Monday, May 31, 2010

Inspiration - Week 1

I picked up my Grande box #1 Monday morning at the farm.   Now safely stored in my refrigerator: mixed salad greens,  a head of leaf lettuce,  big bunches of radishes, rhubarb, spinach and asparagus and last but not least a tidy aromatic bunch of fresh cilantro.  It took me half an hour to DEAL WITH THE BOX, and that included clean up.   I even took a few big bowls of used water out the back door and threw it on the thirsty strawberry plants.  Put the trimmings into the compost, too.  Waste not want not.
 I was efficient and you can be too.  I trimmed, washed and dried first the spinach, then the mixed greens and last the cilantro.  While the batches sat in the water and I waited for the little bits of grit to sink, I did other little chores like trim 1/2 inch off the bottom of the asparagus before I stood it up in a few inches of water in a wide mouthed jar.  I didn't wash the radishes - just trimmed off the tops and bagged them.  I bagged up the head lettuce for washing later.  While one bunch of greens/spinach waited in the washing water, I spin dried another bunch.  You can get a lot done in half an hour if you don't mess around.  Later on this week I will be glad I took this time to prep a bit.   Make yourself do this too - you will be happy you did.  (For details on salad washing and spinning, see my April l3 post)

My plan for the next 22 weeks is to supply you with useful and maybe even sometimes entertaining information so you can get your beautiful food out of the box and onto your plate.  Every Tuesday morning will be dedicated to Inspiration - a week's worth of meal ideas - with a few recipes thrown in.  I will also be posting Wednesday through Saturday mornings with more recipes and other tidbits.

Some meal ideas for this week.  Items marked with an asterisk * - see recipes below
Main dish salad, whole grain bread,  rhubarb crisp *
Toss mixed greens with a simple vinaigrette .  Add your favorite cheese, meat, hard boiled egg, fish, nuts, fresh or dried fruit. 
Some possible combinations to stimulate your imagination:
cheddar cheese, sunflower seeds, apple, raisins
blue cheese, grapes, dried figs, walnuts
ham, bacon or sausage, swiss cheese, sweet onion, radishes
tuna, hard boiled egg, onion,  cut up asparagus

Pasta with asparagus sauce*, green salad using mixed greens or leaf lettuce.   A simple baked custard made with honey or maple syrup would be good with this meal - adding needed protein as well as a sweet finish.   (Sorry about that little glop of asparagus on the plate - I never claimed to be a food stylist.  This is real life we are talking about here.)
Japanese spinach salad * - Serve with rice and grilled, broiled or baked chicken (or other meat or fish or tofu)  A first course of simple miso soup with a few cooked spinach leaves or chicken broth with some sliced spring onions would make this meal special.

Poached Eggs on a bed of lightly sauteed spinach (if you have used most of your spinach in the Japanese salad, just put the eggs on toast or English muffins and use less spinach) - serve with  baked or roasted potatoes, cooked polenta, or other grain on the side.  Serve with hollandaise sauce *  if you are feeling celebratory.   If you have extra salad greens - add a side salad.

Tortillas with beans,  shredded leaf lettuce and radish-cilantro salsa *  Fresh melon or pineapple would be a nice addition to this meal.  Add any extra fresh cilantro to the cooked beans - stir in a few minutes before serving. 

**Recipes **

Rhubarb crisp
Cut rhubarb into 1/2 inch pieces.  Add about 3 T. sugar per cup of rhubarb.  Mix well and put rhubarb into a baking pan.  Sprinkle with topping.  Bake at 375 degrees about 1/2 hour - until top is browned and rhubarb is bubbling.
Topping:  mix together until crumbly:  1 cup flour (white or whole wheat), 3/4 cup old fashioned rolled oats, 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar, 1 t. ground cinnamon, a pinch of salt and 1 stick of butter, cut into small pieces. (Tip - double this recipe and freeze extra.  Use with any fresh fruit for a quick dessert.)

