Category Archives: Veg Box Chronicles

Tomato S…omething

Painted in Waterlogue

“We should make pulled pork,” she said. “There’s all that pork shoulder in the freezer.  And you should make favorite slaw from that cabbage.”

Ah. She wasn’t really jonesing for pulled pork; it was a ploy to use a young cabbage that had arrived in our CSA box. Still, I didn’t disagree. I never disagree with a request for pulled pork. But it was opening weekend for my new musical—which came directly on the heels of production week for my other new musical—so we didn’t make the time to make the pork. I’d do it early on a weekday, and give it all day to sit in the slow cooker.

Except, well, there wasn’t all that pork shoulder in the freezer. Or any pork shoulder. There was a package of ground pork; there were several packages of ground beef, and some steaks; there were chicken breasts—she’s been doing most of the grocery shopping lately, and has been stocking up when things are on sale. That’s why I also found 10 pounds of butter, and quite a bit of ice cream. I’m not complaining about any of this; I’m just reporting what I found. Six quarts of really good stock, and bags of bones, shrimp shells, and vegetable clippings from which we’ll make more one day. And, although there was a package of bacon, too, nothing in the freezer was pork shoulder.

I also took from the freezer an unfortunately unmarked container of something red. I don’t know if its label fell off or it had never been labeled, but after it thawed overnight in the fridge and I tasted it, I still wasn’t quite sure if it was tomato soup or tomato sauce. (If the former, it had been made without cream; if the latter, without meat.) It was going to be the basis for dinner, but I wasn’t sure whether to make grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta.

Then the CSA delivery came, bearing purple carrots, green peppers, red onions, and some tender young eggplants. I chopped a big pile of each and sweated them in a big skillet, and set a pot of water to boil.  When the vegetables were softened, I poured in the tomato-something in and let it simmer gently. There was some leftover sausage in the fridge, so I chopped and added it, along with a hunk of parmesan rind. If the red stuff had once been tomato soup, it would be soup no longer.

Dinner was wonderful. We haven’t had a bowl of pasta-with-sauce in quite a while. It felt like a treat.

Planning is good. Preparing is good. Stocking-up is great. Organizing the freezer once in a while is essential. Proper labeling is a fine and glorious thing. And figuring out what to do with a mysterious package—well, it might be better if there weren’t such mysteries, but the figuring-out was fun.

It’s Thursday, so the grocery store fliers will be in today’s mail. I’ve got a bunch of cole slaw, so I hope somebody’s running a special on pork shoulder.

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My Family’s Favorite* Pickles

 

A jar of our Fave Dill Pickles, before delivering them to a friend on Saturday night.

Some of my earliest memories as a little kid are from the vegetable garden at my grandparents’ house. It seemed as large as a football field to me, and the when our shadows started to get long in the grass, Gram would lead us cousins down the rows with an enormous colander.  We would pluck beans, peas, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and tomato for dinner – filling our tummies more quickly than the dinner basket, which was a great strategy to keep us from complaining of hunger.

 

My relatives preserved their own food the whole time I was growing up. Fresh food that we grew ourselves was tastier (and cheaper) than store-bought, so the pressure canners got passed around and everyone had a large collection of long-used and well-loved mason jars that got passed from house to house. I remember my mom carrying jar after jar of corn scraped fresh from the cob with small, bright pieces of red pepper down the stairs to our cellar while I sat at the kitchen table, well out of her way.

When I moved to the city on my own, I took on the work of hot-water-bath canning high acid foods on my own – sourced from pick-your-own orchards and farms, or the generous overflow from my hobby-farming uncles. By this point I’ve put up hundreds if not thousands of pints of tomato sauce, salsa fresca, spiced applesauce, apple butter, fruit jams, and sour dill pickles. The pickles are my absolute favorite.

