It may be off-season for the kids, but the school garden is still a-growing. Above is the last of the sugar snap peas. Below, bee balm is in bloom, lilies in the distance.
One of many pumpkin plants sown by the second graders.
I was cleaning out the 8YO's backpack last week when I came across a big stack of handmade cards. Being a nosy mother, I started flipping through them and discovered that they were for me—for helping his second grade class plant pumpkins in the garden the week before. Another stack of cards came home the next day from a class of first graders that had planted sunflowers with me.
The cards were so sweet and earnestly rendered. I loved reading them and seeing what made the strongest impression on each child based on what they decided to draw. Here are some of my favorites:
Watering the pumpkin seeds.
Anticipation of the fall harvest. (It's a rather ambitious forecast—I'd better get busy planting some insurance pumpkins!)
I may have forgotten to mention that pumpkins don't grow pre-carved.
Some kids were fascinated by the wildlife in and around the garden. Others loved tasting the snap peas, mint leaves, and lemon balm.
So on behalf of everyone's favorite garden cyclops, thanks kids!
Here's wishing everyone a happy (and fruitful) summer!
Remember how I was complaining that a half-dozen college guys moved in next door? And how I was bracing myself for frat parties every night? I don't want to jinx anything, but the school year just ended and not a single frat party was had. Also, get this, those same college guys are building the most amazing garden in the front yard.
It all started when one of them came by to ask if they could borrow a shovel. Theirs had broken and they were in the throws of a major garden construction project. At least that's what the fresh-faced youth said. I was reluctant to give up my shovel as I assumed "garden" was code for "secret keg storage bunker." But my shovel was right there, we could both see it, so I couldn't exactly say we didn't have one. He returned it promptly and then the project was abandoned for weeks. Typical, I thought. Even the promise of icy cold beverages buried deep in the earth couldn't sustain the efforts of the slacker generation.
Then, last week, that same kid emerged with tub after tub of seedlings. Nah, seedlings imply puny little green sprouts. These were sprouts on steroids. They looked like beanstalks fit for a giant. Spinach, kale, sunflowers. Five-gallon buckets full of mystery plants were suspended from the beams of the porch, vines cascading down between the columns.
What the hell? Do they have grow lights in the basement? My own sprouts emerge only tentatively and in the feeblest of fashions. Our yard adjacent to theirs consists of massive weeds and unruly raspberry canes mixed in with the remnants of our demolished upstairs porch scattered everywhere. The only thing growing at the moment is our pile of white trash.
Meanwhile, just over the property line, raised beds were being built. Terracing was carved into the hill. The term "hardening off" was used, and not in the way I expected a college guy to use it.
So why am I over here acting all pissy about such a positive development?
I'll tell you why. Because for years my story about why I'm such a crappy gardener has been that that our yard is not suitable for gardening--not enough sun, poor and rocky soil, north-facing slope. It's the shitty terroir, not me. Then along come these whippersnappers who recreate the Hanging Gardens of Babylon a mere three feet away. They've single-handedly ruined my cover.
I've been doing pretty well with the school garden of late, or so I thought, but now I totally have to up my game. Come September, we'll see who has the better garden, them or me.
It's on, College Boys!
A few weeks ago, I found myself with a glut of shiitake mushrooms. A sudden spell of warm weather caused my five logs to flush all at once with these small, rather dry, cracked mushrooms. The next day called for rain, so I decided to keep them out a little longer to let them grow a bit more and rehydrate. When I woke up the next morning, the temperature had plummeted, there was snow on the ground, and I ended up with several pounds of huge, rather waterlogged, partially frozen mushrooms (insert frowny-faced emoticon here).
Frozen mushrooms aren't the best. The way mushrooms grow from tiny pinheads to full-grown specimens is basically by inflating with water. But if that water should freeze, it will expand and rupture the cell walls. The results are pretty slimy. I know because I cooked the frozen ones anyway. Not the best.
On the upside, some of the mushrooms didn't freeze and these banh mi-like sandwiches were a great way to enjoy them. A banh mi is a sandwich that evolved in Vietnam during the French colonial period. It's usually some kind of meat, like pate or pork belly, in a baguette with pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and spicy chili sauce—a fusion of both cultures in one tasty package. For this vegetarian version, shiitake slices are sautéed in soy sauce and garlic, then added to a baguette slathered with Sriracha mayo, layered with quick-pickled cucumbers and radishes, and garnished with cilantro and mint. Fresh-tasting and satisfying, this was lunch all week.
The idea was inspired by a recipe in the vegan cookbook Isa Does It by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, except I unveganed it by adding the mayo back in. Vegans and non-vegans alike will want to check out this book: it's full of things that even I would eat, and the food photography and overall design is great. And if you have the same pet peeve I have about authors' faces on the cover (no offense to anyone's face—all I want to see is the food), you can remove the dust jacket and underneath it, printed directly on the cover, is a nice colorful alphabet soup with little pasta letters spelling out "Let's Eat."
Avoid super-crusty baguettes for these sandwiches unless you want the roof of your mouth shredded. Aim for something mid-way between a soft sub roll and a traditional baguette (Russo's shoppers: try the medium sub rolls that come in bags of three on the bottom shelf). Also, I used regular red radishes, which turned the picking liquid pink and gave the vegetables a rosy hue by Day 2. If you want a more manly sandwich, maybe stick with the traditional white daikon radishes.
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup thinly sliced radishes
1 cup thinly sliced English or Persian cucumber
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, caps sliced 1/4-inch thick, stems removed
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Sriracha
Salt to taste
4 soft baguette rolls
Fresh cilantro sprigs
Fresh mint leaves
For the pickles, whisk together the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt until dissolved. Stir in the vegetables and let them sit in the liquid until ready to serve.
For the shiitakes, preheat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil and then the shiitakes. Sauté until they soften, release their moisture, and brown a bit in spots, 5 to 10 minutes depending on how much moisture they contain. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds before adding the soy sauce, stirring until well mixed and fragrant. Remove the mushrooms to a shallow bowl to cool slightly.
For the Sriracha mayo, whisk together the mayo, Sriracha, and salt. As written, the spice level is about medium, but you can adjust it to your liking by adding more mayo or more Sriracha.
To assemble the sandwiches, split the baguettes lengthwise by cutting out a narrow wedge from the top. Then hollow out the rolls a little by pulling out some of the extra bread inside to make room for more filling. Spread the inside generously with Sriracha mayo. Add some cooked mushrooms, then some pickled radish and cucumbers, and then cilantro and mint. Eat up. Any remaining sandwich components can be stored several days covered in the fridge. Makes 4 sandwiches.
Source: Adapted from Isa Does It by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.
Since I've been banned from the woods, I've been forced to limit my attention to the stuff growing in my own suburban neighborhood. That is to say, downhill from the poison ivy forest in my backyard. On my walk back from the bus stop last week, I saw what I recognized to be a hickory nut in its husk lying in the street. Perhaps it was abandoned by a squirrel under duress? I pocketed the nut, brought it home, and pulled off the green, multi-lobed husk. Then the little nut sat on my counter for a week while I waited for the hammer to turn up.
