Thursday, December 8, 2011

Do You Know What It Means: Conviviality in New Orleans

Tom and I just got back from a trip to New Orleans. When we first alighted in that fair city, we made a trip to Audubon Park, on a Sunday afternoon. It was lovely: the weather was mild, and citizens of New Orleans were disporting themselves next to the lagoon, full of twittering ducks. (Yes, the ducks there don't quack; they twitter.) There's a track that goes around the park, and one side of it is for cyclists, and the other side for walkers. People were out on trikes and bikes, with dogs and babies, all kinds of people.

"The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people passing by
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do
They're really saying, I love you.
I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

I went back to Audubon Park every day while we were there, in good weather and bad, and it was always wonderful, although during the week not blessed with so many of the good citizens of New Orleans. On some days it was cold and rainy, and only the hard-core joggers were there, and the ducks. You walk past huge, rather opulent-looking houses that face right onto the park, though, so you don't feel alone: you are in somebody's backyard! I thought how unusual it is to have a public park right next to the houses of rich people, and they don't fence the park out! On one side of the park, some of the houses have a fence or a hedge between their yard and the park, but on the other side, the big Victorian houses' porches open right onto the park. They have put swings in the trees in front of their houses. One swing had the word "Saints" painted on it. You can sit in that swing and think about the fact that the Saints won their game the day before. Maybe the resident of the house will come out and chat with you about the game.

Sorry to be mean about this, but this would never happen in Houston. For some reason in Houston, rich people are afraid of everybody else. And really, the crime rate in Houston is probably much lower than in New Orleans. But the huge houses on River Oaks Boulevard have walls around them so high that you can hardly see the houses. And they aren't anywhere near a public park.

We have public parks in Houston, of course, but they are almost all hard to get to, separated from neighborhoods by the high-speed parkways that run alongside the parks, with inadequate or expensive parking, traffic jams on nice days, and little access via public transportation.   By contrast, anybody in New Orleans can get to Audubon Park easily on the street car that goes up and down St Charles Avenue, to and from downtown. It costs $1.25. You can open the windows on the street cars. It doesn't go very fast. Getting to the park is almost as good an experience as being in the park itself. The streetcar runs down a grassy "neutral ground" area that is used by joggers when the streetcars aren't there. The streetcar is not particularly big: it's on a human scale. It makes a sort of rumbling noise as it trundles down the track, but it doesn't belch toxic diesel fumes like a bus does. You don't have to wait long for one to come. I was reminded of that old axiom, or maybe it's a song: "Pretty girls are like streetcars; there's another one along every few minutes." I think it's something you say to a guy when his girlfriend breaks up with him. There were a lot of pretty girls, and handsome guys, as well as just happy-looking old folks and interesting dogs, in the park every day I was there.Not to mention the variety of ducks and waterfowl in the lagoon.

People in New Orleans love their city, and it shows. We had supper with some friends who have spent the years since Katrina rebuilding their city, and especially its schools. Their passion for the city was palpable, and admirable. They talked of the terror and insanity of the days immediately after the hurricane, when everybody was "wigged out," and doing any sort of productive work seemed impossible. They talked about the sadness of children who were exiled from their city and their friends for months. They talked about the deep fissures and dysfunction that the catastrophe of the hurricane brought to the surface, and even more about their efforts to heal those revealed wounds. The new charter school movement in New Orleans is actually trying some exciting new things, and although the process is politically fractious, new schools are opening all the time. People are getting together across race and class lines to make sure that kids get what they need.  I was so happy to see this.

We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which is still empty, largely, although inhabited by ghosts. Brad Pitt's new houses there form a little exuberantly-colored village in the midst of the vacant lots. The new Industrial Canal levee looks pretty strong, and there are new houses defiantly erected right next to it, as if daring the water to come in again. We saw a photography show where the photographer, Kevin Kline,,  celebrated his neighborhood's inhabitants by thumb-tacking photographs of them to the outside of his house, in a new form of street-blogging. This installation brought up the sadness of the street-blogging of the Katrina days, when residents spray-painted words like, "F@ck you, Katrina!" or "Defend New Orleans!" on their houses, and the even sadder marks spray-painted by rescue teams that indicated whether a drowned person was in the house. But these photographs on a rather run-down shotgun house in a working class neighborhood of New Orleans were  different: a hopeful statement that people were still there, including some young people growing up in a new New Orleans.

New Orleans is a city with a lot of inequality, just like Houston. But somehow the people of New Orleans manage to think of themselves together as citizens first. That love of home is a kind of universal solvent that doesn't dissolve all their differences and conflicts, but it prevents the kind of balkanization that happens in Houston, where people lock themselves into neighborhoods of identically-priced houses and drive around in steel bubbles so that they never have to touch or speak to another person. Does car culture cause the kind of rampant individualism that kills civic spirit, or does rampant individualism, and disregard for place, cause car culture? I don't know. But people in New Orleans have protected their parks and their great neighborhoods, to a large extent, from being fractured by freeways and automobiles, and as a result they have a real city, not just a chaotic jumble of individuals.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Occupy Christmas! Just Say No to Shopping!

                                                   Billy and Martha, Jacksonville, Florida, circa 1931

Yesterday I had the occasion to use my battle cry again: "Just say no to shopping!" A friend invited me to go shopping on Black Friday.  I think it's fine for her to enjoy bargain-hunting on Black Friday. I just don't want to.

For years now, I've been trying to scale back the Christmas Machine, as Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli call the orgy of shopping  that happens at this time of year.  One of my friends  succeeded in doing it years ago: he just stopped celebrating Christmas or giving presents, and eventually, over many years, people stopped giving him presents too. At first he couldn't stop them, he said, but eventually, when they saw he was serious, they stopped giving him stuff at Christmas.

I don't want to stop celebrating Christmas altogether: I like Christmas music and some of the food. I like Christmas dances a lot. I like seeing my family at Christmas, and I love the deep quiet and long, dark, winter nights at my farm. When you are out in the country, and you go to bed early on Christmas Eve, and you lie in bed with absolute silence all around you in the cold air, it really is a silent night, a holy night. I love to have some rest at that time of year.

I read once that in the Upper Cumberland, where I live (most of the time), there used to be a long winter holiday. There wasn't much work to be done on the farms and in the woodlots, because it was cold. People had to bring in wood to burn, and cook, and feed and water animals, but that was about it. Men went rabbit hunting; maybe women visited each other and played with their needlework. It was a real rest period, and a long one, before the frenetic farm work of the spring began. It went on for a month or more. In medieval times, there were the twelve days of Christmas, a long rest period that ended on January 7th, at least for women, who went back to their spinning on that day. That day was called Rock Day. "Spinnrocken" is an old word for a spinning tool called the distaff, which holds the fibers to be spun. Spinners nowadays sometimes have group spinning parties on that day.

