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

Sweetening Sorrow

Our beautiful, loving, feisty old girl left us forever last week. We miss her dreadfully, but are grateful that she's no longer in pain.

Part of grieving our friend has meant not eating very well (or very much), and being not at all creative with food. Last week's CSA delivery included pickling cucumbers that have not yet been pickled, squashes that have not yet been squashed, and lots of kale and lettuces that have been chopped and added to dishes that have gone mostly uneaten. We've pledged to take better care of ourselves this week, and have already started by drinking some of our nutrients, via smoothies.

I'm not much of a health foodie. Juice bars are not my thing. But I love milkshakes and things resembling them – like Starbucks frappucino. He's a bit more conscious of feeding me good-for-you ingredients than just milk + ice + fruit purée, so has been experimenting with ingredient combinations. Today's train-ride take-along is a tangy, tart-sweet blend of:

  • Banana
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam (homemade)
  • Greek Yogurt (homemade)
  • Honey
  • Ice

After some trial and error, we found that fruit purée is a more reliable punch of flavor than whole fruit chunks, so I made up two bottles* of it on Sunday night.

Fruit Purée (adapted from Giada De Laurentis' recipe)

  1. Make a ginger-rosemary simple syrup: combine 3 tbsp chopped ginger, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until every grain of sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Remove from heat, add a 3" sprig of rosemary to the pot, cover, and let stand until cool. Strain the solids, reserving the liquid in a jar.
  2. Place 3/8 cup of ginger-rosemary syrup in a food processor with a pound of fresh fruit. (I used strawberries and pineapple.) Pulse until beautifully smooth; ladle into jars.

It took more time to wash the food processor (twice) than it did to make the purées, and they feel like decadent ingredients. Totally worth it.

* He claims that getting the purée out of slender-necked bottles is more trouble than it's worth. Next time I'll store it in jars.

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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#EatWhatYouGrow: Rhubarb

I have been thrilled about this particular spring, with its chilly mornings and the need for jackets all the way til the first of June. The bleeding hearts, forsythia, hosta, hydrangea, ivy, and rhubarb in my garden have been busting out new leaves and vines and blossoms (where appropriate) everywhere. But with a few truly scorching days wilting my new bean shoots and the potted tomato plants on the deck this last week, it’s obvious that rhubarb season is drawing rapidly to a close. In the space between a few rain drops, I harvested the last of my stalks yesterday afternoon; the woodchuck who lives in a den burrowed into the stone cliff behind our house can have the little nubbins that are left.

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6 tender stalks of rhubarb, the last of our harvest for 2017

But what to do with them? We’ve already made:

  • Rhubarb Compote (with a few extra bits of fruit he likes thrown into the pot for other flavors), spooned over his birthday breakfast waffles;
  • Rhubarb Scones, with every imaginable spread, several weekends in a row;
  • Rhubarb Snacking Cake, because I trust every recipe Deb Perlman has written, especially those she describes as easy;
  • Rhubarb Honey Sorbet, specially made for some loved ones diet-managing their diabetes;
  • Chocolate Chip Rhubarb Banana Bread, because (1) those bananas were going to turn into bread on their own if we didn’t use them, and (2) he ridiculously maintains that banana bread should always have chocolate chips in it.
  • Strawberry Rhubarb Jam, described earlier this week.

All chopped, the yield was only about a cup of minced pieces, which I knew would cook down to just about nothing.

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A *very* scant cup of chopped rhubarb.

All of the recipes that looked interesting to me require more than that, so I had to get creative. Verdict: another Smitten Kitchen gem, Rhubarb Varied Fruits Cream Cheese Hand Pies.

He made the pie crust. (I have zero knack for it, even though this particular recipe is foolproof.) I made the cream cheese filling. I made the rhubarb filling. And when I had more than twice as much cream cheese filling as rhubarb, I made another filling from blueberries and apricot. And after several hours in the fridge, and over several more hours of do-a-little-work-then-chill-everything-back-down…

The rhubarb filling was just enough to fill 6 little pies, and they looked pretty sweet both before and after baking. (That pastry recipe really is amazing.)