When it finally did, I brought the nut outside and cracked it open on the sidewalk without any finesse whatsoever. The shell and nut shards went flying all over the place. But I retrieved them all, and let me tell you—hickory nuts are amazing. They remind me of maple candy the same way pecans remind me of pralines. They're buttery and sweet. I declare them to be the best nuts ever. I mean, I haven't tried butternuts, yet, so maybe I should reserve final judgment. But then the butternut tree in my backyard has canker and doesn't bear nuts, so I may never know what those taste like. Better just to go on record to say that if you are a nut-lover, you better make it your business to find a shagbark hickory tree and harvest some nuts. (Come to find out, there are three—count 'em, three—shagbark hickory trees on the next street over!)
Here's how to distinguish a shagbark hickory tree from other types of hickories that might not taste as good: The bark is gray and looks shaggy like it's peeling off in rough vertical strips. The leaves of hickory trees look like this (shagbarks have two sets of compound leaflets and a large terminal leaflet). The leaves turn color early. In fact, they're yellow right now just as the sugar maples are turning their most brilliant orange-red. You can read more about hickories here.
I just realized I haven't shown you any pictures of our school garden this year.
Bet you thought I killed it.
I did not! It is alive and well!
Volunteers built three new raised beds over the summer, and a few artistic students painted some signs and stakes for labeling things. There's a pizza garden with cherry tomatoes and herbs, a lush bed full of leafy greens like lettuce and chard and kale, and another bed full of pole beans, the radishes along the perimeter having long been harvested. The rabbit population in the area has exploded, so fencing is a new requirement. They really seem to love gnawing the strawberry and cucumber plants down to the ground, as well as the beautiful sweet potato vines I planted myself from slips. Curse those adorable cotton-tailed creatures!
There's a brand new butterfly garden this year with bee balm, milkweed, and butterfly bushes to encourage pollinators, as well as some gorgeous sunflowers planted by little hands.
I was watering the garden today when I came across this guy climbing up the building's foundation?
A giant praying mantis. He was about as long as my hand, wrist to fingertip. I didn't have my good camera with me, but the sun was so bright that it etched out some of the details in shadow. You don't see this kind of visitor every day, so I got him onto a stick and brought him over to the cafeteria window, which overlooks the garden. It was just about noon, so I knew the place would be packed with kids. I nudged the mantis onto the window screen and let it climb around for a little while in plain view of the children sitting on the other side of the glass. This caused a minor riot in the lunchroom as dozens of kids came running over to see. A scant 30 seconds of smiling observation passed before one of the lunch monitors attempted to draw the curtains and, when that didn't work, put her hand over the window in front of the insect to block anyone's view except mine. I already know what a praying mantis looks like, Lady! A part of my soul died a little, but then I tried reaching back into my substitute teaching days, which weren't so long ago, to remember what it's like to wrangle a room full of kids when you're totally outnumbered. Distractions—even educational ones—are not always appreciated. I took that as my cue to remove the regal insect and return him to his comfort zone in the weeds growing wild by the leaky hose. This put me on better terms with the mantis as well!
Next up for the garden: I'd like to see some cross-pollinating apple trees back there. Maybe even some pear trees. Also, we need more cherry tomato plants. More! I gave a garden tour to my son's second grade class last week, and all of the tomatoes were stripped in two minutes flat. One little girl had never tried one before. She loved it. Nature's candy!
I'm going out on a limb to say this will probably be one of my least popular posts of all time. Why? Because I'm pretty sure I'm the only one under the age of 80 who buys Grape-Nuts on a regular basis. But I can't help it. I love that cereal! And I especially love the ice cream!
Grape nut ice cream is one of those flavors that lurks in the far corner of the menu board for one reason and one reason alone: to appease the grumpy guy down the street that orders a single scoop at the same time every day like he has for the past 40 years. If you took it off the menu, you'd never hear the end of it.
For everyone else, though, the decision is tough. What would you rather find in your ice cream: cookie dough, cake batter, candy bars, or Euell Gibbons' favorite health cereal? Then there's the temptation of chocolate-peanut-butter this or coffee-mocha-caramel that or some new maple-walnut-butterscotch-bourbon-pistachio-pecan-praline mash-up, which I will surely love, to complicate matters. Peaceful treaties between historically hostile nations could be hammered out in less time than it takes me to order an ice cream.
That's why I make my own grape nut ice cream at home. I have everything I need right in the pantry and it's always consistently good. (Sometimes grumpy guys have a point!) The secret is in the cereal itself: how those crunchy little nuggets of barley soften and mellow into malty, toothsome perfection. A little bit of malted milk powder sweetens the deal. If you can't find malted milk powder at the store, you can order it through King Arthur Flour or just ask your local ice cream shop for a take-out container of the stuff while waving a couple of dollar bills around. Nothing motivates the teenage summer help like cold hard cash. Or maybe it's the prospect of getting certain indecisive, troublesome female patrons to finally leave. We may never know for sure.
Grape Nut Ice Cream
I make my ice cream the old-fashioned way: with organic raw eggs. You are under no obligation to do the same. If you're worried about salmonella, your options are many: Use pasteurized eggs instead. Or leave out the eggs entirely for a very serviceable Philadelphia-style ice cream. Or pull out your favorite cooked custard-style ice cream cookbook (like David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop) and modify this recipe using egg yolks and a thermometer. Or pull out your favorite cornstarch-based, egg-free ice cream cookbook (like Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home) and modify her base. It's your kitchen after all.
2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
2 heaping tablespoons malted milk powder, like Horlick's or Carnation
3/4 cup Grape-Nuts cereal
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then whisk for 1 minute more. Add the cream, milk, and malted milk powder, and whisk for another minute until the sugar is dissolved. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes).
During the last 2 minutes of churning, pour in the grape nuts. Transfer the churned mixture into a freezer-safe container. Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours.
If you're grilling this Labor Day, tell your burly grillmaster to push the meat aside and make room for some veggie love. Here's a quick recipe to help you deal with the season's influx of local zucchini and long, twisty Asian eggplant. Simply cut them into thin slices, brush them with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the veggies over hot coals until tender, grill-marked, and bendy. Arrange them on a platter and sprinkle with crumbled goat cheese, toasted pine nuts, and slivered basil. I almost added a vinaigrette, but then I thought it wasn't necessary. Your call.
I've spent a fair bit of time over the past few weeks helping to get the kids' school garden cleaned up and productive. A lot of the weeding involved removing mint bent on world domination. I thought of saving it to make pesto, but it was the wrong kind of mint. This tasted more like peppermint. While peppermint pasta doesn't appeal, I couldn't see throwing all of that perfectly good mint into the compost. Plus all that weeding makes you hot and sweaty. Soon I was craving something cool and refreshing. And minty.
