Monday, December 26, 2011

Dark Days #4 - Holiday Edition - Pickled Peaches

Happy Holidays!

Charlie Brown trees look better in the dark.

We are celebrating two overlapping holidays this year - the eight days of Chanukah and the twelve days of Christmas! Even for households that only celebrate Christmas, I'd strongly recommend celebrating all twelve days.

Multi-day holidays are wonderful for a number of reasons, but the reason most pertinent to this blog is that it allows for enjoying all your favorite holiday foods for many days, not just the one-time Christmas dinner. This is an excellent reason to work on clearing out your pantry and freezer of summer vegetables, canned tomatoes and that single pint jar of pickled peaches that you were saving for a special occasion.

Because I'm still a local-eating amateur, I didn't try to make Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas morning brunch and Christmas Day dinner all with completely local ingredients. Yes, I admit that this is a missed opportunity for a true challenge in local eating... but I'm okay with that - there's always next year. However, I did end up using a lot of local ingredients over the past few days, including that jar of pickled peaches.

When my mom was a teenager, she had really gotten into canning during the summertime and reminisces about the very small peaches that her family friend, Alice, had growing on a tree in her yard - they were perfect for pickling whole. However, I had never seen peaches small enough to fit into a canning jar; the ones coming from the orchard were all far too large. Not that I didn't believe my mom's story, but I never believed that I would find apricot-sized peaches unless I grew them on my own trees.

Imagine my happiness this summer when I found some very small peaches (selling for a dollar a pound!) at a local orchard and knew that they were destined for a sweet and vinegary brine. Even though I felt compelled to eat most of them fresh, I did manage to make a jar of whole pickled peaches.

For Christmas brunch, we had scrambled eggs, bison sausage in a balsamic-rosemary-maple reduction, pickled peaches and regular canned peaches, and my mom's Christmas danish in the shape of a candy cane. The pickled peaches, to my delight, didn't taste like vinegar as some pickles do - just spicy and a little bit sweet. Overall, it was a pretty good locally-sourced meal, minus the traditional must-have Christmas danish. (Full disclosure - the balsamic vinegar was from Italy and the rosemary from the high and dry lands near Telluride, CO. Thanks to Julie for farming out there and thanks to Angie for sharing the good herb!)

To make your own spiced pickled peaches, you should try the recipe in The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving. There is also a recipe in the Ball Blue Book, which I have not tried.

Source citations:
Eggs - six happy hens in the backyard
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Feta cheese (in some but not all of the scrambled eggs) - from Wisconsin
Bison sausage - Yankee Farmers Market in Warner
Balsamic vinegar - Italy
Rosemary - Colorado
Maple syrup - sugar maple trees in the backyard
Peaches - home-canned, from Carter Hill and Gould Hill Orchards
Christmas danish - from my mom

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dark Days - Spinach and Pasta

Spinach is a Holy Grail vegetable for me. I plant it several times a year (spring and fall) in a specially prepared bed, water it thoroughly, and generally try to pamper the baby spinach into succulent green leaves. But it never seems to get beyond the baby spinach stage without some sort of problem - bolting, turning yellow, freezing solid, wilting in a 90-degree day in early June, being eaten by a chipmunk. However, I can go to my local farmers' market and find the most soft and delicate full-sized spinach leaves from several different growers. Hope springs eternal - and maybe next year, I'll find the secret to growing spinach.

This week, I came oh-so-close to the Holy Grail of the Dark Days Challenge - the 100% locally-sourced meal. But true local cooking continues to elude me - utilizing local seasonings is really tricky for me.

Looks like a dog's breakfast - tastes much better

Spinach and Pasta in Cream Sauce
- another fast weeknight dinner -

Part One - The Pasta
Boil water for cooking fresh pasta.
Get started on Part Two while you wait for the water to come to a boil.
(If you're using dried pasta, you will need to adjust the timing so that the pasta and the sauce are both ready at the same time.)
Cook the fresh pasta for 3 minutes, drain and add to the saucepan.

Part Two - The Spinach and Cream Sauce
Meanwhile, chop two cloves of garlic and 1/4 of an onion and saute in butter in a heavy saucepan.
Add a big bag of spinach and saute this until the spinach wilts - I had to add the spinach in two parts because it wouldn't fit.
Scrape the vegetables out into the serving dish.
Add two tablespoons of butter to the saucepan and melt over low heat.
Add two tablespoons of flour and cook about 3 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan constantly.
Slowly pour in one cup of milk and stir until the sauce thickens up slightly.
Add the vegetables back into the pan, turn off the heat, and stir to combine thoroughly with the sauce.
Season with chili-garlic sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
(If the sauce is ready before the pasta, put a cover on the pan to keep the heat in.)

