Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thinking Hard about the Dark Days

The upcoming Dark Days Challenge is heavy on my mind. In a good way. Winter is clearly upon us here in the north, the gardens are asleep, and I am trying to figure out exactly what my definition of local is.

Last night's snowfall on the office woodpile.
When you live in the U.P. you have an office woodpile. 

I really thought this would be easy. I'm a CSA farmer. I am local food, right? But there is so much more to it than that.

I live in a small community that is still very agricultural, so in many ways I am at an advantage. The local foods I have are varied and readily available. I have meat in the form of chicken, duck, turkey, and lamb my husband and I raised, beef from a nearby farm, and fish that we catch or purchase from a local market. I have a fair amount of fruits and vegetables canned, frozen or dried, some root vegetables in storage, and two good co-ops that will be sources for other local winter produce. I wish I had more stocked up in this category, but being beginning farmers means that we often sell the produce that we would like to can for ourselves and end up buying from bigger local farmers in the winter. It is getting better every year though. What I have put up is a mix of our produce and produce from other local growers. I also have eggs, from our chickens and other local farms. I have a milk share from the same farm that we get beef from, which is less than ten miles from our place. I can also get cheese and butter (and milk if we need more than our share provides) from a regional dairy that is located about 100 miles from us.

Sounds good, right? I thought I was pretty much set, until a tiny whispered question crept into my brain.

What am I going to do about grains and pulses?

You know, the staples of my diet. The quart jar of hutterite soup beans from our little dry bean test plot is not going to last through the winter.

Hmm...I am looking forward to a serious learning curve.

I'll leave you with that until after Thanksgiving. I'm planning a lovely holiday with the things I am most grateful for. My family and good food.

I hope you all find yourselves doing something equally wonderful.

Friday, November 19, 2010

In Praise of the Beet, and also Brownies

I am a woman who has dedicated her life to growing and eating vegetables. I like them all, but there are a few I love.

Among the loved are eggplants, gold ball turnips, baby spinach, and beets.
I love beets. I love that they poke from the earth like little grey rocks sprouting glossy green and red leaves. I love that they bleed when you cut them. I love the velvety texture they take on when roasted. I love that they taste like sweet garden soil.

So why on earth would I use them up in a recipe that promises to hide their splendor?

I am sure you've seen the recipes I'm referring to. Baked goods in which beets are used for their texture and moisture, instead of their overall grandness. Usually chocolate beet cake or brownies. They are always accompanied by an assurance that the beet will not be tasted in the final product.

I've never made one of these recipes.

This does not mean, however, that I am close minded as to the use of the beet. I recognize the beet's dessert potential. In fact, I'm inspired by it.

A few months back I spent some time contemplating the beet and was struck by how good it would be roasted and drizzled with caramel. I didn't try this, but made a note that I should come up with a recipe for some sort of bar cookie with beets and caramel sauce. The note reminded me of all those chocolate beet cake and brownie recipes I've never made. This led to a desire to create a brownie recipe that actually tastes like beets. Beet brownies.

You may notice that the brownies are not actually brown. I'm still calling them brownies because they do contain some cocoa powder and I find blondie to be a strange name for a food item. If you can't call them brownies, try beet bars.

Brown is what they are not. What they are is luscious. They taste like caramel, fall, richness and, most importantly, beets. The beets rise to the surface in the baking, and create a layer of soft, sweet, rooty goodness. You understand what I mean by rooty, right? I mean all the best parts of creating a new garden bed, somehow compressed into a flavor.

The walnuts and chocolate chips are optional. If you use them, the nuts will rise to the top and become crisp. They are buttery and cut the sweetness nicely, though I don't find the brownies too sweet without them. The chocolate chips sink to the bottom. The chocolate contrasts the deep beet flavor and, being chocolate, is simply yum. If chocolate is what you want, use them, but the brownies will not be lacking without them.

These have lots of butter and eggs, very little flour, and no leavening agents. Had they more chocolate, they would most definitely be described as fudgy.