Pasta with asparagus sauce
Chop asparagus stalks (about 4-5 per serving), setting aside tips.  Cook stalks in about 1/2 cup water until tender - not more than 5 minutes.  Cool, then puree in a food processor, blender or food mill.  Set aside.
Heat about 2 T. olive oil or hazelnut oil in a pan - add a few cloves chopped garlic or a handful of chopped onion (more or less depending on amount of asparagus) and lightly saute, along with asparagus tips.  If you have some shitake mushrooms or other mushrooms, saute those too.  After about 5 minutes, add asparagus puree.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Optional - add a few tablespoons cream or creme fraiche.  Serve on top of cooked pasta, along with grated parmesan or other hard grating cheese.  A spoonful of chopped, toasted Minnesota hazelnuts as a garnish makes this dish truly special.  Pine nuts would also be good.  As would chopped fresh chives.

Hollandaise sauce - 
copied from my April 27 blog:  For the hollandaise all I needed was one raw egg yolk,  2 T of fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 a juicy lemon) and 6 T. cold butter (that is 3/4 of a stick)  I whisked together the egg yolk and the lemon juice in a small saucepan.  Then - over very low heat - I gradually whisked in one T. of butter until it melted.  Then another T. and another until I had a beautiful thick bright yellow sauce.  The trick here is to keep the heat low, add the butter one piece at a time and keep stirring gently.   Some recipes tell you to use a double boiler but I have never found it necessary

Japanese style spinach salad
Steam spinach (cook it over- not in- an inch or so of boiling water) for 3-4 minutes.  Cool, squeeze dry and chop.  Add dressing: 1/4 c. soy sauce, 2 t. sugar, 2 T. peanut or vegetable oil,   Optional: 2 T. sesame seeds (lightly toasted in a dry skillet and then crushed) and 1/2 t. toasted sesame oil.  This is enough dressing for about 1 1/2 pounds of spinach.

Radish-cilantro salsa (based on recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)
Dice fresh radishes and add some diced cucumber if you have it.  For every 2 cups of radishes, add 1/3 cup chopped red onion or scallion (green onion), 1 t. minced fresh garlic and 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves. Add zing with a few tablespoons of fresh lemon or lime juice or red wine vinegar and -of course- chopped fresh chile peppers or red pepper flakes to your taste

Next post: 8 a.m. Wednesday - when we will Dig In - and learn more about olive oil
I welcome your comments on the blog - or you can e mail me at

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Can't stand the heat?

"If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen" goes the old saying.   It was pretty hot yesterday in my kitchen, but I managed to stay in the game.  We had salad for dinner - greens with a simple oil and vinegar dressing.  It was a whole meal because I added some raisins, chopped apple, toasted black walnuts, some cubes of cheddar cheese and a few sliced spring onions.  Oh yes - and some radishes - the first from our garden.   Plus some bread on the side.  A tasty and sensible meal considering the heat index was way up there.

If you follow the news, you can't go for more than a few days without reading or hearing about the latest theory for why America has a growing obesity problem.  Massive soda pop consumption,  lack of exercise,  constant snacking, portion sizes, too many rich restaurant meals  -- these all seem like reasonable explanations for the problem.  I would like to add air conditioning to the list.  I think we eat too much in the summer because most of us are insulated from summer heat most of the time.  In many ways, we have lost our sensitivity to and even respect for the seasons. 

My home is not air-conditioned and I like it that way.  (Well, I can't lie.  We do have individual A/C units in two bedrooms, but not ours.)    I think it helps me make better meal and menu decisions- in keeping with the season.  It also helps us reduce our carbon footprint.   If it is hot and humid outside,  I don't make pork chops, gravy and mashed potatoes.  I try to use the oven less and the top of the stove more.  If it is hot I just don't feel like eating quite so much.  That is a good deal for me - because I really do like to eat and too often eat more than I need to.

