Archives for the month of: May, 2012

On Saturday my friend Margit and I walked through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. I had been the week before and bought my first Brooks cherries of the year, walnuts in the shell, brown mushrooms. Stone fruit is beginning to come in: I saw apricots and bought a couple of baskets of cherries from Kaki Farms. Strawberries continue strong. Blueberries are here. Some vendors had bins of summer squash and the first beautiful broccoli was beginning to peep its heads out of baskets. But the thing that made me happiest was the bunch of basil I bought for two dollars.

Ah, basil. I didn’t even like the stuff when I was a child: it was just another mysterious seasoning in a Spice Island jar, dried and weird. It didn’t remind you of turkey stuffing like sage or pizza like oregano. Fresh basil was not seen or smelt at my house.

painting shows mortal and pestle, basil, basket of walnuts.

Making Pesto. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil, Sharyn Dimmick.

All that has changed now. All late spring, summer and early fall, I buy basil by the bunch and set it like a bouquet in a glass of water on the kitchen counter next to the olive oil. I chiffonade it over green beans and steam them, tuck it into ears of corn before roasting them, add it to Greek salads, put it in turkey meatloaf or burgers. It is probably the herb I use most during the summer. Today and many other days will find me sitting at the breakfast room table, pounding torn basil leaves, salt, garlic, walnuts and grated cheese in my large Vietnamese mortar with a little olive oil.

Did I say walnuts? I did. Classic pesto is made with pine nuts. I have nothing against pine nuts except the cost. If I lived in New Mexico or Italy I might make pesto with pine nuts. Since I live in California I make it with walnuts and have come to love the combination of bitter and sweet freshly cracked nuts with pounded basil leaves and garlic (I also use walnuts to make a cilantro pesto, flavored with lime).

The first pesto I tasted was served in a restaurant (I no longer remember which one). When I lived in San Francisco I used to buy little plastic tubs of Armanino pesto. Then for awhile I made my own in a blender, until my friend Leila mentioned that pounded pesto had a superior texture. Because our blender is old and cranky I was spending lots of time mincing basil and garlic before feeding its maw and I decided to get a mortar and pestle.

My friend Elaine and I went mortar hunting in Oakland Chinatown and I brought back not one mortar, but two: I have a small marble mortar that I use to crush spices and small amounts of nuts and I have my big wooden Vietnamese mortar for pesto duty each summer.

I start in the kitchen, smashing garlic cloves with the side of a knife and peeling the skins away. The garlic goes directly into the mortar and gets a sprinkle of kosher salt, which helps the pestle break down the garlic fibers. Then I take a utility bowl, my basil bouquet and the big mortar and pestle into the breakfast room. I inhale the spicy green scent of the basil as I pick leaves, discard stems, and tear each leaf into smaller pieces. I pick and tear for awhile, then I pound for awhile, then pick and tear another layer of leaves. The aroma gets richer. When I have torn and pounded every last leaf I take the basket of walnuts and nutcracker from the sideboard and start cracking and shelling. There is no measuring involved: the pesto comes together and is done when its taste and texture suits me — the size of the bunch of basil is the determining factor: I will add enough other ingredients to blend with it, to complement it, but the basil is the star, so I start with garlic and salt, add all the basil, then add walnuts. The last step is grating Parmesan or pecorino with my microplane and stirring in a little olive oil.

If I need a break while I am pounding basil I will pour a little olive oil over the top. This helps keep the color bright. I do not care for oily pesto and have a light hand with the oil: I am not too fussy about whether the final product is bright green: I know it will be delicious and we are going to eat every spoonful and scrape the jar besides.

I never get tired of pesto. When the basil really gets going in mid-summer I try to make enough of it to freeze to last all year. I am never successful because if I have fresh pesto on hand I want to eat it on pasta, on sandwiches, in salad dressing, on green beans, on broccoli, on broiled portobello mushrooms, dolloped on the top of a pizza just out of the oven, or added to a winter vegetable soup. Every year I manage to freeze a few small jars or a bag of pesto cubes made in an ice cube tray, but I am dipping into my stash practically as soon as basil disappears from the Farmer’s Market. At the same time, I have days when I wonder why I have bought yet another bunch (or two, if they are on sale), condemning myself to a few more hours of sitting at the table, pounding away when I could be walking or swimming or reading or whatever else it is that people do on long summer days, instead of inhaling basil fumes and oil of walnut rising from warm wood.

We ate our pesto with whole wheat rotini, fresh sugar snap peas and some roasted red peppers from a jar.

Food notes: You can, of course, make pesto with any fresh  leafy herb and any nut. Some people use seeds instead — pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Margit is allergic to walnuts and pecans so she can make hers with almonds. Elaine has used Brazil nuts successfully. Pine nuts are delicious. You can make pesto from arugula or from soaked sundried tomatoes. Some people make it with spinach or kale. You can mix herbs, too: basil, cilantro and mint is nice, or arugula and mint. You can make it in a blender or a food processor if you have one.

Blogging notes: Susie of SusArtandFood very kindly nominated me for another blogging award, the illuminating blogger award. I love it when people read The Kale Chronicles and I love it when they like it and I really like it when they find something useful here for themselves. What I don’t like is posting blog award patches on my site — I don’t think they look nice. And while I’m happy to let you know what blogs I enjoy reading I am not much good at making lists of them on the spot: I do have lists of links, although I probably should update them — perhaps at my one-year anniversary. You will find more details about me and my life in the posts than you perhaps want so I don’t think you need to know that my favorite color is green or that my favorite ice cream is coffee ice cream. My emphasis is seasonal home-cooked food. I’m quite happy when you read and comment on The Kale Chronicles and I do my best to respond to every comment I receive. Thank you all.

