Thursday, February 26, 2015

Souped-up Garden is slowly shifting back into gear...

Though The Calm One is almost over the dreadful flu that a couple of weeks ago descended like a stultifying, gloomy cloud upon our once actively functioning household, I am still struggling with sporadic bouts of low-energy and a hacking cough. Homemade food from our freezer has been much appreciated by us, and today it is pizza:


My recipe is here.


Toulouse sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, mozzarella, and Parmesan, if you please. So good!


My plant nursery order will arrive tomorrow which means I soon will be starting heat-loving seeds in an incubator, that is, various peppers, black-eyed Susan vine, and then later basil, tomatoes, squash, and melons. Outdoor sowing includes parsley, chives, dill, garlic, marjoram, onions, potatoes, peas, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, leeks, spinach, and then later, green beans, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Meanwhile, the permanent asparagus and rhubarb plantings need to be kept free of weeds and fertilised, ditto with the strawberry beds which are productive for about four years.

A welcomed sight: first the big pink 'egg' and then the unfurling of rhubarb leaves

Since most of our fruit and landscape trees/bushes are already presenting tight, little buds, we need to get their pruning done within a week. I have duly made the necessary appointment with The Calm One for his valued assistance. This year, the grapevines won't need trimming because the sauvage area reserved for small wildlife in a back corner has become so tall that not much sunlight reaches the nearby vines, significantly stunting their growth. Therefore no grapes for the birds, but there are tons of blackberry brambles festooning the back-to-nature section so it all works out.

Our short winter is coming to a close, but persistent rains are preventing the weeding of and incorporation of compost into, the many beds, each measuring four feet by twelve feet and which at present are muddy. Digging soggy soil is injurious to its structure whose healthy state is paramount for flourishing plants. But gardening is one of my great loves, so it will be a work of joy and any challenge will be taken into stride, frequently with smiles and laughs. It's true that the real focus of gardening is to grow the soil, but I suspect gardening also grows your sense of humour. Then again, life in general provides many opportunities to have various guffaws/giggles at your expense and at many absurdities encountered.

Daffodils!

Since starting our potager about five years ago, I have noted what did and didn't work during the previous season. My present epiphany is that without healthy seedlings, everything else is made harder. The solution is to use very fresh seeds, that is, saving only the excess that does not degrade rapidly even if it means a little more expense, provide adequate light as soon as they emerge, transplant only the strongest and most robust despite the waste, gradually hardening them out in the sunlight/wind, and transferring them to the soil while they still have room to grow in their pots.

Annual vegetables have a strenuous growth cycle beginning with a sprouting seed and culminating in a mature plant setting its own seeds. Hence they do not bear well any obstacle stunting that rapid process which usually lasts under six months. Yes, that means weeding, fertilising, watering, and mulching matters. Note to self: cultivate only the amount I can properly handle.

For those beginners who would like a doable start to growing some edibles, pop a few potted veggie plants into your cart if your supermarket has such a section. For example, if you have a sunny spot on a sill or a small patio/balcony, dwarf cherry tomatoes would appreciate spending time there along with various herbs. Keep them in a place where you will note their existence daily so you won't forget to water them!

Dirac the kitten has been taking it easy also...

Chewing on his favourite blankie

...and taking advantage that in our attempt to hydrate ourselves, there are glasses of water partout.


À la prochaine!

RELATED POSTS

How to sow indoors to get an early start
Sowing leeks
Sowing spinach
Sowing peas
Sowing onion sets
Sowing carrots
Sowing garlic
Sowing potatoes
Basic principle underlying pruning: apical dominance

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

No Bon Appétit Chez Nous!

The Calm One and I have been cloué au lit (nailed to the bed) with a respiratory illness for the last several days. The absolute fatigue coupled with a hacking cough is bad. But the worst aspect is that demonic thingie destroyed our sense of smell and therefore our appetite. Fasting is fine, but when it is enforced, I draw the line!

