Monday, June 27, 2011

Cherry Grove Farm Cookout

One of my favorite local farms is Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville. They have eggs, beef, whey-fed pork, and cheeses in their farm store, along with an array of products from other Jersey food artisans. It's always a treat to visit the farm, to see animals being raised the way they ought to be. Check out these chickens, roaming their pasture:

Of course, most of them just wanted to stay under cover. I don't blame them - we have lots of hawks in our area!

Some young calves were grazing in the field by the entrance (Route 206 is on the other side of that fence - I always check out the cows when I pass by).

Back in the shade are the goats that sustain Cherry Grove's new label: Piping Goat Creamery. This weekend's special chevre flavor was "Scapegoat": goat cheese mixed with garlic scapes from nearby Z Food Farm. Delicious!

So what brought us to the farm yesterday (and, actually, the day before as well, since I had the date wrong) was one of their periodic cookouts. These events are arranged to give you a taste for their grassfed beef before you start planning your holiday barbecue (they did this before Memorial Day as well). It wasn't a huge event, but there was great local food, some music and the opportunity to roam around the farm.

This is my grass-fed beef burger with Cherry Grove's "Full Nettle Jack" cheese and First Field Jersey ketchup on a bun from the Village Bakery. Salad was from Z Food Farms with dressing from Muirhead Foods. We finished our meal off with some Joe Chips and some delicious but rock-solid ice cream from the Purple Cow, located on Main St in Lawrenceville (they had ice cream in a cooler out in the hot sun - if it weren't frozen solid it would have been soup).

In addition to the music, we were entertained by a cooking demo, where one of Cherry Grove's chef-cheese makers (sorry, but I've forgotten his name!) showed us how to cook with grassfed beef, making burger patties with a variety of spice rubs as well as beef empanadas.

Perhaps the best part of the day is that we came home with 5 lbs of Cherry Grove's grassfed beef at a special holiday price! We also got fresh eggs, pork sausage and that Scapegoat cheese I mentioned. Not only was it a lovely afternoon, but we have lots delicious future meals to look forward to!

If you're in the area, stop by Cherry Grove Farm. It's a great place that produces top-notch products! And if you're not in the area, look for a local farm near you. You might be surprised by what you find!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Beet Greens (and Other Greens Too)

One reason I wanted to join a CSA this summer (besides the joy of having fresh, local, organic vegetables every week) was to expand my palate. Since I hate to waste anything, it forces me to try things that I would never pick up at the store. One of those things was beet greens.

Now, I am not a fan of beets, but I'm trying to be a sport and find some preparation I can eat, if not enjoy. Last week's beet home fries were an epic fail - neither Jeff or I would eat the final product. We fared better with the beet greens, though, combining them with collards in this delicious recipe. Braised with bacon, onions and cider vinegar, these greens were delicious. We ate the whole batch in one sitting.

So this week, when beets once again appeared at the CSA, I gladly took some, envisioning more delicious greens. I thought I might also throw in my tiny head of radicchio, since I couldn't find another good recipe for it (every one I found assumed I had a denser, more cabbage-like head of radicchio). I had high hopes of delicious results.

Unfortunately, the radicchio was a bad move. I know I don't like the stuff raw, so I wasn't about to throw it in a salad. I assumed that cooking it in this way would mellow the flavor. Boy was I wrong! It added a horrible bitter note to my otherwise lovely greens. I was really sad. Rather than scarfing the whole batch down, the leftovers are now sitting in the fridge. Jeff and I are in a standoff about who has to finish them off.

So try this recipe. Try some beet greens - they're good for you! Even throw in some collards or kale. But please, find some other way to dispose of your radicchio.

Beet Greens
Adapted from Simply Recipes.

