Friday, May 29, 2009

While it lasts...

Take some time today, if you are someplace where it is spring right now, and imagine winter. Close your eyes. Remember the barren, crusty ice that covered your lawn, the knife-edged winter wind, the dearth of colors and smells and sounds that comprised an ordinary winter day. Now, open your eyes, and be ever-so-grateful.

Here there are flowers, and fresh green leaves, birdsong and dappled shade. There is suddenly so much to take pleasure in, so much to enjoy. So many little gifts.

We're heading into summer, that time of year where it's easy to pretend warm days, sunshine, and green grass won't ever end. It gets tempting to believe it will last forever. Every year, sometime in mid-July, I realize with a shock that I've slipped into taking it for granted. And every year, I vow to be more mindful, to really savor this glorious time of year. Reminding myself of winter makes me all the more in awe of spring.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Five Ingredients of a great weekend

1. It's important, though not necessary, to see something grand for the first time. (Letchworth State Park. Amazing.) 2. After the grandeur has been noted and appreciated, there should be time to step back and notice the little things.
3. Wildflowers are a requirement, and likewise good light for picture-taking. There's something glamorous about this one, don't you think?
4. Roadside treasure, boxes and barrels of goodies to rifle through, bags of clothes to be carried off for a song, yes, this is a very important feature of a great weekend, indeed.
5. And summer weekends just aren't complete without garden time. Specifically, garden time for Pete.

I hope your weekends were joyful, however you spent them!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thrifty Kitchen: Pull your weeds (and eat them, too)

Greetings, lamb's quarters, and welcome to my fork. I hope you like it here, because you are tasty. Also, you grow like a weed. In fact, you are a weed. All summerlong, I plan on pulling you out of the cracks in my driveway and eating you in salads. I really hope you don't mind.

This month's Thrifty Kitchen post is about foraging. I'm not talking about hardcore nuts-and-berries roots-and-grubs foraging. No one's sitting here rubbing two sticks together. The foraging I do mostly involves the five minutes before dinnertime, and the aforementioned cracks in my driveway.

Because I'm an oddball with lots of plant knowledge, (that was my obsession at approximately age ten, thank you very much Jean Craighead George) I noticed that quite a few of our unwelcome sidewalk sprouts were weeds of the tasty variety. One night, I took a pinch of this and a touch of that, and threw it into our dinner.

And what happened? Well, we thrilled in our weed salad. Our charmless bagged romaine became instantly hip and exciting. There were interesting new textures and flavors to behold, plus the thrilling bonus of eating weeds for dinner, and liking it. Bear with me, this isn't as crazy as it sounds.

Really. To my way of thinking, this is the perfect salvation for boring grocery-store lettuce. Those fancy bagged mixes with their sprigs of radicchio and endive, who needs 'em? The "mesclun" I can pull from my flower garden is way more fresh and delicious than anything from the store. And, oh yeah, it's free.

Let's meet our dinner guests:

L-R: Dandelion, Lamb's Quarters, Violet, Yellow Wood Sorrel.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis)
Flavor: sharp and nutty, not unlike arugala.
When to pick: The smaller the leaves, the milder the flavor. You want to catch the plant before it's flowered, ideally, and take the smallest of the leaves for your salad. When the plant gets bigger, the greens can be sauteed or added to soups.

Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodium album)
Flavor: very mild and spinachy.
When to pick: Again, the smaller the leaves, the more tender they will be. The leaves get less tender throughout the summer, though the flavor is always gentle and agreeable. We use this one a lot.

Violet (Viola spp.)
Flavor: Mild and earthy.
When to pick: All season. The flavor is always good.

Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta)
Flavor: Pleasantly tart and lemony.
When to pick: All season.

