Friday, August 28, 2009

Squash with Blossoms Intact & Sweetmeat Platter

This week I've been featuring the various vegetable sides I served with barbecued lamb last Friday night at the urban farm I was care-taking.

Barbara and Morris, whose farm it is, are back from their vacation. Barbara emailed me that she's been enjoying reading the posts about her garden. She was particularly taken with the idea of stuffed squash blossoms - she thought she might try and make them.

If you've been thinking you might like to try your hand at stuffing squash blossoms, and if you're also concerned with the work involved, you may prefer to try the vegetable side I'm featuring today.

Pan-sauteed summer squash, with blossom intact, (pic above) is the fourth and last vegetable side I prepared as an accompaniment to the barbecued lamb. Just as stuffed squash blossoms look pretty on the plate, so too do blossoming baby squash, and sauteing the whole baby squash is much easier and less fiddly than removing the blossom and stuffing it.

Having sung the aesthetic praises of the dish in the pic above, I have to admit I'm not a fan of the taste of yellow squash. I love the flavor of green zucchini, particularly baby zucchini, which is mild and indistinct. Conversely, yellow squash has a distinct flavor; it's not subtle like green zucchini.

Perhaps you feel differently or perhaps you hadn't detected a flavor difference. Regardless, do try impressing your friends or family with this pretty veggie.

Sauteed Squash with Blossoms Intact
1) If you can pick baby squash from your own garden do so, if not, you may be able to find squash with the blossom still intact at a gourmet grocer.
2) Wash squash and gently cut stamen from inside the blossom.
3) Heat a skillet lined with a little oil or butter or ghee. Ghee, or clarified butter, has a nutty flavor that will enrich the flavor of the squash.
4) Toss whole squash into skillet, moving skillet back and forth across the hot plate so squash doesn't burn on one side.
Note: Because lamb was on the menu, I tossed some sprigs of fresh rosemary into the skillet with the squash. Rosemary goes so well with lamb and because squash can be a bit like a sponge, I knew it would take on the flavor of the herb and act as a rosemary-infused veggie pairing to the lamb.
Once squash are lightly browned, turn hot plate to low, put lid on skillet, and allow squash to cook just a few more minutes. Don't overcook the baby squash, they only need a few minutes on the stove and can be served crisp and crunchy.

To Serve: Arrange squash decoratively on a serving platter, adding a few sprigs of rosemary. You might like to serve a small dipping bowl of melted ghee or clarified butter. Dipping the squash into the butter and then eating them with one's fingers is a real treat!

And for dessert, I decided a help-yourself platter of sweetmeats would suffice since lamb is heavy as are root vegetables.

Also, the vegetable sides served with dinner were sweet and earthy so I thought a platter with Barbara's wild strawberries, and the crisp tartness of Braeburn apples would follow well the main meal.

The addition of dried dates and almonds gives the platter a Middle Eastern feel (lamb with dates and almonds is particular to the Middle East). And at the same time, with the absence of soft summer fruits, the platter is very autumnal which also compliments the main meal of fall, root vegetables.

To enrich the platter, I added pieces of Chocolove Chocolate. And that caramel-colored chunk next to the chocolate is Gjetost cheese, a Norwegian goat cheese that's caramel-like with the distinct pungency of goat's milk. It's absolutely delicious with dried fruits, nuts, and crunchy fresh fruits like apple.

And so this is the end of my postings on meals made from Barbara and Morris' urban farm garden. Read back over the past two weeks of posts if you wish to revisit the farm, the photos, the stories, and the sides I made from the fabulous array of fresh-picked summer and fall vegetables.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kumquat Beets & Buttered Carrots

When I picked the vegetables for the dinner I'm featuring this week, I have to say it was a far more pleasant experience doing so in the tranquility of Barbara's garden rather than at the grocery store.

What a pity that most of us rely on store-bought food over growing our own. However, such is life for people like me who don't have a plot of earth to tend. One day though ...

The beauty of having goats, chickens, and a compost area is that very little went to waste on the farm. I often wish there were something I could do with the tops of carrots, other than chopping them off and tossing them. While at the farm, I fed them to the goats, along with other vegetable trimmings (excluding allium; goats don't do well eating members of the onion family).

The brown or inedible beet leaves, I either tossed out to the free-range chickens or fed to the goats, and the beet leaves that were in good order, I washed, drained, and stored in the fridge. Beet greens are delicious braised in a little oil or butter. Such is the beauty of beets; you can eat both the red bulb and the green leaves.

Barbara's carrots were about 2 -3 inches long. Some were a bit gnarly. Noting the natural imperfection of the carrots' shape, I was reminded of my culinary training days and the tedious hours we spent learning how to shape or turn vegetables.

Because they're dense, root vegetables lend themselves well to the art of reshaping, which is done with a small paring knife.

Traditionally, the vegetable is carved into small oblong shapes, which is the intention of turning -- creating a perfect, symmetrical shape from an otherwise gnarly, misshaped carrot, potato, beet, turnip etc.

