The Spring Fast

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Winter is finally giving way to spring over here, and the green is coming back ever so slowly. I see buds beginning to swell everywhere. There are daffodils and crocuses actually blooming! I saw a bee! And the hyacinths are beginning to drill through the dirt. Everyone around here keeps on saying: thank goodness! I’ve been getting out in the garden which feels amazing. Nothing like a dirt tonic to put your spirit back up where it belongs.

It’s an interesting time of year for someone who tries to eat according to the seasons, and it makes one wonder what people used to do so long ago. Chew on sticks? Just about. The latest post from A Raisin and a Porpoise touches on this time of fasting, but really, as she wryly points out, something very restrictive would cause us sun-deprived northerners emotional bankruptcy. The book on my nightstand right now is Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades and Apulia by Patience Gray that a good friend sent me. It’s fascinating and dense, more feast than fast. It’s main theme revolves around the idea of the fast being necessary to the feast. The abundance would not be quite as sweet without the bitterness of these seasonal lulls. As much as we don’t like it, it’s just not natural to be full all the time. A simple enough concept that’s lost its luster in this world of plenty. Maybe instead of filling the void, we should try to be happy with the void. To contemplate the interstices.

I actually hate being hungry, to be honest, so even though I’m suggesting to enjoy the stretched out thin times it’s really just advice to myself. Ever since I can remember, hunger pangs used to bother me tremendously. I find it very hard to just sit still and feel them. Of course, the tag line of this blog is “staying hungry” so it’s not something I’ve just started thinking about. When you are full, you begin to get complacent, and while complacency has it’s benefits (who doesn’t want to be happy just where they are?) no one wants to be defined as smug.

Speaking of fasts, I did a gluten fast for two weeks, although we don’t generally think of it in that way. Usually we “go” gluten-free. It wasn’t terribly restrictive, I must admit. I did have soy sauce, for example, and didn’t feel pressed to run out and buy some wheat-free tamari. I also had an ice cream cone, and once I had the first bite of the crispy wafer I realized my error. Luckily I had a five-year old handy to dispatch the evidence after finishing the ice cream. On the last day of my fast, I happily made some whole wheat biscuits, thinking how glad I was to not have a sensitivity to gluten, and not an hour passed when I had the worst stomach pains that lasted an entire day. It was distressing to say the least, and I began to have panic attacks that wheat bread was lost to me for good. Ends up the wheat scones just might have been a bit too much of a shock for my system, so I’ve begun to slowly add wheat back in small amounts. In this time, I’ve become very attached to buckwheat muffins, in which I mix the flour in three parts: buckwheat, almond and wheat. It’s delicious. And did you know that buckwheat loves dark chocolate? Well, who doesn’t?

My original buckwheat muffin recipe riffed off of this one for Chocolate Buckwheat Banana Nut Muffins from the Bojon Gourmet, who I’ve been hearing about all over the place lately.  In looking back at the recipe, I realized just how much I riffed, and mine is completely different now so I’m writing it down here for posterity.

Not-Fasting Muffins, yields 12 muffins

1/2 cup almond flour

1/2 cup buckwheat flour

1/2 cup white whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon of baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 cup very ripe bananas, mashed

1 teaspoon of vanilla

2 tablespoons of cacao nibs

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have a muffin tin ready with liners or oiled well. Mix the flours, powders and salt. Make sure your coconut oil is liquid (but not warm) and mix it with the sugar well. Add the two eggs and beat until frothy. Add the mashed bananas and vanilla. Incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet ones, and then fold in the nuts, nibs and chips last, saving a bit for topping, if you like that sort of thing. Distribute into muffin tins and top with the extra goodies. Bake for about 16-18 minutes, or until golden around the edges and a trusty toothpick comes out clean. When completely cool, you may break your fast and enjoy.

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Preserving By The Pint: Review

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I’ve been following Marisa McClellan’s blog, Food In Jars, for many years now. Her blog was one of the few I found when I first started my first blog, What Julia Ate, and began canning in earnest. At that time, I didn’t even know food blogs existed! And lo, not only did they exist, but a handful of them even talked about canning, preserving, and following the seasons. I was home. Thankfully, I’ve stayed in the preserving game long enough that Running Press sent me a review copy of Marisa’s newest book: Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces. I must say I was thrilled!

