Thursday, April 28, 2011

Guilt in the Kitchen

I'd like to say that guilt has no place in the kitchen, but my kitchen is full of it today.

I was sick with a nasty cold last week and I didn't feel much like cooking the labor-intensive meals I'd envisioned when I bought a cart-full of supplies at the grocery store.  As a result, much of the food I bought last week was sent to the frosty netherworld of my freezer or sat festering in my refrigerator.  I've been feeling guilty about this state of affairs all week and this morning I couldn't take it anymore.

I was supposed to have spent this morning working, but instead I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the refrigerator to see what I could find.  After some rooting around I came up with a pile of "needs to be used" ingredients... and a plan.  I would make spaghetti sauce and turkey chili-- a giant pot of each.  I'd been having a craving for chili lately anyway, perhaps because it's a food that nobody else in my family likes so I never make it.  Today I had an excuse--  "I need to use up a LOT of onions".

Other ingredients from my refrigerator in search of a dish to call home included a package of ground turkey, some carrots starting to root, and two kinds of ham.   I know that ham has no place in a traditional chili, but I thought it might go in mine.  In the end, the country ham made it in and the Western ham did not.
A boneless, commercially produced country ham in my kitchen, leftovers of which were used in today's chili, April 2011.
As far as I'm concerned, country ham can go in almost anything... when chopped fine and fried in a little oil, it can provide a rich, salty basis for almost any soup, stew, or chili.  I'd tried to find a chili recipe in my great-grandmother's cookbook, but I wasn't too surprised when I didn't find one.  There were lots of recipes for bean soups, many of which amounted to throwing a ham hock into a pot of water, adding some onion, carrots, and beans and calling it a day.  So why not add country ham to my chili?  It turned out to be delicious and I ate a big bowl of it for lunch.  While it was still simmering I was afraid I'd made it too hot, but as soon as I realized that nobody else would eat it anyway, so who cares?  I added a giant squirt of Rooster sauce for good measure and stirred the pot.  Yea, I know that's kind of a weird addition, but this was just for me after all.  My taste buds call out for hot foods and since my family doesn't like hot foods, I have very few choices of "hot" ingredients in my kitchen.

Adding Thai hot sauce to chili is one thing, but adding Western ham turned out to be another thing entirely.  And it was unacceptable.  I must admit that this revelation surprised me.  I'm never quite sure what to do with a Western ham and until this Easter, I'd never cooked one before.  In fact, as I write this I'm starting to question what this ham should be called.  When I was growing up we'd call it "city ham" and I wonder if readers will know what I'm talking about.  Maybe you call it "spiral ham", although I always thought that referred to how you cut a ham, not the actual ham variety.  Maybe most people just know it as "ham".  I'm talking about a non-cured ham purchased from the grocery store.  It was pre-cooked, although I cooked it again, glazed with a sauce I made from hot mustard and my homemade marmalade.  I have to admit that it was a nice addition to our Easter brunch, which included guests who weren't fans of country ham.  I've realized over the twenty years I've spent away from the South that country ham is an acquired taste if you didn't grow up with it.  In my house, so is Western ham, at least for me.

I encouraged my husband to eat ham sandwiches for lunch and he did.  I ate a few myself.  I even added small bits of it to a pasta dish one evening (not the best idea), and we still had more ham leftover.  Maybe it was regenerating itself every night it lived in my refrigerator.  I felt guilty about throwing it out, but I didn't really want to eat it either.  At least, not in my chili.  So the chunk of Western ham was the one ingredient that went BACK into the refrigerator unused.  I felt a little guilty about that too, until I ate my second bowl of chili.  It was delicious. And there was something very decadent about making food that was just for me.  I still feel a little guilty about it, but the guilt recedes with every bowl of chili I eat.  I've already frozen several single-serving containers of chili because I know my love for this chili won't last for more than a day or two and there's a lot more chili to be eaten.  There's also a giant pot of spaghetti sauce still sitting on the stovetop and I hope that my family will enjoy it while I heat up another bowl of chili for dinner tonight.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Citrus Report: Our Hidden Grapefruit Tree

Grapefruit tree tucked into corner of our yard, 2011.
Our small garden is backed with fruit-bearing trees.  We have an orange tree, a lemon tree, two loquat trees, an unknown (and seemingly inedible) green plum of some sort, and a grapefruit tree tucked into a small corner up by the house.

