Monday, April 29, 2013

Spring Garden 2013

Last year, I wrote a long post about my backyard garden at the beginning of spring, letting you know the rocky history of my untutored efforts as well as my plans for the future. I posted again, six weeks later, with pictures of beautiful, thriving plants and hopes of a wonderful harvest.

I stopped posting when everything fell into shambles. The kale was attacked by whiteflies, which later moved on to the kohlrabi (no loss there, since they never really developed edible bulbs). We harvested just a pound and a half of summer squash from five plants. All the winter squash plants that came up out of my compost (yes, all of them) turned out to be inedible decorative gourds. The tomatoes produced, but very lightly, the pole beans along the side of the house not at all (I may have gotten one bean). Bell peppers didn't really develop before the fall frost. Once things began to look disastrous, I lost my motivation to tell you about them. (It doesn't help that, once again, I was out of the country for six weeks during the middle of the summer).

But now none of that matters, because it was last year. (Gardening is wonderful that way - always positive and hopeful.) Once the new year hit and I started thinking about my garden again, these shifted from failures to learning experiences. Now I've accepted that, no matter how much effort I put into it, my raised vegetable bed is too shady for most summer crops. I've looked around for other areas of the yard that can be reclaimed for edibles. I've regained my enthusiasm.

One of the big plans that is moving forward (as of today!) is the relandscaping of or entire front yard. I never seem to get to tending the front garden (there's plenty to do in the back as it is!) and some of it is out of hand - there is a patch of bamboo that has spread through one whole side, taking over everything and killing some bushes in the process. The other side has fifteen-foot butterfly bushes that like to fall onto the driveway (and my car) next to enormous bare patches. So I've called in the professionals. The designer I talked to this morning presented a gorgeous plan: moving the path, relocating many of my existing bulbs (there are hundreds) and adding new bushes to create a lovely cottage garden. And the best part of all - my biggest request for this project - a new herb garden will sit smack in the middle, basking in the sunny side of the front yard.

The fact that this was a nebulous project (until today!) that will happen weeks in the future didn't stop me from heading up to Rutgers Day on Saturday to stock up at the Rutgers Master Gardener plant sale. Above is my new herb collection, which includes: tarragon, chervil, lovage, summer and winter savory, marjoram, golden oregano, Italian oregano, sorrel, and lemon grass. (Also on the trays are some cherry tomato plants from the sale and the spaghetti squash and Amish neck pumpkins I started from seed.) I don't want to worry about buying herbs at the grocery store ever again - I want to walk out my front door and have everything at my fingertips! Unfortunately, since the work is so far in the future, I'm going to have to plant these temporarily in the existing herb garden and transplant them later. I hope they can handle that!

The existing herb garden is looking lovely this year. The space I created last year by moving the irises has been very useful, although it does get pretty shady toward the back. I have plenty of Greek oregano, regular and lemon thyme, three rosemary plants (only one of which is happy), two sage plants, some parsley and some dill that will have to be moved to the front. In the back of the space (the shady end), I've planted some kale from seed. When the herbs move, the rest of the space will be converted to regular vegetables. The single tomato plant I put in last year was quite happy there, so that might be this bed's purpose in the future.

I've started some selective planting in the raised bed. The kale from last year is still around, although it bolted during that stretch of 80-degree weather we had at the beginning of the month. I'm going to let it flower and go to seed, just to see what it looks like. If any new kale grows from that seed, I'll probably just let it. I've also planted a row of green onions to the left of the kale, and rows of collard greens, leeks, arugula, radishes and rainbow chard at the other end of the garden. I'm hoping to fill most of this area with leafy greens that won't mind the shade.

I've also reclaimed a bit of this garden patch near the deck for more vegetables. I pulled out a section of pachysandra to make room for some rows of carrots and radishes (although I missed one perennial, which is now coming up right in the middle of the rows - I'll move it next year, I suppose). There are also some garden peas around the hitching post and around a trellis behind the lilac bush (can't be seen in this shot, but I cut back the lilac on that side so the little spot gets some sun). In the shade under the lilac, I've started spinach and more chard.

We're focusing more attention this year on container gardening. My deck pots tend to do decently well, but I get over-excited and put too many things in them. I'm going to keep to one plant per container this year and hope for a better yield. I also have a self-watering container that I plan on putting in the middle of the sunny driveway for my squash and pumpkins. We don't use the driveway in the back anyway, so the vines will be able to spread to their heart's content. Finally, Jeff is in the process of building me a 4' x 4' raised bed on wheels, which will also go in the driveway and probably hold peppers.