May’s Daring Bakers’ Challenge was pretty twisted – Ruth from The Crafts of Mommyhood challenged us to make challah! Using recipes from all over, and tips from “A Taste of Challah,” by Tamar Ansh, she encouraged us to bake beautifully braided breads. Although I have made pretty challah many times, I was tired this morning. I have recently undertaken a vigorous exercise program, involving walking up hills at the crack of dawn. Yesterday I followed that walk and subsequent breakfast with a walk through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, and Andronico’s grocery store, came home to put away the groceries and construct a Caesar salad with kale (note to self: leave the kale out of Caesar salads — remember those tests asking “Which one does not belong?” Can you spell k-a-l-e? It was a noble effort).

Despite taking a day off of hill-walking, I dragged myself to the grocery store (on foot) because I needed milk to make challah, Mom had grossly underestimated our milk supply and I didn’t want to use canned milk or buttermilk sweetened with soda. When I got back to the kitchen the dishwasher was on the dry cycle and I unloaded that.

photo of misshapen loaf of Challah bread

Trolls’ Challah.

Only then could I begin the business of making challah: scalding milk and beating eggs, sifting flour, proofing yeast. I briefly considered embellishments: candied orange peel sounded good, but I have not yet candied my annual supply of citrus peel — the peels are sitting in the freezer, awaiting the day when I feel like doing it. I thought of making some kind of cinnamon glaze, but then I considered how tired I was and the kind of day I was having and decided to make plain old challah, the eggy, braided bread. I would use the recipe from our old Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook because I have used it before and was in no mood to mess around. Plain challah is the most versatile flavor: it can become French toast or bread pudding or croutons and will work for both sweet and savory sandwiches.

Rather than tell you what I did or what the cookbook says to do I will tell you a better way.

Film a saucepan with water.

Add 1 and 1/2 cups milk.

Set on medium heat until scalded (You’ll see small bubbles at the edges and a faint wrinkled skin on top of the milk).

Remove from heat.

In the measuring cup the milk has recently vacated mix 1/2 cup warm water and 4 and 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (2 packets). Whisk together with a fork.

Now measure 3 cups sifted unbleached flour into a large mixing bowl.

Add 1/2 cup whole wheat flour.

Add to cooling milk 1/4 cup butter (half a stick), 1/4 cup sugar and a teaspoon of kosher salt.

When the milk mixture is lukewarm, pour it into your bowl of flour and stir. Add the proofed yeast.

Beat 3 eggs until smooth in your much-used liquid measuring cup. Add to dough mixture.

Now begin adding more sifted flour, most likely about 3 cups plus.

painting shows misshapen loaf of Challah, eggs and butter.

Troll Challah. 8″ x 8″ Gouache on Paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

The Betty Crocker recipe calls for 7 to 7 and 1/2 cups total sifted flour. You have now used half of that. When I got to this stage I sifted the additional flour 1 cup at a time, adding it to the dough in quarter cup increments. Today, cold and overcast, the dough took a total of 6 and 3/4 cups flour, including the half cup of whole wheat. Although I sometimes knead light doughs by hand, I used my Kitchen Aid for the mixing and basic kneading because challah calls for a large amount of flour. When the dough was smooth and elastic and pulled away from the sides of the bowl I transferred it briefly to a lightly-floured board to rest while I buttered the mixing bowl, preheated the oven to warm and heated a damp linen towel for twenty seconds in the microwave. I gave the dough a couple of quick turns and deposited it in the buttered bowl, covered the dough, turned off the oven and set the bread to rise.

Then I gratefully escaped upstairs for an hour and lay on my bed reading my copy of The Sun, the only magazine I subscribe to. After an hour I rose reluctantly to check the dough which had risen enthusiastically and begun gluing itself to the tea towel.

Prying the dough strands away with my fingernails, I deflated the challah dough and set it for its second rise. I glanced at the clock to determine that it would probably be ready for braiding just as I was ready to eat lunch.

The thing about being tired when you are a scratch cook and stock mostly raw ingredients is that there are no quick and easy lunches unless you have previously made the components. We swing from fresh-prepared meals to meals from leftovers in a regular rotation. I grabbed the nearest carrot and a handful of fresh cherries and put on a kettle for tea. The quickest sandwich I could come up with was cashew butter on store-bought raisin bread toast. True to form the tea was steeping, the toast was toasted and I had just spread the cashew butter on the warm bread when the challah once again threatened to overflow its mixing bowl.

Mom had come down for tea.”I have to braid the challah right now,” I told her and watched as she proceeded to cover the bread board I needed with lettuce and mayo for a cottage cheese salad. She finished, wiped the board cursorily and shoved it back in. I no sooner dried it and gave it a light dusting of flour when she came back and said, “I just need to get in here one more time.”

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Paprika” she answered, reaching for it.