I am not advocating for suffering or extreme discomfort.  I am for fans, open windows and lemonade breaks on the porch.  Loose cotton or linen clothes.  A cool shower.  Napping on a blanket under a shade tree.  Picnics - with fresh summer food.

Speaking of fresh summer food - Featherstone CSA boxes are coming next week.  Are you ready?  I will be picking up my first box on Memorial Day, so I can blog about it by Tuesday morning.  I am pretty sure there will be salad greens in that first box.  Time to check the pantry.  It would be a good idea to have the following basic items around all of the time:  extra virgin olive oil,  fresh garlic, a few kinds of vinegar, fresh lemons, kosher or sea salt and a pepper mill for grinding fresh pepper.  Some Dijon style mustard is also good to have on hand.     A salad spinner is handy too.  (see my post for April 13). 

Have a great Memorial Day weekend.  I am looking forward to sharing cooking and eating experiences with you as the CSA boxes come forth.   And one more thing -- before we cooks feel too sorry for ourselves because of our hot kitchens, we should reflect a moment on the experiences of our partners in food production -- the field workers.  Ain't no air conditioning in the fields, okay?  And if they can sweat for beautiful food, then I guess I can sweat a little too.

Friday, May 21, 2010


 I think most people these days are suffering from TMI - too much information.  When it comes to cooking, the amount of information out there is overwhelming:  cookbooks (hundreds of new ones each year), recipe web sites, cooking shows, slick magazine articles, you tube videos and - yes - food blogs.  With all that no wonder so many people say they don't have time to cook.  They are too busy reading and watching. 

Given all the competition for your attention,  I am honored you have taken some of your precious time to visit this humble blog.  I don't want to keep you away from the stove any more than absolutely necessary.  So here goes - the cookbook recommendation I promised in my last post.  

I think Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is destined to become a classic - some would say it already is.  It first came out in 1999 and in 2009 the 10th anniversary edition received a James Beard Award which is a big deal in the food world. 

The Washington Post called this book "a more hip Joy of Cooking".  And the Jessica's Biscuit cookbook web site called it "a kitchen companion for a new generation of home cooks".  I did a little checking and the best price I found was at  The book lists for $35. and on Amazon the hardcover is $19.25.  You can get a soft cover of the original 1999 edition for even less.  This guy has written a LOT of cookbooks.  Try to restrain yourself.  Start with just one.

If you are not quite ready to commit to the book - check out Bittman's weekly column at the New York Times - The Minimalist.  If you don't have time to follow it every week - don't worry I will be doing it for you.  If I see something really good I will share.  For example -- If you click this link you can see recent columns on asparagus pesto and rhubarb crisp.  Since those items will be in your CSA boxes soon you can read these recipes and be ready.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Friend Irma

My name is Peggy and it has been one week since I bought my last cookbook.  It was From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce Third Edition by the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition.  I did it for you.

I have been buying and studying cookbooks since I was about 10 years old.  It started quite innocently, with the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls.  (Pretty progressive for the 50's.  BOYS and Girls!)

Betty was bullish on Bisquick.  She gave me confidence. I got really good at creamed chipped beef on toast. ( I am pretty sure I learned that from my Mom and not a book.)  I was making bechamel (basic white sauce) like a pro practically every Saturday afternoon.   It was my own idea to add peas.  By fifth grade or so I was hooked.  I had moved beyond kid cookbooks.   I would spend hours with my Mother's 1943 edition of the Joy of Cooking.  By the time I was in high school I had built a relationship with Irma S. Rombauer.  I trusted her.  I went to her for advice and inspiration.   To the extent that I have turned into an adult of good character, I think I owe more to Irma Rombauer than to confirmation class. 

She was a traditionalist who encouraged creativity.  She would agree that experimentation is fine, once you know the fundamentals.  She honored kitchen bravery. 

