Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dig In - Buying Eggs

“S/he is a good egg.” You don’t hear this expression used much anymore, but the meaning is clear. The person in question is trustworthy. Honest. Reliable.

But is it as clear what we mean by “good egg” when we are referring to chicken eggs? I don’t think so.

This is worth pondering. Even if you are limiting your cholesterol intake, chances are you are going to eat or cook a lot of eggs in your life. Eggs are either the stars or supporting players in hundreds of eggcellent dishes. They provide great nutrition and eating pleasure in return for a relatively small investment of time and money. But in our modern, luxury obsessed society, good eggs are almost as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Many people will scale the highest mountain to get what they believe to be the best quality cars, jewelry, clothing, home furnishings, electronics, wine or coffee. But when it comes to purchasing a basic food item like an egg, the pursuit of quality is rare. And for the discriminating shoppers who are thinking about where their eggs come from – God bless them - straightforward information is hard to find.

So what is a “good” egg? If an egg is cheap, can it be good? If eggs cost more than $3.00 a dozen, are they good? If an egg was produced “cage free” or “free range” is it good? If it was “raised on a family farm” is it good? If it is labeled “organic” is it good? Can a conscientious cook find good eggs without a degree in poultry science?

There is much current debate and confusion around these questions. One reason is that we are in the midst of the largest recall of eggs in U.S. history due to concerns about salmonella poisoning. At least 20 different brand names have been affected so far - all these brands obtained their eggs from the same two Iowa egg producers which are the suspected source of the problem.

The scope of the recall is staggering:
The recent Wright County Egg in Iowa and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc. voluntary recalls of shell eggs are considered nationwide recalls. Shell eggs from Wright County Egg were sold to distributors and wholesalers in 22 states and Mexico, who then distributed the shell eggs further throughout the country. According to Wright County Egg of Iowa, 380 million of their shell eggs are being recalled under many different brand names. According to Hillandale Farms of Iowa, Inc. additional shell eggs now under recall went to grocery stores, distributors, and wholesalers in 14 states; these entities then distributed the shell eggs further throughout the country. According to these two companies, more than 500 million eggs are now involved in the nationwide recall.
Source: FDA, 8/27/10 http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/MajorProductRecalls/ucm223522.htm#news

So what is a concerned consumer to do?  The FDA tells us we should not buy cracked eggs and should refrigerate eggs.  And cook them until the yolks are hard.  (I don't know about you but I am not ready to give up fried eggs over easy.) More on egg safety from the FDA here http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/types/eggs/index.html

And what if you are concerned about more than your own (and loved ones') health and safety?  What if you are concerned about the welfare of the chickens? 

One perspective, where animal welfare is concerned,  is the Humane Society of the U.S.  This is the group that has been successfully passing referenda in various states regarding living conditions of  various forms of livestock (including laying hens).   Whatever your views on animal welfare, I think the Humane Society's explanation of egg carton labeling is enlightening:  http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html

Another perspective - on both animal welfare and public health and safety - comes from the egg producers themselves.  For more information about egg purchasing, storage and safety, see

And another perspective - from columnist Nicholas Kristof:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/opinion/02kristof.html?hp

In search of more answers, I consulted my husband Frank Wright. He is an enthusiastic egg eater, an experienced laying hen owner and even – in his days as a practicing veterinarian – has taught classes in poultry science.  We discussed eggs from both the eater's and the hen's perspective.

Our simple answer to the good egg question is that a good egg comes from a healthy hen who has a good life. A good egg will be very fresh and will come from a chicken that is well fed, not routinely medicated, allowed to go through normal molting and resting periods, and allowed access to the outdoors.

Finding producers of such hens is a worthy quest. Once you have found them -– never let them go. Tell your friends.  Create more demand. Be willing to pay what these eggs cost. Learn more and don’t be afraid to ask questions about:

Natural Laying Cycles
Egg laying is affected by day length. In the fall, egg production drops off and hens molt and replenish their body reserves. They resume egg-laying in late winter. A healthy chicken can go for a number of years this way, though their productivity will gradually decline. Even pastured egg producers use some supplemental light in their henhouses during the winter months to stretch the season. Egg factories, however, typically maintain 17 hours of light per day for 15 months of total confinement and non-stop egg-laying. The resulting "spent hens" are probably recycled into animal feed and replaced with fresh recruits. So look for producers who allow chickens to have access to natural light cycles and to pasture. The production costs are higher but the chickens will be healthier.

Chickens also need good food. Does your producer grow the bulk of their own feed or is it purchased on the open market? What controls or specifications do they employ over the type and source of ingredients? Do the hens get a significant part of their diet from pasture plants and the bugs and worms found in pastures?  I frankly do not know what my personal egg producer feeds her chickens.  I do know that she is an animal lover and a good farmer.  And I know that the eggs from her chickens have the most lovely rich yellow orange yolks and great flavor.

If laying hens are being raised with adequate space and feed and natural light cycles, routine medications – antibiotics as well as others - should be unnecessary. The need for routine medications is a red flag for stressful living conditions. (Note - The public is learning more about overcrowded poultry facilities and apparently producers are responding to consumer concerns. “Cage-free” may or may not mean that a chicken is not overcrowded or confined indoors.)

The fresher the egg, the firmer the white and the perkier the yolk. Less than a week old – great for poaching. More than ten weeks old – great for hard boiling and peeling.

A fresh egg from a healthy chicken provides a superlative eating experience.   Conventional mass produced eggs, while they may be perfectly wholesome and safe (most of the time) simply do not taste as good in my humble opinion.  The more you eat good eggs the more you will notice the difference. You can decide whether it matters to you to become a discerning egg consumer and hunter of good eggs.  You might even decide to join the growing ranks of people who raise a few laying hens in their backyard! 

Here is a nice classic recipe that makes good use of eggs.  I hope you enjoy trying it.
Basic baked custard (serves 5)
We are reminded that cooking is chemistry when preparing the perfect baked custard. Temperatures and technique matter. Once you have mastered custard, you will no longer be a novice cook.

3 large eggs
2 cups milk (richer milk = richer custard; 2% milk is a good compromise)
1/3 cup sugar (or substitute 1/2 cup maple syrup)
dash of salt
1 t. vanilla
Dash of nutmeg for each custard cup

Gently heat milk. Beat together remaining ingredients. Gradually add milk to egg mixture, stirring all the while. Strain into custard cups. Fold kitchen towel and lay in the bottom of a 9 x 13 pan. Place custard cups in the pan and add very hot tap water about half way up the sides of the cups. Place in 325 degree oven and bake about 40-45 minutes. Test by inserting sharp knife about halfway between center and edge. If it comes out clean, custard is done. The centers will still “jiggle” and will solidify as custard cools.

Inspiration - Week #14 (and a footnote about rain and cooking)

In this week's Grande box:  Eggplant (two kinds), tomatoes (roma type and slicing), basil, mustard greens, green beans, hot and sweet peppers, garlic, radishes, raspberries, watermelon

Today is the last day of August, school has started again for many and we are still enjoying the fruits of summer in our kitchens.  I am NOT enjoying the continuing humidity, however.  This week's box presents a challenge - quite a nice mixture of sweet, hot, spicy, crunchy and soft foods that could be used any number of ways -- but how to get them working together on the plate?  Time for some imagination and even a little daring.

There is another lovely bunch of basil in your box.  Plus plump garlic in primo condition.  None of those icky little green sprouts that always seem to be present in ordinary grocery store garlic.  Enough garlic so you can use some now and store some (cool, dark, dry place).
Hmmmmm.  What to do?  What to do?  I know ................

MORE PESTO!  Maybe you are experiencing a slight case of basil fatigue -- but I promise you this winter you will thank me for pushing the pesto.  It just takes a second -- quickly wash and dry the basil and strip off the leaves.  A few pieces of stem won't hurt the pesto.  Process with garlic and olive oil. and a little salt.  You can add nuts and cheese now or later.  The last time I made pesto I grated in some fresh lemon peel and I really liked what that did to the flavor.   I have frozen some pesto and I also have been profligate in my use of it the last few weeks.  Try some as an omelet filling (you don't need a lot) or as a spread on a BLT instead of mayo.  Add some to a can of white beans and smash or blend or process into a dip or sandwich spread.
See below for recipes - for dishes marked with an asterisk

Dixie Dinner
Black eyed peas and mustard greens*,  baked whole sweet potatoes (or you can roast in pieces like oven fries - you don't even have to peel them), corn bread, watermelon.   If you are a carnivore and want to go all the way - add some pulled BBQ pork to this menu.

Taste of Greece
Eggplant moussaka*, roasted or steamed green beans, bread,  butter cookies or honey cake  Maybe this is the right time to try making baklava.  You will need lots of butter, phyllo dough, a good pastry brush, quality walnuts, and a couple of hours.   If you want a good recipe let me know.