While my toast cooled, although I shoved it back in the toaster oven, I braided the challah into three strands, tucking the ends under. I thought the braid was too long, so I double the loaf back on itself, giving it a double-braided look in the center, re-tucking the ends. I slathered a baking sheet with butter and cranked up the oven to 425 while I rummaged in the freezer for sesame seeds. I found white poppy seeds first. Fine. That would do. As an afterthought, the freezer spit four or five packages onto the floor.

I beat my last egg in the same old measuring cup, brushed it on the challah, dropped some poppy seeds on top and put it in the waiting oven, escaping upstairs with my toast and cherries. Mom turned on a program about the Buddha while I drank my tea (irony of ironies) and thought about how un-Buddha-like it is to snap at my mother. As she poured tea for herself, the lid came off the tea pot and tea fell on her robe. She was not hurt.

I carried the tea tray back to the kitchen to check the challah, In its fervor the yeast had risen magnificently but unevenly, bursting out in bulges, stretching the dough at the braid seams. In short, this was challah fashioned by trolls — it wouldn’t win any beauty contests. (No disrespect to any trolls lurking about).

photo shows cut end of Challah loaf to show crumb and color.

Troll Challah — crumb shot.

After letting it cool, I cut the end from the monster challah. I brought my Mom the coveted end slice and took a slice for myself. The bread showed its trademark yellow crumb and brown shiny crust, releasing its lightly sweet flavor in the teeth and jaws of the local troll population.

Food notes: the half cup of whole wheat flour improves the nutritive value of the bread without altering the characteristic pale yellow interior. I could see the wheat specks like tiny freckles in the raw dough, but all trace of brown disappears in the baked bread. You can, of course, make whole wheat challah, instead, but you will have to adjust the amount of flour used and knead it for at least twenty minutes to achieve any lightness. If you want pretty challah, strive to make your dough strands relatively short and entirely even, braiding with care and symmetry, just as you would braid your prettiest daughter’s hair.

In other news, even trolls, churls and snapping daughters sometimes receive blogging award nominations. More on this on Wednesday…

“Spring green” is a common phrase and color name. The spring in California is rich with greens: before we get to the reds, blues and yellows of summer we have pea green, asparagus green, artichoke green. And in the farm box we have beet greens, Swiss chard, kale, green garlic, spring onions, lettuce,  bok choy and peas. It is little wonder I was drinking my greens recently, shoving some spinach into a smoothie to make way for new rounds of greens.

Painting shows calzones on pizza pan and ingredients.

Green Calzones. 8″ x 8″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

I have made pizza for many years and somehow never made the leap to calzones. The dough is the same, the famous Cheese Bread sourdough recipe made with a cupful of whole wheat flour. The technique for shaping calzones is the same: you begin with eight small disks instead of three larger ones and go through the dimpling and pulling process.

I might have gone another few years without making calzones, except that Betsy’s recipe for calzones caught my eye and lingered in my imagination. Betsy made hers with fresh kale. I made mine with leftover cooked chard. I followed Betsy’s guidelines for the cup of feta and the 1/4 cup of dry cheese, but I used pecorino Romano where she used Parmesan.

Most of you know the drill for sourdough by now: if you want sourdough pizza, bread, waffles or biscuits you have to make up a sourdough starter. You need to feed it occasionally, but if you use it once a week or more it doesn’t take much care and feeding. I fed my starter yesterday morning with a half cup of water and a half cup of unbleached flour, shook it a few times and left it out on the counter. Come afternoon I came back and made pizza dough with a half cup of starter, 2 and 1/4 cups flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour and a generous teaspoon of kosher salt. Read the gory details here.

This morning I took my pizza dough out of the fridge at eight. At 10:22 I removed its dish towel, formed the dough into eight small rounds, floured the damp towel and let the dough sit while I made filling. I also put my pizza stone in the oven and cranked the heat up to 450, deploying three racks: one for the pizza stone, two for the trays of calzones.

First step: dump cooked chard from frying pan into pizza dough bowl (Why do more dishes than you have to?). Heat same frying pan over medium heat while you slice the white of a small leek and the shoots of some green garlic, wipe 3/4 of a pound of mushrooms with a clean damp cloth and slice them. Add olive oil to the skillet and saute your leeks and garlic while you continue to slice mushrooms. Add leeks and garlic to chard. Saute mushrooms in two batches, adding oil as necessary. While you have the oil out, lightly oil two pizza pans. Add sauteed mushrooms to chard, leeks and garlic. Crumble 1 cup of feta into the vegetables. Use microplane to grate 1/4 cup dry cheese over top. Grate some nutmeg to taste and add a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.

At this point, the faint-hearted or fanatically germ-phobic might give this mixture a stir, but I like to work with my hands, so I plunged my hands into the bowl and mixed. Then I washed and dried my hands before turning to the dough.

Using the dimpling and stretching techniques detailed in the pizza post I made my eight disks into eight five-inch circles, one at a time, so that I could fill and fold each calzone before making the next one. Again, I used my hands to scoop filling onto half of each calzone, but the fastidious may use a spoon and the precise may use a scoop or measuring cup, but you will need to use your hands to fold the crust over the filling and seal the edges.

Once your calzones are filled, folded and sealed, give each one slash with a sharp knife to allow steam to escape. I use a stainless steel steak knife. If you keep a clean razor in your kitchen that will work, too.

I put one tray of calzones in while I filled the others. When the second batch was filled and folded I switched the first tray to a higher rack and started the second one on the middle rack. In ten minutes, I switched them again. We like things toasty and brown so the first tray was probably in the oven about thirty minutes. When I took the first tray out I turned off the oven and let the second tray finish cooking from the residual heat of the oven and the pizza stone.