Mint chocolate chip was always a favorite flavor of mine growing up, but I'd never made it at home. Turns out, there's nothing to it. Tear up the mint leaves and steep them in hot milk until cool, strain out the greenery, and proceed with the usual steps. Drizzling some melted chocolate over the churned mixture as you pack it into a container to freeze gives you instant chocolate chips (you get to use your favorite chocolate, too). It's a nice reward for an honest partial-day's work.
I make my ice cream the old-fashioned way: with organic raw eggs. You are not required to do the same. If you're worried about salmonella, your options are many: Use pasteurized eggs instead. Or leave out the eggs entirely for a very serviceable Philadelphia-style ice cream. Or pull out your favorite cooked custard-style ice cream cookbook (like David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop, for example) and modify this recipe using egg yolks and a thermometer. Or pull out your favorite cornstarch-based, egg-free, gelato-style ice cream cookbook (like Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home) and modify, modify, modify. It's your kitchen after all.
1 cup mint leaves (or more), packed
1-1/2 cups milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Tear up the mint leaves and add them to a small saucepan with the milk. Heat the milk until little bubbles form around the edges. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit until cool. Refrigerate until ready to use (the longer it sits, the more flavor becomes infused). Strain the mixture into a medium bowl, pressing on the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the leaves.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in the sugar a little at a time, then whisk for 1 minute more. Pour in the cream and minty milk, and whisk for another minute until the sugar is dissolved. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually spin for 25 minutes).
While the ice cream is churning, heat the chopped chocolate on top of a double boiler (if you don't have one, improvise your own by setting a metal bowl atop a smallish saucepan with an inch of simmering water; the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water). Stir the chocolate until melted and smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.
Transfer the churned ice cream mixture into a freezer-safe container in layers, messily alternating big spoonfuls of soft ice cream with drizzlings of melted chocolate. Freeze until firm, at least 8 hours.
To celebrate me losing all of my dessert cookbook weight, let's have a salad!
I've been enjoying this grapefruit fennel salad for months now. It was inspired by a recipe in Amanda Cohen's cookbook, Dirt Candy. If you're unfamiliar with the NYC veggie-focused restaurant by the same name or its comic-book-themed cookbook spin-off, I suggest you seek out the latter the next time you're at the library or your local bookstore. It's an entertaining read as it illustrates, quite literally, the reality of opening a new restaurant, Cohen's stint on Iron Chef America, as well as cooking techniques for vegetables. As the author and heroine of this graphic novel, Cohen dons her chefly superpowers with wit and humility. The book is great fun, as is her blog. Check out this hilarious post on how her celery salad went over at the NYC Wine & Food Fest. If you find yourself defecting to her blog, I'll totally understand!
But back to the salad. Cohen's version includes candied grapefruit lollipops and grilled cheese croutons, which are no doubt delicious, but my version is a little more pared down (read: lazy). I've settled on this basic arrangement: mixed greens with thinly sliced fennel and red onion, segmented grapefruit, and crumbled feta. The salad benefits from having something fatty and salty in the mix, so if you forgo the cheese, fill the void with crumbled bacon, chopped almonds or pistachios, or cubed avocado with a sprinkling of sea salt. The dressing, which I make with anise seeds instead of fennel seeds, is mildly fruity and refreshing. It's the perfect pre-summer salad.
(It also reminds me a little bit of dessert!)
Below are my suggestions, but use what you like in the proportions of your choosing. Just be sure to slice the vegetables very thinly. A tangle of radish sprouts would be a nice addition. The amounts below serve two grownups. Scale up as you wish.
1 to 2 cups mixed lettuce, spinach, and baby kale
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced (only cut what you'll use)
1 red grapefruit
Crumbled feta, goat cheese, or queso fresco
Chopped salted almonds or pistachios (optional)
1 tablespoon finely grated grapefruit zest (from 1 grapefruit)
2 tablespoons grapefruit juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the salad, toss the lettuce, fennel, and onion in a bowl.
Finely grate the zest from the grapefruit and set it aside for the dressing. Cut the grapefruit in half and reserve one of the halves for the dressing. To segment the other half, place it cut-side-down and slice the peel off the grapefruit in swaths, following the contour of the fruit. Then turn it over and cut between the membranes to remove the juicy flesh in between. Set the grapefruit segments aside in a shallow bowl.
For the dressing, add the grapefruit zest, grapefruit juice from the reserved grapefruit half, lemon juice, anise seeds, and mustard to a blender. Blend on high, then reduce the speed to low and slowly stream in the oil until smooth and emulsified. Add salt and pepper to taste. (The dressing can be stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.)
Lightly dress the greens and veggies just before serving. Arrange the salad on plates with the grapefruit segments, cheese, and nuts if using. Serve additional dressing at the table.
Source: Adapted from Dirt Candy by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey, and Grady Hendrix
You know what I'm talking about. Back in high school, everything is poised to get better. The braces will be pried off soon. The glasses can be traded in for contact lenses, maybe even the kind that turn your muddy eyes a cool shade of aquamarine like a mood ring. You're finally easing up on all the Aqua Net (step away from the can of hairspray, Tammy). The ugly duckling becomes a swan and all that crap. Meanwhile, you're making a little cash throwing together sandwiches on the weekends and you feel real smart with that diploma in your hand.
The world is yours for the taking!
In high school, you can't wait for college. In college, you look forward to getting out of college because all this studying is putting a damper on your social life. Plus, you want a fun job with a decent paycheck. You want a mode of transportation besides your own two feet. Dates at fancy restaurants. A place to live that's not a dump. Vacations. Soon you have some stuff, and you like your stuff, but you want something more. You want love. You want a family of your own. Then you get a family of your own and, for the whole first year, you can't believe what a horrible mistake you've made. No more dates at fancy restaurants. Your place becomes a dump. Vacations take on an entirely new and unwelcome meaning. Sometimes you wish you'd just stayed home.
But then you learn to stop being so selfish all the time and things gets better. Your family becomes your whole life. Does anyone else have kids as awesome as yours? NO WAY! IMPOSSIBLE! And then you realize something. Your kids are halfway through their childhood already. They're going to spend the whole second half hating you. And then they're going to leave.
They say you get better with age, but in what way specifically? Nicer? I don't think so. If anything, I'm getting more crotchety and even less charitable behind the wheel of a car. Wiser? Uh-uh. By my calculations, I'm getting stupider by the day. I've always been a wee bit forgetful, but this is ridiculous. I left my coat somewhere last week. At the library? At Walgreens? Where? How did I not notice my coat was missing? True, it felt colder, but all that ran through my head was: That's New England for you. One minute you're toasty warm in your nice winter jacket and the next minute you're shivering by the parking meters fumbling for change while the icy wind sucker punches you in the spleen and there's no logical explanation for it whatsoever. (I still haven't found it, by the way. My coat. It's puffy and gray with a big hood.)
The other night I looked in the mirror and realized that it's all downhill from here. This is as smart/healthy/attractive as I will ever be for the whole rest of my life. And, I'll be honest, the bar didn't seem very high.
Is this what a midlife crisis looks like?
