Monday, December 31, 2012

Pecan pie and garden planning



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Read "Pecan Pie and Garden Planning" and get the complete pecan pie recipe on the new site



Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Winter garden



The winter garden is wet and cold, but stubbornly remains too productive for me to just ignore it until the weather gets nicer. Fall-planted peas are forming pods. Salad greens are thriving despite the fact that I don't especially crave salad right now, leading me to look for warm dishes to make with m√Ęche and miner's lettuce and ficoide glaciale.

The last of the root crops are patiently waiting to be picked, most of them still good after all these months. The rhubarb is loving the rain and has unfolded enormous leaves over vibrant red stalks, but I am obeying the Sunset Western Garden Book of Edibles and giving it two full growing seasons to get established before I start harvesting it.

rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bitters and sweets

Any day that starts out with six pounds of sugar and a bottle of 151 proof alcohol is going to be interesting.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) in the garden

Verbena limoncello


Verbena limoncello and lemon verbena simple syrup


It's hard to tell when your homemade bitters are "sufficiently infused" when you're using Everclear as your base. You put a drop on your tongue, get an intense impression of lemon and nail polish remover, and then your tongue goes numb. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cover crop: fava beans

Illustration and sign for Cover crop: Fava Beans (vicia faba)

I always feel bad when it's time to dig my cover crops in. You're supposed to dig them in just before they flower, so all the stored energy and nutrients go back into the soil instead of into fruits and seeds. Still, it feels wrong to chop down a bunch of healthy plants just as they start to flower. Particularly when, if you left them alone, they'd produce delicious, tender, buttery fava beans.

So I'm trying to reshape my thinking. After all, this is why I planted these seeds — so I could chop them down. Instead of thinking about the fava bean harvest I won't get, I'm trying to think of this as a harvest of nitrogen and other nutrients.

Fava bean (vicia faba) plant

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Uszka for barszcz

Uszka do barszczu

In my last post, Post-Latke Barszcz / Borscht, I mentioned uszka, or "little ears." These mushroom-stuffed dumplings are the traditional accompaniment to barszcz wigilijny (Christmas Eve borscht). 

I have this irrational anxiety about making pasta, so instead of making the dough from scratch, I cheated and used pre-made wonton wrappers, available at any asian market. They're not the same; uszka dough is made with eggs, and is a bit thicker, with a different taste and texture. But you know what? They were still tasty. 

If you use wonton skins, remember to keep the stack covered with a damp towel, because otherwise they'll dry out and crack when you try to fold them. 

How to fold uszka

Monday, December 10, 2012

Post-latke barszcz / borscht

Barszcz wigilijny / borscht

Did everyone have a nice first night of Chanukah? Did you have lots of latkes? And sufganiyot? And do you now have a fried-foods hangover? Me too. 

Post-latke salads are a nice idea I spotted recently. They're crisp and healthy and mercifully oil-free, full of things like romaine lettuce and apple slices, celery and jicama. Perfect for the next-day lunch except for one thing: they're salads. I don't want salads in winter. It's cold and grey outside, and I want warm cozy comfort food. 

This is why we have borscht. Or, when I make it from my Polish cookbook, barszcz. Warm and savory without being heavy, the classic beet soup is perfect for cold winter days and nights. This version has a slight acidity that makes it a perfect counterpoint to the season's steady progression of rich dishes. 

Ingredients for barszcz / borscht: beets, leeks, celery, celery root, onion, parsnip, carrots

Friday, December 7, 2012

Candied ginger, candied lemon peels, and science

Candied ginger slices

I really thought candied ginger would be easy. Slice up some ginger, blanch it, put it in a pot with equal parts sugar and water, and heat to 225°. Straightforward, precise directions. I even had a thermometer — not a candy thermometer, but an accurate instant-read meat thermometer that I figured should do the trick.

You can see where this is going. After blanching, three hours of boiling, overnight soaking in their syrup, then individually fishing out the ginger coins and laying them on a pan to dry all afternoon, my ginger slices were all wrong; grainy and wet and crystalized. Sure, they were still delicious, but where were the chewy, golden, translucent coins with just a hint of stickiness that I'd expected?

Here's the thing, though. Just for the heck of it, I poured half of the gingery syrup back into the pot, then blanched a bunch of lemon peels and tossed them in. An hour later I had beautiful strips of perfectly candied lemon peel without even a hint of graininess. What happened?

As far as I can tell, there were two key differences: temperature and interfering agents. 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger slices boiling in simple syrup

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to peel ginger... with a spoon!


peeled ginger (Zingiber officinale)

You can learn all sorts of neat tricks by spending time with culinary professionals. Or, for those of us who don't get invited over to their apartments to hang out, by reading their blogs.

Here's what I just learned from reading David Lebovitz's blog: You can peel ginger with a spoon. Apparently some other people already knew about this, but I didn't. Unlike your paring knife or vegetable peeler, a spoon will scrape the papery skin right off without taking the underlying ginger flesh with it. It even does well at working around the crevices and little knobby bits, which your peeler won't.

Also, using a spoon reduces the chance that you'll accidentally slice open your finger. Which, let me tell you, you don't want to do while cutting ginger.

How to peel ginger with a spoon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Oatmeal cake


Piece of oatmeal cake on a fork


Blogging has caused some changes in the way I cook, especially when I'm baking. I do more measuring and less eyeballing these days, even if I'm making things up as I go along. I usually remember to take notes. And if I'm testing a recipe and make a mistake, I might even start over. 

This cake started out as a test batch of my garam masala oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe, until I accidentally added four eggs instead of two. This is not like doubling the amount of chocolate chips or cinnamon; those are changes that you can and should make whenever possible. Structural ingredients like eggs, milk, and flour really do matter, and while you can get away with fudging them a bit, doubling any of them is going to seriously change your texture, and probably not for the better. 

After whipping out a fresh batch of cookies (and confirming that my measurements were just right), I came back to my first bowl. It was a well-blended mess of butter, brown and white sugar, eggs, and vanilla. This is actually a pretty common base for all manner of delicious baked goods. The difference at this stage is more a matter of proportion than ingredients. I figured with two too many eggs this blend was too wet for cookies, but might be salvageable as a cake of some sort.  

As I like to tell novice bakers when they're worrying, anything whose main ingredients are butter and sugar can't taste too terrible. It might be too dense, or too gooey, or too floury, but toast the pieces up and top them with sliced strawberries and whipped cream, and you've got shortcake, no matter what you were trying to make. It is at this point that my friends get calls like, "Hey, I totally screwed up this cake (or pie, or whatever). It's weird. But not bad. You should come over and eat some of it."