Better than cornflakes
When I saw the precious little package of ripe raspberries in my box, I thought  - Meusli*!  (either that or a cheesecake with raspberries on top.)  This classic healthy Swiss cereal is very easy to make from scratch and is a good way to get a lot of mileage out of a small amount of fresh (or frozen) berries. 
Serve muesli with good quality plain yogurt on the side.  If you want to serve this as part of a big brunch, include some bread or hard rolls, sliced swiss cheese, ham and tomatoes and even some hard boiled eggs.

Mideast hot dish
Eggplant-pepper-tomato-chickpea stew* with rice;  roasted or steamed green beans if you have any left; melon

Pasta - simple is good
Fresh tomato-basil-garlic sauce with pasta*;  Cheese bread  - slice good bread thickly.  Put grated cheese on top.  Broil or bake until lightly browned. Add a little minced garlic to cheese before cooking if desired.
Beans - jazzed with salsa
I think it would be fun to chop up some hot and sweet peppers, watermelon, radishes and just a teaspoon or so of garlic.  Add some fresh lime juice or rice vinegar.  Cilantro if you have some.  Or even fresh basil.  Maybe just a teaspoon or two of honey or sugar.  If you have one or two more tomatoes that need to be used up - chop them up and throw them in too!  Taste - adjust sweet/hot/acid tastes as desired.
Serve with beans and tortillas.   Soft with crunchy.  Cooked with fresh.   Nice.


Black eyed peas with mustard greens  (adapted from Still Life with Menu by Mollie Katzen)
Simmer 3 cups of dried black eyed peas in 6 cups of water.  Cook gently, partly covered,  about 30-35 minutes.  Check every so often to make sure there is enough water.  Add six cloves of minced garlic about halfway into the cooking.
When black eyed peas are just about tender, add 1 1/2 t. salt, 6-8 cups, packed, of chopped mustard greens (you could also use collards or a mixture.  Collards will take longer to cook than mustard greens).  Mollie Katzen also recommends adding two chopped leeks.  You could add one large chopped onion instead.  A chopped red sweet pepper would also be nice.  Cover and simmer a few more minutes, until vegetables are tender.
Season to taste with freshly ground pepper.  Good served with hot pepper vinegar or other hot sauce.

Eggplant moussaka
This dish requires a little time and assembly but is well worth it.  It has three basic parts: the eggplant, a tomato meat sauce and a bechamel, or white, sauce - with some cheese. (Note - I am going to talk about bechamel on Thursday in my Hands On post.)

1.  Eggplant - slice one large eggplant into 1/2 inch slices.  Roast on a well oiled baking sheet until it is tender - about 30 minutes at 400 degrees.  (Note: some people like to lightly salt the slices first, let sit about an hour, rinse and dry.  This removes any bitterness which might be present in the eggplant. )  You could also dip the slices in beaten egg and then crumbs and bake or fry.  I think roasting is the simplest.

2.  Meat sauce - make a basic tomato meat sauce - use about a pound of lamb or beef.  Saute some onion and garlic in olive oil, add a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes or equivalent amount of fresh chopped tomatoes and about 1/2 cup red wine.   (If you use fresh tomatoes, you will need to simmer the sauce longer.)  The key thing in this sauce is the seasoning.  Simmer with one bay leaf.  Also add about 1 t. ground cinnamon and 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley.  Salt and pepper to taste. 

3.  Bechamel - make a basic white sauce.  Melt 1/4 cup butter.  Whisk in 4 T. flour and cook on low heat about 10 minutes.  Add 3 cups warm milk (whole milk is nice for this recipe.) You want a fairly thick sauce.

4.  Grated cheese - use kefalotyri if you can find it.  If not - asiago or romano or other sharp tasting cheese.

Assembly --Make two layers of meat sauce and eggplant (Note - if you don't have enough eggplant you can supplement with sliced roasted zucchini or sliced cooked potatoes.)  Spread half the meat sauce on the vegetables.  make another layer of vegetables and meat sauce.  Spread the bechamel on top and add a generous sprinkling of grated cheese.  Bake in a 350 degree oven about 45 minutes - until top is lightly browned.  Let stand about ten minutes before serving.

This is one of those recipes that can be varied according to what you have on hand.  The amounts listed should serve about 6.  If you have leftovers,  refrigerate in a covered dish - will keep a day or two.  You can decide how "wet" or "dry" you like your muesli - the amount of milk required for soaking will vary also according to the state of your oats.

Rolled oats (thick or old fashioned - not quick cooking) - about 2 cups (you could also use other rolled grains like barley or wheat or a mixture)
Wheat germ or ground flax seed or oat bran or other "supplement" (optional) - about 1/3 cup
Milk - just enough to soak the oats - about 1 cup
Honey or maple syrup or other sweetening - about 1/4 cup
One apple, grated (or you could use a pear)
1-2 T. fresh lemon or orange juice
Chopped nuts - I really like toasted hazelnuts - about 1/2 cup
Raisins or other chopped dried fruit (dried pears are nice) - about 1/2 cup
Fresh raspberries or other fresh berry or even chopped peaches or nectarines

Add milk and sweetening to oats - let soak an hour or so or even overnight.  Grate apple, mix with citrus juice.  Stir together oats, wheat germ or flax seed if you are using that, apple, nuts and berries.  Serve with more milk or with yogurt.

Eggplant stew
Cubed eggplant - about 3 cups (No need to peel) If you are concerned that the eggplant might be bitter, salt the cubes and drain about 1/2 hour - then rinse and use)
Sliced onion - about 1 1/2 cups
Fresh or canned chopped tomatoes - about 2 cups
Chickpeas - canned or cooked fresh - about 2 cups
olive oil
Saute eggplant in about 1/4 cup olive oil for about 5 minutes.  Add onions and saute another 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes and chickpeas.  Bake in a heavy covered dish or pot in the oven at 350 degrees about 45 minutes - until all vegetables are very tender.   Serve with rice.  Excellent served the next day.  Optional - add cubed feta cheese and/or calamata olives at the end of the baking.  If dish seems too soupy, remove cover and bake another 15 minutes or so.

Fresh tomato-garlic-basil sauce (uncooked) -  for pasta (that, you need to cook)
This is the way to go when you have good tasting ripe tomatoes and fresh basil.

Chop fresh ripe tomatoes - no need to skin or seed.  You might want to drain off some of the juice (save for soup or just drink it).
For each cup of sauce, add 1/2 t. minced fresh garlic. 2 T. fresh basil chopped or cut into fine strips, 1 T. olive oil, 1/4 t. salt or more to taste, a little black or red pepper to taste.  If you have fresh mozzarella, a few cubes of that would be good to add.

A footnote about rain and making do
If you have not yet read the letter from Jack that was in your box, I hope you put that on the top of your to-do list.  He speaks eloquently about all the rain we have been having this year and the challenges it presents to him as a farmer.  We, as cooks and eaters, are partners with him in this challenge.   Our job is to make do with what we have.  The human race has been doing this for millenia, with varying degrees of success.  In the case of the CSA boxes, we have a lot to work with and I for one am grateful for the beautiful produce we have received.  Even more so because I know how difficult some of the planting and weeding and harvesting has been.

My education in making do began when I became the partner cook to my husband's garden starting about eight years ago. If we had a good tomato year, we canned a lot of tomatoes.  If the beets got wiped out by a brazen Bambi we got along without beets.  If we had a disappointing germination rate from the bean seeds - we ate a little more zucchini.   I don't know what the SE Minnesota climate and rainfall will be next year and the years after.  I do know that I will need to learn to be an adaptable and grateful cook - and make do with what I have. 

Jack said the farm has received 20 inches of rain in June and July this year and that the normal annual rainfall in this area is about 32 inches.  It is also interesting to know that the average June and July  rainfall in the area of the farm is about 8.5 inches -- meaning that this year's rain has been about two and a half times more than normal.   Considering that level of excess, I am very impressed that the boxes have been as good as they have been.  That is due to hard work and good-on-the-ground decisionmaking. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tried and True - Zucchini Bread

Zucchini bread has gotten a bad rap.  I hope you will give it another chance.   I have recently spoken to several friends who have unpleasant childhood memories of being fed all manner of foods into which grated zucchini had been surreptitiously added.  Parents had good motives like adding nutrition and not wasting fresh vegetables.  But some of the kids felt - well - betrayed.

If you are one of those people suffering from childhood zucchini PTSD I ask you to reconsider your attitude toward zucchini bread.  Zucchini bread is just one example of a whole host of quick breads or even cake containing vegetables or fruits:  pumpkin, applesauce, banana, cranberries, carrots, winter squash, parsnips - even beets.  It is worth exploring the possibilities of baking muffins or breads using these ingredients.  They add flavor, nutrition, moisture and texture to what might otherwise be pretty boring baked goods.