A beet jewel.

Beet Brownies

The baking time will vary for these brownies. It seems to depend on the moisture content of the beets. The most important thing is not to over bake them. They go from perfect to burnt in a flash. So start checking at 25 minutes and check every five minutes until they are done. The butter that I can get locally is salted so this recipe was created with salted butter. If you are using unsalted I suggest adding 1/4 teaspoon salt when you add the sugar.

Preheat the oven to 350 F

Butter and flour a 9x13 inch pan
  • 1 cup salted butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 - 3 medium beets
  • 1 cup walnut halves (optional)
  • 1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips (optional)

This is how your diced beets should look.

  1. Dice the beets very small. They should be about the size of chocolate chips. I don't peel mine, but you can if you prefer. Do it by hand because a food processor makes the beets too juicy and changes the texture of the brownies. 
  2. Combine the butter, honey, cocoa powder, and cinnamon in a saucepan large enough to contain all of the ingredients. Place it over low heat.
  3. Stir occasionally until the butter has melted and it looks like chocolate sauce.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sugar.
  5. Incorporate the eggs, one at a time.
  6. Add the flour. Stir just until the ingredients are combined.
  7. Fold in the diced beets, and the walnuts and chocolate if using
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared dish and bake at 350 F for 25 (or more - see header) minutes.
  9. The brownies are done when the surface is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out with crumbs stuck to it, rather than wet with batter.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sweet Potatoes Revisited

So, as you can probably tell, I am completely new to this blogging thing. I wrote my first post about a month and a half ago. I've been surprised to find that I have a few readers that are enjoying the blog as much as I am, and I'm excited to see where it goes. Thanks to everyone who has taken an interest and read along with me so far.

Highlights from the 2010 sweet potato harvest.

The above mentioned first post was all about harvesting sweet potatoes from our hoophouse. I wrote it on a whim while I was in bed for a few days with some back pain that has been bothering me on and off since my pregnancy, which is why it has such an engrossing opening. I think the posts have gotten a tiny bit better since then, hopefully they will continue to do so.

Things do tend to get better with time.

My daughter, playing with the giant two pound sweet potato.
It's been in storage two months now. This one's destined to become Thanksgiving pie.
We had our first snow this weekend, hence the snowman jammies.

The sweet potatoes certainly have. They were respectably tasty right after we harvested them in mid September. They had a lot of sweet potato flavor, especially in the skin, and wonderful fresh earthiness, but they were also a tad starchy. We weren't worried about the starchiness though. Starchiness is to be expected in an uncured sweet potato. We ate a lot of them and gave each of our members five pounds (it was a good harvest) with instructions to store them for a while so that their sweetness would develop. We also stored several pounds in our unheated porch. We just started pulling out some of the stored sweet potatoes and popping them in the oven about a week ago and, oh man, they are like little roasted honey pies.

I also included a recipe in that first post, for sweet potato curry. Um, it wasn't really a curry, but it had a simple to make masala and I didn't know what else to call it so I went with curry. Sweet potatoes with warm Indian inspired spices just sounds kind of froofy to my ear.

The recipe improved with time too, and repeated preparation. So I'm sharing it again, with improvements, just in time for Thanksgiving. In our house the sweet potato "curry" is served with brown rice as a main course. But if you take away the rice, add some turkey, cranberry relish, and cornbread stuffing I'm pretty sure you'll have a perfect Thanksgiving side. My, this is a versatile recipe.

Revamped Sweet Potato Curry

I've added some carrots, parsnips, and apples to the dish which has made it crunchier, earthier, and sweeter than the original version. I've also changed the peanut oil to coconut oil, which brings out the nutty flavors of the root vegetables. If you don't have coconut oil, don't let that stop you from making this. Peanut oil (the fat used in the original version) is delicious too.

