Spring Equinox!

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What happened this week that stopped me from writing here? Who knows? I mean, sure I was working, but I could have carved some space out. Could it be the business end of March bringing me to a creative standstill that only waiting out will fix?

Sometimes my problem is that I’m a daydreamer. I think that’s why I like to cook and garden in the relaxed (read: imperfect) style that I do. It keeps my hands busy while I space out and think about things. Not that I’m formulating anything great, mind you. I find that a good portion of my daydreaming is useless filler. I do have a few good thoughts but I’m always too far from a computer to log it down–for example, when I’m just about to fall asleep in bed. I’m sure you know this feeling. Or, while I’m out walking. To be fair, I’ve tried to making short recordings on walks to write down later on. I’ve noticed though, that when you revisit said brilliant thoughts they suddenly seem less than scintillating.

I know daydreaming is good for you–it’s where so many inventive ideas come from! But you know, you have to balance that daydreaming with some actual work, right? It’s not unlike people who point to photos of Einstein’s messy desk and proclaim their genius because they too are messy. Hmmm. Not really.

The garden, still frozen, is a far way off–though I have gotten a chance to do some pruning. And cooking starts to get so uninspired! Will it be soup tonight? Or stew? Comfort foods now feel heavy and suffocating, and crisp new green things have not yet brought about that feeling of lightness. I am watching the freezer thin and the pantry shelves become populated with empty jars.

But we are getting close, friends, close! As I stepped outside this morning on the back porch, everything covered with the few inches of snow that fell on the first day of spring, I still could hear the loud gathering taking place at the pond down the hill. Redwing blackbirds, their buzz and trill unmistakable, are gathering already. They know what time it is, despite the snow.

On Doing Without

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Quite a long while ago, back in January, our little toaster oven died. Rest in peace, dear one! It was a Black and Decker that we bought at a yard sale for two dollars. Man, did that toaster oven pay for itself many times over. Let’s just say there was a lot of burnt cheese in its crumb tray. I started looking for a new one pretty quickly. No toast! Whatever shall we do!? I was looking at this Panasonic Flash Express, which sounds crazy, like something I played my Haircut 100 tape on in eighth grade. It actually has a lot of good reviews for a toaster that’s sort of a step up from the run-of-the-mill models but not some Breville craziness. I’m not going to spend $200 on a toaster, for goodness sakes.

As it happens, I ended up sort of letting the toaster oven thing go to the back of my mind. I have commitment issues and buying new products always makes me freeze up. I’d rather not deal with it. So I didn’t. And you know what? It was OK. In fact I still don’t have a toaster oven. I’m not sure if I will. A friend of mine hasn’t had a toaster for as long as I’ve known her, and I always thought: whatever!  But she was on to something.

I started toasting my bread in my cast iron pans, which are always on the stove or hanging nearby anyway, perfectly seasoned with a light sheen of oil. I use an old ceramic lid as a weight. And you know what? Best toast ever. Of course. What was I thinking? Sometimes I’m naughty and pour a guzzle of olive oil in the pan before I cook some nice sourdough toast up. You don’t even need an egg with this toast. It doesn’t even take that long, but just beware of walking away and forgetting you started some toast…

So, I’ve been going with this “doing without” thing. How far can one push it? When we moved into our house ten years ago, there was an old dryer left that worked. We used it for years, until it died. Secretly, I was thrilled: we get to buy a new dryer! When the delivery people came to remove the old one, we looked for a date on it. It was from the late ’70s. The guys laughed, “You’ll never see another dryer this old!” Har, har, but so true, mon frére! The dryer has been pretty much out for a few weeks now. We’ve been drying our clothes on a rack in the basement. (We try to dry outside in the summer as much as we can, but the winter is another story.)

