31 December 2013

Sunrise, Sunset

The sunrise and sunsets on the farm have been particularly beautiful lately.  Perhaps there is some special alignment of atmospheric conditions.  Or maybe the time in which I go outside to photograph them are the few very still moments of my day; the farm is noticeably still when blanketed in snow.  Or perhaps I'm just reaching an age in which I suddenly admire sunsets, watch squirrels, and hand feed recovering hens in the chicken coop.  Regardless, they've been beautiful, and it seemed a very appropriate post as the sun sets on 2013 and rises in 2014.






"Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn"
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


06 December 2013

Chicken in the Kitchen

December doesn't leave much to do outdoors other than daily chicken chores and the last few garden activities that we've put off, such as planting and mulching the garlic, tulips, and daffodils.  The action concentrated in the garden during the warmer months shifts to the kitchen after the first few frosts. 

chipotle roasted squash

We're easing out of pumpkin season. I've taken the last sip of pumpkin spice latte and eaten the last cube of roasted squash spiced with chipotle and ancho chilis.  I particularly like this Dutch Crookneck variety not only because it is terribly obscene, but also because It has a good amount of flesh that is easily peeled and diced for roasting.  One 2013 pumpkin highlight is Pumpkin Butter Ice Cream from The Preservation Kitchen Cookbook.  I served it for dessert at our family Thanksgiving along with this mandatory Salted Caramel Pie and this Chocolate Pecan Pie with Bourbon

Dutch Crookneck

pumpkin butter ice cream
That would be the peak pumpkin experience of the season had my husband and I not been bored one evening and decided to make pumpkin tortellini out of one of these Long Island Cheese heirloom squash sitting on the porch.  I've made pasta and ravioli, but it's not one of my favorite activities due to my lack of patience and finesse necessary to making them pretty.  Even if I could rectify my poor patience, it would take lots of time and practice to beautifully assemble any small sculptural item such as a tortellini.  Luckily my husband, after years of art tutorial from a certain teacher who emphasized "craftsmanship, craftsmanship, craftsmanship", a college degree in art, and an inherently careful and patient disposition, makes beautiful, almost sensual tortellini. 

assembling tortellini

OK, my kitchen isn't quite as Like Water for Chocolate as the previous description suggests, but he does make a gorgeous tortellini.  It could take days, even weeks, of practice for me to craft one as lovely as his first.  This is the reference he used.   The filling was a very simple blend of roasted, pureed pumpkin, ricotta, parmigiano, salt and pepper.  The day after Thanksgiving we enjoyed them in a rosemary brown butter.

pumpkin tortellini in rosemary brown butter

Unfortunately, the most exciting thing happening in my kitchen isn't pumpkin delicacies.  All the excitement is happening next to the stove, where the chicken has taken residence.  We have a chicken in the kitchen--not the trussed type with its cavity filled with stuffing and herbs, but the live variety with feathers that poops (and farts, who knew?) a lot.  One of our Rhode Island Reds from the original flock wandered out of the run.  We used to let them range out of the run often, that is until the spawn of satan, aka Cinco, took residence next door.  My Father-In-Law's new Blue Heeler has already been the demise of one hen, and I caught her seconds before she was about to make her bones with her second. 

Cinco sitting ON my bistro table
After chasing the dog away and calling her many worse things than that aforementioned, I scooped up the injured hen to bring her back in the coop and found that although she was alive and alert, she had several wounds, the most severe of which was a gaping hole on her back.  She immediately hid when I put her down, which I assumed was a bad sign.  I proceeded to read on many chicken websites that injured chickens must be removed from the flock.  She was hiding from her friends because they would peck at her wounds.  Gross. 
I wrapped her in a towel and began wandering around looking for a happy place to isolate her.  As I was cradling my bleeding, dirty hen I had a mild out-of-body experience, like a previous version of myself was watching the current version and wondering how I became such a foreign individual.  This was further confirmed moments later when I was applying antiseptic to her open wounds.  Just to put this in perspective, it was only a handful of years ago that I lived in downtown Chicago and didn't even trim my own toenails. 
So we have a December house guest.  Other than the pooping and farting, she's kind of good company.  She's quite obedient and hasn't yet strayed from her little apartment box by the window.  She watches me cook, and responds to my singing, and looks at me in wonderment when I talk to her.  I realize I'm dangerously close to becoming like a crazy cat lady.  As a side note, aluminum foil is the most frightening thing in the chicken world.

