Monday, March 30, 2009

Fish thoughts and Seedlings

After my last post about fish tacos, a friend emailed me this link and said that halibut was on the bad list: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_regional.aspx?region_id=2

This is another guide which includes common sushi fish: http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521

Fish brings up many questions: on one hand we're told it is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, but on the other hand, a lot of fish contain high levels of mercury. Also, do you go with farm-raised or wild-caught? Farm-raised seems good on the surface, but I have heard a lot about how the farms are very polluting and because the fish are eating meal rather than smaller fish or plankton, or other sea life, they are not as healthy, not as good for us, bad for the environment, and even have to have color added to look normal, in the case of salmon. Yuck.

I read a study, which I cannot find now, so don't quote me on it, that said that the benefits of eating even mercury-laden fish outweigh the detriments to pregnant women. That's says a lot.

I won't pretend to be an expert on this. There is a great Boston-based blog that not only talks a lot about fish in general, but talks specifically about the mercury issue. Check it out, but promise to come back to us!

http://beyondsalmon.blogspot.com/2006/02/mercury-in-fish.html

Long story short, I don't have an answer. I personally try to avoid the bad fish as much as possible but don't deny myself the occasional treat. I look for wild-caught if possible. I look for local if possible. If someone has guidance beyond these simple steps, I would love to hear about it. It's a sad commentary on our world that we are ruining one of the best food sources we have.

And now, a seedling update: my seedlings have taken over my husband's desk (there are advantages and disadvantages to getting the sunny desk); the tomatoes are between 2 and 3 inches tall and the peppers about a 1/2 inch. The eggplant and sunberries are just peeking out of the soil.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Container Gardening

This post is from our friend, Meghan, who lives a block from each of us. She has the greenest thumb I have ever seen. Her backyard puts most full-sized gardens to shame. She gets everything going around Memorial Day. She gets the pots ready first, then shops for the plants, and replants them. If she doesn't have time to replant right away, she just leaves them in their original pots for a few days and keeps them watered.

Now I'll turn it over to Meghan.

It was the summer of cantaloupe, 1984.  I can still remember the feel of the juice running down my arms as I held the first of the season over my shoulder at the kitchen table. It was straight from the garden in the back yard, and it was dessert. Caught up in the excitement, my father had cut it up quickly before being made to piece it back together (thus the juice) when my mom remembered to run for the camera. And I was the one who got to hold it. And smile. I was also the one who got to take the first bite, ruminate a bit and then proclaim it delicious, because I was the one who grew it. 

When I was a kid, I lived in a neighborhood full of single-family houses lining the streets, where driveways with basketball hoops and backyard pools were abundant. Suburban, sure, but we were within the city limits. We could walk to the end of the street to catch the bus downtown, but we also had room in our yards for gardens. In my father's case, a garden full of fruit trees, caged tomatoes, bean poles, squash hidden under enormous leaves, strawberries, blueberries and of course, at times, cantaloupe.  

For the past five years, I've lived in a condo in Somerville with a brick patio in the back that is, at most, half the size of my father's garden. But each summer, using what I learned watching my father, I've made the most of it. My answer to lack of space? Container gardening! It is a perfect system for a small backyard (especially one with questionable soil). You can plant pretty much whatever you want, and the containers can be easily moved around to create more space, less space, to catch the sun longer, or to make room for yet another ride-on toy. The cheap plastic terra-cotta colored pots that you can get at any home improvement or garden store have served me well for years. A handful of rocks at the bottom to help with drainage, bags of potting soil and compost mixtures, some slow-release Osmocote pellets to help fertilize, and you're good to go.

As for the plants, I usually hit up a combination of Home Depot, local places like Ricky's in Union Square, and this beautiful little nursery in Bedford, NH -where my father knows everyone by name- to find the healthiest/least expensive young plants. I grow at least two tomato plants in my largest pots, the grape or cherry variety having always done the best. Burpless cucumber plants climb from pots up plastic netting (that used to protect Dad's blueberries from the birds) at the back wall. And always, ALWAYS, I must have basil, rosemary, chives, parsley and thyme scattered about or sharing space in pots on the steps, pots by the barbeque, pots tripping my upstairs neighbors as they head to their side of the yard. I've had success with squash and eggplant, have been bombarded by mint, and have dabbled with peppers. I have never had success with dwarf or "patio-size" plants- which I have come to believe are meant for gardens on verandas or super-large window sills, not for someone who is expecting to be fed, which I expect to be-all summer long.  And so far my containers have not let me down.