By the way, I did not make the dough green. It is not St. Patrick’s Day. If you eat your spring greens you will see plenty of that color.

Food Notes: Betsy serves her calzones with marinara, which I’m sure is good. We ate ours plain to get maximum crust effects. Variations are legion: you can use any cheese you like, although the combination of a creamy one and a dry one produces a nice texture and flavor without a grease factor. If I could only have two cheeses for cooking they would be feta and Parmesan so Betsy’s choice worked for me, but you could use goat cheese and dry Jack or ricotta and Asiago. If you won’t eat or drink your greens, stick to mushrooms or pile in some meat. I badly wanted to add some roasted red peppers, but I didn’t want the mixture to be too wet, and I would have added sun-dried tomatoes if I hadn’t eaten them all by March. The same dough that makes crisp thin crust pizza transforms into a breadier dough you can hold in your hand when stuffed in this manner. Enjoy.

Blog Notes: Twice in the last week kind persons have nominated me for the Liebster Blog Award, an award for blogs with under 200 subscribers. While “The Kale Chronicles” fits that size, it has been previously nominated more than once. Because it can be difficult to establish how large or small a blog is, I will merely encourage you to visit the folks who nominated me, Peri’s Spice Ladle (Indian specialties) and artratcafe. (original art and occasional wonderfully illustrated posts of food descriptions from literature). I will further encourage you to visit Susartandfood. (I go for the stories).

Maybe it was walking up hills for three days, which rendered me tired and lowered my resistance. Maybe it was reading the second installment of Jackie’s “What I Ate Last Week” at Marin Mama Cooks (It is fun to know the details of another person’s life and table). Maybe it was this hilarious account of food aversions called “Ten Gastric Ways of Making Me Talk.

It was lunch time. I was hungry. And on the way downstairs I decided to make my first green smoothie.

Some of you are saying “Oh no!” and thinking about cancelling your subscriptions. “She isn’t…” She’s gone too far.” “This is not going to make me love local, seasonal food.” “Run for the barf bag.” “Shh. You can’t say that on a food blog.”

painting of blender, fruit, spinach and the resulting green smoothie in a glass.

Green Smoothie. Sharyn Dimmick. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil.

I had read about green smoothies. I had promised myself I would try one once when I had some strong-flavored ingredients on hand to offset the spinach.

In the refrigerator was a small bowl of fruit salad, that bowl that sits for days while you each wait for the other person to eat it: “Maybe she’ll eat it tomorrow….” And that fruit salad was made of fresh pineapple, organic strawberries rescued from the bargain bin and a few tangerines. Plus, I had a mango on the counter from our last visit to Grocery Outlet and I had a quarter of a bag of the fresh spinach that came last week. Green smoothie time.

I chucked the bowl of fruit salad into the blender with all of its juices. I cut open the mango, sliced and scored it, turning it inside out to release the mango cubes from the skin.

How much spinach? You didn’t think I was going to use a recipe, did you, or consult one? My guideline was not so much that it would be disgusting or overpower all of the other ingredients. Stripping off any thick stems I put in a small handful of leaves, maybe half a cup.

The blender whirred. When it was no longer chopping anything I got out a glass and poured a test taste.

First of all, it wasn’t green. It was orange- yellow with a green undertone and it was too thick to drink easily. But it didn’t taste bad at all.

Okay. Thinning. What was I going to use? I don’t like super cold drinks so ice was out. I have some indifferent raspberry sorbet in the freezer. Don’t need the sugar. Ah, yogurt — plain yogurt and more spinach.

I added two dollops of plain yogurt and another small handful of spinach, concentrating on the smallest leaves. The blender whirred it around again.

This time it was the color of an avocado face mask, the color of split pea soup. It was green. I poured it into the glass and tasted cautiously.

It did not taste like spinach. It still tasted faintly of mango and strawberries, more sweet than vegetal, with a tang from the yogurt. If I had had them, I would have added more strawberries, frozen raspberries or blueberries, or more pineapple. It was fine without them.

Since I don’t usually drink my lunch I wanted something to chew on (Where are the bar snacks?). I toasted a piece of sourdough bread to satisfy my teeth and jaws.

Should you make a green smoothie? I don’t know. Do you like wheat grass and other green things? Do you have a juicer, which will widen the ingredients you can put in it? Is it hot where you live and too late to cook lunch? Do you need to use a mango, some fresh spinach and some berries today? Do you have an appetite for all things new? Are you willing to try to drink your veggies because you refuse to eat them? Answering yes to any of those questions may predispose you to make a green smoothie at least once. I did it and lived to tell the tale.

Painting shows tea service on linen cloth in dining room.

Elegance. 6″ x 6″ Goauche and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

My friend Suzanne requested that I take on this topic, an essay on ease, elegance and economy. The story is that my mother was reading a book from the library, name and author now forgotten, on housekeeping (which activity Mom has never cared for) and the author stated that of the three desirable qualities, ease, elegance and economy, one could only have two of the three. The formula plays out something like this: if you are rich, with endless resources, you can buy elegance and ease. You can have servants to do all tasks you find unpleasant. You can buy the best of ingredients and have them served up on the finest china. You can even hire a chef or a cook to cook your meals for you: if you hire a good one, well-trained, with a fine palate and endless patience and high-dexterity, you can serve vol au vent and pastry swans filled with creme chantilly or whatever your elegant little heart desires.

