Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Celebrating The Harvest

It’s that time of year.  There’s just…something…in the air.  Lord knows, in Southern California, I wouldn’t dare call it a *nip*, but there’s something.  Of course, the days are getting noticeably shorter.  The afternoon sunlight hits the living room floor at a lower angle, the shadows are deeper.  Although our days are still plenty warm for the most part, the nights have a definite edge to them.  The froggies that live in my front flower bed and in the neighbor’s bed that runs along my driveway are not quite so boisterous in their night songs.  In fact, the froggie in the front seems to have already gone wherever he/she goes during the fall/winter/early spring.  I no longer hear him/her as I fall asleep, and I miss him/her.  The froggie by the drive, I only hear, very softly, when I let The Grrrrrlz out for their last Dooty Duty/Yard Patrol of the night.  By midnight, he’s tucked in for the evening too, chilled no doubt by the dampish Fall air.  There are smells of cinnamon in the grocery stores, from the scented pine cones and brooms that will soon become seasonal décor.  I love that smell...

But still, I have to celebrate, while not quite “The Harvest” in the true sense of the world, surely the bounty that comes at this time of year.  The past few shares I’ve received from my CSA, The Growing Experience, have been absolutely overflowing with goodies.  Figs and corn and tomatoes and greens and salad mix and herbs and apples, OH MY !

Plus the overload of tomatoes that my heroic, beleaguered, embattled, but so valiant surviving tomato plant has produced against pestilence, disease, plague, mockingbirds and all odds has been peaking in the last two weeks or so.  Sadly, soon to end, but certainly appreciated while it lasted.

So, between the heroic yield of the tomato plant and the CSA farm’s output, menu planning for the last month has been much less about “what do I feel like making/what do I crave” and much more about “what do I need to use before it rots”.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad way to cook, it’s just not a way to cook that I’m particularly familiar with, nor particularly comfortable with.

I *used* to be a list maker.  Back in the day, Friday night, as I walked in the door from work, I’d toss my cocktail glass in the freezer, get into my jammies, pull out my recipes and cookbooks and the grocery sale fliers, make a dirty Tanquery martini, not too dry, with two olives and two onions, (shaken hard, please) heat my frozen pizza or other ready-to-heat snacks (Fridays were always cook’s night off for me), and peruse my menu options for the coming week.  It was the only way that I’d pull off making something resembling home-cooked food during the week, and not fall into the trap of “I’ll just swing by the MegaMart and pick up something easy”, ensure I had sufficient leftovers for lunch that I didn’t have to hit a drive-thru everyday and also unwind from a usually over-the-top intense week at work.  I’d set my menus for the week, make my shopping lists, eat my snack foods, have another martini and then get up Saturday and hit the grocery schleps.

It’s a lot more free-form now.

Now, I’m no longer working, so the week doesn’t necessarily break down into nice, neat little divisions the way it used to. Friday night is really no different than any other night now. Grocery shopping gets done as needed, not when I can fit it into my work schedule. That was part of the reason why I took the plunge and joined The Growing Experience last year. I don’t think that the “free-form” concept of cooking that comes along with being a CSA member would have worked for me when *I* was a working stiff. In fact, I’m sure it wouldn’t have. I just didn’t have the mental agility you need to deal with a mystery box of produce each week or two. All that mental agility was spent in the office, unfortunately. But for me, now, it certainly works, and is causing a sea-change in the way I cook, and in the way I think about food.

Knowing that the produce is SO fresh, and SO local, and knowing who grew it makes me respect it even more.  I’ve always had a huge problem with throwing away edible food.  With so many in the world---in our COUNTRY for Heaven’s sakes---going to bed hungry, it seems to be the ultimate in hubris and insensitivity to toss edible goods into the local landfill or down the garbage disposer.  Being more closely connected to the goods only accentuates that feeling for me.

So, back on track.  That header photo is the share I picked up from The Growing Experience on September 15.   It was, as you can see, quite a haul.  Two bags of salad greens, 3 ears of corn, 3 summer squash (one zucchini and two long green guys), about 20 figs (ohhhhhhhhhhh, yum, figs), herbs, collard greens, eggplants (which went to a friend’s parents, I don’t do eggplant, I’ve tried, I don’t), tomatoes, apples and a huge chunk of winter squash of some ilk.