Rombauer on herbs in the 1943 edition of Joy of Cooking (p. 763):  "My rules are elastic, culled from a number of herb-growing friends and authorities with assailable but unbending convictions.  I fully expect some protest about whatever I might say, for social ostracism seems to follow in the wake of a vagrant  savory or misplaced camomile.  Epicures are insistent upon wedding the right herb to the right dish and in some circles only the brave venture forth on a doubtful alliance.  It is advisable to suppress your iconoclastic urges until you know your herbs, then use them as you please."
Lest Mrs. Rombauer be accused of being a spoilsport, she continues: "However, a break in the conventions cannot be much worse than a split infinitive or a double negative and they have been known to creep into the best of families. "

If Irma was still with us, I am not sure that she would make it on the Food Network.  But her culinary legacy has stood the test of time and I am grateful for that.

You hardly know me now but maybe after a while I could be your Irma.  I would like that.
Meanwhile I think it would be a good idea for you to pick up a copy of the Joy of Cooking.  Used is just fine.  The one I go to the most is the 1974 edition.  I have the 1997 edition too.  That one is somewhat controversial among Joy of Cooking fans.  I can see its merits.  Any cookbook that has a pretty good recipe for both Shrimp Pad Thai and Tuna Noodle casserole (NOT with canned mushroom soup) can't be all bad.

Because we are getting to be friends, I thought you would like a peek at some of my cookbooks.  In my next post I will talk about a few more of my favorites.  And maybe you can share some of yours?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rhubarb Cake

I spent most of last Saturday at Featherstone Farm - it was our annual Spring Open House and farm tour day.  I had a great time talking with all kinds of people - "locals" and CSA shareholders from the Twin Cities alike.  Several families made the trip down to see where their food comes from.  Welcome to all the folks who are trying a CSA share for the first time and welcome back to those of you who have been practicing better living through vegetables for years.  We all have a lot to learn from "box veterans" like you.

In addition to having conversations with people, I also was serving my homemade rhubarb cake.  I think we went through about 180 pieces.  Some little kids had three or four pieces and that was okay with me.  You have to turn people on to rhubarb when they are young.  Vegetables too, for that matter.

In response to popular demand, here is my tried and true recipe for Rhubarb Cake.  I probably have made this over 100 times.  I served it to my Bed and Breakfast guests for years.  It is basically a simple buttermilk coffeecake.  It freezes well and is not too sweet.  You could eat it for breakfast or as a dessert or snack.

Ingredients for cake:
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or 1 cup each white flour and whole wheat pastry flour)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1 cup buttermilk (or maybe a bit more if the flour is on the dry side)
2 cups cut up rhubarb (about 1/2 inch slices)

Cream together butter and sugars.  Beat in egg and vanilla.  Mix together all dry ingredients.  Add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk in two or three portions.  When batter is uniformly mixed, fold in rhubarb.  Spread in greased 9 x 13 baking pan.  Sprinkle on topping and bake at 350 degrees about 40 minutes or until firm to the touch in the center and lightly browned on the sides.

Streusel topping:  mix together 1/2 cup flour, 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup brown sugar until crumbly.  I like to add about 1/2 cup chopped black walnuts - the flavor is very compatible with rhubarb.  If you like nuts and don't have access to black walnuts, try English walnuts, almonds or even hazelnuts.  There is getting to be a small hazelnut growing industry in SE Minnesota and it is worth seeking out some Minnesota Grown hazelnuts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Risotto is just Italian hot dish

One of my new favorite meal solutions is risotto.  Do not let the name intimidate you.  Do not let the fact that usually this dish is only found in fancy restaurants deter you.  Because risotto is really just creamy rice hot dish.  It is quick, as easy as Hamburger Helper and a great way to use a wide variety of vegetables.  You can make risotto with beets, winter or summer squash, mushrooms, cabbage, peas, carrots, spinach, asparagus - the list goes on.   There are infinite varieties of risotto - limited only by your imagination.  It is Italian grandma comfort food. You may get to like it more than macaroni and cheese.