As always, I have so much hope for the future: our knowledge of our garden and its limitations has increased and we're trying to work with the space we have more effectively. Will we have the stellar harvest we've been hoping for? Who knows. But since we know so much more, and I'll actually be around all summer to monitor things, I'm convinced it will be better.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Baked Potato with Deborah Madison's Watercress Yogurt Sauce

I am in love with Deborah Madison's new cookbook, Vegetable Literacy. My sisters-in-law were astute enough to get it for me for my birthday earlier in the month, unaware that I had been salivating over online previews for months. Excellent call, ladies.

I brought the book home and read it cover to cover over the course of a few weeks. It really is a wonderful book just to read, with reams of information on every vegetable under the sun. Madison explains each vegetable in turn, including which parts are edible, what different varieties taste like, and what oils, herbs and spices pair well with it. By grouping them into plant families, Madison makes it simple to understand how to substitute one vegetable for another. And, on top of all that, she includes several wonderful recipes for each one.

This is the sort of book that makes me fearless in the kitchen. Madison has me excited about all sorts of vegetables and herbs that I wouldn't otherwise have known what to do with. I'm sourcing things like lovage and sorrel for my new herb garden, confident that I'll love them based on her thorough descriptions. I won't be afraid to pick up a bunch of cardoons in the market, since she explains just how to handle them. And there's no need to have a recipe already planned, since her "good companions" suggestions provide guidance for some kitchen improvisation.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is how effortless Madison makes growing and cooking these vegetables seem. Her descriptions of scattering seed aimlessly in corners of her own garden and enjoying luscious harvests months later make me want to get out and find likely corners of my own backyard for growing good things (if there are any corners I haven't already scoped out). And nearly all of her recipes come together in minutes, allowing me to feel like a total expert in the kitchen.

This watercress yogurt sauce is no exception. The cress gets blanched, whizzed in the food processor with some other ingredients, then folded into the cold, creamy yogurt. Spooned over a hot baked potato, this made for a healthy and satisfying dinner. And the sauce was so delicious that I was tempted to coat my salad in it as well (I might try that for lunch today)! It's fairly similar to the mustard cream that goes with her cabbage and leek gratin - both have shallots, vinegar, mustard and yogurt at the base. The watercress adds a nice peppery finish and the parsley makes it taste delightfully fresh.

I would love this book even without the recipes, but if the one that I've tried is any indication, I'm going to absolutely adore it once I get to know more of them. I think this is going to be a staple cookbook in my kitchen for many, many years.

Baked Potato with Watercress Yogurt Sauce
Sauce from Deborah Madison's Vegetable Literacy.

2 russet potatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1 bunch watercress, stems removed (I ended up with a bit more than 1/2 c of leaves from my small bunch)
2 tbsp parsley
1 shallot
1 c Greek yogurt
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Scrub the potatoes clean and dry thoroughly. Rub the skins in olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt and black pepper. Place in the oven (you can use a baking sheet if you'd like - I just put a little foil under them, with the edges turned up, to catch the oil drips) and bake 45-60 minutes, until tender.

Meanwhile, set a small pot of salted water to boil on the stove. Add the watercress until wilted and bright green - about five seconds - and then rinse under cold water. Gently squeeze excess water from the watercress. Add the watercress, parsley and shallot to a small food processor and pulse for a few seconds until everything is finely chopped.

Add the watercress mixture, yogurt, vinegar, mustard and salt and pepper to taste to a small bowl. Mix well and refrigerate until ready to serve.

When the potatoes are finished baking, split them with a fork and spoon generous amounts of the watercress yogurt sauce over the top. Serve with a small salad for a lovely light dinner!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Baked Falafel Pitas

Jeff was away last weekend so I had to fend for myself on the food-and-house front. It was surprisingly difficult. Walking and feeding the dog twice a day, prepping food, cooking it and washing up afterward - it too up far more of my time than I would have liked. It's been awhile since I've had to fend for myself and I'd forgotten how much another pair of helping hands can really accomplish.

I was really glad, therefore, that I'd chosen baked falafel for my dinner on Saturday. This is a low-effort, high-reward sort of dish. Everything goes into the food processor, the mixture gets patted into patties and they go in the oven. While they're baking, the pitas can be prepped and the dishes done. I even had time to chop myself a mango and squeeze some lemon juice for my sparkling water. Dinner = done.

Baked Falafel
Adapted from Fat Free Vegan Recipes

1/4 c onion
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp parsley
1 tbsp cilantro
1 1/2 c chickpeas
2 tbsp whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp cumin
3/4 tsp ground sumac
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp lemon juice

whole wheat pitas
baby spinach
cucumber slices
Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Combine the onion, garlic, parsley and cilantro in a food processor and pulse until minced. Add the remaining falafel ingredients and pulse until a thick paste is formed.

Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly coat it with cooking spray. Form the falafel dough into eight patties and place them on the baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes, turning once halfway through, until golden brown (I often forget to flip them and they turn out just fine).

(You may wish to wrap your pitas in foil and pop them in the oven to warm for the last 5 minutes of baking.)