I am still working on perfecting my quick bread chops.  One thing I am trying to do is cut back on the sugar and fats and still retain good flavor and texture.  There are a lot of muffins out there - especially commercially made - that are serious calorie bombs.  I worry about all those people who think they are doing themselves a favor because they have eschewed a donut and chewed a muffin instead. The muffin may or may not be a good idea - read the label.  Carefully.

This zucchini bread batter could be baked in a loaf pan,  round or square cake pan or a muffin tin.  You just need to pay more attention to cooking time - bread is done when a sharp knife or cake tester comes out clean after being inserted into the middle.  Also, bread will slightly pull away from sides of pan and it will be slightly browned on top.

If you are going to the trouble to bake this bread, I recommend making two loaves.  This freezes very well.  You could cut a cool loaf into slices and individually wrap.  Then you have fast food in your freezer and you don't need to buy a calorie bomb at a convenience gas station because you are as desperate to fuel your body as you are your car.  You also could give this to children instead of the ubiquitious industrial granola bars.  This does require some advance planning and work, but after a while it will seem just a normal part of life.

Zucchini Bread (makes one large loaf in a 9 x 5 pan)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl - 
2 1/4 cups flour (you can use all or part whole wheat pastry flour.  You can also add a tablespoon or two or three of something like bran or ground flaxseed.  Just decrease the amount of flour accordingly.
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 cup white sugar and 1/2 cup brown sugar (You could probably cut back on this depending on your tastes.  I would not cut more than 1/2 cup total)
Mix wet ingredients in another bowl:
2 eggs
1/3 c. oil (walnut or hazelnut oil would be nice.  Even a light olive oil) or melted butter
2 t. vanilla
1/3 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk

Grate fresh zucchini - do not peel.  If you don't cut off the stem end you can use it like a little handle if you are grating by hand.  You will need about 1 1/2 cups grated zucchini, lightly packed.
(you could substitute grated carrot for the zucchini.)

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix - don't overdo - mix just long enough so the dry ingredients are fully incorporated.  Then stir in zucchini.

Put in a lightly greased pan and bake about 45 minutes for a 9x5 loaf pan.   Baking time will depend on the size and shape of the pan you use.  (See comments above re: doneness and baking time.)
Optional - add 1 cup raisins or walnuts or a combination.  I used 1/2 lightly toasted black walnuts because that is what we have around our house.  In my opinion black walnuts are a great complement to zucchini bread.  And I used 1/2 cup golden raisins.  I think sunflower seeds might work well in this bread.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Focus: FINGERLING POTATOES (Solanum Tuberosum)

Potatoes are popular. Potatoes are big business. And it is no wonder. They grow well in different climates and soil types (including poor soil), they are storable, an inexpensive source of starchy calories, and nutritious. They are versatile - they can be boiled, steamed, baked, roasted, fried, mashed, grated and dehydrated. They can be curried, turned into soup or put into bread. Potatoes are the number one vegetable crop in both the world and the United States.

After the grains wheat, rice and corn they are the world's most grown food plant. They are eaten in about 130 countries. One reason they are so popular is that only one acre of land can yield up to 10,000 pounds of potatoes. Ratio of land to nutritious calories is a big deal in this world of increasing population and urban development and declining soil quality.

Wonky but interesting facts about American potato growing and consumption - impress your friends with your arcane knowledge at the next party you go to:
Here in America, we eat about 131 pounds of potatoes per year per person, up from 110 pounds per person in the 1960's. (By way of comparison, in mid-century Ireland -  before the murderous potato blight - the per capita annual potato consumption was 2,920 pounds. That is not a typo. That is what happens when a large population of poor people have little else to eat.  A famine is what can happen when you do not have a diverse food supply.)

You will not be surprised to learn that half of the potatoes we consume are turned into chips, french fries or dehydrated products, like instant mashed potatoes.

U.S. Potato acreage decreasing
By eating Featherstone Farm potatoes or any U.S. grown potato for that matter,  you are bucking a trend. The trend is a decrease in the area of U.S. land from which potatoes are harvested. The 2010 fall crop of U.S. potatoes was harvested from 896,100 acres - down 4% from 2009 and the smallest acreage since 1951! This is part of an overall trend of a decrease in the growing of fresh vegetables in our country. I will talk more about that in future blogs.

Potato diversity and the future of potatoes
Back a few thousand years ago in Peru and the Andes, about 5,000 varieties of potatoes were grown.
I am happy to report that the Peruvians still take their potatoes very seriously and are working to preserve potato diversity and the consumption of potatoes.  You can learn more here - the web site of the International Potato Center in Peru. http://www.cipotato.org/cip/about.asp

Types of potatoes
All the different kinds of potatoes can be grouped into three main categories - starchy, waxy and all purpose (somewhere in between starchy and waxy). The type of potato is important, because it affects preparation choices. 

Starchy potatoes - like russets- are better for baking or mashing, because they tend to be dry, fluffy and mealy. Waxy potatoes are best for boiling, steaming and roasting because they are most, creamy and firm. If you try to mash them they tend to get gluey. (Most folks think waxy potatoes are best for potato salad but I have recommended in this blog to use russets for that purpose. The potato salad debate continues.) All purpose potatoes can be used in a variety of ways, depending on the potato. A Yukon Gold, for example, is considered an all-purpose potato but probably a little too starchy for boiling. When I try boiling them they fall apart, which is usually okay if you are making soup.

Fingerling potatoes
I have become a big fan of fingerling potatoes for their superlative taste and texture. My husband has grown French fingerlings for about five years now, saving potatoes for seed each year (the seed potatoes are expensive!). Our crop is getting better and better. I use the potatoes for boiling, roasting (whole or cut up) and salad. I boil extra and refrigerate them - they make great American fries.

Russian fingerlings
The fingerling of choice at Featherstone is the Russian fingerling - similar in taste and texture to the French fingerling and used interchangeably. Peeling these potatoes is not necessary - the skin is fairly thin and tender. After it is boiled the skins are easily removed if you wish to do that. But try not to - most of the vitamins, minerals and fiber are in the skin. Just scrub the potato well with a vegetable brush before cooking.

Russian Fingerling potatoes can be stored like any winter potato - in a dark, cool (about 45 degrees if possible), well ventilated and dry place for up to about 8 weeks, depending on conditions.

A little history
Potatoes are now a stable crop in Russia and neighboring states. According to The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook, it took awhile for Russian peasants to accept the potato - they considered it unclean and un-Christian. Potatoes were called "Devil's Apples".

Spanish explorers brought home the potato in the 16th century, but it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that potatoes began to be accepted in Europe, often led by consumption by royalty. It took Peter the Great and some pressure from big government to achieve potato acceptance in Russia. Potatoes were served at royal banquets. (If they were Russian fingerlings they would have been well suited to a royal table.) What started as food for aristocrats ended up as food for the masses. (This phenomenon can go both ways. Look at polenta. Food for Italian peasants is now gourmet fare at fancy restaurants.)

Potatoes are high in fiber and rich in vitamins C and B6. They are only 132 calories per cup. They contain significant amounts of manganese and more potassium than bananas. Like turkey, then contain tryptophan. Tryptophan is a soporific - now can you see why everybody falls asleep in front of the TV after eating quantities of turkey and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving?

Roasted fingerling potatoes
Scrub potatoes. Leave whole or cut into uniform pieces. Mix in a bowl with a small amount of olive oil - just enough to barely coat the potatoes. Bake at 375 degrees about 30-40 minutes, depending on size of pieces. The tip of a sharp knife should be able to pierce the potato with no resistance when it is done. Optional embellishments - add chopped fresh (or dried) rosemary or thyme to the olive oil. Scatter pieces of onion, shallot or garlic cloves amongst the potatoes.

Grilled potato squash packets
Slice or chunk potatoes, zucchini and onion. Mix with olive oil to coat lightly. Add thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Place on squares of foil - on one side. Fold over foil and seal edges by folding over. Pierce in one or two places to let steam escape. Grill about 30 minutes, turning once.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hands On - Canning Tomatoes

Are you ready?  We are going to learn how to can tomatoes -- using the boiling water method - with halved or quartered raw tomatoes with no added water or juice.  I will attempt to explain every step - but if I am not clear or you want more details, then see the USDA's guide to canning tomatoes.  It can be found at this link. 

Or you can look at the Ball canning instructions, which are a little shorter and simpler.  http://www.freshpreserving.com/pages/all_recipes/215.php?recipe=148&recipID=192&catID=

1.  Start with the best ripe tomatoes you can find.  Some people prefer the meatier Italian plum or roma type tomato for canning.  Others like the "round kind".  The most important thing is that they be ripe (not overripe) and flavorful.  Featherstone CSA members can order preservation shares - e mail featherstoneputtingupgroup@gmail.com or call Becky at the farm- 507-864-2400 for details.  You will need about three pounds of tomatoes per quart jar.  Depends on how much trimming is necessary. One bushel of tomatoes weighs about 53 pounds and the U of M publication I have said you would get from 15-20 quarts from a bushel.  Quite a wide range but there you have it.

