Archives for the month of: April, 2012

Dear Readers,

Today they are voting for the best cake over at Movita Beaucoup. My Mexican Chocolate Beet Cake is in Group Three. You might not think it is the best cake there, but if you are a cake fan you might enjoy looking at the displays of cakeness. Here’s what Movita had to say:

“A vote for Sharyn is a vote for art. And a vote against using red food colouring to create a trend that is way stupid.”

Don’t you like the way she talks?

painting depicts Mexican chocolate beet cake and ingredients.

Mexican Chocolate Beet Cake. 8" x 8" Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

There are four groups of cakes at Movita’s, with links to blogs, photos, stories, so if you just need to look at cake right now get on over there.

I’ll be back with some kind of non-cake seasonal food and a new painting on Wednesday before midnight.

Thanks, as always, for reading The Kale Chronicles.

– Sharyn

P.S. The voting is closed now. The prize went to a sweet little cake made by one of Movita’s ballet students, flanked by heart-shaped notes from the others. Thank you for every vote for art and for beet chocolate cake. Movita has decided to make this an annual event, so you can get your cake on next year if you want.

Painting depicts tray of nazook, a filled Armenian pastry.

Nazook. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

The Daring Bakers’ April 2012 challenge, hosted by Jason at Daily Candor, were two Armenian standards: nazook and nutmeg cake. Nazook is a layered yeasted dough pastry with a sweet filling, and nutmeg cake is a fragrant, nutty coffee-style cake.

Now that the required opening paragraph is out of the way, I’ll tell you about the baking. Although I was excited to see two baked goods that I had never heard of, I was distressed when I read the ingredients: both recipes contain an awful lot of butter and sugar. I decided that nazook was the lesser of the two evils, nudged by the fact that Mom generally likes yeasted pastries and doesn’t like cakey coffee cakes.

I made a half-recipe of nazook pastry dough as instructed:

Nazook Pastry Dough

Stir together 1 packet of dry yeast (not proofed) and 1 and 1/2 cups sifted flour.

Cut in 1 stick (8 oz.) of soft butter.

Stir in 1/2 cup sour cream (I made mine from the cream leftover from last week’s strawberry shortcake, soured with a teaspoon or so of buttermilk)

Knead until well-mixed.

Wrap and refrigerate overnight — I left mine in a metal mixing bowl, and secured a tea towel over it with a rubber band.

Then make the filling. Right. The traditional nazook filling given was full of flour, sugar and more butter, but Jason did say you could fill it with anything but chocolate and he even gave the chocolate lovers a dispensation to use that. I couldn’t bring myself to make it. Instead, I made some rustic almond paste by pounding 1 cup of granulated sugar with two cups of raw almonds in a mortar and pestle and adding 1 tsp each of vanilla and almond extract. Almond paste takes egg white and the pastry called for egg wash made from an egg yolk, so I added 1 egg white to the almond paste just before I filled the pastries.

The next morning I was in the kitchen before breakfast to divide the dough in half and to roll each half into a long, thin rectangle. The pastry resisted rolling and I had to work quite hard and patiently to get the long rectangle. After you get the rectangle rolled out, you spread the filling on it and roll it up long side to long side — the opposite of how you would make cinnamon rolls. Flatten the roll slightly with your hands, brush it with egg wash, which also helps seal the edges and cut it into smaller pieces. I cut eight from each roll — I could have cut ten from the first one. The second “half” of the dough proved to be a little smaller.

But you see, I can’t leave anything alone. When I saw that the almond paste was running a bit low after the first batch, I quickly cut up some dried apricots and soaked them in a little hot water. I mixed those in with the remaining almond paste for the second batch. I had trimmings left from the ends of each roll and some edges that I squared up, so I rolled those into a small rectangle, cracked some walnuts, spread this dough with a tablespoon of butter, a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon and some walnut pieces.

Place filled pastries on baking sheet. Bake at 350 for about twenty-five minutes

The results: Nazook turns out to be a tender pastry, dark and shiny from the egg wash. Our favorite filling turned out to be the last one: butter, sugar, cinnamon and walnuts, but I liked the almond paste with apricots, too, and my sister-in-law liked the ones with the almond paste. Next time I would make classic almond paste, by blanching the almonds, mixing them with confectioners’ sugar, egg whites and extracts and grinding it all in the blender.

Proper almond paste:

Blanch 1 and 1/2 cups almonds by boiling them in water for a few minutes. Drain, cool slightly and slip off the skins with your fingers.

Sift 1 and 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

Add 1 egg white and 1 tsp almond extract.

Blend all ingredients in blender until combined.

Food notes: I wish I had had some cream cheese, quark or cottage cheese in the house because I think Nazook would be lovely with a sweetened cream cheese (or ricotta) filling. I might try mixing dried cherries into almond paste as well since I liked the apricot-almond combination. Because the dough for Nazook contains no sugar and produces tender pastry, I am tempted to try making savory pastries with it some time, using mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, chard and cheese.

painting shows a Mexican chocolate beet bundt cake with birthday banner.