We are slowly on the mend and there most likely will be a regular post this coming Wednesday. If you can, don't get the flu, especially the rude kind that robs you the desire for food. If you do, rest, keep warm, and drink lots of fluids.

À la prochaine!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Date Walnut Cream Cheese Sandwich

After doing a frantic shopping round for clothes in New York City, my childhood best friend and I would race to a Chock Full o'Nuts. Sighing with relief, we eased our weary, teenaged selves onto counter stools. Juggling shopping bags as stuffed as our bellies were not, I usually ordered a dreamy, cream cheese sandwich studded with luscious walnuts and the most moist of all delectable dates; while she often asked for a whole-wheat donut which was coloured a dark chocolate and adorned with a crunchy lattice texture due to sufficient deep-fryer time. These cooks sure knew their way around umami and the Mallard reaction.



I adored that sandwich! Though the bread most likely was steamed instead of baked, I decided to go half way by putting the hot-from-the-oven loaf in a heat-resistant ziploc bag so a little baking, a little steaming...

INGREDIENTS
makes a loaf approx 10 cm/4 inches by 26 cm/10 inches
  • Dates, pitted, 355 ml/12 fluid oz
  • Sugar, white, 130 gms/4 fluid oz
  • Maple syrup, 1.5 tsp
  • Egg, large, lightly beaten, 1
  • Lard, 3 T, melted
  • vanilla extract, 1 tsp
  • Flour, white, all-purpose, 270 gms/16 fluid oz
  • Salt, 1 tsp
  • Baking soda, 1/2 tsp
  • Baking powder, 1.5 tsp
  • Walnuts, coarsely chopped, 50 gms/4 fluid oz
  • Spread: 90 gms/3 fluid oz cream cheese & 25 gms/2 fluid oz finely chopped walnuts

Slice the dates into thin strips and then finely chop. Put in a large mixing bowl and pour boiling water to barely cover. Let cool.



Preheat oven to 177 degrees C/350 degrees F. Add the egg, sugar, maple syrup, vanilla extract, and lard to the dates.



Beat lightly.


Mix the the flour, baking powder/soda, and salt in a smaller bowl. Blend the dry ingredients via several batches into the wet. Stir in the walnuts.



Spoon the batter into a well buttered, floured loaf pan. Level out the surface with the back of a wet, metal tablespoon.



Bake for about fifty minutes. Since moist is the name of the game, when testing by pressing the top of the loaf, it's OK if it doesn't spring back completely. Meanwhile, mix the cream cheese and walnuts together.



The loaf could be cooled on a wire rack if a crustier one is desired, or it can be popped into a ziploc bag to get a moister bread. The longer you wait, the easier slicing will be.



Spread the nutty cheese on a slice and top with another.



Not quite like the original, especially the texture, but gooey with dates and packed with the wallop of walnut, it is its own brand of goodness.



Dirac the kitten continues to do well. Ever since his first day with us, about six months ago, he often throws his front paws over his head in a playful effort of dislodging our hands when we try to pet his head.



À la prochaine!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Deerfoot Potatoes à la Moutarde de Dijon

Deerfoot potatoes have been on my wanting-to-cook list for a long time. The name doesn't come from the prepared potato resembling a deer foot, but instead it refers to a venerable American brand of sausage whose fabrication has long since ceased. Substituting Toulouse sausage and adding Dijon mustard to the basting butter along with some feathery fennel from our winter herb garden makes this delectable dish even more tempting.


INGREDIENTS
serves 6 if accompanying a main course or a brunch; two if it is the main dish!
adapted from my culinary bible, Fanny Farmer

  • Sausage, fresh, Toulouse or Sweet Italian, about 6 rounded tsp
  • Potatoes, all purpose, 6 medium
  • Mustard, Dijon, 2 T
  • Butter, sweet, 2 T
  • Fennel, fresh (the herb not the veggie bulb), minced, 1 scant T
  • Fennel fronds for garnishing

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C/375 degrees F. While melting the butter over low heat in a saucepan, whisk in the mustard for a minute or so. The consistency will look curdled. Don't despair! Turn off the heat and let the mixture stand without removing the pot for about five minutes. Resume whisking until it becomes thick and smooth. Stir in the fennel. Cover and reserve on the turned-off burner to prevent the sauce from solidifying.