If you are not rich, you may decide to go for economy and ease. That is the American way of processed foods, the middle aisles of the supermarket containing all of those frozen things in bags and boxes: prepared pies and lasagna and pizza. Coupons in every newspaper and online will help you cut your costs further. The same supermarket features paper plates, paper napkins and plastic cups, as well as disposable roasting pans — you can cook and serve your meals on things you throw away — how easy is that?

Painting shows convenience foods, microwave oven, disposable utensils.

Ease. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

If you get excited when you see a recipe for altering your store-purchased roast chicken or cake mix, this way is for you. To be fair, the entry of Trader Joe’s into wider markets has increased the quality and selection of many packaged foods, although many of these items are heavier on salt than they should be. An easy and economical dinner option would be to heat up some Tasty Bites with some rice, or pop open the Prego and make spaghetti, as we occasionally do on nights when no one wants to cook. We all have our favored shortcuts. Just be aware that consistently choosing economy and ease has a high cost to the planet and to your health. Celi of The Kitchens Garden once suggested visualizing everything you discard going into a heap in your yard because, in a big sense, it does.

Then there is the middle way, the one where you strive for elegance and economy. In the absence of servants and cooks, you become the servant and cook yourself. The way to produce elegance out of economy is to work and to learn. With the help of cookbooks and food shows and now cooking blogs you can teach yourself to make puff pastry, croissants, sourdough pain au levain. You can practice flipping crepes and making elegant, seasonal marmalades and jams. You can make your own pestos, rather than buying them. You can make your own pasta and cheese like John from the Bartolini Kitchens. You can raise your own chickens like Suzanne and Scott and run your own sustainable farm like John and Celi. There is no end to the elegance to which you can aspire if you are willing to put in the labor. With this option, you cannot fire the cook, you can only start over and attempt to do better. We have pretensions to elegance and economy around here: we have the economy down and we struggle with the elegance, sometimes gracefully, sometimes humorously. We have learned to know our limits: deep-fried dishes and crepes are beyond my reach, so I reserve those dishes for restaurant dining, currently a rare treat.

Painting shows basket of fresh produce.

Economy: Market Basket. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Many of you in the food blogosphere do better with elegant tables than I do. We do eat on china and use cloth napkins and I can manage a garnish on a good day, but I am generally more concerned with the taste and texture of the food than I am with the presentation. I do well on economy, although I could do better — I strive to use every bit of food that comes into our household: the Riverdog Farm chicory challenge is a good example of that and I have chronicled the ever-expanding list of things I make each citrus season. Using up all of that food is work and conversations around our house frequently begin with “We need to use up the sour milk” or “We need to think of something to do with the plum jam” or “What are we going to do with seven leeks?” The best starting point I can come from is that of love, when I want to make my own sourdough because I love it so much and can’t be down at the bakery everyday buying samples, when I have raspberries so special that I want to learn to make raspberry caramel to layer into a dessert. The combination of elegance and economy opens the door to challenge: can I make my own winter squash gnocchi? Will it be as good as what I have eaten in restaurants? It isn’t yet, but I have not given up trying.

I confess that I love to spend money on food and that I love to buy special, high-quality ingredients. When I walk through the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley I am often tempted to buy more than I can use easily, especially in the summer and early fall when the choices are so wide. If I had unlimited funds, I would buy more whipping cream, more organic milk and eggs and meat. I would experiment with coconut oil and almond flour and coconut sugar. I would buy raspberries every week during their season and eat them until I was sick of them. I would buy enough tomatoes in tomato season to have dried tomatoes for the other eight months of the year. With the economy I have been taught by my careful mother I scour the shelves at Grocery Outlet for true bargains: looking for great products at reduced prices is part of the work entailed in elegance and economy, as is limiting shopping to one trip a week and relying on creativity to devise appropriate substitutions and menu changes when we have run out of something.

This week I had the opportunity to visit what I affectionately call “the rotting rack” at Berkeley Bowl, the place where they put produce items reduced for quick sale. There I found several pounds of grapes for ninety-nine cents, organically grown fresh strawberries for the same price and a whole green papaya, which will soon become Thai green papaya salad (stay tuned). To find these items, I had to pick through many clam shells of moldy strawberries and under-ripe hothouse tomatoes. To turn these items into meals and snacks, I will have to contribute labor: my friend Elaine and I sat around last night removing the seeds from the grapes and arranging grape halves on the trays of my dehydrator where they became raisins overnight. I also had to sort and trim all of the strawberries to make sure no mold lurked about (There was none).

There are many paths through the maze of ease, elegance and economy. Eating things in their seasons is a good start. While seasonal delicacies such as lobster and raspberries may never become cheap, they are at their best and most plentiful in their time and when the supply goes up, the price goes down. Think of zucchini season when you have to do anything you can to refuse zucchini donations from overzealous gardeners. Good restaurants capitalize on seasonality, buying their produce from small farmers and varying their menus to serve the season’s treasures. Our local Chez Panisse built its reputation on foraging for the best ingredients each week and preparing them skillfully. Not everyone can eat at Chez Panisse, but we can do our best to shop locally, eat fresh food whenever possible and create our own experiences of elegance.