I find it hard to believe that the grapefruit tree grows at all, as shaded as it is by the large loquat tree in front of it.  In fact, it's so well-protected that we didn't realize that it was bearing fruit this year.  (The previous inhabitants of this house had a strict no-water policy, which although quite ecologically sound, didn't do much for the citrus crop during our first year in the house.)

We watered our garden through the hot, dry summer this year and by the time we were ready to turn off the sprinklers for the winter, our citrus trees began saying thank-you by giving us the gift of fresh fruit.

I've never grown any kind of citrus before so I wasn't sure when and how to harvest our fruit and I have a feeling we didn't do it quite right.  Our policy has been to pick what we need off the trees as we're ready to eat it.  I suspect this is why we ended up with a crop of over-ripe oranges.

Only the youngest member of our family has a taste for our very sour oranges, so it was hard to tell when the oranges were in their prime.  We just kept thinking they'd get sweeter.  They never did.   I think the fact that we waited too long to pick our oranges may be the reason that the marmalade I made from these oranges never gelled properly.  And once I realized that over-ripe oranges were to blame, I never worked up the energy to try another batch.  There are still oranges out back ready to be picked, but for now we're just leaving them for the birds.  Even the squirrels won't eat them!

In spite of our neglect, the lemon and grapefruit trees produced a bountiful crop as well.  While my parents were visiting from Virginia, they made fresh lemonade and homemade lemon bars, both of which were amazing.  It was fun to watch my parents' delight at being able to pick lemons straight off a tree-- something you just don't get to do in Virginia.
Mom's lemon bars, April 2011.
  Several weeks later, we're still enjoying the grapefruit from our hidden tree and have even created a house drink adapted from The Tar Pit's "Brown Derby" to showcase our home-grown grapefruit.  I'll be sure to post the recipe in a future report.
A day's worth of grapefruit in our yard, April 2011.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How Our Garden Grows...

Italian mixed green seedlings sprout in our garden, April 2011.
It's only been about a week since we planted our garden and everything is doing surprisingly well.  The lettuce has sprouted and the bare-root strawberry plants are twice as big as they were when we planted them.  Even the basil and parsley are coming along, despite the fact that the squirrels keep digging holes in the dirt surrounding the delicate seedlings.

The squirrels and I are currently in a standoff over the herb garden.  They keep digging up the dirt and I keep patting it back down again.  We do this on a daily basis and none of us are ready to give up any time soon.  We'll see if the seedlings give up before either the squirrels or I do.
Squirrel hole in the basil patch.  Oregano left untouched.  April 2011.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sunday Dinner for the Type-A List Maker: Part Three

I've been looking forward to Spring Break for some time now, but unlike most people-- especially college students-- I've been looking forward to this week as a time to catch up on work.  (I know.  I'm old and boring.  And I'm going with it.)  Looking at the calendar last week, I realized that I had three days for "work" during my Spring Break.  Being a type-A list maker, I made a list of everything I wanted to accomplish in my three work days.

Day 1
Complete all school-related work.  (I'll spare you the sub-list.)

Day 2  
1.  Write backlog of blog reports for upcoming week(s).
2.  Get massage using Groupon that sweet husband bought me as a surprise several weeks ago.
3.  Meet new book-designer friend for coffee.

Day 3
Write something new.

I hadn't figured out what the something new was going to be yet, but when I checked e-mail this morning, I discovered a message that sent my week's plan (or at least my morning's plan) out the window.

My friend Kate sent me a link to an article by Sally Sampson called Don't Have Time to Cook DInner?  Really?  It's a response to an article by NY Times dining editor Pete Wells from the series Cooking with Dexter, about his plans and occasional attempts to cook dinner for his sons.  I encourage you to read both articles, but the bottom line is this.  Most people, certainly most food writers, agree that it's important to eat dinner with your family most days of the week.  People disagree on how-- and how often-- this is possible or if it's possible at all.  In our media-saturated world in which people regularly work until 6 pm... 7 pm... and beyond... how do we get everyone to sit down for a family dinner?