Extra can be made and kept in the fridge to dab on finished steaks, fish, chicken, pasta & veggies

Peel the potatoes. Using a veggie peeler or a sharp knife, carve out a wedge-like section of potato from each tapered end. Do your best in aligning these two introductory cuts.


Proceed to carve out the inside to get a tunnel being careful not to widen the openings or the already cut-out plugs will be too small.


Snip the wider end from a wedge and use it to plug up one of the holes.


Firmly pack the cavity with sausage to compensate for shrinkage as it bastes the potato from the inside out during roasting. How clever is that? I say it's genius! Leave some room to insert the second potato plug.


Repeat with the remaining potatoes. Put them in a casserole with a lid. Spoon the sauce over each.


Cover and put in the oven for about forty-five minutes. Baste a few times and slide them around a bit to prevent sticking. Test for tenderness with a sharp knife's tip. Uncover and let brown for about fifteen minutes, spooning the juices over them a couple of times. When serving, don't forget to scrape off any crusty bits/popped plugs and add them to the plate. Dribble some drippings over the potatoes.


These double-basted potatoes were so good that I was smiling throughout the act of stuffing my face. The crusty outsides redolent of fennel, butter, and mustard contrasted beautifully with the fondant, that ismelt-in-your-mouth insides permeated with the succulence of sausage. 


Dirac the Kitten recently pointed out that the harvest basket has been mostly empty for the last few months. I informed the young Monsieur Dirac that the nursery order for spring planting will be finalised shortly. Soon I will be sowing indoors to get an early start and if the weather permits, I will be preparing the veggie beds via weeding and incorporating compost.  Yes, it's that time of year already!


À la prochaine!

RELATED POSTS

Toulouse sausage toad-in-the-hole
Rösti with hard-boiled egg and Toulouse sausage
Baby onion, fennel, green bean & Toulouse sausage tarte tatin
Sowing indoors

RELATED LINKS

History of Deerfoot farm
Deerfoot sausage as an item on a 1917 hotel menu

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Seed-Cake

The seed-cake of hobbit fame* has enchanted me since I read that book out loud to a friend when we were much younger than we are now. We both badly wanted that cakeI, with my herbal tea, he, with his coffee. I have come across as many versions of this fabled cake as there are individual imaginations. Various approaches include adding citrus zest or a sweet spice like cardamon, skimping on the caraway seeds or letting them rain onto the batter like a demented deluge, and augmenting with any other available crunchy seed like flax, poppy, sunflower, hemp, yup, that's right, hemp! Yet still other bakers do it gluten-free and substitute different sweeteners for sugar.


Variation is fine but to my mind the only parameter that can't be ignored is its roundness: full like a happy moon, enticing in its bedazzling completeness, and smugly satisfied with its circular solidity as Bilbo is with his own rotund belly. Not to mention that he baked it in this form. So please put those loaf pans away! Furthermore, I have divined that Bilbo when in a certain mood, would say to himself, hmmm, a little lemon icing would not be amiss.