2.  Equipment and supplies needed are:
Canner (borrow one if you don't have one) and rack.  You can use any big old pot as long you have some kind of a rack that will keep jars off the bottom and there is enough room for 2 inches of water above the jars as well as another 2 inches for space for the water to boil up.
Canning funnel, jar lifter, canning jars (you can use pint or quart), lids, rings, paring knife, measuring spoons, cutting board, pot for boiling water for blanching tomatoes (to skin them), slotted spoon or strainer to lift hot tomatoes out of blanching water, four bowls - one for hot tomatoes pre-peeling, one for peeled tomatoes and one for peels and cores,  a sauce pan for holding rings and lids in hot water,  dish cloth and towels for wiping up, citric acid, salt(optional)

3.  Wash jars, lids and rings well in hot soapy water.  Rinse well.  I turn jars upside down on a clean towel until I am ready to fill them.  Hold rings and lids in simmering - not boiling - water.

4.  Fill canner about half full with warm water and start heating.  (You may need to add more hot water later - Once the jars are lowered into the canner there needs to be about 2 inches of water above the tops.)

5.  Prepare tomatoes.  Wash and remove stems.  Place a few tomatoes at a time in a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes - watch for skins to crack a little.  Remove tomatoes and place in a bowl of cold water to cool so you can handle them.   Peel and core tomatoes.  Put skins and cores in your compost.  Put peeled tomatoes in a separate bowl.  It is most efficient to prepare all the tomatoes you are going to need at once.  Unless you have more than one canner, you probably shouldn't do more than 21 pounds at a time.  You can start all over again when the first batch is being processed.

6.  Add 1/2 t. citric acid to each quart jar and salt if desired - 1/2 to 1 t. per quart.  If you are using pints, reduce salt and citric acid by half.  You can substitute 2 T. bottled lemon juice per quart of tomatoes for the citric acid.  The citric acid/lemon juice is important.  A water bath canning process is safe only with high acid foods.  This guarantees that the acid level will be high enough and your tomatoes will be safe to eat.  The salt is for taste - not for preservation or safety.

7. Using the canning funnel, pack each jar with raw tomatoes.  Press down firmly - because tomatoes will shrink during processing.  Use a chopstick or other non metallic tool to remove air bubbles - slide down the side of the jar.  Make sure to leave 1/2 inch head space - the distance between the top of the tomatoes and the top of the jar.

8.  Wipe jar rims with clean cloth or paper towel.  Place lids and rings on jar and close - but not too tight.  As soon as you feel resistance, add another quarter turn.  You want the air still left in the jar to be able to escape during processing.

9.  Place jars on rack and lower into the water in the canner.  The water should be hot but not simmering if you are doing a raw pack.  Add boiling water if necessary to bring level 1 or 2 inches above the jars.  Do not pour boiling water directly on the jars.  Cover the canner.

9.  When water comes to a full rolling boil, start counting processing time. Boil gently and steadily for the time recommended  - which in the case of raw pack tomatoes is 85 minutes for altitudes of 1,000 feet or less.  I think most of Minnesota is in this category. Minneapolis is 837 feet.  (Note - altitude matters.  Canning guides will tell you what time to use for your altitude. )

Note on processing time.  I have been canning raw pack tomatoes for a long time and have never processed them for more than 45 minutes.  I must have missed the big news when the canning gods decided to change it to 85 minutes.  I will change my ways but I am looking forward to finding out why this recommendation changed so much.

10.  Carefully remove jars from the canner with a jar lifter.  (if you have a rack that "hooks" onto the canner - lift that up first) Place jars on a dry folded towel or other surface that is not cold.  (the jars might break)  Cool, untouched, away from drafts.  If you hear little popping sounds, smile.  That is just the lids sealing.

11.  Next day.  Test each jar for sealing.  Put your finger on the middle of the lid and press.  It should not move up and down - it should stay in a slightly concave state.  Remove rings.  Wipe down the jars with a damp cloth.  Label with date and contents.  Store in a cool dry place.  If a jar doesn't seal, refrigerate and use it up.  Or freeze it or recan it (repeat the whole process).

Dig In - Canning

Can you can?  I think you can.  Can.  If you decide you want to.  So let's talk about it.

If you are going to eat local and eat well in the Upper Midwest, then sooner or later you will need to embrace home food preservation - on some level.  I know, I know.  You are barely keeping your head above water just putting meals on the table - on a regular basis - with seasonal fresh vegetables.  You probably are already feeling a little bad about not having time to deal with something that is getting old in the back of your vegetable bin.  (For me it is one giant beet.  It is fine but it isn't getting any younger.  It eyes me reproachfully every time I reach in and pull out some purple beans or a broccoli spear or cucumber.  Soon.  Soon I will get to the beet. It is also possible that I will fail.  And that the beet will end up in the compost.  I hate it when that happens.  But it is not the end of the world now, is it?)

You might be asking yourself - how can I possibly pull off food preservation?  Maybe a little corn freezing.  But CANNING?  Is she nuts?  (If you think I am nuts now - wait until we get to fermentation.  I am saving that for the fall.  You'll be more ready.) 

Do I have time?   Is it too complicated?  What are the chances that I will poison somebody?  Why should I even worry about canning since I can get anything I need at the grocery store?  These are reasonable questions.   Probably the best way to answer them is to spend a little time on "how" part of canning.  Like anything else, if you take it one step at a time it is manageable and not scary at all. It might even be exhilarating.   You know the old saying - a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.   Take a few steps forward.  See how it feels.  If you like it -- keep moving.

Decide that canning is something worth doing
So what is a first step?   Think about all the benefits of home canning.  Think about the fact that this takes some time and effort - no doubt about it.   Is this something you are motivated to do?  If not - that is ok.  Maybe stick to freezing for a while.  Or get a food dehydrator.   Or just keep cooking what is in season.  Get a winter share from Featherstone Farm, and decide that tomatoes are for summer.

I went to a canning class yesterday put on in Winona by the University of Minnesota Extension Service.  Here are some of the reasons the people in the class gave for why they like to can or are interested in doing more canning:
  • Home canned food tastes better.  
  • You control the contents of the jar and can buy or grow food based on what is important to you, such as avoiding pesticides or supporting local farmers. 
  • You can feel the pride of a job well done and have the satisfaction of knowing that you have valuable knowledge and skills that increase your self reliance.
  • You will always have gifts on hand that will be both useful and appreciated.
  • You will save money.  
  • You can create or continue family traditions, recipes and memories.  Some families look forward to events for canning tomatoes or freezing corn or drying apples just like they look forward to holidays.
  • You can enjoy the feeling of security and convenience that comes with knowing that you have plenty of food in the larder.
  • You can find recipes that suit your own personal tastes and preferences. 
If you are still not convinced, see what the Ball canning jar people say in answer to the question Why should I can?  http://www.freshpreserving.com/pages/benefits_of_canning/314.php

This is why I preserve food
 Last year my husband and I made apple juice and canned it.  We also made grape juice, which we froze.  When our grandsons visited a few weeks ago they tried both.  Sam, the 5 year old, said without prompting "This is the best apple juice I have ever tasted."   BINGO!  This made every moment of work worth it.  Both Sam and his brother Wes also enjoyed their grape juice.
-Grandpa's grape juice makes me happy and healthy.

I love Grandma's homemade grape juice.
First steps
Once you have decided that canning is worth trying - or that you would like to expand beyond your current canning activity level -- then what?

Get a good book about canning
I cannot possibly tell you everything you need to know in a humble blog.  We are talking safety and science here.  Fresh food has enzymes.  Bacteria are in the air.   Food decays unless that natural process is halted.  If you are going to preserve food you need to think about temperature, acidity, oxygen and moisture.  This is not that hard - but there are a lot of details that cannot be ignored.

You will need some written materials to guide you. I have a lot of cool old canning books and guides, but thanks to Suzanne Driessen at the U of M  I am now persuaded that I need to assemble some new materials.  The world of home canning has changed a lot since I started canning in 1970.  1994 was a key year - that is when all the "experts" decided to update all kinds of protocols about temperatures, canning times, acidity levels - you name it.  So get at least one good book or pamphlet that was published after 1994.

A word to the wise
I caution you against just going out on the Internet and finding some site that looks fun or interesting.
When it comes to canning, you really do need to follow instructions.  I normally chafe at rigid cooking rules - but with home food preservation I am convinced that you need to toe the line.  Stick to trusted sources and follow directions and you will have nothing to worry about.  You can download free materials - but make sure you  stick to reliable and authoritative sources when it comes to both recipes and techniques. 

