Sunday, August 24, 2014

Carrot Catastrophe

A little over a week ago I came home to a Carrot Catastrophe!

Earlier in the year I deviously tucked a small patch of carrots into one of the herb beds on the side of the house. I planted two rows of carrots between the marigolds and the onions. They would be protected by the stink of marigold, oregano, thyme and rosemary, or so I thought.

For most of the summer my strategy had worked. I thought I had outsmarted all the varmints. The pervert groundhog ate clover at dusk every evening and the rabbits frequented the space between the wall and the shed most nights. The deer decimated the sacrificial Hostas I planted near the wood-line, leaving only yellow and green striped nubs, but otherwise minded their business.  The wildlife and I had been on good terms. 

Good terms, that is, until I came home from work the other night. I walked down the driveway, lost in other thoughts, and suddenly stopped short. The garden didn't look right. It took me a moment before I realized that the bushy green tops had been shorn from the carrots. A few small lacy leaves poked up through a forest of chartreuse stems. Which varmint had perpetrated this heinous crime!? The cropping was high, rough and uneven and my suspicions pointed toward the deer. A moment later these suspicions were confirmed. The baby lettuce sprouting in long, low pots on the stairs to the kitchen had disappeared too. Those hoofed rats had eaten my carrots and then climbed the stairs to take my lettuce too!

I went into the kitchen and plopped my bag on the table. I had to see if anything could be salvaged. After digging my fingers into the sandy soil around the base of a few of the victims, I found a number of decently sized carrots.  I manically pulled up anything large enough for supper and tried to save anything else. There were still a few small rooted stragglers hanging on dearly to their leaves, so I gave them a long drink of water and left them to recover.

I tromped back up the steps with my hands full of a dozen and a half sundry carrots. The Danvers half-longs were bright orange and comically chubby. The Purple Rain variety had a smooth skin that was nearly black. The Mokums were pale orange and small, but still sweet and crispy. A pair of big, creamy White Satins rounded out my motley assortment. Now how to prepare them?

I peered into the fridge, contemplating my next move. I spotted an open bottle of white wine and decided on simple glazed carrots. I grabbed the bottle and the butter and set to work.

I scrubbed dirt from the carrot crannies and trimmed away the tops and tails. Any root hairs were roughly scraped away. I halved the fat half-longs, as well as the larger whites and purples, but the remainder would go into the pot whole.

I decided that these carrots would play well with garlic and rosemary, so I rooted in the pantry for the garlic and then headed back to the garden. My little rosemary plant lives next to the back door and has become happily bushy recently. I trimmed a sprig and inhaled deeply, letting the sharp, piney aroma waft through my head. Yes, this rosemary would get along with my carrots quite well.

I grabbed one of my favorite pots, its silver sides shining as its heavy bottom clanked on the burner. Click. Click. Poof. The flame burst up brightly and then dimmed to yellow-kissed blue as I turned the gas down. The butter bubbled over medium heat while I peeled the thick skin away from two plump garlic cloves and roughly chopped them. I let them sizzle in the buttery foam for a few minutes then tossed in the rosemary and wine. A fragrant cloud of steam arose. Now it was time for the carrots. I placed them in the pot, reduced the flame to almost nothing and set a lid on top. See you in an hour, carrots.

While the carrots slowly simmered, I prepared the rest of the dinner: snapper with herb butter, roasted potatoes and kale. After whirling around the kitchen for awhile, dinner was ready. The fish was firm and meaty, the potatoes crispy and the greens sweet and spicy. But how were the carrots? The sweet, tender roots swam in an aromatic syrup tinged with purple. They were delightful and made the whole meal. My efforts - the planting of seeds, the watering, the thinning, the chopping and the cooking - had not been in vain. The deer had decimated the plants, but they did it at just the right time.

That is how my Carrot Catastrophe became my Carrot CaTASTEtrophe.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Greens Twofer

I've had a few requests for greens recipes recently, so here are my top two:

UnClassic Collard Greens and Breakfast Greens

I recently tried a few different recipes for collards, but I just ended up coming back to my original. This recipe is a bit sacrilegious. It contains no ham hock and could be turned into a vegan recipe by subbing peanut oil for the animal fat. I know, right!?

In my trials I found that the quantity of collards used in decent traditional ham hock recipes (5-6 bunches) was impractical for my needs. I also found that the collards tended to get overwhelmingly porky. I like the way the greens themselves taste, so in my recipe I try to keep it as simple as possible. The secret ingredient is whole allspice, which enhances the nuttiness of the greens.