Mexican Chocolate Beet Cake. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Sometimes I think I am wacko. Having gotten up to roll and fill Nazook, an Armenian pastry, before breakfast, I lingered in the kitchen to make a cake for someone who isn’t here and isn’t going to be here — isn’t a definition of whacked doing things at the behest of people who aren’t there?

Let me explain. There is this blogger who goes by the name of Movita Beaucoup. She challenged all comers to bake her a birthday cake and send her a photo by midnight. She promised us prizes. If you are reading this before 10 PM on Friday you still have time to get in on the action: just bake a cake and submit a photo of it to Miss Movita by midnight in your time zone.

Anyway, cakes are not my thing. How many times in the life of this blog have I said I prefer pie to cake? Many. I like to bake. I like to bake bread and pie and pastry as long as it is not too fiddly. But I couldn’t resist baking a cake for Miss B. because she makes me laugh and because she has said that someday she would like to own a Kale Chronicles painting. Besides, she writes about running from bears and worrying that the bathtub will fall through the floor.

When I met Movita (Well, I haven’t actually met her) here in the blogosphere she was carrying on about her need for an iPhone, I believe — some fool bit of modern technology to help her through culinary school. I joined in the chorus of readers offering her congratulations on signing up for a culinary program and informing her husband, charmingly called “2.0,” that she needed an iPhone. I don’t even have a cell phone of my own.

In my childhood, Mom baked us birthday cakes or cupcakes, any flavor we requested. I used to look at all of the cake pictures in our trusty Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook to think about what I wanted. That was before I figured out that I could request a birthday pie instead, and before my brothers figured out that they could have a fancy whipped cream cake from Virginia Bakery or an ice cream cake from Baskin-Robbins. I remember relatively few cakes from those days, chiefly the igloo cake Mom made for Kevin’s birthday, an excuse to cut cake layers in half, frost the cake with white icing and upholster it with the cocktail sugar cubes my Dad kept in a secret location. This cake was the stuff of kid dreams, an entire cake covered with cubes of sugar meant to look like blocks of ice.

I have more sophisticated cake dreams now: I have eaten cakes from Tassajara bakery full of mocha buttercream. I have made genoise soaked in rum (twice). But I am still not a cake baker: I don’t own a piping bag and I don’t think fooling with frosting is fun. Plus, I write a blog featuring seasonal cooking and I’m not about to declare it Cake Season.

One of my pet peeves in baking fads is the popular red velvet (or blue velvet or green velvet) cake, which requires one to use vast amounts of red food coloring to produce a chocolate cake that was more appealing when it was left to look like chocolate instead of a vampire’s breakfast. What can I say? I have gray hair and I don’t think ingesting food dye is good for you. Many people, including my late brother, are allergic to food dye, or go berserk when they get it (No, I have not been sipping from the Schilling bottle). Now watch me find out that Movita’s favorite cakes are velvet cakes….

Fortunately, it is beet season, and I have learned to make a cake featuring a dark red batter, owing to the presence of pureed beets. Before you get upset, please remember that beets are often grown to make sugar and sugar is a valid ingredient in cake. This cake is chock-full of things people call superfoods, including beets, chocolate, cinnamon and extra virgin olive oil, as well as the usual suspects of eggs and flour. I considered making it with ground almonds to make it gluten-free, but I am not having the kind of a week that bodes success with those sorts of experiments.

I first made this cake from a recipe at recipezaar, reprinted in my farm newsletter by the folks at Riverdog Farm, but I have messed with it — you knew I was going to, didn’t you? I incorporated part of an egg yolk I had left from this morning’s egg wash and I wanted to use Mexican chocolate for its distinct flavor. Then I needed to add cocoa because Mexican chocolate is sweeter than the chocolate the recipe called for and I scanted the sugar. I added some cinnamon as well.

To make this cake, you will need at least a cup of pureed beets. I recommend preparing them ahead of time: you can boil or steam or roast them. Let them cool, remove their skins, and whirl them in your blender or food processor. I will not go into the five times I had to clean the stove or the seventeen times I washed my hands while preparing this recipe — if you need to have your all-white kitchen white at all times, do not make this cake.

For the brave, fun-loving and vegetable-minded, read on:

Mexican Chocolate Beet Cake

Preheat oven to 35o.

Rub a bundt pan with olive oil and dust it with a mixture of cocoa powder and ground cinnamon in lieu of flour

Cook, peel and puree 1 cup of beets (I used five small red ones) until completely smooth.

Melt one tablet of Mexican chocolate (3.15  oz) in your microwave and combine with beet puree.

Measure 1 cup olive oil, 1 and 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla and 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and blend until light-colored.