This recipe is stupefyingly simple. I don't even use stock anymore, just water. It's silky and surprisingly sweet. Snip a few chives on top and you have something tasty and healthful to warm you up on a chilly spring day when your coat is nowhere to be found.
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
3 cups water (or veggie stock)
1 pound parsnips, peeled, cored*, diced
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Sauté the chopped onion and celery for 4 to 5 minutes until soft and translucent. Don't let the vegetables brown. Add the garlic and sauté for 15 seconds until fragrant. Add the water or stock and the parsnips. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the parsnips are soft, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool and purée in a blender or with a stick blender until perfectly smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 2 or 3. The recipe can be doubled (just be sure to purée the soup in half-batches if using a blender).
*Some parsnips have a woody central core that runs from top to bottom. To remove it, I usually just slice the peeled sides right off the core, which is a slightly different color. (Then chop up the sides and discard the core.) But if you're not sure exactly where or how big the core is, you can also quarter the parsnip the long way. Then you can see it a lot better. Just trim along the interior edge of each quarter with a paring knife to remove it.
It's so funny how you can walk for an hour and see no mushrooms at all (or at least not the ones you want), and then all of a sudden, you come upon a giant monstrosity such as this one—bright orange like a beacon on the brown forest floor—and you feel like you just found buried treasure, even though it was out there, plain as day, for all the world to see. Maybe nobody walked by, or maybe nobody noticed it, or maybe somebody did notice it but just thought it was some weird gross fungus. Which it is. But it sure is tasty!
I was very excited because this is the first chicken of the woods I've ever found (not to be confused with a hen of the woods, which is brown and tastes different). Chicken mushrooms range from bright yellow to orange, but mine was the color of Circus Peanuts, those old-fashioned marshmallow candies my dad enjoys. The specimen I found was bigger than my head and in very good condition (for a fungus). Also called sulfur shelf, Laetiporus sulphureus got the nickname chicken of the woods because it tastes likes chicken. I agree, it's surprisingly chickeny in texture for a non-meat, so vegetarians take note.
I really wanted to emerge from the woods victorious, carrying my gigantic neon trophy, but it takes forever to clean a mushroom that big (see here). Plus, nobody else in my house is going to eat it but me. So I opted to take just half, sawing off the shelves with the handy-dandy pocketknife I keep around for mushrooms and rapists. Turns out, slicing the brackets off the central stalk makes it really hard to carry them long distances, especially when you're lost. But then, if I hadn't gotten lost, I never would have found the mushroom in the first place since the trail I wandered down basically led to a dead end of No Trespassing signs. Anyone with a trail map wouldn't have bothered going that way. So I juggled my mushroom pieces as best I could while stumbling blindly down the trails, drunk with success and the giddy danger of potential mushroom-poisoning. I found my way back to the car eventually.
Later on, back at the homestead, I double-checked my mushroom identification in various expert reference books. That's when I realized that my specimen matched all of the criteria for a chicken of the woods except for one. L. sulphureus is supposed to have bright yellow pores on the underside of the cap, while the pores on my mushroom were ivory white. This is not a good thing to discover after you've already spent an hour cleaning and trimming your mushroom. That's a major discrepancy in a field where minor discrepancies can be deadly. Even though there are supposedly no poisonous look-alikes for this mushroom, I wasn't eating it until I got some official confirmation that what I had was indeed edible.
After some frantic late-night Googling, I discovered a page on the University of Wisconsin site by Thomas Volk. His name sounded familiar, and it turns out he's a prominent mycologist whose name was dropped several times in Eugenia Bone's mushroom memoir, Mycophilia. Anyway, his DNA research published in 1998 turned up six different species within the previously known category of chicken of the woods. One, Laetiporus cincinnatus, matched the criteria of my mushroom perfectly:
Not only is it edible, but Volk considers it to be the most delicious of the group. Score! I sautéed the mushroom pieces with onions, garlic, potatoes, and fresh sage leaves for a delicious lunch.
I love soup in the springtime. I tend to be a little chilly in these transitional months, even as the temperature warms. Maybe it's the moist spring air, or because I'm exiting my layers a little too enthusiastically. Or, perhaps, it's true what Husband says: that I don't possess a functioning metabolism. Regardless of the reason, I'm in a perpetual state of goose bumps from October through May.
Lately, my cravings have been running increasingly green, just like the landscape. A few weeks ago, I had a pot of asparagus and fiddlehead soup to warm me. Now, it's cream of broccoli. The following recipe was inspired by Twelve Months of Monastery Soups by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette. Even though it was published 15 years ago, the book keeps coming up in conversations with various unconnected people. By the third mention, I knew I had to get a copy of the book. I'm glad I did. French monks really know their soups!
But there's another reason why I love this book. It's because of the image I've cultivated in my mind about the author, which I should note is entirely fictional. I imagine Brother Victor-Antoine alone in the kitchen of his stone monastery in the picturesque Hudson Valley cooking up cauldrons of bubbling soup. Meanwhile, two monks, one quite young and another significantly grayer, are walking silently down the arched, stone colonnade, their dark robes cinched at the waist with rope belts. Suddenly, as they approach the kitchen, their ears are assaulted by a tirade of the filthiest, most abominable swear words ever conceived in French, English, and Latin, as well as some that haven't been invented, yet. The obscenities, amplified by the cold stone, echo across the courtyard.
The young, sheltered monk stops in his tracks with a look of horror. The older one doesn't even break stride. "The soup must be especially good today," he notes. Observing that the young monk is still having trouble recovering, he adds, "Have you met Brother Victor, yet? He has an unholy way in the kitchen, but the soup? The soup is an act of God."
(This is what happens when my new favorite cookbook is written by a monk named Tourrette!)
Cream of Broccoli Soup (print-friendly version)
I love this &*$#@^ soup! May I suggest a light grating of the sharpest cheddar cheese you have on hand? I used Cabot Seriously Sharp.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 lb. fresh broccoli, cut into florets
3 medium potatoes, peeled, cubed
8 cups veggie stock, chicken stock, or water
1 cup heavy cream
Pinch of cayenne
Salt and black pepper to taste
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, 4-5 minutes. Add the broccoli and potatoes, and stir to coat. Add the stock or water, increase heat, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat, maintaining a simmer, and cook for 1 hour, until vegetables are tender. (Note: The original recipe calls for you to add all of the veggies to the pot with the water/stock right away, forgoing the oil. You can do it that way, if you prefer.)
If you have a stick blender, you can puree the soup right in the pot. If you're using a regular blender, let it cool until no longer hot and steamy, and puree in several batches, never filling the blender more than half full. Add the cream, cayenne, and salt and pepper. Reheat. Serve with grated sharp cheddar cheese.
Source: Adapted from Twelve Months of Monastery Soups by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette. He probably doesn't actually swear (too much!).
The Kindergartener is crazy about birds. He has the Peterson Birding by Ear 3-CD set practically memorized, including the little mnemonics people use to remember the birdcalls. Example: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? (barred owl)
I have a nature-loving friend who is quite artistic. She made the above illustrated poster of birdsongs, which is currently hanging above the Kindergartener's bed. It's completely charming. I thought some of you might like it, too.