I couldn’t tell you whose recipe this was to start with, but it’s pretty simple:

  • The night before canning begins, scrub your pickling cucumbers to remove dirt and the spiny groths from the nubbly outer skins. Toss the washed cukes into a colander in the fridge to dry.
  • The morning of canning, prep your cukes:
    • Slice off both ends
    • Sort the vegetables by size, and practice stuffing an empty jar, so you know how many of each size will fit into your jars.
  • Set up the hot water bath and sterilize jars, lids, and rings. While they are sterilizing,
  • Make a brine and bring it to a boil, following these ratios:
    • 1 cup of vinegar
    • 1 cup of water
    • 1 tbsp kosher salt
    • 1-1/2 tsp granulated sugar
  • Prep your seasonings. For each jar:
    • 1 head of fresh dill or 2 tsp of dried dill seeds
    • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
    • 1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
  • Once the jars are sterilized, remove them from the canner. Into each jar, place the seasonings, then the cucumbers, then ladle in the hot brine (leaving 1/2 inch of headroom). Seal the jars and dump them back in the water bath for 10 minutes. Let cool, check the lids for a vacuum seal, label with the date, and place them into a cool dark cupboard to mellow for at least six weeks.

 

*If I’m 100% honest I’ll admit that most of the family prefer sweet bread-and-butter pickles to the dill ones. I despise those fake pickles, so am calling these the favorites. 

Pendulums Swing: The Veg Box Chronicles

Last week I wrote that we hadn’t done much cooking or eating in two weeks. We have more than made up for that lack in the last week!

  • Last Monday, we cleaned out the fridge of as much about-to-be-too-far-past-prime-for-eating produce as we could for the Salmon Feta Soba Salad.
  • Tuesday we had dinner with friends in town and came home too late to do much with our veg box other than tuck it into the fridge. It contained:
    • 3 pints of Blueberries
    • 1 head of Cabbage
    • 3 pounds of Carrots
    • 20 pickling Cucumbers
    • 8 small Eggplants
    • 2 heads of Leaf Lettuce
    • 1 enormous bunch of Parsley
    • 3 green Peppers
    • 8 summer Squashes
  • Wednesday was a lovely night for cooking.
    • I combined two-thirds of the carrots with some onions and garlic from our pantry and roasted them for a carrot-tomato soup.
    • He used all of the Peppers plus most of the Eggplants and Squashes (plus onions and tomatoes from the pantry) to make a Disney-inspired Ratatouille., served over grits with a fried egg for dinner.
  • Thursday was a late night for him, so I enjoyed left-overs and started the annual summer scrubbing of the kitchen cabinets.
  • Friday was for preserving.
    • I turned the 2 largest Cucumbers into Amy Pennington’s sesame quick pickles and preserved the rest as my family’s Favorite Dill Pickles (3 beautiful pint jars of them).
    • While a set of salmon filets were grilling away outside, he tossed the last of the prior week’s Romano Beans into the pressure cooker as an adaptation of this recipe from the New York Times – and they remind me of a stewed tomato and french bean dish my grandmother used to serve when I was a little girl.
  • Saturday we went to a dinner party, bringing a jar of those lovely pickles as a hostess gift, and a tray of hoisin-glazed grilled shrimp for the appetizers.
  • Yesterday I assembled the carrot-tomato soup from Wednesday night’s carrot roast, made a tart from the prior week’s pint of Sour Cherries and the last handful of blueberries (plus one of the bags we froze on Tuesday night) – while he made a salad with the last of the prior week’s Kale, Friday’s quick pickles, and some peppers, tomatoes, and herbs to go with a grilled steak for dinner, and did all of the work for more homemade yogurt.

Sadly, the parsley did not survive its overnight in the fridge without water, but the cabbage has been reserved for a batch of coleslaw – we’ll make it tonight to have with pulled pork on Friday – and the lettuces are washed and dressed for bag lunch sandwiches this week. We still have some eggplant, squash, and carrots, along with some potatoes from the prior week. I’m hoping that the Potatoes will become Hasselbacks to go with next Friday’s dinner, and that the Eggplant will become a lovely dip to take with lunch as an afternoon snack. Carrots last for a while so I’m not worried about those, but I am fast out of ideas for Squash.

What have you been cooking? What would you do with 4 little summer squashes that aren’t zucchini?