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 small jalapeño, with or without seeds (to taste) minced
  • 1 thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • masala, recipe below
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes (to total 1.5 pounds), sliced 1/4 inch thick, large rounds halved
  • 2 large carrots (to total 1/2 pound), sliced into rounds about 1/2 as thick as the sweet potatoes
  • 2-3 parsnips (to total 1/2 pound), prepared as the carrots
  • 1-2 apples (to total 1/2 pound), cored and chopped in 1/4 inch pieces
  1. In a large skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the onion, jalapeño, and ginger. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has broken apart and is becoming translucent.
  3. Stir in the masala. Continue to stir until it is very aromatic, about 30 seconds.
  4. Add the sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnips and stir to coat with spices.
  5. Turn the heat down to low, cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are just tender, 20 - 30 minutes.
  6. Stir in the diced apple, cover and cook until the apples are heated through but still firm, about 5 minutes.
To make the masala: 
  • 2 teaspoons whole coriander seed
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole black mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole cardamom seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all of the spices and the salt and grind them with a mortar and pestle or in a spice grinder. The final product does not need to be super fine, just broken up into small enough pieces that it will be pleasant to eat. I like a little texture to my spice, but big pieces can be bitter if you bite into them in the final dish.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Homemade Condiments: Preparation for the Dark Days Ahead

If you are a CSA member, there are a few things that I would like you to know about your farmers.

1. They are busy.
2. They love ugly vegetables, leftovers, and the leavings that get pulled out of the field at season's end.
3. They appreciate you a lot.

A bit of what we shared with our members this season. Thank you
CSA members of the world.

At least those things are true of me and my husband.

I think that most people understand that growing vegetables is a lot of hard labor. It is, of course, labor that we love or we wouldn't be doing it, but it cuts into our time for doing other stuff. Like eating and sleeping. And canning.

Canning is what I am actually getting at here. I make some preserves to sell at the market, but I don't have time to can much to put on my shelves during the growing season. Most of our produce goes to the shares, the market, or our dinner, and most of my energy goes to growing said produce, working my day job (yes, I still have one), and loving our one year old daughter.

So, when fall comes along and other people are sitting back admiring their well stocked pantries, I start to fill mine. The CSA season is over, the fields are getting cleaned out, and I have time to can stuff (and love my daughter) almost to my heart's content.

Cold weather goodies we just cleaned out of the garden: parsley, green tomatoes,
and scallions. I'll assume you knew that we didn't grow the ginger.

This year I am particularly excited to get canning because I am going to be participating in Urban Hennery's Dark Days Challenge, which is a challenge to eat local through the winter months (December 1st through April 15th) when finding food produced in your community can be especially tricky. I want to be able to rely on items that I have prepared ahead of time for some of this challenge.

To that end, I have been making condiments.  Condiments have been my favorite thing to can since I started canning. They allow for creativity in flavor combinations, unlike tomato and apple sauces - which we eat but aren't exciting to make, and we eat them - unlike jams and jelly which sometimes sit on the shelf indefinitely. I make a mean crabapple ketchup that my husband and I love on meatloaf (and hotdogs - it's cool if they're local hotdogs from Vollwerth's, right?) and I have been trying to perfect a chokecherry barbecue sauce that I use on chicken for a few years now, but this year I have been branching out.

From smallest to largest: ginger scallion sauce, green tomato relish, chimichurri.

My green tomato relish recipe is still under construction, so I'm not going to post it right now. I mentioned it simply because I made a whole lot of it (along with salsa verde and pickled tomatillos) so you can expect it to turn up frequently during the coming dark days.

My green tomato relish recipe has been posted and can be found here.

I am going to share my ginger scallion sauce and chimichurri recipes though. They're both pretty easy, especially if you employ a food processor, and they are extremely useful condiments worthy of having on hand. Happily, the main ingredient of each also happened to be lingering in the fields when we cleaned things up for the season and survived my neglect while I dealt with the more perishable items.  I'll start with the simplest one first.