The vegetable shavings cut away in the process of creating the oblong shape, were, in my class, never wasted but used to make stock.

Turning was my least favorite lesson. I couldn't help but wonder "why?" "what for?" despite the fact that once cooked and on the plate, I could see that a turned veggie had eye-appeal. In other words, it looks really pretty.

Probably I questioned turning because I wasn't very good at it. Much to my chagrin, there was a woman in my class who was. In fact, she was an artist at turning vegetables and she was apprenticed to a chef at one of Melbourne's top restaurants where she created masterpieces out of gnarled vegetables. I can't believe I was jealous of her talent, but I was.

As you can see from the picture above, I simply cut the carrots I harvested from the garden into chunks. There is not one turned carrot in that dish. In fact if you look closely, you'll see that all the gnarly little bits are still intact.

Buttered Carrots
1) Place carrot chunks in pot of water. Bring to boil. Boil rapidly for about 5 mins. or until carrot is slightly soft on the outside, but still crisp to bite, rather than soft and mushy all the way through.
Root veggies are placed in cold water and brought to the boil, whereas green veggies are plunged into rapidly boiling water.
2) Drain carrots, return to pot, and return pot to a warm hot plate. Toss in a chunk of butter and a handful of chopped parsley. Spoon carrots into a serving bowl as in the picture above.
Note: Here's an easy way to chop parsley: shove a washed and dried handful into a coffee mug, and using kitchen scissors, chop the parsley in the mug.

Kumquat Beets
1) Wash and scrub a couple of beet bulbs, trimming the beets of hairy tentacles. Leave skin on.
2) Toss into a pot and cover with water.
3) Boil gently for about 20 mins.
4) Drain and cool; once cool, peel beets by slipping the tip of a paring knife under the skin and peeling the skin back.
5) Slice peeled beets into quarters.

Toss beet quarters back into a pot, return pot to stove and medium heat. Add a glob of kumquat marmalade, or your favorite orange marmalade. Gently stir with wooden spoon till marmalade has melted and coated the beet pieces. Warm the beets through; though be careful not to burn the marmalade.
7) Wash and chop a handful of fresh chives. Spoon beets into a serving bowl, sprinkle chives over beets, decorate with a sprig of green.

There are all sorts of delicious marmalade combination available now: orange/ginger, orange/lemon, plain orange, kumquat/orange, etc. etc. Any of these would work well with beets since it's the citrus bite of the orange, lemon or kumquat that pairs so well with the sweet earthiness of the beets.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Caramelized Shallots

As I mentioned yesterday, root vegetables are ready for harvest now, that is, late summer into early fall.

Unlike the delicate flavor of above ground mid-summer salad vegetables like lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and corn, vegetables that grow under ground are typically denser in texture with an almost earthy flavor.

The earthiness of root veggies means they're great flavor pals to the stronger, sometimes slightly gamey flavor of meats like beef, pork, and lamb.

And as the weather transitions from hot summer days and our inclination to eat cooling, water-dense salads to much cooler early-fall evenings, the warming quality of earthy root vegetables at dinner are a natural.

Hence my reason for picking onion, beets, carrots and squash (though it's an above ground veggie) from Barbara's garden to go with lamb we barbecued last Friday for dinner.

Now, to tell you the truth, the onion I picked and caramelized isn't really a shallot, rather it's a sweet red onion. You can see it in the pic above. It has a reddish-purplish bulb with purplish-green stalk.

I cut away the stalk and peeled away the tougher outer skin to reveal the sweet inner bulb. Often there will be two or three bulbs inside the outer skin. The pic to the left shows clearly the white inner bulbs, and they do look a little like a shallot.

Sweet red onion is already sweet, though it is still pungent. Once caramelized, the pungency diminishes and the sweetness is enhanced, but the onion is still aromatic and slightly crisp.

I love caramelized onion (caramelized anything, actually) I have a wicked sweet tooth so whenever I cook steak or lamb, I love to saute sliced brown onion in butter and toss is a spoonful of brown sugar, which is the basic method for creating the side dish I'm featuring today.

Caramelized Shallots
1) Use either shallots or the sweet red onion I mention above. Peel outer skin to reveal the inner bulb.
2) Pop bulbs into a small pot with a chunk of butter.
3) Put pot on a stove and turn heat to med.
4) Allow butter to melt and coat onion bulbs. Turn heat to low, the onion will gently cook in the butter.
5) At around the 10 min mark, or as the bulbs are softening, add a tablespoon of brown sugar to the pot (about 1 tablespoon of sugar to 1 tablespoon of butter). Stir with a wooden spoon to blend sugar into butter and onion juices.
6) Make sure heat is on low; cook maybe another 5 - 7 mins. You don't want the heat much above low otherwise you'll run the risk of the butter and sugar burning.
7) Pour into a serving a bowl and I think if you do a taste test, you'll find that caramelized shallots don't need seasoning, however, season if you wish.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Garden Fresh Root Veggies with Lamb

When I signed off last week, I mentioned I was about to prepare another delicious feast from Barbara's garden to accompany Australian lamb, which my friend, Catherine (above), offered to contribute to the meal.

