Archive for Ingredients

Lovely leftovers: pasties!

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My great-great-great grandmother Mary Ann Hawkey was a tin-dresser in the Cornwall mines when she was a child. Her whole family worked in the mines, and as far as I can tell, their ancestors had been tin miners since anyone thought to write these things down.

The Cornish tin miners’ great culinary claim to fame is the pasty (pronounced like “past” as in “past tense”). It’s just a turnover, filled with meat and vegetables, easy to eat down in the mines.

Now, I’ll be branded a heretic for saying so, but you can fill a pasty with anything. Leftovers are perfect. And you can use any kind of dough to make a pasty — leftover bread dough, pie crust, whatever you like.

For these, I used some sourdough I had in the fridge, filled with leftover beef stew (cooked down a bit to reduce the liquid). Perfect lunch!

(Reminds me of another perfect, simple meal a few years ago.)

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Victory: gluten-free bread with no weird gums in it.

bread

Since so many people have trouble with gluten these days, I’ve been trying to learn about gluten-free baking. There are some good resources out there (Gluten Free Girl is great), but the recipes usually include things I don’t have in my kitchen, like xanthan gum and guar gum, and lots of obscure starches.

Gluten-free bread is supposed to be impossible without these slimy, gummy additives: they create the structure that allows the bread to rise. Hmmm. I know something else that’s real slimy. Why not try to use the slime in flax seed instead?

Today I made gluten-free bread with ingredients I already had around the kitchen. And it’s good! It tastes good! It looks like bread, it tastes like bread, it has no gluten in it, and it was easy to make.

Since it was my first try and I wasn’t really expecting it to work, I just made a small loaf and didn’t measure very well, but here’s the gist of what I did:

Whip up a few (I think it was two or three) leftover egg whites with two small eggs. Add about a half a cup of milk, some salt (maybe 1/2 tsp? maybe a bit more?), and a little dry yeast (again, maybe 1/2 tsp). Whip again.

Grind up about half a cup of flaxseeds in the blender. Whisk them into the egg-milk mixture. Let them sit for a few minutes to get nice and slimy.

In the meantime, grind up about the same amount of millet in the blender. Add it to the flax-egg-milk mixture. Let it sit for a few minutes to absorb.

Now mix in somewhere between 1/2 and 1 cup of tapioca flour. The dough should be wetter than a non-gluten bread dough, but it should be nice and sticky and stretchy from the eggs and flax.

Let it rise in a warmish place for, say, 45 minutes.

Put it in a small greased breadpan, muffin tin, or other baking dish, and let it rise for, oh, maybe half an hour.

Bake at 450 for about half an hour, or until it’s nice and brown and smells good and sounds hollow when you tap the bottom.

Happy new year!

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Fall treasures: hickory nuts.

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There was a lovely hickory harvest here this fall. We got almost a bushel. That’s very unusual in my experience — the squirrels usually get to them first.

I used to race the squirrels for them when I was little. Sometimes the little buggers would throw the nuts at me, and wouldn’t you know — the ones they threw were always wormy!

As you might have guessed, hickory nuts are my favorite nuts. They’re light and sweet and go well with most things.

We have a lot of nutcracking ahead of us.

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Fall color: beans.

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All in all, I think we ended up with twelve bean varieties, though some didn’t do so well in the face of marauding deer.

We only grew a bit of each variety, just to see what works best in our garden’s mesoclimate (that’s the boy’s new favorite word, there).

The varieties:
bottom row, left to right
Jacob’s Cattle Beans, Hidatsa Red Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Black Turtle Beans
middle “row”
Ireland Creek Annie Beans, Yellow Indian Woman Beans, Good Mother Stallard Beans
bread pan
October Beans
top row
Marfax Beans, Tiger Eye Beans
not pictured
True Red Cranberry Beans, Fagiolo Rampicante di Spagna a Grano Bianco (fat white italian/spanish runner beans)

So far, my favorites are the Italian white beans (so fat and meaty), the Tiger Eyes (so creamy), and the True Red Cranberries (so incredibly tasty). I have yet to taste them all, though.

