Saturday, November 13, 2010

kitchen experiments: 101

My good intentioned friends have been giving me cookbooks for years. I have a special shelf that they sit on, unopened. I think I'm a pretty good baker, but definitely not a cook. They really are two different mindsets.

Baking is precise, it requires measurement and technique, it's well-planned out and clear in its instructions. You have a recipe, you follow it. If baking is a science, cooking seems to me to be more of an art - a pinch of this and a dab of that; some sort of alchemy. Or, maybe it just seems mysterious to me because I'm so new to it! But I definitely think it's a different world from baking. Why do you think all the pastry chefs on Top Chef: Just Desserts are having meltdowns without their recipes? Ok, maybe that was just the one guy. But still, it's not uncommon for all the chefs on Top Chef to go into a total tizzy when they have to do a dessert. (Ok, yes, I watch a *lot* of Top Chef... :)

In the past year, I've made a big move toward learning how to cook in order to maintain a healthy weight and shift away from processed and convenience foods. For years, my idea of "making dinner" was to pick it up from Whole Foods (still my best back-up plan, used now with moderation) or pick up a phone and order it (slippery slope option). Michael Pollan's first Food Rule: "Eat Food" can be more challenging than it seems if you don't know what you're consuming. I was shocked to see how much stuff (sodium, sugar, carbs, calories, processing) went in to the simplest take-out order that I thought was nearly identical to what could be made at home. (namely my addiction to Jimmy John's sandwiches.) So now I scour blogs and web sites for tasty recipes and do a lot of "kitchen experiments." I've figured out enough now that I'm comfortable feeding these experiments to my boyfriend (and he usually likes them). I consider this immense progress!

A lot of my experimenting so far has come from another Angela and her blog, Oh She Glows. I'm indebted to her site for lots of good foodstuffs and continue to work my way through her recipe list. Besides the Vegan Overnight Oats and the Green Monster, both of which have become breakfast staples for me, these are a few of my favorites...

Peanut Butter, Jam, & Banana Breakfast Pizza
This is to die for. It seems at first like a crazy concoction, but trust me, it is delicious. More of a pastry or pie, in my opinion, than a pizza so this might be more leaning toward baking. :) I think I made the crust a tad too thick, but otherwise it came out great. Turned out to be too rich for the boyfriend, which completely surprised me. No prob, more for me!

Spiced Apple Pie Chips
These became an immediate favorite around here! So easy to make and they turn out so pretty and delicious! Ok, still a bit more like baking, but whatever. I would definitely stick with the Granny Smith apples for this recipe. My friends made this recommendation as well, but the second time I made these, I had to find out for myself... I'm stubborn that way. I tried slicing in a Honeycrisp and a Johnathan. Yeah, they were right... neither were very good. But the Granny Smith... amazing!

Emily’s Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili in Pumpkin Bowls
Delicious and cool looking. This one is definitely cooking! I even made a small change and still had it turn out great. The chili calls for butternut squash, however, after cutting and scraping two pumpkins, I was not in the mood to tackle a butternut as well. I peeled & cubed 3 smallish sweet potatoes and used them instead - which was awesome. This made a lot of chili, which I happily ate all week, but in the future I'd likely make less or freeze half.

Monday, October 11, 2010

basil, basil, basil!

By far, the most overwhelmingly successful thing we grew this summer was the genovese basil. Started from seed, we ended up with 4 huge plants over 3' tall and about 2-3' around. I've been using as much as I can throughout the season - caprese salads, fresh basil in tomato sauces, with fish, with my eggplant, & in scrambled eggs with feta (yum) & giving it away in handfuls.

Recently, it's started to get a bit chilly around here - even close to freezing one night last week, so I'm scrambling to cut the basil while I can and find ways to use it! Some of it has already developed some black spots from getting too cold. But it does make a beautiful bouquet. :)

It also makes for some delicious and easy recipes - perfect for a beginner cook like me. First, I tried a new basil marinade (recipe here) and, wow, it is delicious. I used about half of the bunch pictured above & it made about 3 cups, so I froze two in Ball Freezer Containers. What I didn't freeze was used tonight on some chicken and cauliflower, which the boyfriend devoured while raving about the marinade! It's also quite good as a simple salad dressing. Plus it's a beautiful shade of alien goo green. Definitely a keeper for the recipe file.

The rest of the cuttings went to a simple, but delicious pesto, which also went into the freezer and, along with the previous batch, should last us several months.

