Monday, December 31, 2007

Off the Wagon

I haven't felt like cooking much in the last two weeks.

Maybe it's the holidays. Or that I've eaten more potatoes in the last month and a half than I thought possible.

Instead I've been snacking on the vegetables of summer, ordering takeout, and eating my way through holiday gatherings and sugary sweets at work.

But now that I've had some time off from the kitchen, I am gearing up to get back to it after the new year. I have some recipes waiting in the wings, like parsnip potato curry and pumpkin walnut risotto.

I do want to give a shout out to the popcorn again, though. With minimal prep required, this is the perfect snack. I finally figured out how to make popcorn in my pot without it burning or flying across my kitchen (keep the lid on, shake every few seconds, and remove from heat while you still hear popping). I popped two cobs of it last night while I watched my favorite movie The Sound of Music. And yes, popcorn is one of my favorite things.

Happy new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Last night we popped some popcorn, fresh off the cob. There's no story to tell. Just some pictures of the three different stages of popping corn.

In three different bowls.


I wanted to eat the acorn squash right away to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate rotting incident from last month.

On Friday night, I made acorn squash with chile vinaigrette, a very simple recipe that turned out quite well. I have to admit that we unknowingly made some variations because we failed to realize at first that the recipe called for two squashes (we only used one).

The recipe is below with the variations in parentheses.

The photo, artfully arranged by my boyfriend, shows the letter U inside quote marks.

It's hard to tell from the picture how good it tasted, so you'll have to try it for yourself.

Acorn Squash with Chile Vinaigrette [From]
2 (1 1/2 - to 1 3/4-lb) acorn squash {1 acorn squash}
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons olive oil {3 tablespoons}
1 garlic clove {2 cloves, chopped instead of minced}
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
1 to 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh hot red chile, including seeds {poblano chile, no seeds}
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 450°F. Halve squash lengthwise, then cut off and discard stem ends. Scoop out seeds and cut squash lengthwise into 3/4-inch-wide wedges. Toss squash with black pepper, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons oil in a bowl, then arrange, cut sides down, in 2 large shallow baking pans. Roast squash, switching position of pans halfway through roasting, until squash is tender and undersides of wedges are golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes.While squash roasts, mince garlic and mash to a paste with remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Transfer paste to a small bowl and whisk in lime juice, chile (to taste), cilantro, and remaining 1/4 cup oil until combined. Transfer squash, browned sides up, to a platter and drizzle with vinaigrette.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cutting too much cheese

It happened again.

Last night I picked up my December CSA delivery with grand plans for my meal - acorn squash with chile vinaigrette and spinach and pear salad with mustard vinaigrette dressing.

I already knew this delivery would have many of the same items as last month: sweet potatoes; red, white, and gold potatoes; yellow onions; acorn squash; carrots; apples; and popcorn. It would also contain a few new treats: parsnips, mushrooms, and cheese.

Organic raw milk cheese.

Delicious organic raw milk cheddar cheese.

I had bought some crackers in anticipation, and we had half a bottle of wine from the night before.

We started cutting ourselves little slivers of cheese and within a half hour, had polished off the entire wedge. Just like the first night of my November CSA delivery - when I made popcorn with my nephews while preparing a lavish meal that I never ate - I completely killed my appetite for the rest of the night.

My CSA had included the item to promote a new cheese share offering next summer. So in addition to the produce, I can pay extra and get some Wisconsin cheese with each delivery. While it tasted so good - as did the cheese we bought and finished during our weekend trip to Wisconsin a few weeks earlier - I realized that I would cut way too much cheese next summer. No thanks.

But back to this cheese from last night. According to the label, all the cows used to make the milk were grass fed. All I know about raw milk cheese is that it's unpasteurized and must age for at least 60 days in order to be sold legally.

That may have been why this cheese tasted so good, but I think the fact that these cows were grass fed had something to do with it too.

