Friday, May 25, 2012

Farm Fridays: Spinach Leek Frittata

Oops. I forgot to take a picture of this week's share. No big deal, though - it was essentially the same as last week's. Just add a pound of spinach and exchange the leeks for some hakurei turnips.

I was sad to learn that the strong storms yesterday brought hail to the Chesterfield farm, where most of the spring produce is planted. Much of the spring harvest was damaged or lost, including tens of thousands of heads of lettuce. While I hate to see things go to waste, I have to admit that I'm not that bummed about this. I'm already tired of lettuce (why in the world did I start buying it from the farmers market knowing I would be inundated by the CSA?). If there had been, say, a tomato crop failure, then I would be upset. Mother nature can have my lettuce.

Spinach wasn't on the list of affected crops, so I'm guessing we're going to see a lot of that in the next few weeks. I've already taken home five pounds of it. When I did my meal planning this morning, I made sure that every day of the week included plenty of spinach. This recipe is one I cooked up a few days ago, with last week's spinach and leeks. It's a tasty frittata packed with crusty French bread crumbs and Gruyere cheese. A large slice of this on my plate with a generous side salad (because we have to use that lettuce and arugula somehow) made me feel like I was eating at a trendy bistro.

Enjoy the holiday weekend!

Spinach Leek Frittata
From the Rolling Prairie Cookbook.

1 tbsp butter
2 large leeks, thinly sliced and well rinsed (I soak them in a large bowl of water for a while after I cut them, to loosen the grit)
3/4 lb spinach, washed and chopped
1 tbsp fresh oregano
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c skim milk
4 oz Gruyere cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 c French bread, cut into 1/4" cubes

Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt the butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and saute 4-5 minutes until softened.

Add the oregano and the spinach (I had to do it in batches, stirring to wilt it down and then adding more - it seems like the spinach will never fit that small pan, but I got all of it in there). Remove from the heat. 

In a medium bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, cheese, salt and pepper. Stir the bread cubes into the spinach and leek mixture, then pour the egg mixture over the top (you may want to stir it a bit to spread everything around evenly).

Put the skillet into the oven and bake 45-55 minutes, until the egg has set and the top is golden brown.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lemon-Yogurt Potato Salad with Fresh Herbs

Since I teased you about my awesome potato salad in some previous posts, I thought I should be nice and post the recipe. I was never a potato salad person until I started making my own, because I can't stand mayonnaise. But when it occurred to me that, if I did it myself, I could do it without mayonnaise, potato salad became the greatest thing ever.

I've made yogurty, herby potato salads before and enjoyed them, but this one is special. I think it's because of a little trick Jamie Oliver uses in the original recipe. He says to boil the potatoes and then mix them with the dressing while they're still hot. When you do this, the starches from the potatoes seem to blend with the dressing, making it thicker and making it stick to the potatoes more effectively. The result is a pile of yummy, gooey, herby, lemony goodness. I've eaten it hot right after mixing and cold from a night in the fridge. I've had it on my deck with a turkey burger straight from the grill and packed in a cooler for a picnic in the park with some of my neighbors. It never fails to be delicious. The next time I'm invited to a summer barbecue, you know this is what I'm bringing.

Lemon-Yogurt Potato Salad with Fresh Herbs
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Evolution Potato Salad in Jamie's Food Revolution.

1 1/2 - 2 lbs potatoes
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 c plain yogurt
2 - 3 tbsp fresh herbs (this time, I used parsley, oregano and garlic chives)
salt and pepper to taste

Put a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Salt well.

Chop the potatoes into (relatively) evenly sized chunks. (Since we all know there is no way to make a knobbly potato into even cubes without a ton of waste. Mine tend to be an inch or so at their wides - as long as they're not too big for your mouth, they're fine.) When the water is boiling, carefully add them to the pot. Boil 10-12 minutes, until tender.

Meanwhile, make the dressing. In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice and yogurt until well blended. Season to taste.

Wash and chop your herbs, then add them to the dressing and whisk together.