There's still a bunch of basil out there because I knew I couldn't use it all last weekend and, frankly, I'm still having a hard time admitting it's season is over. :P Maybe I'll get bold and try to go all Top Chef with a basil ice cream! (though I wouldn't have any idea if it tasted as it should, it sounds like a delicious experiment) Or maybe I'll be lazy and it will go into the dehydrator. ;D

Sunday, October 10, 2010

whirlwind weeks

Wow - the past few weeks have flown by! One convention in Seattle followed by another the next week at home - both were excellent, but definitely wiped me out with all the go-go-go. Somehow, I thought it would be a great idea to end 7 straight days of 'always-on' work and travel by getting up early the next day and going apple picking with friends.

Turns out I was right - it was an awesome way to decompress and have some fun with cool people. (Check out my friend Shannon's post too :)

and spend the day with my cutie.

I ended up bringing home about 13lbs of apples (mostly golden delicious)... 

a few pumpkins for eating/baking...
and one pumpkin that will become the boyfriend's "Domo kun Pumpkin" carving masterpiece. :D

So, what to do with all those apples? Apple crumb pie!
I'm so glad I hung on to this goodie from my grandmother:

It clamps to the counter and very quickly peels & cores the apples beautifully! Now that I've actually used it, it won't be relegated to the unreachable pantry shelf anymore.

Because I only take a once a week 'anything goes day' with my diet, I decided individual mini pies would be better than a giant one that went to waste/waist. ;)

So, yeah, that used about 6 apples. I still have about 10lbs of them to go. (and I questioned whether or not I'd picked enough as we left Eckert's. haha! uhm, I think I'm covered.)

The remaining apples are destined for

Monday, September 27, 2010

fall, already and officially

I keep referring to our "fall garden" yet I'm having a hard time admitting the season has come. Even now when the weather is forcing me to wear tights and leggings with my summer dresses. Fall has actually been my favorite season for as long as I can remember - the crispness of the air, the cooler weather, and the promise of being able to pull my favorite boots out of the closet. This year I don't want summer to end because there's so much fall work to be done for us to get ready for next spring!

Fall does have it's perks for gardening though - we finally harvested enough lettuce for salads last week! The spinach, chard, and kale are all filling in nicely as well.

I'm in Seattle this week, so that's making the seasonal transition a bit more convincing. Beautiful clear skies the first day, but now it's rainy and cold enough that I'm wishing I'd packed my fingerless gloves. It's a shame I couldn't fit the boots in the suitcase too.

I did manage to get away from scheduled activities long enough to visit the famous Pike Place Market, though, which was a real treat.

I finally found an organic garlic braid to hang in the kitchen and use all winter as well. I'm thinking about going back for the peppers too. The small garlic braid was only $10 and is all wrapped up in newspaper to take home. :)

Hopefully, I can make it back down there again before the end of the trip.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

falling in love with figs

I had a fresh fig for the first time this summer. Really, the first time ever! I grew up loving Fig Newtons, but they hardly count. I'd come closer to an actual fig with a very tasty fig & prosciutto panini from Whole Foods... This was pretty much the extent of my fig experience until this summer when I finally gave in to my curiosity at the farmer's market and approached Ivan's Fig Farm. This is what I'd been missing??? I couldn't believe the unique flavor and texture. It was so rich and delicious! Luscious, amazing, figgy goodness.

Turns out, not only do they taste amazing, but they provide a lot of good health benefits:
  • Packed with potassium
  • Good source of fiber
  • Good source of calcium and magnesium. In fact, the fig has one of the highest calcium contents of any plant based food.
  • I haven't eaten the leaves, but they have apparently been shown to have antidiabetic properties and even lower levels of triglycerides. Maybe I should make these my next new food adventure!
They are quite high in natural sugars though, so I try to refrain from eating a whole box of them at once - as tempting as it is! I learned at the market that you should look for a deep, rich color and select figs that are plump but not mushy. If you don't plan to eat them in the next day or two, (or before you can even grab your wallet to pay for them as I've done) then select figs that are more firm.  When they begin to soften, use them or refrigerate them.  Once they're ripe, figs spoil very quickly. 

I've since bought some fresh figs from Whole Foods to use for some recipes and experiments with the food dehydrator. They're not as tasty as the ones from the market, but they're more affordable when you want a bunch for preserving. If you've never tried a fresh fig, I highly recommend grabbing some from your local farmer's market if they have them and from Ivan's if you're a St. Louis local - but hurry, the season is almost over!

