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late summer supper

September 6, 2011

ground cherries

fresh goat cheese with olive oil, herbs, lemon zest

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sliced tomatoes with wild arugula

pesto eggs

lemon squash stewed with tomatoes, olives, oregano

green beans, kale, and potatoes with creamy walnut-garlic-thyme dressing

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strawberry-rose jam tart with almond meal crust, served with fresh goat cheese

ginger tea

Someone once told me that “packing takes the time allotted,” and it’s absolutely true: if start planning two weeks before your trip, preparations can easily consume that fortnight. On the other hand, I’ve set the alarm just a little bit early on the morning of departure and still managed to somehow throw a few things together and make the plane.

On Sunday I started dinner quite early — it was to be a hot day, so I planned a dinner of cool things that could be cooked in advance, giving the kitchen plenty of time to return to a comfortable temperature. I started with the baking: punched down the bread dough I had put together the night before, then made the pastry for the jam tart. After I put it in the fridge to chill, I walked out to the garden to do some grocery shopping.

I was able to congratulate myself on the awesomeness of my life for about half an hour before things started to go wrong. The first jam tart burned. The purple potatoes turned gray and mealy when boiled. The blender went on strike after I filled it with basil, oil, garlic, almonds. I did find another route to the one experimental preparation on my menu — a dish in the shape of deviled eggs, but flavored by mashing the yolks with pesto — only to find that yellow yolks + green basil = unappetizing gray-green paste.

A head start saves no time in packing, and the same is apparently true in the kitchen: this simple summer supper was going to consume my day. I went back to the potato pile for something waxier. I thawed the pesto I had put away a few weeks earlier. When it turned the yolks gray, I tucked basil sprigs and nasturtiums between the eggs and made bright-green basil oil to drizzle over before serving. I started again with a new jam tart. In the spaces between I blanched some beans, shaped some bread, picked and cleaned the various herbs I’d need to finish each dish.

The squash — the last thing on my prep list — was the only thing that proceeded according to plan. (Melt and brown finely sliced onions. While the onions are cooking, peel and core tomatoes. Remove onions from pan. Add squash in batches to brown, then return onions to pan with tomatoes, pitted olives, a few smashed cloves of garlic, and a pile of oregano. Stir occasionally and swoon.)

I had started cooking early, but by the time I was done prepping and cleaning and putting things away, the day was almost gone.

And then the electricity went out. Which, in a house supplied by a well, means no water. It thought about calling my guests, but the phone was out too. So they came, and we sat, and candlelight was enough to find our forks and converse by.  No one could appreciate the many colors of tomatoes in the pretty green serving bowl — but then, no one noticed the gray eggs, either.

not on the breakfast menu at the cooperstown diner

June 28, 2011

Strawberries with fennel and black pepper cornbread

silver lining for a spring exile

June 17, 2011

Kitchen and bathroom renovations kept me away from Roseboom for most of the spring, so I got a late start planting. On the bright side, though, my pantry shelves are still well-stocked with last years’ harvest, something that isn’t usually the case this time of year: jars of shell beans, little bags of dried cherry tomatoes, a pile of potatoes and—wonder of wonders—a closet full of winter squash! (Turns out that, wrapped in newspaper, they really do keep for months and months.) Since June tends to be cold and damp in early summer, it’s been nice to have the fixins for comfort food on hand: White beans stewed with thyme and olive oil. Roasted tomato cornbread. Spicy butternut-peanut stew. Garlicky black beans with chilies and coriander. This is the kind of cooking that sticks to your ribs and sustains you while you work to make the ground hospitable for another years’ worth of food.

And now, in the third week of June, my newest green tenants are beginning to earn their keep. Actually, this weekend you could see the whole cycle of lettucey life in the kitchen plot. Last years’ kale survived the winter and, by last week, had bolted spectacularly. In the space next door, arugula seedlings are beginning to assume something resembling their grown-up form. The few loose heads at prime eating stage are random self-seeders, children of last years’ residents.