While you wait, sift 1 and 3/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup cocoa into a small bowl with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1 and 1/2 tsp baking soda. Whisk to blend.

Add to oil mixture 1 egg yolk, then 3 eggs, one at a time, beating smooth between each addition.

When eggs are fully incorporated, add the chocolate-beet mixture. Then add flour-cocoa mixture in two or three additions.

Pour batter into prepared bundt pan. Place on middle oven rack and bake until a toothpick comes out clean. This is a moist cake: mine took forty minutes to bake through.

Now the hard part: for best results, let the cake sit covered overnight. This helps the flavors blend. Olive oil cakes tend to get better as they age, so age it for twenty-four hours before digging in. I’ll be taking mine to a potluck tomorrow afternoon.

To Movita Beaucoup: I made this healthy for you, within reason. But I am not there to stop you if you want to eat it with a little cacao nib whipped cream or a puddle of caramel sauce. Just saying. Happy Birthday!

Food notes: I used plain old red beets in this cake, but you can fiddle with the color by using mixtures of red and yellow beets. The batter is a dark, vibrant purple-red, but the cake bakes up red-brown. If you don’t have the extra egg yolk, leave it out — no one will miss it. Cinnamon is fat-soluble — that’s why I put it in with the oil — if you want to incorporate it more smoothly, you could mix it with the sugar before adding the sugar to the oil.

Photo shows green corn worm in ear of organically grown yellow corn.

Unseasonal corn worm.

It’s been that kind of week. The kind of week when you flush the toilet and it doesn’t work the first time. The kind of week when your browser refuses to work on the day you plan to book your airfare to Europe. The kind of week when you make a carrot and fennel soup from a recipe in the newspaper. You use the freshest of ingredients and the best of milk and the soup is blah, boring, and an unattractive color. By your third bowl of it in three days you steam some beet stems and puree them to add to the soup and that fixes the color issue, but not the taste.

You make one of your favorite breads and one loaf is fine and the other is gummy in the middle. Your mother hangs out three loads of clothes and you look up from a dinner of shrimp diablo and beet greens with cumin, only to find out that it is raining.

You are planning to make a birthday cake. You thought you would get it done today, but the beets you are cooking on the stove release beet-colored steam all over just as you are about to leave the house to catch the bus to get your weekly vegetables. Fortunately, the birthday girl lives far away and you only promised to email her a photo of the cake by Friday midnight.

You didn’t think when you started this blogging gig that you would ever miss a post. That is until you got norovirus in February, which slowed you down for three awful days. You don’t have norovirus now, but you might as well have because it would fit right in with this kind of week. You try to add a new scan of a painting to this apology post and your scanner has apparently lost its ability to communicate with your computer or vice versa.

So what can I say? I’m sorry. Nothing new I have made this week has worked out well yet and I’ve already given out the recipes for the other things we have been eating. I’ll be back in a few days, I expect, perhaps with that cake.

In Northern California spring can start in February and continue through May. First we see daffodils, then flowering pear, plum, crab apple and quince trees. Spring crops come in slowly: green garlic, lettuce, then asparagus, followed by peas. On my last Farmers’ Market visit two weeks ago the strawberries had white shoulders and the grower I like to buy them from (Lucero Farms of Lodi) had not yet taken up a stall, but I had a feeling I would find strawberries today, and there they were, small red Seascape berries with long stems destined for the year’s first strawberry shortcake.

Painting shows a heart-shaped strawberry shortcake and baskets of berries.

Strawberry Shortcake. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

There are many variations of strawberry shortcake: you can make it with angel food cake or lemon pound cake or sponge cake or olive oil citrus cake. I have tried them all, but my favorite recipe for strawberry shortcake is a biscuit base, split and covered with fresh strawberries, served with lightly sweetened whipped cream. To honor the ritual of spring I will use organically grown Farmers’ Market strawberries, and whipping cream from Straus Dairy in Marin County.

I will buy my cream at a local supermarket, but because it is Earth Day I want to think a bit about what it took to produce this traditional spring dessert. Someone had to plant the strawberries, tend them, water them, pick them, bring them to market. Someone had to raise sugarcane and refine it. Someone mined the salt, picked vanilla pods, raised wheat, ground it into flour. Someone had to raise the dairy cow, feed her on grass, milk her. Someone had to separate the cream, sterilize the bottles, fill and cap them. Someone had to drive the cream to the supermarket. Someone had to put it on the shelves. Someone had to drive the bus that takes me from market to market and home again. In a day gone by, members of my family, relatives from a few generations back, might have kept the cow and skimmed the cream and planted the strawberries in Illinois where they farmed, but my parents both moved to California as teenagers and never went back to the Midwest. Celia’s small farm at The Kitchens Garden might be something like the farms my mother knew in her youth, farms with hedgerows, vegetable gardens, small orchards, cows and chickens, diversified crops.

