Saturday, February 20, 2010

Winter Garden in Houston

My winter garden in Houston is doing really well. I planted some collards in the small raised beds in the back yard last fall, and now they are really big and healthy looking.


I used to just steam or briefly boil collards, but I have a new way now:  I cut the stems off, roll the leaves up like cigars, and cut across the cigar in cuts 1/8" apart, making thin slivers of the leaves.  Then I heat oil in a wok (or sometimes cook some bacon), saute some garlic and hot pepper flakes in the oil for a few minutes, and then toss in the slivered leaves, which are then tossed in the oil until all coated.  About three to four minutes of cooking is enough for young greens; for older ones, I add a little water to the wok and put the lid on, so that the total cooking time is more like ten minutes.  A little vinegar rounds off the flavor.

Other greens are doing well too:  I scattered kale seeds over one bed in early December, and by late January there was a nice stand of young kale plants. The squirrels dug in the bed, but it didn't disturb them too much.


A flat leaf Italian parsley plant went to seed last summer in the collard bed, and those seeds fell and sprouted to make a sort of understory of parsley plants in the collard bed.


Finally, I planted a few lettuce plants that I bought at a garden center, and they flourished as well.


The "soil" in these beds is a potting mix that was in the beds when we moved into our house. I took out the rose bushes that were in the beds and planted them elsewhere.  After I planted the collards, I also collected urine and diluted it 1:10 to water the collards when it was hot and dry last fall.  Urine is an under-utilized fertilizer source. It is sterile and harmless to plants if diluted.   I read on the internet that the average human produces enough urine in a year to grow over a hundred cabbages! 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Ad Hoc at home

Somebody gave Tom a new cookbook for Christmas:  Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller.  Thomas Keller is known for cooking very fancy, very expensive food at his restaurant The French Laundry in California, and another one in NYC.  This cookbook is supposed to present the down-home version of his food, food that the average person--the "servantless American cook" as Julia Child memorably put it--can do in their own kitchen at home.

I started out in the soup chapter.  I made the Heirloom Bean and Escarole soup first.  (People in my family have been teasing me ever since I challenged a waiter about the so-called "heirloom tomatoes" on his menu in January.  What I mean was that it was impossible to have real heirloom tomatoes in January, because greenhouse tomatoes are generally hybrids, and I don't think they grow our heirloom tomatoes for export in the Southern hemisphere.  But my family has accused me of refusing to eat any tomatoes that weren't "heirloom."  For the record, I was really lobbying for truth in advertising.)  I didn't know that there were "heirloom beans" that you could buy; I thought you had to grow them yourself in your garden. But apparently there are, and of course Keller gives you a source:  Steve Sando's Rancho Gordo.  Here's the list of Sando's heirloom beans.  I bet they're good, but I just used the white beans that I had.

Keller's recipes typically involve a lot of steps.  In this soup, you had to make the chicken broth and cook the beans ahead.  Not too hard, especially with the slow cooker.  It also called for a ham hock, and I got a delicious one at Whole Foods.  It tasted better than any  ham hock I've ever had, and it made the soup taste great.  So, you saute carrot, leek, and onion in oil; add the ham hock and chicken stock; simmer an hour; take out the ham hock so you can take the meat off it and put the meat back in; then put it back in and add the cooked beans. You were supposed to cook the escarole separately and then put it in the soup, but that seemed to violate the convenience of one-pot cooking that is soup, so I just chopped it up and put it in.

This soup was so good that I was encouraged to try another one from the book.  So I made the split pea soup.  Again, first make chicken stock.  Saute some vegetables.  Add the chicken stock and ham hock, again.  But this time:  strain all the vegetables out!  Seemed weird but I did it.  Then in this very potent stock, cook the split peas, and later, add the ham you took off the bone.  Add some fresh peas too.  (I used frozen.) Serve with creme fraiche.  (I used yogurt.)  Very good.

Finally, I made the mushroom soup.  This was a lot harder and not worth it, IMHO.  You had to make a mushroom broth first, with normal mushrooms.  Did that.  Then cook the vegetables in oil as usual.  But then the directions got weird.  He has you cook some potatoes separately; cook some kale separately; and saute some fancy mushrooms separately.  Then add all together.  By now you have gotten four pots dirty.  Keller no doubt has "servants" in his restaurant to wash all these pots, but I don't, so I added the mushroom broth to the vegetables, brought it to a boil, added the potatoes and cooked them in the broth, then added the kale and cooked it in the broth. I did saute the fancy mushrooms separately in a skillet.

At the end you are supposed to add Garlic Puree, which is made from Garlic Confit.  So you have to turn to the back of the book and figure out how to do all that.  Whoops!  That takes at least an hour!  It involves simmering whole garlic cloves in oil, cooling them, and then pureeing the softened cloves. I didn't have time to do all that, so I made a quicky garlic oil and poured it in.

This soup was not that great.  I am a little disillusioned with this cookbook.  It turns out that Ad Hoc is a restaurant.  I found that out when I read a little more of the book.  So this is not really home cooking.  It's a slightly scaled-back Keller restaurant cooking, for his "cheap" restaurant, where a meal is only $50 for one person!

Oh well.  At least I found out about the heirloom beans.  Maybe I'll plant some.