28 January 2012

Down Home Cookin', Paisana Style

Food is terribly exciting for me: the prospect of new flavors, new combinations, new favorites.  Remember the first time you tasted one of your favorite delicacies? I love that discovery. Perhaps I'm just a food junkie looking for that unattainable high. 

I've always gone through food phases.  I find something that knocks my socks off and have to try it in a myriad of ways.  This can be something as safe as my chocolate-hazelnut phase.  That's a pretty palatable obsession: chocolate-hazelnut gelato, biscotti, Perugina Baci candies, Nutella.  My sister and I really ripped up that phase. 

Then there are the riskier phases, like octopus.  There's nothing risky about the octopus itself.   One can't get hurt from an octopus, at least not a dead one.  One just runs a greater risk of tasting something unsavory with octopus than chocolate-hazelnut.  My octopus phase elicited some stellar discoveries such as the braised octopus at The Parthenon and the pulpo a la plancha at Cafe Iberico.  It also made my first Chicago apartment smell like the fish market for a week when I tried to recreate the dishes myself.  How else does one learn the important lesson of leaving the preparation of cephalopod to the experts? 

Then there are the phases that end up being more dangerous than one expects.  I had an anchovy phase that I didn't even realize was an anchovy phase.  I always loved my mother's anchovy gravy.  She makes pasta puttanesca as part if the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Also, boquerones were one of  my favorite dishes in Sevilla.  Boquerones are small, white anchovies, but I mistakenly thought they were smelts.  Tapas bars serve them up whole and fried.  The tiny bones and fins add extra crunch.  They also serve them filleted and raw--not really raw, marinated in vinegar, but not cooked with heat.  Also delicious.  I'm sure I've really sold you on boquerones. 

Upon my return to the States, I went to DeKalb to finish my final year at NIU.  One day at the fish counter I saw smelts.  I had the brilliant idea of cleaning them and frying them up just like at the tapas bars and recreating Sevilla for myself.  I learned several things that day: 1.  Boquerones are indeed anchovies, not smelts.  2.  I'm allergic to something in smelts that gave me hives up my arms upon cleaning them.  3.  After that, Sevilla cannot be recreated regardless of the amount of Rioja and Benedryl one ingests. 

On that note, I've  been thinking about comfort food. While most of my gastronomic energies are focused on the discovery of the new and sensational dish, sometimes it's comforting to eat something that you know has no scary surprises like lingering smells or hives.  Also, I've wanted to expand my repertoire of repeatable recipes--those appealing to  a wide audience, at least wider than the anchovy/octopus audience.  Not everyone finds comfort in new taste sensations at the risk of bad taste sensations. 

Comfort food means something different to each person, each family, and each region.  When I think of traditional American comfort food, several dishes come to mind: fried chicken, mac n cheese, and pie.  None of  those three would even rank in my top 100 foods, but if one went to a restaurant specializing in American comfort food, I'd bet each of  those things would appear on the menu. 

Based on those three categories, I went in search of comfort food, paisana style.  The official recipes are listed at the bottom of the post.

1.  Fried Chicken. 

I searched for the perfect fried chicken equivalent, a home style chicken dish with the flavors of my youth and home. 
Pollo alla Calabrese is yet another recipe from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino. I tried it in September with all fresh ingredients and again this week with dried and canned ingredients--fantastic each time.  This is true comfort food for me due to the combination of garlic, tomato, hot pepper and oregano.  My husband dubbed this 'the best chicken I've ever had'.

Polla al Ajillo: this is simply the Spanish version of fried chicken.  It's not breaded, but seasoned with paprika, fried in olive oil with garlic and simmered in Sherry or white wine with a bay leaf.  It's ridiculously flavorful, and the crispy garlic bits are heaven.  I can't think of anything more comforting than superfluous amounts of garlic.

2.  Mac n Cheese. 

Most people love macaroni and cheese. I do not. Really, I'm not trying to be uppity. I just don't like mushy food or orange cheese.  Even as a kid I passed on Kraft Mac N Cheese. I knew that shade of orange did not belong in nature. Don't even get me started on Velveeta.  My husband loves mac n cheese. While I don't do a true version of it, I often make him a pasta with cream sauce--butter, cream, and grated Parmesan.

Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream:  With loads of dried tomatoes in the root cellar, I started experimenting to kick his basic pasta dish up a notch. I succeeded. It's very rich, creamy, satisfying, and pretty.  In my book, it's as homey as it gets.  I served it with penne for guests, but I like it better on rotini.  I don't know if that actually matters. Rotini is just my favorite. 

Pollo al Ajillo and Penne with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream
3.  Pie

I've learned to enjoy pie, but I do not love pie. It can never be my comfort food because I'm never fully comfortable eating it.  The center is a little too mushy for my liking and I have real problems with hot fruit. I preserved several quarts of scrumptious peaches over the summer. After thinking of a way to prepare them without making them hot or mushy, I came up with shortcakes. 

Peach Shortcakes with Vanilla Whipped Cream: This couldn't be simpler or more delicious.  The shortcakes are dense and slightly salty, the peaches are sweet from natural sugars as well as the light syrup in which they were preserved, and the vanilla whipped cream is light and creamy.  I can't remember the last time I was so excited about a dessert.  My tasting panel also seemed to share my excitement. 

Don't hesitate to pour yourself an after-dinner drink of amaretto to go along. Peach and amaretto is a great combo.

Apple Fritters:  I saw these in an issue of Bon Appetit several months ago in a short piece featuring Jacques Pepin:  5 Unexpected Things You'll Find in Chef Jacques Pepin's Fridge.  I don't know why I was drawn to it, especially given my feelings for hot fruit.  I guess it seemed like a good apple pie alternative.  It just sounded so simple and to me, the simple good find is the ultimate find.  He barely gives instruction:  "There is nothing like a beer batter, which I make by mixing 1 1/2 cups of flour and a can of beer. To this batter I add coarsely cut apples, and I deep-fry spoonfuls of the mixture into delicious fritters, which I serve with granulated sugar." 

Although it smelled like the county fair in my kitchen (and still does), those fritters were one helluva Friday night treat.  We garnished them with granulated sugar per his instructions, but also finished them with sea salt which really brought out the sweetness.  They also transcend the 'hot fruit' genre for me because they don't have that mushy, hot fruit feel.  The bits of apple add texture to the light beer batter without being chewy or mushy.

I don't think these necessarily have to be a dessert.  They are a nice alternative to apple pie, but they reminded me more of a potato pancake.  We enjoyed them as an appetizer to pair with our Friday night New Belgium 6-pack.

My culinary strategy remains focused on the quest for the high, that first shockingly good bite of something new, the thrill of discovery. However, there is much comfort in having good familiar recipes, something reminiscent of home, dishes that are satisfying and predictably delicious.  Sometimes one is not in the mood for the risk required by the reward.  And, it's important to have something comforting and delicious to eat when your house reeks of octopus or your recovering from smelt hives.

Pollo alla Calabrese:  Baked Chicken with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Hot Pepper
from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher

3 pounds bone-in chicken legs and thighs, trimmed of all visible fat
3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut in 2-inch chunks
3/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into 1/2 inch-thick slices
3 garlic cloves, halved
3 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano or 1 Tbsp dries oregano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Ground hot red pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and position the rack on the lowest level.  Season the chicken all over with 2 teaspoons of the salt and several grinds of black pepper.  Put the potatoes, tomatoes, onion, and garlic in a baking dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer.  Sprinkle the vegetables with the remaining 1/12 teaspoons salt.  Place the chicken in the baking dish, add the oregano (crumble the dried oregano, if using, between your fingers as you add it), and drizzle with the oil.  With your hands, toss the chicken and vegetables to coat them thoroughly with the seasonings.  Then make the bed of vegetables, arranging the chicken on top, skin side up.  Sprinkle the chicken with hot pepper to taste.

Place the baking dish in the oven on the bottom rack and bake until the skin is crisp and golden, 30-45 minutes.  Turn the chicken pieces over and continue baking until the chicken juices run clear, the potatoes are tender, and most of the pan juices have been absorbed, 20-30 minutes.  Serve immediately, spooning the remaining pan juices over the chicken.