In California I now buy the bulk of my produce from an organic farm eighty-seven and a half miles from where I live. Someone drives to Berkeley each Wednesday and places boxes of vegetables and fruit on a front porch. I take a bus and walk several blocks, load the heavier vegetables into my backpack and the delicate items into a canvas bag. I have no choice in what goes into my produce box: someone at Riverdog Farm decides what is best each week and loads it up. I unpack the box and fold it: the farm driver will collect it the next week. I like the idea that I am getting produce picked that morning or the previous day and I like it that in a small way my food dollars are supporting small, diversified agriculture on a farm that uses organic growing methods: although I cannot farm myself I have farming roots. Small farmers are real to me,  people that raise food and think about how they are raising it. The Capay valley where my produce comes from has many small farms started by former students at U.C. Davis on land that agribusiness did not want.

I shop at the Farmers Market to supplement my produce box. There I can buy a flat of peaches in June, more corn in July, bunches of fresh basil in August, these first spring strawberries in April. Every week I can walk down the center aisle and look to see what has come in, compare prices, sniff the air perfumed by seasonal fruit. I am grateful to live in a state where the growing season is long and next to a city that supports three different farmers’ markets year-round.

Enough. Now it is time to go into the kitchen to make that special shortcake with the first strawberries.

First, shake the cream bottle to redistribute the fat evenly. Then pour the grassy-smelling cream into a small mixing bowl and set it into the refrigerator to chill, along with the beaters. The cream will triple in volume as you whip it, so make sure your bowl is not too small. If you wish, you may season it at this point: I like to add  2 and 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla and, sometimes, the barest grating of fresh nutmeg.

While the cream chills, prepare the shortcake:

Preheat the oven to 425.

Sift together 2 cups of flour

1 Tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 Tbsp sugar.

Cut in 1/3 cup unsalted butter (if you use salted butter, omit the kosher salt)

Add 1 cup milk

Stir just until combined.

Put into a buttered cake pan.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until lightly browned in spots.

While the shortcake bakes, prepare the strawberries: remove the hulls and stems and then wash berries in a minimum of water. Let them drain in a colander or pat them dry. Taste one. If your berries are ripe and sweet, you need not add anything, but if you are my mother you will insist on adding a few tablespoons of sugar so that the berries give off more juice — it’s your choice since Mom is not in the kitchen with you. You will also whip the cream now. We like ours moderately stiff so that we don’t have to whip it again the next day.

Once the shortcake is out of the oven, split it in half and pile berries between the layers and on top. Serve with whipped cream.

I will return the plastic strawberry baskets to the market next week for re-use (and perhaps buy more strawberries). I will return the cream bottle to the grocery store eventually, collect my deposit and try not to buy more cream for awhile.

Food Notes: Strawberry shortcake features two elemental foods, cream and strawberries. To make a delicious shortcake, start with the best cream and berries you can find: local dairy cream and organically grown berries will give you the best flavor. Some things are worth waiting for and it is better to make this with ripe, red strawberries that have developed their sugars than to use white-capped or green berries. If you cannot get local cream, choose cream from your market that has not been marked “ultrapasteurized.” Ultrapasteurized cream has been heated to a high temperature to give it a longer shelf life and has a cooked taste that you will want to avoid once you have tasted the alternative. We sweeten our cream with white cane sugar to keep the flavor pure, but you are free to use any sweetener you prefer as long as you do not introduce chemical sweeteners. Finally, you may use any sort of cake or biscuit base that you like, but I implore you to bake it yourself and eat it while it is warm from the oven.

painting shows dish of shrimp and grits and a shrimp boat.

Shrimp and Grits. 8″ x 8″ watercolor pencil, gouache and ink. Sharyn Dimmick.

All of my friends like to write and eat. Well, some of them like to sing and eat and some of them like to talk and eat, but all of them like to eat. Lisa Knighton, whom I met at a retreat with Natalie Goldberg, is a fitness trainer who likes to eat healthy, fresh, local food, to bake cakes and to tell stories. Just see how many stories she starts to tell you in this post. Lisa hales from Athens, Georgia, and has come to “The Kale Chronicles” to teach you how use wild-caught shrimp and that Southern staple grits in the entree shrimp and grits. By the time you read this, you’ll be wanting to make them for supper (Let me just apologize in advance for the funky spacing in Lisa’s post — even re-typing it won’t fix it — I tried).

