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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