Serves 4-6

Pollo al Ajillo: Chicken with Garlic
from Cooking in Spain, by Janet Mendel

1 chicken, cut in serving pieces
salt, pepper, and paprika
75 ml oil
10 cloves garlic, chopped
75 ml brandy, Sherry or Montilla
1 bay leaf

Rub the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and paprika and let them sit for 15 minutes.  Heat the oil in a pot and in it very slowly brown the chicken.  when it is turned to brown the other side, add the garlic, very coarsely chopped (many cooks don't peel it in order to prevent scorching).  When chicken is browned, remove the pot from the fire and add the brandy or Sherry and bay leaf.  Cover the pot and simmer until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes more.  If you like crisp garlic bits, remove them before adding the wine, then sprinkle over cooked chicken,

Serves 4-6

Note:  Above is the original recipe.  I used dry white wine instead of the Sherry

Pasta with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Cream

1 lb of pasta
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 pint of heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan plus more for garnish
salt/pepper to taste

Blanch sun dried tomatoes for 2 minutes.  Strain and chop.  Melt butter in saucepan over low heat.  Once melted add tomatoes and cream and turn off heat.  Stir well.  Boil 1 lb of pasta and strain.  Return pasta to pot, add cream mixture and stir to coat.  Add cheese and then salt and pepper to taste.  Garnish with cheese upon plating. 

Serves about 6

Peach Shortcakes with Vanilla Whipped Cream

for shortcakes:

2 cups flour,
1/3 cup shortening
2 Tbsp sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Cut shortening into flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt with a pastry blender.  Stir in milk until just blended.  Drop in large spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet (makes 6 generous shortcakes).

for vanilla whipped cream:

1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp confectioners sugar

Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk on fast setting until stiff peaks form.

Split shortcakes and fill with a layer of peaches and whipped cream.  Then top with peaches and whipped cream.

Apple Fritters
adapted from Jacques Pepin's above interview

Coarsely chop several apples.  In separate bowl, mix 1 1/2 cups flour with a can of beer.  Add chopped apples to beer batter and drop in hot oil by the spoonful.  Garnish with granulated sugar.  If you need some salt with your sugar like we do, finish with some sea salt.

25 January 2012

Braciole a la Nonny

We may have overestimated how many quarts of tomatoes we would need for the winter.  Or perhaps I'm just limiting the possible uses for tomatoes.  Tomatoes can only mean gravy to me.  Yes, I call it gravy, not spaghetti sauce, which earned me many annoying and inquisitive looks in grade school.  I was taught at a young age by my Papa that real Italians call it gravy.  I wasn't about to dispute authenticity with a stern, barrel-chested man named Rocco.   

There are numerous ways to prepare a gravy.  My mother mostly made it with Italian sausage.  My Nonny made it with pork neck bones--true cucina povera.  The bones are inexpensive but produce the most flavorful gravy. 

I make mine with sausage or neck bones and, occasionally, meatballs.  Very few gravies receive the attention as that made from braciole (pronounced brajole by most American Italians).  Let's be honest, the gravy is secondary to the braciole.  Braciole are pounded meat cutlets (veal, beef, or pork depending on your family history) wrapped up with a delicious filling and cooked in tomatoes until tender.       

The first time I made braciole, I called my Nonny for the recipe.  There is no recipe.  We don't really have family recipes.  She just told me how to do it:  pound out some pork cutlets, sprinkle them with seasoned breadcrumbs, grated cheese, fresh parsley, salt/pepper, roll them up, tie them with string, brown them, then drop them in your gravy to cook until tender.  And that's what I did.  I never asked for amounts or techniques.  That's the great thing about home-style Italian cooking:  it's hard to get wrong.  You could cook a shoe with breadcrumbs and grated cheese in tomato gravy and it would be delicious. 

Since then, I've made braciole about a dozen times.  I've made them with beef.  I've made them with pork.  I've made large ones that must be sliced to serve.  I've made small individual ones.  They're never bad.  I checked out some recipes from a few trusted sources.  There are simple peasant ones and elaborate gourmet ones with pine nuts and golden raisins.  Most of the recipes mimicked Nonny's except for slight variation.

toasted breadcrumb mixture
This time I did deviate a bit from our traditional way of making them with some leftover toasted breadcrumbs and dried parsley instead of fresh.  Also, I chopped the few surviving pieces of prosciutto di parma from my Caputo's run and added it to the filling.  We always like a little pork-on-pork action in our house.  I didn't pound the cutlets because I decided to braise them.  The whole point of braising is to make a tough piece of meat tender so I couldn't see taking the extra time to pound them as well as spraying pork juice all over my counter tops.  (Note: putting meat in ziplocks before pounding reduces sprayed juices)    