Sources cited:
Fresh pasta - Vermont Fresh Pasta
Garlic, onion, spinach - Spring Ledge Farm
Butter - my neighbor's pantry (yes, we ran out of butter - too much cookie-baking)
Flour - Farmer Ground Flour (Trumansburg, NY)
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Chili-garlic sauce, lemon juice, salt and pepper - the grocery store (non-local ingredients)

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Dark Days Brunch - Home Fries with Eggs and Greens

I grew potatoes for the first time this year. They may be my new favorite crop - they are so easy to grow and need very little maintenance during the height of the summer, when everything else in the garden needs constant attention. Plus, they store well for a long time.

1) You dig a trench in your garden and toss in a seed potato every foot or so.
2) You cover it with some soil, leaving 2 inches of the trench exposed.
3) Once the potato plant starts growing, you fill in the trench completely.
4) Ignore your potato plants for several months.
5) Once the above-ground part of the potato plant dies back, dig up the below-ground part.

UNH Cooperative Extension has a great two-page factsheet on growing potatoes - in case my lazy, laissez faire method doesn't suit your fancy. It also covers a bit of information on some of the diseases that can affect potatoes.

The best part about potatoes is that you don't know what you're doing to dig up. We unearthed potatoes in every size from marbles to baseballs (if baseballs were potato-shaped instead of round). The smaller potatoes are excellent for boiling up quickly for eating hot or making potato salad. The larger potatoes are great for roasting and for making a brunch favorite - Home Fries!

For the Dark Days Challenge this week, I knew that I would have only one chance to cook. We were tearing out the kitchen Sunday afternoon, so I took advantage of Sunday morning to cook a final breakfast. I wanted it to be a substantial meal so that we wouldn't have to cook again for a while!

Breakfast of kitchen demolition champions
I made special home fries with leftover bacon grease, onions, sliced bell peppers from the freezer, reconstituted dried tomatoes, potatoes and cheddar cheese. Then I fried up some eggs from our hens. And feeling like maybe I should eat some more vegetables, I sauteed a few wilty salad mix greens, just enough to soften them. A little salt and pepper over the whole thing, and some ketchup on the side - yum.

Three key tricks to making home fries -
1) Scrub the potatoes thoroughly. Keep the skins on.
2) Microwave your taters first for 2-3 minutes, piercing them with a fork before you nuke them. You want them cooked about halfway through before they hit the frying pan. (If you are anti-microwave, you can boil them for 3-5 minutes.) Thank you to Brynne for this breakthrough piece of advice.
3) Use a cast iron pan or another pan where you can really scrape the bottom of the pan without worrying about ruining the finish. You want the potatoes to develop a crusty exterior and this may result in some sticking - nothing a wooden spoon and some elbow grease won't fix.

I did pretty well on the local-eating challenge for this meal, although I found out that I had fallen prey to my own assumptions. I had assumed that Olivia's Organics salad mix (a Chelsea, MA company) would be sourcing their greens from Massachusetts; a search on the Internet proved otherwise, identifying that Olivia's sources from many farms all over the country, including California. Also, we tried some of our homemade ketchup and it tasted a little off, so we used store-bought organic ketchup instead.

Sources cited:
Bacon grease - leftover from bacon from North Country Smokehouse
Onions, peppers, tomatoes - Musterfield Farm
Potatoes - Buzz's garden (our neighbor lets us plant in his garden)
Cheddar cheese - Cabot Creamery
Salad mix - Olivia's Organics (most likely not local - darn)
Eggs - the backyard hens
Ketchup - the grocery store

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dark Days Week One - Cabbage and Sweet Potato Slaw

I had no idea until this year that you could grow sweet potatoes in New England. Sweet potatoes are a tropical root vegetable - not a cold-hardy friend of kale and red potatoes and other favored New England crops.

Like potatoes, sweet potatoes are not true roots like carrots or parsnips, but are tubers, underground stems that store starch. Unlike carrots and parsnips that are grown from seed, potatoes and sweet potatoes are grown from sprouted pieces of tuber. The "eyes" are clusters of buds, which will grow new leafy stems. Despite the similarity in common name, these two tubers are not closely related - sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae) and potatoes are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). They are both "New World" plants, native to the Western Hemisphere.