Take a pita and smear hummus, Greek yogurt, and a thin line of harissa over the top (I used to cut the pitas in half and stuff them, but the whole wheat ones tend to tear so I've settled for using the pita like a giant soft taco). Top with a small handful of spinach, a few slices of cucumber and two falafel patties. Repeat with the remaining falafel or pop them in the fridge for another day.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Jersey Shore Restaurant Week: David Burke Fromagerie Rumson, NJ

I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating: take advantage of restaurant weeks. It's a great way to experience the best food in your area at a fraction of the cost. Case in point: our trip to David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson for Jersey Shore Restaurant Week.

As a regular reader of Edible Jersey, I'm pretty well up on the best restaurants around, even though we don't go out to eat very often. Fromagerie is one of those restaurants that comes up over and over again as one of the best around - restaurant week finally provided me with an excuse to try it out. 

We had a totally classy experience from the moment we sat down at our table. A waiter speedily arrived with an amuse-bouche of shrimp salad on a cracker garnished with tons of snipped chives (too bad I don't like seafood - Jeff said they were tasty).

Hot on its heels came the best bread basket I've ever had. Seriously. This place does things right. There was hot French bread, some popovers, cheesy Japanese breadsticks (like the best salty cheese cracker you've ever eaten), some radishes, and pickled carrots. I seriously need to figure out how to make those carrots. They were perfect: not soggy, not raw, but like they'd been quickly blanched in pickling liquid. All of this came with butter on a salt slab sprinkled with grey sea salt. Needless to say, we ate everything in that basket.

When we do restaurant weeks, we carefully scope out the menus in advance. I knew I wanted the garlic soup with tomato dumplings and parsley puree. It sounded awesome. However, they had tweaked the menu a bit from what was posted online: my garlic soup came with "snails on a log." I had assumed that this was somewhat metaphorical - after all, it was unlikely that I would get a log in my soup. The "log" turned out to be a toasted crouton. The "snails" turned out to be . . . snails. When I got my dish, I tasted some soup, then popped one of them in my mouth. After I swallowed it, I looked at Jeff and said "I think that was an actual snail." We debated for a minute before having it confirmed by the waiter. So I've eaten marinated snails. I don't think I would ever have ordered them for myself if I knew what I was getting, but I have to say that they weren't bad - not as slimy as seafood, but closer to the texture of a meaty mushroom. They were a beautiful accompaniment to the creamy garlic soup. I'm not sure I would order them again, though - they seemed to be a bit of an acid reflux trigger.

Jeff ordered the tuna tartare tacos for his appetizer. The presentation, in this little taco rack, was adorable. The little taco shells were packed with firm, flavorful raw tuna. The yellow pepper sauce on the plate packed a nice punch, too.

I ordered the pan-roasted chicken over potatoes and spring vegetables, which turned out to be carrots, leeks, shaved celery root and chanterelles. (Sorry about the image quality, folks - they dimmed the lights before dinner and all photos came out pretty bad. I've increased the exposure on these so you can at least see something!) The chicken was delicious - moist, tender and as flavorful as I'd expected. The pan gravy was like a concentrated chicken dinner. I was a little taken aback at the size of the dish - I had half a chicken on my plate and, delicious as it was, ended up taking home half of it!

Jeff ordered the short rib over handmade cavatelli with morels and a sprinkling of mirepoix over the top. The handmade pasta was soft and creamy and the short rib just melted into pieces at the touch of a fork. It reminded me of pot roast, but the most sophisticated pot roast I've ever tasted, with a thick, rich, savory gravy overflowing onto the pasta.

My dessert was to die for: a flourless chocolate cake and a butterscotch panna cotta with curry gelee. There was also a shortbread cookie and some licoricey sauce on the plate. The cake was amazing - when I slipped my fork into it, it crackled with moisture. The middle was only partially baked, and achieved a mousse-like consistency. It was heaven in my mouth. The panna cotta was just as good: I absolutely adore butterscotch and the flavor was really strong. The curry in the gelee on top was delicate and proved to be an excellent compliment. And, while I would have gladly taken home another serving of that dessert, it was the perfect size to end the meal.

Jeff's dessert was the lemon tart with blueberry sauce and a fromage blanc ice cream. The blueberries were very intense and the lemon in the custard was mouth-puckeringly strong, and yet delicious (I thought so and I'm not really a lemon fan). The ice cream was smooth and mild (it tasted like frozen cream cheese) and worked to ground the powerful flavors of the rest of the dish. Jeff said that it was almost like eating a deconstructed cheesecake.

As we were working on dessert, and just when we thought the surprises were over, we were brought a complimentary plate of pink vanilla cotton candy. The flavor was excellent and the idea was really fun. Seriously - when was the last time that you, as an adult, had cotton candy? It was cool to be given permission to be silly and whimsical.