Sources for reliable information

National Center for Home Food Preservation -  If you are even slightly interested in exploring the wonders of home food preservation, bookmark this site.  The link here will take you to a list of their publications, as well as publications of the University of Georgia, which as far as I can tell is the go-to place for home food preservation information.  You can download specialized fact sheets depending on the project you want to undertake.  I am going to purchase a copy of So Easy to Preserve, 5th edition, for $18.00.  It contains the latest recommendations from the USDA and lots of step by step instructions. You can print a copy of the order form here.  http://www.uga.edu/setp/

United States Department of Agriculture
Here is the link to the 2009 USDA canning guide.  You can download it for free.  If you want to buy a hard copy there is information at this link for how to order it from Purdue University.  I am going to do this too.  http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html

University Extension Services and the Answer Line
The University of Minnesota has excellent resources to help you learn about home food preservation.
See this link for a list of fact sheets. http://www.extension.umn.edu/topics.html?topic=6&subtopic=35#websites  If you have particular questions and would like to talk one to one with an expert, you can call the Answer Line 1-800-854-1678 Mon-Friday 9-12 and 1-4 or leave a message.  This program is run by Iowa State University and Minnesota Extension helps pay for it so YOU can use it.  Our tax dollars at work.

Canning supply companies
Another book I am going to get is the most recent Ball canning guide.  I have seen it and it is very user friendly.  It is also very inexpensive.  Here is where you can get it online.  (The Fresh Preserving website is a great resource.)  I think you can also find it at good hardware stores or places like Fleet Farm.  Right here, for only $5.99, you can order the 100th anniversary edition of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.  http://www.freshpreservingstore.com/detail/TCL+14400214001

I hope this preliminary discussion has piqued your interest.  Now I have to go.  I need to get organized because today I am going to can some tomatoes - just so I can show you how to do it in tomorrow's Hands On post. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Inspiration - Week #13

In this week's Grande box:  Napa cabbage, mixed salad greens, arugula, white onions, watermelon, summer squash (zucchini and yellow), potatoes, cherry tomatoes, roma-type and slicing tomatoes.  (some of you might get some radishes)

Do you have a working stove, sink and refrigerator in your kitchen?  A counter and floor that is not covered with power tools?   Yes?  You are a lucky stiff.   This is what my kitchen looks like right now. 

I am not complaining, because this mess is a temporary inconvenience and the end result will be a new kitchen floor.  Our old floor got wrecked when the dishwasher (not that old) sprung a leak and water got under the floor and it bubbled up and started looking dimply all over and then I knew the floor was done for.  When my appliance guy, Hoogie Hanson (no relation but I value our relationship), comes to reconnect the offending dishwasher, I will have to ask if he can take on the nonfunctional burner on my gas cook top - and the broken heating element in my top oven.  I am doing my part to keep the economy going.  Sigh.

But even if my kitchen is currently somewhat of a disaster zone, you still have to eat this week.  So let's talk about some meal ideas.  But wait - I do want to share one day brightener.   Did you know that starting in 2011, all children in England ages 11-14 will be required to take cooking classes?   Hats off to the Brits.  They are taking serious steps to reverse obesity trends and improve the health of their people.  Did you take a cooking class in junior high or high school?  Do your children even have that option available to them?  I am going to keep my eye on this English initiative.  Of course the key will be in the curriculum.  I hope they teach them how to cook some vegetables properly.  The English do not have a good reputation for doing right by their vegs.  The heartbreak of overcooking.

Now --  let's talk about some menu ideas.  First, don't let the size of the Napa cabbage scare you.  This vegetable cooks down quite a bit.  You can handle it, I promise.  And I hope you are not getting tired of tomatoes.  I plan to talk about tomatoes a lot this week -- it is all part of getting ready for winter.  And isn't it nice to get some mixed salad greens again?  Time to make a jar of vinaigrette if you don't have any around.  The arugula is in beautiful shape.  I provide a recipe below for cooking arugula - briefly - in a caramelized onion sauce.  I also encourage you to save out a least a few leaves to eat fresh.  They have a lovely peppery bite.  Would be nice in a sandwich with some roasted vegetables or even egg salad.  If you have any beets around, some roasted beets would go well in a salad with arugula.

As usual, where you see an asterisk you know there is a recipe at the end of the post.

Hurry, Curry!
Potato - onion curry*, rice,  fresh tomato chutney*, plain yogurt (side dish) , melon.

A toast to cabbage
Napa cabbage braised in beer with kielbasa*, buttered egg noodles or spaetzle, tossed lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes  (Save some of your cabbage for making cole slaw for burrito night)

Fun Fiesta
Burritos with refried beans, onions and zucchini (grate or shred zucchini and saute with onion before using as burrito filling), cheese optional;  fresh tomato-chile salsa, Mexican cole slaw*; melon with a slice of fresh lime

Date or guest night pasta dinner
Antipasto of cured meat, olives, roasted peppers; Pasta with caramelized onion and arugula sauce*; bread; Lemon sorbet or ice or granita; espresso - serve with a piece of dark chocolate.

Lazy weekend breakfast
Frittata with onions, sweet peppers, zucchini, basil, tomatoes and mozzarella or feta cheese; roasted potatoes; zucchini bread or muffins (recipe will be in Saturday post)


Potato onion curry (serves 4)
About 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
About 3/4 pound onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 t. finely minced fresh garlic
1 inch piece fresh ginger - finely minced
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. turmeric powder
salt to taste - about 3/4 t.
2-3 T. oil
Saute all the spices in oil for about 5 minutes.  Add onions and cook in oil 5 more minutes.  Add potatoes, cover and cook until vegetables are soft.  Add water or broth if mixture seems too dry.  If you have fresh or frozen peas, add a handful at the very end of cooking for nice color, flavor and extra nutrition.
Serve with rice, plain yogurt on the side and tomato chutney

Fresh Tomato Chutney (1)
Chop a half pound of tomatoes and one onion.  Add to a bowl with the following ingredients:
2 T. vinegar
2 t. chili powder
1 t. sugar
1/2 t. salt
Fresh chiles, minced, or red pepper flakes, if desired
Saute 1 t. mustard seed in 2 T. oil.  After a few minutes, add the rest of the ingredients.  Simmer slowly until thickened.  Store in refrigerator.

Fresh Tomato Chutney (2)
Chop together:  1 pound tomatoes; 1 large onion;  fresh chiles, to taste; salt, to taste

Napa cabbage braised in beer with kielbasa (serves 4)
One cup sliced onions
1 T. butter or olive oil or a combination
1 bottle (12 oz.) of beer
1 pound kielbasa or other polish type sausage, sliced
Two pounds shredded or thinly sliced cabbage (you could use white cabbage, savoy or napa.  You also could use collards or kale)
salt, pepper (red or black or both) to taste
Heat a large pot, add the butter/oil and then the onions.  Stir, cover and cook on medium low heat about 5 minutes. Then uncover, raise heat, add sausage and cook until onions and sausages are browned.  Add cabbage, beer, salt and pepper.  Cover and cook for about 30 minutes - stirring occasionally.  You want the cabbage soft but not mushy.

Cole slaw with a Mexican twist
Finely shred or slice napa or other cabbage - about 1 cup cabbage, lightly packed, per serving.  Mix with the following dressing (about 1 T. per serving).  Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or toasted pumpkin seeds or both,  if available.

1/2 cup oil (olive or canola)
2 T fresh lime juice
1/2 t. salt
1 t. sugar
1 t. chili powder
1/4 t. (or to taste)red pepper flakes or minced chiles, according to taste

Caramelized onion and arugula pasta sauce (enough for 4-5 servings of pasta - one pound)
1/4  cup olive oil
About 6 cups thinly sliced onions
1/2 t. salt
About 1/2 cup dry white wine, maybe a bit more
About 2 cups arugula, stemmed and sliced - lightly packed
Optional - about 1/2 cup chopped or sliced proscuitto or pancetta.  (La Quercia, an Iowa company making a line of artisanal cured pork products,  sells proscuitto crumbles would which would work well here.  Not cheap but adds a lot of flavor and a little goes a long way.)

Saute onions in oil over medium heat about 15 minutes (maybe cover a few minutes to hold in a little extra moisture).  Add salt, stir, lower heat and cook for about another 30 minutes - until onions are a rich brown and caramelized to your liking.  Add white wine and meat, if you are using it.  Cook another 10-15 minutes.  (You can be cooking the pasta now if you want.  Or this sauce can be made ahead and finished off when pasta is ready.)

Finishing the sauce - heat onions, add arugula and cook for 5 minutes.  Stir hot cooked, drained pasta into the sauce and serve.   Nice optional topping - chopped toasted walnuts and grated parmesan

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tried and True - Cream of Tomato Soup

Cream of tomato soup is comfort food. The recipe in this post is for plain old comfortable cream of tomato soup. Not tomato bisque (they call it bisque when they want to charge more) or some other fancy concoction.  Just plain old tomato soup. The kind you eat with a grilled cheese sandwich. The kind you can serve to a child. The kind that you crumble a few crackers into. The kind that shines when you make it with home grown and vine ripened canned or frozen or fresh tomatoes.

