Monday, February 27, 2012

On Weekends, Cat Naps and Puff Pancakes

It's Week 12 of the Dark Days Challenge and Leap Day 2012 is rapidly approaching. Wow - January and February have simply flown by!

As it's now closer to Easter than Christmas, I don't think I'll be getting around to sending out my winter holiday cards this year. When the weeks are just packed of pressing work, deadlines, and night meetings, the weekends seem all the more precious and the mere glimmer of a thought about a moment of down-time beckons seductively.

The mighty hunter cuddle-kitty
One antidote to this whole ultra-busy time is, of course, to take a cue from the cat. Magalloway knows the value in a well-timed nap (by well-timed, I mean, just about any time of day for any amount of time). He also recognizes that it is important to do the things you want to do when you feel like doing them - for example, when he wants to catch a grasshopper in the garden, he will focus on it so intently it makes you think that time is standing still.

Leisure time = arranging apple slices in a pie pan
This past weekend, we decided to do our best feline impressions - taking a nap on Saturday afternoon and making a large, elaborate brunch on Sunday. It was wonderful to just sit at the kitchen table without feeling a rush to move onto to the next task at hand - yeah, I can dig that.

And what could be better for a leisurely brunch than apple puff pancake? This is one recipe that you can't rush - it is leavened by beaten eggs and only rises to its full golden-brown height in the last minutes of baking. It's beautiful, sweet, simple and satisfying.

Apple puff pancake fresh from the oven

Local ingredients -
Empire apples - Cardigan Mtn. Orchards
Eggs and maple syrup - the backyard
Milk - McNamara Dairy
Flour - Farmer Ground, Finger Lakes of NY
Butter - Cabot Creamery

Non-local ingredients - 
Brown sugar
Cinnamon and allspice

Monday, February 20, 2012

No Sap, but a Red Sauce (Dark Days 12)

Adam made his decision this weekend - no maple sugaring this year.
I'm a little disappointed, but at the same time, this has been a year without winter.
It doesn't feel right to celebrate the spring thaw when the winter hasn't frozen your soul stiff.

There are practical reasons as well to skipping the sugaring season; among the practical issues are that the sap barrel can't be kept cold with a blanket of snow and that we've already missed the early part of the run, which produces the lightest and prettiest syrup.

Instead of boiling sap, I tried my hand at boiling down tomato puree with some sugar, vinegar and spices to make a quick tomato ketchup. I adapted a summer grilling recipe to a "late winter/early spring/I don't know what season it is, but the chickens are happy to be outside" recipe boiled down on the wood stove. I'm calling this the heart of redness sauce, because the color turns out to be an impossibly deep red - primal and intoxicating like Joseph Conrad's novel.

Into the heart of redness - so tasty

The Heart of Redness Sauce - a winter riff on "Hot Tomato" Jam from James McNair

1 pint tomato puree (or unseasoned tomato sauce)
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons minced ginger
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 dashes of Sriracha hot sauce (a.k.a. Rooster Sauce)

Mix up all the ingredients in a medium or large skillet. Stick this on the top of the woodstove, or on medium-high heat on your stovetop. Let it boil down 20-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you get a thick sauce that mounds up on your spoon. (Keep an eye on this, because it really depends on how thick your tomato puree or sauce is.) Take it off the heat and let it cool down to a manageable temperature for eating.

"a.k.a scrumptious"
This sauce is SO GOOD! We spread a thick layer on top of lamb burgers seasoned with black pepper, red wine, garlic and sesame oil. Adam gave the burgers and sauce a solid nine out of ten - a.k.a. scrumptious. That's pretty high praise, so I think you should try this at your house, too.

For Sunday dinner, we had lamb burgers with the heart of redness sauce, baked sweet potato fries and Empire apples. The Dark Days Challenge is starting to get a little more ingrained in my cooking. We pulled out some ground lamb from the freezer and I searched for a lamb burger recipe that would not require an additional trip to the grocery store.

Citing my local sources -
Ground lamb - Yankee Farmer's Market
Garlic and sweet potatoes - Spring Ledge Farm
Tomato puree - my garden and Musterfield Farm
Empire apples - Cardigan Mountain Orchard

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Family Solanaceae: Garden Plan 2012 and Dark Days Meal (#11)

I sat down one night last week and started sketching out my garden plans for the spring.

But first, I needed to sketch out what I grew in my garden last year. In order to promote fertile soil and reduce crop disease and pests, it's a good idea to rotate your garden vegetables so that you're not growing nitrogen-hungry tomatoes in the same soil each year. 

I found it helpful to draw 2011 on the left-hand page and 2012 on the right-hand page of my garden notebook. The beds are scaled in my mind, but not on the page... this is more of a schematic than a rigorous planting regimen. This is also a work in progress - note that I am using pencil, not ink here.

Click to open a larger picture in a new window.

I counted over 40 seed packets in my little storage box saved from previous seasons, and having ordered 20 new packets this year, I realized that sharing my planting plans might "get into the weeds" pretty fast. I figured it would make sense to report out on my garden planning on a botanical family basis. So, to start off, let's meet the Solanaceae family...

The Solanaceae is a New World family (i.e. native to the Americas, not Eurasia) of tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, deadly nightshades, belladonna, mandrake (not the shrieking variety of Harry Potter fame), petunias, groundcherries, and many other plants. (For a full listing, visit the USDA Plants database.)