Friday was my second to last evening at the urban farm, which means this week I'm writing at a distance, using the photos taken mostly by Julie (in orange top below) as a reminder of the wonderful, late-summer week spent in this verdant oasis just east of the city of Boulder in Colorado.

Prior to dinner, I and my three friends pottered around the property, admiring the garden, playing with the dogs, feeding the goats and collecting the day's eggs from the chicken coop. The 23 chickens laid about 18 eggs a day, most of which I boxed up for Barbara's customers, though there was always some left over for personal consumption.

For last Friday night's meal, there were no eggs involved. And because we were having lamb, I decided to serve root vegetables, plus squash, using herbs again to add flavor to each side dish

I chose root vegetables to go with the lamb in part because it's nearing the end of summer and thus these vegetables are ripe for picking in Barbara's garden, and because they're a great accompaniment to lamb.

The earthy flavors of root veggies compliment the slightly gamey flavor of lamb.

The lamb chops Catherine bought along for our dinner were very thick. Without the time to marinade them, I simply plunged the tip of a knife into the center of each chop and shoving a sliver of garlic and a spring of rosemary into each, and then I seasoned and drizzled them with a little olive oil.

I had Cindy (in blue skirt above), who is more adept than I at lighting a gas barbie, put the chops onto a medium flame until they browned, at which point she turned the flame to low.

At around the 15 min mark, she turned the flame off completely. We left the chops there for another 15 mins or so, gently cooking until they were medium done or pinkish on the inside.

Meanwhile, I finished cooking the vegetable sides:
  1. caramelized shallots
  2. boiled beets tossed in kumquat marmalade and chopped chives
  3. buttered baby carrots with parsley, and
  4. pan-fried baby squash with blossoms intact.
Check back each day this week for simple, method-recipes detailing my approach to cooking each of these sides and for more stories about my week on Barbara's urban farm.

Toward the end of this week, I'll feature a gorgeous photo Julie took of the dessert platter I prepared for the girls, and which we ate sitting around a blazing camp-style fire lit to keep the wretched mozzies at bay.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Stuffed Squash Blossoms, Strawbs with Rose Petals

I had an impromptu visitor at the farm this morning.

My friend, Cindy (wearing glasses at last Sunday's dinner) lives a couple miles west, toward Boulder. She rode her bike over at around 8 a.m.

Having just come up from feeding the goats and letting the chickens out of their coop, I put on the kettle for tea, fried some eggs, and made hot oatmeal. We ate breakfast outside, and what a yummy brekkie it was!

I tossed sunflower seeds into the oatmeal and the last of some cherry jam that a French friend gave me this summer. Dominique's mother in Marseilles made it with cherries from her orchard. She left the cherries whole, which I loved, because it contributed to the jam being one of the richest, chewiest cherry jams I've had.

I served Cindy the eggs with a side of oatmeal. I passed on eggs and had a bowl of oatmeal with the fixings I mention above, topped off with a sprinkling of whole almonds, a drizzle of honey, and a good glug of half and half.

The chickens scratched about at our feet, and as we stepped away to wander down to the veggie garden, I looked back toward the table and caught sight of two cheeky chooks on the table feeding on our leftovers.

I wonder about chickens eating scraps of fried egg -- do you think they have a clue they're eating something that given the right circumstances, would have been their progeny?

As I mentioned yesterday, there's one remaining vegetable dish that I made for last Sunday's dinner, but before I get the stuffed squash blossoms (pic below), I have to share a little back story:

A number of years ago, my sister in Australia called me in a panic. She was having friends over to dinner and she wanted to make a dish that was all the rage in Melbourne then, it was stuffed squash blossoms.

My sister went to fashion design school and she's worked in fashion ever since. Where I learned to cook watching my mother in the kitchen, my sister learned to sew and design watching my mother in the sewing room.

When we lived together in Melbourne, her culinary skill consisted of toasted cheese sandwiches and instant coffee. Needless to say, Melinda would call wherever I happened to be in the world, not with queries along lines of "how are you?" but along lines of "Oh, god, people coming to dinner, tell me, quick, how do you cook thus and such?!"

Having lived many years in Colorado when she called with her stuffed-blossom query, I made something up to satiate her need to know because I'd never heard of this newly in-vogue dish.

When I pottered around Barbara's garden last weekend, and saw the beautiful yellow-green squash blossoms flowering at the end of young green squash, I decided to put into practice the made-up instructions I'd given Melinda.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
1) If you have access to a vegetable garden, that's probably the most likely place you'll find squash blossoms. Pick the young squash with open blossom attached.
2) In the kitchen, gently remove the blossom from the squash, and then just as gently cut the stamen out from inside the blossom.
3) Wash blossom of dirt and little bugs (you can of course leave the bugs in the blossom; they'll add to the mineral and protein content of this dish). Set blossoms aside.