We struggle with this issue in my family on a daily basis.  In fact, just a few minutes ago I was wondering what my family was going to have for dinner this evening.  Then I remembered that we have leftover mac and cheese and country ham in the refrigerator.  This past Saturday night after the dinner dishes were washed and the children were in bed, my husband decided to start cooking.  He made a very fancy mac and cheese casserole and left it sitting, unbaked, in the refrigerator awaiting Sunday dinner.  I'm well aware that Sunday dinner is traditionally a midday meal, but we hosted book club this past Sunday afternoon and we all ate so much country ham, corn bread, and cucumber salad that we weren't really hungry 2 hours later when supper time time rolled around.  So we saved the unbaked mac and cheese for Monday night and it was delicious.
Daddy's special mac and cheese on Monday night, 2011.

At first my oldest daughter said it didn't LOOK like mac and cheese and that she wasn't going to eat it.  In spite of the fact that most food experts seem to agree that parents shouldn't launch power-struggles over food, I told my daughter that she would indeed TRY daddy's mac and cheese because he'd spent a great deal of time making it for her.  I went even further and told her that even if she didn't like the mac and cheese she was going to thank Daddy for making her such a thoughtful meal.  Then I gave her my "I mean business" look.

We had this conversation out of daddy's ear-shot because my husband is one of the many people who get home too late to eat dinner with his family during the week.  Our girls insist that they feel an overwhelming sense of hunger-- the kind they insist will KILL THEM-- if they don't get to eat by 5:30 pm.  I don't know many people who are able to make it home from work by that time these days.  So we have devised a compromise.  The girls eat their dinner early and go play for a while.  When my husband gets home from work, we adults eat our dinner while the children enjoy dessert.   Our dessert isn't usually very exciting-- sometimes it's just fruit for one girl and a few marshmallows for the other.  Sometimes it's two bowls of drippy vanilla ice cream.  And every once in a while we make homemade brownies or oatmeal raisin cookies (my personal favorite).  Although we have different foods on our plates, it still feels like a family meal.  We eat, we talk, we laugh.  And sometimes we complain.

I was grateful that my husband didn't hear our daughter complain about the meal he'd worked so hard to prepare for her.  I listened to my oldest daughter complain about my cooking on a regular basis and I knew it didn't feel good.  Even more importantly, this wasn't just any old meal that my daughter was complaining about.    It was a meal that my husband had planned in advance with two specific goals.  1.  To prepare his daughters a meal that he thought they'd really love.  2.  To make my life easier on a busy day by making something that could just be popped into the oven.  These were both such worthy goals that I couldn't bear for my husband to know that his thoughtfulness was met with such resistance.

Our daughters tried the mac and cheese with suspicion, but after one bite their attitude changed completely.  They wolfed down the small amount of mac and cheese I'd placed in the center of each of their plates and before I could turn around from washing the dishes, both of our daughters were begging for more of "daddy's mac and cheese".  I almost cried.  It wasn't even my labor that I feared would be going to waste, but somehow it made me even happier to know that my husband's efforts were now so surprisingly paying off.

The girls were eating and they were happy and even more importantly they knew that daddy had done something wonderful for them-- even though he wasn't here to share in the joy of it all.  It was so amazing that I ran to get my camera and take a picture of the sweet scene.  I hate to be a tease, but the resulting photograph feels very personal and I've decided not to post it here.  I'm sure to anyone else it's just a cute picture of two smiling children waving forks over their empty plates, but to me this photograph is wildly revealing. So for now at least, you'll just have to imagine it.  Rest assured, it will be going in our family photo album.

I tell this story to encourage you to make time for dinner, even if you do it in an unconventional way.  The payoff is well worth it.  And thanks to my husband, I now know what I'll be writing about on Friday.  But for now, I'd better get back to grading midterms.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Loquats Are Coming!