When the potatoes are tender, drain them in a colander and add them to the dressing and toss until combined. Taste and season more, if necessary (and try not to eat it all yourself!). Serve immediately or chill for later.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Farm Fridays: Chicken Chow Mein with Spring Vegetables

Welcome to my new feature: farm Fridays! I spent my winter thinking about how I could integrate my CSA, Honey Brook Organic Farm, into my blog more effectively. I knew I wanted to move toward offering seasonal recipes. What better way than to blog about my CSA share each week?

So here's the plan: I'll be picking up my share on Friday mornings, going home to plan a menu, doing my grocery shopping for the week, then cooking up something tasty for dinner from the day's produce and blogging about it. While it sounds like a lot of work, it's pretty much what I would do anyway - I'm just adding a deadline for myself. Hopefully, this will help out my fellow CSA members who may be mystified by their piles of produce each week.

Speaking of piles of produce, this is a picture of my haul for this week. My kitchen is currently buried in leaves: lettuce, arugula, bok choy and spinach (and this picture doesn't even show half of my spinach - two pounds is a lot! I can't imagine what people with family shares are doing with four pounds!) There are also some leeks, so it's not a total leaf monopoly. I went out and picked some herbs as well - parsley and garlic chives - which I'm going to use in a lovely cold potato salad tomorrow. I love that potato salad, so it may be making it to the blog soon!

When I was looking for something to make today, I immediately fixed in on the baby bok choy. It's so cute and perky. I knew I could find something delicious to do with it. I settled on this chicken chow mein from Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Food Revolution. I have been loving this cookbook lately (my awesome potato salad comes from there as well!). Jamie Oliver's attitude toward cooking is really laid back. His cookbooks don't contain precise measurements and he offers lots of suggestions about substitutions and extra twists you can put on each dish. Perhaps that is what inspired me this morning, because I played around with this recipe quite a bit, taking inspiration from the fresh spring produce sitting in my fridge. The result, as you will see, was fantastic. I only wish it used a bit more of my bok choy!

Note on servings: the original recipe says it serves two, but we had a whole serving of the meat and veggies left over. If you want to stretch it out for three, you may want to cook 6 oz of noodles and some extra baby bok choy. 

Chicken Chow Mein with Spring Vegetables
Adapted from Jamie's Food Revolution.

1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced (about a thumb-sized piece)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 chile pepper, minced (I used a green cayenne I had frozen from my garden last fall - remove the seeds if you don't want a really hot dish)
1 1/2-2 tbsp peanut oil
1 chicken breast, sliced into thin strips and seasoned with salt and pepper (6-8 oz)
2 spring onions, chopped, tops and bottoms separated
4 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
6 baby bok choy 
8 oz asparagus, chopped into 2" segments
4 oz chow mein noodles (or linguine, if you can't find them at the store, like me!)
1 tsp cornstarch
8 oz can water chestnuts (don't drain it - you'll need the water too)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 lime, juice only

Put a large pot of salted water to boil for the noodles. (The recipe says to cook the chow mein noodles 3-4 minutes, but my linguine took 12. Check the package directions and make sure you have enough time, since the rest of the cooking is quick and you don't want your food getting cold!) Add the noodles and cook for the allotted time. About 2 minutes before the noodles are done, toss in the bok choy and asparagus. When everything is done, scoop them off the top and set them aside, then drain the noodles in a colander.

Meanwhile, heat a large wok over high heat. Add the peanut oil and swirl to coat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, until cooked through and slightly browned.

Add the ginger, garlic, chile and mushrooms and the white part of the spring onions. Stir-fry for another minute or so, stirring constantly. Then add the cornstarch, water chestnuts and their water to the wok. Stir well to combine everything. Make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the wok, then remove it from the heat.

Add the soy sauce, lime juice and boiled asparagus to the pan and toss everything to combine. Serve over noodles, with bok choy on the side.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cannellini Bean Stew

This is one of my most epic creations.