Odd Little Heirlooms

“I bought some salmon,” she said, as we were talking about meals for this busy week. “And feta.” I didn’t realize at first that she was talking about smoked salmon, so I didn’t make the connection right away; I didn’t realize she was talking about a salad she makes from salmon, feta, and soba noodles. Having caught on, I was completely in favor. It’s not something I’d ever had before we met, but I like it a lot; Neither one of us, in fact, could remember making it since we’d moved into the Country House. So it was very definitely time.

When we started our life together, we brought lots of things from our pasts. We spent a fair amount of time comparing and deciding which to keep—or sometimes both, and occasionally neither. There are some things that each of us brought that delight the other. How I ever lived without a wide-mouthed funnel is a great mystery to me. She used to hate driving, but loves being behind the wheel of the Prius.

We both brought recipes, too. Some from our families—her aunt Donna’s Lemon Squares are not to be trifled with!—and some we’d collected ourselves. And some from—well, where did they come from?

Salmon-Feta-Soba Salad

Cook the soba noodles according to package directions—usually about 7 minutes. That’s planty of time flake the 6-oz package of smoked salmon and to crumble the feta if it didn’t come that way already, and to chop a bunch of parsley. If it’s been an especially rough July and the parsley in the kitchen garden has wilted from too much sun and too little care, don’t beat yourself up; seven minutes is still plenty of time to see what you can use instead. One of you can harvest some chives from the pot on the porch while the other chops a cucumber, a couple of carrots, some tomatoes, a rib of celery, and, what the heck, a fat handful of kale that you chop and put into a steamer over the pot of noodles.

Then, not at all long after, when the noodles have been drained, combine everything in a big salad bowl; add a pepper to taste—you won’t need salt, since the salmon and feta bring plenty. Squeeze some lemon juice overtop if you feel like it. Maybe drizzle a little olive oil, too—but, really, no dressing is required.

At some length, we figured it out: this is a recipe she’d been introduced to by somebody she once thought she’d marry. That relationship didn’t work out—and much to our eventual and current happiness. But it’s the only recipe she could think of that she kept from that relationship—an unusual keepsake. An odd little heirloom.

This salad can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. It’s hearty without being heavy; it’s nothing like any mayo-glopped pasta salad you’ve ever encountered. The bunch of parsley originally called for brings plenty of brightness; the assortment of vegetables I substituted were chosen for convenience and availability and because of the moisture they’d bring to balance the salty, fishy, buckwheat-y goodness brought by the original ingredients. But, really, use whatever you’ve got. If the tomatoes at hand are odd little heirlooms, they’ll be wonderful. But a handful of slightly-withered grape tomatoes from the supermarket will work, too.

Honor the past, be grateful for the present, look forward to the future.

Getting over the Blues

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Work has been full of headaches for both of us. Our vacation contained more stress than we expected, and, while we were away, our older cat’s health took a turn for the worse. (Trust me, “What’s your vet’s phone number?” is not a text message you want to read while you are getting dressed for a wedding.)

That’s not to say that all is sturm und drang around here. We love our work, even when it gives us headaches. We have terrific friends and family. The older cat is no longer with us, but that means she is no longer suffering—and it means that round-the-clock medication is no longer being administered; and the younger-now-only kitten is growing into her role as Cat of the House.

And we have the CSA.

Finding a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables on your doorstep is a wonderful thing. Washing, sorting, and putting away a week’s worth of vegetables after arriving home at 10 PM is a little less wonderful. We stowed the box of veg in the refrigerator to deal with tonight, when we’ll get home earlier. The box of fruit was light—three pints of blueberries. (I love blueberries, but three pints in a week is more than I can handle. Especially when we’ve still got one of last week’s two pints in the fridge.) She proposed freezing them in 1-cup portions. I liked the idea. I fed the cat, she started packaging berries.

But the little plastic tubs of berries had rattled around in the big cardboard box, and more than a few were bruised, so sorting was required. It was turning into a larger project than she’d hoped. Trying not to sound too complaining, she said, “Would you mark these with a date, please?”

I took her at her word.

Sometime this winter, we will be making muffins with “Dinner and a Movie,” “Picnic in Central Park,” “10,000 Steps in a Mall,” “Pancakes and Broadway,” or “HGTV and Chill.”