4) Wash and grate the baby squash into a bowl. Take a handful at a time of grated squash, and squeeze it over the kitchen sink. Remove as much of the water from the squash as you can. Return grated squash to bowl.
5) To the bowl add rice or cooked polenta or bread crumbs to create a mix that's half grain and half squash.
6) Add one or two eggs to the mix, stirring gently so the stuffing binds together. If mixture is sloppy, add more grain / breadcrumbs.
7) You might also like to add your choice of grated cheese, i.e. Parmesan. I also added some chopped, lemon basil. You could substitute that for regular basil or parsley.
8) Take a small teaspoon of stuffing and place it into the center of each blossom.
9) As you stuff each blossom, curl the end close, and place it on a baking tray, drizzle with a little olive oil.
10) Place baking tray of stuffed blossoms into heated 350-degree oven for about 10-15 mins. Keep and eye on the blossoms, you don't want then to overcook and brown, but you do want the stuffing to set.

To Serve: Decorate a serving platter with nasturtium leaves and nasturtium flowers -- both of which are edible, in fact their slightly peppery, slightly bitter flavor adds a piquancy to the delicate flavor of the stuffed blossoms. Using a spatula, gently arrange the hot, stuffed blossoms in the center of the platter.

The picture to the left is a mixed plate of all the side dishes I've mentioned this week. As you can see, it's a rainbow of color, a variegation of fresh and cooked vegetables collected from Barbara's garden.

To complete the meal, I made up individual dessert plates (pic below) featuring Barbara's strawberries, which have the flavor of wild, French woodland strawberries: sweet, yet delicate and slightly earthy.

To the dessert plate, I added a blob of yogurt drizzled with honey, and a white chocolate almond wafer topped with sliced Colorado peaches. (Yes, I went out and bought these ingredients!)

For a fun little flourish, I cut two, tiny red-rose buds from the garden. Removing the velvety petals, I placed the inner, most delicate petals on the plate for effect. Though of course, rose petals are edible too.

The dinner last Sunday was such a success the friends who came (above pic) asked for a repeat. So tonight, Friday, Catherine (on the right in the blue shirt) is bringing Australian lamb, and I think I'll barbecue it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Skillet Egg Souffle, Cucumbers in Dill & Vinegar & More

I haven't worn gumboots in years.

But at dawn hour this morning the grass on the urban farm was saturated with dew, to the degree that I lamented not having a pair to pull on.

Never mind, my tennis shoes did the trick, though they're saturated now. As is the seat of my yoga pants since I sat on the damp ground in the vegetable patch and plucked strawberries from their stems and ate them slightly dirty, wondering if I'd ever had a farm to mouth breakfast so sweet and luscious.

Rocky the rooster seemed, for once, happy to have me around; you see, coming upon a rotten strawberry, I'd toss it beyond the veggie garden fence, only to hear his clucks and crows of approval immediately thereafter.

Apparently the way to a nasty rooster's steely heart, is bruised and mushy, bird-pecked strawberries.

In addition to the two vegetable sides I posted yesterday, the Sunday meal I prepared included the three dishes pictured to the left and below.

Barbara grows amazing curly cucumbers that look like English cucumbers only they're curled, not straight. They grow on a vine, which Barbara has harnessed to a free-standing fence so that the vine grows vertical.

The green-skinned cucumbers get lost in the green leaves, and one must really fossick to find the treasure within the vine. I picked one large cucumber and two small sweet green peppers for this dish:

Cucumber with Sweet Green Pepper & Dill
1) Wash and slice cucumber into slim chunks. Toss into a bowl and douse with rice-wine vinegar.
2) Wash and slice one or two sweet green peppers. Toss into bowl with cucumbers.
3) Wash a handful of dill, dry on paper or linen towel. Chop well and toss over cucumber and peppers, stir with wooden spoon, mixing well.
4) Set aside for about an hour, allowing the vinegar to mingle with the veggies.

As I mentioned yesterday, I tend not to refrigerate salad-type sides if I'm preparing them for service within the hour or two. The reason: fresh-from-the-garden fare is full of flavor, crispness and vibrant energy that is lost by cooling below room temperature.

However, if you're cooking in an extremely hot kitchen, which would cause vegetables and salad ingredients to wilt, then obviously you'll need to refrigerate your dishes before serving.

Green Beans in Pesto
1) Wash, and either top and tail a handful of string beans per person, or don't top and tail. I chose not to top and tail the beans I picked from Barbara's garden because they were small and delicate and so were the tops and tails -- in other words, the whole bean was edible.
2) Toss beans into boiling water for a minute. A very quick boil is also know as "blanching." Cooking fresh-picked beans this way maintains the crispness, the color and the flavor.
3) Strain beans and run them under very cold tap water to cool.
4) Toss into a bowl and coat with fresh pesto. Set aside.

Skillet Egg Souffle with Chives
1) Separate 6 eggs.
2) Beat yolks till stiff; fold in a handful of chopped chives.
3) Whip egg whites till stiff, fold egg yolk mix into whites.
4) Pour into an oiled skilled.
5) Cook in 350 degree oven till set, about 10 mins or so.