1 large or 2 small bunches collards
1 1/2 Tbsp. lard, bacon grease or butter
1 small onion - diced
3-4 whole allspice
1 c. chicken stock (optional)
3 c. water
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. brown sugar (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Remove the stems from the leafy part of the greens. Chop the stems into pieces the same size the diced onions and set aside. Next chop the leaves into roughly 1 inch squares. My trick for chopping lots of leaves is to place them into a few manageable piles, roll them up and chop into roughly 1 inch strips. Then turn your board 90 degrees and chop 1 inch apart again. Set aside in a large bowl.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Fry the onions for a few minutes in the oil. Add the collard stems and fry for a few minutes more, until the onions are translucent and fragrant.

Add the allspice and a handful of greens. Allow them to cook in the oil for a minute, then add the rest of the greens, the chicken stock and enough water to just cover the greens. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover partially with a lid and simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Finish with vinegar, sugar (if you like a little extra sweetness), salt and pepper. Use more salt than you think you need - probably about 1 Tbsp.

Use a slotted spoon to serve. The leftover liquid makes a nice soup base.


Breakfast Greens have become a staple for us. They are a nice, quick side anytime, but I particularly like them for breakfast with eggs and grits. I typically use kale for this recipe, but it could be made chard or any other leafy green. The combination of Sriracha and honey take the bitter edge off the greens, which can be a bit overwhelming otherwise. This recipe is just a rough outline and proportions should be changed to taste. It can also be easily scaled down to just a single serving when cooking for one.

1 bunch kale - stemmed and roughly chopped
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. honey
1 tsp. Sriracha hot sauce (most other hot sauces are too thin and vinegary for this recipe)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the butter in a large pan over medium heat until it becomes frothy. Add the greens. Let them cook for 30 seconds, then toss the greens in the pan using tongs. Cook that way for another 2-3 minutes, until the greens are just beginning to wilt. The time may vary depending on the type of greens you use. Remove from the pan immediately. Mix in the salt and pepper and then drizzle honey and Sriracha over the top. It is important that you do NOT stir the honey and hot sauce. The flavors get lost behind the greens that way. Serve at once.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fried Green Tomatoes

Tomatoes are here and it's perfectly clear! At least at the farmer's market...

My plants haven't done well this year and it is mostly my fault. There was an early bout with flea beetles that heavily damaged the less hardy varieties - I'm looking at you Beefsteaks - but the main problem was that I didn't have a bed ready for them. I've had them growing in pots for most of the summer with varying degrees of success. The Black Cherry tomatoes seem to do fine in pots - I've chomped on a few of those tasty little guys right off the vine - but the Black Calabash really wanted to be in the ground. I removed some borage and all of the chervil and put tomatoes in their places, so we'll see if I get anything in August.

No matter though! There has been a glut of local tomatoes of many varieties available at the market and the grocery store (if you are local, Amy's Organic has some great heirloom varieties, including super tasty blacks and green tigers). Joel and I picked up some green tomatoes and today's lunch was the southern classic: Fried Green Tomatoes

The hardest thing about this dish is hitting the right oil temperature. You want a medium/medium-high heat - for me the right setting is just shy of 4 on the large burner of my gas stove. The oil should look shimmery but it shouldn't be smoking. Use your least pretty tomato slice to test the oil - if it browns very quickly or burns you need to lower the heat. If there isn't a nice bubbly sizzle when you put the tomato in the pan, then you'll need to turn it up a bit. Its also very important that you don't overcrowd the pan. The cold tomatoes will reduce the temperature and if you add too many at once you'll end up with an oily, soggy end product. It may take a little practice to get the hang of it, but the supplies are inexpensive, the time involved is short and the end results are definitely worth a few botched batches.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Active time: 20-30 minutes (depending on pan size)

Makes enough for 4 as an appetizer, side dish or sandwich.

2 large green tomatoes - cut into 1/3 inch thick slices
1 cup all-purpose flour - divided
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 eggs - beaten
1/4 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt - divided
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/8 tsp (or to taste)
Vegetable or Peanut Oil (I use a combo) - enough for 1/4 inch deep in your pan

Preheat your oven to 170 degrees and line a baking sheet with paper towels.

Slice your tomatoes and prepare 2 plates for dredging. Spread 3/4 cup flour over one plate. On the other plate, mix the remaining flour, breadcrumbs and cornmeal along with half of the salt (1/4 tsp). In a shallow bowl beat the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and cayenne together. Once you have your dredging station ready to go you can start heating the oil in a heavy bottomed pan.