INGREDIENTS
makes a 20 cm/8 inch round
adapted from the 2008 edition of Delia's Frugal Food

  • Flour, white, plain, 170 g/10 fluid oz
  • Baking powder, 2 tsp
  • Almond meal/flour, unblanched, 50g/3 fluid oz
  • Butter, sweet, at room temperature, 120 g/4 fluid oz
  • Sugar, preferably caster (very fine texture), but regular will do, 120 g/4 fluid oz
  • Eggs, large, 3
  • Milk, whole, 2-3 T
  • Caraway seeds, 1 tsp
  • Lemon icing: 8 T of icing/confectioner's/powdered sugar & 3 T of freshly squeezed lemon juice, that is, about a small lemon

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F. Liberally butter the bottom and sides of the pan. To ensure the cake can be removed without heartbreak, the buttered bottom can be covered with a circle of buttered parchment paper. If baking a cake requiring creaming butter and sugar together, I leave the eggs, butter, and milk out on the counter for a few hours. Having no caster sugar on hand, I buzzed the regular stuff in a mini food processor for about a minute. Though a finer textured sugar will be easier to cream, the ordinary version will work also.


Start by mashing with a fork the softened butter. 


The Calm One, when spying this yellow ware bowl in a shop, said, I must have it as he grew up with such in the wilds of Yorkshire, England. Those words were uttered twenty-five years ago. And I am embarrassed to say, that is the time it took us to realise that this was not just an attractive, large mixing bowl steeped in childhood memory, but one with a particular edge. It has two feet, one on the bottom, and a slanted, flat one on the side allowing this heavy bowl to be tipped easily for blending and pouring.


The goal in creaming is that the mixture needs to be beaten until fluffy and most of the sugar crystals are invisible, though they can be felt when tasting a sample. It usually takes several minutes to get this state.


Beat in the eggs one by one.


Mix together the almond meal, flour, baking powder, sugar, and caraway seeds. Blend into the wet ingredients a third of this mixture, do another, and then finally incorporate the last.

Whole almond meal packs texture and flavour

Add enough milk to make a gloppy consistency. Spoon into the prepared pan and spread the batter evenly with the back of a metal tablespoon.


Bake for about thirty minutes or until the edges slightly pull away from the pan, the top springs back sprightly after being pressed in the centre, and when an inserted wooden skewer comes out dry. Loosen the edges with a narrow spatula and remove. Cool on a wire rack. One from the oven can be used.


Just before serving, mix up the icing and using a small pitcher, dribble/pour on the cake and let dry. Was it as good as what I imagined all those years ago? Yes! Reminiscent of biscotti, albeit a soft, tender version, it makes a wonderful breakfast or snack, especially when paired with coffee. Engaging, delightful, and fulfilling, it is the height of a simple pleasure.


Dirac the kitten is now nearly nine months old. At times, lively beyond belief, at others, quiet and composed like a Buddha, he continues to grow and to outsmart us. His latest coup is when we try to retrieve him from a room that he has decided is his personal gym, like, let's say, the kitchen, he hides under a chair, and when that chair is picked up, he darts under another...

Dirac taking a much needed rest after a vigourous game of musical chairs in the kitchen

À la prochaine!

RELATED POSTS

Lemon curd almond shortbread
Irish soda bread made with caraway seeds and raisins

*[Bilbo] had a horrible thought that the cakes might run short, and then he — as the host: he knew his duty and stuck to it, however painful — he might have to go without.
‘Come along in, and have some tea!’ he managed to say after taking a deep breath.
‘A little beer would suit me better, if it is all the same to you, my good sir,’ said Balin with the white beard. ‘But I don’t mind some cake — seed-cake, if you have any.’
‘Lots!’ Bilbo found himself answering, to his surprise; and he found himself scuttling off , too, to the cellar to fill a pint beer-mug, and then to a pantry to fetch two beautiful round seed-cakes which he had baked that afternoon for his after-supper morsel.
--J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thyme Panisse with Green Peppercorn Yogurt Sauce

Chickpeas are an appreciated ingredientespecially as a flourin Provencal cuisine. My own appreciation started during my New York City childhood. While my peers peeked in the cookie jar, I cruised the pantry for tinned chickpeas which I often would gobble straight from the can. Savoury candy, as it were. Their warm colour, robust creaminess, and endearing form resembling partially popped corn captivated me.