Last summer, my three-year-old son was allotted a container all his own and was able to choose what he wanted to plant. I suggested cantaloupe. He had other ideas, and they were the best strawberries we had ever tasted. Can't wait to see what he has in mind for this year. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fish tacos or fish salad

Despite the bitter wind, or maybe to spite it, I was craving something fresh and citrusy today. So, I went down to the grocery store looking for swordfish. I was envisioning chunks of seared fish over greens with a citrus dressing. They didn't have any. The next best thing was tuna, which looked pretty sorry, so I asked the fish monger for a fish that would hold up to being seared and cut up and he suggested halibut. It wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but it did inspire the following recipe. It can either be put into hard taco shells or soft tortillas, or just eaten as a salad, which is what we did tonight.

Salt and pepper fish. Heat frying pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Add fish and cook on first side for a minute or two. Turn onto other side and sear. The chunk of fish I had actually had 4 sides, so just make sure all sides are on the bottom of the pan at some point.

When done, take out and place on a cutting board. Add more oil to pan and throw in an onion cut into large chunks (I used Vidalia because it's sweet). Sauté until browned and softening.

Meanwhile, cut fish into bite-sized chunks (or, if using halibut, flakes) and put into a large bowl.

Add to bowl:
a handful arugula
a cucumber peeled and cut into chunks
a mango peeled and cut into small chunks
the sautéed onion

You could also add avocado and cilantro

In a small bowl mix:
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 teas. salt
1 TBS. sugar
a dash cayenne pepper

Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved and pour over salad. Mix gently until coated. You may need to add more vinegar or lime or salt to taste.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Berry Comparison

I want to show you the difference between home frozen and store-bought frozen berries. I made a raspberry pie the other day. When I went down to the freezer to get out some berries, I realized that I only had about half of what I needed home-frozen. I did have a bag of Trader Joe's mixed berries, so I grabbed it, too. I am not picking on TJ's here, because I've experienced this with many of the major grocery store generic brands (Shaw's and Whole Foods included), as well as the name brand frozen berries. The difference between the two was amazing. 


The home frozen ones were picked in September from a local farm and first frozen on a cookie sheet and then transferred to a ziploc bag. They were as sweet as the day they were picked, whole not crumbled, and there was no ice. 





The commercial ones were broken, sour, and mostly covered in ice. There were more crumbles than whole berries, and each berry was encased in it's own snowball. My take on this: it's worth every minute and dollar you spend to pick your own berries (or buy from a farmers' market) and freeze yourself.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Garbage Risotto

When we have reached a mental block on what to eat, and we have a bunch of odds and ends in the fridge, that's when my husband suggests risotto. It's such a nice one dish meal, vegetarian or not, or a side dish to a small serving of meat, summer or winter. I first made risotto with my friend Ben, years ago. We followed the instructions perfectly, stirring constantly for an hour, taking turns when one's arms were too tired to do any more. It got rave reviews at dinner that night, so I've continued making it, but have not looked at a recipe in years. My one word of recommendation is that, although it is simple to make, you really need three hands, and four is even better. It gets tiring to stir that much, and unless you have everything within reach, there will be times when you need a runner to grab something.

I call this garbage risotto because we throw everything and anything into it. We usually use frozen chicken or beef stock, but you could do veggie stock or fish, or anything else. We go through the fridge, grabbing the half onions, leftover cooked vegetables from dinners past, bits of steak or chop remains, lonely single beets or carrots. If you can imagine eating it and it's not moldy, it's fair game for this risotto.

Get whatever stock you are using to a simmer and then reduce heat so that it stays hot but doesn't reduce too much. I usually heat up whatever stock was frozen and if there is leftover after making the risotto, bring it back to a boil and refreeze. I am a non-measurer, which works well for me, but doesn't translate into recipes that well. I estimate that I use around 5 cups of stock.

Here comes the time for decisions. Pick A or B.

A) If you are doing a simple risotto (just mushrooms or meat or onions or other few ingredients), sauté them now in olive oil in a large, heavy duty pan (I use a Dutch oven). Salt and pepper.

B) If you are doing lots of extras, also sauté them in the pan. However, once they are nicely fragrant and getting soft, season with salt and pepper and remove them to a bowl and add more olive oil to the pan.