Apparently, it takes some trickery to make the sweet potato plants believe that they are living in a warm climate with a long growing season, rather than in Zone 5A... it's a matter of starting the sprouts indoors early until it heats up enough outdoors to plant them in the ground. The enormous sweet potato shown here was grown at Spring Ledge Farm a few miles down the road. A new crop for the list for next year - sweet potatoes!

On Tuesday, Adam and I cooked up one of our 20-minute go-to weeknight dinners. This dish doesn't really have a name - it's a skillet saute of cabbage, apple and bacon and whatever else you happen to have on hand, such as a gigantic sweet potato.

Still life with dinner and (some of the) ingredients

We were doing great with the local-eating challenge of Dark Days - (what's Dark Days, you ask?)
Bacon, slivered cabbage and sweet potato, sliced apples and caramelized onions fried in a cast-iron pan and sauced up with maple syrup boiled down from our sugar maple trees this March...
But then, Adam added some mustard, salt and wine to balance the flavors - not local ingredients.

I think this is pretty good for a first attempt, and actually, I was sort of impressed that we didn't need to use any oil or spices to make a really tasty dish. Of course, we could have used New Hampshire wine or hard cider and maybe next year, I could grow mustard, let it mature, harvest the seeds and make my own mustard using vinegar that I made myself. (That would be truly ambitious.)

Here's rough instructions on how to make this dish - I wouldn't call this a true recipe because it's a thrown-together dish with whatever you happen to have. It would be good with any number of sliced-up winter vegetables.

Cabbage and Sweet Potato Slaw

Fry up 1/2 pound of bacon; once crispy, remove from the pan.
Add 2 cups of thinly sliced or slivered sweet potato to the pan and brown.
Add 2 cups of thinly sliced or slivered cabbage and a thinly sliced apple; cook 2-3 minutes.
Add 1/4 cup of caramelized onions and a few tablespoons of maple syrup and grainy mustard.
Cook another minute, add a splash or two of wine and a sprinkle of salt.
Turn off the heat, add the bacon back to the pan, and toss so that the bacon gets coated with a bit of the mustard-maple sauce.

This is one of those dishes that doesn't look great, but tastes awesome.

Source citations:
Bacon - North Country Smokehouse
Cabbage and sweet potato - Spring Ledge Farm
Apple (a Calville Blanc d'Hiver) - Poverty Lane Orchards
Onion - Musterfield Farm
Butter (for caramelizing the onion) - Cabot Creamery
Maple syrup - the backyard
Organic mustard - no idea - it's made by Westbrae, which is part of Hain Celestial Group
Cheap white wine - somewhere in California
Salt - I do not know, but here's a map of all of Morton's facilities.

Dark Days - A Local Harvest Challenge

I'm trying some new things this winter.

1) I planted basil, arugula, lettuce and spinach indoors to see if I can grow my own micro-mix. The idea is to harvest the sprouts once they put out their first set of true leaves - and use it as a flavorful garnish for soups/salads. We will see how it goes...

2) I'm trying to keep some very sad-looking rosemary alive. It's so depressing I didn't even want to take a photo.

3) And, because winter is a slow time in the garden, I've signed myself up for the 5th Annual Dark Days Challenge, which is about cooking and digging into where our food comes from. I can dig that. Even when the ground is frozen.

hosted by the great folks at Not Dabbling in Normal

Basically, the Dark Days Challenge is to cook a meal once a week with local ingredients and then to write a blog post about it. It's called Dark Days because it's held during the winter (end of November to end of March), when most of us can't run out to the garden, pick some greens and call it done. It's called Challenge because we are surprisingly reliant on non-local foods - to my great sadness, olive and citrus trees do not grow in New England.

This is the fifth year in a row that this challenge has been posed - but it's my first year and I really have no idea what I'm getting myself into.

Local is defined as within 150 miles, generally speaking. Everyone gets to set their own goal, which is nice.

The rules of the game allow participants to list out a few exceptions up front, to make this fun and achievable, rather than insurmountable and depressing. Here's a list of my exceptions and explanations of why I am making exception for these - 
1) Spices and Citrus - Definitely not local and definitely delicious. Also good for the immune system.
2) Salt, vinegar and yeast - These all fall into the category of "I could make this myself" but my other life commitments may trump making my own sea salt or trying out wild yeast fermentation.
3) Flour - I just bought 50 pounds of organic flour from two locally-owned flour mills in New York. I feel that it would be excessive to buy more flour just for this challenge.

To make things more interesting and to maintain the theme of this blog, I have two more rules:
1) At least one ingredient each week must have come from my garden, yard or nearby woods.
2) My blog posts must in some way be related to gardening - this is a gardening blog after all.