chicken in the kitchen

Out of respect for Henrietta (she lives with us now; she needed a name), I haven't prepared any chicken.  A few nights ago we had a notable duck dish.  She didn't seem bothered by the similarity.

keeping me company while I cook

Rigatoni with Braised Wild Duck Ragu
We were gifted two small ducks from a local hunter last winter.  They don't have much meat on them which made them suitable for a good ragu.  This is a rustic dish and can easily be adapted to ingredients you have on hand.  I made it based on what was in my pantry at the time.  If you don't have wine or stock, water can be used in place. 
2 small ducks
2 bay leaves
small onion or leek, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 carrots, diced
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
3-4 cups stock or water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
Heat oil and butter in a braising dish.  Salt and pepper ducks and brown on all sides.  Remove to separate dish.  Cook onions till soft and add garlic, but do not brown.  Deglaze with wine and reduce by half.  Stir in tomato paste. Place ducks in dish, add bay leaves and water or stock and bring to boil.  Reduce heat to low simmer and cover (or place in oven preheated to 325).  Add carrots after 30 minutes.  You can add them earlier--I just don't like them too soft.  Cook ducks until tender--60-90 minutes.  Remove ducks and let cool on a separate plate until cool enough to remove meat and shred.  Reduce sauce on stove top to desired consistency and salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in shredded duck and serve over a hearty pasta such as rigatoni. 
rigatoni with braised wild duck ragu

27 September 2013

September Chores

We had scheduled last night to butcher chickens, but by the time last night rolled around, there were few things I wanted to do less than have my hand up the backside of a bird all evening.  Instead, we made pizza and cocktails--much more appealing than defeathering and evisceration.
The weather has been so beautiful that it's been easy to keep on top of my kitchen and garden chores.  There have been peppers and tomatoes and eggplant and swiss chard and potatoes and brussels sprouts and squash on top of the bushel of apples that were gifted to us.  The harvest is plentiful in September, which means much time harvesting in the garden and much time in the kitchen making sure the produce is put to use and doesn't spoil. 
We have jars of this apple butter and even more jars of the pumpkin butter recipe from The Preservation Kitchen that is so scrumptious that we are officially dating.    The chard harvest elicited a superior pizza of spicy sautéed chard leaves with bacon and corn relish.  And, in the spirit of stem-to-root cooking, I have a jar of the most colorful pickled chard stems
We have bags upon bags of brussels sprouts because I didn't listen to my husband when he said twelve Brussels sprouts plants might be too many for a family of three.  The problem is that I feel the number of plants I have in the garden of a given item must reflect the amount of love I have for that item, so we always have a bumper crop of brussels sprouts and eggplant. 
The pepper plants are finally producing so we had our first batch of peperonata.  It's one of those dishes that doesn't last long around here because I love it on everything from pizza to sandwiches or just warmed with crusty bread.  I've gotten more adventurous with my eggplant crop this year, mainly because I haven't been in the mood to stand over a skillet of hot oil.  This eggplant jam was beyond what I expected and this baba ganoush is currently in the works. 
We have a freezer full of blanched and roasted tomatoes along with the ones in the refrigerator that are for immediate use. I've had sliced tomato with mayo and parsley in a whole wheat pita everyday for lunch this week in order to really feel like I'm embracing the season.  There are three jars of dehydrated cherry tomatoes packed in olive oil and a batch of pickled cherry tomatoes, which work nicely in the recipe for this Queen Mary cocktail I found in Booze 52 (a column devoted to cocktails on the Food 52 website) as I discovered last night in lieu of my planned chicken butchery. 
Maybe I needed several rounds of cocktails and pizza because it's been a long week of gardening, preserving, cooking, and mothering (apparently fully potty-trained almost-four-year-olds can have serious regressions?).  Maybe I knocked that task down a few notches on my to-do list because, let's be honest, staring your meal in the eye as it dies takes courage that easily wanes.  Maybe it's because each year I grow attached to the crowing and glamorous plumage of the heritage roosters.  Regardless, the reality of the situation was quite clear this morning when I went to the coop for morning chores and saw one of those exquisite roosters doing something very less-than-exquisite to one of my seasoned hens.  The chores this week will entail more time in rubber gloves and less with the water-bath-canner.