I know some of you are contemplating canning tomatoes this year. I hope you are able to take on that challenge, if for no other reason than you will be able to enjoy cream of tomato soup next winter with the fruits of your labor. Next week we will have a kind of tomato celebration here on the blog. I will be talking about canning - tomatoes in particular. But if canning isn't going to happen for you this year - let me suggest the all-time easiest way to preserve some tomatoes.  And after that - a recipe for cream of tomato soup.

1. Obtain desired quantity of ripe flavorful tomatoes (CSA members can order tomatoes for preservation from Featherstone Farm "Putting Up Group" - 507-864-2400. See the last e-newsletter for an online order form. Monday afternoon is deadline for this coming week.)

2. Wash tomatoes. Cut into halves or quarters. Arrange tomatoes in one layer on a baking sheet (I recommend some wax or parchment paper on the sheet to avoid sticking).

3. Place sheet in freezer - no need to cover - until tomatoes are frozen and solid.

4. Bag up frozen tomatoes in freezer bags. Repeat until tomatoes are used up.

5. When it is time to cook with the tomatoes, the skins will slip right off when they thaw. You can chop or puree them when they are partially thawed. Great for tomato soup or sauces

Here is a great way to use some of your canned or frozen tomatoes.

Presentation matters.  Soup in pottery bowl, with wooden spoon
Cream of Tomato Soup – Serves four (Or make a double recipe and freeze some)

3 T butter or olive oil or a combination
3 T flour
2 t. finely minced fresh garlic or 3 T. finely chopped onion or shallots
1 cup milk (skim, lowfat or whole), heated but not boiled
1/2 t salt, 1/4 t. pepper, 1 t. sugar - white or brown
1 quart home canned tomatoes


1 quart chopped fresh tomatoes, cooked for about 10 minutes and pureed (I use a food mill - you can do that with hot tomatoes - and it will separate out the skins and seeds.  If you are going to use a blender or food processor, skin tomatoes first by blanching in boiling water.)


1 quart skinned frozen tomatoes, thawed, finely chopped or pureed and cooked 5-10 minutes


1 quart (32 oz.) good quality commercially canned whole or crushed tomatoes

Saute onion or garlic in butter or oil until soft – about 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook over medium heat another 3-5 minutes.  Whisk in hot milk until mixture is smooth. Add tomatoes.  Season to taste, heat gently for a few minutes and serve. Optional – add a spoonful of pesto or 1/2 cup of chopped cooked spinach or chard or a spoonful or two of chopped fresh herbs. Tarragon would be nice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Focus: CHILE PEPPERS - Capsicum Annuum

Today Peggy is picking peppers, but not pickling them.  We are going to learn some things about chile peppers - the fresh kind, mostly - and not dried peppers like ancho, chipotle or pasilla.

Banish blandness
We use sriracha sauce in our house a lot to add heat and flavor.
Reading about chiles might be a bit unappealing for some of you, who might think "spicy" food is not fun but is painful.   But bland is boring, so I will try to help you tiptoe ever so gingerly into spicy territory.   Come on.  Walk on the wild side.  You might even discover a taste for heat and chile flavor you didn't know you had and it will expand your culinary horizons forever.  As an average Midwesterner with above average curiosity about food, I admit that chile peppers are still not an important or basic part of my daily food life.  But I am pleased to report that I have a much stronger relationship with jalapenos and red pepper flakes than I did five years ago and I am better for it.  Habaneros still scare me but I am working on that.  Baby steps.

Mexican soul
There are thousands of varieties of chile peppers - all colors, sizes, shapes, flavors and heat levels.  They are all part of the same botanical family - capsicum.  They are eaten and enjoyed around the world in many cuisines and cultures, but most of the world's chile crop is grown and eaten in Mexico.  Some have called chiles the "soul" of Mexican cooking.  (See A Cook's Tour of Mexico by Nancy Zaslavsky)  Chiles provide heat, but they also provide flavor.  For some dishes, it is important that a certain variety of chile be used.  For others the variety does not matter so much.   If you just want some heat - red pepper flakes might be all you need.

How hot is that pepper anyway?
One general rule of thumb is that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is.  And often red or orange chilis are hotter than green.  There are exceptions to this rule - just to keep things interesting - and frustrating -  for would be chile cooks.  It also is generally true that much of the heat is in the seeds and "veins" of the pepper - so often people remove those and use the chile flesh only.  About one square inch of chile flesh generally will yield about 1 T. minced chile.

There is a scientific method for measuring the heat in chile peppers or foods containing chiles - called Scoville units.  The Scoville test places a piece of chile in slightly sweetened water and dilutes it.  A ranking of 10,000 means you can put the chile in 10,000 times as much water and still taste the heat.
Jalapenos come in at 2,500-5,000 units.  Poblanos or anchos at 1,000 to 2,000 units.  Chipotles at 5,000-10,000.  Habaneros at 100,000 to 350,000.  That is not a typo.  See why I am scared of them?  Police grade pepper spray weighs in at 5,300,000 units.  See why I am not going to mess with cops?  Here is more on Scoville heat unit rankings if you are interested.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville_scale#List_of_Scoville_ratings

 For the purposes of the ordinary home cook, Scoville units don't usually come into play.  One reason is that taste and heat are unpredictable in any given pepper.  Most jalapenos are quite hot, but 1 out of 20 might be usually hot or even unusually mild.  That is why food writer and cook Mark Bittman advises tasting peppers - even a tiny taste - before deciding how much to use.  He says "You gotta taste.  Really, it is the only foolproof method."  He also has a reassuringly relaxed attitude about cooking with chile peppers - "Use what you like, what you can find, and as much as you think tastes good."  Let the Mexican food experts debate the relative merits of Chilaca, Peron, Macho, Piquin or de Agua while you play around with jalapenos (and their smoky dried version - chipotles), serranos, anaheims and poblanos.

Safety and first aid
If you somehow end up with a fiery mouth, don't go for the beer or tequila.  Go for milk or yogurt.  Or maybe a piece of bread, cucumber or some plain cooked white rice.

If you are cooking with very hot peppers, use common sense.  Some people wear gloves.  Either way, be very careful to wash your hands and equipment well after working with very hot peppers.  Avoid touching your face and especially your eyes.

Jalapeno on the left, serranos on the right.  See how smooth and shiny they are?
Storage of fresh chile peppers
Fresh peppers should keep for 1-2 weeks or even a bit longer, wrapped loosely in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.  The peppers should be firm and have smooth, shiny skins.  Because fresh chile peppers are perishable, peppers are often dried, made into pastes or canned.

Gustatory Sweating
You might never have heard this term before.  I hadn't.  But I have seen this phenomenon for sure.  My husband loves to eat super hot foods until a sweat breaks out all over his head.  Sometimes the sweat even drips down into his eyes.  This makes him happy,  that is all I can say.  I'll take my endorphins in other forms, thank you very much.  Some people say that G.S. cools you off.  I'd rather have a popsicle or run through the sprinkler.

Some common chiles - starting with the hottest - and a few recipes
Diana Kennedy is a widely recognized expert in Mexican cuisine.  For a lovely detailed discussion of thirty two fresh and dried chiles, along with color pictures, preparation tips and recipes -  see her book From My Mexican Kitchen - techniques and ingredients   http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/special/2004/mexican/#axzz0x6EomVkn

Habaneros look like a teeny bell pepper.  They have a complex flavor and are Mexico's hottest pepper.  They are best fresh and never skinned or peeled.  They are often used whole as a flavoring in a sauce, pickles or an ingredient in a strong chile sauce.  Diana Kennedy says its "distinctive and appetizing flavor and aroma" is more potent when the pepper is asado (charred/roasted).  She suggests using just a tiny 1/2 inch piece the first time you cook with it.  She also says it has a "fruity" flavor which goes well in tropical fruit salsas.

Cayenne is a long, slightly gnarled and thin very hot pepper,  found in both red and green colors.

Serrano chiles are finger sized or smaller - about 2" x 1" inch, tapered.  It is an everyday chile, sometimes referred to as chile verde.  You can find it in red or green forms.
Recipe: three minute salsa  http://www.cookstr.com/recipes/three-minute-salsa

Jalapeno chiles are the most widely used fresh chiles in America and are available fresh year round.  They are considered medium hot to hot.  (I think they are just hot!)  They are used cooked and raw in salsas and other dishes.  They may be charred, peeled and seeded and stuffed with cheese, meat or fish.  When ripened to red, dried and smoked they are known as chipotle chiles.
Recipe:   http://www.cookstr.com/recipes/quick-cooked-tomatillo-chile-sauce

"The chile poblano is, in my opinion, one of the most delicious foods in the world."  Thus says Diana Kennedy, the "high priestess" of Mexican cooking.  It is mild, green and fleshy, large and triangular (2 1/2" across and 4 1/2" long).  Poblanos are good roasted and skinned, stuffed or cooked and added to other dishes.  They are always cooked - not used raw in, say, salsas.  When ripened on the plant and then dried they are called ancho chiles.
Recipe:  http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Pork-and-Poblano-Tamale-Pie-357537

California Anaheim chiles are mild and similar to poblanos.  The Chile Verde del Norte grown in northwest Mexico is probably the same or very similar. (Note: chiles can taste different depending on the soil and climate conditions in which they are grown.)
This chile is about 5 1/2 " long and 1 1/4 " wide with little tapering at the base.  Because the skin can be tough, it is often charred, skinned and deseeded and then stuffed or cut into strips or dried whole.
Here is a recipe for roasted green chile stew which uses both Anaheim and Serrano chiles.  This web site has a mother lode of chile recipes, as it is sponsored by a farm which specializes in growing chiles.