Note: I used eggs I'd collected from the chicken coop that day. Because the eggs were fresh, free-range and thus flavorful and full of color, I decided to add the delicate flavor of chives and nothing else (though I did salt my portion of egg souffle at dinner.)

Without fancy additions to your eggs, one way to create an elegant omelet (that's how I think of the above dish) or skillet souffle is to separate yolk and whites, beat them separately, and then fold the two together.

Aerating the whites and yolks is a souffle technique, and then folding the two together and baking the egg mix in a skillet is an easy way to create the 'puffed up' effect of a souffle without the hassle of cooking a real souffle.

Tomorrow, I'll feature one more dish I made for the Sunday dinner, stuffed squash blossoms, plus a simple but delicious dessert showcasing those strawberries I mention above.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Garlic Eggplant & Marinated Artichoke Hearts

Yesterday I introduced you to the marvelous adventure I'm having this week: care-taking an urban farm east of Boulder, Colorado.

That's me at left, standing by the fresh-cut Dahlias on the table, extensive vegetable garden in the background, and though you can't see them, the foothills to the Rockies beyond the trees lining the property.

This morning when I wandered down to let the chickens out of their coop, the early morning mist clouded the spectacular westerly view of the foothills. At 6.30 a.m. the air is crisp and damp out here, already heavy with the scent of fall.

The two goats, Jupiter and Mercury (left) like to stand on the east side of their barn in the morning. They're both neutered, arthritic males and I'm sure the warmth of the rising sun soothes their rickety joints

Next to the goat's paddock is Barbara's tomato enclosure. She's growing several types of tomatoes and thus she has her vines numbered to indicate the varietals.

On Sunday afternoon, I noticed one ripe Romano and a few ripe cherry tomatoes which I picked to line the dish of marinated artichokes hearts pictured below.

In the hot house, to the right of the tomato enclosure, are rows of ripening peppers, melons and eggplant. I picked two green bell peppers and two eggplants for the garden dinner I made Sunday.

In all, I prepared 5 vegetable sides for the dinner I mention above and today, I'm going to share method recipes for two of those dishes:

Garlic Eggplant
1) Trim the ends of two medium-sized eggplants.
2) Pour about a 1/4 cup olive oil into a skillet, turn heat to med. Toss in two smashed and chopped garlic cloves.
3) Turn heat to med - low, watching skillet to ensure garlic doesn't burn. The idea is to infuse the warming oil with the flavor of garlic.
4) As garlic begins to dry and brown, remove it from the pan.
5) Turn hot plate to high, toss in sliced eggplant -- it will quickly soak up the oil. Stir eggplant about with a wooden spoon, browning pieces evenly.
6) Turn hot plate to med, and continue stirring eggplant so that it doesn't burn. Cook for about 10 mins.

To Serve:
Slide cooked eggplant onto a plate, drizzle with roasted Tahini and the juice of half a lemon. Sprinkle the edge of the plate with chopped parsley. Serve either hot or warm. I wouldn't refrigerate it; it will loose its flavor served cold from the fridge.

Marinated Artichoke Hearts
1) Trim the outer woody leaves and stem from 4 globe artichokes.
2) Boil a pot of water, placing artichokes into pot so that they're submerged. Add half of a lemon, skin and all.
3) Allow artichokes to gently boil for about 20 mins.
4) Drain. Cool artichokes in a colander.
5) Once they're cool enough to handle, remove more of the outer leaves, scraping the succulent flesh from the bottom of the leaves into a bowl.
6) As you near the heart of the artichoke, the tips of the leaves are quite spiky, trim the spikes from the tips and from the base trim the fuzzy hair.
7) The heart of the choke contains very delicate leaves, which also need to be trimmed top and bottom. The base is also covered in fuzzy hair --scrape the fuzzy hair off the choke base. Yes this is a very fiddly process, but boy, it's worth it!
8) Toss the base of the choke and trimmed leaves into the bowl with the scrapings. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, enough to coat the contents of the bowl.
9) You may like to season with ground Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. I didn't season any of the vegetables from the garden; they didn't need it!

To Serve: Onto a plate place halved cherry tomatoes, drizzle with olive oil, decorate with basil leaves, and into the center of the plate, put the bowl of marinated artichoke hearts. Serve at room temperature. Again, I wouldn't refrigerate before serving, as freshly cooked, delicately flavored food looses flavor served cold from the fridge.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Farm to Table For Real

This week I've taken on a big job. I'm care-taking an urban farm east of Boulder.

When the opportunity was presented to me, I was well aware of the work involved, but I decided to step out of my comfort zone and
give it a go!

I say "comfort zone" because even though I grew up in rural Australia, we didn't have a rooster or chickens, or goats. Though we had a huge garden, only a small portion was dedicated to fruit and nut trees, fruit vines, and herbs.

And our veggie patch came later, after I'd left home, and then it was probably a tenth the size of the veggie garden I'm looking after this week.

So the wide-open space of the property is familiar, as is the care of 3 dogs, 2 cats, 2 fish, and the extensive watering of the flower and veggie gardens.