There are only a few things to know about risotto before you get started.   First, you need to use a special variety of rice - such as Arborio, Baldo or Carnaroli.  If you can find it, use Carnaroli.  Many cooks think it is the best.   These are not brand names - just short, plump varieties that can absorb a lot of liquid and still have a nice "bite" and texture.  Second,  a good risotto requires flavorful broth or stock (it could be chicken, vegetable,  mushroom, shellfish or meat) as well as a little white wine.

Third, risotto always is better with a little grated parmesan and butter stirred in at the end. 

I have gotten to the point where I do not use an exact recipe - and I don't think you need to either. 
A few days ago I had some fresh morel mushrooms, spring onions and asparagus sitting around in my refrigerator waiting for their fate to be decided by me, their kitchen goddess.   I washed and sliced the veggies - ended up with about 1 cup asparagus, 1 cup mushrooms and 1/2 cup onions.   I set those out, along with about 5 cups of vegetable stock, some white wine and a little butter, salt, pepper and parmesan cheese.  Oh yes, and about 1/4 cup of chopped pancetta (you could substitute bacon or leave it out.)  Then I got out the rice and a heavy iron skillet.  You need a heavy pan so the rice doesn't scorch when being sauteed in fat.

The first step in any risotto is to saute some onion, garlic or shallot in some fat.  About 1/2 cup onions to 2 T fat.  You can use butter, olive oil or even bacon fat.  Sometimes I like to saute some bacon or pancetta right along with the onions.   After the onions are soft, then add about 1 1/2 cups of rice.   After a few minute of stirring over the heat, you will see little white opaque "eyes" in the rice and it will appear translucent.  You do not want it to brown. 

The next step is to add wine - about 1/2 cup per 1 1/2 cups rice.  White wine is most often used but you could use red wine, beer or even some broth with a teaspoon or two of wine vinegar added for acidity.
Cook the wine over medium heat until it is mostly evaporated.

Now it is time to add the broth (warm it first). Add enough so the rice is barely covered - and keep it at a vigorous simmer.  As the liquid cooks down and the rice is exposed, add more broth.  Add a little salt early on so it can penetrate the rice.  You will need about 5 cups broth for 1 1/2 cups rice.  Stir frequently as rice is cooking.  It should take about 20-30 minutes.  I added the asparagus about ten minutes before I thought the rice would be done.  As you gain experience, you can add vegetables early or later in the rice cooking process - depending on the size of the vegetable pieces and whether you prefer them soft or more firm.  You can add herbs at the beginning - when you are sauteing the onion or later - right before serving.  You can also stir in vegetable purees at the end, or bits of meat or fish.

The final step is to add about 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese and a tablespoon of butter.  (Italians would not add the cheese if making a shellfish risotto.  Just not done.)  Stir a minute or two with vigor to develop the starch,  turn off the heat, cover the skillet, wait a few minutes.  Add a little more broth if the rice is too thick.  Then serve and enjoy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

End of winter soup

It got down to freezing last night in Fillmore County.  This morning Frank reported that there were ice crystals on the row cover that he had thrown over the potato plants yesterday.  We also have begun to harvest and enjoy rhubarb.  So is it spring yet?