I've been reading a little about feedlots lately. In fact, I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which he sets out to eat four different meals (fast food, organic, farm grown, and hunted/gathered) while tracing the food chain that leads up to each one.

While following his meal from McDonalds came from, he visits a feedlot in Kansas, where the cows there (and most everywhere in this country) are fed corn - a surplus crop that is subsidized by our government.

Although nature intended for cows to eat grass, the corn fattens them up, creating more meat to sell. He writes about how the corn wreaks havoc on these cows, who are so crammed together in their own waste that they must take antibiotics to minimize the spread of illness.

While I could go on and on about this book, the simple point I am trying to make is this: cows that eat what they are supposed to eat (grass) in an environment where they are supposed to eat (pasture) will produce milk that tastes better.

Okay, stepping off the soapbox now. But if you like fast food or store-bought meat, reading this book may seriously change the way you buy, eat, and think about food.

And if you ever have the opportunity to travel to Argentina, where grass-fed beef is plentiful and inexpensive (at least for now), you will see what I mean about the taste. Hands down, grass-fed beef tastes so much better. Why would the milk from grass-fed cows be any different?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Home Alone

It's often a big reason that I won't cook.

If I have no one to cook with or for, I'll just scrounge in the fridge or get takeout. It's a bad habit that I've been hoping to break with the CSA.

Aside from the roasted potatoes, my boyfriend has helped prepare and eat everything so far. A few nights ago he was going to come by for some curried lentils with sweet potatoes and swiss chard but decided to go home instead when an after-work event went late.

I had already started chopping, so there was no turning back.

Plus I knew this recipe would help me use up the rest of the sweet potatoes and finish off a few remaining onions, which was basically all I had left from the November delivery.

So I was motivated but daunted by all chopping and peeling I had to do. There were onions! Garlic! Sweet potatoes! Ginger root! Chard! It was endless and already after 8 p.m. when I started.

Opening a bottle of wine helped. So did a little snack, since I wouldn't eat until about 10 p.m.

As I began to put it all together, the smell was amazing. The curry and garam masala mixed with the onions, garlic, ginger, and vegetable broth made my kitchen smell like an Indian restaurant.

I was also excited to use my new wooden spoon, which I had bought at a store that sells hand-carved wooden items in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin (down the street from the Mustard Museum).

It tasted damn good, and I had something that never happens. Leftovers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And the winner is...

This time of year is filled with lists. Shopping lists. Wish lists. What's hot and not lists. What's in and out lists. Lists of New Year's resolutions.

I typically don't make those kinds of lists.

But I'm proud to say that with a week to go until my next CSA delivery, I'm nearly finished with my first bushel of produce. So while I wait for the next one, I thought I would put together a few lists from the past month: dishes I made, biggest lesson learned, my favorite meal, plus more completely useless information in list format. Enjoy!

What I Made/Ate
Cranberry Vinaigrette
Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Ginger Bisque
Cranberry Relish
Pasta with Butternut Squash and Sage
2 Pumpkin Pies
Potato and Leek Soup
Roasted Potatoes
Sweet Potatoes
Apples and Honey
Raw Carrots
* Curried Lentils with Sweet Potatoes and Swiss Chard (possibly substituted with mustard greens)

What Didn't Make It
Acorn Squash

Biggest Letdown: Potato and Leek Soup

Best Dish I Didn't Have to Shop for: Roasted potatoes

Most Useful Kitchen Item: Cutting board

Biggest Lesson Learned: Follow storage instructions more carefully!

1st Runner Up Favorite Dish: Popcorn

And my favorite dish was.....

Pasta with Butternut Squash and Sage (thanks for the recipe, Home Grown Wisconsin!)

[Added 12/13] At Ali's request, here's the recipe!