Standard ingredients:
assembled braciole
for the braciole:
pork cutlets (Some people use veal or beef, but Nonny is right.  Pork is the best)
seasoned breadcrumbs (I use a 1:1 ratio with the cheese.  1/4 cup of each was plenty for 8 cutlets)
grated romano cheese
olive oil for browning

for the gravy:
one quart canned tomatoes
several minced garlic cloves

Mix breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Assemble the braciole by sprinkling each cutlet with the mixture, rolling tightly, and securing with kitchen string on each end.  In a braising pot or dutch oven brown the brasciole on each side.  Once browned, add minced garlic. Deglaze the pan with the tomato liquid and add tomatoes.  Bake for 1 1/2-2 hours at 325 degrees.  If you need to use two separate pans, make sure you deglaze your pan with the liquid and then add to the baking dish--those bits of browned pork are essential for flavor!
braciole bathing in gravy

This is the first time I ever braised the braciole.  They were supremely tender and it saved my stove top from the usual tomato splatterings.  I braised them covered for 1 1/2  hours and then uncovered for the last 30 minutes in order to evaporate some of the moisture from my watery tomatoes.  If you have a thicker tomato puree, you can leave covered.

*Remember to remove strings before serving

I served the braciole over pasta.  If you're up for the extra dishes, you can break the meal into the pasta and gravy for the primo piatto and the braciole for the secondo piatto.  It doesn't matter because those eating the dish will only remember the braciole.  They are the tender and delicious main attraction of the dish.  The rest is gravy.

braciole over pasta paired with an unfiltered, unpasteurized Italian ale--not a standard pairing, but we enjoyed it

20 January 2012

The Big Soup

I don't recall my Nonny or my Mother ever making minestrone.  I remember Nonny making pastina in broth and Mom making really good homemade chicken soup and split pea soup.  In my experience, minestrone is something that you get at a mid-range Italian restaurant as an alternative to a salad before your meal and I always choose the salad.  I’ve certainly tasted a solid subset of minestrones—my sister always opts for the soup.   I've just never tasted one that makes me want the bowl.  I’m reticent to say I don’t like it because I feel one should have a really authentic and supreme version of a dish before dismissing it categorically. 

Here’s the problem with the mediocre minestrone: it’s a soupy tomato gravy accessorized with a few beans, boring vegetables, and mushy pasta.  One of the most magical things about cooking is taking several ingredients that when combined in a certain fashion make an end product that is much greater than the sum of its parts.  Take one of my favorite combinations:  eggplant and olive oil.  Eggplant is certainly not delicious on its own.  It’s spongy, slightly bitter, and smells funny.  But, when you chop it up and cook it in olive oil, something different and wonderful emerges, something rich and satisfying that has very little in common with the individual ingredients that created it.  Yes, you can tell that the vegetable is eggplant and that it was prepared in olive oil, but the flavor of the combination is something entirely new and individually delicious.

As for the minestrone, I’ve never tasted one that is more than the sum of its parts.  Mind you I am not a minestrone connoisseur, but I’ve eaten much more than my share and probably yours of Italian food.  Upon perusing the contents of my winter pantry, I discovered I have more canned tomato products than I can most likely use before the next tomato season, dried beans, plenty of root vegetables, frozen vegetables and pestos.  This combination of ingredients was practically shouting “minestrone!!”.

I found a Minestrone con Pesto recipe from Mario Batali that lended itself well to my ingredient list.  Furthermore, he is one of my few trusted recipe sources.  Allrecipes is forbidden.  It's like bargain shopping without ever finding the bargain.  It really is all recipes--including the terrible ones.  I can’t handle going through a bunch of garbage recipes to try to find a potentially nonexistent diamond in the rough.  I could put a good recipe together before I find one on that site. This is the beauty of living in the information age:  I can go to a trusted source for a well-designed and tested recipe.  Mario is one of the few that makes the cut as one of my trusted sources.  (I’m aware of the irony in a lowly food blogger complimenting a world famous chef with a food empire.)  He and I share an Italian heritage, a secondary love for Spain, and a dazzling ponytail.