We’re gonna talk about where the collards, the corn, the summer squash along with some of my tomatoes, some of the figs and most surprisingly, the winter squash, went.  There’ll be some pictures where they’re important, and there’ll be recipes.  Several recipes, in fact.  This is a veritable recipe-ex-trav-a-ganz-o.  And just some general techniques you can adapt as you see fit, and use for our own particular harvest.

OK, so winter squash.  Ummmmmm.  I have to say…..not a huge fan of it.  Frankly, when I was considering joining a CSA, and looked at the sample lists of the produce I was likely to receive during any given month, I shuddered at the thought of eggplant and winter squashes.  And hearty greens.  But I’ve come to embrace, even appreciate them.

Eggplants.  Never.  They’re nasty.  Which is sad, because they’re so beautiful.  But nasty.  So we shan’t discuss them any longer.

I am, however, coming to terms with winter squash.  I can’t say they’re my favy-favs, ‘cause they’re not, but I think I am getting to the point where I can tolerate them.  I just don’t love their…..*sweetness*.  It’s weird to me in a vegetable.  I’m not a fan of sweet potatoes for the same reason.  Yeah.  I’m an odd duck, I admit it.  But winter squash is really growing on me.  This particular one was exceptionally good.  I’m not sure what variety it was….from looking on the Interwebs, I’m pretty sure it’s a “Buttercup”.  It had dark green, THICK and heavy skin, with some patches of lighter green and dark yellow.  The flesh was pumpkin orange.  It’s in the upper, right corner of that header shot.  And it wasn’t very sweet.  If any of y’all have any idea what this squash was, I’d love to know, because I’d love to buy it again.  I’ll also see if my CSA Farmer Jimmy can tell me what is was when I pick up this week….

Anyways, it was also huge.  The chunk I got weighed almost 3 pounds, and looked to be about a quarter to a third of the whole beast.  Since it was already cut, I knew I had to use it probably before anything else in the share, save for the figs, which were oooooozy ripe.  More on them later (other than the ones I ate over the sink the day I got home from the farm……).

I’d made a soup last year from some winter squash that I’d really liked, but at that point, it was still too warm here for soup, especially a thick, hearty soup.  So I pulled out some cookbooks, and found a method for curried squash risotto that sounded promising.  I have no pictures of anything in the process but the finished dish, because I was SOOOOOO sure the risotto was going to blow and I didn’t take pictures, because the risotto was going to blow, since, well, it had winter squash in it.  And I don’t like winter squash…..


Not only was the finished dish absolutely spectacular, the squash puree that started it was so good, I would totally use it as a ravioli filling, or in place of mashed potatoes, or as a veggie side dish.  It was that good.  You could absolutely use any winter squash you can find, and I’d bet even sweet potatoes would work.

Here’s the finished dish, garnished with pistachios and coconut flakes:

And here’s the recipe.

Curried Winter Squash Risotto
Adapted from Serve Yourself, Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One by Joe Yonan
Serves 1 (can easily be increased)

2 tablespoons shelled, raw, unsalted pistachios (I used dry-roasted, salted and it was fine)
2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes
8 ounces sweet winter squash cut in half or large chunks, seeds and strings removed
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil
About 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 large shallot lobe, coarsely chopped
1 large garlic clove, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup Arborio or other risotto rice
1 teaspoon unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Line a small roasting pan with aluminum foil. Set a small, dry skillet over medium heat and add the pistachios.  Toast them while stirring or shaking the pan frequently, until they’ve browned evenly.  Even with the dry roasted nuts I used, I did this to sort of “bloom” the nuttiness in them.  Transfer them to a plate to cool, and then coarsely chop.  Do the same thing with the coconut flakes, about 3-4 minutes, stirring so they don’t burn.  Transfer them to the plate as well.

Place the squash cut side up on the baking sheet, and drizzle the some of the olive oil.  I used about a tablespoon (more than suggested by the recipe, but I think I had more squash).  Then sprinkle with the salt and pepper.  Roast for 35-40 minutes for smaller squash or 40-60 minutes for larger ones (mine took the full hour…) or until the squash can be pierced easily with a fork.  You can nuke it until tender, start with 4-6 minutes, but I think the oven-roasting gives it better flavor.  Let it cool, then scoop the flesh from the skin, and mash it with a fork or potato masher.  Since mine was so big, it didn’t get so tender, and I had to puree it in my Cuiz.  Certainly use that as an option if need be.  For 8 ounces of squash, you should get about half a cup of puree.