One day, Jeff came home for lunch and there weren't enough leftovers in the fridge to go around.  I generously offered them to him, and scrounged around the kitchen for my own lunch. I found some tomatoes, spinach, and a few cups of leftover cannellini beans. And then the magic happened.

I really didn't know what I was going to make. I just started putting ingredients together in an order that made sense. First, onions sauteed in olive oil. Then, herbs and garlic were stirred in until fragrant. Then, chopped tomatoes joined the party. So far, it was just a lovely fresh tomato sauce. Then I added the beans and let them stew in the mixture, absorbing some of the juice from the tomatoes. Finally, I added in some spinach and let it cook down. Presto! Cannellini bean stew.

What makes it truly awesome is the health factor. I've been using myfooddiary to track my calories and nutrient intakes. What I like about the site is that, when it breaks down your meals, it shades the boxes green or red to let you know what elements of the meal are good or bad for you. A lunch without enough protein or too much sugar will have those boxes shaded red. A lunch with a lot of fiber and iron will have those shaded green. This was the first meal I'd ever cooked that was green across the board. One serving (which I figured was about a quarter of the recipe) has a third of my daily values of iron and vitamin C, more than a full day's worth of vitamin A, and 14 grams of fiber. There is a negligible amount of saturated fat (less than a gram) and no cholesterol. And the percentages of calories from fat, carbs and protein are nicely balanced (20/60/20).

I am not surprised that I could reach around my kitchen, grab ingredients and make something tasty. I do this a lot from leftovers. This dish turned out prettier than most (I make ugly but delicious scrambled egg dishes on a regular basis). But what really floored me is that I could throw together something so healthy, with so little effort on my part. I guess it comes from having a kitchen stocked with healthy ingredients. I need to remember this every time I go to the grocery store - sticking to my list for that one hour will make sure I stick to my diet for the rest of the week. And, perhaps, lead to more epic lunch creations.

Cannellini Bean Stew
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced (you could mince them, if you prefer - I was just being a little lazy)
2 tbsp assorted fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, sage)
15 oz can diced tomatoes, with liquid (if you have fresh tomatoes on hand, dice up two large ones)
1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
3-4 c cooked cannellini beans
4 c spinach, washed and chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the olive oil to the pan and swirl to coat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, 4-5 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and chopped herbs and stir around for about a minute, until everything is fragrant.

Add the tomatoes and vinegar and stir to combine. Simmer for 4-5 minutes, to let all the flavors blend together. (While it was simmering, I took a potato masher and mashed down some of the larger chunks of tomato, to make the mixture more saucy. It worked beautifully.) Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the beans to the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes, until heated through. Taste and season again, if necessary.

Add the spinach and stir until it is wilted down and combined with the sauce. Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, or just enjoy it on its own!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turkey Meatballs

Meatballs were one of the first things I learned how to cook really well. I've been using the same recipe since Jeff and I got married almost five years ago (adapted from a Rachel Ray meatball pizza, I think) and I love it. The ingredients, with scant instructions, are scrawled on a 3x5 index card, dating from the days before I started collecting pretty recipe cards. You know it's a good one because the card is rumpled and stained from many uses. I still whip it out, though I suppose I don't really need it anymore. I know what goes in a tasty meatball - I've made them dozens of times.

This time, though, I was compelled to change things up a bit. My cholesterol being what it is, I decided to slim this down by substituting ground turkey for the ground beef. I also added in some minced mushroom, since I'm trying to convince myself to like mushrooms. While I find the texture of mushrooms nasty, the flavor can be great, grounding a dish with their savory earthiness.

The result was pretty good. They turned out a bit denser than my regular beef meatballs, most likely due to the lower fat content in the meat. This wasn't a problem - just a reminder that I was eating poultry and not beef. The mushrooms turned out to be a stroke of brilliance, adding a depth that contrasted with the sweetness of my canned tomato sauce (I so miss my home-canned tomatoes - the flavor was head and shoulders above the cans I'm buying at the store. I just didn't make enough to last the winter). With savory mushrooms, salty Parmesan, fresh parsley and sharp onion, the balance of flavors in these meatballs is perfect. They're just as good over pasta as on a freshly-baked Italian roll (which is how we like our leftovers). It's a lightened version, but still a hearty meal.