Of course, we've lost this leisurely approach to the solstice holiday. Most people only get one or two days off from work, and the days before Christmas are spent in a flurry of frantic shopping for presents and food. It's especially hard on women, who feel under a great deal of pressure to "make Christmas," and to make it special for their children and families. For many grownups, Christmas just adds to their already intolerable and unhealthy stress load. And for children, the day of Christmas itself is sort of disappointing sometimes: there's a big build-up to a few hours of frantic consumption, and then it's over.

I have nothing against small presents for children. I think everybody under the age of 12 should get at least one present. When my son was little, I bought several little, inexpensive presents, and gave him one each day for the 12 days. This went over really well. He would play with a $2 puzzle all day sometimes. And then the next day there was another cheap little trinket, which seemed very special that day too! I did this when my nephews and niece were little too. They liked it, but there were some amusing snafus: once Jack found my present stash in the closet, and he came and found me and said, "When are you going to give me that little man on the parachute?"

My compromise these days is to find some universal present, usually involving family photographs, that I give to everybody on my list. I can't yet divulge what that present is this year, but it's very affordable, and it's personal, and it involves photographs. I also usually make some knitted things, mainly just to spend down my yarn stash and try some new knitting techniques. That, too, costs very little.  I make jam in the summer to give away in winter. (For birthdays, which are spread out around the year and are thus easier, I go "all out." Or what seems like "all out" to me.)

Bill McKibben and his friends in Vermont now celebrate what they call the Hundred Dollar Holiday, where they pledge to limit their spending to $100 for Christmas, per family. I set a limit like that too. This time it went a little over $100, but not by much. (I don't count travel expenses, but you could: your presence could be the present.) At that level, you might buy a big feast (my choice some years!), or a fancy Christmas tree, or a trip out of town, or a few presents, but you can't buy all those things, and that's the point.  Some sort of limit on spending also actually limits your stress. You can't do everything, so you just do one or two things, and that's easier and better, and you enjoy those one or two things more.

Another resource for scaling back Christmas is the wonderful book already mentioned above, Unplug the Christmas Machine. (Bill McKibben has a book too called Hundred Dollar Holiday.)  I have to re-read that book every year. The authors explain that the idea of presents for adults only began about eighty years ago, in the aftermath of World War I. Economists were worried that since the American economy was no longer bouyed by war, it might sink!  Demand might fall off for goods and services! What to do? They came up with the idea of convincing Americans that they must buy a lot of Christmas presents for each other every year!  Genius!

Before the 1920s, adults just got little notions in their stockings: needlework stuff for women, tobacco for men. Kids got presents, though. I can see that in my grandfather's photographs from the 1930s: there are a few toys under the rather bedraggled, definitely home-made Christmas tree, but no presents for the grown-ups. It was after all the Depression, but more than that, the habit of massive spending before Christmas had not yet been entrenched in American culture.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and the rising tide of consumerism generally. Now the idea that grownups should buy big presents for each other for Christmas was thoroughly "traditional," people thought. Nobody could remember it being otherwise. Suggesting that the present-giving should be scaled back was tantamount to being a Grinch.

McKibben makes some interesting comments in his essay, "Hundred Dollar Holiday," about this Grinch character. In fact, the bad guy in the story--the Grinch--is the one who believes that Christmas comes from a store. He thinks that if you take away all the toys and store-bought food, Christmas won't exist. He is proved wrong: by singing.  This is the most beautiful and insightful part of Dr. Seuss's story: that the real essence of Christmas is people singing together. This is the part that has been crowded out of our American Christmas: holding hands in a circle singing "wahoo, dores."

Ok, I have no idea what "wahoo, dores" means. But Christmas songs are wonderful, as long as they are not played ad nauseam for weeks leading up to Christmas.  You don't have to be a Christian to love these songs, like "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night." I remember Garrison Keillor talking about the tears streaming down the faces of old Norwegian Lutherans as they sing "Silent Night" in Norwegian every Christmas Eve in their church. The same thing happens to me; I don't know why.

We used to go caroling in our neighborhood in Nashville for years; now nobody seems to do it. That was my favorite part of Christmas, but it was often shoved aside on Christmas Eve by some people because they "had too much wrapping to do." This is how it starts: the really good parts are sort of gradually phased out until all that remains is the shopping, wrapping, and opening of presents. One Mexican person in Unplug the Christmas Machine describes her village's elaborate, days-long round of parties, dancing, fireworks, and feasting, and she says, "You Americans just have presents. We have Christmas!"

Now that nobody can afford much of anything any more, we have a big opportunity: we can get Christmas back. The banks and corporations took it away from us decades ago, way before the present Crash, or even the one before that. Occupy Christmas! You can start now by not shopping for "bargains" tomorrow, and you can start talking to people in your family about scaling back the solstice holiday, at least the presents part. As McKibben says, it may take years of gradual change to get where you want to be, but the effort is worth it. As Fuzzy demonstrated, sometimes it requires one person to unilaterally withdraw before the Christmas truce can really happen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Long Bean and Eggplant Salad

Our CSA basket last week had long beans in it. Long beans are Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, so they are very different from Phaseolus vulgaris, the common garden bean that most people think of when they think of green beans. Long beans are more related to cow peas (also called field peas or Southern peas), which include black-eyed peas and crowder peas. With long beans, though, you don't eat the seed; you eat the pod, as with regular green beans.

Long beans come in different colors; ours were a pretty purple:

They were about 12 inches long. They can grow much longer than that; in fact, they are sometimes called "yard long beans," but if you let them get too big, they become too tough to cook easily.

I like to make a recipe that I found in Gourmet magazine years ago.  It's a salad, and you make it by blanching the long beans, roasting an Asian-type eggplant, and dressing them with a tangy salad dressing made of lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce. I didn't have any cherry tomatoes, but they look very pretty in the salad if you have some.

First I chopped the beans into shorter lengths and blanched them for two minutes:

The recipe says to plunge the cooked beans into ice water, but I just rinse them with cold water when I scoop them out into a strainer.

Then you slice the eggplant, brush it with olive oil, and broil it. Here it is, ready to go under the broiler.

You broil one side for three to four minutes, and when it turns brown, you flip them over and broil the other sides. The eggplant does not get as greasy as it does if you fry it in a skillet; fried eggplant seems to soak up oil like a sponge.

The dressing is easy to make with some Asian fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. I sometimes use vinegar instead if I don't have any lemon or lime juice, and it tastes fine. I put rather more cilantro in the salad than the recipe called for.

You can make this salad several hours ahead, and the flavors get better as it marinates.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Roselle Martini: Community-Supported Cocktail Hour

Tom and I belong to a CSA. Yes, it's true that our ancestors were once involved with an entity known as the Confederate States of America, but this time we belong to a Community-Supported Agriculture group. This means that once a week we pick up a basket of produce from the Utility Research Garden. Our farmer is David Cater, and the basket is always full of interesting, beautiful, very fresh produce.