Gone-to-seed kale is not nearly so disagreeable as some of its relatives, so when I pulled up the all-but-spent stems, I made sure to strip them of their leaves. Waste not, want not. Whew! Greens season is why I went to the trouble of rescuing this monster sink.

And then the arugula. Last year I let a few plants stick around through their bitter old maturity so I could collect their seeds. For whatever reason—o me of little faith—I didn’t quite trust the little home-harvested beads to germinate, so I sowed them extra thickly. But as is apparent from the picture, I needn’t have worried.

Now, actually, I’m concerned about thinning fast enough to provide the growing plants with the space they need. So I find myself with a luxury of tender young arugula—which happens to make a delicious bed for hot potatoes.

Quite often, the garden is throwing off exactly what I want to eat exactly when I want to eat it. Cool cucumbers, bland squash, dripping tomatoes at the height of summer; earthy potatoes and dense shell beans as the weather turns colder. May and June tend to be a bit more challenging; the winter stores are usually dwindling by then, and much as I love the first astringent greens that signal spring, they’re just a little too wet and flimsy to sustain me through the cold, rainy season. But since the renovations kept me out of the pantry as surely as a row of crushed eggshells keeps the slugs away from the lettuce, I have the best of both worlds this year.

losing my religion (and coming home for a visit)

January 12, 2011

Alliums are a religion in south Louisiana. Everything I ever learned to cook there began with the “holy trinity” of onions, peppers and celery, followed by a heap of minced garlic. I’ve heard some cooks extend the sacred metaphor, likening garlic to the Virgin Mary. This might seem to relegate the pungent bulb to secondary status, but in Catholic Cajun country, the daily rosary can take on a greater importance than weekly mass.

Any ritual worth its salt soon seeps out of its learned context. The funky sludge that forms the background of jambalaya, gumbo, etouffee remained with me even as I expanded my culinary repertoire. Italian red sauce, southwestern black beans, even vaguely Asian stir-fries — all began a hefty pile of onions and garlic. Streaming eyes and fragrant fingers were an inevitable by-product of feeding myself.

I’ve heard some preachers warn that yoga has the insidious power to distract souls from the faith of their fathers. Well, in my case, it wasn’t insidious at all. As a newly minted teacher, I became a regular studio assistant, which meant getting up close and personal with practitioners in a small, sweaty room. And so, in an effort to practice kindness toward my fellow yogis, I deliberately abandoned the holy trinity (not to mention the heavenly bulb).

These days I only teach three months of the year, but I’ve broken with those early cooking rituals for good. Part of it, I think, has to do with the fact that I’m growing so much of my own food, and I mostly prefer to let each bright shining vegetable speak for itself, without too much complication. When alliums do figure into the equation, I’m aware of them in a way I never used to be, and I’m now picky about not only the particulars of the plant, but also the size of the dice and the amount of moderating heat applied.

Last summer, as an experiment, I grew some garlic. A very modest investment gave me a good-sized crop, and this winter I find myself cooking more in accordance with my upbringing. A pot of soup might begin with a head of roasted garlic and end with a raw clove, ground to a paste with a bit of salt and stirred in before serving. In the height of the sniffle season, I figure my body is glad for its natural antiseptic qualities. And I’ve spent much of December and January in Roseboom, so in the mornings I practice alone—no one but me notices the faint odor that  clings to my fingertips and seeps from my pores.

raiding the pantry

January 6, 2011

It’s taken me awhile to figure it out, but now I know: eating well in winter is more about planning than canning. Shell beans, winter squash, potatoes, garlic go from the ground to the pantry with no processing required. So I planted lots of them. This December, I spent more time in Roseboom than anywhere else, so it was a great opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my labors.  