More recipes - for no cook pasta sauce with chiles.  Since I just wrote about cooking pasta, these recipes might be interesting to check out.  Italian-Mexican fusion.  I am for it.

Special update bonus - two chili sauce recipes here  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/dining/25appe.html?ref=dining

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hands On - Refrigerator Pickles

If you like old fashioned bread and butter pickles you might like to try this recipe.  If you are thinking about becoming a pickle maker, this is a good gateway pickle, since you don't have to process them.  I have had very good luck storing these pickles in the refrigerator the entire winter. 

Slice cucumbers about 1/8 inch thick or less.  You can slice by hand or  use a slicing disc from a food processor or a mandoline.  You will need about 9 cups to start.  The volume will "shrink" after you salt and drain them.  If you can get pickling cucumbers they work the best.  Slicers will work fine, too.  No need to peel - just scrub them lightly with a brush.
Slice onions very thin - you will need 1-2 cups, depending on how oniony you like your pickles.

Mix the sliced cucumbers and onions in a large bowl with 2 T. kosher or pickling salt.  After about 30-60 minutes, rinse and drain vegetables, using a colander or large strainer.  Pack cucumbers and onions into 3 pint jars (or 1 quart and 1 pint).  This works best with a jar funnel.

While the salt and cucumber mixture is doing its thing, make pickling syrup.  Stir together in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and cook 1-2 minutes the following:

2 cups white sugar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 heaping t. each - celery seed and mustard seed
3/4 t. turmeric

Pour the syrup into the jars, using a canning funnel.  Cover the jars, wipe them off and store in the refrigerator once they have cooled to room temperature.

Dig In - Dry Pasta

If you can boil water you can cook pasta.  If you can cook pasta you will never lack for a quick, nutritious homemade meal.  The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.  (Note - this post primarily concerns dried pasta - the kind we associate with Italy. We will save the topic of Asian style pasta - usually just called noodles - for another day.)

I can't remember my first pasta cooking experience, but it probably involved good old elbow macaroni.  Chances are I used the macaroni to make our classic family hot dish, which included browned ground beef, cooked macaroni, condensed cream of tomato soup and Velveeta cheese.  In those days we did not even use the word pasta.  We had spaghetti, macaroni and wide egg noodles.  Period.  Oh, yes - and occasionally a box of lasagne noodles for special occasions.  And it was all Creamette or American Beauty brand.

Americans love pasta
I have come a long way in the decades since my first macaroni hot dish, and so has America.  Fresh and dried pasta can be found everywhere, in over 80 shapes, widths and lengths.   And we must love it, because every year Americans eat about 20 pounds of pasta per capita.  We don't love pasta as much as the Italians, Swiss, Venezuelans, Tunisians and Greeks.  The Italians, of course, top the list at 62 pounds a year. 

U.S. pasta consumption is on an upward trend - partly because people are looking for more low cost meal options.  Pasta is still a very good value, even with the rising prices due to the rising price of durum wheat.  And it stores well on the shelf and goes with just about everything.  I like having dry pasta around because  I know that as long as I have spaghetti, olive oil and fresh garlic or shallots,  I can make a great meal with whatever other vegetables, meat, cheese or herbs are on hand.

Mark Bittman calls pasta a "reliable and lovable staple", adding that it is "cheap, convenient and can be prepared in thousands of different ways."  And I have never met a child who did not love pasta - with butter and cheese if nothing else.

A little history
No - Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to the West from China.  He certainly might have brought some back from his travels, but records show that pasta was being eaten in what was to become Italy 1,700 years before he was around.  Chinese records dating back as far as 5,000 B.C. show the eating of noodles.  So before we start thinking that we modern Americans are so smart, we have to remember that the Chinese figured out pasta a really long time ago.  Of course, we invented Franco American spaghetti in a can, so we have something we can be proud of too.

How to cook pasta - a few tips
Use lots of water - at least a gallon per pound of pasta.   Make sure it is at a full boil when you add the pasta.  Salt the cooking water - about 2 T. per gallon.  Cook uncovered.  Keep the water boiling and stir frequently.  Don't add oil or butter to the cooking water - it will interfere with the sauce adhering later.  If you have problems with pasta sticking,  then you need more water, more stirring or better quality pasta.  Cook the pasta until al dente ("to the tooth") - so it is just barely done and is a little chewy.  Don't trust pasta cooking times on the box - they are a good guide but you need to taste the pasta yourself.  You will get it right with a little practice. Overcooked pasta is an abomination unto the Lord.

Drain the pasta and serve right away.  The only time to rinse pasta is if you are going to use it in a pasta salad and need to stop the cooking.

The Barilla Group website has a nice section on cooking pasta if you really want to study up on this topic.  http://www.barillaus.com/Pages/Pasta101.aspx

Pasta and nutrition
Two ounces of dry pasta (the regular kind, not whole wheat) contains 210 calories, 8 grams of protein (about 10% of the recommended daily allowance), 1 gram of fat and 42 grams of carbohydrates.
When you are planning to serve pasta as a main dish,  you should probably allow for 4 ounces of dry pasta per adult serving.  If you are feeding a teen aged boy, allow for 6 ounces.  A one cup serving of cooked spaghetti contains 200 calories

Pasta is a very nourishing food. It is easily and slowly digested, helps you feel full longer and is low in fat, sugar and salt.  The fattening part of pasta is the sauce.  If you use a moderate amount of sauce and keep the sauce relatively low in fat and calories, a pasta meal is a wise choice.

What is the best brand of pasta?
The best dry pasta is made with 100% durum wheat, which is refined and ground into a yellowish white flour called semolina.  It contains more vitamins and proteins than ordinary white flour.  Many excellent brands of pasta are made in the U.S. with wheat grown in the U.S. - so you can be patriotic and eat good pasta at the same time.  Avoid pasta that is too cheap - chances are it is made with inferior wheat.   Like everything else, you will need to pay for quality.  But good pasta is still very affordable.

There are many perfectly acceptable brands of dry pasta - especially if you are looking for basic shapes like spaghetti, linguini or penne.  The Italian based Barilla Group is the world's largest manufacturer of dry pasta - probably for a good reason.   I often buy Barilla - it is made in the U.S.,  is of excellent quality, reasonably priced and available in a wide variety of shapes and styles.  Barilla has a new line of 51% whole wheat pasta which I have tried and found to be quite good.  (Sometimes whole wheat pasta has an unappealing texture.)  They also have a PLUS brand which is even higher in nutrition, which I have not yet tried.

I have also used a lot of DeCecco pasta over the years and it has fulfilled its long reputation for being a high quality pasta.  I am pretty sure it is still made only in Italy.  De Cecco is on the high end when it comes to price - but they also carry an organic line of pasta.

I generally have not found it necessary to buy expensive specialty artisan brands of dry pasta.  I prefer to save my money for buying quality meat, vegetables and really good Parmesan cheese for sauce.  If any of you have found a good quality specialty dry pasta which you think is worth the extra cost - please share your secret.

Homemade pasta
It is worth trying homemade pasta.  All you need is all purpose flour, some eggs, a little salt, a mixing bowl and spoon and a good rolling pin and rolling surface.  Don't invest in fancy equipment until you are sure you are going to use it.  I have had my hand cranked Atlas pasta machine for about 35 years now and do enjoy it.  When you consider how expensive a simple restaurant pasta meal can be, you could justify the expense of an Atlas machine even if you only drag it out twice a year.   Look for a future Hands On post on homemade pasta.  It will be fun to try some squash ravioli with sage butter sauce when the winter squash season rolls around.