P.S. For the record: I will eat Prego marinara but I always make brownies from scratch.

photo depicts fresh lettuce in colander with Buddha looking on.

From the Winter Garden. Photo by Kuya Minogue.

Today The Kale Chronicles features a guest post from Kuya Minogue of Creston, British Columbia, who shares what she has learned about winter gardening in her locale. Kuya and I met at a Natalie Goldberg writing retreat in New Mexico. When I saw a Facebook post of hers on harvesting greens from her winter garden I asked her to share her garden story with you. Although it is May and not winter in the northern hemisphere now, perhaps it will allow some of you cold-climate gardeners to plan next year’s winter garden. You can find more of Kuya at zenwords here.

When it’s twenty below Centigrade outside and the garden is buried under four feet of snow, it’s hard to imagine that under the plastic cloches and row covers in the greenhouse beds, the spinach, lettuce, chard and cilantro that I seeded in late August are lying dormant, waiting for a warm day to awaken them from their winter hibernation. But it only takes a few warm days in mid-winter to bring them out of sleep and into a delicious and completely alive salad.

photo of spinach growing in Creston, B.C.

Spinach in January. Photo by Kuya Minogue.

Last year, we had a week of above zero sunshine in Creston, BC where my winter garden lives, and by the end of that week, when I removed the cloche from the spinach bed, I found salad ready greens. The leaves were thick and juicy. There’s nothing better than a garden fresh salad in January, and the amazing thing is that all it took was one plastic snow-covered cloche to keep the plants alive and a few warm days to make a salad. When the weather turned cold again, I recovered the spinach and it lived through another two months of frost.

In that January warm spell, when I looked at the lettuce under the row cover inside the greenhouse, the leaves were so withered that I thought that winter had taken them. But by the first week of March, the lettuce had revived, and by the second week of April, we were eating fresh spinach and lettuce salads straight out of the garden. I was afraid the lettuce would be bitter, but only the outside leaves had the taint of winter. The butterball at the centre of the plant was crisp and fresh, and tasted like summer.

I don’t like to mix my first collection of winter salad greens with store bought tomatoes, cucumbers or avocado. I prefer to sprinkle winter garden green onions and a handful of garden-fresh cilantro over the greens, and to make a lemon and olive oil dressing that has a squirt of liquid honey and tamari sauce, and a sprinkling of minced garlic from last year’s garden. From first bite to the last, I’m transported to the warm days of summer.

Hardy greens survive the winter too: chard, kale and a chinese vegetable whose name I don’t know are ready to eat by mid March. By mid April, they are so prolific that I invite anyone who comes to the Zen Centre to meditate or do some yoga to take a mixture of these greens and some winter garden onions home with them so they can clean them, cut them into bite size pieces and then stir fry them in sesame seed oil, lemon juice and tamari.  The cooking greens are also delicious if I simply steam them and eat them with a little butter.

painting of picked mixed greens in colander, Buddha image.

Buddha with Greens from the Winter Garden. 8″ x 8″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

I learned about winter gardening when one of my Zen students, a horticulturalist, offered to give a Winter Gardening Class at the zendo. Having lived through many years of Canadian winters, I was skeptical when we seeded the beds in late August and then put them under cover in mid-October. It just seemed impossible that anything as delicate as spinach or lettuce could survive the winter. But I was wrong. Even in Canada, we can grow greens in the winter and eat garden-fresh salad in the spring. If we can do it here, you can do it anywhere.

 

 

painting of pizza with red peppers and olives

Sourdough Pizza with Red Peppers and Olives. 8″ x 8″ Gouache. Sharyn Dimmick.

I mentioned in my last post, A Sunday in the Kitchen, that I had made sourdough pizza dough and put it in the refrigerator. Sourdough produces a thin, crispy crust as long as you don’t overburden it with too much sauce and cheese. Sourdough pizza dough needs to sit for around nine hours so the easiest way to make pizza is to make the dough the night before you plan to make the pizza. Monday afternoon I pulled it out at about 2 PM. At 4:30 I divided the dough into thirds and shaped each third  into a round. I then let it rest for twenty minutes, covered — sourdough is a lazy dough and it likes a lot of rests between steps. While the dough was resting I stacked up three racks in my oven from the lowest position to next to the highest, placed a pizza stone on the lowest rack and preheated the oven to 450. The oven needs 45 minutes for the stone to get good and hot.

Then I turned my attention to cheese. I sliced about a pound of mozzarella and then cut the small slices into small pieces. I could have grated it but my hand gets tired grating and it is just as easy to cut slices, stack the slices and cut small pieces from the stack. Plus, I don’t have to clean a grater. I then used my trusty microplane to grate Pecorino for flavor, 1/4 to 1/2 cup.  Don’t put it away yet — you’ll be grating some for the top as well. Parmesan is good, too. If you are out of hard cheese, consider adding some cubes of feta. A pound of mozzarella is enough for three ten-inch pizzas: you don’t want more, especially if you are trying to make thin crust pizza that stays in one piece.

By the time I have sliced all that and oiled some pizza pans, the dough is ready for shaping. I do this by hand, because it is fun. Take your first round and flatten it into a disc. Now poke your eight fingers into the dough as though you were typing, making concentric circles of dimples, leaving a small border at the edge. After your dough is flattened and dimpled, slide the backs of your hands under the dough and turn your hands, pulling the dough in the process. You will develop a feel for it. Stop before you make holes in it — it will need some thickness to support the toppings. Don’t pull it out to more than ten inches diameter, please. If you make a hole in it, it is best to collapse it, dimple it and pull it again rather than trying to patch it. Throwing it up in the air is completely unnecessary — I would only recommend doing this if you have worked in a pizzeria and are trying to impress your children. Place the pizza on the oiled pan.