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And the blueberry version became another story. Realizing how much blueberry-apricot filling and cream cheese filling I was going to have left over, I opted for something different. I rolled out the remaining pie crust for an attempt at my first ever tart with something like a pastry cream filling. I used a small, deep Corningware casserole dish rather than a shallow tart pan, layered the cheese and then the berries into the pastry, and attempted a “rustic fold over edge” that collapsed in on itself in the oven. It’s far from the prettiest thing I’ve ever made, and he cut into it for our dessert last night before I could take a picture, but oh my word was it tasty.

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Dessert: a rustic” blueberry-apricot-cream cheese tart

So, rhubarb season is over. Not only did we not waste a single stalk of what we grew, every bite was delicious. This is year three of growing things-humans-can-eat in our little garden, year one of using up every bit of any one ingredient, and year one of loving everything we cooked with it. That’s a very particular kind of success.

 

The Veg Box Chronicles, Week 2

There was more kohlrabi this week.

I probably don’t despise this poor, water-chestnut-type tuber thing as much as I think I do, but I have been filled with commuter rage all week and whatever patience I once held to, tenuously, has long since been squeezed to nothingness in my clenched fists.

I chucked the kohlrabi into the compost bin, hard enough to knock it over.

And of course, the kitten went to town in her new playground of coffee grounds, broken eggshells, and disgusting vegetables that look like toy cat balls with legs.

Neither of those things happened, but imagining them made me laugh, so that’s something. And this week’s CSA share was something else:

  • 1 bok choi
  • 1 celtuce
  • 4 small cucumbers
  • 1 handful of garlic scapes
  • 1 bunch of kale
  • 1 bunch of white radishes
  • 4 small zucchini
  • and, ugh, 2 kohlrabi

Tuesday night, he made a veggie-licious dinner. He grated all four of the zucchini into long, wide noodles, along with a pair of carrots from the crisper drawer, and tossed them with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce and white sesame seeds, then arranged them on a plate with a little quick-pickled cucumber along the side. For the protein, he laid a gorgeous piece of salmon on top, and topped it with another of the spring onions from last week’s share, which he split lengthwise; both were basted with Hoisin sauce.

After the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, we finished the last steps of a batch of particularly awesome Strawberry Rhubarb Jam. It’s a remarkably easy recipe for people who can stick to a schedule, which we can do very occasionally:

  1. Quarter 4 cups of strawberries. In a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl, combine them with 1 cup of finely chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of sugar, stirring well to distribute the sugar evenly. Cover the bowl and let sit, stirring occasionally.
  2. 8 hours later…
    Pour the mixed fruit into a pot and place it over medium-high heat until the liquid released by the fruit begins to boil. Stir in 1/4 cup of lemon juice and let the mixture return to a boil. At that point, set a timer for 5 minutes and stir continuously, adjusting the heat to keep the temperature high without allowing it to boil over. When the timer beeps, cover the pot, remove it from the heat, and let it sit.
  3. 24 hours later…
    Set the pot back on the stove over medium-high heat and bring it to a rolling boil. Set a timer for five minutes and stir continuously. When the timer beeps, ladle the jam into sterilized jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

    Yield: 5 scant half-pint jars, if your husband sneaks some of the fruit out of the pot between boils, to make a dessert sauce.

Tonight’s dinner will be burritos (scratch that: burrito bowls, since the tortillas are past edible), made with last week’s lettuce; pulled-chicken and -pork leftovers from last night’s BBQ dinner out, combined with a few bites of skirt steak from earlier in the week; fresh avocado; and a salsa that’s about to be put together from two ears of roasted corn (nearly forgotten in the crisper), a roasted bell pepper, a roasted jalapeno pepper, the last spring onion, a small handful of chopped cherry tomatoes, and a small lime.

We haven’t figured out what to do with the rest of our haul yet, but I’ll share it when we do. In the meantime, our cost breakdown:

  • Amortized weekly cost of CSA = $53
  • Additional produce purchased = $7.14
    • Avocado (1, $1.49)
    • Green Bell Pepper (0.58 lbs, $1.15)
    • Jalapeno (0.10 lbs, $0.35)
    • Lime (1, $0.15)
    • Strawberries (2 pounds, $4.00)

By the way, it turns out he likes the bok choi after all–at least when it’s been sauteed with a little olive oil and a bit more of the Hoisin sauce, and tossed with a little leftover rice, and maybe a little leftover turkey. We still haven’t figured out what to do with kohlrabi, but bok choi definitely gets a star at lunchtime.

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