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I think what’s interesting about people who are deeply interested in preserving, is that they are first and foremost food people. Sometimes that gets lost when you are pegged as a canning expert. I think this book really shows Marisa’s true colors as some one who is thinking about the bigger pictures of food: the bond it creates with our family and friends, and the bond it creates within our community when we cook seasonally all year round. And the love of food in all its delicious glory! There are so many recipes in here–sweet, savory, fermented and canned, to name a few.

Preserving by the Pint is wonderful for a few reasons. One, is that it is all about small batch preserving, and each recipe is only for a couple of small jars at maximum. Which is great for an urban preserver, but also for a country gal like me who wants to try something out before I have twenty jars of something.  Two, because of the seasonal approach, you can start working your way through the book right now. Which I plan to do. And three, that this book is not just about canning! It’s about preserving. It’s about savoring the bounty of the seasons.

Seeing as how the rhubarb is only just now breaking through the dirt, I still have some time before I can explore a lot of these recipes. Luckily, the other day I found a small ziploc bag of my very own garden strawberries in the freezer. They were so tiny that I thought they were cranberries. But I opened the bag and even frozen they smelled intensely of a hot, late-spring day, reminding me of the abundance my small patch provides our family. I turned to a recipe in Marisa’s book for Quick Pickled Strawberries that had a little tarragon in it. They are lovely: the vinegar not too dominant, and the tarragon works well with the strawberries. I served these alongside some shredded duck confit and a kale salad for a few visiting friends. It was a resounding hit!

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There are so many recipes I can’t wait to try out! Grapefruits have been on sale, so I was thinking of making a grapefruit curd, and there is a recipe in the Winter section for just that. Orange tomato and smoked paprika jam? Yes, please! Spicy apple cider and mustard glaze? Lacto-fermented green tomato pickles? Yes, yes and yes. It will be a delicious year.

 Disclosure: Many thanks to Marisa and her publisher, Running Press,  for sending a copy of Preserving by the Pint for the purpose of this review. All opinions stated above are entirely my own.

The Perennial Bed

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Last week, I ventured out into the garden. It was still there.

I raked out my favorite bed: the perennials. It’s a sunny patch that is home to the asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb. I left it in horrible disarray in the fall. The strawberry bed was unfairly filled with weeds. I always leave the full grown asparagus for wildlife refuge, waiting until early spring to cut down the stalks, so it was a tangle of fern and stalk. And the rhubarb was left to die back to their roots. I am usually really finished at the end of the growing season, and this year was no different. I made no effort to tidy things up. It showed as I raked the beds the other day.

Amazingly, after raking up the detritus, I found green living things underneath! The strawberries are such hardy little things–I don’t even know what variety they are, as a neighbor passed me a boxful of them long ago, happy to get their little runners off her hands. They are not the sweetest strawberries, but dang if they’re not the hardiest. This year I decided to buy some Honeoye strawberries to start a new bed. Who can deny the strawberry? I am always happy to spend a few minutes in the garden and come out with a bowl full of strawberries. Let’s hope that happens this year!

(Grain-Free!) Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Back in the beginning of December, I had the good  fortune to have lunch with a couple of blogging pals, among them Winnie Abramson of Healthy Green Kitchen. She ever so kindly gave me a copy of her book, One Simple Change, and while I gave her some caramels that I made, I’m certain it was an extremely uneven exchange in my favor. The book gives advice on how to slowly transform your life into a healthier one, using 50 attainable goals from being more mindful to eating better for  both you and the planet.

I’ve had her book handy since that day, paging through it’s dense but approachable pages, enjoying her no-nonsense and sage advice, that is backed by evident research. A lot of work went in to this book, and it shows in the best possible way. Smart, delicious and easy recipes stud the book. Among the eye-catchers for me were spicy lacto-fermented pickles and a sardine salad. And–no surprise here that this one was a keeper– a recipe for gluten-free and grain-free chocolate chip cookies. Perfect right now that I’m in the midst of my gluten-free adventure.