I’ve adapted the recipe as follows to suit our winter pantry:
Minestrone Con Pesto 

1 ½ cup Tiger’s Eye Beans (an heirloom shell bean, but pinto or cannellini will work well)
1 ½ cup frozen peas (defrosted)
1 medium onion
1 cup shredded frozen zucchini (defrosted, moisture removed)
3 diced and frozen tomatoes (defrosted)
3 stalks celery (the only store-bought item on the list)
3 carrots
1 Tbsp tomato conserva
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pesto for garnish
Pecorino Romano for garnish

Rinse and soak dried beans overnight.  Heat olive oil in a stock pot.  Add diced onion, celery, and carrot.  Do not brown, but once slightly softened add diced tomatoes.  Add beans and zucchini and immediately cover all ingredients with cool water by one inch.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 60-90 minutes until beans are done and all vegetables tender, but not mushy.  Dissolve 1 Tbsp tomato conserva in a few ounces of water and incorporate. Turn off heat and add peas.  Let rest for 15 minutes.  Divide soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of pesto and a sprinkling of cheese.

There were a few things I liked about this recipe:  it doesn’t require having stock on hand, everything cooks in the same pot, and it gives an interesting use for pesto.  I’m always a little skeptical about a soup that doesn’t employ a single animal product for flavor, but this one put my skepticism to rest.  It is above and beyond the sum of its parts. 
In Italian, minestra means soup.  Minestrone means big soup and this is a big soup.  It’s hearty and chunky, and has a silky broth holding it together.  The vegetables and beans are tender, but not mushy.  The shredded zucchini does its job of adding texture and substance without imparting any squashy flavor.  And best of all, the tomatoes add depth of flavor without overpowering the meal.  Each bite contains the flavor of the entire robust soup rather than the taste of the individual vegetables.  As I ate I didn't think, “Now I’m eating a bean. Now I’m eating a carrot.” The soup transcends the ingredient list.  And to top it off, the ribbon of pesto swirled throughout adds complimentary flavor and surprise. 

See the ribbon? It's a ribbon I tell you!
This recipe, or the original from Mario, would be a great standard minestrone in any repertoire.  It’s a vegetarian dish that doesn’t feel vegetarian in the least.  It takes humble winter ingredients and transforms them into a delicious meal.  And, it redeems its name. 

18 January 2012

The Tragedy of the January Paisana

Hello from the land of the Christian bumpersticker.  January is boring.  So boring I just YouTubed Red Solo CupI shouldn’t be bored.  There’s plenty to read about, write about, and obviously much to post on the back of one’s pickup truck, but I’m just not feelin’ any of it.  There are numerous tasks that could be done, but I'm uninspired. 

I’m uninspried because I have severely limited my two favorite things these past few weeks: cooking and drinking.  It makes me sound like an alcoholic chef, but sadly, I’m neither.  I’ve never been to culinary school and I’m even a second-rate drinker.  I mean if I really committed I could be good, maybe the best.  Sober and bored: I may as well be back in junior high.


I have lots of great food I put by over the summer: tomato sauces begging to adorn pasta, to braise skirt steaks, to roast lamb shanks.  I have dried heirloom beans for a colorful version of pasta e fagioli, sun-dried (ok, dehydrator-dried) tomatoes for pull-apart breads and focaccias, dried eggplant and peppers for a winter ratatouille I dreamt up in August without knowing if it could actually be executed.  I have frozen peas for creamy pasta and pancetta, pestos for capellini and pizzas, and preserved peaches and rhubarb for pies and crisps.

But that isn’t January's purpose.  January (and given the nature of the situation, February too) is for getting back into my gardening shorts.  It’s a sad situation for a vain foodie; two worlds always competing.  Believe me, I hate the way I sound right now.  I’m hoping that pouting burns as many calories as my time at the gym.

So in effort to save myself from collapsing on a snowy garden bed and purposefully freezing to death (that burns a LOT of calories), I decided to  make a few experimental side dishes to accompany the anemic low-calorie meals on which I’m certain not to overindulge, starting with Winter Ratatouille.         

Winter Ratatouille

Dried Eggplant in pieces (about 2)
Dried Sweet Italian Peppers, broken (about 10)

Frozen Shredded Zucchini (about 2)

3 Tbsp olive oil
1 pint Italian 'salsa' (canned diced tomatoes with onion, garlic, sweet peppers, parsley)
1 Tbsp Tomato Conserva
1 Tbsp Red Pepper Conserva
peperoncini to taste
Pecorino Romano for garnish
Rinse and boil dried eggplant for 5-10 minutes until tender.  Drain in colander.  Repeat with dried red peppers.  Be sure to boil and drain separately.  Heat 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large pan.  Sautee eggplant.  Add peppers. Add zucchini.  As the mixture begins to dry, add the pint of Italian 'salsa'.  Dissolve tomato and pepper conserva in a half cup of water and add.  Cook on a low heat until all vegetables are tender.  Add peperoncini to taste and let sit for 10 minutes.  Spoon over meat or crostini, toss with pasta, or eat alone as a stew.  Once plated, garnish with pecorino romano.