Turkey Meatballs 

1 lb ground turkey
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c bread crumbs
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning (or assorted dried herbs)
1/2 yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp white mushroom, minced
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1/2 c Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
tomato sauce (preferably homemade - a 28 oz can of tomatoes will make the perfect amount)

In a medium bowl, mix all the ingredients together. (I knead the whole mixture with one hand, just like I would with bread dough. I find it mixes everything more evenly and ensures the meat balls won't fall apart while cooking.)

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. In another skillet, bring your sauce to a simmer. Back at the counter, take about 2 tbsp of the mixture at a time and roll into balls. (I used less than a pound of turkey this time and ended up with 28 meatballs.) Make sure they are evenly sized.

Place your meatballs carefully in the hot oil (they should sizzle on contact). Cook 2-3 minutes, until golden brown on the bottom.

Turn each meatball over and cook another 1-2 minutes. Depending on the size, you may need a third turn (check for any pink spots on the unbrowned sides - if you find any, your meatballs need another turn).

When the meatballs are done cooking, place each one in the sauce. Cook another 2-3 minutes, so that everything blends together. (Alternatively, you can brown your meatballs on the stove and then plop them in a slow cooker with a healthy amount of sauce. I find this works really nicely with larger meatballs which may not be fully cooked on the stovetop. I've let mine simmer on low for a full workday - the sauce will keep them moist.) Serve over pasta or on crusty rolls.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

My Backyard Garden

I dream of a day when all my summer grocery shopping will be done outside my back door. I love growing things, as my forest of houseplants will attest, and one of the things I was most exited about when we bought our house was the prospect of our own vegetable garden.

The first summer in our house, our garden was nothing to write home about. I was actually out of the country from mid-May until early July. I wanted a garden anyway, so I bought some plants and threw them haphazardly in the ground before I left. Why haphazardly? Well, we bought a house with a lovely established perennial garden. Since we hadn't seen much of it in action yet (we bought the house in November), we didn't want to mess with it too much. I ended up planting my tomatoes in gaps between sprouting plants (all of which turned out to be weeds, so my caution was unwarranted) and then traipsing off to Canada. Poor Jeff didn't really know what he was doing (and my descriptions of the plants and their placement was weeks out of date - "the tall plant in the back" doesn't mean anything once all the plants have grown tall!). It was a pretty big flop. I wasn't daunted, though, and began anew the next year.

Our next garden was a bigger deal. I spent the winter reading about succession planting and crop families and was raring to go once spring hit. I had an extensive garden plan that I only partially followed, since Home Depot didn't carry seeds for everything I wanted to plant. Still, we had some great successes, particularly cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and basil, and I learned quite a bit about the idiosyncrasies of our yard. I had done well, but I could do better.

This year, garden planning started early again. I was determined to get the most out of our little patch of dirt. Jeff and I began in late February (when the temperature was in the 50s) by breaking up the soil and laying down compost. We also got rid of the pretty but incredibly intrusive rose bush in the center of our raised bed (I was tired of getting thorns in my hair as I bent to pick peas). I also ordered my seeds online around that time, to ensure I'd get what I wanted (I went with heirloom varieties from the Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). My focus this year was on productivity: plants that would give me a lot of bang for my buck (no more waiting months for a single baseball-sized cauliflower to come to fruition): lots of leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers and squash. Also root vegetables like radish and carrot that could be planted several times in a season.

I've been working on these plantings for awhile, but Jeff and I finished things off today, now that danger of frost seems to be past.