Optional step: If you want a tiny bit of insurance that your pizza won’t leak or tear in the middle, you can put the pulled dough into the oven for a few minutes. I tried this for the first time the other day. The advantage is that my pizza did not tear. The disadvantage is that the crust rises a little and thus is thicker.

Now it is time to build your pizza. Sauce is optional. Sometimes I make pizza without it, sandwiching fresh vegetables between layers of cheese on the pizza crust. The advantage is that without the sauce you will have less likelihood of making a thin-crust pizza that develops a sink-hole in the middle when you try to transfer it between racks. If I am making a traditional pizza I usually take some sauce from the nearest jar of Prego marinara and spread it thinly on the pizza dough, thinly enough so that what I have is streaks of red with white crust showing. Do not glop on the sauce (Homemade marinara would perhaps be even better, but Prego is one of my shortcuts: my favorite is the Italian sausage flavor).

After I spread the sauce, I divide most of the cheese between the three pizzas, saving a little to drizzle on top of the toppings. For these pizzas I used sliced Spanish olives (the kind with pimentos inside), strips of roasted red bell pepper that I tore with my hands, and tiny cubes of ham from the freezer. I made one vegetarian pizza and two with ham. I sprinkled the reserved cheese over the vegetables and grated a little more Pecorino on top. I usually use whatever odds and ends of meats and cheese we have (ham, Canadian bacon, sausage) and vegetables, including peppers, cooked eggplant, mushrooms, olives or tomatoes. If you have parsley, cilantro or fresh basil, it is nice to garnish the pizzas with them when they come out of the oven.

To cook the pizzas, set the first pizza on the middle oven rack for ten minutes. Then rotate pizza number one to the top rack and start pizza number two on the middle rack. After another ten minutes, transfer the first pizza directly onto the pizza stone. I use a wooden peel to make the transfer and I pull the rack out a ways to make it easier. I highly recommend getting a peel and a pizza stone if you plan to make pizza frequently. Continue to bake the remaining pizzas in the same rotation. Please note: baking times are approximate — if your pizza is too soft to transfer to the stone, bake it a little longer before the transfer. If your pizza on the top rack is browning too fast, transfer it a little sooner.

Food Notes: You don’t need to buy fancy whole milk mozzarella for pizza. When I was first learning how to make it I asked the guy at The Cheese Board what cheese they used for their pizza. He sold me some plain part-skim mozzarella. Now I buy it in two pound blocks whenever I find it on sale and stash it in the freezer for pizza-making. I would normally caution you not to cook with cheese you would not eat out of hand, but I only use mozzarella in pizza and emergency cheese sandwiches and I always add some other cheese to add flavor.

I am not going to tell you what to put on your pizza. If you live in New York, you may choose to stick to cured meats, onions, peppers and mushrooms. If you live in California and you want to make pizza with gorgonzola and fresh figs or purple cabbage and walnuts, that is your privilege. It is nice to use fresh tomatoes in tomato season and things in jars in the winter.

I usually make all three pizzas at once. I like pizza a lot and it keeps well and reheats well. Sometimes I sandwich a cooled pizza between pieces of cardboard and put in in the freezer for later.

If you do not have sourdough starter, you can make pizza dough with yeast, water, flour and olive oil. I use The Cheese Board’s recipe from The Cheese Board Collective Works. You will find that recipe here. And, as I mentioned on Sunday, I like to substitute whole wheat flour for part of the flour. I learned a good deal of what I know about pizza-making from this book: if you would like step-by-step photos, plus several recipes for pizza, master sourdough, yeast breads and assorted bakery goods, I highly recommend purchasing the book. And, no, I am not on the payroll — I’m just a happy customer. If you can buy it from your local independent bookstore, I’ll be even happier.

Painting shows lime, mint leaf, ginger root and glass.

Lime-Ginger-Mint Cooler. 4″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

What season is it anyway? I am in the kitchen, trimming cabbages, peeling rutabaga, cutting the tops off carrots. I was going to make Caesar Salad with baby romaine to celebrate the first warm, bright Sunday of May, but all of the lemons on our tree are small and green, so instead I trim the remaining winter vegetables. The rutabaga has that hot taste it sometimes gets and some of the carrots are watery. They don’t know what season it is supposed to be either.

I start slicing fennel, thinking I’ll stir up some kind of mustardy vinaigrette for it. I go back upstairs for a recipe that is surely in my saved blogs folder and can’t find it. I search two or three blogs I read for fennel salad and come up empty-handed. Yes, I make a fennel salad, but I want to make a different one. I mix some whole-grain mustard with some red wine vinegar and put that on the sliced fennel. I eat quite a lot of that while I’m thinking (I haven’t had lunch).