I. Spicy peanut-squash stew. Hack a giant squash in two and set it to roast in the oven, along with a head or two of garlic, anointed with oil and wrapped in foil. On the stove, soften chopped onions and garlic in olive oil, then add spices (I used cumin, coriander, cayenne) and toast a bit. Scoop in some peanut butter, plus maybe a little water, and stir until melted; turn off heat. Squish the roasted garlic into the pot. When the squash is manageable, peel and chop into cubes. Add these to the pot, along with enough water to get the consistency you want. At this point you can puree into an elegant bisque-like creation (maybe add some cream or coconut milk) but I prefer a chunky, inelegant stew. It is especially good with brown rice added, but all I had was crushed wheat, and that worked pretty well. Something green added just before serving is always a good idea, and I was able to dig some kale out of the snow—at least the for the first few servings.

II. Black beans, brown beer, purple potatoes. I once read a recipe for black beans cooked in dark beer until the beans were soft and the beer reduced to a syrup. With company expected for dinner, I needed to stretch the recipe a bit, so while the beans simmered in Ommegang I sauteed onions in oil, followed by spices, then added water and some chopped purple potatoes. (Regular potatoes would work as well, but they take on an unappetizing gray color in black bean soup.) Combined the pots, added some garlic, and voila: a nice hearty supper. I also chopped up some of last summer’s dried tomatoes, added them to warm olive oil, and served on homemade bread provided by my guests.

III. Extravagant lentils. Sometime in January, my kitchen is going to be gutted. So this business of cooking from the existing larder is not just about feeding myself and avoiding the trip to the market. It’s also about spending down the stores before I have to move the contents of my kitchen into the living room. This makes me feel a lot better about decimating supplies of luxury ingredients like dried porcini mushrooms. I put them into a stew of lentils, roasted garlic, celery, and leftover red wine.

IV. Bean, tangerine…  Cook chopped-up tangerine (with peel) and onion until carmelized,then throw in some chopped ginger and red pepper flakes. Add squash seeds and cook til toasted. Green beans can go straight from the freezer to pot.

V. Nightshade elixir. Ground cherries were this year’s garden discovery. They look like small tomatillos and taste something like a tomato crossed with a pineapple. Starting in August, my one plant threw off a handful or two of ripe fruit every day. Just before the frost hit, I picked it clean, gathering more than 700 full pods, some more ripe than others. I put them in jars with vodka and honey. I’ve read that this kind of preparation should sit for six months, but I threw caution to the wind served them in shot glasses following a recent dinner. They taste like strawberries.

VI. Cornmeal mush. I’m glad the Quaker company has retained the traditional name for the most basic recipe on its cardboard canister. The Italian title may be more musical, but cornmeal mush is good enough for me. I had it for breakfast with butter and maple syrup, for lunch (after a freak thaw revealed perky greens under the snow) with kale and carmelized onions.

VII. Something Asian….ish. On New Year’s Day, my friends up the road host a party in their sweet little straw house. Guests are asked to bring an Asian dish to share. I had a few relevant ingredients on hand—a lime, ginger root, coconut, sesame seeds—but I couldn’t figure out how these might combine with the other ingredients in my winter pantry. So I mixed them up with an egg and some sugar and made macaroons.

potato/salad

July 23, 2010

The potato beetles have turned out to be not such a problem. I don’t know if this is due to the regular application of scented mist (a lovely activity on a sunny afternoon) or just good luck, but I’ve only seen the very occasional striped bug. The main problem now is density. Not too long ago I realized those potato volunteers up front really had to go.

An early harvest feels like cheating the future, but it does bring a luxury of wee potatoes. The fork in the picture gives you a sense of scale.These went into a pan with a little bit of water and a large lump of butter. I wanted a special accompaniment for this one-time treat… something delicate, yet capable of cutting through the creamy richness. I settled on a salad of assorted herbs: basil, mint, arugula, oregano, celery leaf, dill fronds, chives, thyme blossoms.

it’s beginning to look a lot like summer

July 23, 2010

good morning, garden! what do you have for me today?

grilled squash & onions + assorted herbs + purslaneassorted roasted beets & baby onions + radicchio