In my experience, these weeds are all pretty common on the quarter-acre I call home. Violets grow in the shadier parts of our lawn, dandelions grow in the sunnier spots. The other two I'm pretty sure could grow on the moon-- they spring up everywhere the soil's been turned over recently. For help identifying the edible weeds native to your backyard, pick up a book on the subject. Euell Gibbons' famed Stalking the Wild Asparagus is one of the best, in my opinion.

Read about your weeds, identify them and pull them. And then settle back with a "wildcrafted" mesclun salad, a glass of good wine, and a smug little smile. Eating weeds. Who would've thought?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moroccan vegetable stew

Whoever knew soup with turnips could be so tasty?

No one ever thinks of turnips, especially not this time of year. Everyone's gone and swooned themselves silly over spring vegetables, meanwhile turnips perch in a purple heap like so many forgotten toy tops. I would've looked right past them, too, were it not for this recipe.

This soup is the perfect bridge-the-gap meal, something to tide you over between the last of winter's root crops and the first of the spring greens. The marriage of earthy carrots and turnip with scallions and fresh spinach, with some fresh herbs and toasted spices thrown in... and topped with spicy yogurt sauce, for good measure? Well, it's a downright satisfying meal.

But first, a few notes. 1) Harissa is surprisingly hard to find, but very easy to make. 2) The liquid leftover from cooking the root vegetables can be used as soup stock, and that is awesome. 3) Couscous on top makes everything even better. 4) Our bowls of pretty soup, once topped with couscous and gobs of pink yogurt sauce, were pretty ugly, which is why you don't see them here.

Moroccan-Style Vegetable Stew with Harissa Yogurt Sauce from Bon Appetit

Yogurt Sauce:
1 cup (8 ounces) Greek-style yogurt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon harissa sauce (or substitute a teaspoon of your favorite hot sauce)
1 garlic clove, minced

1 pound carrots, peeled, cut into rounds
1 3/4-pound turnip, peeled, cut into bite size pieces
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound scallions, coarsely chopped (about 1 3/4 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup dry white wine (I used cooking wine)
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained, rinsed
1 5-ounce bag baby spinach
1 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

For the yogurt sauce: Simply whisk all ingredients together, and chill.

For the stew:

Bring 8 cups water to boil in heavy large saucepan. Sprinkle with salt. Add carrots; cook until just tender, about 4 minutes. Using skimmer or large slotted spoon, transfer carrots to large bowl of ice water. Return water to boil. Add turnip; cook until just tender, about 3 minutes. Using skimmer, transfer turnip to bowl with carrots. Reserve cooking liquid.

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add next 7 ingredients. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until onions are soft, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Add wine; simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour. Add carrots, turnip, beans, spinach, and 2 cups reserved cooking liquid. Bring to simmer; cook until vegetables are heated through, adding more cooking liquid for desired consistency. Season stew to taste with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Divide stew among bowls. Spoon dollop of yogurt sauce over and serve.

Pink azalea.
Canada mayflower.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Rhubarb: instant gratification

I'll never understand how strawberries and rhubarb became a couple. Don't get me wrong, they taste great together. But around here, when the rhubarb stalks are high and haughty we're still getting our strawberries from places far afield. So much for a local foods combo. But spotting quarts of North Carolina strawberries for two dollars (two dollars!) at Frog Pond yesterday, I decided I could countenance the luxury. If only for the sake of knocking down the rhubarb bushes before they take over the entire garden.

Rhubarb is a get-rich-quick scheme, a plant of instant gratification. With rhubarb, there is no settling in for the long haul of harvesting. There's none of the meditation of berry picking, the slow hours spent pinging blueberries into an aluminum bowl. With rhubarb, a few quick hacks and you're out (usually with far more than you need for your recipe) in the space of a few normal blinks.

Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler with Cornmeal Biscuit Topping from Bon Appetit

For filling:

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 12-ounce baskets strawberries, hulled, halved
1 1/2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices fresh or frozen rhubarb

For topping:

1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

For Filling: Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix sugar, flour and cloves in large bowl. Add strawberries and rhubarb and toss to coat with sugar mixture. Transfer filling to 10-inch-diameter glass pie dish.