You know what? It’s not that bad! My clothes are wrinkly, so if you have to look acceptable this might not be a good idea. But for my grubby lifestyle, it suits just fine. We will probably get a new dryer, but it’s nice to know that even in the winter we can get by without it. But I’m not sure I’ll be getting a toaster oven too soon! Maybe if I see one at a yard sale…

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Sourdough Sandwich Bread

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I think the reason I don’t make perfect sourdough boules is because I’m always too concerned about the amount of starter discard I have created. I’m so worried about using up this “waste” that I focus on recipes that use it up, instead of recipes for the bread itself. I’ve made pancakes, waffles, crackers, rolls and bread with the aging discard that lives in my fridge. It’s an opportunity for me to be creative and to use something up at the same time, which is one of my favorite things to do. I’m not sure what that says about me, but whatever.

Over the years, I’ve really honed my sourdough starter skills. I have a nice vibrant starter that, when fed, bubbles up so nicely that I myself puff up with pride. I knew it when it was just a weak little pup, I beam (and no, I haven’t named it). I feed it regularly, unlike the way I used to treat it in the past, neglectfully leaving it in the fridge for weeks. I store the discard from the sourdough process (that’s the part of the starter that you remove each time you feed it) in a separate container in the fridge. Soon it is so full that I have a quart of floury goo.

I don’t prefer making pancakes or waffles with the leftover starter. I’m just not a sourdough pancake person, and neither is my six-year old son (who is also the reason I make pancakes regularly). Crackers are a good way to use up sourdough starter, and this recipe from King Arthur in particular is a nice one. One of my favorite uses for these leftovers is this recipe for sourdough dinner rolls, which is both amazingly delicious and really easy. I have tweaked it a bit and will post about it at a later date.

My very favorite use of the weeks of starter that have been languishing in the fridge is actually for bread! Who knew? With a little bit of yeast you can turn all of that very flavorful fermented flour into two nice loaves of sandwich bread. The starter imparts the flavor of sourdough, but not the lift of a fed starter, of course, so you want to give it a bit of a boost with the yeast.

Sourdough Sandwich Bread (using your sourdough discard)

Yield: two standard loaves

Start with 3 to  4 cups of unfed starter you have stored in the fridge, if liquid has separated and formed on the top (known as hooch; oh, bakers are such a funny lot) you can pour it off

Add it to a large bowl with 1.5 cups of warm water in it

Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of dry active yeast

Whisk a little and let sit for about five minutes for the yeast to activate. Mix in enough flour to make a very sticky dough, about 3 cups of all purpose flour. [Note: You will not think this bread will work. It’s so wet and sticky. Never mind. Soldier ahead.] Cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge over night, for at least 12 hours, up to 18 hours. It should double in size.

Take it out and let it sit, covered, for about two hours. Add 1 cup of flour and stir with a scraper or spatula (so sticky!!) You will probably have to add another cup of flour. And two teaspoons of salt. When it’s somewhat manageable, cut it in half (I do this in the bowl) and quickly, deftly transfer it to a very well-oiled bread loaf pan. Shake it around a little so it settles. It’s very sticky, but still–don’t fret! Let it sit in a warm place, covered with more plastic wrap (which you may want to oil because it will stick when it rises). It will rise to just above the pan rim. When it’s almost there, turn on your oven to 450 degrees, and once the temperature has been reached, bake the two loaves for 30 minutes. They should reach an internal temperature of 205 degrees, or sound hollow with a nice crunchy golden exterior.

Those sesame seeds you see look very pretty, but they actually all fell off when I went to cut the bread. Seed at your own risk!

Tidbits:

I’ve been seeing this making the rounds: Efficiency in the Kitchen to Reduce Food Waster from the NY Times. Right up my alley.

PSA: Local folks experiencing S.A.D. (and if you are not, I can’t understand you at all) go to Adam’s in Kingston before March 8th and check out their garden show. You can smell dirt! And see flowers!! And it’s cozy and humid in there. Ahhh.

It’s hard but I’m focusing on the garden right now. Hudson Valley Seed Library, anyone?

Winter Update

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February has been unusually cruel this winter. I wonder how it is by you? We have two feet of snow, piles of ice and sub-zero temperatures. This morning I woke to see the thermometer read -12. That’s just silly. We don’t usually have temperatures like that in the Hudson Valley, so when I see that I feel very alarmed. Did you see this map from the Washington Post? About how the eastern U.S. is the coldest place in the world? So, yeah, it’s cold.