1 lb beet greens (collards or kale will work, too!)
1 strip thick-cut bacon, chopped
1/4 c onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 c water
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/6 c cider vinegar

Wash the greens well, then dry them (I recently bought a salad spinner for this - now there's no more grit in my greens, and they don't come out soggy!). Cut off stems. Cut the leaves into bite-sized pieces and set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until browned. Add the onions and cook in the bacon fat for 5-7 minutes, until they soften and start to brown. Stir in garlic. Add the water to deglaze the pan. Stir in sugar and red pepper. Bring to a boil.

Add your beet greens and toss gently. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer gently until tender, about 5-15 minutes (if you're using kale or collards, you may need another 20-25 minutes of cooking to get them tender enough). Stir in vinegar and serve!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Brownies . . . Just Brownies

Some days, a girl gets home from class and just wants to make some brownies. Yesterday, I gave in to that urge. It was awesome.

I love having a life where I have the freedom to just spend my afternoon baking. I just have to keep reminding myself that this shouldn't be at the expense of my actual work. Right now, it kinda is. (Truthfully, I'm avoiding actually beginning to write my dissertation. There seems to be such an awful finality to putting words down on a page, despite the ample opportunity for later revision. Baking just seems easier right now!)

The good thing about procrastinating with brownies (rather than, say, a brioche), is that they're quick, so there may be an opportunity to do real work once they're done. And they also satisfied my craving for something dense and fudgy. When I cut my first test slice, I have to admit I was skeptical - the edges of these brownies baked up a bit cakey, which is not my preference - but the middle proved nice and gooey (perhaps slightly underbaked? But underbaked can be awesome . . .). The next time I come home craving brownies, I'll definitely be turning to this recipe.

Double Chocolate Brownies
From the Southern Living: Secrets of the South Best Barbecue cookbook. My sister-in-law gave this to me for my bridal shower, and it's proved to be an excellent go-to book for all sorts of things, especially dessert. My favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe also comes from here!

1 c butter, softened
2 c sugar
4 eggs
1 c unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c flour
1 c chocolate chips (I didn't have a full cup of regular-sized chips left, so I used a combo of those and tiny ones, which provided a nice bit of variety)

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Beat the butter in a stand mixer at medium speed until creamy. Add the sugar and cream together. Lower the speed and add the eggs, one at a time, beating until just blended.

Add the cocoa and vanilla. Beat on low speed for 1 minute until blended. Gradually add flour, beating well. Stir in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into a greased 13 x 9" baking pan. Bake 30-35 minutes (I put mine in for 35 minutes in the glass dish and got a goopy but stable middle - it might reach this stage more quickly if you use a metal pan). Cool completely before cutting into squares. (I totally sneaked a bite early, but it does pay to let the bulk of them cool, because then they don't stick to the knife.) Happy baking!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ramshackle Creations: String Bean and Tomato Sautee

Ta da! Hooray for the first significant produce from our garden! Today we decided to pick a double handful of the string beans that have been weighing my poor plants down. We have gotten a few things out of the garden already - some snap peas, green onions, herbs - but this was the first that could make its own (small) dish.

What does one do with a handful of string beans? I'm not really a big string bean fan - I hate when they're just boiled - so I wanted to try something different. We also had half a carton of grape tomatoes languishing in the fridge, along with half a lemon, so I thought they could join the party.

This is hardly the most elegant dish in the world, but it was quite flavorful and satisfying. I am not generally good at freestyling in the kitchen - I can follow a recipe to the letter, but my own creations aren't stellar. This time, though, I think I've found the makings of a winner. The tomatoes and lemon juice paired especially well - the lemon lent some extra flavor to the tomatoes and also helped them start breaking down in to a bit of a sauce, which was nice. Since I have plenty of string beans and little tomatoes growing in my garden, I think I'll be doing this dish often this summer!

String Bean and Tomato Sautee
From me! (Hence the vague directions)

a handful of string beans
a handful of tomatoes, sliced (I halved grape tomatoes, but I think a chopped plum tomato would be nice as well)
enough olive oil to coat the pan
juice from half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Toss in the string beans and sautee for 4-5 minutes (if you blanch them first, which I might try if I had more beans, this step doesn't need to be as long).