For Topping: Mix flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl. Add butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gradually add buttermilk, tossing with fork until moist clumps form (do not overmix). Spoon topping evenly over filling.

Bake until topping is golden brown and filling is tender, about 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Embarking on a dream

I've always been a woman of passionate, and often disparate hobbies. Medicinal plants and dollhouses, for example. Embroidery and long-distance biking. Clogging and canning. When the time is right, a new interest can swell from the status of erstwhile fascination to all-consuming obsession over the span of just a few months. And then, sometimes, as inexplicably as it came, it will fade gently away. I'm no longer a dollhouse owner, for example. My beautiful Trek road bike hangs inverted in the garage, waiting like a patient bat for the day I'll drag it out again.
Underneath all the hobbies, however, there are some common threads. I love feeling self-sufficient. I love thrift, and ingenuity, and creativity. In the warmer months, I like to feel the sunlight, and the pull of the muscles under my skin. I've always enjoyed the weight of a well-proportioned tool in my hand, be it a seam ripper or a pickaxe. (These days, it's been more along the lines of seam rippers.) What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that I'm not as flighty as I seem. And also, that there are some things I'm into that I'll always be into.

Farming is one of those.

Photo by Patrick.
I can't keep it to myself anymore: I want to be a farmer.

For the past two weeks, Patrick and I have been logging time behind the rototiller, churning back and forth over a 4 x 20 strip of ground. I'm pleased to say, it no longer resembles the dense, weedy sod it once was. Nor is it exactly plantable yet, but we're working on that. This year is all about baby steps.

How good it feels to be moving, finally, forward into a life I've dreamed since childhood.
And how good it felt to kick my boots off on the porch and watch it gloriously pour.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The blur is Patrick.

I've seen artichoke recipes this season. I've seen asparagus recipes. I've seen fresh herb omelettes, ramp pesto, grilled fava beans, and great swansongs to soft goat cheese. I've even seen a how-to for meyer lemon soda! But what I haven't seen is an ode to those quiet and very much overlooked little fellows, the ephemeralest of the ephemeral: fiddleheads.

Fiddleheads are beautiful like nothing else. They are green and intricate, architectural and delicate. They remind me of embroidery, the subtle and very special embellishments on something handmade. They're the Gustav Klimts of the vegetable world. If you're going to eat, why not eat art? This was a lavish meal. It's always this time of year that my local-foods resolve crumbles. I start off all smug and delighted with my winter squashes and storage onions, and end up stalking lustfully through the produce department, reaching for a glossy red pepper like Eve in the garden. Fortunately, nothing cataclysmic happens when I break with my ethics. I have to say, though, that nothing, nothing has made me appreciate the sweet crunch of a fresh bell pepper more than going without them for a few months. My mouth is watering just remembering last night...

Anyway, without further ado, here's our recipe.

Fettucini with Marvelous Spring Vegetables

1 lb fettucini
2 tbsp butter
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 tsp dried thyme
1 cup vegetable stock
2 tbsp red wine
salt and black pepper to taste
1/2 lb asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces, tough ends discarded
1 red bell pepper, cleaned and diced
4 oz fiddleheads, tough ends trimmed (optional)
6 oz. button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Ample quantities of grated parmesan cheese

Begin heating a big pot of water for your pasta.

Warm the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallots, and cook until lightly browned and fragrant, about a minute. Add the asparagus, broth, wine, and seasonings. Cover and simmer about two minutes. Add the fiddleheads. Simmer another two minutes. Add the bell peppers, cook one more minute. Put the mushrooms in, and remove the lid so the cooking juices reduce a little bit. Cook until the mushrooms are just wilted and beginning to brown. Toss with the hot cooked pasta, and serve.

And now, for the requisite spring wildflower pictures:

Rue anemone.

Red trillium.

Maidenhair fern.

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