Oddly, I really don’t have any desire to cook right about now, so that’s why I haven’t posted anything lately. I’m just not that kind of blogger. I’ve tried, but when I’m not motivated by something that excites me, I just feel like: why bother? Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of detox tea (so exciting!! …not), fresh citrus juice (those piles of citrus don’t motivate anymore, but a big glass of grapefruit-clementine juice hits. the. spot.) and chocolate pudding (you have to live a little, right?). Also lots of rice bowls, see above. I keep my pressure-cooked short-grain brown rice in the fridge for when lunch time comes a calling. I put various things on top: scrambled eggs cut in strips, avocado, cucumber, scallion, grated carrot, pickled ginger, sesame seeds, togarashi, hot sauces, sesame oil, tamari, etc. It always makes me feel satiated in such a good way.

I’ve also been reading a lot–going back to cookbooks, organizing my canning shelves, making notes on what worked and what didn’t, planning for next year’s garden, dreaming about my little green wrought-iron bench that’s buried in snow. And I’m getting ready for a preserving class I’m holding on May 2nd. I’m trying to remind myself to take advantage of this down time.

Here’s some other things inspiring me lately:

This book, Dawns and Dusks, that features taped interviews with sculptor Louise Nevelson. It can be a little rambling, but it’s intimate tone is fascinating.

I love Brain Pickings, don’t you? I’ve been holding onto this one, Anton Chekhov on the 8 Qualities of Cultured People. Also, I wasn’t aware of how handsome Mr. Chekhov was.

Spring cleaning is already bubbling up in me. I sort of want to get rid of everything. Or is that mid-winter crazy-pants disorder (MWCP)? I don’t know, but I like this article titled Abundance Without Attachment.

Let’s think warm thoughts, and look forward to March 20th, shall we? That’s the first day of spring or vernal equinox, which also boasts a full solar eclipse. Truly, we have much to look forward to!

Roasted Grape and Hazelnut Conserve

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I know that title sounds luxe, but I will admit this recipe was born of something quite the opposite. Things have been a little rough for the past week in these parts, truth be told. My son has been sick, out of school for over a week, and as these things go, I soon had my own illness as well. All we do is cough and color and watch TV. In addition, there have been blizzard warnings, winter storm watches, and a foot of snow fell just yesterday. All this means I have been in the house for what feels like a verrrry looooong time.

Because of all of this, I haven’t had much of an appetite or the ability to go out and shop for food. However, last Thursday we made a very exciting trip to the local grocery store. It was like we were at the county fair. We held hands and walked down the aisles in our clompy winter boots like zombies, reading labels with glee and in general, being amazed at the bounty before us. There were flashing lights, strange noises, and people were milling about everywhere!

We decided on a few things to get us through the next few days, and as a special treat my son requested red grapes, which I don’t normally buy. I even let him pick out the bunch, though I thought to myself: he’s not going to eat that. Poor thing had been so sick, his stomach in such pain, I let him pick anything that would tempt him. Of course, over the next few days he would eat a handful of those grapes and lose interest. Not because his appetite was gone, but because they really weren’t very good grapes.

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Yesterday, I decided I was really going to toss them in the compost. Sometimes I get so weary of using everything and never letting anything go to waste. Sometimes I too just want to throw things out. We all have our days. But I’m glad I gained the strength to make this, because it’s a noble destination for those sad table grapes. The grapes retain a soft pop, and have a barely sweetened, slightly caramelized taste. I’ve been eating this on yogurt, and I bet they would be welcome on a slice of baguette with cheese or paté or both. As a savory option I would leave the vanilla out, and add some dried thyme instead. Also, I didn’t have the foresight to roast the hazelnuts first, but I bet that would be nice.

Here’s to your health, I hope it’s better than mine at the moment!