Winter Ratatouille over a roasted chicken breast
It was surprisingly good.  I realize this isn't a dish everyone is going to run off to make as the likelihood of having dried eggplant and peppers is low and the likelihood of having home canned tomato concoctions and tomato and pepper conservas is even lower.  Anyone could make a ratatouille with storebought vegetables from the produce section or even freezer, and of course it's best in season, but the point of the experiment is that July and August produce can make a very versatile and even good dinner in January.  As we plan our upcoming garden season, it's important to know which items are actually worth preserving.  Furthermore, it's important to know the manner in which they should be preserved in order to best lend themselves to winter dishes.  I didn't have high hopes for the scary, magic mushroomy-looking dried eggplant, but the eggplant comes out yet again, victorious.  
And really, Winter Ratatouille is not high in calories at all if you eat it as a stew or side for meat.  It might not even be that bad if you could put it over a small serving of pasta, which I can't because my evil Luciano Pavarotti-like alter ego takes over when in the presence of pasta and when I come to, I find several portions gone while singing an inspired verse of O Sole Mio.  And I could sing a noteworthy encore when thinking about making an Erbazzone or Pitta with Winter Ratatouille as the filling.   My January mood has me singing something more along the lines of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, a fitting  theme song for the Tragedy of the Dieting Paisana.
Actually, the day ended quite well.  A family walk in the blistery weather snapped me out of my funk.  And then, as though the universe knew I needed a serious pick-me-up, I found our first shipment of seeds in the mail and the 2011 Food & Wine Annual Cookbook.  Talk about a good day.  Short of Viv pouring me a nightcap and putting herself to bed, it couldn't get much better.

an assortment of seeds from Gourmet Seed International

15 January 2012

From Seed to Spaghetti al Pomodoro

snowy garden
The snow is here.  I can't complain though.  We harvested lettuce into December and pulled carrots just last week.  Harvesting. In January.  In Northern Illinois.  Awesome.
kale under snow
The garden is under a blanket of snow, but the 2012 gardening season has officially started for us because we are placing our seed orders.  In just a few months we will be breaking ground and getting our early spring vegetables in: radish, beets, lettuce, peas.  Even sooner than that, we will be starting our transplants from seed.  By the end of February, we will have rows of various seeds under grow lights. 

our dining room table rigged as a makeshift nursery last winter--I'm sure our neighbors weren't at all suspicious

the formal dining nursery got a little out of hand
we had to eat meals on the couches and floor for months

That spaghetti al pomodoro doesn't begin on the stove or even when we harvest the tomatoes.  It starts before we transplant, before we harden off the plants, before the plants even exist.  When one starts a garden from seed, spaghetti al pomodoro begins on a snowy afternoon in January while browsing the online seed catalogs.

Our primary seed source is Seed Savers Exchange.  They are a great non-profit organization that focuses on the conservation and distribution of heirloom seeds and plants.  They began in 1975 and have a wonderful mission.  Also, because they are based in Iowa, we know that the seeds they carry work well in our hardiness zone

Another similar source for seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, based in Missouri.  Last year we used them for several of the seeds that were sold out or unavailable through Seed Savers.  Baker Creek has a wonderful story, founded and run by the very homesteady Gettle family.  They also offer a quarterly magazine and book focused on heirloom gardening.

We will continue to grow the majority of our plants from Seed Savers and similar seed providers because we like the idea of propagating heirloom seeds:  it promotes genetic diversity and the plants are unique.  Also, we like supporting local seed providers.  We are adding some hybrid seeds because our garden repetoire was lacking a few key Italian plants central to our cuisine.  Obviously the growing conditions in Illinois are quite different from those in the majority of Italy so I can forget about artichokes, blood oranges, olives, and Sangiovese grapes.  Seed Savers does offer many Italian vegetables suited to Zone 5.  For the necessary items they do not carry, I use Seeds from Italy.