Last week we got some pretty red blossoms in our basket. Actually the red pieces come from the calyx of a species of hibiscus plant, and they are used in cuisines all over the tropical world. There are actually two species of hibiscus the calyces of which are used in cooking: Hibiscus sabdariffa and Hibiscus cannabinus.  Some of these species also produce a bast fiber in the stems. I'm guessing that's why one of the Indian (subcontinent) species has "cannabinus" in its name: it's used a bit like hemp.

Back to cocktail hour. I'd been making tea with the calyces for some weeks, whenever we got them in our basket, but it occurred to me that their beautiful red color could be exploited for other purposes, such as jello, or even better, cocktails! It turned out that there is a traditional cocktail called the Martini de jamaica. Jamaica is the Mexican word for these pretty flower parts.  I altered the recipe for this cocktail a bit, and here's what I did.

First I simmered the red petals in water to cover them for about fifteen minutes, to make a very concentrated tea, about one cup's worth. Then I strained the petals out, and I added about a half cup of sugar to the hot tea and stirred until it dissolved. (This was probably too much. Looking at the original recipe which called for a separate simple syrup, I see that about 1/4 cup of sugar would have been about right.)

Then I squeezed three lemons and put the juice in a separate jar.

Tom brought home the vodka and we chilled it.

To make one martini:

2 ounces of the sugary roselle syrup
1 1/2 ounces vodka
1 1/2 ounces lemon or lime juice

We poured this over crushed ice and stuck a basil stem in it for decoration, because we didn't have any little umbrellas:

Since this first sample was good, I mixed a batch in a ball jar, using up the rest of the syrup. When people came we poured it over ice.  There's still some left over for breakfast!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cooking with Greens: Gumbo Z'herbes

We get a lot of greens from our gardens on Brangus Lane and in Houston, and in Houston we also belong to a community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Every week we pick up our share of vegetables, and this time of year, greens are an important part of the harvest.  You know that greens are very good for you. The magnesium in them helps your mitochondria to work. The iron is good for your blood. The calcium is good for your bones. But sometimes it seems impossible to use all these greens! If only you could somehow sort of reduce them to a flavorful, nutritious essence...

Enter gumbo z'herbes, a concentrated, flavorful essence of greens. I first heard of this in a macrobiotic cooking class in Boston, of all places, where a classmate from Louisiana talked about it. The macrobiotic version, truth be told, was not all that great:  it was just chopped greens simmered in some water, maybe with an onion. I suspected that there was more to the original version.

Years later I saw a recipe for gumbo z'herbes in Gourmet magazine. The recipe I'm using today is adapted from the Gourmet recipe.  This version seems more authentic, as it calls for  ham hocks cooked for an hour to make a flavorful stock to cook the greens in. I also found a recipe in New Orleans Gumbos and Soups, by Kit Wohl.  The recipe in that book comes from a restaurant called Dooky Chase's, which I'd love to visit. This recipe has you boil the greens for thirty minutes, strain them, make a meat broth with a LOT of meat, and then a roux-thickened broth, to which you add the chopped greens and meat.  This recipe is probably even more authentic than the Gourmet recipe, but I prefer to cook my greens for a shorter period of time to preserve their vitamins and bright green color.

(Speaking of bright, green color: one thing that I've noticed about cooking with greens is that if you parboil the leaves whole for about 3-5 minutes, cool them, chop them finely, and then store the chopped, lightly-cooked greens in a bowl in the refrigerator, you will use them more in your everyday cooking. They are already prepped, and they look so good and colorful! You can simply saute these lightly-cooked greens in olive oil or butter, maybe with a sauteed onion, or add them to soups and stews at the end of the cooking. They could be folded into an omelet, a souffle batter, or a sauce.)

The basic idea for gumbo z'herbes is that you make a kind of thin soul food/cracker version of sauce veloute for its base, to which you add the cooked greens and meat. A classic French sauce veloute is a white sauce made with a fish or chicken broth stirred into a roux made with butter and flour. But in the South, we make our roux with pork fat of some kind, from bacon or lard or sausage, and our broth is made from ham hocks. The pig ruled Southern cuisine for most of our history.

(There is also a classic French sauce called sauce bechamel, where milk is added to the butter and flour roux instead of broth. In the South, we call it sawmill gravy, and again, the roux is made of fat rendered from bacon or sausage.)

So here's my adapted, somewhat simplified, somewhat brighter-green gumbo z'herbes recipe.

2 lbs greens (I used mustard greens and sweet potato greens)
1/2 lb bacon or 1# ham hock
2 small habanero peppers
1 chopped onion
2 garlic cloves
1 bell pepper chopped
2 T butter or bacon fat
2 T flour

Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Put the greens in the pot, one bunch at a time. You may have to cook the greens in three batches to fit the bunches in the pot. Don't chop the greens before cooking: they have more flavor if they're boiled whole. Parboil each bunch of greens for about five minutes, then scoop the greens out and put them in a colander to cool. When they are cool, chop them.

When all the greens are cooked, put the bacon or ham hock and habaneros in the cooking water and simmer for one hour. Strain. Chop the bacon, and take the meat off the ham hock, and set aside.

Cook the onions, pepper, and garlic in the butter in a pot for about five minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add the broth in a slow stream, stirring constantly. It will begin to thicken. This is your cracker sauce veloute. Add the chopped greens and bacon. Simmer, uncovered, for about eight minutes. Season to taste with salt and vinegar.

You can puree the soup with an immersible blender after cooking if you want it to be really smooth and like essence de greens.

Garnish it with cream, sour cream, Tabasco sauce, and a side of sausage. You can serve it over rice or with cornbread.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Asian Persimmons

I don't really have a favorite food of all time, one that I would request on death row at my last meal. I like seasonal, local food, from my own terroir if possible, and that varies depending on the time of year. In summer, it's my own favorite cherry tomatoes; in winter, it's my own favorite kale.

Right now I'm in Houston, which is not my own terroir, but I still buy locally-grown food at the farmer's market.  Right now what I really, really like is persimmons. I like them everywhere, even when I'm in Tennessee, but in Tennessee I eat wild persimmons that I find on the ground, usually on the road, and sort of warmed by the road and maybe smushed by a car. Sometimes they have a little grit from the road in them. They have a lot of seeds, and I save the seeds and scatter them around my farm, or plant them in a row in the garden hoping to grow a hardy persimmon seedling.

In Houston you can buy locally-grown Asian persimmons. These are quite a bit bigger than the wild native persimmons, and they have only one or two seeds per fruit. Some fruits have no seeds at all! They are a beautiful orange color before they are ripe, and they are rather hard at first, but then they soften and turn brownish, and this is when you eat them. The variety that I bought at the farmer's market did not have much of the astringency of the wild American persimmon, but apparently some of the Asian types are more astringent than others.

The other day on one of my walks around the neighborhood, I saw a neighbor's tree just loaded with these Asian persimmons. None of them were on the ground. I think you pick them here while they are still unripe, and then you ripen, or "blett" them, in the house. That also prevents possums from dining on them before you can get them.