Listen up: these cookies totally delivered: toothsome, lofty and light, with a crispy exterior and a soft yielding interior. You can get the recipe either in her book–which I recommend, especially for the person in your life who may need some nudging to make some healthy guided changes in their life–or in this link. I did make a few changes, because I’m annoying that way, and that was to dial down both the coconut sugar and the chocolate chips to 1/2 cup (both originally 1 cup). It might seem sacrilegious, but I can never add a cup of chips to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. I like an even ratio of chocolate to dough. I also sprinkled a little Maldon salt on a few out of the oven, just for me. My favorite.

The second best thing about this recipe (the first being the actual cookie) is that it incited me to make my own coconut flour. Easiest thing you’ve ever done. I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve passed over for lack of coconut flour. It is one of my very favorite kinds of techniques: one in which minimal effort yields the maximum result. I started out with a cup of dried unsweetened coconut flakes and ended with 3 cups of coconut milk and almost a cup of coconut flour. Pure, organic genius. I used this tutorial, but there are many on the internet. Using my dehydrator to dry out the coconut pulp over night worked great, but you can use your oven as well. I implore you to make your own coconut flour! And then bake these cookies. You can thank me later.

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Squash Muffins with Garam Masala

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I am trying really really hard to not talk about the weather but I think it’s nearly impossible. By this time of year I’m already direct sowing kale and collard seeds in the ground. This year? Still a foot of hard icy snow covering the poor garden. Instead of crabbing about this long winter, I am trying to be thankful for the time to work on a story about a trip I took to Mexico back in 1996. At least I am thinking about beaches and warmth, while I look up my itinerary and destinations, immersing myself in maps and photos. I stopped in Creel, Mazatlan, Morelia, Puerto Angel, Puerto Escondido, and Oaxaca, where I studied Spanish (or tried to). Not only did I dig out my own photos, but I dipped back in to Mexico with a visit to Glutton For Life, where Laura shared her beautiful and recent trip to Oaxaca.

So anyway, in between dreaming about Mexico and impatiently waiting for the garden to be mine once again, I am baking. The other day I made these muffins with the last of the squash puree in the freezer. They are so, so delicious and taste a bit like a more exotic pumpkin pie to me, in texture too, somewhat. It’s like a sweet squash timbale, so delicate and custardy. However, they were so delicate that it wasn’t until the muffins truly cooled for a day that they came out of the muffin liners without breaking up entirely. It is pretty much a must to use liners in this case. I have no more pureed squash to test with, so if you try it out will you let me know how it comes out? I am writing down the recipe exactly the way I made it, but I do wonder if it can be made a little sturdier.

Squash Muffins with Garam Masala

makes one dozen

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have that muffin tin filled with liners!

1.5 cups of almond meal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon of garam masala spice blend

Blend all these dry ingredients.

Then beat up in a  separate bowl:

1/4 cup (liquid) coconut oil

1/2 cup sugar (these were a bit sweet, so I think it’s fine to dial down the sugar if you want, or to experiment with sweeteners)

Add to this liquid mixture:

2 beaten eggs

1 cup of squash puree

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

When the liquids are all mixed, add them to the dry ingredients rather quickly. Spoon the mixture into your cupcake liners. I found that a healthy sprinkle of cinnamon, sugar and a few chopped walnuts were a really welcome topper. Bake these for thirty minutes at 350 degrees. After they have cooled for ten minutes, set them on a wire rack to cool completely. It’s really hard to wait for them, and you will likely open one, and it will crumble as you eat it over the sink. Or maybe that’s just me. Let them sit for days, and they will only get better.

p.s. Please forgive the slightly out of focus shot–I took only a few pictures. I figured the recipe was worth it to go ahead with!

p.p.s. These are similar to the muffins I wrote about on What Julia Ate. If you haven’t tried them, you should!

Something from Nothing

Something from nothing.