Bring the broth to a boil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, cover and keep warm.  Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil in a heavy, small saucepan over medium heat.  Stir in the curry powder and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add the shallot and garlic and cook until slightly soft, about 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the rice and sauté until the grains are evenly coated and slightly opaque, about a minute or two.  Pour in 1/4 cup of the broth and cook the rice, stirring frequently, until the liquid is absorbed.  Scrape the bottom of the pan frequently to keep the rice from sticking.  Repeat with additional 1/4-cup amounts of broth, allowing each to be absorbed before the next addition.  This will take about 20 minutes.  You’ll need about 1&1/2 to 1&3/4 cups of broth total.  The rice should be tender, but still al dente.

Add the squash puree and cook for a few minutes until the rice is tender but not mushy, adding the remaining broth as needed to keep the risotto moist.  When done to your taste, stir in the butter, transfer to a warm bowl and sprinkle with the nuts and coconut.

OK.  So that was the squash.  I was (and am) still amazed at how good that was, and how much I enjoyed it, and how much I’m looking forward to using the balance of the squash puree I have stashed in the freezer.  Yes, the unused squash puree freezes quite nicely.  A good thing to have stashed away.

Next, I tackled the collards.

Several weeks ago, I was having a hard time getting to sleep and was channel surfing (and listening to the froggies….) in the late/early hours of the night/day.  I stumbled across some old repeats of “Emeril Green” that had been broadcast on a cable/satellite channel called “Planet Green” several years ago.  It was after Emeril left Food Network (or Food Network left him….don’t get me started on Food Network), and while the interaction between Emeril and the people he was “mentoring” seemed a little forced, and the entire premise was seemingly a shill for Whole Foods, some of the recipes are quite good.  On this sleep deprived, wine sodden late night/early morning, Emeril was teaching someone how to use CSA produce !  SCORE !!  And one of the recipes was for a Portuguese caldo verde made using collard greens !  DOUBLE SCORE, since I knew I had boat loads of collards heading my way very soon.  Very very soon.

Caldo verde is a traditional Portuguese soup made with potatoes, spicy smoked sausage, fresh herbs and hearty greens, traditionally kale.  But in this show, Emeril suggested replacing the kale with collards.  Works for me.  And luckily, that week, the weather had turned a bit “Fallish” and soup seemed more appropriate.

Here’s whatcha need.  Somehow, I knew this recipe was going to rock, so we have more pictures than just the end result….

Look at all those gorgeous greens…….herbs and collards.  You just know this is going to be tasty and so healthy…packed with all the wonders that those dark, leafy greens can bring.

Take your sausage, traditionally you’d use a smoked chorizo or linguiça, but I just used smoked hot links, and slice it cross wise into about 1/4-inch slices.  In a soup pot, heat up some oil and sauté the sausage in it.  Let the sausage get nice and brown,

then remove it and save that glorious fat.  Into the drippings toss in some chopped yellow onion and minced garlic.  Let those sauté around a bit, until they wilt.  Meanwhile, take some potatoes, peel them, and cut them into about 1/2-inch cubes.

Dump those into the pot, add some chicken stock and some crushed red pepper.  Bring that to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, until the potatoes start to fall apart.  That’ll take about an hour.  After the potatoes start to disintegrate, take your potato masher and finish ‘em off.

That’s the final texture you want.  See the small pieces of potato suspended in the starchy broth…?  That’s what we want.   I wouldn’t use an immersion blender here; you want that rustic look of the potato bits in the rest of the broth.  Then return the sausage to the soup, and cook for a while.

While the sausage is cooking in the potato stock, take your cleaned greens (collards, kale, chard would probably work, mustard greens might be too strong)

(that there’s a collard leaf)

and pull or cut the heavy, center stem out.

Stack up the half leaves

then cut across them into thin slivers.

