Saturday, April 30, 2011

Healthy, wealthy and wise: Hot Dish your way

I don't watch TV cooking shows.  I cook instead.  Thus I am not a normal American.  But I am used to that by now.  People who keep track of these things tell us that nowadays Americans spend more time watching people cook on TV than they do actually cooking.  Oh dear.  When it comes to feeding ourselves, it appears that our culture is moving closer and closer to "all talk and no action".   I don't know about you, but I was brought up to DO things.  I bet you were too.  (Thanks, Mom for all the times you told me to put down my book and get off the couch.)

And thank you for spending precious possible cooking time reading this blog post.  I hope as soon as you are done you will cook something.  Anything.  From scratch.  With real food.   You will be healthier and wealthier if you do. 

And most important of all, you will be wiser.  Every time you create in the kitchen you gain experience.  Knowledge.  Confidence.  This is cumulative.  No one can take it away from you.  And here is the clincher -- eating the results of your labors will give you pleasure.  Gustatory gladness.  Sensory satisfaction.  Food fulfillment.

If you don't have a cooking project or meal in mind already, you might to play with the concept of Hot Dish.

There is no doubt in my mind that in millions of American homes every evening, families are dining on some version of Hot Dish.  One reason I know this is that Hamburger Helper and its 60 flavor variations constitutes about half of the "meal kit" industry - which in 2005 was a half billion dollar a year business.  Hamburger Helper has been around for forty years now.  Kind of amazing how the brand has evolved.  You can even buy Asian Helper (like Mongolian beef flavor) and several flavors of Mexican or Italian Helper.   America is indeed a melting pot.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of Hot Dish -  a one pot combination of protein (e.g. hamburger, tuna, the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breast, cheese); carbohydrate (e.g. rice, pasta, potato); vegetable (e.g. peas, onion, a little celery or carrot,  cabbage, spinach, bell pepper or even rutabaga) AND - some kind of sauce or binder -- something smooth and creamy and rich to hold it all together.  Like a vegetable puree or tomato sauce.  Maybe a little beaten egg and milk.  Creme fraiche.  Or homemade white sauce.  See this link to my post on white sauce (bechamel) for how-to details:  You do not have to use canned soup.  Or a magical powder that turns into a "creamy sauce" when water is added.

In my childhood years, Hot Dish was elbow macaroni, hamburger, chopped onion, cream of tomato soup and Velveeta cheese.   Now I am in Grandma years and I am older and wiser.  Hot Dish for us might be linguini tossed with olive oil, roasted garlic puree (homemade of course), capers, a can of sardines, a lot of fresh chopped Italian parsley and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan. 

Does your house have a signature Hot Dish?  Has it changed over the years?  Do you change it all the time depending on what seasonal vegetables you have around?  I encourage you to experiment.  Build your Hot Dish on the foundation of these four corners: protein, carbohydrate, vegetables (lots of these) and sauce or binder.  Use what you have.  Use what is in season.  Use plenty of vegetables.  If you are having a hard time getting started, look up some recipes for pasta e fagioli - the famous Italian vegetable soup with beans and pasta.  It is really just Hot Dish and it is good.  Here is one version:   NOTE:  I would definitely add more vegetables - maybe some chopped onion, spinach and green beans or zucchini.  Add a bit more broth if necessary.  The main idea is:  olive oil,  cooked dry beans, cooked pasta, broth (amount depends on how thick or thin you want the final dish), tomatoes, Italian herbs and various chopped vegetables.  Add a bit of sausage or pancetta for extra flavor.  Voila.  Hot Dish.

What I hope you take away from today's little sermon is this:  You can make Hot Dish without the assistance of meal kits or canned soup or weird little packets of dried secret spices, sodium and chemical thickeners or flavorings. Who knew?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Harvesting Watercress

If you are a Featherstone Farm CSA member, you are lucky to receive some of the best produce that SE Minnesota's fields can offer.  But the cuisine of SE Minnesota comes from more than fields - we can enjoy the bounty of streams and forests, too.   We can hunt for wild watercress on a sunny day in April.
Here I am, admiring a perky damp little bunch of watercress

April can be a challenging month if you are trying to eat fresh and local.  By now we have mostly used up the odds and ends of frozen and canned foods that we managed to put away last summer and fall.  Gone is the asparagus, tomato juice and raspberries.  Even the frozen rhubarb is no more.  We still have a good supply of venison, refrigerator pickles, dried beans, polenta corn, some over the hill shallots, one black radish (in great shape) and a few parsnips.