(click here for more information)
Ever since my health issues a few years back, I've gone off conventional antiperspirants and deodorants. The antiperspirant/deodorant people assure me there's nothing to worry about, that a link between aluminum and breast cancer has never been proven. My doctors concur. To them I say this: Why wait for the evidence to surface? Why not be proactive? Better to be safe than smelly sorry.
Still, it was a ballsy move on my part. I don't want to stink up the joint any more than you do. My mom suggested using one of those deodorant "crystals." A crystal? Really? I'm not trusting my personal aroma to any mystical forces, geological or otherwise. But it turns out the crystal is actually rooted in science. The smooth quartz-like rock is made of mineral salts that, when moistened with tap water, are transferred to your skin and dissuade foul-smelling bacteria from taking up residence there. Bacteria don't like salt, which is why it was such a useful food preservative before refrigeration (e.g., salt cod).
I was still skeptical. Why would it be that easy? But guess what? That shit works! It works!!! I mean, the salts don't prevent you from sweating—your body was designed to do that—but you don't stink. At least not for 24 hours, give or take. In fact, I happily used the crystal for two whole years. That's how long my $5 crystal lasted before it cracked down the middle and threatened to cut a bitch. And then? Then I tried the spray version and developed a horrible rash. Poison ivy times three. Maybe the concentration of salts in the spray is different? Anyway, now I'm allergic to both versions. I had to stop using the stuff. Total bummer. (If you have sensitive skin, I recommend just sticking with the rock version.)
I was at a crossroads. I didn't want to go back to the aluminum-laced stuff, but the general consensus seemed to be that the other natural, aluminum-free deodorants on supermarket shelves work about as well as nothing at all. I can go without deodorant in the winter, maybe, if you don't stress me out too much, but not in the heat of summer and certainly not on Zumba day. Maybe you don't care if people are dropping like flies as you pass by, but I do, damnit. I do!
So I made the rounds of the hippy blogs describing all manner of homemade deodorants I will never make, with success rates that varied wildly. I scanned the comment sections, taking notes and prioritizing the experiences of rash-prone people and those who didn't sound too crazy. This is what I came up with:
Mix four parts cornstarch or arrowroot with one part baking soda. Rub a light film of organic coconut oil on your underarms, then dust a little of the powdered mixture all up in there. Don't cake it on, just dab enough to keep the oil from feeling sticky.
That's it! You smell nice and faintly coconutty all day long! I keep the powdered mix in a clean sock that long ago lost its match, give it a few whacks under each arm like a powder puff, and store it in a little jar. So far, no rash. It's been working for me for months now, even on Zumba day. Granted, I haven't tried it out in a substitute-teaching situation—the ultimate test—but you'll have to wait until my book is done for that report (FYI: there will be no reports).
I will concede that coconut oil can be pricey, but then again, so is conventional deodorant. By weight, I bet coconut oil is cheaper. Best of all, we're talking miniscule amounts of natural, food-grade stuff. I can't imagine that it's bad for you. Nevertheless, I'm sure I'll contract some weird form of coconut poisoning eventually. Is there a such thing as coconut poisoning? If there is, I'll be sure to let you know. But I just wanted to share my discovery in case you were headed down a similar path yourself. If you have other ideas and experiences, do tell.
We've finally gotten some rain around here, and you know what that means: fiddleheads, ramps, and perhaps morels! I've seen fiddleheads and ramps at the market already. As for the mushrooms, I'm still waiting...
Fiddleheads are the coiled-up fronds of certain edible ferns. They taste like a cross between asparagus and green beans. You can use just asparagus for the soup, however, if immature fern fronds aren't your thing. For the aromatics, you have your choice of onions, leeks, or ramps. Ramps are foraged wild onions with a certain level of pungency that I enjoy. However, they were $17.98 a pound last week at Russo's, and so I will be using the 98-cents-a-pound spring onions until the price comes way down.
This soup tastes just like spring. Like a damp meadow without the mud and mosquitoes. Served warm, it takes the edge off of cooler days, and provides a sample of the warmth and greenery still to come.
Asparagus and Fiddlehead Soup
Always parboil fiddleheads before adding them to your dish to get rid of any bitter toxins.
1/4 lb. fiddleheads, soaked in two changes of cold water, drained
2 Tbsp. butter
2 medium leeks or 1 small bunch ramps or spring onions (white and light green part only), chopped
1 1/2 lb. asparagus, tough ends snapped off, remaining stalks cut into thirds
1 medium potato, peeled, cubed
5 cups veggie stock or water
1 tsp. kosher salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
Black pepper to taste
In a medium pot of boiling water, parboil the fiddleheads for 3 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In the same pot, melt the butter over medium low heat. Gently cook the leeks/ramps/onions, stirring frequently, until they soften but don't take on any color, about 4 minutes. Add the asparagus, fiddleheads, potatoes, stock/water, and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat and simmer until veggies are soft, 10-15 minutes. Set aside some fiddleheads and asparagus tips for garnish. Puree the rest right in pot with a stick blender, or let it cool and pour soup into a regular blender in two batches (never process steamy liquids in a blender unless you want soup all over your kitchen walls—make sure it cools first).
Reheat soup in pot with lemon juice, dill, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche, a few fiddleheads or asparagus tips, and chopped dill.
To kick off a month of atypical non-Grinchy behavior, I will be raffling off some of my favorite books to you, my loyal readers! If you've recently arrived here after reading the Edible Boston article on local food blogs, and you aren't sure you have what it takes to be a loyal reader, I'm hoping free stuff will convince you. I have a lot to give away and there are only three weeks until Christmas or something crazy like that, so check in often if you don't want to miss your chance to win. Once the clock strikes 12 on Christmas Eve, I'm keeping whatever's left like some sort of greedy Cinderella who misses the point of Christmas entirely.
Starting us off is Yankee Magazine lifestyle editor Amy Traverso and her great new cooking tome and apple encyclopedia, The Apple Lover's Cookbook. Think apples are all the same? Oh ho ho, you are so wrong. So wrong! Let Amy show you the error of your ways with a primer of 59 apple varieties, from quirky heirlooms to newfangled hybrids. Then be grateful that she was the one that had to do all that research and not you.
Moving on to recipes, there's literally not a single dish contained in this book that I don't want to eat. Apple crisp? Don't mind if I do. Apple pie? You bet! Cider doughnuts? Hell, yeah. Apple-gingersnap ice cream? STOP TORTURING ME!!! It's not just sweet stuff, either. There are recipes for sausage, apple, and cheddar strata, sweet potato and apple latkes, and apple cider-braised turkey with applejack-sage gravy. I made the braised pork shoulder with hard cider, Calvados, and prunes a few weeks ago, and it was so good that I refused to eat anything else for a whole 18 hours so as not to taint the memory. (That's a personal record for me, by the way.)