Add 1 cup arborio rice to the heated oil (and, if you chose A, whatever else is in the pan) and stir constantly until starting to brown, about one minute.

Now comes the hard work. Start adding liquid, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until the liquid is mostly gone. Add another 1/2 cup. Do this until the rice no longer absorbs the liquid, approximately 30 to 40 minutes.

Now, I usually add 1/2 to 1 cup wine and stir until absorbed. Whether it's white or red is up to you. I also usually add a liberal splash of tamari for flavor.

If you went with choice B, add those veggies, etc. now.

Remove from heat. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup grated parmesan. Eat.

Last night I made a spring onion, garlic, eggplant, leftover boiled beet, mushroom, white wine conglomeration. It finally felt like spring.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Windowsill Gardening

If you're starting seeds indoors in New England, now's the time! Renee started hers last weekend and I'm looking forward to an update. I don't "do" indoor-started seeds. Somehow those extra steps of planting in little trays, watering, and then re-planting outside seem enormous to me, not to mention all of the dirt I know I'd trail all over the house and the many times I know I'd forget to water. But that doesn't mean my windowsills stay bare. On the contrary, I'm in the midst of starting up a permanent herb and sprout garden.

Sprouts are so easy and cheap to grow and so good for you, it's almost ridiculous. All sorts of companies offer sprouting machines, but really all you need are a few things you surely already have in the back of a drawer somewhere. The Canadian Department of Agriculture even offer straightforward simple do-it-yourself instructions right on their webpage (after a few paragraphs on why sprouts and the obligatory safety warnings).

My windowsills are too thin to actually use, so I'm making a sort of back row on the counters just below the windowsills. And where there's no counter, I'm scavenging my basement and anywhere else I can think of for thin tables and benches to place just under the window.

I've thrown away the chia pets and the herb garden kits because the pots are so totally ineffective - they have either too few or too many places for water to escape and end up drying the herbs and drowning the counter. But over the years I've saved the plastic pots from various plants that are now in the garden. These are perfectly designed to actually grow things. I kind of like my house to resemble a nursery, but if you have different design tastes, fit the plastic pots inside larger cache-pots or bowls. A nice ceramic or glass piece without a hole in the bottom protects your sills or counters, and holds a little extra water that can then be absorbed back in to the pot. Just be careful not to over-water and then drown the herbs.

With 4-6 hours a day of pretty direct through-the-window sun, I've had success with

-thyme
-basil
-rosemary

Though all of these can be started from seed, the thyme and rosemary are a bit finicky and take a while to develop, so I buy seedlings. Basil seeds on the other hand sprout well and grow quickly. Basil also comes in a wonderful variety of truly gorgeous colors and textures.

-cilantro
-parsley
These two need a relatively wide surface, and after they're harvested they're gone, so it's best to have two pots of each going, planted about two weeks apart. After you fully harvest one, you can harvest from the other while you start over in the first.

-sage and oregano are perennials even here in New England, so those I grow in pots on the back porch. All winter long, the sage leaves tremble in the arctic winds and I can push aside a pile of snow to find a sprig of fresh organo.

One issue with windowsill gardens are mites - tiny little white bugs that look almost like flecks of dust. But the cure for them is also good for the plants in general: wash them. For a mild case, just water will work. For a more severe case, you'll need soap and water. Just put the pots in the sink, then spray with a spray bottle or if they're hardy with the sprayer from your faucet.

A windowsill garden doesn't replace an outdoor herb garden, but it's a fantastic supplement. In the summer, you get more, and in the winter you get some. Outdoors, cilantro and parsley go to seed. I let them reseed themselves outside, but I also gather the seeds to use inside.

I admit I'm going about this process a bit backwards: I've remembered to get my indoor herb garden going because my friend Liz just made a fantastic lasagna variation using lots of fresh basil and I wanted desperately for that basil to have come from my own pots. So, in about a month when the leaves are coming in, I'll make Liz's basil lasagna again. I sort of watched her make it, so this is a combination of her and my versions.