So it is very exciting when the first foods of spring start to appear.  One of them is watercress, which grows wild in or near many of the creeks and streams in the area surrounding Featherstone Farm.  Yesterday Frank and I set out for one of our favorite spots on Gribben Creek to gather some.  (Just off Fillmore County Road 23, about 3 miles south of state highway 16 - a public access fishing spot.)  If you go, bring along some garbage bags.  I am sorry we did not.   It is a lovely spot, but unfortunately a few folks have not cleaned up after themselves.  So annoying.  Shocking, really.

If you would like to see me harvest and eat some watercress in the Gribben valley - go here for a short video:

Here is what the watercress looked like once I got it home and cleaned it up.

Watercress (nasturtium officianale) is a member of the mustard family.  It has a sharp peppery or spicy taste and crisp texture that adds zing when added raw to salads or sandwiches.  It is full of iron and can sometimes be found in the produce section of grocery stores or farmers markets if you do not want to make an expedition to a cold, clear and slow moving stream.

Watercress recipes
Watercress is not just for garnishes anymore.  It is a beautiful green and can be used both raw and cooked.

Here are instructions on how to make a watercress sandwich, right from The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea.
Butter rough rye bread with salty butter and pile a slice high with fresh watercress.  Press another slice on top until the contents creak.  Cut the sandwich in half but not quarters...the dark green leaves burst out at the seams.

Watercress and potato soup - about 4 servings
Saute 1/2 cup of chopped onion or leeks in 2 T. butter until soft.  Add 6 cups peeled and chopped potatoes.   Add 2 cups water or broth and simmer until potatoes are soft and falling apart.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Add two cups chopped fresh watercress and simmer a few minutes.  Thin to desired consistency with milk or additional broth.
This is basically a simple version of potage cressioniere - a rich soup made with onions, garlic, potatoes and "a bunch" whatever that means of watercress - enriched with cream and egg yolk.  

Watercress salad
Wash and pick over watercress - about 1 cup per serving.   Thinly slice some apple - about 1/2 medium apple per serving.  Add some feta cheese and toasted walnuts to taste.  A few chopped green onions if you have some.   Toss with dressing made with equal parts mayonnaise and yogurt and a squeeze or two of lemon juice. 

Watercress biscuits
Chop about a cup of watercress and add to your favorite biscuit recipe (for about 12 biscuits) just before rolling and cutting.  

Watercress and cream of chicken soup
I checked my vintage edition of the Farm Journal cookbook to say what they might have to say about watercress.  The one watercress recipe in the book suggested adding chopped watercress (1/2 cup - no more, no less) to cream of chicken soup made from a can.  I am not generally a fan of canned commercial soups - but hey, adding watercress is a good idea.  I personally would add a cup.  Midwestern fusion cooking.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hands on - Lemon Meringue Pie

I have three dozen eggs in my refrigerator right now and all of them were produced by personal friends.  Well, really by their chickens.  I am a lucky girl.  I am talking eggs with high, rounded bright yellow-orange yolks.  Eggs with firm whites that hold together.  No runny whites all over the frying pan for me.  These eggs give new meaning to the term "tighty whities."

One of the signs of spring is the increase in egg production of laying hens whose lives are lived in accordance with natural light cycles.  So this time of year - just in time for Easter - I have more eggs around. One thing I like to do with them is make omelets with early season spinach and green onions.  Another good use for eggs is lemon meringue pie.

Lemon meringue pie is my favorite.  I like it even more than rhubarb pie, which for the wife of a man with 148 rhubarb plants is saying something.  Making it is a project, no doubt about it.  It requires skills (e.g. making a pre- baked crust) and equipment (a rolling pin, an electric mixer or a balloon whisk and patience, a fine grater and citrus reamer, a double boiler).  It is worth it.

You might ask, Why go to all the trouble when you can buy a lemon meringue pie?  My answer:  your chances of finding a commercial pie that tastes like a lemon pie should taste are about 1 in 500.  You owe it to yourself and your family to at least experience the flavors and textures of a real homemade lemon meringue pie.  You might decide that it is so much work that you will never make it again.  But you will go to your grave knowing the  difference between good and evil - at least where lemon meringue pie is concerned.

Or you might decide to make lemon meringue pie once a year in honor of spring or Easter.  Like plum pudding at Christmas or potato salad on the Fourth of July.  That would be a nice tradition to start.  Or you might like it so much you will make it once a month or bring it to every potluck you are invited to.  Who knows how this pie might change your life?