Quite simply, this is a book everyone needs to have. I mean, unless you hate apples. Is it even possible to hate apples? I might argue you're just confused. Maybe it's scrapple you hate? Anyway, to be entered to win, simply leave a comment on this post with your favorite variety of apple and/or apple preparation, and a commenter will be selected at random by one of those Internet-based number generators. Comments will close at 10 pm EST on Monday, 12/5. And if you don't win this raffle, there's still plenty of time to put the book on your Christmas list. That's the second best way to get free stuff!
Many thanks to W.W. Norton for donating a copy of this beautiful book!
Look at the salad Husband made for me! It's got lettuce, spinach, cucumber, red pepper, celery, chopped almonds, cheddar shavings, and smoked mackerel. Yes, smoked mackerel from Ducktrap River in Maine. Very tasty, cheaper than smoked salmon, and lots of omega-3s. Whole Foods carries it. We also like the Memphis-style smoked bluefish from Dave's Cape Cod Smokehouse, which you can find at the Wayland Winter Farmer's Market (starting January 7, 2012). Perfect for when you don't feel like cooking.
Want to blow somebody's mind this Thanksgiving? Serve these Brussels sprouts. Yes, Brussels sprouts. No, this isn't some kind of sick joke. They're browned, smothered in cream, then braised until silken deliciousness is achieved. Cruciferous candy. Sure, there are plenty of lower calorie ways of making Brussels sprouts, but it IS Thanksgiving after all. And today, I'm thankful for cream!
Creamy Braised Brussels Sprouts
One bite and the ThirdGrader said, Brussels sprouts aren't as evil as I thought!
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. Brussels sprouts (2-3 stalks worth), trimmed, cut in half or quartered
1 cup cream
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook sprouts until lightly browned in spots, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in cream and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sprouts are tender and cream is reduced and lightly brown. Sprinkle with lemon juice to taste, perhaps more salt and pepper, and serve.
Source: Adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens
Don't mind me, I'm just playing around with my new macro lens. You can pretty much count on me getting way, way too close to my food from now on. Just a heads-up.
This here is some luscious beef brisket and root vegetables braised until melty and scrumptious. Serve with mashed potatoes or over brown rice or barley and you've got yourself a rib-sticking meal that will fuel you through any unwelcome pre-Halloween shoveling. Hope those of you who lost power have gotten it back by now!
You can also do this in a slow cooker. Follow the recipe through the garlic part, then throw it all into the crockpot for 4-6 hours on high, 8-10 hours on low.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2-3 lb. beef brisket
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
2 onions, chopped
4 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 parsnips, cored if woody, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small celery roots (celeriac), trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup roasted tomatoes (or chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, or ketchup)
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 1/2 cups stock or water
Preheat oven to 325°F. In a large Dutch oven, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium-high heat. Season brisket with salt and pepper and brown on all sides. Transfer to plate.
Heat remaining tablespoon of oil in pot. Add onions, carrots, parsnips, and celery root, and sauté until browned, about 5 minutes. Dump in the garlic and cook another minute. Add the tomatoes, cider vinegar, brown sugar, and stock/water, and give a good stir. Return the brisket to the pot along with any juices collecting on the plate. Liquid should come about halfway up the sides of the meat. If not, add a bit more stock or water.
Bring to a boil. Cover with foil so that it’s flat against the meat and comes all the way up the sides of the pan (you might need two sheets), and cover with lid. Place in the oven for about 3 1/2 hours, turning meat every hour and reconfiguring foil, until meat is super-tender and vegetables are soft and melty. Serve with mashed potatoes or grain of your choice.
This will probably be my last mushroom post until next spring, so you can all breathe a deep sigh of relief. But first I have to tell you what happened after last week's hen of the woods post. To refresh your memory, that was the post in which I was being a big baby because I was unable to successfully lay claim to my very own hen of the woods mushroom, despite having found four. (Sheesh, Tammy, ever heard of a store? Shut up, whose side are you on?)
Within the course of 24 hours, that post was forwarded by a kind reader to someone who had several suspected hens of the woods growing right in her yard. I was invited to make a house call to a neighboring town to scope out the fungal situation. This is not the first time I've gone on a mushroom-related house call. Earlier this year, I was led to a house that had literally dozens of black morels popping out of the mulch. Can you imagine that? A flower bed full of morels right out your own front door??? I was dumbstruck! I had to be slapped across the face several times before I snapped out of it.
This time, I was much more composed. Once I located the house in question, I spotted the hens roosting at the base of an oak tree—all four of them. I drove by verrrrry sloooowly with the windows down, ogling them like Lenny and Squiggy, until I crashed into some trash cans! Okay, so there weren't any trash cans, but it's my story. I'll tell it how I want. I ran out of the car, ignoring the trash cans everywhere, and ran through my hen of the woods identification check list:
Location at base of oak tree: check.
Brown, ruffly structure: check.
Pores not gills: check.
Smells right: check.
Nooooo maggots: well, just a few. It's a ground-dwelling fungus, after all. One can't expect too much.
Not only was the identity of the mushroom confirmed , but I also had permission to take some mushrooms home (hooray!!!). That was the crucial missing link. So I did—specifically, two hens growing next to each other that had become conjoined into one 4-pound mass. I didn't just rip them out of the ground; I cut them at their bases to leave the underground mycelium intact. This helps encourage future mushrooms to grow in the same area in subsequent seasons. Remember, there are no poisonous look-alikes for this mushroom (also known as maitake and grifola frondosa). That combined with its tastiness makes it a mushroom everyone should know. Many thanks to M and H for getting it into my greedy little hands!
But, wow, I forgot what a pain in the ass they are to clean. I brushed off as much debris as possible initially, but there are so many crevices, you could easily spend an hour or more properly preparing this mushroom for eating. Plus you have to escort out all the creepy-crawlies that were using it as a luxury condo. Worms. Spiders. CENTIPEDES!!! Boy, for someone who likes to hang around rotting stumps, I sure am afraid of centipedes. (It's their speed that gets me. Their deadly speed!)
So in case you ever find yourself in possession of a hen of the woods, here are some tips for prepping this delicacy:
Since it's such a big deal to me to find these, I like to make something really special. I layer the cooked mushrooms with lasagna noodles, browned sweet Italian sausage, lots and lots of braised celery root and leeks, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and a creamy sauce. I bake two trays and freeze one away. It's totally worth the work.
Does anybody know what this is?
Bet you weren't expecting a pop quiz on wild fungi first thing in the morning, but I'll make mushroom foragers out of you yet. You've seen this before on this blog. It's a hen of the woods. Not a chicken of the woods. That's different. A hen of the woods is a ruffly mass that grows at the base of oak trees. It has pores on the underside instead of gills, and has no poisonous look-alikes. It usually grows back year after year in the same place. It is also amazingly delicious and doesn't make me vomit. In other words, A-list material.