Recipes I'm anxious to try:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

praying for a mantis.

Look who I found hanging out on the hummingbird feeder! The elusive praying mantis. Some say they are a gardener's dream for managing other plant pests. Plus, I'm one of those weirdos who think they are super cute with their little alien eyes and rotating heads. Apparently, the hummingbird feeder was leaking and the sugar water was attracting every ant for miles... enter the praying mantis for the all-you-can-eat ant buffet! :)

I brought him out to the garden with me and he climbed off the feeder somewhere around the mint and cucumbers. Though he'll have to work a tiny bit harder for his meals, I'm pretty sure he'll have enough food over there. Hopefully he will stay and help out with the remaining cucumber beetles and assassin bugs. Maybe "he" is even a "she" and more little mantises will start popping up.

Beneficial or harmful for the garden? It's true that the praying mantis does not discriminate. He'll eat a cucumber beetle or a beneficial lacewing, both are quite tasty for him. However, with a severe lack of beneficial bugs in the garden and an overgrowth of destructive ones, I'm happy to take my chances. Welcome home, Mr. (or Ms.) Mantis.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

from the garden: today's tomatoes

today's tomato harvest, plus one chili

Welcome September, the month of tomatoes? We finally have tons of green and recently red tomatoes popping up all over the garden. With 8 cherry tomato plants, about 6 brandywine, and 3 unidentified tomato plant gifts, we should be well-stocked for a while so long as the weather doesn't get too cold or wet.

One of the cherry tomato plants has been the star of the garden and has been producing tomatoes consistently for about a month, but never more than a few at a time. Today, I think I pulled 3x that amount from him and quite a few from his neighbors as well. The only productive brandywine (so far) is still all green, but there are about a dozen more fruits starting while we wait for the good-sized ones to ripen. The "gifted" tomato plants have been the most productive, but I admittedly question their fertilizing methods before arriving in our yard. For that reason, they're sequestered to their own area ;) but still far more edible than what I tend to find in a supermarket.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

salsa day: spicy tomato salsa

Out of all the recipes we tried during our canning day extravaganza, our favorite was definitely the Spicy Tomato Salsa, taken from the Ball Blue Book. I'd recommend the book to anyone getting started with canning. Lots of great recipes, tips, and technique info - including a Problem Solver section for those "wth happened to it???" moments.

We've already gone through about 2 quarts of the salsa we made last time, so while the tomatoes are fresh, I decided to do another batch over the weekend. I admit to having a bit of 'canning anxiety' in the sense that I want to get tons of tomatoes preserved while they're still in full swing seasonally. Fortunately, the garden is now, in September, finally loaded with green tomatoes just waiting to ripen. This may be the first of many tomato preserving days!

Spicy Tomato Salsa
Makes about 6 pints
Adapted from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving
6 pounds tomatoes (about 12 large)
9 dried hot chilies, seeds removed
15 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 cups diced red onion
6 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
1 1/2 cups chopped cilantro, packed tightly
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
3/4 cup red wine vinegar, 5% acidity
Note: When cutting or seeding hot peppers, wear rubber gloves to prevent hands from being burned. (seriously, from experience, wear the gloves!)

The salsa is easy enough to make, but the prep takes some time. I don't mind having the seeds & tomato skin in the salsa (especially since we usually purée it before consuming anyway) so I skip this step, which saves some time. I've also been using a nifty trick I learned in the canning class - if you have any metal pastry tips on hand, they are great tools for coring tomatoes (and onions, strawberries, etc.). Just poke the tip into the top of the tomato and give it a little twist. The top will usually pop right out.

Sterilize jars and lids.
Peel, seed and dice tomatoes into 1/4-inch size pieces. Place chilies in a small bowl. Pour boiling water over chilies just to cover. Secure plastic wrap over bowl and allow peppers to steep for 15 minutes. Drain half the water from chilies. Purée chilies and remaining water in blender for 1 minute or until smooth. I also substitute parsley in place of cilantro, since so many people I know seem to find cilantro downright offensive. I actually like it, but I've found parsley works just as well.

Once prepped, combine all ingredients into a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then let it simmer for about 10 minutes or until mixture has thickened, then it's ready to be put in jars!

Carefully ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with a nonmetallic spatula. Wipe rim and threads of jar with a clean damp cloth. Adjust the two-piece caps. Screw band down evenly and firmly just until resistance is met – fingertip tight.