Pasta with Butternut Squash and Sage (serves 4)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbls. olive oil
1 lb. butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces
¾ C. water
1 tsp. chopped fresh Sage
1 lb. penne pasta
2 Tbls. chopped fresh parsley
1 C. grated parmesan
2 Tbls. butter (optional)

Cook onion in oil in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden. Finely chop squash in food processor and add to onion with water and salt. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes, or until squash is tender. Add sage and simmer 1 minute. Cook pasta in boiling salt water until al dente. Drain. Return pasta to pot and add squash mixture, parsley, parmesan, butter and black pepper, stirring until butter is melted. Season to taste and serve with a little parmesan on top.

* I plan to make this tomorrow night, which should knock off the rest of the sweet potatoes and a few more onions. Gotta eat the onions!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

R.I.P. Acorn Squash

Oh, acorn squash

I never ate you.

You waited patiently on my kitchen table

shriveling up as I

made the butternut squash

made the sweet potatoes

made the pumpkins.

With guilt I looked at you

before I went out to dinner

wondering when I might slice you in half and

bake you and fill you with brown sugar and raisins and walnuts.

Instead you rotted

and I realized

that I should have

followed instructions

and put you in my cool and dry and dark pantry.

You were my first casualty.

You may not be the last.

The next box comes on Thursday

and I have lots of onions left.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rhymes With Nasty

My boyfriend and I spent a stormy weekend in Mineral Point, a quaint historic town located amidst dairy farms and cheese factories in southwestern Wisconsin.

This town has all sorts of charm.

Historically preserved sandstone buildings from the 1840s and 1850s (including our little cottage!), a thriving artist enclave, several art galleries and antique stores, and colorful locals - mainly chatty gallery owners and fun drunks.

Lest you get the impression that everyone gets smashed all the time (although our B&B was called Brewery Creek), we found a closeknit community of friends who knew each other by name and gathered in large groups over coffee each morning.

We stumbled into one of the coffee shops on Saturday morning as a big winter storm rolled in. Snow was already falling rapidly and horizontally, but we were interested in making fresh tracks. The owners recommended a short hiking trail down the street from our cottage called, no joke, the Merry Christmas Mine Hill.

This place has a proud, well-documented history as a mining town. My companion, who read Mineral Point: A History from cover to cover over the weekend, could tell you more. But as I understand it, the discovery of lead brought a number of immigrants from Cornwall, England, to settle in the area. The Cornish influenced the architecture, culture, and particularly, the food.

So after our hike, and shortly before the snow turned to hail, then sleet, then freezing rain, we wandered into the Red Rooster Cafe to get ourselves some Cornish treats - pasty and figgyhobbin.

Pasty, which rhymes with nasty - as a newspaper headline screamed from the wall of the restaurant - is basically meatloaf with rutabega and onions wrapped up tight in a pastry crust.

The miners used to take pasty for lunch. The idea, as I learned from reading the menu, was that pasty could withstand a fall in case it was accidentally dropped into the mines.


It was actually quite good. With ketchup or chili sauce it made a nice meatloaf sandwich.

Next we ate figgyhobbin.

We had been fantasizing about figgyhobbin for days. What was figgyhobbin? And why could we not stop giggling everytime we said it?

Figgyhobbin turned out to be a sweet dessert with raisins, nuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon wrapped inside a pastry crust and bathed in caramel with whipped cream on top.

Double yum.

The town has such a strong sense of history with old buildings and photos everywhere that I almost felt transported back in time as I ate that food. I easily shy away from food that isn't familiar to me, but this meal reminded me how much you can learn about another culture or place by eating its traditional cuisine.

The next day we dug out the car and hit the road to explore the kitsch that is southwestern Wisconsin. If you don't believe me, click here to see one of the highlights.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Purple Surprise

I am continually surprised by the food in my CSA bounty.

After a pumpkin and cranberry-filled Thanksgiving weekend, I realized that I was neglecting a few other items. Namely the leeks were shriveling up in my fridge and the potatoes were starting to grow sprouts. That's bad, right?

I knew this called for potato and leek soup.