The most productive varieties in our Zone 6, deer- and horseweed-challenged, southwest-facing clay were: Good Mother Stallard, October, Cherokee Trail of Tears, and Black Turtle.

Because we didn’t grow too many beans, we shelled them by hand. But that can be tedious. There are many creative ways to thresh beans. The National Gardening Association has some good basic instructions.

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Pippin season: hunting wild apples.

wild apples

A pip is a seed, and a pippin is an apple tree grown from a seed.

What’s so special about an apple tree grown from a seed? Well, for one thing, every time an apple seed sprouts and grows a tree, it makes a new apple variety that’s never existed before.* Really. All those Granny Smiths (or Yellow Transparents or Wolf Rivers, etc.) are clones of one original tree, grown from cuttings grafted onto different rootstocks.

So every fall, the boy and I go traipsing around old fields, tasting all the pippins we can find. It’s quite an apple education — every sort of texture and flavor you can imagine. This year, we found an especially good one in the high pasture behind our house. It’s a little green apple with a really bright flavor. To my taste, it was perfect for eating right at the end of August — crisp and tart and just sweet enough (I like my apples on the acid side). This week it’s a lot sweeter, but a little less crisp — it would be perfect for cider. (Now if we can just hunt up a cider press to borrow…)

Good places for pippin hunting:

Old pastures
Old hedgerows
Old housesites
Old farm roads

If you find a pippin you really like, you can take home a cutting and graft it onto another tree. (Call your local apple grower to help, or go to a “fruit school” like this one, held in Asheville last spring.)

* Remember Johnny Appleseed? All those pippins he planted? Most of them wouldn’t have been any good for eating. He was planting them for cider — for hard cider. They left that bit out of the girl scout song!

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This is what a good egg looks like.

goodegg.JPGThis is a good egg. A tasty egg. A nutritious egg.

See how the yolk is practically orange?

That’s because the chicken pecked all around in grass and weeds, eating bugs and plants and whatever it could scratch on 8 acres of pasture down the road at the Greenville Garden.

There’s just no comparing this kind of egg to the pale imitation you get from a confined chicken, even an organic one. You don’t need laboratory tests to tell you that these eggs are miles better. You can see it. You can taste it.

This little egg was destined for rice fritters.

I’m trying to use up last year’s garden vegetables that are still in the freezer. Frozen (thawed) grated zucchini is perfect for rice fritters. (You can also use just about any kind of vegetable leftovers — rice fritters are versatile!)

First, squeeze the water out of the zucchini (save it for soups and rice and such).

Mix the zucchini with rice and enough egg to hold it all together. (You may need to add a little flour if your rice isn’t very sticky.)

Add salt and spices — I like chopped garlic and a bit of hot paprika.

To fry the fritters, get a heavy pan (preferably cast-iron) thoroughly hot over medium heat, and add some oil or fat (I use our home-rendered lard). Spoon the batter into the pan, and wait until the fritters are set before you try to turn them. Cook them until they’re nicely browned on both sides.

I love these fritters with yogurt-garlic sauce. But then, I love just about everything with yogurt-garlic sauce. (Yogurt-garlic sauce is easy: just add chopped or pounded garlic to some yogurt and salt to taste. It’s especially wonderful with goat or sheep yogurt.)

Happy frittering!

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Spring greens: bamboo shoots.

bambooshoots.JPGThis month’s herbal blog party theme is “Spring Greens,” hosted by Darcey.

This spring I happen to be living next to a massive bamboo windbreak. Now, this is not something I would have planted myself — bamboo is overwhelmingly invasive and pretty much impossible to control — but since it’s established here, we’re doing our best to control it by eating the shoots!

These bamboo shoots are not like the ones you find in cans at the store. First of all, they have a lovely fresh, almost pea-like flavor. They’re also hollow in the center — you slice them into pretty little circles.