When the sausage has been in the pot for about 15 minutes, dump in the greens and cook until soft but still slightly crunchy and the flavors have blended.  Kale and collards will take about 15 minutes, chard will take less.  While that’s going, take your cleaned, fresh herbs

that's fresh mint, cilantro and flat-leaf parsley

and mince the hell out of them with your chef’s knife.

Stir in the chopped herbs, check the seasoning and serve.

You MUST have a good, crusty bread for this, I made a loaf of sourdough from my starter, The Bitch.  It was perfect.  The potatoes are earthy and warm, the sausage is smoky and spicy, the collards are slightly bitter and crunchy and the fresh herbs just give it a *POP POW BANG BOOM SHAZAM* in your mouth.  If you are having a bad day, if you are at all infected with The Blue Grumpies, or if anyone you love is, make a pot of this caldo verde.  All will be right with the world.  It’s like a big, warm hug coming from your tummy.

Here’s the recipe:

Caldo Verde
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse
Serves 4-6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1&1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
9 cups chicken stock, or low-sodium canned broth
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 pound smoked chorizo or linguiça (or other smoked, spicy sausage, kielbasa would work), sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 pound collard greens (or other sturdy winter green)
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup shopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped mint
Kosher salt and pepper

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the sausage slices on both sides until brown.  Remove from pan with a slotted spoon, reserving drippings, and set aside.  Sauté the onion and garlic until wilted, about 4 minutes.  Add diced potatoes, chicken stock and crushed red pepper flakes.  Bring to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper, cover and reduce heat to simmer.  Cook until potatoes start to fall apart, about an hour.  Mash with a whisk or potato masher until the potatoes have disintegrated.

Return the browned sausage to the pot, and simmer for about 15 minutes.  Remove the center stems from the greens and shred crosswise into fine strips.  Stir in the shredded greens and simmer until they are soft, but still a bit crunchy, 10-15 minutes depending on how tender the greens are.  Add in the chopped fresh herbs, adjust seasonings with salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread.

Since I had leftover sausage from the caldo verde, and I had that lovely fresh corn, and Lord knows, I got tomatoes….it was time for a small trip to N’Awlins with some grilled hot links, sliced tomato and some corn maque choux (alternatively macque choux, macque chou, maque chou and maquechou, I’ve seen ‘em all in researching the recipe).  For our purposes, it’s maque choux, which seems to be the most common.  By the way, it’s pronounced “mock shoe” and no one really knows what “maque choux” is means, or how it became associated with corn.  Especially since “choux” is French for cabbage…..

Maque choux is essentially Cajun creamed corn.  It is, as most things Cajun are, so much more than that, however, that you’ll be simply astonished at how complex and profound this seemingly simple dish can taste.  Typically it has corn (naturally), onion, garlic, bell peppers, cream and whatever else the cook feels like throwing into the pot.  And, if you haven’t had maque choux, cher, you are missing out !

I have, in my cookbook collection, like 5 renditions of corn macque choux.  The one I chose came from an awesome cookbook for an awesome cause called “Cooking Up A Storm”.  I won’t go into the particulars about the book, since this post is already long, long, long, but just say that it’s a post-Katrina project to save, preserve and resurrect the culinary legacy of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana.  Google it.  You’ll like it.

So, corn maque choux starts with corn

that’s stripped off the cobs.

Sauté the corn in some butter, or even better,

bacon grease, baby, then add some chopped onions.  Meanwhile heat some heavy cream in another saucepan.  When the corn is a bit tender, after about 3 or 4 minutes, add in the cream slowly.  Cover, lower the heat to simmer, and let it go for about 10 minutes or until the corn is about ready to melt.

Pull out some of these,

that you haven’t seen since your mother was making deviled eggs for the bridge club, but here they work, and mince them up.  Add them into the creamy corn with some salt and pepper and some hot sauce.

I prefer Crystal, Tabasco is too much of a vinegar hit for me.  Then cook another couple of minutes and serve hot.

Yeah, it was good.  Really good.  It’s stunning, really, how such simple ingredients can be so amazing.  But that corn was so fresh and so sweet and creamy on its own, I think it would’ve tasted good if I’d smeared it with roofing tar.  But the bacon fat certainly didn’t hurt.

Here’s the actual quantities….