Panisse, if you are wondering, are deep-fried chickpea sticks

The night before, I cook the chickpea flour in the stock, pour this batter into a pan, and leave it overnight in the fridge. At this time, I also mix up the sauce as its flavour mellows while it shares fridge space with the panisse. However just an hour is enough cold-time to allow the slicing of batons and to smooth out the sauce.

Panisse
makes about thirty-five 7.5 cm/3 inch fries, about 1.25 cm/.5 inch thick
  • Chickpea flour, 115 grams/8 fluid oz
  • Chicken stock, unsalted (veggie stock or water could be substituted), 475 ml/16 fluid oz
  • Thyme, dried, 1/2 tsp
  • Salt, 1 tsp
  • If using veggie stock or water, olive oil, 1 T
  • Vegetable oil for frying, enough for a 5 cm/2 inch high level in a medium-large sauce pan (I used about a liter/quart of sunflower, 1/4 of which was reused oil which helps in crisping the fries)

Dipping Sauce
can be doubled if so desired
  • Yogurt, plain, 120 ml/4 fluid oz
  • Tomato paste, 1 T
  • Green peppercorns, freshly crushed, 1/8 to 1/4 tsp
  • Sherry vinegar, a drop or two

Put the stock, thyme, and salt in a medium saucepan. Gradually stir in the chickpea flour. It most likely will be a bit lumpy. Turn on the heat to medium-low and while it cooks, whisk frequently. Whisk and simmer for about five minutes or until it is very thick, smooth, and has no raw taste.


Remove from heat and promptly pour into a well oiled, 20 cm/8 inch square casserole/baking pan. Working fast, as it congeals quickly, level the surface with the back of a metal tablespoon. Cover with plastic wrap, foil, or a lid. Put in fridge.


Green peppercorns after being crushed gradually become less piquant. So if piquant is your thing then crush them (with the back of a metal spoon) and add them to the sauce close to serving time.


If not, blend them into the yogurt and tomato paste. Add a drop or so of sherry vinegar. Salt to taste. Put in fridge.


The next day, flip the solid panisse out of the pan onto a cutting board.

Those creases in the corners were caused by sluggish leveling

Cut into sticks. Any wrinkled area will be harder from which to get nice clean slices. Don't worry as those odds and ends will still taste great. You may have to fish them out of the hot oil sooner than the others.


Heat the oil over medium flame. To test for adequate temperature, insert the handle of a wooden spoon. If hot enough, the oil will release a steady stream of small bubbles from the end of the handle. I used a metal skimmer for both putting them in the pot and for taking them out. A metal sieve with a handle would work also. If you have a deep fryer, then you are sitting pretty. Don't crowd the little ones and fry them in several batches. They will float up to the top fairly soon. If not, then a gentle nudge with the skimmer may be in order.


Let them cook for about five minutes until crisp and brown. Blot with paper towels.


The dipping sauce complements not only the taste of the fries, but also its nutrition, upping its protein boost. Crunchiness and molten lusciousness are at their most delectable when the panisse are served hot. However, they are still tasty and fun to eat when tepid or cold. Since frying, if done properly, is closer to steaming, don't shy away from embracing your inner sizzler from time to time.


Dirac the Kitten has taken lately to communing with a fleece lap throw that has the same degree of softness and shade of colour as he has. If it is draped over my shoulders while I sit at the computer, Dirac will squirm up between it and my back making me look as if I have a mobile hump. If its fate is to be on the floor, after a brief and albeit gentle tussel, he becomes enveloped in its folds. If it is innocently crumpled on a chair, we first need to make sure there is not a Dirac within before sitting down.

The other day, I removed the fleecy/furry unit from my back, almost dislocating my shoulders in completing this most delicate task. Once this wriggling grey mass was placed gingerly on my desk, the in situ bliss continued.


À la prochaine!

RELATED POSTS

Making chicken stock
Eating chickpea socca ('pancakes') in the south of France
Green peppercorn veggie flan
Sweet red pepper/green bean pakora (chickpea flour fritters)
Making vegetable stock