Process 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner.

Yum. :) This batch should be a bit spicier than the first one we tried since it has a little bit of extra jalapeno. Looking forward to my diet cheat day (more on that later) so I can try it out without worrying about how many tortilla chips I've had!

Monday, September 6, 2010

proper prior planning

Maybe it's the project manager in me, but I've found recently that I really love preserving foods. Ok, I like anything that's well-planned out, but the idea of taking foods that are at their peak in freshness, taste, and nutrition now and finding a way to make them last all winter is one of the most ingenious plans ever created.

Originally, the whole food-preserving thing came from the idealistic notion that our garden would produce more than we could consume (which didn't exactly happen this year). I signed up for a canning class at The Kitchen Conservatory that was taught by a local urban farmer. I enjoyed the class, not just for the canning techniques, but the general cooking info and recipes as well. Also, it settled all those initial fears about canning - you know, the voice that says, "I'd love to give preserves & sauces as holiday gifts." Then quickly follows with, "Nothing says I love you like the gift of botulism." Turns out, if you follow some pretty common sense guidelines, canning is actually really easy. Sterilize your jars, use the correct equipment, and follow tried & true recipes.

While in the class, I was working with another couple prepping some onions when I mentioned that I got my boyfriend a pressure canner for our anniversary (yeah, we're that kind of couple). Turns out, they're that kind of couple too, so we chatted after the class & picked a day for the four of us to get together and try our hand at some of this. Still awaiting the big boom of the garden, we decided to hit the farmer's market in Tower Grove for our "Canning Day" ingredients. A general tip for the market - if you want a deal on large amounts of produce, get there later in the day. The vendors may be willing to sell you the rest of what they have for a bit less. If you're looking for specific items and need a certain amount (as we did), arrive earlier for a better selection.

Lessons learned:
  • The first lesson we learned is to not attempt too many recipes at once.
    We decided on 5 recipes between 4 of us and, in retrospect, I wouldn't have tried more than 3 in a day. It ended up being a fun but tiring 8 hour event, which none of us anticipated, though we certainly got a lot of food out of it!
  • Prep work can take a long time, especially for something like salsa or pasta sauce. Time the work so there's always at least 2 things going at once. For instance, while the salsa ingredients are being prepped, jars can be put in boiling water for sterilization.
    We had a few periods where we were standing in the hot kitchen just waiting for one thing to finish so something else could be started.
  • Always, always, always wear gloves when working with hot peppers!
    Learned the hard way by means of fingers that burned for 6 hours, not to mention the accidental touch of fingers to face. If this happens, try putting vinegar, milk, or lemon juice on the affected area.
  • If you compost, this is a great day to fill your bin with kitchen scraps.
    The other couple may have thought we were crazy, but we took home a giant bag of all the kitchen scraps from the day. The compost looks better than ever for it!
  • Don't fear the pressure canner.
    This seemed daunting at first, but we followed the step-by-step directions and had no problems at all.

Recipes included canned corn, dill pickles, spicy tomato salsa, pepper marmalade, and pasta sauce.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

cute things keep eating our food

Ok, not-so-cute things too.

But, let's start with the bunnies. They're not so much of an issue now that we have a secure fence, but before we got that together, they had a daily feast. Bunnies have munched our kale, lettuce, blueberries, grapes, raspberries, and blackberries. Don't get me wrong, I love the bunnies. I even have a holland lop bunny named Alonso residing in my home... and he eats a lot of organic produce too, come to think of it. Thankfully, the fencing has eliminated any sort of internal struggle I might have in the battle of bunny vs. sustenance. Hopefully, we can now have some of those 'spring greens' in fall.

this one was so cute, i actually *tried* to feed him.