A clump of loquats ripen on one of our two loquat trees, April 2011.
It's hard to believe that it was only a year ago I tasted loquats for the first time.  Looking back at last year's blog report, I've realized that the loquat crop is coming later this year.  We had a tree full of ripe loquats by the end of March last year.  And on April 18, 2010, we were gathering loquats by the wagon-full and attempting to make loquat jam, which was not a great success.
A small part of last year's loquat harvest, April 18, 2010.
But this year, only one small clump of loquats has turned yellow and it's already mid-April.  Last year the loquat trees produced fruit until June, so it will interesting to see how the late start affect's this year's harvest season.  I guess it's time to start looking up the recipe for loquat jelly that I discovered in my great-grandmother's cookbook...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Planting My Spring Garden

My garden's new plantings, April 2011.
I live in Southern California, so I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't plant my garden until this past week.  It's even more embarrassing to admit that I didn't even do it myself.  It's not that I can't plant a garden by myself, I just haven't found the time this year.  Or to be more precise-- I haven't MADE the time to plant a garden this year.  Luckily, my parents believe in the importance of having a garden and they  planted my garden while they were visiting.
San Marzano, Mortgage Lifter, and Juliet tomato plants in my garden, April 2011.

Strawberry plants sprouting, April 2011.

This year my garden's new plantings include:

  • Tomatoes- San Marzanos (2), Mortgage Lifters (2 plants from different sources), Juliet (1- my mother's favorite cherry tomato), and one unlabeled variety that I've forgotten already.  It will be fun to see what it turns out to be.
  • Strawberries- Early Glow (15 bare root plants)
  • Green Beans- Blue Lake (12)
  • Bunching Onions (6-pack of "bunches" separated out)
  • Chives- (2 large clumps- one carried over from last year)
  • Parsley (from seed- not yet sprouted)
  • Swiss Chard (weird, I know, but the woman at the nursery convinced me that it wasn't too hot yet if I had a partially shady spot to put them in)
  • Lettuce (a variety of Italian lettuces from seed- not yet sprouted)
  • Zinnias (6 plants in assorted colors- not edible, of course, but pretty)
  • Watercress (because I was jealous to see some doing so beautifully in the path between Daniel's raised beds last week)
Daniel's watercress plants growing between raised beds, April 2011.
Plants that have carried over from last year:
  • Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • 1 carrot that mysteriously sprouted in an unusual place
Tending a garden is always full of surprises-- both good and bad.  We've already discovered some mishaps in the garden-- the lettuce seeds aren't getting enough water and part of the parsley has been dug up by the squirrels.  I hope for the best as I do every year, but for now, I'd better stop daydreaming (and typing) and go do some watering.  Gardening is a good reminder that sometimes it's better not to think too far into the future.  Sometimes it's enough to just tend to my little plot of ground and wait to see what comes up next.  
Bunching onions bunching, April 2011.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Heirloom Foods: Halupki

When I fist visited the home of my soon-to-be college roommate she introduced me to her friends Pirohi and Halupki.  They were rabbits.  She kept them in a metal cage tucked into a corner of her white-carpeted condo.  (That's another story.)  Although my roommate liked these traditional Eastern European comfort foods enough to name her rabbits after them, she wasn't much of a cook and I didn't eat pirohi or halupki until years later.

The first pirohi I ever ate was at the home of my friend Daniel Marlos and frequent readers of this blog know that I am now crazy about pirohi-- especially Daniel's pirohi.  I'm slightly less in love with halupki, which is to say that I like them, but if offered a choice between the two, I would pick pirohi without blinking an eye.  In fact, I think I could eat pirohi every day of my life and not get tired of them.  But when Daniel offered to make me homemade halupki with his own freshly-made sauerkraut, I couldn't resist.

Daniel called me that morning to ask if I thought it was ok if he made his meatless Lenten version of halupki using bacon grease, which he had stashed in the refrigerator.  I told him that I was sure God would appreciate his thriftiness and that it was fine by me.  Knowing me as he does, I'm sure this was the answer Daniel expected to receive, but he seemed pleased to get my approval nonetheless.  While I had him on the phone, I asked him to send me the recipe after he put the halupki in the oven.  He did.  And you'll find the recipe for halupki at the end of this blog report.