Unfortunately, they were already sold out of San Marzano Tomato seeds, the primary tomato in Italian sauces and pastes.  The search led me to a gourmet seed site, Gourmet Seed International, where I not only found San Marzano Tomatoes, but a few other good discoveries: Melrose and Banana Peppers, a gourmet zucchini cultivar, and some specialty onions and herbs.  I'm excited to see how they grow and taste.

Vivienne helping harden off the seedlings last spring
For us, gardening is very much about the act: being outside, growing our food, keeping our food source as close as possible.  But just as important is the final product, the meal that results from the seeds that turn into plants that are harvested for comsumption.  Yes, growing our own plants saves us money.  The $2.75 that we spend on a packet of tomatoes saves in what we would spend otherwise on properly grown tomatoes, sauces, and pastes.  But it's more than that.  Even the wealthiest of investment bankers (Are they still wealthy? I don't meet very many anymore.) can't get his hands on the flavor of a home-grown tomato at Whole Foods or the best specialty market in the city.  It's not just about the saved expense, it's about the best flavor one can achieve in a meal.  Save a trip to the Mediterranean, the tomatoes that can be plated minutes after harvest are priceless because the flavor is unparallelled.  Furthermore, that spaghetti al pomodoro is a culmination of months of work and anticipation, which does add dimension to the flavor, at least in the gardener's mind. Beyond tomatoes, a snap pea is never as crisp, lettuce as flavorful, or corn as sweet as that with the shortest distance from garden to plate.  I'll save the controversy of the nutritional value and carbon footprint of growing one's food; that's not the priority of this blog.  But the superior taste of garden fresh food is hard to dispute.  After all, it would have to be truly remarkable in order to take me out of my stillettos and 45 miles from the closest Starbucks.         

Italian Heirloom Tomato almost ripe enough to harvest

08 January 2012

A Zucchini Resolution

We’ve had a lucky January week.  The weather has been generously mild—mild enough for us to take a family walk down to the creek this weekend.

Viv singing on my back as we walk to the creek

the creek

Regardless of the bonus week, it is January which means the stretch has begun, the long stretch of grey that is the Midwest winter.  It’s a penetrating grey, a grey that makes one feel grey, an infinite grey that makes June seem as though it will never arrive.  Without a serious effort to keep sunshine within, one becomes part of the grey. 
It certainly won’t be the Superbowl or the Oscars that ignites my inner sunshine this season,  although Joan Rivers’ commentary on the red carpet outfits will provide some momentary ironic warmth.  Rather than my usual existential crisis that spans these months, I’ve decided to start a few projects, of course. For one, it’s time to lose the beer gut I’ve accumulated from an endless parade of Scottish Ales, stouts, porters, and other craft beers that ended up being our autumn project.  And just to make it interesting, we’ve started a biggest loser contest of sorts in our household.  Nick and I are very competitive so this should make for a sporting winter dynamic on the manor. 

Now that the garden is officially retired for the season, it’s time to really crack into the food we put by.  Given that I need all the help I can get in winning any competition against my winning husband, I’m starting with the frozen shredded zucchini for some high fiber, low-calorie zucchini bran muffins.  They’re a great breakfast and satisfying snack.  I've been using this basic muffin recipe (listed at the end of this post) for years and adapting it to taste or whatever ingredients I have on hand. 

zucchini bran muffin
They don’t look like traditional muffins because of the low gluten content, but using all-purpose or whole wheat flour or a combination of the two will provide a more shapely muffin. It also adds more calories for a more shapely figure.  The lack of gluten prevents a regular muffin top on these snacks and also helps in losing the muffin top that is now regularly appearing over my jeans.  This is definitely not the muffin one makes if in search for the most delicious muffin on the planet, but if that’s the given quest, one wouldn’t make a zucchini muffin at all.  It’s a perfect diet food though: high in fiber, extra dose of vegetable, low sugar, but still hearty and satisfying so it feels like you’ve eaten something, unlike all those puffy, airy, commercial diet foods.  They are great spiced with a few teaspoons of cinnamon as well.  I leave out the cinnamon because I eat them with a tablespoon of peanut butter for some protein.  Cinnamon and peanut butter just don't compliment each other in my book.