Urban Harvest in Houston sells Asian persimmon trees at their annual fruit tree sale in late January, and maybe I will get one this year. They certainly seem to thrive here. However, I think it would likely be too cold for them on Brangus Lane: they can't take temperatures below zero. Maybe in the near future, though, as the climate warms, we will be able to grow Asian persimmons in the Upper Cumberland.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pot-au-Feu; National Blog Posting Month

Apparently November is NaBloPoMo, or something like that. The people at BlogHer challenge us bloggers to write in our blog every day, and today we're supposed to write about what we like the most about writing. That is, writing in our blogs, presumably.

The thing I like about it is that nobody edits me. This still seems so amazing to me, that I can write whatever I want to and publish it to the whole world, for free, instantly, with nobody telling me I can't or I shan't, as Dr Seuss would say. It may be the case that hardly anybody reads it. I don't care. It's out there, and it's published. I wonder if the first people to get printing presses felt this excited and liberated about their new-found power to wield a weapon of mass communication!  Probably. But you still needed ink, and paper, and now we don't. And there's no printer to tell us he won't publish our broadside. The Gutenberg revolution fomented all sorts of other revolutions; may our information revolution foster more revolutions. Maybe it already has.

Now that that's out of the way, I can get back to business. Last night I made something really primal: pot-au-feu. Like creme fraiche, it sounds fancy and French. It is French, but it's just peasant food. What you do is you buy some cheap cuts of tough meat and some bones. This won't set you back much. Get some marrow bones too. I got a piece of brisket, some "soup" bones, some beef short ribs, and some marrow bones. I used a recipe from the March 2008 issue of Gourmet as a starting point. IT can be found here.

You roast the bones (except the marrow bones) and meat in the oven for an hour. They turn all nice and brown and smell wonderful. Also you put an onion and a carrot in the roasting pan to roast with the meat.

Then you put the roasted bones and vegetables in a big soup pot and boil for three hours. It sounds like a lot of time, but this makes the broth all beefy and dark and wonderful. You can add some herbs like bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, and parsley.

Now for the marrow bones. Put them in a saucepan standing up. Pour some of your wonderful broth over them to cover. Boil for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the marrow is soft.  Remove the marrow bones from the broth and keep them warm till supper time, at which point you will scoop out the marrow and eat it, either in your bowl or on a piece of toast. This is the part that's really primal.

(The broth you cooked the marrow bones in will be cloudy. If this doesn't bother you, keep it for another use. If it does bother you, feed it to a dog.)
Now simmer whatever vegetables you have on hand in the beautiful clear brown beef broth. When you're ready to eat, cut the meat off the bones, slice the brisket, put the meat and vegetables in a bowl, and ladle the broth over. Garnish with sour cream and mustard and horseradish.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tools of the Trade

You don't need to spend a lot of money to get involved in canning. Just retrofit a big stockpot and away you go! There are one or two inexpensive tools, though, that make the job a lot easier. Here's a little video about that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Row Covers for Fall

I have been using spun-bonded row covers for years on my fall garden. They keep greens and root crops fresh deep into the winter, even under snow. This year I decided to suspend them on hoops rather than lay them directly on the greens, for better air circulation. I made two kinds of hoops: plastic and wire. In this video you can see how I made the hoop houses or low tunnels for the row covers. The plastic tubing hoops are sturdier, but they are more expensive to make than the wire hoops.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kiwi-Apple Chutney; Canning

I got some locally grown hardy kiwis from a friend with a large hardy kiwi vine, and I decided to make some chutney with the kiwis and some Arkansas Black apples I got from another local grower. I adapted the recipe below from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

It's okay to adapt ingredients and spices a little bit from a canning recipe, but you can't alter the amount of vinegar in the recipe: that determines the acidity of the batch, and the acidity has to be sufficient to make the recipe safe to can in a boiling water bath. So, I kept the amount of vinegar the same and just altered the ratio of kiwis to apples, and I substituted some balsamic vinegar and white vinegar for the cider vinegar called for in the recipe. (Most vinegar has about the same amount of acidity.) I also substituted chopped butternut squash for the raisins, because I didn't have any raisins. I figured the butternut squash would add some sweetness, as the raisins would have.

Here's what I ended up using. This recipe made five half-pint jars of chutney.

4 cups of chopped kiwis
5 cups of peeled, cored, diced apples
1 1/2 cup chopped onions
3/4 cup white vinegar
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup peeled diced butternut squash
1 large clove of elephant garlic
1 teaspoon peeled diced fresh gingerroot
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Combine the kiwi, apple, onions, vinegar, sugar, brown sugar, squash, garlic and gingerroot. Bring to a boil and simmer for thirty minutes. Add the spices, and simmer another ten minutes.

Sterilize the jars and lids. Ladle the chutney into the jars, leaving a 1/4 inch clearance. Wipe the rim with a wet napkin. Put the lids and bands on the jars and place them in the canning kettle. Process for ten minutes at a rolling boil.

Remove the jars and cool on the counter. Check to see that they all sealed.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Soup Cooked in a Pumpkin

Ever since I saw an article in Martha Stewart Living years ago about gilded pumpkins containing soup, I've wanted to make a pumpkin with soup inside, minus the gilding, which just seems de trop. It turns out that Chef Marian, of The Victory Garden Cookbook, had a recipe all along in the chapter on pumpkins. Today I tried it, with an adorable small pumpkin that was given to me by a friend. It was grown by the farmers who run her community supported agriculture share.

It turned out to be quite easy to cook soup in a pumpkin. I made a little video about it. The pumpkin is a Tan Cheese pumpkin, and it's very tasty. You start out by cutting a top out of the pumpkin and scraping the seeds out, just as you do to carve a pumpkin for Halloween. You oil the inside of the pumpkin and bake it in the oven, empty, with the lid on, for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Then you take it out, add a little rice and sauteed vegetables to the inside of the pumpkin, plus chicken broth to fill the pumpkin, replace the top, and roast again for 45 minutes to an hour, with the soup inside.

Friday, September 2, 2011

First Sweet Potato of the Season

The deer have been getting in my garden and eating the sweet potato vines at night. They jump a four and a half foot fence to do this. All of the vines have been completely defoliated, but amazingly, the roots seem ok. I dug one up the other day and ate it. I guess it had had enough time to get big before the munching started.

I have spent the last few days increasing security around my garden, because shortly after they ate all the sweet potato vines, the deer started in on the okra plants. Who would have thought that they'd eat hairy old okra leaves? I looked up deer and okra, and found out that, lo and behold, people actually plant okra to LURE deer!  And to make them grow big for hunting season!

At first I tried the easy way to "increase security": putting pieces of Irish Spring soap in panty hose legs and hanging them around the garden. (I buy the knee-high panty hose boxes at Walmart especially for this purpose, and no other purpose.) This worked for one night. The next night, they were back in the garden, bad smell or no. And the soap truly does smell horrible.