Yesterday, I sat by one of the West-facing windows in the house to watch the sun set over the ridge. One of the things we note in our house as the seasons change is the position of the sun as it moves back and forth behind the ridge. We know that when it’s really deep winter the sun will be nestled in the v where the two ridges form a valley, and that, as the days get longer, the sun slowly moves over the mountain back towards the West. It’s been almost ten years that I’ve watched this back and forth, and it never seems to get old. As I sat in the window seat, the sun was brilliantly yellow, and as it dipped lower and lower you could see it shining through the leafless trees on the top of the ridge. I was surprised at how tall the trees seemed, as the sun shined through them for such a long time. But then it dipped below the mountain, always such a stark difference of a minute ago when the sun was still bright. Lately, the sunsets have been lovely, perhaps because they seem to linger a little more than what we’ve become accustomed to. The pale blue offsets the pearlescent orange-pink of the cloud’s underbellies as they rest above the horizon.

This is an interesting time of year, as we wait for spring. And much more so after such a brutal and long winter, which started in earnest before Thanksgiving. A little while ago, I talked about emptying the freezer and the pantry, and it’s still going on. It’s been fun, and forces some creativity, which I enjoy. And I see friends of mine enjoying it too—Local Kitchen, Cookblog and Mrs. Wheelbarrow are on the clean out or making do with what they have and are full of great ideas. Being creative during these times, when we are really low on local goods, is helpful for making it through the doldrums of late winter.

Sometimes I force myself to really clean out the fridge. It’s a game: I do not allow myself to go food shopping until I really have to. The other day I really got down to the nub, but still managed to prepare a really satisfying meal. This is where a well-stocked pantry comes to play. I am never without anchovies, always a one-two punch in your corner. You might sauté cardboard in garlic and anchovies, and I would be happy to eat it. I happened to have a head of romaine and some parmesan, so I made a Caesar salad, which is never turned down in our household.

Out came the canned jars of tomatoes, for the pizza. Out came the frozen roasted plum tomatoes. I made dough, of course, and made two pizzas: one plain for my son, and one with roasted tomatoes. We had a little mozzarella left, and that was supplemented with some parmesean. But what of me and my new found gluten-free diet? I have not yet graduated to a gluten-free pizza, or to a gluten-free flour blend for that matter. I’m not sure if I will even go there. For me, I made a quick batch of ricotta, served with more roasted plums, Arbequino smoked olive oil, and Maldon salt. It was outrageously good—soft and creamy, smoky and rich with umami from the tomatoes and olive oil. I also made myself a small bowl of tomato soup, from the more liquid-y part of the canned crushed tomatoes that I used for the pizza sauce. And a total bonus: I used the whey from the ricotta for the pizza dough.

It’s funny how meals like this give a home cook like me so much joy! Here’s a couple of other things coming out of the pantry, both freezer and larder alike, in my gallery below.

Buckwheat Crepes and Quinoa Carrot Cake

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Last week I was all pumped about writing, and now I’m feeling a little less than expansive. I am feeling more writerly grind, than writerly gold, to be frank. Is it the fifty degrees knocking on my window, beckoning me outside? Oh, what will become of my writing habits once the garden has emerged from its snowy cocoon? I fear for my productivity.

In any case, today’s topic is that I’m going to go gluten-free for a few weeks to try it on, and see what I learn. In the few days since I’ve started it’s been pretty delicious and not very restrictive. I made some quinoa flour the other day by toasting some three-color quinoa in a cast iron pan. After letting it cool, I put it in the Vitamix to grind. It turned into flour effortlessly and quickly. The powder was sandy and smelled very much like peanuts. I think next will be to make some buckwheat flour. Yesterday I picked up some buckwheat groats to experiment with making my own flour, but I also grabbed a few pounds of already ground flour.

This afternoon, I made buckwheat crepes following this post from, of course, Gluten-Free Girl. Why haven’t I made buckwheat crepes ever? Silly me. So quick and easy! I stuffed a few with sauerkraut, cheddar cheese and a little crumbled hard-boiled egg. I saved two for dessert, which I filled with coconut spread and nectarine-cherry jam. It was such a fulfilling lunch! I think I’ll be making more of these.

I also made a carrot cake using only the quinoa flour I made. (Slightly digressing: did you know quinoa is considered a pseudo-cereal? I love that.) It’s pretty good, but there is a legume-y taste to it, and a slightly unsettling sandy texture. It is tasty, but the test will be to see if my son eats it. I’m guessing he’ll turn his nose up at it. Good thing I have some raspberry sorbet made for our after school snack!

Buckwheat crepe.
Buckwheat crepe.

Staying Hungry

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