16 May 2013

Spring Seduction

We had an eventful winter with trips to New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Southern California (Los Angeles, Dana Point, San Diego).  Coming back to the rural Midwest after walking the Brooklyn Bridge and touring the Mission at San Juan Capistrano was proving to be somewhat anticlimactic.  Then spring revealed herself in all her bucolic glory and I was reminded, again, that living the country life has its merit.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

The cherry tree graced us with just a few days of gorgeous blooms.  The asparagus broke through the dry ground forming purple and green rows.  The arugula, lettuce, pea, and radish have all sprouted.  The Brassica patch is planted along with some new perennial flowers and fennel.  The rhubarb patch went from a few green leaves to an abundance of red and green stalks in a matter of days, and the first picking is macerating on my counter as I type.  My porch is full of eager transplants awaiting the approaching warmer soil temperature.  The wildflowers have all bloomed on the shady hillsides by the creek creating a pastoral paradise of Virginia Bluebell, Trillium, Dutchman's Breeches, Hepatica, and Violet.  Then, as if she hadn't been convincing enough, the Midwest decided to have her final word in the matter of her worth: morels.


I've never tried morels, but I've always been intrigued by their reputation.  A generous student gave my husband a small ziplock baggie full of them this week.  As I anticipated their arrival for an indulgent Monday night meal, I learned how to clean them here. And I read an interesting article about foraging them here.  Then, in pursuit of the perfect recipe with which to introduce our family to the morel, I found this.  In my opinion, Molly Wizenberg (blogger, author, restaurateur) can do little wrong by way of recipe choices or writing.   Both the recipe and post are wonderful. 

rinsing morels

And so, on a mild spring evening overlooking the garden, my husband, daughter, and I sat at the small table on our back porch with a simple meal fit for royalty: creamed morels on toast with wine.  We devoured the earthy deliciousness surrounded by the colors of spring as the busy birds sang their lively work songs.  And there, in a very rare moment, I desired to be nowhere else. 

creamed morels, toast, Pinot Grigio

14 February 2013

My Valentines

Happy Valentine's Day, the day devoted to love.  Here's what I'm loving this Valentine's Day . . .

From the cellar:
Lately I'm crazy about manzanilla.  I recall drinking plenty of it during the Feria de Abril in Seville, but somehow forgot about it over the last decade.  This very dry sherry perfectly pairs with salty foods such as olives and jamon serrano.  And if you need to drink something trendy, sherry is 'in'.  Check out the article on page 66 of the February issue of Food & Wine, Sherry on Top, which states that 'sherry is having its moment' and lists the top Sherry Bars in London.

a little spread we put together in Brooklyn from some nearby shops

I've also been enjoying  Bordeaux Whites.  My heart belongs to robust reds, but I need something more subtle and crisp with a plate of escargots swimming in garlic butter, which is exactly how we enjoyed this bottle at La Creperie in Chicago.

In my kitchen:

Cast-iron lamb chops.  The half lamb we ordered from a local farm last summer has made for some pretty spectacular meals, especially the lamb chops seared on a hot cast iron skillet for three minutes on each side.  The outside gets a nice crust while the inside remains perfectly medium rare.  Add a side of cous cous and nice Zinfandel and it's a fantastic quick meal.