The frozen zucchini was also put to good use in a savory, black bean soup this week.  The ingredient list is simple: one cup of dried black beans, stock, carrot, celery, zucchini, pepperoncini, salt pepper. 
black bean soup with shredded chicken

It’s a very low calorie soup (a little over 100 calories per bowl). The excellent flavor is chiefly due to the turkey stock that was made from several leftover bones from the amazing smoked turkeys we get locally from Hollyhock Hill Farms. The creamy texture is the result of pureeing several batches of the cooked beans in a food processor and returning it to the pot instead of adding cream and its inherent caloric content.  Diced carrots and celery add flavor and nutrition. 

This was exactly the type of meal I had in mind when I was putting zucchini through the food mill back in July and August.  After defrosting the bag of zucchini, I put it in a mesh strainer with some sea salt and press out the water.  Removing the moisture ensures that it doesn’t impart a squashy flavor in the dish.  The zucchini is a great filler:  it adds texture, fiber, nutrition and takes on the good flavors of the smoky stock.  We like it spicy so I added two to three tablespoons of ground pepperoncini.  That’s my ingredient of choice for the right spiciness for our family, but a few teaspoons of cayenne would work nicely too.

These are far from my greatest culinary creations, but they are appropriate for the first week in January when it’s time to show a little restraint at the dining room table.  After all, it is the resolution-making time of year.  I will happpily show some restraint because very few things make me feel more warm and sunshiney than fitting in size 4 skinny jeans.  Ok, fitting in the jeans while enjoying a prosciutto-topped, traditional brick-oven pizza and a fantastic glass of wine would be better.  But for now, best to just focus on the jeans and zucchini. 


Zucchini Bran Muffin Recipe
2.25 cups grain (I've used many combinations of bran, flax, meal and flour. These contain .5 cups of whole oats, oat bran, wheat bran, whole wheat flour, and .25 cups almond meal)
2 Tbsp fat (I've used all the standard oils and fats in this basic muffin recipe. Virgin coconut oil is my favorite.)
.25 cups sugar (These are not sweet, which keeps calores low. If I need them a little sweeter, I garnish with honey. One could double the sugar for an extra 30 calories per serving)
2 eggs
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup milk (Any liquid works--almond milk, coconut milk, prune juice, apple juice. I think the fat in the milk keeps them more moist though)
1/2-1 cup shredded zucchini, moisture removed (I've also used pureed bananas, pureed pumpkin, and shredded apple--this is a mix and match diet muffin recipe)
Combine ingredients, spoon equal amounts into greased or lined 6-muffin tin and bake for about 20 minutes at 425 degrees. Yields six large muffins at about 250 calories each.

02 January 2012

2011 Year in Review Photo Highlights

As I welcome 2012, I am grateful for the changes and experiences of 2011. Moving to the country has allowed the exploration of gardening, food preservation, and garden-to-plate cooking along with the cultural shift of city/suburban living to country living. While I do miss my family, Starbucks, and anonymity, I enjoy the beauty of the country and living so close to my husband's family. As we enter the grey months, the following 2011 photo highlights are reminders of the beauty and bounty of country living:
standing with my mother-in-law and niece among freshly planted garden beds
rainbow over the farm after a summer storm

zucchini awaiting preservation
zucchini-oat pancakes with sweetened rhubarb sauce and sour cream

baby bird in my roma cherry tomato plant
summer sunset

diamond eggplant

mongolian giant sunflower
late afternoon yellow glow cast over the fields
Daddy's tools and Vivi's tools
moon rising 1
moon rising 2
locusts shedding his skin on our back porch
peach pie with a traditional lard crust for my mom's birthday

 summer harvest
ciambotta: the best use of summer vegetables and, perhaps, the best country meal prepared in my kitchen
garlic scapes

a quick meal of toasted baguettes, goat cheese, local bacon, and crispy garlic scapes
rhubarb from my mother-in-law's rhubarb patch
potato plant in bloom

spicy pickled sugar snap peas
early summer appetizer: baguette rounds lightly buttered with thinly sliced radish, sea salt, and chopped dill

midsummer fritto misto: beer-battered zucchini blossoms and zucchini croquettes
flowering tobacco plant
hungarian peppers smoking on the grill before being dehydrated and ground down into smoked paprika
kale and carrot plants with the backdrop of an autumn storm
maple-glazed short ribs and cabbage braised in porter
autumn wildflowers by the creek

Happy New Year!