Maque Choux
Adapted from Cooking Up A Storm
4-6 servings

2 tablespoons bacon fat (or butter)
4 cups fresh corn kernels (6-8 ears)
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 pint heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced pimientos
Dash of Tabasco or other hot sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the fat over medium heat in a 3-quart saucepan.  Sauté the corn for 2-3 minutes, or until starting to get tender.  Add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Heat the cream in a small saucepan and gradually add it to the corn, stirring occasionally.  Cover the corn, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the corn is completely tender and cooked.  Stir in the pimientos, hot sauce and salt and pepper.  Cook for another couple of minutes to blend the flavors.  Adjust seasoning if needed and serve hot.

Then there was this….

That was gnocchi with summer vegetables.  Couldn’t be easier, so no real recipe, no prep pictures either.  Sadly, this version wasn’t as good as it could’ve been.  When I was at my local “gour-may” grocery store in search of nice sausage for the caldo verde, I found a lovely package of fresh potato gnocchi.  Knowing that this dish was on my radar, I snagged it.  When I went to use it, TWO DAYS LATER, the little potato pillows were covered in a lovely greenish-blue fuzz.  Even though it was about a month before the so-called expiration date.  Mold is not ever really good eats, unless we’re talking about a lovely bleu cheese.

Humphf.  At about $7.99 for the package, I was not particularly impressed.  They did, gladly, refund my money, but I was forced to use a package of dried gnocchi I had in the pantry for emergencies.  They were fine, but I’m sure better gnocchi would yield a better result.

In a nutshell, take some summer veggies, I used my zucchini and one of the green squash, some onion and some garlic, chop and/or mince them, and sauté them in some butter and olive oil until they get tender.  Then I chunked up one of my lovely tomatoes and let that cook down a bit until it got saucy.  Cook it down a bit to thicken, and then toss in some shredded fresh basil, and the cooked, drained gnocchi.  Stir it around, place in a bowl and sprinkle with some shredded/grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.  Quick, easy (TASTY) and ultimately adaptable.  Got peas….?  Toss ‘em in.  Like eggplant….?  That’d work.  No basil…..?  Use rosemary.  Or thyme.  Or parsley.  Want some meat in there….?  Sauté some Italian sausage first, then add in the veg.  Riff on this however you like, but whatever is fresh will make it sing.

Finally, my beloved figs.  As I said, of the 20 or so I got a couple of weeks ago, about half of them just got inhaled as is, after a quick rinse.  But some, some achieved what I believe may be the epitome of figginess.  Even more so than that lovely upside-down cake I posted earlier, or even a decadent brown butter tart I hope I get to make before this fig season departs.  No, this dessert may be the ultimate.

And elegant in its simplicity.  I found it on the web, I think over at The Kitchn.  Take some honey, and a sprig or two of fresh rosemary.  Place them in a small, non-stick skillet and warm them over medium-low heat.  Wash and trim some figs, and split them lengthwise.  Place the figs, cut side down, in the warmed rosemary infused honey, and sauté for a few minutes, until the figs warm and start to caramelize just a touch on the edges.  Turn them over gently, and let them warm again for a minute or two.  Take some good, thick, unflavored Greek yogurt (I actually used labneh, which is even thicker) and mound it in the middle of a dessert plate.  Take the warmed figs and arrange them around the yogurt, drizzling the honey over all.  Then drizzle on the slightest amount of your best extra virgin olive oil over the yogurt, and top with some flaky sea salt and roughly chopped pistachios.  Yes.  The flaky salt is essential, and the FLAKY part of the salt is essential.

As much as I love figs, I thought this was going to be really good.

It was so much more than *really good*.  It may have been one of the best things I have ever eaten.  There was no way I could take a picture, I was far too distracted by trying to eat the plate I’d used to serve it.  It was, simply, truly, indescribably good.  The combination of the honey and the rosemary and the figs and the tangy yogurt and the salt…….it literally was festival of tastes and textures in my mouth.  I scared the dogs because I was actually moaning with pleasure, and I was ALONE in the house, save for them.  It was THAT good.  It may be what I’d want for my last meal.

And if that isn’t celebrating the harvest, I’m pretty sure I don’t know what is.  Enjoy whatever it is YOU harvest in your life.

And….Shana Tovah.

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