Liz's Basil Lasagna

One box lasagna noodles
about 2 cups ricotta cheese
2 eggs
2 cups blanched chopped spinach (1 box frozen spinach)
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
1-2 cups mushrooms, sliced and sauteed with salt and pepper
1-2 packages fresh mozarella cheese, grated or thinly sliced
1 cup romano or parmesan cheese, grated
2-3 cups bechamel sauce

for the bechamel sauce (also known as a roux)
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy pan or pot
Add 4 tablespoons flour, stirring constantly with a wire whisk
Very slowly and stirring constantly, add in 2-3 cups milk (or some combination of milk and cream). The trick is to keep the mixture thick and un-clumpy. To do this, you need to either pout the liquid in a very thin steady stream while you stir, or else add it in about 1/4 cup increments, stirring well between each. If you try to speed this up, your sauce will not thicken right.
Cook, stirring constantly, for 5-10 minutes. It will get slightly thicker.

Mix together the ricotta, spinach, basil, eggs, and 1/2 cup of the grated romano or parmesan.

Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce on the bottom of a lasagna pan. Then a layer of noodles (unless you're using fast-cooking noodles, you'll have heated water and cooked them up beforehand). Then a layer of ricotta mixture. Then a layer of mushrooms. Then a layer of mozarella. Then a layer of noodles. Then a layer of bechamel sauce.Then a layer of ricotta mixture. Then a layer of mushrooms. Then a layer of mozarella. Then a layer of noodles. Then a layer of bechamel sauce. And finally on top the rest of the grated romano or parmesan.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sushi

I love sushi. I could happily eat it every day if money, and heavy metals, were no object. My family could, too, so we do have it a lot. And while eating out and experiencing the luxury of being served is delightful, it is also expensive and difficult with two small children. So, in an attempt to save money, stretch my comfort zone, and get as much sushi as I want, I have started making it myself. Through recommendations of a few people in the know, we have discovered and fallen in love with New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge. They supply many sushi restaurants in Boston. Their staff is remarkably knowledgeable about what's sushi grade, you can get a wide variety beyond salmon and tuna, and, half of the time I go there, they have a truck out front full of fresh fish that they just picked up from the docks. For those of you not in Boston, I'm sorry, because it's a great place.

While the prices seem daunting at first, when you do the math, you can eat in for a third of what it would cost to eat out. And, the more I make it, the easier it gets.

Because making rolls is new to me, I won't pretend to know how to explain it in a way a novice could understand. I recommend you look online or in a sushi cookbook, or, get brave and just try it. Worst case, you have a pile of deliciousness instead of a roll. I will, however, give you some recent roll combos I've tried. And, to tie this post into our theme of local food in season, I have to say that while the fishing industry has overwhelming problems, and while some of this fish certainly comes from far away, a lot of it is local, and you cannot get more seasonal that freshly caught fish.

Use the recipe for sushi rice on the back of the sushi rice bag or from a cookbook. I use the recipe from The Complete Asian Cookbook.

I also get extra salmon and tuna and whatever else New Deal recommends and cut it into sashimi, which is fish sliced thin, without rice.

Rolls

Avocado, salmon, cream cheese

Broiled salmon skin and avocado - When buying salmon, ask your fishmonger to skin it for you, but save the skin. Preheat broiler, lightly brush or spray skin with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper. Put skin in pie plate or cookie sheet and place on top rack in oven. Broil for a few minutes until crispy.

Salmon, mango, avocado, scallion

Tuna, avocado, cucumber, scallion

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Should we even eat green salad in winter?

I know we have no pretension of doing the kind of one hundred percent local and seasonal that would ever completely rule out a whole category of food for a whole season, but where reasonable substitutions can be found, I wonder if it’s worth considering. The basis of fresh green salad as I understand it is completely un-seasonal and/or non-local in New England in the winter.

We could make fresh green salads that are as seasonal and local as possible by following some of Renée’s suggestions to include garnishes or add-ins like nuts, dried fruits, and beets, or to use greens like spinach that grow well in cooler temperatures and might come from a little closer than California. We could build salads around ingredients that we can or dry when they are seasonal (dried tomatoes, canned roasted red peppers, canned pickled green beans…), so that the only thing out of season is the lettuce.

But what if we just went with New England winter ingredients in New England winter? One of the benefits of always having a fresh green salad with every meal is that it often boosts the veggie section to two dishes. For example, if you make a roast chicken with roasted potatoes, carrots, and beets and then serve a side salad, you now have one meat dish, one carb dish, and two veggie dishes. So is there a way to keep the concept of the salad, a kind of light, mostly cold, little extra dash of veggies, without any of the things like lettuce, tomato, and cucumber that usually make up any salad base, and without other yummy but un-seasonal treats like green beans? What veggies ARE seasonal in February in New England? Drumlin Farms, with one of the few fully local full-year CSAs, had carrots, beets, potatoes, rutabaga, and turnips in its last pick-up. What “salads” can you make with that?