But feeding the 2 goats, the 24 free- range chickens, and twice daily collecting their eggs, while keeping a vigilant eye out for nasty Rocky, the aggressive rooster, is all kinda new and different, and lots of fun.

Barbara, who owns the farm with her husband Morris, is an incredibly skilled and talented gardener. She supplies vegetables and strawberries to one local restaurant in Boulder, and she has regular customers who come by daily to pick and purchase vegetables as well as her chicken eggs.

When I came out to see the farm for the first time, I knew I'd be in my element fossicking in the vegetable garden for cucumbers, runner beans, chard, curly kale, tomatoes, broccoli, artichokes, eggplant, peppers, basil, parsley, squash and more, then creating spontaneous meals from what I'd picked.

What I discovered for real is that there is something profoundly satisfying about collecting one's food from the source, walking a few yards to the kitchen, and transforming that food into a meal bursting with flavor, and vibrating with energy.

In fact, so profoundly satisfying, the regular order of my life this week is beginning to fade in favor of the daily rhythm and routine of farm life. With the result: I've been asking myself, "How did I become so disconnected from the land?" Well, I know how, but that's another story.

I have a number of friends who've dug up their backyards this year and grown very impressive flower and vegetable gardens. It's the trend, a backlash even to the rising price of grocery-store and farmer's-market produce, and the slump in the economy.

And as I'm discovering, it's also personally rewarding, a great perspective enhancer and natural stress reliever, plus you can't beat the savings and the flavor of growing your own!

Within 24-hours of assuming my care-taker role, I'd spent an afternoon foraging in the vegetable garden, picking a basket of food for that evening. There were no deliberations over what to prepare for dinner, no trips to the grocery store for ingredients, nor did I need to refer to a recipe book (which I tend not to do anyway).

I simply made a number of dishes with what I'd picked, ensuring that the flavors of the vegetables were enhanced by using a spattering of herbs and minimal seasoning.

This week, I'll post pictures and method recipes for the various dishes I made and which I spontaneously shared with the friends I mention above, who, as I said, have their own flower and veggie gardens -- though each was nevertheless blown away at the beauty of Barbara's extraordinary garden.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Memories of our Mothers in the Kitchen

Some of you may have read Michael Pollan's New York Times article, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch. It's both entertaining and informative and most definitely worth the read.

When Pollan recalls how his mother's cooking was inspired by watching Julia Child on TV, I recalled how I was inspired watching my mother cook.

In rural Australia, we didn't have TV until I was 8-years old and then I don't recall Julia Child's, The French Chef or for that matter, any other cooking show streaming into our living room once the TV did arrive.

I do recall my mother driving the 4-hour round trip to Melbourne, a big city, but by no means a huge city back in the 60's and 70's, to take various cooking classes, and this, despite the fact that she had gone to Emily McPherson's School for Girls where she had majored in home economics and fashion design.

Nevertheless, she took her above-average skill in the kitchen and improved upon it with Italian, French, and eventually Cantonese cooking classes with the Australian-Chinese chef Elizabeth Chong.

Never mind our favorites: Robert Carrier's Italian Lamb Stew and perfectly light, balloon-like cheese souffle and that French delight Cherry Clafoutis, my mother set them aside in favor of her wok.

For my father's 55th birthday, my mother invited 50-plus guests. The night of the party, I recall her--dressed in plunging black evening culottes and dare I say, a cigarette between her fingers--flipping perfectly diced, chopped and cubed food in and out of two woks with extraordinary ease and dexterity while guests gathered about to watch.

She was a show-woman in the kitchen, and Cantonese cooking was the perfect stage.

After the success of my father's birthday-party Cantonese banquet, word spread and local women came clamoring, asking that my mother teach them about the mysteries of Cantonese food and cooking.

Thereafter, I recall coming home from school mid-week to a kitchen full of excited women, standing around watching my mother, holding fort, doing her thing with a Chinese chopper and her woks.

She never quite gave up her love of Cantonese cooking, but when she and my father went to Europe and then Scandinavia in the 70's, her fascination with traditional Swedish breakfast fare usurped for a time, her wok obsession.

I can't say I minded; heading off to school on a belly full of rye flat bread stacked with cheese, ham and jam was far more interesting than Rice Bubbles and milk.

And then of course in the late 70's there was the Greek Period, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. That was inspired by Helen, the South African, Greek exchange student who came to live with us.

My mother's folder of Cantonese recipes and all her recipe books with their notes in the margins have been passed to me from my sister who collected them from my mother's kitchen when she died.

I haven't looked at the books or her notes, because I don't tend to use recipes. And besides, I have a storehouse of vivid memories detailing what and how she cooked because I followed her about, learning by watching and listening, and by being given chores to do to help her create her extraordinary range of gourmet masterpieces, and the simple family meals we ate most evenings.

Perhaps this is why I have little interest in watching the Food Network; nothing can replace the gift of having stood by as a young kid, teenager and young adult, watching the real thing in action: my mother navigate our kitchen with the skill and dazzle of a celebrity chef.