I hereby declare that winter ended about five days ago.  That was when I decided to clean out the vegetable drawer in our refrigerator and make a big pot of borscht.  I piled up the odds and ends of root vegetables that we have been storing all winter: potatoes, red onions, rutabaga, carrot, parsnips, cabbage and beets.  Plus some wintered over parsley from the garden.  I brought a quart jar of canned tomatoes up from the basement too.   And last but not least I thawed a small chunk of pork shoulder.  It made me feel SO GOOD to be able to use up all these good vegetables.  Another week and they would have been headed for the compost.  I think I just may start an annual tradition - the end of winter borscht - when we say goodbye to the root vegetables and get ready to start in on the asparagus and morel mushrooms.
After a serious session of vegetable peeling and chopping or slicing, I brought about 3 quarts of beef stock to a boil.  You could also use plain water or pork or chicken or vegetable stock.  Then I added about 10 cups of vegetables (mostly cut into 1/2 inch chunks) to the stock, along with the piece of pork.  The proportion of vegetables doesn't matter so much -- just make sure to have enough beets to make the soup turn lovely red.  After the stock came back to a boil I turned the soup down to simmer until everything was tender.  Then I removed the meat, chopped it and returned it to the pot.  At this point you can season to taste with salt and pepper and a few handfuls of chopped fresh parsley.  (Dried parsley flakes are icky.  Don't use them.)  I also added dried dill (not icky) Fresh dill is wonderful if you have some.  Then comes the really important part - the part that makes borscht borscht.  It is the addition of red wine vinegar (or fresh lemon juice) and sugar.  For this quantity of soup I suggest starting with about 1/3 cup of each.  Add a bit more if you like a more intense sweet sour experience.  This soup is best made the day before you plan to eat it.  Serve with a dollop of sour cream, yogurt or creme fraiche and hearty rye bread on the side.  And kiss winter goodbye.
Note - you could make this soup without any meat.  If you do that, consider adding a few cups of red kidney beans for additional nutrition and substance.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Getting ready - tools of the trade

This post is for old kitchen hands and newbies alike.  Newbies - just remember that we old kitchen hands are still figuring it out.  Cooking is all about  lifelong learning. 

Since the Featherstone Farm CSA boxes are starting the first week of June it is time for a brief overview on the topic of kitchen equipment and tools.   It is easy to fill up your kitchen drawers with really cool stuff.   I know.  Since we are friends I will show you how I know.  Here are two of my kitchen drawers. Uncensored.  Uncut.  Many of these tools were purchased at garage sales or secondhand stores.  Some from Williams Sonoma.  Some were gifts or handed down from cooking ancestors.  I didn't acquire these in one day or even one year or decade.  And you don't need to either.
The big white circle in the lower left is a ginger grater.   Nice but not necessary. Do you like my pink heart shaped cookie cutter?  The steak knives are pretty crummy.  But given the frequency of our steak eating they do just fine. My husband made the maple Asian style spoons.  They are pretty special.  Lots of stories in these drawers.  But no time for that now.

I consulted famous cook, restauranteur and local food advocate Alice Waters on this important topic of kitchen equipment.  Not in person.  But in her lovely book The Art of Simple Food, pages 22-27.  She and I are very sympatico on this topic.  She says:
"I am a minimalist in the equipment department. I don't like a lot of gadgets and I don't like cluttering up the kitchen with things I rarely use.  My friends tease me and call me a Luddite because I don't particularly like even small electrical applicances.  Instead, I love to use a mortar and pestle and have hands-on contact with the food.  That may be unusual these days, but I've found you don't really need that much equipment.  I tend to use the same few knives and pots and pans over and over again.  What matters is, they're comfortable, well-made, hard-wearing and long lasting. 
.... but if you're starting from scratch and outfitting a kitchen on a limited budget, spend your money on two or three very good knives and a few pieces of good, heavy heat conductive cookware.  These are truly lifetime investments.  Acquire other equipment piecemeal, when you can afford it, at your own pace.  Don't overlook garage sales and thrift stores for such equipment as cast iron skillets, pasta machines, baking pans and dishes and small tools."

If you don't have Alice Waters' book or don't want to buy it or find it at the library, then you could go to Jamie Oliver's web site, where I found a pretty decent PDF file on equipment that you can download from the home page.  I am getting to be kind of a fan of Jamie Oliver even though I have only seen one of the episodes of his new reality TV show.  I give him credit for bringing an important message to the "masses".  And his equipment list is straightforward and doesn't seem to be all about selling people more than they need.  So check it out.