She looked at the bags and guffawed. Mission accomplished.

(Yes, I went back later and marked them with today’s date. I can be practical sometimes.)

Berries

The Veg Box Chronicles OR What You’ve Missed

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“There’s not enough creative spontaneity in my life,” I said. “I’ll take on a serialized writing project,” I said. I am reminded that “[Wo]man plans, and God laughs.”

We received a box for week three. It had good stuff in it, including a handful of garlic scapes that are still healthy and fresh-looking in their fridge hang-out. We cooked and ate well. A box for week four was delivered to our house, but we were away on vacation so our friends devoured the red and white cherries, fava beans, and plentiful greens. We rushed home early from our trip to a care for a very sick cat and didn’t think to eat food for three days, let alone check in with friends about what they ate while we were gone.

After a lengthy stay in the hospital, our oldest lady cat is somewhat more stable and resting comfortably at home between doses of her two strongly sedative anti-seizure medicines. Yesterday morning I ventured out to the grocery store to replenish some of what my sister calls our “weirdo foodie basics” like eggs, hummus, and lemon curd. And upon returning home, I found a pair of CSA boxes on the stoop.

The Take:

  • Carrots
  • Celtuce
  • Cherries, Red
  • Cherries, White
  • Cucumbers
  • Green Squash
  • Lettuce, Green
  • Lettuce, Red
  • Romano Beans
  • Spinach Greens
  • Spring Onions

Between jet lag, a dramatic inability to sleep for fear the kitty will hurt herself trying to get to us, and all of the post-traveling housework, recipe inventions are going to be light this week, but I have every intention of making these three dishes:

  • A quick bread stuffed with bananas, apples, and cherries;
  • A cherry clafoutis because I last made one in 2008, not long after I found the Smitten Kitchen blog;
  • A stir-fry using up the last leftover kielbasa from our Independence Day grilling, some garlic rice that our housesitters left in our fridge, and an assortment of vegetables: spring onions, carrot thinnings, garlic scapes, a firm green squash, a bit of shredded spinach. (I’ll make a sauce like this one, flavored with herbs from the garden.)

That covers tonight and tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be more rested or the cat will be content with less cuddle time by the weekend when it’s time to make a few jars of my spiced pickles. If so, it would be nice to try a simple onion soup or this recipe for Romano Beans with Stewed Tomatoes (since I picked up a package of bulgur at the market). Our yields are growing ever more cost effective, but I don’t want a single thing to go to waste this week.

  • Amortized weekly cost of CSA = $53
  • Additional produce purchased = $6.47
    • Cremini Mushrooms (8 ounces, $2.49)
    • Limes (4, $1.00)
    • Romaine Hearts (package of 3, $1.47)
    • Sweet Corn (2 ears, $0.18)
    • Tomato (1 large, $1.33)

No-fault Pasta

Painted in Waterlogue

A friend of ours got married on Sunday.

Another friend didn’t.

You get the idea, I think: those two friends once expected to be married to each other, and that marriage did not come to pass. Their relationship is not the point of this story; what is the point is that the friend who wasn’t putting on a tux this weekend wanted to have other things to think about than the friend who was putting on a pretty dress. We picked him up near relatives we were visiting and brought him home with us.

It was a perfect Sunday for a road trip: not too hot, not too humid, and lots of traffic. That might not seem like a good thing, but it gave my navigator an excuse to show her skills. We spent most of the day on back roads and small state routes that avoided the blockages and gave us much prettier scenery.

We stopped for lunch at a terrific—and uncrowded—place in a town I didn’t know anything about, and enjoyed grinders, salads, fish and chips and clam chowder, with a little Food Network in the background on the bar TV. We stopped at an outlet mall and did a little shopping, amusing ourselves greatly at the gender-stereotype-busting of the girl buying far less than the guys. Unfortunately, the stereo speakers I’d been looking for were out of stock. (Side note: Honey, I just ordered them from Amazon.)