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Roasted Grape and Hazelnut Conserve

Yield: one pint

One bunch of red grapes, stems removed

A handful of hazelnuts, no shell bits please! Toast in a cast iron pan if you like.

A dash of vanilla extract (bean is all the better, if you are so lucky to not be snowed in)

One clementine (it only needs a little bit of life left in it)

One teaspoon to one tablespoon of honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a baking tray with neutral oil. Put the grapes in a single layer on the pan and roast for 20 to  30 minutes, until soft and slightly shriveled, and a tad caramelized. Remove them gently to a pot and squeeze in the juice of the clementine. Stir in the honey and vanilla. Bring to a simmer and mix, making sure the flavors blends. Cook about ten minutes. Remove mixture to a glass jar. Keep refrigerated.

Preserved Citrus

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Now that winter has us in it’s icy grip, it seems all of the food world is writing about citrus and what can be done with it–case in point, see my limequats post from earlier. I am surely there with everyone else. It’s a loving crutch we all grab for when the light starts to fade this time of year. There have been about a million blog posts on the details of making preserved lemons. I will spare you yet another. You have the rest of the internet to describe exactly how to master this phenomenally easy preparation. However, I won’t spare you my musings on this versatile ingredient!

One of the cool things I’ve learned about salt-preserved lemons is that you can use any citrus, not just lemons. Along with various lemons, I’ve experimented with calamondins and the wild sour oranges I get from my mother in Florida. I’ve seen limes, oranges and grapefruits as well. I preserved so much citrus in salt a few years back, that I haven’t allowed myself to make more. They live on the bottom shelf of the fridge and are still bright in color and taste. I use a bit here and there. I haven’t made any more because truly, how much can you use? (Not to mention, I have a six-year old in the house.  I always thought my child would be that kid who loved everything, and while he’s much more adventurous than many kids I know, he still has a very limited repertoire. I try not to cater too much to his kid-like palate, but I do have to feed him, you know?)

The calamondins have turned into a clear golden jelly, filled with seeds and their thin skin. The tennis-ball sized sour oranges were squished into a large mason jar. The other day I took both dwindling jars out and separated all the skin from the flesh. I milled the innards to remove the seeds and membranes. This puree covered the skins, which I julienned, in a much smaller jar. Now I have a half-pint left, which will probably last me another year!

Of course, you can use your varied salt-cured citrus in many preserved lemon recipes. Some of my favorites are here:

Pureed Preserved Lemons.

Preserved Lemon Hummus.

Preserved Lemon and Mint Allioli.

Preserved Lemon Mayonnaise.

And I haven’t made this, but I ought to! Preserved Lemon Martini. I’ll bet salt-cured oranges would made a great drink…

Chicken in Whey

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I was so excited to make all that ricotta and yogurt the other day that I forgot one thing. And that is: now I have SO much ricotta and yogurt! Not to mention whey. However, there are so many good things to do with all of them. Here’s a well-organized list, which mentions the idea of making a cocktail with whey. I’ve never thought of that. There were two comments on my post with other good suggestions for using whey.  One was for this whey and honey sorbet from Laura of Glutton For Life. I love this idea! The other was from Rebecca of Cakewalk who drinks it with lemon or lime. Of course she bakes and makes soup with it, too!

Whey does delightful things to slow cooked meat, tenderizing and adding richness. I had a whole chicken in the fridge and started searching for recipes that cooked chicken with milk, thinking I could substitute the whey for milk.  After reading this rave from The Kitchn, I decided to make Chicken in Whey based on Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk recipe. Sage, lemon, cinnamon and whey? Sounds a little strange, but truly, it was amazing. I served it with fingerling potatoes roasted in duck fat, and it was a rich meal that has us feeling pretty good about staying home on a Saturday night. (So good that all the photos I took were sub-par, but oh well!) I saved the chicken breast for another meal–shredded in quesadillas–and Steve commented that it reminded him of the chicken we used to get at a little Peruvian restaurant, El Pollo in NYC. Incredibly tender, rich and  so subtly flavored. I will make this one again for sure!

Staying Hungry

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