Who knows the first time I was fed grits. Probably would have to count all the times my mother ate corn grits when she was pregnant with me.
Daddy makes his grits with water, on the stove top in a small, metal pan. The corn grits bubble for 20 minutes, at least. He tells me: “Take a quarter cup of grits. Sometimes I measure the water and other times I don’t.”
Grits ain’t groceries.
Mama says that when she was a little girl her father was responsible for making her breakfast. “Each morning, before school,” she says, “My daddy would serve grits and sunny-side-up eggs. And as he put the grits on my plate, he said ‘Grits ain’t groceries.'”
Grits may not be groceries — meaning grits were staples — always in the southern house and made fresh at the nearest grist mill, often ground from the family’s very own corn. Grits are always eaten, at least in my family, with salt and black pepper and a spoonful of softened butter.
Another food I grew up eating was shrimp. Big Daddy, my daddy’s father, used to own an oyster bar, just off the main square in downtown Blakely, Georgia. At Christmas time, instead of turkey and such, Daddy, Uncle Charles, and boy cousins old enough to operate oyster knives shucked croaker sacks full of fresh oysters pulled from Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. Also, we ate tender Gulf shrimp, most often boiled and served hot with a small side bowl of cocktail sauce. I don’t ever remember sitting down for a Christmas meal: my cousins and I stood about eating the seafood as quick as it was prepared.
April begins shrimp season in Georgia. These days we bring shrimp home to Athens from the salty Atlantic waters near Darien, Georgia in McIntosh County. When we travel back from visiting this lowland county, situated along the Altamaha River, a place made infamous by Melissa Fay Greene’s 1991 work of nonfiction, Praying for Sheetrock, we always have the blue cooler iced down and full of these sweet, wild-caught Georgia shrimp.
When I set out to make grits, gourmet grits, I turn to Nathalie Dupree, author of cookbooks of the American South. When Natalie lived in Georgia I once had the good fortune to attend an afternoon party at her home in the pretty town of Social Circle. Her large dining room table was decorated with food she’d prepared, but all I remember was the big helping of warm cheese grits I ate, scooped from a large, hollowed-out round of Parmesan cheese. I’ve adapted the shrimp and grits recipe I offer from Nathalie Dupree’s Shrimp & Grits Cookbook. I’ve also provided links to two places located here in the South where you can order yellow grits, or white grits. I encourage you to select  wild caught shrimp for this recipe.
Shrimp and Grits (serves four)
First, bring all of your ingredients to room temperature before cooking.
2 cups water
1 cup milk (1%, 2%, or whole — just know that the fattier the milk, the creamier the final taste)
1 cup half and half (have another 1/2 cup water or half and half on hand to use when the mixture begins to thicken).
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup grits (white or yellow will do  — just know that white grits are more refined and smooth, and yellow grits are rustic, coarser.)
1 pound of shrimp, peeled, heads removed.
1/4 to 1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup fresh shredded mild to medium cheddar cheese
1/2 to one cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese
salt and fresh-ground black pepper
Get out your biggest, sturdiest cooking pot. I use a 4-quart with a heavy bottom. Once the grits begin to bubble, you are going to want to have plenty of room in the pot for the mixture to gurgle and bubble without it going over the sides. To the pot, add the water, milk and half and half, then bring all to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the grits and garlic, and stir well and often since you do not want this mix to clump or stick.
Bring the grits mixture to a slight boil, then reduce the heat.  Add salt and pepper.  Again, stir often, cooking about 15 minutes. Then add in extra water or half and half here (the mix should not be runny though) and the desired amount of butter and cheeses, letting this mixture cook for another 5 to 10 minutes: keep it creamy and loose and stir well so that the cheeses do not stick. Taste the grits then. You will want a soft texture, nothing gritty or hard.
When you have the grits like you want, add the shrimp and stir, coating the shrimp well. The hot grits and cheese will cook the shrimp and they’ll be ready in about two to three minutes, as soon as the shrimp turn a pretty pink.
Serve in large bowls alongside glasses of sweet tea.
painting shows four cups of atole with chocolate and other ingredients

Atole with Chocolate. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Because it is April 15 and I am still working on a giant art inventory for my tax returns I’m giving you a quick and easy recipe for atole with chocolate, good for those chilly mornings or chilly evenings of spring. I made it for the first time on a cold April morning of 2010 when we had had a bag of masa harina sitting around for a year or two and Jacqueline Higuera McMahan had published a recipe for atole in the San Francisco Chronicle. McMahan’s recipe called for added cornstarch, but I think the masa thickens it adequately by itself.

The first time I made this I used a Oaxaca chocolate bar containing chilies. Later I made it with Sharffen Berger bittersweet and added some pasilla chile powder. You can make it without chile if you don’t like the kick.

Atole makes a good, warming breakfast drink, a heavier form of hot chocolate. It would be good to serve at a holiday party. I’ve thought of adding more masa and thickening it into a pudding, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Atole with Chocolate (4 Servings)

Film a large saucepan with water

Heat over medium heat 1 quart of milk

Add:

5 oz. chopped chocolate

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup masa harina

1 cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split open.

a pinch of salt, if desired

powdered chiles to taste

Whisk this until the chocolate melts, until everything blends and until it thickens to your liking. You will need to cook it for at least five minutes to cook the masa, which will expand as it cooks. Fish the vanilla bean and cinnamon stick out before serving, or just push them to the side with your serving ladle so that they continue to flavor whatever you don’t drink immediately.