Ginger Scallion Sauce

My brother in law introduced me to ginger scallion sauce earlier this summer. He discovered it via Francis Lam's writings on Salon.com. It only has four ingredients so I haven't changed it much from the way Mr. Lam presented it, but I'm still going share how I do it because that is what the internet is for. I do make it with a lot less oil than Francis Lam's version. I just like it better that way.

When I made the batch pictured above my coat was hanging on a hook in the kitchen near where I combined the oil with the ginger and scallions. It has smelled like a Chinese restaurant ever since. To me this is a seriously good thing.

The coat, not yet ginger scallion scented, out and about on Halloween.
This quantity of ingredients makes about two cups of sauce. It is best with rice, vegetables, eggs and fish.

  • 12 ounces scallions, white and green sections
  • 4 ounces fresh ginger
  • 1/2 cup peanut oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  1. Chop the scallions and ginger very finely, until they have formed a paste. The only practical way to do this is with a food processor.
  2. In the meantime, heat the peanut oil until it is smoking hot.
  3. Transfer the ginger and scallions into a high sided, heat proof pot. The pot must be large enough that the hot oil can safely be added to the vegetables in the pot. Allow for boiling oil and splattering.
  4. Stir the salt into the ginger and scallions.
  5. When the oil is smoking hot, pour it in a steady stream over the vegetables, stirring as you do so. Continue stirring for a moment to incorporate all of the oil.
  6. Cover and store in the refrigerator. 

I just sort of stumbled upon chimichurri. It's origins are in Argentina, someplace I have never been and have no particular connection to. I'm not sure where I first read about it. I do know that when I ran across it I thought the flavor combination sounded heavenly. It is the kind of recipe that everyone makes their own way, so I read as many versions as I could, tried a few out, then combined the best of everything I had found to my liking. Feel free to tweak it as you see fit.

These quantities make a generous quart. It is fine to halve or quarter the recipe. This is great with red meats and sausages or with vegetables. Keep in mind that all of the listed measurements of minced or chopped things are after mincing. I do all of the chopping for this recipe with the food processor.

  • 2 cups finely minced parsley
  • 1/2 cup dried oregano
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, or to taste, minced
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 20 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 4 teaspoons whole cumin, lightly crushed with a rolling pin, mortar and pestle, or something similar
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  1. Combine all of the ingredients.
  2. Stir well to make sure that everything is well mixed.
  3. Cover and refrigerate. This is really best once it has sat for at least 24 hours.
Refrigerated, both of these keep for at least a few months, certainly they keep as long as we can keep from eating them all up.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Too Many Tomatillos?

Just a few of the many.
November may seem an odd month to be buried in tomatillos. Normally November is more likely to see us buried in snow than garden fresh produce. Nevertheless, we've got tomatillos. This state is a testament to the fabulous hoophouse. We in the north do appreciate season extension.

Our hoophouse is a little wonky, we bought it used and discovered (through some serious trial and error on our part) that it is not sturdy enough to withstand the winter wind and snow of Michigan's Upper Peninsula with the plastic on. Whoops. But we put it back together and, as our end of the season harvest proves, it still works just fine, wonky or not.

Here you see hoophouse wonk and happy tomato plants.
A few days ago my wonderful husband performed one of his many annual hoophouse related tasks. He converted it from a tropical oasis growing structure into a temporary chicken and duck housing structure.

Basically that means he picked the last of the fruits, put all the plants into the compost pile, and blocked off the doors so the birds could spend a month in there eating up tasty tidbits (aka cleaning up and fertilizing for us) before the plastic is removed and they are put in their winter home. We are going to try a straw bale house for them this winter.

We love giant compost piles!
That's the west end of the hoophouse off in the distance (in the upper left corner).

The result of all his labor, other than the replenished compost pile, is a kitchen full of solanaceous goodies. When I say full, I mean very full. I mean we are in serious danger of losing the toddler under an avalanche of vegetables full. How will I use everything up?