The terror of the garden now is the cucumber beetle & his friend, the squash bug. Their first victim was the lone cucumber plant. We'd just harvested our first cucumber, and several more were in progress, when I started noticing wilted leaves. After some research, I identified the "yellow ladybug" and tried to save the plant, but to no avail. I'm still not sure exactly what happened, but it looked like bacterial wilt.

we have the striped & the spotted ones. we're lucky that way.
The squash bugs showed up shortly after. I noticed an insect laying eggs on the squash and watched in awe. Mistakenly thinking this could be a beneficial bug, I let them flourish and take over the garden. I thought they might take out the cucumber beetles. I'm a n00b, I know. Since correctly identifying them as the destroyer of squash (where's Gil Grissom when you need him???), I've started regularly dousing them with an organic garlic spray concoction. They don't like it, but it hasn't quite gotten rid of them either. The fate of the squash is yet to be determined.

squash bug laying eggs on our summer squash plant.
With organic gardening, there are some sprays & repellants that can be used, most of which you can make yourself - essential oil sprays like garlic, peppermint, etc., soap-based sprays, baking soda, and several others. However, as with most things in life, it seems the best way to control pests like beetles is to prevent them. (Now we know what to do next year. :) While we have used some essential oil sprays and soap sprays, we'd ideally like to support a symbiotic ecosystem in the garden with beneficial bugs eating destructive bugs, and not rely on sprays at all.

We hoped to have some praying mantids in the garden, but we were late to the beneficial bug party this year, so it's at the top of the list for next spring. We did, however, order some ladybugs from (further proof you can get anything at They arrived in great shape and with clear instructions on how to release them. Having no experience with keeping bugs instead of getting rid of them, I was surprised to find that you should store them in the refrigerator until release. Though I was concerned they'd die in there next to the soy milk, it actually helped to make them less alert and slow-moving for release. Once you take them out of the fridge, it takes a few minutes for them to become active again, so it's a good time to open the lid and put them in the garden without having them all rush the top at once.

The ladybugs stayed around for a few days, but within a week they'd all left. We did multiple releases over the course of a couple of weeks, but I'm guessing there just wasn't enough of the food they prefer to stick around. Still, a small investment to at least give it a try.

The most recent visitor to wreak havoc was actually enjoyable to watch, which is always a plus. These are black swallowtail caterpillars and grow up to be very beautiful butterflies.

fat swallowtail caterpillars in the parsley
what the caterpillars become

Granted, they devoured every last bit of the parsley in the span of a day, but they were so stunning to watch, I must admit that I really didn't mind. Maybe in their next life they'll return the favor by coming back to pollinate.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

fall planting

The spring/summer plants finally seem to be getting into full swing. With the late start, it seems like we've been waiting quite a while. Finally, we have summer squash coming in pretty regularly, our first patty pan squash has started, we'll soon be swimming in cherry tomatoes, peppers are getting productive, and the eggplant is starting to blossom.

To keep the momentum going, and to take advantage of all the stuff we missed in spring, I planted a bunch of new stuff this weekend that we're hoping will be good for Fall. This is my first time planting for Fall, but I found a couple of good planning & planting guides to help decide what to try -

Seeds for fall from
Our Fall Garden:
mild lettuce mix
all lettuce mix
bush beans
snow peas
sugar snap peas

There's always more that we want to add (maybe garlic? possibly pumpkin?) but we'll wait at least a week or two to see what starts sprouting.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

we must cultivate our garden.

I have a tendency to not start something until I have all the tools & materials needed to "really start" - which, I’ve recently realized, causes some things to never start. So, rather than waiting for the perfect design or the perfect post, I’m just going to jump head first into this shiny new blog. :)

There are so many new projects going on around here that I decided I wanted a dedicated place for them just so I can keep track! All of the projects pretty much start with, or revolve around, the garden. I’ve had a garden in my current yard before, but never a really hard-working one.

This year, I’ve got a partner in the projects and, with his help, we've managed to expand the garden space, put up a secure fence, and start growing quite a bit of vegetables & herbs from seed. I discovered very quickly after starting that if we take notes on all the discoveries we make now, we'll be able to make lots of improvements in the next year. (even if the summer is already almost over!)

For us, the decision to start organic gardening was an obvious one. There’s a huge yard out there that was nothing but grass, for the most part. We have been buying organic produce for years, but with the standards and regulations becoming more & more lax on organics and the food miles incurred to get a lot of this stuff to our local grocery, we thought we'd try our hand at replacing at least a small portion of that with our own food from the backyard.

We got off to a late start due to all of the initial setup to be done with seed sprouting, tilling, fencing, etc. By the time we got our plants outside, they were way past ready! We planted them anyway and hoped some would make it. So far, the squash varieties and tomatoes are doing the best, along with the hip-high basil. Turns out we were too late with the lettuces and lost the kale to baby bunnies squeezing through the fence openings. We added some chicken wire around the first fence so not even the tiniest bunny fits. We've already learned so much from the process. Plans have already started for next year and include a greenhouse this fall and raised beds for more planting!