Food Notes: Masa harina is the flour Mexicans use to make corn tortillas. Look for it in your Mexican grocer or online. If you find this too sweet, add cocoa powder to a small portion and add it back into the pan, or add some bitter chocolate or some brewed coffee. Next time use a darker chocolate or scant the sugar to achieve less sweet results. I’ve been thinking about using a tablet of Mexican chocolate to make it next time with some bitter chocolate added. For the ultimate in decadence, serve it with a float of barely sweetened whipped cream. Drink this for breakfast and you may even have the strength to complete your tax returns on time. Good luck! We have two extra days this year.

In 1997 and 1998 I was sculpting large dolls — three feet high — out of porcelain clay and painting their heads, hands and feet. It was then that I acquired my painting palette, a cheap round plastic palette with a clear plastic top. This morning as I passed my desk I checked to see whether I had closed the palette properly and a large piece of brittle plastic broke off in my hand. I slapped some masking tape on the top and went on about my business, but the incident reminded me that I wanted to write about plastic.

painting shows grains, pulses and sauce stored in glass jars

Storage Jars. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Now, some of you will already be wondering why I didn’t immediately throw the broken plastic in the trash and go out and buy another palette, perhaps even a better one. The answer is two-fold: the lid that broke serves only the purpose of covering the paint so that it will stay moist and, with tape, still serves that purpose, but also plastic is problematic to dispose of properly and I feel it is best to limit plastic acquisitions whenever possible. The bottom of the palette where the paints sit is undamaged and I do not often have guests in my painting room, aka my bedroom. I also prefer to reserve what money I have for travel and other treats instead of using it to replace shabby possessions. If I did a self-portrait in the house jeans I am wearing right now it would tell you a lot about me: they have frayed hems and a side seam that is about to go on the inner thigh. I cannot remember when I bought them or at what thrift store but I can assure you that I have had them for more than five years.

Ahem. Why do I want to talk about plastic? Well, first of all, I read Beth Terry’s blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and follow her attempts to live free from plastic. She lives not far from me and does more than I will ever do to eradicate plastic from her life. I believe she is like a canary in a mine or a Cassandra we do not want to listen to as she chronicles the evils of plastic and its ubiquitousness. She goes to extremes that you might not want to go to — but you might: have a look at her blog and see what you think. She was talking about the amount of plastic packaging at Trader Joe’s the other day. Coincidentally, I had just stopped at Trader Joe’s for a couple of things (coconut milk, limes, dried apricots) and had had to make the unfortunate choice between limes coated with “edible wax” without packaging and organic limes in plastic netting. Which would you choose? Beth would tell me that the cans of coconut milk I bought are lined with plastic and frown that I would even consider buying apricots in a plastic bag. All I can say is that my Mom prefers apricots from Turkey to California-grown and Trader Joe’s meets her price point.

Painting shows refrigerator contents stored in paper, glass and china.

Refrigerator Storage. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

I believe that people want to do the right thing and that the right thing varies according to person and situation. I also believe that many of us are wanton in our use of plastic, that we use it unthinkingly and discard it unthinkingly. Many a young person has probably seen little at the store that is devoid of plastic packaging: it is in my lifetime that we got plastic tamper-proof seals on every bottle of pills, plastic film on cottage cheese and yogurt cartons, plastic bottles of soft drinks, plastic bottles of drinking water. It is in my lifetime that Quaker Oats went from selling rolled oats in a cardboard carton with a string you pulled to open it to the current carton topped with two plastic lids (one you remove to open it, the other reseals the carton). In my lifetime, the Ziploc bag went from something that did not exist to a required item at airports.

I am fortunate to have learned some of the old ways: my grandmother taught me to place a dampened tea towel over rising bread dough and my mother to store leftover pie crust in waxed paper. Plastic wrap often seals poorly anyway, so you will see me rubber-banding paper, wicker plates, cardboard or tea towels over the top of bowls to bring dishes to potlucks. You will see me washing plastic bags and drying them on the line so that we can continue to use them to store food. Like many of you I carry a backpack and canvas totes to pack my food at the grocery store and farmers’ market. I have a marked preference for buying food in glass, which I can re-use, and cans, which I can at least recycle. We use ancient Tupperware around the house, which seems to have the virtue of lasting forever with little degradation. We do our best to re-use those yogurt containers, bought mostly in quart-size, handy for storing soup or taking it on the road. And I carry a quart-sized water bottle with me, which I refill from taps and water fountains everywhere.

Painting shows bag of flour and steel bowl covered with striped dish towel.