To harvest fresh bamboo shoots, just break them off at the ground when they’re about a foot tall. Peel off the tough skin, and slice. Most recipes call for soaking overnight or parboiling to remove bitterness and potential toxins, though our bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata) is not bitter at all.

We’ve loved ours in miso soup and in stir-fries, and I’ve been pickling them too.

Yesterday I made a half-gallon of spicy Indian-style bamboo pickle. It’s hot and tart and crunchy — wonderful with flatbread or papadums.

Now, I didn’t really measure anything, but this is the basic gist of what I did:

Harvest, slice, and parboil bamboo shoots. Drain.

Saute a bunch of whole or almost-whole (if they’re big) garlic cloves in a good amount of oil. (Mustard oil is traditional, but you could use a neutral liquid oil like sunflower oil or non-roasted sesame oil if you need to.)

Add a whole lot of hot pepper, a bunch of mustard, some black pepper, a bit of asafoetida, plenty of salt, and other spices to taste. (I used some cinnamon, cumin, and fenugreek.)

Add the bamboo shoots, some sliced lemon, and enough lemon juice to make it nice and sour. (The liquid surrounding the bamboo shoots should be thick, but not too stiff. Cook it down or add more oil, lemon juice, or water if you need to. It should be pretty oily.)

Taste. Adjust the spices and the texture. (Keep in mind that the flavors will mellow as the pickle sits.)

Bottle.

Let it sit at least overnight.

Enjoy!

Tips:

The pickle will keep in the fridge for a long time if you make sure there’s always a film of oil covering the top.

If you want to can your pickle, you should probably use a pressure canner — I’m not sure it’s acidic enough for a water bath.

Next: The nature of bamboo, and a very different pickle.

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Commonsense eating: grains of energy.

loaf.JPGThere’s nothing so controversial these days as a loaf of bread.

Is it the staff of life?

The harbinger of fat?

A miracle of fermentation?

A veritable gluten-laced poison?

Are grains even fit for human consumption? How can we untangle this mess?

Humans are omnivores. We eat all kinds of food. We eat animals, we eat plants. And we eat the seeds of plants.

Something like 10,000 years ago, humans in various parts of the world developed an intimate relationship with grass plants. We began to cultivate them (or they began to cultivate us) for the sake of their energy-rich seeds.* In Mexico, the grass was corn (maize). In Turkey, wheat and barley. In China and India, rice.

Elaborate food cultures grew up around these grass seeds. In South India, rice is ground and fermented to make dosas and idlis. In Mexico, corn is soaked and simmered with lime or wood ash to make nixtamal for tortillas. Traditional Turkish flatbread is made with a long-fermented sourdough. Each culture revered its central grain, often as a goddess. Think of Ceres/Demeter in the Mediterranean, the Aztec Chicomecoatl. In South India, Lakshmi is associated with rice.

Sounds perfectly lovely, doesn’t it? So why are people worried about grains?

Well, first of all, we don’t seem to revere grains much these days. We used to grind them between two stones; now it’s high temperature, high speed steel roller mills (goodbye enzymes and vitamins). We used to eat whole or roughly polished grains; now our industrial machinery can remove every “extraneous” bit of fiber and color. We used to soak and ferment our grains; now we don’t have time for that sort of thing.

Complex traditional recipes have been supplanted by industrial processes. There’s a serious difference between packaged “sourdough” bread (whipped up in a matter of minutes with rapid rise yeast and a dash of vinegar) and the real thing, which needs a full day or two of fermentation before baking. There’s a serious difference between a bag of “tortilla” chips (ground up corn fried in vegetable oil) and tortillas made from real nixtamal, fried in natural lard.

Those old slow recipes weren’t backwards technology. The old processes make the food more digestible, the nutrients more accessible. (Oh, and they make the food taste better too.)

So, we eat all our grains the old-fashioned way and we’ll be fine, right?

Not quite so fast.