There's a generation of women out there, who like me, have mothers who are the great unsung Julia Child's of the post-war era. Mother's who had natural talent in the kitchen because they learned it from their mothers who learned it from their mothers.

Then somewhere along the way, that skill wasn't passed down any longer. The hectic pace of life got in the way. Women went out of the house to work and lost the time needed to teach their daughters and their sons how to shop for groceries, and then once home, how to prepare those groceries with love and joy.

Yet, as Pollan says in his article, "cooking matters - a lot."

And if Americans are going to undo the damage inflicted by consuming industrially prepared food, then the plan is simple: "Cook it yourself."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Brunch from Saturday-night Leftovers

So what do you with your leftovers?

Do you shove them in the fridge and forget about them, eventually tossing them in the garbage? Or the following day, do you get creative and make a whole new meal from your leftovers?

I had brunch at a friend's last Sunday and she unabashedly served her leftovers from the evening before, jazzed up with freshly picked veggies and herbs from her garden.

On Saturday night she'd grilled herself salmon, boiled pasta and corn, whizzed up some basil-walnut pesto, sauteed some green beans from her veggie garden, and had enough to feed herself plus some.

Hence her offer that I, and one other friend, join her for brunch on Sunday. And without much effort, that brunch turned into a fresh feast on the patio.

That's the beauty of leftovers: it takes much less effort to create a whole new meal simply by adding a couple fresh ingredients, a pretty garnish, and hungry, appreciative friends :)

Here's what she did to create the leftover dishes pictured:

Brunch from Saturday-night Leftovers
1) Toss cooked rigatoni into a bowl.
2) Scrape cooked corn from cob with a knife. Add kernels to pasta.
3) Warm leftover garlic sauteed beans in a pan, add to pasta.
4) Add marinated dried tomato pieces.
5) Saute a fresh squash in a little butter, add it warm to the above ingredients.
6) Stir basil-walnut pesto through pasta and veggies.
7) If pasta looks a little dry, drizzle with some extra olive oil

To Serve: Either serve pasta and veggies in individual bowls, and leftover salmon on a serving platter, or portion leftover salmon onto plates with pasta and veggies. Decorate with fresh basil leaves. You might also like to serve a side dish of meaty green and black olives, and or a plate of crusty bread and cheese.

We followed our delicious leftover meal with fruit: blueberries and sliced granny smith apples doused in fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The tart GS apples and lemon juice, paired with the sweet blueberries were excellent palate cleansers, as was the slightly sweetened, Darjeeling iced tea we had with our fruit dessert.

All so simple and delicious: Leftovers, they're the new gourmet!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Making the Most of Bad Fruit

A recent Market to Mouth guest, Cindy Lawrence (pic to left), read my last post on waste and responded with the following:

"What if you buy bad fruit and don't know it till you get home? The dilemma I have is do I drive back to the store or just put it in the fridge. If I put it in the fridge it inevitably goes really bad and then I throw it out, at which point I feel guilty for having thrown it out!"

When I've purchased fruit that looks perfectly fine, but once home have bitten into the apple, pear, peach etc. only to discover that its floury or even brown at the core, I'm often furious.

My intention to take the fruit back with the receipt is often set aside due to the time involved and so I do end up tossing it the trash.

However, I'm aware I have options:
  1. Cut the bad fruit into pieces, discard any really bad bits, and poach the remainder until tender (about 10 mins). Poached fruit is delicious with oatmeal & yogurt for breakfast or as a snack, or served with roasted meats like chicken, turkey, ham, pork.
  2. Poached or stewed fruit can be made into pies, strudel, fruit butters, muffins
  3. If you've purchased a pound of bad fruit, consider making chutney. Apples, pears, peaches, nectarines etc, make fabulous fruit chutney.
  4. Compost bad fruit. Very simple!
  5. If none of the above dissipate the annoyance at having purchased bad fruit, hot foot it back to the store with your receipt. On the occasions I've made the effort, there's never been an issue, and I've been able to replace what I've purchased, and sometimes I've received a credit for the bad fruit.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Avoid Wasting Food & Save Dollars

Are you on a budget and do you waste food?

I came across a blog site yesterday, one that I want to draw your attention to because
Wasted Food is the elephant in the room when people talk about struggling to eat well for less during these challenging economic times.

Consider honestly:
  • Do you store leftovers, forget they're in the fridge, and then end up throwing them out?
  • Do you forget produce in your crisper and subsequently trash it because it's moldy, rotten, shriveled?
  • Do you end up tossing soured milk, moldy yogurt, smelly deli-meats, because their use-by dates have expired?
  • Do you freeze food and forget it's there until it's unidentifiable & inedible due to freezer burn?
  • Do you put too much food on your plate at meal times and end up tossing out what you can't eat?
  • When you eat out, do you leave food on your plate? Or do you take home a doggy bag of leftovers, forget you put it in the fridge, then eventually toss it out?
You can probably think up another half-dozen scenarios in which you've wasted food, not intentionally, of course, because chances are you wouldn't intentionally waste anything if it had a one dollar, five dollar, ten dollar, fifty-dollar note attached to it.