I have one grocery bag of eggplants. This is an awesome quantity of eggplants considering we live five miles from the shore of Lake Superior. No worries there, I love eggplant and can easily use them up.


I also ended up with a box of red tomato stragglers (to be made into more sauce) and three bags of green tomatoes. I have finally perfected a fried green tomato recipe and will try valiantly to use them up through frying. When I am sick of fried green tomatoes, however unlikely that sounds, I will can the rest. I suppose I can consider it an opportunity to retry the blueberry green tomato relish, albeit without the blueberries. See my post on failed blueberry green tomato relish.

The pepper plants had four remaining banana peppers and one sweet pepper that we missed earlier in the season. Those were eaten and added to pickles almost as soon as they made it inside.

And now I must return to the topic of this post, tomatillos. So many tomatillos. I can't even tell you how many tomatillos because they are spilling out of every bag, box, and spare container that we could find in the kitchen. And we waited all season for these tomatillos. Seriously, we were out in the hoophouse every other day this summer pinching the papery husks, waiting to squeeze the plump yellowish green fruits within.

Tomatillo flowers are pretty,
but we wanted fruit!

A tomatillo husk, no fruit inside.

A few ripened in the hot months, but we had kind of given up on getting a sizable harvest. So it was a surprise when he pulled the plants and there they finally were. I don't know what took them so long, but after all of our anticipation I do not want them to go uneaten. These are good tomatillos. They taste like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and pineapples all wrapped up in one unassuming package. So I have been finding uses.

First I pickled five pounds. Then I made soup. Then I gave away five pounds. I've located a few salsa verde recipes that will be utilized this weekend - hopefully that uses up another ten pounds. My husband has discovered that our daughter can get about ten minutes of entertainment and eating pleasure from one nice big tomatillo. But that leaves us with more. Lots more. And it's fall, which isn't really the time of year I want to eat salsa verde anyway.

What fall is is chili time. Hmm...tomatillo chili.

Here it is, with lentils. My new favorite thing to do with too many tomatillos.

Tomatillo Chili with Lentils and Chicken

Don't be put off by the long ingredient list. The first eight things (over half the list!) are there to build a spicy and earthy base upon which to make your chili. The other seven ingredients are there to make your chili saucy and chunky, just as it should be. It's really a very simple recipe.

Chili spices.
You can grind them in a spice grinder
if you don't have a mortar and pestle.

  • One Tablespoon Butter
  • One Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • One Teaspoon Sea Salt
  • One Teaspoon Coriander
  • Two Teaspoons Cumin
  • Three Cloves Garlic, minced
  • One Medium Onion, roughly chopped
  • Two Jalapeno Peppers, sliced in rounds
  • One Cup Green Lentils
  • Three Cups Chicken Stock
  • Two Carrots, sliced to make about one cup
  • Two Pounds Tomatillos, husked and quartered
  • 1/2 Pound Tomatoes, chopped into one inch pieces
  • Two Cups Roasted Chicken Meat, chopped in 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 Cup Whole Milk

The first eight ingredients well on their way to becoming chili.

  1. Melt butter and oil over medium heat in a large heavy bottomed pot.
  2. Grind the cumin, coriander, and salt together.
  3. When the butter is foaming, add the ground spices and stir for about 30 seconds.
  4. Add the garlic, onion, and jalapeno.
  5. Stir frequently until the onion is just soft and translucent.
  6. Stir in the lentils, making sure they are coated with fat and spices.
  7. Add the carrots and chicken stock.
  8. Cover, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  9. Stir in the tomatillos, tomatoes, and chicken meat. It may look like there isn't quite enough liquid. Don't worry, the tomatillos will release a lot.
  10. Return the pot to a simmer and simmer for an additional 30 minutes, or until the lentils are as tender as you like.
  11. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the milk.
  12. Serve immediately or store and reheat. It is even better after it has sat a day.

We were eating greens too so I used a few as garnish.
The traditional cheese and oyster crackers also work nicely.