Ever since a kind stranger bestowed upon me a hen of the woods last year (when I made that amazing celery root and wild mushroom lasagna), I've been trying to find one of my very own. I thought I found such a specimen over the summer, but it was growing on protected land (and people were looking), so I couldn't take it home. Then, a few weeks ago, I went on a group mushroom walk with Lawrence Millman. He just came out with a new mushroom book, Fascinating Fungi of New England, which is beautifully illustrated and written with a certain amount of wit. He brought us around the woods of Drumlin Farm and pointed out all kinds of fungi I hadn't seen before, like stinkhorns and white pine splotch. He seemed to have a particular fascination with slime molds, which I did not share.
On our way back, though, something caught my eye. I nearly peed my pants on the spot because some distance off the path was the most beautiful hen of the woods I've ever seen. It looked like two hens nestled together and it was pristine. Pristine, I tell you! I got out my trusty camera and proceeded to fumble around with the controls, including white balance, ISO, and the critical equilibrium between aperture and shutter speed, during which time the battery died. I shit you not. It died at that very moment. Meanwhile, people must have noticed that I found something camera-worthy because they made a beeline straight for it. A few of them started ripping pieces off of it to get a better look at the pores. I had to stab myself in the leg with my pen to keep from shrieking STOP!! DON'T MANGLE IT, GODDAMNIT. LEAVE IT ALONE!!! (Sheesh, Tammy, possessive much?) Finally, I flung myself on top of it using my body as a human shield. At this point, someone took note of the emotional pitch and I was politely reminded that this, too, was protected land and the mushroom should not be removed. But it's a farm, I said! A farm! And that's when a team of horses was harnessed to my belt loops and dragged me away, limp and pouting. Oh, Drumlin, you big tease!
Luckily, a nice young lady snapped a photo of the mushroom before it got too mangled and she sent me the link. See how pretty? You can tell somebody else took that photo because it's sharp and well lit. It takes more than battery power to take a photo like that.
Anyway, I've been on a mission these past few weeks to find a hen of the woods I can actually bring home and cook. In fact, I found two! BUT one was well past its prime, and the other, pictured above, was way too maggoty for me to actually eat. I considered it, I really did, but even I have some standards. Oh well. At least next year I'll know to return to the coordinates of those exact locations. And this time, I'll be all decked out in camouflage with my pocketknife in my teeth and a wild look in my eyes and no one will dare stop me!!!
Now comes the time of year when the squash situation starts to get out of hand. Maybe you get one or two squashes from your CSA pickup, but then maybe you don't cook them right away, and soon you're getting two or three more the following week, and before you know it your Husband is threatening to drop-kick them all out the back door. And he'll do it, too.
Here's a surprisingly good way to segue from summer into fall and make a dent in your squash pile: baked delicata squash stuffed with a cool, vinaigrette-spiked salad of quinoa, apples, arugula, and herbs. Delicata may be my favorite type of squash for its sweet, delicate flavor and pretty, edible skin. The hollowed-out halves make a great serving vessel, and its sweetness pairs well with the nuttiness of the quinoa as well as the peppery arugula and tart apples. Refreshing yet comforting as summer turns to fall.
Delicata Squash with Quinoa Salad
Don't cut off the ends of the squash like I did in my picture. It's much prettier to keep them intact, plus the salad will be better contained.
2 delicata squash, halved lengthwise, seeded
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup quinoa
2 Tbsp. golden raisins
1 Tbsp. sherry vinegar
1 tsp. honey
1 tart green apple (like Granny Smith, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, or Northern Spy), finely diced
1 large shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 Tbsp. chopped mint
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1 cup arugula (about 1 oz.)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Brush cut sides of squash with a little olive oil (reserve the rest), and season with salt and pepper. Place squash cut side down on a baking sheet and roast until tender, about 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a smallish saucepan, bring 2 cups of lightly salted water to a boil. Add quinoa, cover, and simmer 10 minutes (or use a rice cooker). Stir in the raisins and simmer, covered, until the water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Transfer quinoa to bowl and let cool.
In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar and honey with the remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the dressing to the quinoa along with the apple, shallot, garlic, mint, and parsley. Toss well. Add the arugula right before serving and toss gently. Generously fill squash halves with quinoa salad and serve.
Squash, arugula, shallots: Waltham Fields Community Farm, Waltham, MA
Apple: Autumn Hills Orchard, Groton, MA
Quinoa: Baer's Best, Hamilton, MA (via Russo's)
Honey: Reseska Apiaries, Holliston, MA
Mint: My backyard
Speaking of cheap meals, here's a nice lunch for $1 a serving. Basically, you make a big batch of the roasted tomatillo salsa you see right over there in the sidebar and purée it in a blender with a little water. Do that ahead of time. Then fry 3 corn tortillas (not flour) one by one in some oil about 20 seconds per side until crisping but not crispy. Dip both sides of the fried tortillas in the tomatillo purée and fold on plate. Top with more purée, shredded cabbage, sliced radishes, and crumbled queso fresco. Season with salt and pepper. It sounds a little weird, I'll admit, but talk about great Mexican flavor with lots of fresh veggies. Don't knock it 'til you try it.
Tomatillos, onion, serrano chile, cabbage, radishes: Waltham Fields Community Farm, Waltham, MA
Corn tortillas: Cinco de Mayo, Lynn, MA
Healthy Waltham and the parent volunteers did a great job with the school garden this year. Come see what we grew:
My kids helped plant the cucumber patch with the school librarian one July evening. Many thanks to Mrs. L for donating the plants and cucurbit expertise. They absolutely thrived.
Last year's first graders planted these pumpkin seeds. This year's second graders should be pleased to see how much their plants have grown, and how big the pumpkins have become (including one GIANT plant sprawling out of the compost, like Jack and the Beanstalk but horizontal.) A wheelbarrow was left right-side-up during Tropical Storm Irene and collected at least 6 inches of water. We sloshed it over to the pumpkin patch and the kids filled up their watering cans from there.
We didn't have as many cherry tomato plants as in years past in order to make room for other crops like fairy tale eggplant and peppers.
There was also a good showing from the Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, and green beans.
I can't take the credit for most of this. You know my gardening skills are flimsy at best. Parent volunteers and their pint-sized helpers came through all summer long to weed, water, and stake tomatoes. But I think it's fair for me to take a little bit of the credit for not killing everything!
Last week, I harvested about 20 enormous cucumbers, an armful of tiny eggplants, some green peppers, a bunch of kale, and a ton of green beans.
I brought the loot to the school cafeteria and the lunch ladies took what they would use. This in addition to all the great zucchini, summer squash, and salad greens donated to the school by my CSA, Waltham Fields Community Farm.
Now all we need in the school garden are a couple of apple trees, and perhaps some fall raspberries!
Last week was Slow Food USA's $5 Challenge. The goal: to make food for everyone at the table for less than the cost of fast food. I have a little experience with cooking on a budget, so I took up the challenge—not to see if it could be done. I know it can be done. But to show that it can be done with local and sustainable ingredients. Everything came from sources within 100 miles of my home and was about as close to organic as you can get. No special trips for ingredients—I just used what was already in the house.
