers, he not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps I should switch to sourdough bread. Now, I have always loved sourdough bread, but I have never worked with it, and my perception was that it was a lot of hassle and I would never actually get it to work. However, in the fog of romantic love and conjugal bliss I agreed to start the experiment.

So I did some reading and researching and found that starting a starter wouldn’t actually be that hard. In theory. According to the recipes, you just mix together some flour and water and watch the magic happen.

Heh.

Let’s just say it took a lot longer than I thought. And a lot more recipes than I thought. I feed our starter (we call him Odo, since he sleeps in a bucket) every day, building up his taste and leavening power, and then when baking day comes I take the chance that all my work will not go to waste. I’ve made no-knead bread and super-kneaded bread. Recipes that took 24 hours and ones that took 4. Dutch ovens, baking stones, preheated ovens, cold ovens, wood-fire grills. I’ve made the worst baked goods of my life struggling with that starter. Flat, hard bread, only useful for breadcrumbs (which I rarely need) or bread pudding (which I am not really a huge fan of). Through fail after fail, Jer encouraged me and ate the rejects.

There have been a few successes in the story, but overall I have not been satisfied. I had dreams of the soft, tasty sourdough bread I used to eat growing up, bread which I am sure was full of dough conditioners and other such chemical additives but nevertheless made me happy. A slight sourdough tang, a chewy crust, a soft interior. Such bliss.

BUT. It was this weekend that we finally reached the pinnacle of the sourdough bread. I have been reading a lot about sprouted flour and soaked grains and how proper preparation makes grains healthier for you and more easily digestable. Hopping from blog to blog I stumbled upon the recipe that would be the gamechanger. I read the title-Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread-and I was filled with hope that perhaps here was the recipe that would marry my love for honey-sweetened multigrain bread with Jer’s visions of sourdough loaves.

It was easy. It worked better than it said it would. And it was, categorically, the best bread I have ever made in my life. And so my friends, I share it with you. Let me know if you want a little bit of my sourdough starter to get you, well, started.

Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
from Kitchen Stewardship

This requires some planning ahead because of the overnight proof, but it actually is one of the easier sourdough recipes I have tried. Your starter should be fed a 1:1 ratio of filtered water and flour, and to keep it most active, you should feed it every 8-12 hours and keep it at room temperature for a couple of days prior to use (I usually feed Odo every 24 hours). I’ve heard some recipes say that a sourdough starter can’t handle a dough with eggs and butter, but my starter loved it, and the loaves rose like nobody’s business. I think having an active starter helps a lot.

1 1/2 cups whole wheat sourdough starter
2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup mild honey
2 large eggs
6 cups (divided) whole wheat flour, plus extra for kneading
2 teaspoons sea salt
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

The night before you want to bake, combine the starter, milk, and 3 cups of flour, creating a shaggy dough (much like a no-knead recipe). I used a mix of whole wheat flour and bread flour (the extra gluten makes a difference) but feel free to use whatever you like. Cover and keep in a warm place overnight. The best idea is to turn on your oven and preheat to 350 while you make your dough, then immediately turn it off and place the covered bowl in the oven. Leave the door open slightly so the light stays on.

In the morning, your dough will have puffed up and be covered in air bubbles. Stir gently with a wooden spoon and add in the honey and eggs one at a time. Mix until completely incorporated. Add the remaining flour, salt, and butter. If you have a mixer with a dough hook, use this and knead for 5-7 minutes. I didn’t find that I needed a whole lot of extra flour this way. If you don’t have a mixer, knead by hand on a lightly floured surface for 10 minutes, then let rest 10 minutes, then knead again for another 10 minutes. Dough will be moist but not sticky, with good elasticity.

After kneading, put your dough in a greased bowl and cover. Go ahead and do the same thing with the oven: preheat, turn off, put in dough, leave door open slightly. Allow to rise until doubled; the recipe said 2-4 hours, but mine took about an hour and a half. That’s one benefit of having an active sourdough starter!

When dough has doubled, remove, divide in half, and shape into two loaves. 9×5 loaf pans are recommended, although I suppose you could try making boules and placing them on a cookie sheet. Repeat your oven proofing technique, allowing the loaves to rise to just above the edge of the pan, about an hour.

Take the pans out of the oven and preheat it for reals this time, to 375. Place a sheet pan in the bottom of your oven and get 2-3 cups of water ready. Slash the tops of your loaves. As soon as you place your loaves in the preheated oven, pour the water into the sheet pan and then quickly shut the door. This creates a steamy environment for your loaves, so they can develop a nice crust, as well as the series of romance novels that will fund your retirement.

Bake for 35 minutes. The loaves should get golden brown on top, and sound hollow when you tap them. Remove from oven and cool on wire racks. It will be tempting to cut into them immediately, but you need to let them cool down a bit before you slice. If any of the bread makes it past the first tasting, allow it to completely cool before wrapping it up and storing it in a cool place. The recipe states it keeps for a week, but I doubt it will last that long. You can also freeze the extra loaf, wrapping it in foil before sealing it in a freezer bag.

There you have it folks: the grand triumph. This bread is awesome with just a little butter, or toasted with honey or jam, or as a sandwich. I made Jer a PB&J with this and I swear he ate it in less than a minute. He then apparently ate four more slices while I was at worship practice! I’ll be lucky if the two loaves last the week. But hey, anything for my man.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2010 in Things Edible

 

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How I Learned To Eat Avocado

I have friends who look at me in horror when I tell them I don’t like avocado.

“What?” they exclaim. “How can you not like avocado? It’s amazing! Guacamole! Favorite thing ever!”