So then I had to resort to a more labor-intensive strategy:  I wired long pieces of bamboo to the posts of the fence. Now the posts were sticking up about 2 feet higher than the top of the fence. So I could take some 20 gauge tie-wire and put two strands of that above the top of the wire mesh fence. Now the fence is effectively about 6 1/2 feet tall. This seems to be working: there was no deer snacking last night. As a further deterrent, I took a page out of my friend Wendy Williams's book and tied some aluminum pie pans to the two strands of wire above the old fence. They move in the breeze and make clacking sounds, which is supposed to scare the deer.

Deer are interesting. Keeping them out is kind of a psy-ops situation: you have to make the fence look scary to jump over, as if they might become entangled in it if they try. It doesn't have to actually be a strong fence, just a wiggly, stringy, high fence. Very light nylon mesh fences that are about 7 feet tall, and practically invisible in the landscape, apparently keep deer out pretty effectively. Deer aren't like cows, horses, or pigs, which would go right through a fence like that.

I think these deer are invading the garden for the first time in years because of several factors:  it is very dry, and there is very little lush vegetation around the neighborhood. There was a pasture full of Johnson grass hay growing all summer nearby, but two weeks ago it was all cut down and baled, and because there has been no rain, it hasn't grown back at all. So suddenly the deer became very hungry, and they saw a buffet full of their favorite foods--beans, sweet potatoes, and okra--on the other side of the garden fence.  Another factor might be the fact that deer populations were very low a few years ago when I built this fence. There had been an epidemic that killed a lot of them. But slowly their populations have been rebounding.  That's good, but to paraphrase Marie Antoinette:  let them eat grass!  There's plenty of that around my garden too.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Master Gardeners' Booth at the Putnam County Fair

On Friday I visited the Master Gardeners' booth at the Putnam County Fair in Cookeville. The indoor part of the exhibit shows all the shade plants that can be grown in our gardens in the Upper Cumberland.This rain barrel illustrates how you can save water from your roof for your shade garden.

There was also a canning kitchen set up inside the booth:

And a place for kids to play "farmer's market":

Outside, there was a demonstration of a square foot garden. These are made from wood frames filled with a special soil mix. They were very productive! One of the beds had a trellis on it with beans growing on the trellis.

Also there was a beautiful and productive herb garden, with several kinds of basil, a big sage plant, and other kinds of herbs.

There were lots of examples of ways in which gardeners can use containers for food and ornamentals. Carrots were thriving in this container:

These cute hanging containers had succulents in them:

We also looked around in the exhibits of prize-winning vegetables, because we had heard that there were some really big watermelons. The rumor was true. These two melons were almost three feet long!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A funny name for a pretty normal pickle. I found this recipe in The Victory Garden Cookbook, a cookbook from 1982 based on the PBS show "The Victory Garden." It's a great cookbook for gardeners, because the chapters are organized by vegetable: all about bean, cucumbers, eggplants, and so on. So when you have a lot of something, you know where to go.

The cucumber chapter is revelatory. Did you know that you can saute cucumbers? Maybe you have done it secretly in your own kitchen (as Julia says, "When you're alone in the kitchen, who's to know?"), but you didn't know that Chef Marian Morash does it in her restaurant. Also from this chapter I learned that a cucumber salad tastes better if you lightly salt the cucumbers ahead of time and let them "macerate," as they say in canning books, for at least half an hour before rinsing and dressing them. There are also recipes for braised and stuffed cucumbers, which Chef Marian says are common in Germany and France.

Like my neighbors on Brangus Lane, Chef Marian is never one to waste food. (I threw a tomato at a neighbor the other day, when he made a remark that I considered borderline sexual harassment. It bounced off his belly and hit the ground. His only comment was, "You're wasting food." So I picked it up and ate it.) You know those big yellow cucumbers that are lurking under leaves in the garden this time of year? Don't compost them! Make senfgurken!

Chef Marian says that senfgurken is "the German answer to watermelon rind pickle." What was the question? Anyway, you peel and seed the cucumbers (saving the seed, of course, if it is not a hybrid cuke), cut them into 1" pieces, make a brine of salt and water, cover the cukes for 24 hours, and then make another brine of straight vinegar and spices. You simmer the drained, rinsed cukes in the brine for a few minutes and pack them into jars with the brine. Ok, I'll write out the recipe, since it's an old (sort of) cookbook:

Senfgurken (Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook)

4 large yellow cucumbers, 1# each
1/2 cup pickling salt
3 cups water

1 qt vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but Marian Morash calls for white vinegar)
1-2 cups sugar
3 T pickling spices
4-5 tsp mustard seeds

Peel cucumbers, halve, and scoop out the seeds. Cut into wide strips or chunks like watermelon rind pickle. Dissolve salt in water and pour over cukes. Soak 24 hours, drain, and pat dry. Combine vinegar, sugar, and pickling spices and boil 1 minute. Then drop the cuke pieces in the brine. When the brine returns to a boil, remove cukes with slotted spoon and fit them into sterilized jars, filling to within 1/2 inch of the top. Divide mustard seeds among jars. Cover with the boiling liquid to within 1/4 inch of the top and seal the jars. Process for ten minutes.


To save seeds from cucumbers:
Let the cucumber get very yellow. Leave it on the vine as long as possible, preferably until the vine is dead, but before it starts to rot. Then you can bring it inside and leave it on the shelf a while longer, until it really is beginning to rot. Cut it open and scoop out the seeds. Put them and all the liquid attached to them in a jar. Allow this mixture to ferment for five days. Rinse this fermented mess in a sieve, and dump the seeds out onto a paper plate. Let them dry on the paper plate until crispy, and store in a ziploc bag or a jar in the refrigerator.

It's best to get seed from at least five different plants if possible. Mark the ones you intend to save with a plastic ribbon so that they won't get picked or eaten.

Canning 101: Okra Pickles

If you've never canned anything before, okra pickles are a good place to start. It's so simple:  you sterilize the jars, cram the okra pods in the sterilized jars, pour the pickling brine over them, put them in the canner, and process for ten minutes. There's none of that long cooking and checking for "set" that making jam involves. You don't even need an official "canner":  I use a stock pot with a round cake rack in the bottom. I have found that the big pots with racks sold for canning don't work well on the small burners of most electric stoves. (They probably work great on wood-burning stoves, where the whole stove top gets hot.) I wired a round piece of hardware cloth to my cake rack to make it hold the jars a little more steadily.

The first thing you do in any canning session is you sterilize your jars. Put them on the rack in your canner and start filling it with hot water. The water should fill each jar.  Keep adding water until it reaches the top of the empty jars.  (When you fill the jars with product and put them back in, they will be about an inch under the top of the water.)

Meanwhile, sterilize your lids. Canning jar lids have two parts: the lid and the band. The lid has to be brand new; you can't reuse old lids. But you can re-use the bands indefinitely.  When you buy canning jars, they will have new lids and bands with them. If you already have some appropriate jars (don't use mayonnaise jars), buy a box of new lids, and bands if you need them. The lids and bands come in two sizes: regular and wide-mouth. For the okra pickles, I'm using half-pint jars, which use regular size lids.