The nice raised bed, now rose-free, looks like a real vegetable garden. From left to right, I have rows of curly kale (I tried starting these indoors and failed miserably. Afterward, I planted a row of Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch from seed. When I thought the seeds weren't coming up, I bought four larger plants from Whole Foods. Now everything is coming up, so there is a row of tiny kale almost in line with the purchased plants. I have yet to decide what to do about this.), Paris market carrots (a small, round heirloom variety), rainbow chard, spinach (the America variety), yellow summer squash, early Purple Vienna kohlrabi, Brandywine tomatoes (from Cranberry Hall Farm at the Trenton Farmers Market), and early Scarlet Globe radishes. I've been staggering the radishes, carrots and kohlrabi, planting half-rows at a time. The first half row of radishes is ready, so some of those have been harvested already. If it looks like there are a lot of weeds around, that's because there are. I refuse to use any chemicals on the garden, so all the weeding is done by hand. As long as the weeds aren't taller than the veggies, they'll be fine.

In the wonky section next to the raised bed (which used to hold a field of purple coneflowers interspersed with weeds - we reclaimed half of it for garden last spring and finished the job when the coneflowers died in the fall - they've been replanted elsewhere), I've carved out space for quite a bit of produce as well. From left to right we have another row of radishes, spinach, bell peppers (also from Cranberry Hall Farm), kohlrabi and winter squash. The winter squash is going to be interesting - I had saved seeds from last year that I was going to use, but I ended up just transplanting the plants that naturally sprouted from my compost (apparently my composter doesn't get hot enough to kill the seeds). I have seven or eight plants growing now that I might whittle down as the season continues. I'm keen on finding out what sort of squash gets produced! I also have some tiny tomato plants near the back of my row of peppers that came up the same way. I decided to let a few grow and see what comes of it. Nearer to the front of the bed, I have two cherry tomato plants (Sweet 100s from the farmers market - I forget which vendor) as well.

My herb garden is the only part of the yard that's been going well from the beginning. I cleared out some of the irises last year to make a little more space. In a few weeks, the early spring bulbs along the right side of the herb patch will wither down and it will be much roomier. So far, I have thyme (the only thing I planted in my first summer garden that really thrived - still going strong!), Greek oregano (from the Rutgers master gardener plant sale last year - competing with the thyme for king of the garden), chives, lemon thyme, a tiny rosemary plant (replacing the enormous rosemary bush that died during our second snowy winter in the house), parsley (all of which came back from last year - some was transplanted from the raised bed in February and is still doing great!), sage and newly-planted basil. I also tossed a tomato plant in there today, since I had more than my containers could hold. In the bare space at the bottom of this picture, I just planted a few rows of green onions, which will hopefully really thrive once the flowers die back.

I have two more cherry tomatoes in small bare patches on either side of this path. Also on the right side is our strawberry patch, in and among daisies and hostas. The strawberries were here when we arrived, but I've filled them in a bit by transplanting the shoots they send out into the lawn back into bare patches in the bed. We ate our first ripe strawberry this morning and hope to get some more big ones soon!

Last year I tried growing bush beans in our raised bed, with mixed results. This year I decided to put runner beans in (Painted Lady Improved - gorgeous bi-color flowers and beans good eaten fresh or dried) along the side of the house. I put in some small trellises to get things going, but I'm hoping they'll take off and climb up the honeysuckle (which is looking spectacular this year) and clematis. This area gets full sun all day long, so this could be a brilliant decision.

Up on the deck I planted a few pots with my extra seeds. One of the long containers has spinach and the other chard. The round one in the middle has another summer squash. 

Finally, the tomatoes. We've had a fair bit of luck growing regular tomato plants in containers (rather than buying patio tomatoes), so we're continuing with that. I'm hoping to do a better job pruning the plants this year so we end up with more fruit. I have three plants to a container. The varieties are Yellow Stuffer (supposedly these will be about the size of a bell pepper and hollow inside - I can't wait to see that) and Yellow Pineapple (both from Cranberry Hall Farms). We will be getting a ton of tomatoes from our CSA as well, so we tried to choose varieties they don't plant. This should give us a nice mix later in the summer. Over in the far corner is another small container of chard. 