Some pasta sauce recipes

I recommend always having at least one type of "long" pasta around - such as spaghetti, thin spaghetti, or linguine.  And a tubular kind such as penne or mostaccioli.   Different shapes of pasta are suited for different sauces.  For an excellent discussion of matching pasta with sauces, see http://www.barillaus.com/Pages/Pasta101.aspx

Peggy's basic tomato sauce
Heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot.  Saute 1/2 cup each of celery(or fennel), carrot and onion.  (1/2 cup chopped mushrooms also would be nice) along with 1 t. finely minced fresh garlic - for about 10 minutes or until vegetables are soft.  Optional - add and brown about one pound ground meat after vegetables are soft.  Add two quarts of chopped or crushed tomatoes - fresh (peeled), frozen or canned, one cup full bodied red wine, 1 t. salt, 1/4 t. pepper,  1 bay leaf, 1 t. crushed fennel seed, fresh or dried basil and oregano (about 2 t. each if you are using dried, 4 T. if fresh)  If you have pesto, use a spoon or two of that instead of dried herbs.  Simmer over low heat, uncovered, until sauce reaches desired thickness.  Adjust seasonings to taste.

Pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes
(Note - there are a lot of good pasta recipes on the Barilla web site - link below.) If you still have fresh basil and green beans around from this week's CSA box - this is a great dish to try.  Nutritious, filling, easy and flavorful.  If you don't have linguine - use spaghetti or vermicelli.  A long kind of pasta would be best with the pesto sauce.  http://www.barillaus.com/Recipes/Linguine-with-Pesto-and-Green-Beans.aspx

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman
If you do not already own this book and you want to cook more pasta - you might check this book out.  It has an excellent section on pasta and noodles, including the following lists:
32 pasta dishes you can make in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta
12 alternative toppings for pasta
27 vegetable and legume dishes to toss with pasta
12 classic pasta dishes
and last but not least --  20 quick and easy ways to spin fast tomato sauce
This adds up to 103 different pasta ideas.  Mamma Mia!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inspiration - Week #12

In this week's grande box:  Summer squash (yellow and zucchini), fresh basil, tomatoes, corn, watermelon, broccoli, purple beans (they turn green when cooked), peppers (2 hot, one sweet)

I had a great time last Friday afternoon at the Ridgedale library drop site.  It was a pleasure to meet some of you in person and hear how you are doing with your CSA challenges.  When someone tells me that they tried eggplant for the first time and my recipe worked for them, I feel like I hit a home run.  Thanks to those of you who were able to take the extra time to say hello.

You will be able to make lots of special - but easy -  meals this week with the items in your boxes.   If you don't have any onion or garlic around the house, you will need to get some.  Some potatoes too if you decide to try the Salade Nicoise.    Have you checked your olive oil supply lately?   You don't want to run out just when you need to make a vinaigrette. 

Before we get to menu ideas and recipes for this week - a few projects to consider. 

DEALING WITH THE BASIL  You will probably have a nice bunch of fresh basil in your box.   I am planning on turning some of mine into pesto tonight.  I will use some fresh in a saute and a zucchini salad and add the rest to a vinaigrette.   Basil is pretty perishable, as you may have learned the hard way.  Avoid procrastination.  This project really goes fast if you have a food processor.    And while you are at it, make a simple vinaigrette with oil, vinegar, a little Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and some finely sliced basil.  Maybe just a teaspoon of honey, too.  The dressing will keep well and be very nice on a simple tomato salad. You can use the same food processor you used to make the pesto.  Two projects and you only need to wash the processor once!  (Pesto recipe - see blog post for June 23)

DEALING WITH THE CUCUMBERS.  I will be telling you all about how to make refrigerator bread and butter pickles in my Hands On post on Thursday.  The cukes should be just fine in the refrigerator until then.  If you don't like refrigerator pickles all that much, here are several very nice cucumber recipe ideas.  http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/cool-summer-cucumber-dishes/

CANNING TOMATOES ON HOLD -  I am NOT going to talk about canning tomatoes this week, like I promised I would.  (sorry) I think it would be better if I waited until next week, for lots of reasons.  But don't worry - I will get to it.  Tomato season is not over yet.

TOO MUCH BROCCOLI? - I have to say that the amount of broccoli in my grande box was quite impressive.  If you just can't deal with all your broccoli -- then blanch some and freeze it for later.  It will take only a few minutes.   Don't wait too long to decide.  You want to freeze fresh broccoli, not tired or pathetic broccoli.

Meal ideas for this week (recipes below for items marked with an asterisk)

More Than a Hot Dish
Minnesota Summer Saute with pasta*; Chilled watermelon

Ooh la la 
Classic French Salade Nicoise with basil vinaigrette* (Julia Child's version with a few comments from yours truly) ; French bread; Grapes or summer soft fruit like peach or nectarine
There are only a few times a year when tomatoes and green (or purple that will turn green when you cook them) beans are fresh and in season.  For me - that means Salade Nicoise.  Use nice plates and cloth napkins.  Have a glass of wine.  Pretend you are in Provence.  You will feel refreshed.

Stir Fry of the Week
Broccoli with oyster sauce*, rice; Melon slushie*

Lazy Sunday Brunch
Broccoli quiche; Broiled tomato halves (spread a little pesto on half tomatoes - broil til bubbly); Cornbread (add a cup of cooked corn kernels if you have some extra corn around)  See July 3 post for
cornbread recipe.

Meat and Three (Corn, Zucchini, Melon)
Prepare your meat or protein of choice - even a ham sandwich if that suits you.  Or a creamy cucumber salad with cottage cheese and yogurt (see the link above in the cucumber paragraph)  Serve with corn on the cob, zucchini ribbon salad* and cold melon for dessert.


Summer Saute with Pasta
Bring pasta water to a boil and cook the pasta while you are working on the vegetables. 
Saute the following in olive oil: onion or garlic; summer squash, cut into little sticks (batons if you want to be swanky); sweet bell pepper (diced or sliced); corn kernels.  Stir in a spoonful or two of pesto if you have it or else just add a generous handful of sliced basil.  Cover for a few minutes until all vegetables are soft.  Add a little pasta cooking water if too dry.  Serve over cooked pasta (linguine is nice)

Salade Nicoise
This version from Julia Child is authentic.   If you cannot abide anchovies, leave them out.  Plain vinaigrette is called for but I think basil vinaigrette would be excellent.  Or use plain and snip some fresh basil over the salad.  I like to make individual servings of the salad - or you can make one big salad for sharing if you can count on your fellow eaters to be good at sharing.  There is a little prep time involved - cooking the potatoes, the beans, washing the lettuce - but it comes together quickly.  You can even prep the veggies ahead.  You can use any type of lettuce, though the butter lettuce is very nice.  By all means try to find the special small French Nicoise olives.  (As a Fillmore County girl I can admit that I am a bit envious of those of you who can find Nicoise olives within 40 miles of your home.  But then I only have one stoplight in my county and no traffic, so I guess that almost makes up for olive deficits.)

Broccoli with oyster sauce
This is just a simple stir fry, using oyster sauce in addition to soy sauce.  Oyster sauce can be found in Asian groceries and many "mainstream" groceries.  The link below will bring you to a good version of this popular dish.  You could add mushrooms or meat - beef is especially nice - or peppers.  http://find.myrecipes.com/recipes/recipefinder.dyn?action=displayRecipe&recipe_id=226240

Melon slushie
This is my invention -- try it and see what you think.  Freeze chunks of melon - about two cups per serving.  Make a simple sugar syrup (1 cup sugar to 2 cups water) by heating sugar and water and boiling about a minute.  When syrup is cool, add juice and grated rind from one or two limes or lemons or mixture of the two.  Add a little fresh mint too if you have some.  Put frozen melon and syrup into a blender - about 2 cups melon to 1/2 cup syrup.  Add a few extra ice cubes if desired.  Blend until drink is slushy.  Serve.  (You could add sparkling water or gingerale if you want a carbonated drink.)

Zucchini ribbon salad
This is a fun way to use a lot of raw zucchini.  I usually find raw zucchini boring.  But something about shaving the zucchini into thin slices (with a peeler) really makes a difference. I used hazelnuts instead of the pine nuts because that is what I had on hand.  You could use walnuts too.   I didn't have any Parmesan, so I used some blue cheese.  Feta would be excellent, as well.  The fresh lemon juice is important in this salad.   http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Shaved-Zucchini-Salad-with-Parmesan-Pine-Nuts-360251

Broccoli Quiche
There are quiche recipes all over the internet and in many cookbooks.  All you really need to do is blanch cut up broccoli until just tender and drain well.  Put the broccoli in the bottom of an unbaked pie crust along with a cup or two of grated cheddar cheese.   Maybe add a little grated onion or chopped and drained tomatoes.  Add some diced ham or cooked sausage if you have some and want a heartier dish.  Make a custard with milk and egg - 4 eggs and 1 1/2 cups of milk. Or 5 eggs and 2 cups milk if you are using a large pie pan or baking dish.   Lowfat milk is fine but whole milk adds a richer taste and texture.  Add 1 t.  of salt and some pepper to the egg mixture and  pour over cheese and vegetables.  Bake about about 375 degrees until firm in the middle - about 30 minutes.  You could make this in a buttered baking dish without a crust - here in Fillmore County we just call this "egg bake".  If you do it this way I would turn oven down to 350 degrees.