The potatoes were in this dark mesh bag so it was hard to tell that they looked different. The list I had received with my share said the potatoes included reds, golds, and whites.

No one said anything about purple.

A google search revealed all sorts of names for these, including Purple Peruvian Potatoes, Blue Potatoes (huh?), Delta Blues, and Purple Majesty Potatoes. These beauties are reportedly high in antioxidants if you're into that sort of thing, but it's the color that is so...vibrant and unexpected!

Of course we soon boiled and pureed them with the other potatoes, turning the color into a lovely shade of light brown.

Which brings me back to the soup. The recipe said to puree half of it, add it back to the mix, and season with tabasco sauce and marjoram before serving.

It seriously looked like a cross between gruel, porridge, and mush.

It didn't taste much better.

I added more tabasco sauce and marjoram.

It tasted a little better.

I was full after about five bites.

The leftovers tasted better tonight.

In my experience so far, soups always taste better the next night.

But there was no purple in sight.

I really didn't intend for that to rhyme.

But I still have a few left, so maybe I will make purple mashed potatoes next time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pumpkin Pie

What says Thanksgiving more than pumpkin pie and family?

My boyfriend and I made two - one for his family dinner and one for mine.

I felt a little pressure. Aside from some turkey basting and other small tasks, I had never made a proper dish for Thanksgiving dinner. You know that phrase about "too many cooks in the kitchen?" I really took that to heart. My talents usually went to setting the table.

But here we were making pumpkin pies from scratch (with store-bought pie crust)! We used the two pie pumpkins from my November CSA delivery and followed the recipe in the Joy of Cooking.

We had made two trial pies a few weeks earlier. It's a good thing we practiced.

The very first pie turned out somewhat chunky. It was long after midnight before we could even taste it, thanks to a comedy of errors that included a rotten pumpkin and a late-night trip to the store to buy the forgotten pie crust (oops, my bad). By the time it was ready I took one bite (it did taste good) and promptly fell asleep.

My boyfriend made another one a few days later and adjusted the temperature and time for cooking the pumpkin (1 1/2 hours at 325 instead of 45 minutes at 400). That was the key to achieving the pureed consistency. The pie looked like it came right out of the can! (By the way: to cook the pumpkin, cut it lengthwise in half, scoop out the seeds and goopy stuff, and place the two halves down on an oiled baking sheet.)

So we easily knocked out two pies on the night before Thanksgiving, and I learned a good lesson: make a recipe at least once beforehand if a lot of people are going to taste the final result.

We had about 25 people between our two families, so I was nervous about what everyone would think.

On Thursday we went to his sister's house early to work on a 3,000-piece puzzle that we must finish by Christmas (but that's another story!). Because of the close timing of the two meals, we left shortly after her dinner began and heard the next day that the pie went over well.

When it came time to eat the pie at my sister's house, everyone gathered around the counter.

"It looks a little mushy," someone commented. Laughing nervously, I noted how the recipe called for the pie to "quiver" as a sign that it was done.

I watched as a piece was cut and scooped on a plate. Pumpkin spilled outside the crust.

But it still went over well, and I believed the compliments. This is family. So I'm sure if they didn't like it, I would hear about it!

My mom said she liked the flavor because it wasn't too pumpkin-y (we think that's because we didn't scoop out every last bit from each half).

Even my picky nephew ate some. And the dog loved it. She ate the last piece.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Flying Popcorn

I got my first bushel of produce yesterday!

It's late fall, which means lots of root vegetables plus some extra goodies. My box included loads of sweet and gold potatoes, butternut and acorn squash, pie pumpkin, yellow onions, carrots, leeks, parsley, apples, cranberries, honey...and popcorn.

The popcorn came in handy as I babysat my two nephews last night. They are both under age 4.