This recipe for lemon meringue pie is my own.  I consulted six favorite cookbooks to come up with my unique proportions of sugar, lemon juice, etc.  I have to tell you I still struggle with meringue.  I haven't figured out how to keep the little beads of sugar syrup from forming on the top.  If you eat it up within a day this should not be a problem.  And even if your meringue does "weep" a bit (that is the scientific name for the little liquid drops) who cares?  The pie will still taste great.

 Peggy's Lemon Meringue Pie

The crust
You need to make a pre-baked pie crust.  I just use my favorite pie pastry recipe (I like lard).  I put it in a glass pie pan, line the crust lightly with some foil and put a few cups of dry beans on top to hold down the crust while it bakes at about 400 degrees.  After about 15 minutes I carefully remove the foil and beans and put the empty crust back in the oven.  Bake until the crust is just pale brown.  Cool.

The filling
I mix the following ingredients (I add the butter at the very end after the filling thickens) in the top of a double boiler, whisking well to remove lumps. (You could also do this in a nonreactive saucepan nested inside a large pan containing water.)  Put the filling over boiling water and cook, stirring often, until the filling thickens.  This may take awhile.  Be patient.  If you rush this you will have a curdled lumpy filling.)  After the filling thickens, I pour into another pie pan so it comes to room temperature faster.  Once the filling is lukewarm, stir in a few spoonfuls of the unbaked meringue and then pour into the prebaked pie shell.

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup lemon juice (3-4 lemons depending on how juicy they are)
1 T. finely grated lemon zest (add an extra teaspoon or two if you like a lot of lemon flavor)
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup milk
1/4 t. salt
2 T. butter

The meringue - make this when the filling is almost lukewarm.
Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature and there is not even a speck of fat or egg yolk in the whites or on the beater bowl.  Add 1/4 t. salt and 1/4 t. cream of tartar to the egg whites and beat at high speed. When they start getting foamy, slowly add the sugar while still beating.  Add 1/2 t, vanilla at the very end - when stiff peaks have formed.
Pile the meringue on top of the lukewarm filling, being careful to spread the meringue to the edges of the filling so it bonds to the crust.
Bake at 325 degrees about 15 minutes, until meringue is lightly browned.
Cool.  Then refrigerate at least an hour to firm up the filling.  (This is where the meringue might cry on you.  I just don't know what to do about that.  Into every life some rain must fall.)

Here are step by step pictures to inspire and instruct.
Mise en place for lemon pie filling and meringue

A microplane works great if you need fine zest

A double boiler will help prevent curdling.  If it is taking forever, turn up the heat a bit.  Stir often.  You will know when it is thickened.  It is the magic of cornstarch, egg yolks and heat.

What a nice yellow spring color.  Eggs and lemon make a nice pair.

Pre baking a crust is not easy.  But it is a great skill to have.

I love my kitchen aid stand mixer.

Add a few tablespoons of meringue to the filling before pouring into the crust.

Drop the meringue in little piles so it is easier to spread.

Make sure the meringue goes all the way to the crust all the way around.

I can hardly wait until the pie is cool.  Lessons in deferred gratification.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Winter hardy bunching onions - spring is here

 I know spring is here when the sorrel and chive plants on the east and south sides of our house are about 6 inches high.  When the first nubs of the rhubarb leaves push up through the soil.  And when Frank brings home a big clump of bunching onions. Between the fresh onions and preserved food in our pantry, we are still managing to prepare some nice homegrown meals even though not much is happening in the garden yet.

The onions were such a nice surprise this morning.  Some girls like roses.  Me -  a clump of white and green spring onions with some mud still clinging to the roots is the best bouquet I know.  Right about now I am ready for something green from the garden.  I still have a few parsnips and potatoes and one large beet in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.  They will be eaten and enjoyed.   But the Featherstone cabbage, radishes, carrots and our homemade sauerkraut are all gone.  I actually bought some romaine lettuce at the store last week.  I couldn't help it.  I needed something green and crunchy. 

Green spring onions can be used in many ways - in an omelet, fried rice or added to a salad.  My mother loves them plain, with a little salt and a glass of cold beer.  I decided to be more ambitious today because I needed to make a dish for a potluck.  I cooked up a big pot of polenta.  Then I made a morel mushroom sauce to layer with the cooked polenta and some thinly sliced white cheddar cheese. 