Bread Rising. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

I reserve the worst of my spleen for single-use plastic: since I am not going to wash and re-use plastic wrap it is better not to use it in the first place if I can possibly avoid it. I can store food in cooking pots. I can cover a bowl with a plate or a clean cloth. Some foods, for example, cucumbers and mushrooms, keep better if they are not stored in plastic.

How many of you work to minimize the use of plastic in your kitchens? Please raise your hands and share your tips with me and with Beth. The world will thank you for it, although not the plastic-producing corporations.

Five years ago I cast my lot with Riverdog Farm in Guinda, CA, subscribing to receive their weekly vegetable box. I had been shopping at Farmers’ Markets since I lived in San Francisco, going to Saturday and Sunday markets to buy the bulk of what I cooked. When I moved back to the East Bay I took to frequenting the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Although I love going to the market I had been interested in vegetables by subscription for a long time and when a friend recommended Riverdog’s program I signed up, initially splitting a box with my friend Elaine who lives in Berkeley.

My reading influenced me. I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about how she and her family had endeavored to raise most of their food on their Virginia farm and to buy locally what they couldn’t grow themselves. This afternoon I refreshed my memory of Kingsolver’s first locavore spring as I contemplated what to write about today.

Spring has sprung by the calendar. The days are longer. Plane trees have leafed out. A few native freesias push themselves up in the yard. A full moon lit the mild, clear night on Friday as I walked the last two miles home from a Passover seder at Elaine’s, where we ate broccoli, roasted potatoes, duck, carrots in the matzo ball soup, charoset made of dried apricots and dates. Sun shone on the Berkeley market on Holy Saturday where people stood in line for green strawberries (I tasted one), berries with white shoulders, asparagus and globe artichokes. One patron snapped up the only box of snow peas. Spring produce is late this year in northern California, not as late as last year where unexpected ongoing rain slowed all of the crops, but this was a slim market on the day before Easter. I brought home a bottle of plum vinegar, two pounds of walnuts in the shell, a grapefruit for another round of Shrimp Diablo. I considered buying a large basil plant and plucking every leaf to make pesto.

This is the time of year when I wish I had preserved more during the summer and fall, roasted more red peppers and frozen them, dried more tomatoes and raisins, canned more dilly beans, made more pesto. I break out stores of canned tomatoes, jars of roasted peppers and chutney, condiments to lend flavor to our spring diet. We use frozen mozzarella, fresh spinach, cottage cheese, diced tomatoes and Prego marinara to make lasagna. I pile peach chutney, roasted peppers and fresh arugula on a broiled Portobello burger marinated in salad dressing. We make pies out of frozen peaches and canned cherries.

Painting shows leek-feta quiche and ingredients.

Leek-Feta Quiche. 8″ x 8″ gouache. Sharyn Dimmick

What I can rely on in March and April is an abundant supply of alliums: spring onions and leeks. Every week Riverdog sends us a pound or two. I use leeks instead of onions in carrot soup and find I do not care for the substitution: note to self — only white parts of leeks, which will not give the green tinge and the strong flavor. I slice one leek into rings in a bowl of water, separating each ring to let the sandy grit sink to the bottom. I heat a few teaspoonfuls of olive oil mixed with butter in a skillet, lift the leeks from the water, pat them dry and saute them. I preheat the oven to 325. I roll out pie crust, sprinkle the bottom with crumbled feta cheese, add the sauteed leeks. I cut a jarred roasted red pepper into squares and scatter them on top of the leeks and cheese. I add a few cubes of marinated feta, just enough to create a pleasant design on the red and green. I grate a few tablespoons of Pecorino over that.

Then I beat three eggs in a metal bowl and add a splash of milk, eyeball it and add a little more, whisking the custard together. I pour the custard over the vegetables and cheese and pop the quiche in the oven.

This is a rough recipe: I have made it many times and feel no need to make more than the roughest of measures. I’m going to guess slightly on the amounts I recommend (Sometimes I measure backwards, pouring out what I think I will need and then checking the amount for you by pouring liquid back into a measuring cup, for example). If you need to know exact amounts you might want to look up another recipe for that. I will refer you to my Mom’s recipe for pie crust because I can recommend it wholeheartedly as the pastry we use most often.

Make 1 recipe pie crust. Chill crust while you prepare the leeks.

Clean 1 leek by slicing it into thin rings and teasing each ring apart in a large bowl of water. Lift rings out with a slotted spoon or small sieve and pat them dry.

Heat 2 tsp olive oil and 2 tsp butter in a skillet. When combined, add leeks and saute.

While the leeks saute, you should have time to roll out your crust. Take 1/4 of your pie crust, flatten slightly and roll out on a floured board into a 10 inch circle. Fold and place in a 9-inch pie tin or tart pan.

Scatter feta cheese to taste on crust — I use enough to almost cover the bottom. Add sauteed leeks.

Slice 1 roasted red pepper into small squares. Scatter on top of leeks.

Sprinkle vegetables with additional feta, plus 2 Tbsp grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese.