Pickled vegetables.  The one jar of spicy pickled snap peas I put by is such a tease.  We had a poor crop due to last year's drought and have been really taking our time with the one prized jar.  They're savory, sweet, spicy, and managed to retain some good crunch.  Luckily we have several jars of the sweet pickled beets that are sublime with blue cheese and crusty bread.

pickles, smoked paprika tomato jam, goat cheese, spicy snap peas, sweet pickled beets, Roquefort
From the professional kitchen:

Pizza.  Yeah, yeah, everyone likes pizza, but I'm not just talking about any pizza here.  I'm talking about pizzas that transcend New York versus Chicago style. Pizzas as art!   For instance, we ventured into the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn for a slice from Di Fara's.  Domenico DeMarco has been making all his pizzas himself, by hand since 1964.  Almost fifty years of practice in making the perfect (and I think it is) pie.  Di Fara's has won numerous awards, which is why people wait hours.   We arrived fifteen minutes before it opened, waited twenty minutes to order, another thirty minutes for a seat, and more than thirty after that to eat (don't worry, it's byob).  Yes, it's a little high maintenance and yes, it's very, very worth it. 

Dom making the pie

putting it in the oven

et, voila!
I hate to say it, but I'm partial to New York style pizza.  As a former Chicagoan, this is almost as blasphemous a statement as revealing my lack of a preferred baseball team. Ok, I prefer the team with the better looking players. I found The Cubs far more interesting when Ryan Theriot was manning second base. Back to pizza:  Chicago style pizza is just too much--too much cheese, too much sauce. New York style is thinner, crispier, with good chew. We did plenty of 'research' a few weeks ago on a long weekend trip.

I'm tellin' ya, I even liked Ray's.

My assessment of Chicago style pizza doesn't mean that there isn't good pizza in Chicago.  There's GREAT pizza in Chicago.  Thank goodness because getting to Midwood from the Midwest is really a hike.  Case in point: Coalfire Pizza.  Over New Year's, we stopped in our old near west neighborhood to try the only pizza in the city made in a coal-burning oven.  The 800+ degree oven makes for a truly memorable pie.  We enjoyed several, but The Coppa, topped with high-quality coppacola, was outstanding.  My husband felt the same about the 'Nduja.   One bite and he said, "Oh man, that tastes like Italy."  And it did, but I'm a sucker for cured pork.  Great pizza, good beer and wine, and great service made for a wonderful night with friends.  The handsome, buff, straight-out-of-The-Sopranos-looking manager didn't detract from the experience either.

There's The Coppa, down front

The 'Nduja with perfect crust

The nicest server gave Viv a private tour of the oven while her special order (I want sausage!) was cooking
Brulee Desserts.  Creme brulee is the quintessential dessert.  It's a multi-sensory eating experience: the elegant dessert, the crack of the caramelized sugar, the rich custard. I love when pastry chefs extend the torch beyond this classic favorite. In the past several months I've had two instances that were profoundly good:

Gingersnap Banana Pudding at Butcher and the Boar, Minneapolis: homemade gingersnap crust, decadent banana pudding, and some sort of fluffy merengue-y topping finished with a caramelized crust.  There is no photo.  It was gone before it even occurred to me.

Caramalized Banana Ricotta Tart at Balthazar, New York: creamy ricotta tart topped with sliced bananas and caramelized under a shellacked, crunchy layer of sugar. 

The tart at Balthazar was so good, I had to try my hand at one.  Not bad for a first attempt with the broiler, but it's time for my very own culinary torch. 

The glass of manzanilla, the trek through Brooklyn, the caramelized tart experiments are all the more complete with my real Valentine, the man who brought me to the country.  The one who plants the tomatoes that I harvest, slaughters the chickens that I butcher, and gets stung by the swarm of bees for the homegrown honey that I put in my coffee.  He's the one that patiently loves his sassy wife and equally sassy daughter.  He's the one with the beard, and more importantly, he's the one with the heart.  He's the one that makes life taste all the better.