Back to sterilizing your lids:  place the lids (not the bands) in a small pot and bring to a simmer. They don't have to boil; they only need to reach about 180 degrees. The same goes for sterilizing the jars. So when you see a lot of bubbles and steam but not a rolling boil, that's a simmer.  If you have a thermometer, you can measure the temperature, but it's not really necessary. These are the lids:

You will need some special tools for canning. You can buy a set that includes a jar funnel, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, and a plastic knife that you use to remove bubbles.  Here's my set. Isn't it cute that they all match?

So your jars and lids are sterilizing. While you wait, get the pickling brine ready.  I am using a recipe from an old Gourmet magazine that I found on the site. But most recipes for okra pickles are pretty much the same. One thing about pickling and canning recipes: you can't mess with them too much.  The amount of acid in the recipe is critical to safe canning and spoilage prevention. So, don't change the amount of vinegar or water. You can change the seasoning of the brine, though: for example, you can use less cayenne, or add some other pickling spices.

The brine in this recipe is 3 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water, some cayenne, mustard seed, dill seed, salt and sugar. You bring all that to a boil in a separate pot. It's ok for this to simmer for a while, while you wait for the jars to reach 180.

When the jars are hot enough, use your jar lifter to take one out of the hot water. (Now you see why you need a jar lifter!) Pour the hot water out of the jar and place it on a clean towel on the counter. Fill this jar as tightly as you can with 3 inch to 4 inch long okra pods, plus a garlic clove in the bottom. The tighter you pack them in, the easier it will be when you pour the brine in. Some of my okra was pretty long, so I had to select the short ones that would fit into the jar. You're not supposed to trim the cap off the okra entirely, but I trimmed some of the stems back a little to make them fit in the jars. If you like very hot pickles, you can add a hot pepper piece to each jar too.

Here are the packed jars:

Now all you have to do is ladle the pickling brine onto the okra pods in the jars. By now it should be boiling. Put the funnel on one of the jars and ladle the brine into the jar until it reaches 1/4 inch from the top. This is important: you don't want the jar to be too full, or have too much air space at the top either.

Now you see why it's good to really cram that okra in:  if it's too loose, it starts floating when you put the brine on. If it does, just cram a few more pods in until they sort of stay down.

Wipe the rim of the jar carefully with a very clean cloth or paper towel. Take your magnetic lid lifter, and lift a lid out of the hot water. Place it carefully on the jar rim, rubber side down. Make sure there is no little bit of spice or okra on the rim; this will prevent a good seal. Screw the band down on the jar to hold the lid in place. Use the jar lifter to put this jar in the canner, which is still simmering.

Do the same with all your jars. You can use the knife thing to remove any bubbles around the edge of the jar, but this is not really necessary with okra pickles.  It's something you have to do with jam, though. This tool also  has a handy measuring device on its end that helps you estimate what 1/4 inch clearance is at the top of the jar.

All your jars are back in the canner now:

Put the lid on and bring it to a rolling boil. Once it boils, start the timer. Boil the jars for ten minutes. Remove them from the canner with the jar lifter (now you're REALLY glad you have one of these!) and set them gently on the counter. In a few minutes you will hear the characteristic ping that the jar lids make as they seal.

Occasionally you may have a jar that doesn't seal. You can tell because when you press the lid in the middle after it has cooled, the little indentation will go down. The rest of the jars will already have that little dent down. No worries: just put that unsealed jar in the fridge and eat it soon. The rest of the jars can be stored on a shelf for six months or a year.

At first the okra pods will look as if they are floating too much in the brine in the jar. Don't worry. They'll "sink" later and look like the ones in the grocery store.

So this is the basic method for canning: sterilizing jars and lids; getting the product ready (which sometimes involves cooking it in a separate pot); filling the jars; processing the jars; and cooling the jars. I label the lids with a sharpie: I write the name of the product and the date on the lid.  Now that you know the basics, you can try almost any recipe. Start with The Ball Blue Book or The Complete Book of Home Preserving, if you don't have a canning cookbook. Both of these books have good general directions about canning.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Renovating Fall Perennial Beds: Peonies and Monarda

I have a semi-shaded perennial bed on the north side of my house that was beautiful in early July, when the bee balm (Monarda) was blooming its head off. The blooms were an intensely saturated purple, and they attracted all kinds of bumblebees, including those strange-looking bumblebee moths (Hemaris diffinis).   Also there are some daylilies and Siberian irises, a rose bush, and two clumps of peonies. (This is a bumblebee moth on a thistle, not a bee balm blossom, and I didn't take this picture.)

The problem is, the bee balm has just about taken over the whole bed, and in early August it looked pretty ratty. I thought about just cutting it to the ground, but when I did that, I saw that it was seriously impeding the growth of the daylilies and the irises. I started scraping at its roots, and I found out that the roots were very thick, matted, and pervasive. No wonder the daylilies looked puny!  I dug out almost all the Monarda to move to wilder places on my farm. According to Allen Armitage, Monarda is native to stream sides, under trees. Check. We have that on Brangus Lane. (His book, Herbaceous Perennial Plants, is worth having as a reference book, especially for Southern gardeners, as he gardens and researches perennials in Atlanta.)

While I was at it, digging up this bed, I decided to divide some of the peonies.  Some of the trees near that bed have gotten so big that they cast more shade than the peonies like. So I dug around one of the clumps and removed some of its underground buds, or "eyes."  They look like this:

There were enough under that clump to plant two new clumps of peonies in a brighter, sunnier place, and yet leave enough at the original clump so that it would grow again in spring.  This is a good idea, in case the transplanted clumps don't survive:  that way you won't lose that clone entirely. You plant the "eyes" about 2 inches deep, and no deeper than 3 inches, or they won't flower.

August is a good time to divide perennials that flower in early spring. I also divided some of the Siberian iris. These grow in clumps with rather matted roots, so you simply stick a digging fork into the middle of the clump and pry a piece off, to move elsewhere. People in my neighborhood are in the process of dividing perennials and getting rid of some, so it's a good time to swap. I will give some of the Monarda to my neighbor who has a semi-wild garden down by the Caney Fork, and I will get some Echinacea, daylilies, and irises from another neighbor who doesn't like pink flowers (the Echinacea) and has too many daylilies and irises. That way, I can expand my own perennial beds, and it won't cost anything but some time and labor.

I plant perennials rather closer together than is usually recommended, because that way they shade out the weeds more quickly:  usually I use a spacing of about 12 inches instead of 15 inches between daylilies for example.  In the fall, I also scatter around alfalfa pellets for fertilizer in the perennial beds. This is especially good for the roses. Then I mulch with leaves, pine needles, or straw.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Zee Best okra

The Victory Garden Cookbook (Paperback)I learned about Zee Best okra when I was working at the Urban Harvest teaching garden in Houston, TX. We grew it there, and it grew fantastically well in the hot Houston summers.  Zee Best makes a lot of branches, and unlike some okra varieties, the branches themselves begin to blossom and produce pods. So one Zee Best plant can make a lot of okra. In Texas okra can even winter over, if there is no frost, and begin producing again for a second year. Some okra plants there that I've seen have huge trunks, like small trees!