Add the tomatoes and sautee another 1-2 minutes.

Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper and stir well. Cover the pan and let simmer for another 2 minutes, until the tomatoes and lemon juice begin to form a bit of a sauce. (Test your string beans for doneness - if they're too hard, keep them covered a bit longer.) Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Snap Pea Stir Fry over Parsley Orzo

My CSA finally started last week! The harvest on the East Coast seems to have gotten off to a slow start, but I don't mind because I was away when my vegetables should have started to roll in. Now that I'm home, I don't get to miss out on any bit of it!

I have been in love with the farmer's market for several years now. It's wonderful to go and pick out produce that you know is fresh, in season and local. I like knowing where my food comes from. But the CSA is an even more fulfilling experience: not only do I get vegetables that were picked that very morning (usually), but I get to pick some myself as well. Besides knowing that my produce is as fresh and delicious as it can get, I have seen several other benefits to this arrangement. First of all, I have an increasing respect for farm workers of all sorts. Now, I understand how difficult farming can be - one of my favorite books is Little House on the Prairie - but that intellectual understanding is totally different than the one I have gained by spending an hour in 90 degree heat bent over strawberry plants and snap pea vines. Second, I feel like I have made an investment in something worthwhile. I find it very soul-less to invest in stocks and commodities, making a profit off of companies that I will never see, that will never care about me in the least. This investment comes with a return that I have anticipated for months, and will look forward to week after week until the season ends. And besides that, I feel a sense of pride in walking onto the farm, knowing that I am a part of this effort to coax sustenance from the bare soil.

After spending yet another hour under the blazing sun this afternoon, plucking three pounds of snow and snap peas from their vines, I knew I had to do them justice by using them as soon as possible. These delicate beauties are best right away - storage in the refrigerator converts some of their sugar to starch, taking away from the flavor. I found an appropriate recipe in one of my produce cookbooks that used not only the snap peas, but the first slender zucchini of the season, fresh spring onions, and a handful of parsley from my garden. I wouldn't say this is the best vegetable dish I've ever had - it didn't blow me away - but it does justice to the vegetables by celebrating their individual flavors, which makes it an excellent early summer dish, in my opinion. Now if only the temperature would drop a bit so I could enjoy this outside . .

Snap Pea Stir Fry over Parsley Orzo
From the Rolling Prairie Cookbook. I'm already finding this book indispensable - it was originally done for a CSA, so the recipes are organized by the name of the fruit or vegetable, with two to four recipes each, so when you come home one day up to your ears in bok choy, you can more easily figure out what to do with it.

1 tbsp sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 green onions, sliced into 1" pieces (I used some leftover spring onions I had lying around, both whites and stalks)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 bell pepper, sliced into slivers (red or yellow would be best, for added sweetness)
2 small summer squash (I think the recipe wanted something yellow, for contrast, but I had green zucchini on hand), cut into slices 1/4" thick (I went even thinner, using the food processor, because I'm not a big fan of zucchini and the thinner rounds muted its flavor a bit)
4 c snap peas, ends trimmed
1 tbsp soy sauce
black pepper, to taste

1 c orzo
1 tsp butter
1/4 c parsley, finely chopped
1/4 tsp salt

For the Parsley Orzo:
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cook orzo until just tender, according to package directions (if it has them - mine were not very explicit). Drain well. While still hot, toss with butter. Add parsley and salt and toss until well distributed.

For the Snap Pea Stir Fry:
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, green onions and red pepper flakes and stir fry for 1 minute.

Add bell pepper, squash and snap peas and stir fry for 3-4 more minutes, until vegetables are hot and crisp-tender. Season with soy sauce and black pepper. Serve immediately on a bed of the orzo.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cupcakes in Red Bank

I'm back! After three weeks out of town (the first at a conference and the next two on vacation in the UK), I'm back and I'm ready to blog again. The suitcases have been unpacked, mountains of laundry have been done, and, most importantly, my camera's memory card has been cleared of vacation pictures. Now I can get back to blogging.