But that's the reality of wasting food -- every time you toss out those rotten veggies, that half tub of moldy yogurt and that soured milk, the stinky deli-meat, you're tossing away a percentage of whatever you paid to purchase it.

And then, are you concerned about:
  • your recession-hit income
  • the rising price of groceries
  • how much it's costing to feed just you, or you and a partner, or you and your family?
If you answered yes to the above, chances are you're on a grocery budget. If you're also aware that you waste food, put simply, stop throwing the money you budget for groceries into the trash.

But how, you ask. How can you avoid wasting food?

Seriously, if we were in a depression, like the great depression of the 30's, when jobs, money and food were scare for many, then you'd naturally not waste. It's as easy as that.

Despite the current economy, citizens of developed countries still live with abundance, and abundance is a "catch 22" because it gives a false sense of there always being enough.

Okay, so let's say you do have enough, enough money to buy basic groceries, and enough groceries available to you so that there's choice. Regardless of having enough, you're still feeling the need to reduce your expenditure at the grocery store, plus you're aware that one of the ways you can do that is by reducing your waste at home. If this is you, try these simple tricks:
  1. Buy only what you need. I can't stress this enough! It's tempting to buy more, but if you don't need it, won't eat it, then chances are you'll toss it out.
  2. Clean you fridge weekly. If your fridge is uncluttered, you'll easily be able to see the fresh groceries you add each week.
  3. Put a list on the outside of your fridge detailing what's on the inside. As you consume what's in your fridge, cross it off the list. This will help you track your perishables, food that generally needs to be consumed within a week of being purchased.
  4. Do the same regarding the contents of your freezer.
  5. Don't cook too much, i.e. don't cook for the masses if there are just two of you.
  6. Don't overload your plate at mealtimes. Serve yourself just enough, and then eat what's on your plate.
  7. If you do have leftovers (either you've cooked too much food or you put too much on your plate), be disciplined about cooking up leftovers with fresher ingredients the following day.
  8. Leftovers can also be feed to the family pets (instead of dry or tinned food), or you could compost your degradable leftovers -- if you have a composting bin and a garden.
"Americans waste an astounding amount of food — an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption." This quote comes from the NYTs article: One Country's Table Scraps another Country's Meal. It's worth reading.

So if you're on a budget, and you're aware you waste food, try the 8 tips above. A few simple changes could save you a surprising amount of money.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tips to Help you Prepare to Grocery Shop

Boulder native Wayne Yee, read posts on this blog, watched the Market to Mouth pilot then asked me if I'd go with him to Whole Foods so he could get acquainted with their deals.

Working from home, Wayne is around when his 11- and 13-year old kids get home from school and with his flexible schedule, he's also taken on some of the household duties, like the grocery shopping.

He also shared that his interest in cooking has been reignited. Apparently the family had a subscription to Cooking Light and had canceled it, but it kept arriving in the mail, so Wayne took that as an omen.

The Yee family lives just down the road from Safeway where Wayne does most of the grocery shopping because, he says, it's convenient. Periodically he takes a trip to Costco to stock up because it's cheap. "It's all about convenience and price," he said.

I responded that he's not alone in his thinking.

When we met at Whole Foods, I picked up The Good Stuff For Less flier, and The Whole Deal which is full of coupons, menu plans, shopping lists and tips, thinking Wayne would find the information helpful, but he'd already accessed both fliers online.

In fact, he'd gone to Whole Foods and Safeway's websites and done a cost comparison.

Whole Foods now has a Compare and Save flier online too. It gives shoppers the chance to review the value they're getting on certain items compared to Safeway, King Soopers and Costco.

I'm an avid online researcher and I highly recommend taking the time to go online before you do your grocery shopping as a way to prepare.

In addition to online research, consider these 6 tips before you head off to the store:
  1. Look in your fridge and cupboards, what do you already have and what do you need?
  2. Now think about the upcoming week, how many meals will you be eating at home? How many meals do you anticipate eating out? Are you having friends over for a meal during the upcoming week?
  3. Go online and check out WFs sale items in Good Stuff For Less and discount coupons in The Whole Deal. Jot down sale items that you'd like to include in your weekly menu plan.
  4. With 1, 2 & 3 in mind, jot down the main meals you'd like to prepare for the upcoming week. Check out WFs The Whole Deal for menu-planning ideas for singles, couples and families, and browse their recipes for ideas or peruse your favorite recipe books.
  5. Don't be bound by your recipe books. Use them as inspiration, but allow yourself the opportunity to be creative while also considering your budget.
  6. With all of the above in mind, write your shopping list for the week. I always write my list standing in front of the fridge and cupboards -- doors wide open.
If you implement this kind of pre-shopping strategy, by the time you get to the grocery store, you're organized and aware of what you need, don't need, what's on sale, and where in the store you need to go in order to collect the groceries you want.

And being organized means you're less likely to impulsively buy things you don't need and things you can't afford.

Having a strategy before you go shopping, and a list once you're at the store, affords you the chance to stay stress-free while shopping, and it helps you stay on budget.