In my garden in Tennessee, okra doesn't winter over, but Zee Best is still very productive, and it's very tasty. Its pods are unusual in that they are not ridged, but smooth. The pods are velvety, with tiny soft hairs on them. They can get quite large before they become inedible. The pods grow fast, too, so it's best to pick them every day. I use a pair of Felco pruners to clip them off the bush.

There are many ways to cook okra. Of course, fried okra is famous, but I don't really like to heat up huge pots of oil for deep frying. My usual way to cook okra is adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.

1 lb okra
1 lb cherry tomatoes
1 cup chopped leeks or onions
1 clove garlic
2 T butter or olive oil

Saute the leeks and okra in the melted butter or olive oil for about ten minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and garlic. Saute for 3-4 minutes longer.  Reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook for about ten minutes longer. Don't overcook okra; keep its bright green color if possible.

It's easy to save the seed from okra.  Early in the season, you select five pods from five different plants. Mark these pods with some plastic flagging tape so nobody will pick them. Allow these pods to grow all summer; they will get very long, and then they begin to get hard. When they turn brown and dry, they are ready to harvest. Inside are small black okra seeds. Shell these out and store them in a jar in the refrigerator until spring.

Okra does not like cold soil, so wait until the soil is warm to direct seed it in the garden.  Sometimes it is slow to come up, so pre-sprouting the seed is a good idea. This spring, I soaked the seed overnight and then wrapped it in a damp paper towel. I put the towel in a plastic bag, and I put the whole package on an electric heating pad on low. Then I covered it with a towel to make it dark (most seeds like darkness to sprout). I checked them every day, and when some of them sprouted, I moved the sprouted ones to the garden or to a pot to grow on, and I put the unsprouted ones back in the plastic bag. It took some of the seeds a lot longer to sprout than others, for some reason, but I got a lot of plants from just a few seeds that way. You can also start the seeds in small pots and transplant them when they have two true leaves.

Okra seed is short-lived, so don't try to save old seed for years and years. Grow new seed each year for next year's crop. Also, if you keep the seed in a jar in the refrigerator, it will keep better.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blueberry Mint Jam

I got a great cookbook for Christmas last year, called The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, by Rachel Saunders.  I have learned so much about jam from this book! Saunders doesn't use any pectin, just fruit, lemon juice and sugar, and somewhat longer cooking times in some cases. I learned a great way to judge the set of jam--whether it's done or not--from her book:  you put four or five spoons on a plate in the freezer.  When you think the jam is about done, you put some of it in one of the spoons, freeze it for four minutes, take it out, and look at it.  If it's the consistency you want, not too runny and not too stiff, the jam is done. My jam is a lot better now as a result of learning this test.

The other thing I've learned from this book is that it's ok to flavor jam with "unusual" flavorings. For example, she suggests steeping a few mint sprigs in your blueberry jam after it is done, before putting it in the jars. I did this with my last batch of blueberry jam, and I think it made the jam more interesting.

There are a lot of interesting marmalade recipes in the book, and a great lemon-peach marmalade that I made earlier in the summer. Saunders has access to lots of varieties of gourmet fruit on the West Coast that we can't always get here in the Southeast, but if I ever find any Seville oranges, for example, I sure will make her Seville orange marmalade.

Saunders processes her jam in the oven, but the Ball Blue Book says not to do that, so I process them in boiling water as per usual with canning, for about ten minutes.

Here's the recipe for blueberry jam with mint:

3 (8 inch) sprigs mint
2 lbs 10 oz blueberries
1 lb 10 oz sugar
6 oz strained freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put the five spoons on a plate in the freezer.

Combine the blueberries, sugar and lemon juice in a wide kettle. Place over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, until the juice begins to run. Then increase the heat to high. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture boils. Cook it for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, decreasing the heat slightly if it starts to stick. Begin testing after 10 minutes (with the frozen spoons).

Turn off the heat and skim the foam off the surface of the jam. {This is the stuff I used to make the ice cream the other day.}  Steep the mint in the jam for two minutes off the heat. Taste the jam and see if it's minty enough.  When it is, take out the mint with tongs and discard. Pour the jam into sterilized jars and process.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Blueberry Mint Creme Fraiche Ice Cream

The name of this recipe may sound pretentious, depending on your relationship to creme fraiche. If it does, consider what creme fraiche really is.

Creme fraiche sounds fancy and French.  In fact it is French, but it's country cooking, French-style. Just think of it as something that the Cracker Barrel would have if it was in France. All you have to do to make creme fraiche is: put a little buttermilk in some heavy cream. Put it on the counter overnight.  The next morning, voila:  creme fraiche, good on everything from breakfast to dessert.

For example, ice cream. Creme fraiche gives a sort of subtle tartness to ice cream that offsets its sweetness.  Yesterday I made some blueberry ice cream, sort of unexpectedly. I was skimming the foam off the blueberry jam I was making, and I ended up with a big bowl of foam and a few berries. Why waste that?  I blended it in a blender with half and half, and a little creme fraiche.  The mint was left over from flavoring the jam:  I had steeped a few mint sprigs in the jam for a few minutes after it was finished cooking, so I steeped those mint sprigs again in  the mixture of cream, milk, and blueberries.  This gave a subtle minty taste to the ice cream.  I chilled the blend in the refrigerator for a couple of hours and then made ice cream in my low-tech Donvier ice cream maker.  This is a really simple ice cream maker:  you just keep the freezer bowl in your freezer until you want to make ice cream; then you put it in its outer case, put the paddle in it, pour the ice cream blend in, put a lid on it, and put the crank on. You turn the crank periodically while you're cooking supper, and in 20 minutes, you have ice cream.

There are a lot of ice cream recipes out there, and the Donvier thing comes with some, but it turns out that it's not hard at all to make up recipes once you've done it a few times. I made up the one for blueberry mint creme fraiche ice cream, based on another blueberry ice cream recipe, and it was really good.  Maybe I should tell La Madeleine about it.  After all, they're the Cracker Barrel of France.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Slow-Cooked Beans

I used to cook beans for about ten minutes and then put some butter on them. This still works fine for the new-fangled, tender, stringless, round bush beans, but for old-fashioned pole beans, a longer cooking time is sometimes in order. I like Mark Bittman's recipe for slow-cooked beans in How to Cook Everything.  You put a pound and a half of trimmed beans, a cup of tomatoes, an onion, 1/4 cup of olive oil,  maybe some ham, and a half cup of water in a pot and you just boil it for an hour. These are the beans of your childhood.  They will smell and taste like they did in 1959. Ok, maybe we didn't have olive oil in 1959; there would have been bacon grease in there instead. And you can put bacon grease in there now too! But if you don't have a grease can on your stove and don't have any bacon grease on hand, I guess you'll just be forced to use extra-virgin California olive oil, or something. It will still be pretty good.