While the oil heats, start the dredge for your first round of tomatoes. You'll need to fry in batches, so prepare only as many as will fit in the pan comfortably (probably 3 slices). Lightly coat the slices in flour, dip in the egg mixture and then in the breadcrumb mixture. You want to fully coat the slices, but don't let things get gloppy.

Now it's time to fry! Test fry your first tomato. Gently lay the tomato in the hot oil with your fingers and fry for 2-3 minutes, until nicely browned. I like to go a little past "golden brown" to just plain brown. Adjust the heat as needed. Flip using a spatula and repeat on the other side. Place the slice on the baking sheet and put in the warm oven while you fry the next batch. Repeat the process until all of the slices have been fried.

Serve as a side with hot sauce, as an appetizer with pimiento cheese or spicy mayo, or as a sandwich with sourdough bread, pimiento cheese and shredded lettuce.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Braised Chicken with Olives

This recipe is one I tried last week. As I said in my first post, I'll include the good, bad and in-between. This one was an in-between. That being said, I'll post the recipe I tried, and some thoughts on how to improve it.

I got the idea for this dish from a variety of sources, including All About Braising by Molly Stevens and Saveur. The recipes were more Middle Eastern, using preserved lemons. I needed to use up the ingredients I had in the fridge and decided to try to give it a slightly more French flavor. I used fresh lemon, added some fennel seed and Lillet, and topped it with goat cheese at the end.

Braised Chicken with Olives and Lemon

        4-6 Boneless Chicken Thighs
        1-2 Tbsp Butter
        1 Medium Onion - Sliced
        3 Garlic Cloves - Sliced
        1/3 Cup Olives - Pitted
        1/2 Lemon - Thinly Sliced
        1/4 Cup Lillet
        1/2 Cup Water
        1/2 tsp Paprika
        1/2 tsp Fennel Seed
        1/4 tsp Ground Cumin
        1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
        Salt and Pepper to Taste
        1/2 Cup Kale - Diced
        2 Tbsp Goat Cheese

Rub the chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Heat the butter over Medium-Medium High heat in a dutch oven. You want to heat it enough to sear the chicken, but not hot enough that the butter will burn.

Place the chicken in the hot butter and allow to brown for about 5 minutes. Try not to move the pieces as they won't brown as nicely. Lift the corner of one piece and take a peak. If it is browned, then flip and reaper on the other side. Depending on the size of your pan you may need to brown the chicken in batches.

Once browned, set the chicken aside until later. Remove any excess fat from the pan - you only want about 1Tbsp left. Fry the onion and garlic slices in the remaining butter. Toss in the spices and the Lillet and let it simmer for a minute. Arrange your chicken in the pan and pour the water over it. Cover and turn the heat down to low.

Let the chicken simmer for 15 minutes, then flip the pieces and cook for 15 more minutes. Flip again and add the olives and lemons on top. Simmer for another 15-20 minutes.
Serve over rice with minced kale and goat cheese.

What Would I Changed?

So, I want to record good recipes, but I also want to show the process involved in developing a good recipe. Learning to cook is all about trial and error and this is an example.

This meal was good, but it could be better. Part of the problem was that it was under salted. I tasted the braised chicken out of the pan and it seemed salty enough, but once I put it over the rice and added the raw kale it was a little bland.

To fix the problem I would bump up the the olives to 1/2 a cup and add salt at the end of the braise. I would also recommend using chicken thighs with bones. I happened to have boneless, so I used what I had, but bone-in chicken adds more flavor and braises better. I would also increase the fennel seeds to 1 tsp. I was worried about the anise flavor becoming overpowering but the other flavors were strong enough to hold up to plenty more fennel. Finally, I like garnishing with something green and all I had was kale. It worked well, but parsley or chervil would be better.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Contemplations on Digging

New bed I dug earlier this spring.
I have a digging problem.

The sun starts shining in the spring and all I want to do is DIG. I'm going to need to join some sort of 12-step program. It'll be me and a room full of dirty nosed dogs.

There is just something about digging, simply digging, that is deeply satisfying: the repetitive rasping sound as your shovel breaks through the earth over and over again, the weight of the soil as you scoop up heaping shovelfuls, the bits and pieces of rock and root that have been unearthed, waiting to be picked out and tossed aside, and the dull ache that begins in your arms and shoulders. 

Digging is peaceful and meditative, yet violent and destructive. All your cares can be worked out, worked into the soil. Your anxieties can become a bed for new life that will sustain your body and your mind.

So if I find digging so satisfying, do I really need to stop? If I want to have a lawn and garden, rather than a mud pit, I'll need to reign in this compulsion. But there may be other reasons to stop digging.