Daniel's Halupki, hot out of the oven, April 2011.

I arrived at Daniel's house just as he was pulling the halupki out of the oven and the smell was amazing-- assuming of course that you like the smell of sauerkraut, which luckily I do.  We didn't waste too much time chatting before we got down to the business of eating halupki.  I'm not sure if it was because I knew it was forbidden food, but it was incredible.  My bowl of halpuki also contained a surprise-- a porcupine!  I've had a lot of interesting meats in my day-- squirrel, guinea pig, snake, alligator-- there's not much I won't eat at least once.  But porcupine came as a bit of a shock.  At least until Daniel explained that that's what he calls the balls of extra filling baked in the sauce along with the halpuki.

I am a new convert to halupki fan club, but I must admit that I think I still like pirhoi just a little bit better.
Daniel's Halupki with Porcupine, April 2011.

Letter from Daniel Marlos, April 2011

Dear Susan Lutz,

I am thrilled that your press corp will be coming to supper today (between lunch and dinner).  The Mt Washington Slavik Bakery will be serving buckwheat Halupki with pickled cabbage leaves.  As you know, I pickled whole cabbage leaves when I made my last batch of sauerkraut.  My grandmother used to make Halupki or stuffed cabbage with pickled cabbage leaves for a more toothsome variation on an Eastern European classic.  Stuffed Cabbage recipes on the internet have been adapted for vegan palates by omitting the ground meat, but during Lent, Grandma Nanowsky often solved the meatless dilemma by using buckwheat.  Perhaps your readers will be amused that I took advantage of our friendship by calling you on the phone today to question the use of fat.  While I do not need to fast for Lent, we talked about the quandary of my using bacon grease as some of the requisite fat in this otherwise meatless recipe.

Filling Ingredients:

  • 2 cups buckwheat
  • 4-5 tablespoons fat of your choice
  • Large onion- chopped
  • Half a pound of fresh mushrooms- chopped
  • Porchini or other dried mushrooms reconstituted
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Caraway seeds
  • Chopped parsley
  • Sour cream, optional

  • Toss buckwheat with fat (bacon grease and corn oil) and roast in 350º oven until lightly browned.  Toss often to brown evenly.  Do not burn.
  • Transfer toasted buckwheat to a 2 quart Dutch oven to which 7-8 cups of water have been added.  Salt optional.  
  • Bake 375º for 45 minutes until water is absorbed.  Remove from oven and let sit.
  • Sauté a cup of onions and a cup of mushrooms each in their own lightly oiled cast iron skillet.  Do not burn.
  • Soak porchini mushrooms in water to reconstitute.  Chop porchini very fine.  Reserve mushroom water.
  • When buckwheat has sat for ten minutes, transfer to a large bowl.    
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add caraway seeds and parsley and mix thoroughly.  
  • Mix dried porchini, sauteed mushrooms, onions in one at a time and mix thoroughly.  
  • Shape into logs and wrap in pickled cabbage leaves  (See Daniel's recipe for sauerkraut for instructions).  Put the filling at the rib end of the leaf.  Fold sides over and roll.
As a note, this recipe makes way more filling than I needed.  I found a nice recipe for fried buckwheat in an old Ukrainian cookbook.  Shape buckwheat filling into patties.  Roll in bread crumbs and fry.  Serve  
with sour cream.  Though I have not tried this, I have plenty of leftover filling to experiment with.

Baking the Halupki

  • Start with Zaprashka (otherwise known as a roux).  
  • Put a layer of Halupki in the bottom of the 7 quart Dutch oven on top of the Zaprashka.  Continue layering until there are no more.  
  • Add Sauerkraut on top.  
  • Pour a 28 ounce can of whole tomatoes (broken with a wooden spoon) on top.  
  • I made a few porcupines as well, which are filling balls without cabbage leaf covers.  (When a traditional meat and rice filling is used, the rice pokes beyond the perimeter of the meatball and gives an impression of a porcupine.)  
  • Cover and bake an hour at 350º for one hour.
  • Serve with sour cream if desired.
~Daniel Marlos