I grow a kind of pole bean called Louisiana Purple Pod.  It makes pods even when the weather is very hot, whereas other kinds of pole beans sometimes fail to make pods in hot weather. The pods are a beautiful purple color when you pick them, but they turn green when they are being cooked.

Here they are in the pot with the tomatoes and a few pods of Zee Best okra:

When they were done, Tom sniffed them for a while and said they smelled like the beans of his childhood.  Good: that was the effect I was going for.  He was raised by a soul food cook in New Orleans, and if I can make the beans taste like hers, I am happy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Blueberry Cobbler experiments

I have a lot of organically grown blueberries, because I went to Hidden Springs Orchard near Cookeville, TN, and picked about 12 pounds. I froze them, and I've been thawing out one package a day lately to make cobbler.  The first recipe I tried was from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  His recipe calls for 4 cups of blueberries,  a cup of sugar, and a batter made out of flour and egg.  There is no butter in the "biscuit" topping, and I thought the topping was sort of dry and flavorless.  (I reduced the amount of sugar in this recipe and substituted honey for some of it, so that could have been part of the problem.)  Also, the fruit part was kind of runny; there was no thickener such as cornstarch or tapioca.  Maybe if I had added more sugar it would have been better.

So today I went back to my old recipe, which I got in an unusual place: a novel/memoir called Bastard Out of Carolina.  In that great book by Dorothy Allison, she describes how her mother made a blackberry cobbler in an iron skillet.  I have a lot of blackberries every summer too, so I tried that recipe and loved it.  You cook the blackberries with some butter and sugar in the iron skillet until they get juicy, then you put biscuit batter on top and put the skillet in the oven to finish cooking it. Couldn't be simpler.

Today I tried that same method with blueberries, with a few tweaks. First I cooked the blueberries in the skillet with some butter, honey, and a small amount of minute tapioca, until the blueberries had cooked down slightly. Then I made a thick cornbread batter, half way between biscuit dough consistency and cornbread batter.  The cornmeal came from my own crop of field corn two years ago. I dried the kernels in the oven and then ground them into meal in my electric grinder.  I had some great local buttermilk to put in the batter. In fact, almost all the ingredients in this cobbler were local except for the pasture butter from Wisconsin. Here it is:

I thought that this version was superior to the first cobbler.  The blueberries were slightly thickened by the stovetop cooking and the minute tapioca granules. The cornbread topping was the perfect consistency, and the whole thing was not too sweet.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Meatballs Primavera

Want a fast, cheap, healthy spring meal?  My new invention, Meatballs Primavera, is your solution.

I buy lots of very inexpensive, grass-fed hamburger meat from a local butcher shop here in TN:  if you buy ten pounds, it's $2 a pound.  Can't beat that!  Probably couldn't even raise it myself for that.  But a girl gets tired of hamburgers all the time.  Meatballs, however, are another story.  They are infinitely variable in terms of what you put in the meatballs themselves, and what you put around them.  I do it slightly differently every day, but this spring I've developed this recipe called Meatballs Primavera.

Here's what you need:

Butter or olive oil
Hamburger or ground meat
Onion, sliced
green vegetables (in this case I used broccoli and collards from the garden)
Heavy cream
Lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop the herbs and mix them with the hamburger and season with a little salt and pepper.

Heat the butter in a large skillet or deep pot.  When the butter gets hot, brown the meatballs on both sides.  (My meatballs are kind of like small hamburgers, a bit flat rather than perfectly round.)

Push the meatballs to one side of the skillet and add the onion slices.  Turn down the heat.  Brown the onions slowly another four to eight minutes.  If you think the meatballs are getting too cooked, you can remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside for a while, but I usually just leave them.

Add the greens and broccoli.  Add a small amount of water--maybe 1/4 cup or less-- and put a lid on the skillet.  Steam the greens and everything together for about 8 minutes.

Remove the lid and add cream to taste.  Turn up the heat and simmer to reduce the liquid, for about two minutes.  Don't overcook the greens; they should remain bright green.

Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice, and nutmeg.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

home cured bacon

I love bacon, and I read a post on Michael Ruhlman's site about how to cure your own bacon at home, so I decided to try it.  I bought a pork belly at Garrett's butcher shop in Algood, TN.  It weighed about 3.5 lbs.  I followed Ruhlman's directions, which involved making a cure of salt, honey, black pepper, bay leaves, thyme, and garlic.  You rub this cure all over the pork belly and put it in a big plastic ziploc bag, and store it in the refrigerator for a week.

The pork belly shrinks some during the week, because the salt is drawing some of the moisture out of it.   When you get it out at the end of the seven days, it's smaller.  You rinse the cure off, and then you bake the pork belly at a low temperature in the oven until it reaches 150 degrees internally, which took about two hours in my oven.

At this point I removed the skin on the underside of the pork belly.  I froze some of it, for seasoning soups later, and Molly the Border Collie ate some of it.  It is very tough, like shoe leather, but she just swallowed it whole.

I sliced up some of it immediately and fried it, but it was hard to slice when it was warm right out of the oven.  A day or two later, after it had chilled in the refrigerator, it was much easier to slice.

This bacon is very lean, compared to the bacon we buy at stores.  I think the reason is that many pigs these days are bred to be lean rather than fatty.  I learned from the ever-useful Oxford Companion to Food that in the 19th century, when bacon was the main meat for working class and rural people of the British Isles, there were many breeds of bacon pigs.  Now most bacon pigs descend from Yorkshire Large Whites and Danish Landrace pigs.  ( Some of my ancestors were from Yorkshire; maybe that's why I like bacon so much!)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Snow on Brangus Lane

This winter there has been a lot of snow on Brangus Lane.  When I got here on December 12, four inches fell during the night!  Since then, there have been lighter snowfalls from time to time.  On Wednesday huge, beautiful, silver-dollar-sized flakes fell for an hour or so.  The snow helps to insulate the greens under the row covers from the cold.  Here you can see the garden with two beds with Agribon spun-bonded row covers laid over greens:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Star Wars cookies

I got these cool Star Wars cookie cutters from my sister Marian for Christmas.  They represent Boba Fett and a generic Storm Trooper.  To make them, I used the 1-2-3 cookie dough recipe from a cookbook called Ratio.  You weigh out one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour, mixing the butter and sugar together first. This makes a very basic shortbread cookie, which I varied a bit by adding some vanilla flavoring and an egg yolk.  Then I rolled it out and cut out the cookies.  Boba Fett looks more like a domed adobe house than like a bounty hunter, but maybe that's just me.

I also played with another Christmas toy, which is a measuring cup attached to a digital scale.  Very handy, and very good for aficianados of Ruhlman's ratio system.