Roasted Veggie Salad

Roast root vegetables as if you were going to serve them as a side dish. For four people, try four carrots, 4 small or two large beets, one potato and one rutabaga.
Prepare an ample portion of balsamic vinaigrette (recipe follows), about a cup for four the amount shown above, in a sealable container (pyrex, Tupperware…). As soon as you remove the veggies from the oven, dump them into the container with the vinaigrette. Seal, shake, and refrigerate. If you don’t want everything to turn pink, keep the beets separate. Nice topped with goat cheese and toasted walnuts or pecans.

Carrot Salad

Peel and grate about 2 carrots per person. Add ½- 1 cup dried cranberries or raisins. Toss with ½ cup light vinaigrette (recipe follows). Serve immediately or keep in refrigerator up to 3 days. Nice topped with sunflower seeds.

Carrott and Red Onion Salad
(in a root cellar, or even a brown bag in a cool dry section of the basement, onions will easily keep all winter). Peel and very thinly slice one red onion per person. Put the onions into a tightly sealed container with enough water to cover, 1 Tablespoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Let sit in refrigerator at least an hour and up to several days. Peel and grate about 2 carrots per person. Drain onions and toss with carrots in a light vinaigrette (recipe follows). Serve immediately.

Raw Beet Salad

Peel and grate 2 small or 1 large beet per person. Toss with ½-cup light or balsamic vinaigrette (recipes follow). Serve immediately or keep in refrigerator up to 3 days. Wonderful topped with feta or goat cheese and toasted walnuts or pecans.

Balsamic Vinaigrette

2 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
1 tsp. mustard
A few drops of water

Light vinaigrette
2 Tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
A few drops of water

Monday, March 2, 2009

Real Cookies (not web cookies)

I have been busy this weekend, upgrading websites and frustrating myself to no end. My one success - note that our web address is now www.cookingtheseasons.com, without the "blogspot", though the old one will forward. More than once, I followed directions that didn't work. And, when I finally figured out how to do whatever it was I had set out to do hours before, realized that the directions I began with were not even close to correct. Most of the time, I wished I were in the kitchen rather than in front of the computer. Unlike computer recipes, cooking CAN be tweaked, with great results. And recipes usually do work, even if they can be improved upon. But best of all, you aren't wasting time in the kitchen. Unless you burn something so it's unrecognizable, or drop the glass pan full of food, you are going to end up with something edible, if not downright delicious. The same cannot be said for website upgrades.

While I was "computering", as my son calls it, I was dreaming of chocolate chip cookies. We just got a foot of snow, so the thought of a warm oven and warm cookies led me to take out a stick of butter to soften while I tried, yet again, to attach a favicon to my website.

These cookies began, years ago, as The Joy of Cooking's recipe for chocolate chip drop cookies. I made them as a kid all of the time. This recipe is actually the one that inspired me to go off the beaten path and experiment in cooking. My recipe looks little like Irma's. If you like cake-y cookies, these are not for you. I took out the egg and white sugar, reduced the flour, added oatmeal, and increased the chips, all in the name of chewy-chrispiness.

I never measure these things, but will attempt to do so now. If you feel inspired, tweak this yourself and see what you get!

preheat oven to 325.

1 stick softened unsalted butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teas. salt
1 teas. vanilla
1/2 teas. baking soda
just under 1 cup white flour (if you add oatmeal, reduce flour to 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup oatmeal (optional)
lots of chocolate chips (I use Ghiradelli bittersweet)

mush butter and then add sugar.
add salt and stir.
add vanilla and stir.
add baking soda and stir well.
add flour and stir.
add oatmeal, if using.
add chocolate chips.

put a largish spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet, leaving an inch or so between. Flatten slightly with your hand or spoon. Put in oven and cook 5 or so minutes. Take cookie sheet out and whack down onto a table or counter. Put back in oven until brown and bubbly, approximately 5 more minutes.

Note: if your cookies are large and are taking a while to cook, they may need another whack on the counter to flatten them out.