Here's what I made: grilled marinated flank steak and barley salad with grilled vegetables, shiitakes, and goat cheese. The tally? Less than $4 per person. And that's not counting leftovers. I have it on good authority that you can't even get a McDonald's "value meal" for that price, much less a McFlankSteak. The thing is, I feel like most of us who cook real food at home do this everyday, often for far less money than that. I bet if you (yes, you!) did a calculation around what you made for dinner this Monday night, one serving would come in at less than the cost of a McDonald's meal. Probably a lot less. And better, too. Go you!
Steak: Chestnut Farms, Hardwick, MA
Red peppers, zucchini, onions: Waltham Fields Community Farm, Waltham, MA
Barley: Moraine Farm, Hamilton, MA
Goat cheese: Westfield Farm, Hubbardston, MA
Shiitake mushrooms, herbs: My backyard
Do you have a lot of summer squash? What kind of a question is that? Of course you do! Thanks to all the rain we got from Irene, it's like Field of Dreams out there with the bat-sized zucchinis.
So what do I do when I have too much of any vegetable? I purée it into oblivion and call it soup! The results can be kind of sketchy, I'll admit, but this one—based on the Spanish puré de calabacín—is actually pretty good. I kept the skins on so this otherwise bland-looking soup would have little yellow and green flecks throughout. It's thickened with nothing more than the starch of the potatoes, and finished with the herbs of your choice. I was happy with my lemon thyme, but regular thyme, basil, or marjoram would also work. Serve a bowl of this alongside some toasted scali bread slathered with mayonnaise and topped with thick slices of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, salt and pepper generously applied.
Now that's summer!
Summer Squash Soup
A little grated cheese melted in there wouldn't be out of place, either.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped (or leeks)
2 lbs. summer squash like zucchini or pattypan, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
1-2 small potatoes, peeled, cubed small
2-3 cups water
1 tsp. salt
Sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh herbs like lemon thyme, basil, or marjoram
Lemon juice to taste
In a medium pot, heat olive oil and sauté onion until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add squash and potatoes, and stir to coat in oil. Add just enough water to cover and stir in salt, pepper, and thyme sprigs. Close lid and and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 15-20 minutes, until squash and potatoes are tender. Let cool a bit and then pull out thyme sprigs. Using a stick blender or a regular blender, puree soup until smooth (if using a regular blender, do this in two batches). Thin with water, if necessary, and add herbs, lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.
Onion, squash: Waltham Fields Community Farm, Waltham, MA
Potatoes: Picadilly Farm, Winchester, NH
Herbs: My yard
We just got back from our last vacation of the summer at our friend's lake house on the New York-Pennsylvania line. There was some rain, some lightning, a little hail—but not for the whole week like last year. We were very grateful to see the sun for most of the trip, and the rain offered a side benefit for at least one of us:
Mushrooms by the dozens! They were EVERYWHERE. Giant, storybook mushrooms that could shelter several small creatures underneath at once. See those brown oak leaves under there? Those are normal-sized oak leaves. It's the mushroom that's super-sized. Here's another view:
Notice my friend standing back there? That's the scale we're talking about for some of these. I was in mushroom heaven.
Some had warty, spotted caps:
These look like some kind of poisonous amanita.
Some had smooth caps:
I kind of wonder if this is an edible king bolete (Boletus edulis), also known as porcini or cep. It was growing under conifers and had pores instead of gills. I love porcinis, but they make me ill, so I wasn't about to take any chances even if I was sure I identified it right (which I wasn't).
There were tiny ones, too.
I have no idea what that is, but I think the next one is the famous reishi mushroom, so well regarded in Eastern medicine.
There were tons of these deep red mushrooms jutting out of the tree trunks like lacquered shelves.
This next one, though, I'm almost positive is a Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa):
If so, it will kill you. It will kill you dead. If you stop vomiting for even one second over a five-day period, it's only because the complete and utter destruction of your liver is well underway. Seriously, guys, there are better ways to get attention. One of the identifying characteristics of this mushroom is a swollen cup-like base, also known as a volva (not to be confused with a similar-sounding word). You need to dig around down there to see it, but it's there. This mushroom often has a ring around the upper stem, though this one did not. I don't mess around with dangerous mushrooms like this one, but I think it's important to be able to recognize them. Know thy enemy.
Other mushrooms I found: a tree volvariella, which looks just like a destroying angel but grows out of a wound in a tree trunk instead of the ground. We also saw what looked like some oyster mushrooms growing just a few feet above it on the same tree. This was interesting to me because I thought only one fungus would fruit on a single tree trunk at a time. For example, I count on only shiitakes growing on my shiitake logs for several years. This is another reason why I feel it's important to know about wild mushrooms.
Am I boring you?
Okay, we'll stop here for now. FYI: I'm a little behind on my e-mails and comments, but, yes, I'm still collecting recipe-testers for my cookbook. If you're offering, I'm accepting. I'll be in touch soon!
To continue my series on vegetable dishes that I make all the time but never document, here is my recipe for ratatouille. There aren't many completely meatless meals that show up on my table—let's be honest—but this is one of them. Basically a rainbow of stewed summer vegetables, this rustic French dish is perfectly homey if a bit homely. Lately, I've been serving it over brown rice, letting the garlicky tomato sauce soak in to temper the whole-graininess, but it can be a side dish, too. Fresh thyme and basil keep the flavors bright. This is "food on the food" at its best/worst. Your CSA zucchini and eggplants will thank you for it, but your kids most certainly will not!
This takes about an hour and a half from start to finish (if you prep your other veggies while the eggplant and zucchini are draining). A fair amount of that time is at the stove so I wouldn't attempt this during a heat wave, but the nights have been cooling off recently...
1 medium eggplant (or two of those skinny ones you get in your farmshare), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
6 Tbsp. olive oil
2 onions, halved and sliced
2 smallish zucchini, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 lbs. tomatoes, halved, seeded, and chopped into cubes (or two medium cans diced tomatoes in juice)
6-8 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed into smallish pieces by pounding on the side of a knife
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
Fresh basil leaves, sliced into ribbons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place eggplant cubes in a colander and sprinkle with a few pinches of kosher salt. Set a smaller bowl on top to weigh them down and place zucchini into that bowl, also sprinkling with salt. Let sit half an hour. In small handfuls with a clean kitchen towel, give them a gentle squeeze to dry them (I don't rinse the salt--I just add less at the end).
Heat 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and lightly brown onions, about 6-8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a bowl, reserving oil. Heat another 2 Tbsp. olive oil and lightly brown the zucchini, stirring occasionally. Transfer zucchini to the bowl of onions. Add another 2 Tbsp. oil and cook the eggplant until lightly brown, tossing every few minutes.
Return the zucchini and onions to the pan with the eggplant, and add the tomatoes, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, a few pinches of salt, and black pepper. Simmer 20-30 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender but not mushy. Discard bay leaf. Season to taste with pepper and perhaps a bit more salt. Serve over brown rice and sprinkle with ribbons of basil. Serves 4-6.
Eggplant, zucchini, onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil: Waltham Fields, Community Farm, Waltham, MA