So today Jeff and I decided to head over to Red Bank for Riverfest, a food and music festival that I'd seen advertised in a number of places over the past few months. Since they emphasize food in their marketing, I expected to get good stuff from local restaurants. I was sorely disappointed - there were some creative offerings, but most were mediocre festival food, and at very inflated prices. And we weren't too keen on the band (Latin jazz anyone?). So we ended up spending our afternoon wandering around the town, where we were lured in by a variety of cupcake shops.

I love layer cakes and cupcakes, but more often than not they're poorly done. I do not like dry, dense cake with a sugar-bomb of icing on top. I like moist cake with a light, creamy icing. I have been disappointed many times by pretty cupcakes with exotic flavors that turn out to be as dry and sugary as the rest, so I more often than not pass these places by. This time, though, we wandered into Ricky's Candy, Cones and Chaos, looking for some soft-serve, when we were lured over to the cupcake counter by the presence of generous samples (about a quarter of a cupcake each). Inside Ricky's is a small satellite location (which apparently opened yesterday) of Mr. Cupcakes, the winner of New Jersey Monthly's best cupcake in New Jersey in 2011 (it has locations in Clifton, Hackensack and Oradell as well). The samples were as good as advertised, so we each chose a flavor to take home. But in continuing our walk, we stumbled on the month-old Cupcake Magician. We had to look inside (for comparative purposes, of course). We decided to buy another cupcake each and do a taste test. For the benefit of posterity, of course.

Back home, we tried the cupcakes from the Cupcake Magician first.The Boston Cream (pictured on the left) was delicious - it did have the exact flavor of a Boston Cream doughnut. It was yellow cake filled with pastry cream (I'd have preferred a little more filling) and chocolate icing on top. The icing was what you would find on a doughnut, rather than a cupcake, so it fit the flavor perfectly. The cake was deliciously moist and soft. Jeff and I both agreed it was excellent. The second cupcake was the Devil Dog - chocolate cake filled with cream, topped with a white buttercream and some chocolate syrup. This was even better than the first - the chocolate cake was nicely moist, the cream filling was light and fluffy (Jeff said it was far better than any Devil Dog he'd ever had). The chocolate syrup on top was much more than a garnish - it had a really rich chocolate flavor that you tasted with every bite, and it really made the cupcake work. Final evaluation? We hope this family-run business stays around, because they're definitely doing it right. If you're passing through Red Bank, definitely hit them up.

After dinner, we broke into the rest of our cupcake stash: those from Mr. Cupcakes. The first (pictured on the left) was Oreo Cheesecake. It was chocolate cake with Oreo pieces baked in topped with a chocolate cream cheese icing. The icing really made me feel like eating cheesecake - it had a nice bite to it. The cake, though, was only ok. It was a drier and denser than the others we'd eaten, and definitely a letdown on that account. The Oreo pieces lent the cupcake an Oreo flavor, but that flavor and the cheesecake flavor didn't meld very well - they remained two distinct entities. The second cupcake (pictured on the right) was Chocolate Chip Smoothie. This was the one I'd tasted in the store, and I had high hopes. It was chocolate cake with plenty of chocolate chips mixed in, topped with vanilla icing and a sprinkle of more chocolate chips. Adding the chips to the cake batter made it very moist, and the chips melted in your mouth to give the cake an almost liquid feel. The icing was a bit sweet, although there wasn't too much of it, so this was not overwhelming. Overall, I have to say I was disappointed. We loved the samples in-store, but after eating the cakes from the Cupcake Magician, we were no longer as impressed. We would visit this chain again, certainly, but if we find ourselves in Red Bank, the Cupcake Magician will get our business.