Those of us fortunate enough to live in SE Minnesota near the Big Woods have access to morel mushrooms every May if we are willing to tramp through the woods with our eyes wide open.  In our house we usually have more than we can eat fresh so Frank dries them - slowly - at room temperature under a ceiling fan and finishes them off in baskets sitting in a sunny open window (screened).  I poured some boiling water on about 1 1/2 cups of the dried beauties.  After they were soft I strained the water (dried morels often have a little grit in them), saving it for the sauce.

Read the captions to these pictures to see how I made the sauce.  It is simple to layer it with some polenta in a casserole dish and then bake it. 
Mise en place for mushroom sauce: green onions, shallots, dried morel mushrooms, white cheddar cheese and olive oil

I cooked a big pot of polenta - made from Roy's Calais flint corn, ground in our Kitchenaid mixer grain mill attachment

Chopped Evergreen Hardy White Bunching onions - the most winter hardy bunching onion.  These are from onions first planted 6/2009.  They have overwintered two years.  Need to eat them now - they will be too woody later

Chopped shallots from our garden.  Why are store shallots so expensive?

See the grit?  That's why I strained the mushroom soaking water

This is one nice pile of reconstituted dried morels.  I am guessing they have a street value of about $60.  We got them for free.  Well, Frank got a few scratches from brambles- so he did pay some price.  But worth it.

I sauteed chopped shallots, green onions (the white part) and some bell pepper in olive oil.  Then I added about 2 T. flour and cooked it well.  Then added 1 1/2 cups liquid - strained mushroom soaking liquid, milk and cream.

First a layer of polenta.  Then some mushroom cream sauce.  Then some chopped green onion tops.  Then thin sliced cheese (white cheddar is what I used.)

Close up of the sauce before I added the cheese.  Bake in a moderate oven until heated through.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cooking for love

I am not a theologian, philosopher or intellectual.  (My regular readers already know this.)  But I do like to ponder the big questions:  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a God?  Why cook when there is Schwans?  Or Lean Cuisine?

Why cook?  This is a good question.  Most people are really busy working, taking care of children and elders, commuting, watching reality TV and NCAA basketball or mowing their lawns.  Why should they stand at the sink chopping and peeling when they can get a reasonably tasty and kind of nutritious footlong sandwich for five bucks?   Tens of millions of Americans answer this question every day.  Many - maybe a majority -  choose the footlong or an equivalent.  Something they believe to be quick, cheap and convenient.   But millions don't.  I wonder why. 

I think one reason people cook is for love.  Giving it.  Getting it.  Feeding people good food is a pretty good way to cement relationships.  It is a pretty good way to make beautiful memories.  It also is a way to pass skills and knowledge on to the younger generation.

I know this because I am somewhat of an aficionado of old lady funerals.   There are a lot of old ladies where I live and as they have taken their leave over the years I have often had the privilege of attending their memorial services.  And I have noticed that their families almost always talk about their cooking, with great love and appreciation.

The mother of a friend of mine died recently at age 94.  Her name was Evelyn Theresa Marzolf, but everybody called her Evie or simply Grandma.  She worked for 42 years at the grocery store in her town, finally retiring at age 82.  Yet she still found the time to cook and bake - and take her grandchildren fishing!  She was a petite little lady with a big heart.  I did not attend her funeral, but I did receive a copy of a lovely booklet prepared by her large extended family.  Here is some of what they said:

"Evie would always have a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls and a cup of strong coffee for us.  Thank you Evie for all you've taught me, baking, being kind, sharing all those wonderful recipes, and always showing us, not just telling how".

"Evie taught me so many things it is hard to really know where to start...Apple butter, cinnamon rolls, German sweet chocolate pies, apple pie, jams, jellies, how to split African violets."

"My memory of Evie is her wearing a short sleeve shirt and checkered double knit pants and cooking up some great food in the kitchen.  The best cook there ever was!"

"I remember how easy it was for her to feed everyone - what a good cook and baker she was.  No one every left her house hungry and always with a bag of treats."

"I learned how to make mincemeat from her."

"My favorite memory was when my Dad and I would come visit for Labor Day weekend and on that Sunday we would go to her beautiful church then walk back over to her house and she would make us her home made cinnamon rolls.  Wow were they delicious.  I would remember the smell when I would be on the plane to go back home and I couldn't wait for our next visit."

"You have created so many beautiful memories for all of us, from childhood all the way up to just a few weeks ago when I had another lesson on how to make pie crust.  You have taught me so many things ... not just about cooking and baking, but about life."

Rest in peace, Evie Marzolf, good home cook.