Grains are a high-energy (carbohydrate) food, but they don’t give us too much in the way of protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Most of us use a lot less energy than our ancestors did. (How many of your ancestors sat around staring at an inanimate object all day?)

A diet too heavy on grains can leave us swimming in energy, but still hungry for the nutrients we’re missing. That doesn’t work out so well. Eat a high-energy, low-nutrient diet for long enough, and you’ll end up depleted and insulin-resistant. Trust me, you don’t want that.

So what’s to be done?

First, remember what I said before: The food that’s good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another person. Any “advice” I give is to be taken with your own personal salt shaker.**

That said, here’s my take on the grain situation:

1. Always eat grains with more nutrient-dense foods. (Butter your bread!)

2. If you don’t lead an active life, don’t eat too much grain.

3. Respect your ancestors — eat traditionally prepared grain foods.

4. Avoid highly processed grain-based “food products” (fat-free / low-fat crackers and chips are the worst).

Whew!

Feel like baking some lovely old-fashioned bread now? Jim Lahey’s recipe (as told by Mark Bittman) is the best place to start. It’s exceedingly simple, you don’t have to knead anything, and it makes incredible, crusty, flavorful bread. All you need is a heavy, oven-safe pot. (The recipe uses white flour, but you can use whole-grain. I’d start with a mix of half and half, though, at least until you get the hang of it.)

Don’t forget the butter!

* Here’s a summary of the various theories about how and why humans started farming. The latest (and my favorite) suggests co-evolution of humans and plants, each adapting to the needs of the other. (And yes, I know, grains are technically fruits rather than seeds. I just like to call them seeds — it’s more poetic, somehow.)

** In my work as an herbalist, I’ve come across people who are so sensitive to carbohydrates that they can’t eat any grain at all, even old-fashioned grain. These people find that even a small serving of grain puts them on a blood sugar roller-coaster that leads to weight gain and all sorts of health problems. How do you know if you’re one of these people? Try it out. Stop eating grains (and sweets) for a while. See how you feel.

(Geeky aside: I have noticed that many of these highly carbohydrate-sensitive people were bottle-fed babies. I think there might be a connection. Here’s a bit of rat-research food for thought.)

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Thanksgiving, season of schmaltz.

This morning I was re-reading the (very timely and very wise) discussion of bird-roasting in a cookbook I usually love. But this time I noticed something that made me gasp and smack the page. The sentence began: “Remove and discard the lump of fat…”

Discard the lump of fat?!?! Is she crazy? Schmaltz is the most wonderful stuff. To discard it is absolutely ridiculous. (How very American, really, to remove and discard the lump of fat. The most nutritious, energy-rich part. The most flavorful part. To throw away the fat of the land. Such a waste, such a waste!)

Okay, okay, I’m done channeling the Ashkenazi grandmas of the world.

I’m just here to remind you that poultry fat is lovely stuff. If you’re roasting a bird this Thanksgiving, you should save its fat in a little jar in your refrigerator. You can use it to sauté vegetables, to flavor beans, to enrich sauces, to enliven soups… anyplace that wants a bit of tasty poultry richness. (And who wouldn’t want that?)

Just pour the extra fat off the juices in your roasting pan. And save the fat from the broth you make with the bones. And that little lump of fat inside the bird? You can leave it on if you like, and it will melt as the bird roasts. Or you can cut it off and render it as you would any other fat. Just please don’t throw it away, okay?

Happy Thanksgiving!

In case you’re geeky about fatty-acids (like I am), here are the details on all kinds of schmaltz (USDA data for 1 tablespoon of each):

Chicken fat: 2.7g polyunsaturated; 5.7g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

Duck fat: 1.7g polyunsaturated; 6.3g monounsaturated; 4.3g saturated.

Goose fat: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 7.3g monounsaturated; 3.5g saturated.

Turkey fat: 3g polyunsaturated; 5.5g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

And for reference…

Olive oil: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 9.9g monounsaturated; 1.9g saturated.

Butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.

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