The kitchen was already total chaos. I was making (ahem) apple walnut salad with cranberry vinaigrette and butternut squash and sweet potato ginger bisque for my first official CSA meal. After all, one of the reasons I joined was to enhance my appreciation of food. I wasn't sure if the boys would feel the same way after the 3-year-old smelled an onion and recoiled.

By then they were getting a little restless. We'd already giggled at the funny-shaped carrots (one of them seriously had boobs) and played hide-and-seek three times, really exhausting every last hiding place in my apartment. They had colored, raced trains, and started to play the "let's run around and scream" game when I threw a brown paper bag with the last-resort, promised surprise to my boyfriend.

"Let's make popcorn!" he said, pulling out miniature corn on the cobs.

They cheered and scraped golden kernels into a bowl. Many clattered on the floor, which should have been my first clue about the impending mess. But they loved it and were distracted enough to let me puree the vinaigrette.

Once the pan sizzled with vegetable oil, we poured the kernels in. At first the boys weren't too interested.

At this point, I should say that I don't have a proper lid for my pan. We had to use a smaller lid for a big pan. As the kernels heated up, the lid started to tremble. We could hear little explosions underneath when suddenly a white blur shot up, bounced off the microwave, and landed on the counter.

This caught the kids' attention.

Suddenly they were shrieking and laughing as pieces of white, fluffy popcorn escaped from underneath the pan to the most far-reaching places in my kitchen. The exploding kernels sounded like a rapid-fire bb gun.

"It's flying popcorn!" yelled the 3-year-old. The 19-month-old jumped up and down with glee, waving his arms as a winter storm of white popcorn snowed all around us.

This popcorn tasted so good. Each bite in to its tender flesh yielded a soft crunch and a savory flavor, nothing like Orville Redenbacher or what you get at the movies (which I still love). I ate so much of it that by the time the soup was ready I wasn't very hungry. And forget about the salad. I had no energy to toast the walnuts let alone wash the spinach. The vinaigrette would keep for another night.

By the end of the night, I had a blister on my right forefinger from hacking open the butternut squash with a dull knife and a burn on my left forefinger from accidentally touching the hot pan. The burnt smell of popcorn may never go away.

But it was all worth it. My sister e-mailed me that the 3-year-old woke up this morning asking for popcorn.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My New Wooden Table

I recently bought a new wooden table for my kitchen.

The top is long rectangular planks of dark sheesham wood. The two bases have a swirly pattern in cast iron set in blocks of wood.

The table makes me want to sit there and savor a good meal with friends and family.

But I am not much of a cook.

Those of you who knew me in college may even remember when Rice-a-Roni was a staple in my diet. While my eating habits and cooking skills have improved, I have lately felt at an impasse with food - bored with the dishes I often make, sick of take out, but lacking that motivation and knowledge to cook more.

So when a friend told me that she and her husband had joined a CSA last summer, I decided to look into it.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It means you pay money to a local farm cooperative that provide a bushel of in-season fruits and vegetables once a month (in summer months, you can get a weekly or bi-monthly delivery). By paying up front, you help the farms invest in their crops, get a share of the fresh harvest, and eliminate the grocery store as a middle man.

There are other reasons why I think joining a CSA makes good sense.

It should help me broaden my culinary horizons. My CSA promises to includes recipes and instructions on how to store the food with each delivery.

It's also better for the environment in the sense that all the food comes from farms within a few hours from Chicago. That leaves much less of a carbon footprint than the food that travels from all over the world to my local Jewel and Whole Foods. The farms also grow crops organically, which is healthier for me and the soil.

Produce sections in big grocery stores look the same all year. You don't know how long the food took to get there or the chemicals used to preserve it. Eating seasonal produce picked within days of harvest means fresher, and hopefully tastier, food that is meant to be eaten that time of year.

That said, if you want to read a blog with finely tuned, well-tested recipes and comprehensive information about food, stop reading now!

This blog will instead focus more on what happens in my kitchen as I make my way through each bushel of food and prepare food to serve on my new wooden table.


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