Finally, our last two containers are overflow: Yellow Pineapple tomatoes and bell peppers. These planters drain poorly so the plants tend to produce less, but these plants are extras anyway, so anything we get is a bonus.

Overall, I'm really excited about this year. Jeff and I are improving our gardening skills by leaps and bounds every year, so this is promising to be a good one (the few things we've been able to harvest already back this up). We have over twenty varieties of produce in our backyard. This may not be the year we can feed ourselves from our own produce, but some of those plants are bound to be successful. Fingers crossed!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Preserving: Freezing Asparagus

I did a fair amount of food preservation last year, between extensive freezing and learning boiling water canning, but since I was a newbie, I didn't feel confident explaining things on the blog. Not until I knew they would work, that is. This year, now that I am brimming with confidence, I feel ready to impart my wisdom to the world. Watch out.

What better place to start than with one of my very favorite vegetables? Asparagus has a lamentably short season, so I end up eating it almost every day while I can get it. This year, I was determined to freeze some and extend my enjoyment.

I've had mixed results with freezing vegetables. Last year we froze tons of green beans, but they tend to come out soggy and gross. They're fine for soups, but not for eating on their own (it brings me back to the soggy frozen vegetable side dishes of my childhood - apologies to my mom). But I had fantastic results from the bell pepper strips I froze on a whim at the end of the season, when I had more peppers than I could possibly handle. The texture wasn't bad at all and they're useful in so many more sorts of dishes than green beans. So I don't think the problem is freezing - I think it lies in the vegetable itself.

The internet tells me that asparagus should freeze well. I did find one site where someone complained that theirs always comes out soggy. The comments suggested that the method of freezing was the problem. Sogginess is caused by the formation of large ice crystals which break down the cell walls of the plant. To avoid sogginess, you need to facilitate the formation of smaller ice crystals. That means freezing the product quickly. To do that, it should be as cold as possible before going into the freezer. (I only went halfway in this department, so we'll see how mine come out.) Also, any vegetable you freeze should be parcooked beforehand because it kills off some of the enzymes that would otherwise cause the product to break down (I didn't cook my bell peppers and this was not a problem, though we went through them within about three months, so maybe this would have taken effect later).

So. To the asparagus.

I went out to Terhune Orchards yesterday morning to pick my own so that it would be as fresh as possible. (Sidebar: Asparagus is the weirdest vegetable ever. It just emerges from the ground the way you eat it - there's no development or growth, just crazy big stalks slowly rising from the earth like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus - this picture will show you what I mean.) I picked about two pounds for my trial run.

When I got home, I set a large pot of water boiling (think, the same amount of water you'd use for a batch of pasta). Meanwhile, I washed the asparagus to get the dirt off, then snapped off the woody part of the stems. I split the stalks into two batches to ensure I wouldn't crowd my pot. Then I chopped the first batch into 2-3" lengths.

When the water was fully boiling, I popped the slices in and cooked them for 2 minutes.

While they were cooking, I pulled out a very large bowl and filled it with ice water. When the asparagus was done, I skimmed the pieces out and put them in the ice bath to stop the cooking process. While the water came back to a boil, I chopped the next batch and then repeated the process.

When all the asparagus was cooked and cooled, I poured them into a strainer and then dumped them onto a dish towel. I used another dish towel to pat the tops dry. Before the pieces warmed up too much, I arranged them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and slid them into the freezer (if you really want to get them cold, you can pop them into the fridge for a bit first, but mine were still pretty cold from their ice bath, so I skipped that step). You should spread them out so they have room to freeze quickly, but I couldn't fit a second tray in my freezer, so I just let them be crowded.

Once they are totally frozen (I left mine in the freezer overnight), remove them from a baking sheet into a freezer bag. They should last about six months in the freezer - make sure to label and date your bag!

Everything seemed to go well for me, but I'll update you on the results when I use them. But don't hold your breath - that won't be until fresh asparagus season is over!