I have a few types of hot and sweet-hot peppers (cayenne, cherry bell, and orange pimiento) that I'm hoping to start as seedlings next month. I have not had much success getting sweet bell peppers to fully ripen, so I think I'll stick to the farmer's market for acquiring a stockpile of those.

For tomatoes, I have ordered Cherokee Purple, a big, meaty heirloom that looks positively wild and unkempt but tastes fresh, sweet and juicy. I also have seeds from previous years of several varieties of cherry and paste tomatoes. I have found that smaller tomatoes ripen faster and more uniformly in our garden microclimate. My neighbor, who lives two houses over, grows outstanding Brandywine tomatoes, but I have the hardest time getting my full-size tomatoes to ripen.

Despite my success growing potatoes last year, I'm going to pass on growing them in 2012. They take up a lot of space, and there are excellent and inexpensive sources of potatoes at several local farms. I'm also going to skip growing eggplants - I don't love them enough to allocate them space in the garden this year, plus I can buy them for a good price at both the farm stand and farmer's market in the summer.

Leftover soup for lunch!
Speaking of getting good prices at the farm stand, when the tomatoes start coming in July and August, they don't tend to stop until the frost hits. August/September is a great time of year to ask your farmer about special bulk prices on canning tomatoes. You will thank your farmer at the time of your purchase, and then again in February when you crack open a jar of tomatoes (or pull a container out of the freezer) to make tomato soup.

For my Dark Days meal this week, I tried a new recipe for Cream of Tomato Soup. Despite its origins with a very reputable source (America's Test Kitchen), I found it to be overly complicated for a simple soup and the results were just so-so. Fortunately, there are more tomatoes in the pantry, so I will have the opportunity to try again.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dark Days 10: Red Fruit Cobbler

I've been watching the crabapples hang on the tree in the backyard all winter.

Crabapples are supposed to have wildlife value, but I'm guessing that these are so tart that they are a food of absolutely last resort.

Fortunately, I've been able to make a fruit-based dessert in advance of Valentine's Day that is much more appealing than crabapples - this week's Dark Days entry is for a red fruit cobbler made with strawberries, sour cherries and pears.

Sour cherries, dried pears and sliced strawberries
It's true that the pears in my photo are not red, but if you soak dried pears with a jar of canned cherries and a jar of canned strawberries, the pears soak up the red sugar syrup.

Cobbler is one of our favorite desserts, so I was pretty happy to realize that it can be a locally-sourced menu option. For cobbler, you need 6-8 cups of fruit mixed with a bit of sugar, flour and spices placed in the bottom of a baking dish. Then you mix up a moist buttermilk biscuit dough - flour, butter, baking powder, baking soda, buttermilk, sugar and salt - and drop that on top of the fruit. Bake for about 30 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the biscuit is golden.

The fruit turns into a thick, chunky sauce.
Because I was using canned fruit preserved in a sugar syrup, I just added flour and a little nutmeg - no extra sugar needed here. Cobbler is also wonderful with peaches and blueberries.

Sources cited:
Sour cherries - Parlee Farms, Tyngsboro, MA
Pears - Poverty Lane Orchards, Lebanon, NH
Strawberries - Edgewater Farms, Plainfield, NH
Flour - Finger Lakes Region, NY
Butter - Cabot Creamery, VT
Milk - MacNamara Dairy, Plainfield, NH
Baking soda, baking powder, spices, sugar, salt, vinegar (to make "buttermilk") - the grocery store

Dark Days 9: Potato Leek Soup

February is fast-approaching, which means I've been thinking about onions.

Onions can be transplanted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring, and you need about 4-6 weeks to grow onions from seed to transplanting size. This whole seed-starting thing is all about working backwards - you start at the date that you want to put your plants in the garden and subtract the appropriate number of weeks to find your seed-starting date.

In my case, I want to start my onions in mid-February, so that I can be prepared for planting out onions on April Fools' Day or shortly thereafter. I have a few raised garden beds that warm up and dry out well before the ground does, so I have been able to get peas and some cold-hardy transplants out in early April. 

Here's a great show-and-tell article from MOFGA about starting and planting onions. I had very little success growing onions last year, so I hope this year goes a little bit better.

It's good to have things to look forward to, especially when we've had more freezing rain than snow this winter. In the meantime, as I wait to pull out the grow lights and seed-starting mix, I've been cleaning the house and working on using up my stockpile of food from last season. 

I tried making soup again, as my last Dark Days soup was a dismal failure - and turned out a hearty and simple potato-leek soup. This soup is not much to look at; its resemblance to wall plaster is striking and somewhat unappetizing. But fortunately, it tastes really good!

The chickens prefer that we eat vegetable-based soups.

I used Deborah Madison's recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but this soup is so easy, I'm not sure you need a recipe, other than to get the proportions of leek to potato correct. I love easy.

Potato leek soup takes 7 ingredients - in order of addition to the pot, you will need butter, leeks, potatoes, salt, water, milk and pepper. If you do not have leeks, you can use scallions.

Locally-sourced ingredients:
Butter - Cabot Creamery
Leeks - Spring Ledge Farm
Potatoes - my garden
Milk - McNamara Dairy (purchased at Spring Ledge Farm)