Beat 3 eggs. Add a splash of milk. Whisk. Pour custard over vegetables. if necessary, add milk to fill crust.

Bake quiche until top puffs and browns, at least half an hour.

Food Notes: You may, of course, substitute cheeses if you prefer something else to feta, substitute scallions or sauteed onions for leeks, substitute sun-dried tomatoes for the roasted red peppers. Quiche is, by nature, a flexible recipe. Because I was using feta, a salty cheese, I didn’t add any salt — if you choose a mild, sweet cheese, you might want to add some. If you want to eat this during Passover week, you could make it without crust.

When I got home Sunday afternoon from a weekend getaway with a bunch of singers and musicians I found my mother putting polyurethane on the kitchen cabinets. Oh dear. I do not like to be around chemicals of any description, particularly in food environments (What my mother does is up to her, and pretty much always has been). I knew she planned to work on the cabinets while I was away: what I didn’t know was what we could possibly eat for dinner since I wasn’t going to spend any time I didn’t have to in the kitchen.

Fortunately, Mom reminded me, she had put some chicken in a marinade on Friday morning. We could have that with baked potatoes and a quick spinach salad. I nuked a couple of red potatoes in the microwave for four minutes and then set them and a pan of chicken in a 325 degree oven. Forty-five minutes later dinner was ready and I was only in the kitchen for about ten minutes.

Painting of main ingredients for chicken marinade.

Fleeing Chicken. 8″ x 8″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Mom has made this marinade since I was a child. It has just five ingredients: soy sauce, fresh garlic, fresh ginger, canned crushed pineapple and a little vegetable oil. Because it uses canned, bottled, dried and frozen ingredients you can make this any time of the year. Warning: Even if you live in the tropics, please do not attempt to make this marinade with fresh pineapple. Why? Because the enzymes in fresh pineapple will eat into the meat protein — if you leave it in a few hours the meat will look shrunken and chewed. If you leave it in overnight your chicken will turn into an unsightly mush. How do I know this? Because I used fresh pineapple once and only once in this recipe.

Nowadays we use skinless chicken — either it comes that way from the store or we skin it ourselves — but in my youth we used to leave the skin on. You can prepare it either way. This time we used boneless, skinless chicken breasts. but we have made it with thighs, drumsticks, bone-in half breasts. We like to leave the chicken in the marinade for three days so that the meat absorbs plenty of moisture and flavor. You can cook it after a day or two if you want.

If you can get fresh chicken, it will taste better and have a softer texture than chicken that has been frozen, but frozen chicken will work fine as long as it has a chance to thaw and absorb marinade.

When we make this, we open a 20-ounce can of crushed pineapple. We use half of it (10 ounces) for the marinade and freeze the other half to use in a future batch. Mom says it’s important to taste the pineapple for sweetness — if it isn’t sweet, she recommends adding a little brown sugar. Place the pineapple in a stainless steel, glass or ceramic bowl. Add 1/4 cup soy sauce  (I like tamari; Madge uses regular soy). You can use lite or low-sodium soy if you need to. Add crushed or minced fresh garlic — we used six small cloves in the last batch — but you can pretty much add garlic to taste. Ditto with ginger: we keep ginger root in the freezer and either grate it with a microplane or slice it into coins — we probably used about 1 Tbsp. Add 2-3 Tbsp neutral-tasting vegetable oil — I like peanut oil with Asian flavors. Mom uses corn oil. You can skimp on oil if you want to — the oil helps skinless cuts brown and keeps the chicken from sticking to the pan when you cook it. Add the chicken pieces to the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the chicken for at least eight hours and up to three days. If you think of it, turn the chicken a few times. Cook chicken in a preheated 325 oven for forty-five minutes or until done. We cook ours on foil on a broiler pan.

One batch of marinade is enough for about two pounds of chicken. If you need to double it, use the whole can of pineapple and double each of the other ingredients. You can also use this to marinate tofu. I would recommend pressing the liquid out of the tofu first before putting it in the marinade.

Once you have cooked this flavorful chicken (or tofu) it is delicious hot or cold. It can be sliced into salads or used in sandwiches. You could even use it in a cold noodle salad with peanut dressing.

Versatile Blogger Award: I would like to mention that three bloggers have kindly nominated The Kale Chronicles for the Versatile Blog Award. To learn more about the award and the women who have awarded it to me, please go visit them at eatinglocalinthelou.blogspot.com/ , gobakeyourself.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/a-monstrous-post/and susartandfood.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/versatile-blogger-award/. Elizabeth at Eating Local in the Lou shares my passion for eating local, seasonal foods and Susie tells wonderful stories before she presents each recipe.It is always a thrill to receive a blogging award and I thank these ladies kindly for reading The Kale Chronicles and for thinking of me. Because I previously received this award, here is a link to the award post where you may read seven things about me.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 191 other followers