Overall, we had an excellent, high-quality meal and a fun time. The execution of every dish was fabulous. I would gladly go back, but not if I have to pay the prices listed on the menu ($30-$40 an entree). Just glancing at those prices gave me palpitations. For a $30 three-course meal, though, it was a steal, especially with all the little extras that were thrown in!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Aloo Gobhi

Indian food always seems so mysterious, with its complex flavors and rich mixtures of spices. And some of it can be complex - I have yet to mess around with making my own curry pastes, which has always seemed beyond my expertise (although now that I have an actual spice grinder and won't have to struggle with a mortar and pestle, I might change my tune).

This dish, however, is not complex at all. It's extremely simple and low stress. Just chop a few things, toss your ingredients in the pot and let them go. Minimal watching is involved to make sure the liquid doesn't boil off too soon. Other than that, sit back and wait for your house to fill with lovely spicy smells. (I haven't made this recipe in a while, so I forgot how easy it actually was. I had assumed I was going to be spending a lot of time in the kitchen and, instead, got to spend some extra time on the couch with a book!)

Aloo Gobhi
From Jamie's Food Revolution.

3 tbsp canola oil
small bunch cilantro
1 onion, chopped
1-2 jalapenos, minced
1" fresh ginger, minced
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
1 tsp ground turmeric (it might be interesting to try fresh turmeric in here some time - I've seen it at Whole Foods, looking just like ginger except yellow-orange under the skin)
1 tsp ground cumin
3 c cauliflower, chopped into florets (I used about half of a medium-sized one - you can include chunks of the stem in this dish, too, if you'd like)
1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 lemon

Preheat oven to 425° F.

Pour the oil into a large ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Separate the cilantro leaves from the stems and set aside. Mince the stems finely. When the oil is hot, add the onion, chiles, ginger, cilantro stems, mustard seeds, turmeric, and cumin and stir to combine.

Cook 7-10 minutes until the onions are softened. Stir in the cauliflower, potatoes, coconut, salt and pepper.

Add 1 2/3 c water and bring to a boil. Cover with a lid and simmer 10-12 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Stir to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot (you can also add a bit of water here, if you think it needs it). Cover the pot and stick it in the oven for another 20 minutes. Check seasonings and add more if necessary.

Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves and a big squeeze of lemon juice. Serve over rice.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

House of Cupcakes, Princeton, NJ

My birthday passed rather uneventfully this year. No crazy complicated recipes were attempted. No cake was made. I didn't want to add to the chaos (and the sugar high) of Easter weekend by adding further demands on my time once I got back home. I also wanted to take advantage of Jersey Shore restaurant week, which started on Friday. I can only justify so many calorie splurges in one week.

Instead, Jeff and I stayed home, grilled up some turkey burgers and went out for dessert. I demanded some cupcakes, so we drove up to the House of Cupcakes in Princeton shortly before they closed for the day. We'd been inside once before just to check it out, but this was our first time sampling their wares. The online reviews I read were pretty positive, although one lamented their use of a pre-made frosting base. I figured I'd check things out and draw my own conclusions.

Jeff and I decided to get three cupcakes and split them (from left to right in the above picture): salted caramel, Boston cream and peanut butter cup. When I went to cut them, I noted the sticky, gooey frosting on the first two. The cake itself was light and fluffy with a gorgeous even crumb, but it wasn't really substantial enough to hold up to that heavy frosting. Their top-heaviness showed when I cut them in half and they attempted to flip over.

I went for the salted caramel first. The frosting was gooey and too sweet, but had a nice caramel flavor. I didn't really get a salty flavor from it, but the crunchy peanuts on top were a nice touch. The cake was deliciously soft and chocolatey. Because the frosting was trying to secede from the cupcake, I ended up tearing off the bottom and making a cupcake sandwich, thus improving the cake-to-frosting ratio.

I tried the Boston cream next. It, too, had a very thick, overly sweet frosting but with a deep, rich chocolate flavor. Jeff said it reminded him of the frosting layer on a Hostess cupcake. The cake was, again, delicious and light and the cream wasn't bad. I thought it was a little insubstantial for pastry cream, but a good consistency for the cake that surrounded it. It was a decent cupcake, but a better frosting would have made it pretty awesome.

The peanut butter cup was by far my favorite of the three. Its chocolate frosting was not thick and gooey, but light and fluffy to better match the cake beneath. The crumbles of peanut butter cup on top were a perfect compliment to the chocolate layers below. I'm glad I saved it for last, because that was a great cupcake.

I would definitely go to the House of Cupcakes again - the cake itself was outstanding - but I think I will be a bit more discriminating in the future. The thick, shiny frosting looks nice in the case, but is too gooey and sweet for my taste. Next time, I'll be picking out the ones with fluffier frosting and going home happy.