By the time we got home and met the hungry cats, we were hungry, too, but not for anything big and heavy. And, remember, it was Sunday night—a veg box will arrive Tuesday morning, and there were still plenty of things in the crisper. While she made up the guest room, I chatted with our guest and made dinner. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but there was no question that it would contain plenty of vegetables. Sometimes you just have to start cooking and figure it out along the way.

No-Fault Pasta

Clearing out the crisper, discover:
1/2 lb. green beans
1/3 lb. asparagus
4 small cucumbers
half a bag of baby carrots brought home from someone’s lunch
4 oz. Baby Bella mushrooms
half a bunch of celery
1 celtuce
1 or 2 garlic scapes (Note that there are more, but that common decency suggests their judicious use–and that they still look plenty sturdy. Plan to regret this decision if next week’s box contains more.)

Elsewhere in the fridge, find:
A jar of chive vinegar
4 oz. chive-and-spinach pesto
a big hunk of parmesan cheese
a container of bite-sized mozzarella balls.

From the freezer, retrieve
4 oz. bulk Italian sausage

On the counter, catch sight of:
half a tub of week-old grape tomatoes, their skin just starting to wrinkle
the bottle of rosemary simple syrup used to sweeten the iced tea you took upstairs to the room-straightener.

From the pantry, retrieve:
A box of fettuccini

Note also the bounty of dill and oregano in the herb-garden-basket hung by the kitchen window.

Set a pot of salted water to boil.

Slice the cucumbers into a bowl, tossing with a couple teaspoons of the vinegar, a splash of rosemary simple syrup, and a couple of sprigs of dill from the kitchen garden.

Open a bottle of red wine; pour each of you a glass. Toast to friends, and to happiness. 

Rinse and trim the asparagus and green beans; cut them into bite-size pieces and toss in a big bowl. Don’t bother to dry them; instead, put a paper towel over the bowl; microwave 90 seconds to just-barely-steam the vegetables. Drain and set aside.

In a skillet over medium heat, brown the sausage; drain and remove.

Peel the celtuce as you would a broccoli stem; slice into coins about 1/4 inch thick. Taste raw, noting that it really does have a little celery flavor, but is much denser–almost like a water chestnut. Set aside.

When the water boils, add the fettuccini, stirring occasionally. (The clock is now ticking: finish everything else by the time the pasta cooks).

Dice an onion, which you’ve dispatched your guest to retrieve from the pantry-in-the-garage. Sauté it and a couple stalks of celery in a little olive oil until the onion is barely translucent. Finely slice the garlic scape and add it, along with the beans and asparagus; since they’re mostly cooked, the point is just to get everything combined without browning too much. Slice the baby carrots and add them; they’ll still be mostly crunchy when you’re done. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the wine. Clean and slice the mushrooms, but if your guest isn’t a fan of them, sauté them alone in a small skillet. (This is why stoves have several heating elements.)

Hand a hunk of cheese, the grater, and a collecting bowl to your guest.

Halve the grape tomatoes. When the sautéed vegetables are almost tender, add them to the skillet, along with the celtuce coins and the sausage. Toss to combine, then reduce the heat to low. Add 3 or 4 tbsp of the pesto to the center of the pan, but just let it sit on top to warm gently.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the cooking water, and divide into serving bowls.

Add a splash of the pasta water to the skillet; give everything a gentle toss to combine; taste and adjust seasoning, then spoon the seriously veggie sauce over the pasta. Add mushrooms or not. Sprinkle some fresh oregano on top, then let each diner add cheese to taste. Serve with the quick-pickled cucumbers.

Serves 3, who will be happy enough that everyone will forget about dessert.

If you’ve read more than one Dinner at the Country House post, you know perfectly well that this is not so much a recipe as a story about an adventure shared with others. If there had been chicken instead of sausage, I would have happily used that; if there had been no pesto, I might have used soy sauce and made rice instead of noodles. If any of a great many things had been different, I might have written about a wedding feast a couple years ago, rather than a not-wedding dinner last night, or served four instead of three, or gone to the movies by myself. It’s nobody’s fault. This is what happened. This is how we made the best of it. This is how we spent the day. This is how life goes on.

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