Some gardeners argue that digging actually causes more harm than good. Soil has its own ecology and by digging a bed you disrupt the balance of the system. In Nature, soil forms district layers. The top layer is made up of decomposing leaf litter, dead plants, deer poop and the like. When this organic matter breaks down it become humus, basically an analog of compost. The next layer is the all important topsoil. It is a mix of organic matter (the humus) and inorganic minerals. This is where the plant roots form and extract nutrients. The next layer is the subsoil, which is mostly inorganic minerals. Some plants send roots into this layer too, but not for nutrients. Instead the roots are searching out water and anchoring the plant.

These soil layers are full of microorganisms and invertebrates, yet different layers house differt life forms. When you dig, you mix up all the layers and create conditions that can no longer sustain all of this life, thus disrupting the system that plants are adapted for.

So how do you kill weeds and improve your worn out soil, while still providing your plants and microbes with the layers they like? It is pretty simple: you kill weeds (a covering of newspaper works well) add a few inches of compost or topsoil and then mulch. By doing this you are basically speeding up the natural process of topsoil formation.

This method actually works too. For the past two growing seasons, I lived on a historic site with archeologically sensitive grounds. That meant NO DIGGING. So I removed the weeds, added several inches of compost and sowed my seeds. It worked out nicely.

But, with all that said, is there still a place for digging? I think so. When establishing a new bed, it can be a good way to get rid of weeds, loosen really heavy soils, and remove large rocks and clay chunks. In poor soils you will be missing much of the organic matter that plants need, so this is an opportunity to add it again. Again you are basically mimicking a natural process, just at super speed. You are transforming subsoil into topsoil by mixing in compost. This is what worms do in nature, so just think of yourself as a gigantic worm. After you've established your bed, you can just add organics to the top every year and your soil will regain its usual layered form.

So even though I don't have to dig, you will still find me in the garden with my shovel in hand. And although I may be sweating and cursing a bit as I dig, it will be meditative, satisfied cursing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pad Thai

Pad Thai is one of those meals that seems harder than it really is. You'll have to do a bit of culinary juggling, but it isn't bad if you've planned ahead. I think it is one of the most easily accessible foreign dishes, both in terms of flavor and preparation.
The following recipe may not be the most authentic preparation ever, but it's the way I like to make it. This is an easy recipe to adapt to your own taste, so vary the amounts as you please.

What You'll Need:

1 Tbsp Tamarind Paste*
1 1/2 Tbsp Fish Sauce
1/4 Cup Peanuts - Ground
2 Tbsp Brown Sugar
1 - 2 Tbsp Coconut Oil
1 Small Onion - Diced
1 Tbsp Hot Pepper - Diced (I don't use a specific type, just whatever I happen to have on hand)
1 Box Rice Noodles
2 Large Eggs - Beaten
Sprouts (Mung Bean are best, but I'll substitute with other types when I can't find good ones at the store)
Lime Wedges

* The tamarind I use is the type that comes as a compressed brick of pulpy paste. You'll need to rehydrate it and strain out the seeds before you use it. If you don't have access to tamarind, then you can use lime juice diluted in a little water. You are looking for enough acidity to balance the sugar and enhance the salty savoriness of the fish sauce.

How to Put it Together:

First start a pot of water boiling for the noodles.

For the sauce you'll need to let your tamarind soak in about 1/2 a cup of water for 5-10 minutes, then strain into a small sauce pot. Add the fish sauce to the tamarind and bring it to a boil. Turn down the heat to low and stir in the sugar. Mix in about 1/2 the ground peanuts. You can skip this step, but I think it gives the sauce a stronger peanut flavor and makes it easier to incorporate the nuts later. Let the sauce simmer gently while you prepare the rest, but remember to stir occasionally.

Next heat the coconut oil over medium heat in a large frying pan or wok. Add the onion and pepper and fry for several minutes until they start to turn clear.

This is the juggling portion of the act. Your water should be boiling as your onions get to the translucent state. Add you rice noodles to the water and boil for 4-5 minutes. Let the onions and peppers brown, but not burn, while the noodles cook.

Once cooked, strain your noodles dump the into the pan. Turn the heat off. Quickly pour in your egg and toss it with the noodles and onions. Now add a handful of sprouts, pour your sauce over the whole lot and toss some more.

Now you can make it pretty. Garnish with more spouts, the remaining peanuts and a lime wedge.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spring Forward

Early this morning we all set our clocks forward for Daylight Savings. Today the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and flowers are blooming. All signs point to Spring and I am itching to plant.
Unfortunately, Daylight Savings is a ruse. Frost still looms over us and I'll have to be content with my seedlings in the house.