Sadly I cannot find it in my heart or tastebuds to enjoy a fresh ripe raw avocado. I have an aversion to certain textures which I can only describe as ‘gushy’: ripe bananas, raw tomatoes, and avocados are good examples of such. My husband adores all of these things, so I order my guacamole on the side so he gets extra, and the tomatoes on my burger also go to him, along with most of the bananas in our weekly produce box.

However, I am finding that I love to cook and bake with those gushy substances. Banana bread? I make a to-die-for loaf, and bananas make a great addition to muffin recipes (just substitute for the oil and/or part of the butter). Tomato sauce? Marinara is a favorite, and I can make anything from a veggie-stuffed balsamic-flavored extravaganza or a simple buttery sauce like you can find on smitten kitchen.  However, it was only recently that avocado made it onto my baking ingredient list.

I was reading Joy the Baker’s blog and came across her recipe for Vegan Chocolate Cake. Now, I’m not vegan and have no plans to move that way, I like my omnivorous status, thank you very much. However, I love a challenge, and with her assertion that these cupcakes were amazing, and the slightly overripe avocado sitting on my table begging to be used, I decided to give it a go. Surprisingly, the cupcakes had good texture and flavor, and you couldn’t taste the avocado at all. Since then I’ve substituted avocado for butter in several muffin and banana bread recipes for good results.

Still, I stayed away from the raw avocado as much as possible. Until Saturday morning. Jer saw the avocado in the fruit bowl and asked me for a recipe. I put avocado into the google reader search box and what came up but an avocado smoothie. Well, this sounded completely disgusting to me, but of course Jer had to try it. So out came the can of evaporated milk and the ice cubes and he went to town. He made me try a sip of the smoothie, and I have to say I was less than impressed. But then, in a stroke of smoothie-making genius, Jer pulled out the magic ingredient: Nutella. A couple spoonfuls later and we had smoothies that tasted nothing like avocado yet possessed the smoothest, creamiest texture and the fantastic chocolate hazelnut flavor we know and love. And so my friends, I share this with you, as a testament to the power of Nutella to get even me to eat avocado.

Avocado-Nutella Smoothie

 

1 ripe avocado

2 tsp sugar

½ can evaporated milk

8 ice cubes

2 Tbsp Nutella

 

All of these ingredients are to taste. The original recipe called for sweetened condensed milk mixed with a little regular milk, but the evaporated was all we had, and I think it turned out better this way.

 

Blend the avocado, sugar, and half the ice and milk until fairly smooth. Add remaining ice/milk and Nutella. Adjust with additional milk or Nutella to suit your tastes.

 

Serves 2, or one hungry person.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Things Edible

 

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Solitude, Low-Carb Diets, and Irishness

This past Sunday, I woke up, made coffee, cut an apple and fixed a bowl of yogurt, and took my breakfast to the couch. There I sat and read and journaled for a bit while music played in the background. This used to be how I spent almost every Sunday morning when I was single. Since the advent of life with Jer, however, Sunday mornings usually involve long periods of snuggling, making breakfast together, reading to each other, and lots of laughter. I have to say, as much as I valued those quiet mornings back in the day, I missed my Sunday morning with Jer something fierce.

Jer being off in Vegas means I am back to my single life for a few days until I get to take vacation and go join him. Perhaps some people would enjoy the break, the chance to experience a little solitude, but I am going slightly insane. I planned a lot in five days just to keep myself out of the house, spending time with my old roommates and friends and scheduling appointments after work to delay heading home to an empty house.

I also find it’s much less satisfying cooking an excellent meal for just yourself. All the books with fancy titles like Alone In The Kitchen With An Eggplant can’t change the fact that food is best experienced as a communal endeavor. So while the following recipe is amazing, and I enjoyed eating it, I am more looking forward to making it for a friend tomorrow night, and for Jer when he is back.

Cauliflower Colcannon

I got this idea while listening to a Splendid Table podcast (they are free on iTunes and my favorite thing to listen to on the way to work). Lynne said that she steamed cauliflower and kale with garlic and then pureed them together. I looked up a few colcannon recipes and found that I preferred the idea of sauteing the cabbage and kale and then adding it to the pureed cauliflower. It turned out intensely flavorful and filling, while still being fairly healthy. It’s also low carb, which I like and makes it the perfect dish to take to a little St. Patrick’s Day get-together with a friend who keeps a strict low carb diet.

1 head cauliflower
1-2 tablespoons butter
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream
1/2 head green cabbage
small bunch kale
2-3 cloves garlic or 2 stalks green garlic*
2-3 scallions
2-3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
salt, pepper, paprika to taste
optional: mojave garlic pepper, roasted garlic salt, or any other spicy/savory seasoning mix you enjoy
 
 
Cut up the head of cauliflower into uniform pieces and boil or steam until tender. Drain well, then allow to sit in hot pan for a few minutes so water evaporates off the vegetable-this will keep them from getting soggy. Puree with butter and a little milk or cream.
 
While cauliflower is cooking, chop cabbage and kale into one inch pieces. Finely slice garlic and scallions. Heat up a wok or large skillet with oil or butter and a little salt and pepper. Toss in cabbage and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Then add kale, garlic, and scallions. Saute over medium high heat until tender (another 5-10 mins), adding salt, pepper, and spices to taste.
 
Mix half a cup of mashed cauliflower with half a cup of sauteed greens for each serving.
 
 
 
*Green garlic is simply garlic before it has developed the bulb. It looks like a miniature leek. The entire stalk can be used and has a milder, nuttier flavor than regular garlic.

 

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday

(Note: Our blog used to live elsewhere. What follows are comments this post received on the old site:)

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Posted by on March 17, 2010 in Things Divine, Things Edible

 

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