I go back upstairs and find an intriguing recipe for rutabaga, which I have all of the ingredients for. I look for the Mario Batali original, but can’t find it. Do I really want to make rutabaga home fries? Not before I eat something. But what am I going to eat? There on the toaster oven is the dry French bread I was going to make into croutons for the salad. When in doubt, eat bread and cheese. I cut the bread into three slices. Our cheese supply is limited today: we are down to mozzarella, Pecorino and those crusts of Parmesan that you throw into vegetable soup, so I cut a few slices of mozzarella, add some Pecorino for flavor, pile fennel shards on top of that and put the whole thing in a 400 degree oven. Fifteen minutes later the cheese is browned in spots the way I like it, the fennel is warmed through. I eat a cheese toast. I go upstairs. I eat another one. In ten minutes I am back downstairs for the last piece.

This time I stay long enough to make pizza dough. I keep sourdough starter in the fridge and try to use it once a week. Mozzarella and Pecorino are perfect pizza cheeses, so I mix together 3 cups of flour*, and 1 and 1/2 cups of water and let it rest for ten minutes. Then I add 1/2 cup of sourdough starter and a little over 1 tsp kosher salt. I let the KitchenAid mix that several minutes with a dough hook while I add flour, tablespoon after tablespoon after tablespoon, waiting for the dough to leave the sides of the bowl, which it doesn’t want to do today. Eventually, I move it to a floured board and knead by hand as it absorbs all of the flour from the board. We do this dance for quite awhile and then  I smear a little olive oil in the bread bowl, cover it with a dish towel and consign it to the refrigerator: I will make the pizza tomorrow. The arcane pizza-making instructions come from The Cheese Board Collective Works, one of my favorite cookbooks for pizza and sourdough bread.

Now, some people I know make delicious pizza. They seem to plan what they will put on it. Around our house, we make pizza because we have a lot of odds and ends of cheese and meat, or half a jar of olives to use or some leftover pasta sauce or eggplant that needs to come out of the freezer. Or we make pizza because it will use the mozzarella we have in the house. I spied some green olives on the door of the fridge that I suspect will become pizza ingredients and I believe I have some roasted red peppers in the cooler.

The cooler, by the way, is a cabinet that more houses should have. It is a cupboard built next to an outside wall of the house. Part of the wall has been replaced with a screen. Because fresh air cools the cabinet, you can keep oil, vinegar, mustard, ketchup — things that might otherwise take up space in your refrigerator — in the cooler. We store canned goods in there, too, both homemade and store-bought, and things like Karo syrup.

The day slips away after that in another round of phone calls and emails about hotels in France. Sigh. I whir 1/4 cup of minced candied ginger in the blender with the juice of two limes and a handful of fresh mint leaves. I pour most of it into a glass and add sparkling water. I call that dinner. Without the water this makes a great dressing for fruit salad: you can add more lime if it is too paste-like, but the fruit will give off juice. It’s a good alternative to dairy-based dressings and mayo (shudder). I’ve been known to dress carrot salad with it, too.

What do you do with “hot” rutabagas and watery carrots? I expect some gardeners or farm cooks will have some answers.

*I like to use part whole wheat flour in pizza dough, usually at least 1/2 a cup.

I have been distracted this week, planning my life in advance, spending untold hours on the internet booking flights to and from Paris, reserving train seats, surveying my distinctly non-chic wardrobe with dismay and bemusement. It is odd spending the first few days of May madly thinking about mid-to-late June, when I will be at a writing retreat in Limousin with Natalie Goldberg and then in Paris itself.

Meanwhile, here in Kensington, our lone apple tree is in full bloom and spring crops slowly make their way into the farm box. Today I got snow peas and strawberries, asparagus and baby romaine lettuce, carrots and spring onions and braising greens. The breeze has blown all day. The sky is pale blue with wide filmy streaks of clouds.

The fruit and vegetables remind me of a meal I had last May in New York. Natalie had invited me and my friend and host Dorotea to lunch at her friend’s Manhattan apartment. Natalie and her friend had gone to a farmers’ market and come back with the first asparagus and strawberries of the season. Natalie fried up some gluten-free pancakes and set the berries and stalks on the table for our spring feast high over the Hudson River. Everybody but me tucked into the asparagus while I ate strawberries and pancakes for lunch.

May has come again and I am in my own kitchen. This morning I opened a bag of whole-grain blue corn that I stashed in the refrigerator when I last came back from New Mexico. The corn is fine-milled, pale blue with flecks of darker blue. I cooked up a quarter cup of it as a simple mush, boiling it in a cup of milk with a few grains of kosher salt and a small handful of dried sour cherries. The corn turned a lovely pale lavender color when cooked. I added a few drops of vanilla and stirred, then spooned up my breakfast, satisfied.

Blue Cornmeal Pancakes with Strawberries. 4″ x 6″ Gouache and Watercolor Pencil. Sharyn DImmick.

For tomorrow, I plan a simple elaboration. Tomorrow I will cook another pot of blue cornmeal mush, eliminating the cherries. I will beat in an egg or two, some flour, some milk, a few tablespoons of sugar and some baking powder. I will stir in 1 tsp of vanilla last. I will heat a skillet on medium heat, drop in some butter, swirl it in the pan and drop quarter-cupfuls of pancake batter onto the hot metal.

Before I prepare the pancakes, I will wash and hull the strawberries. I will taste one and decide whether or not they need sugar. Since I will probably be eating them with maple syrup I may not sugar the berries unless Mom insists.

I first learned to make these pancakes from a Mark Bittman recipe reprinted in a local newspaper. You can read it here. Then I realized a couple of years later that I could wing it by using leftover polenta or cornmeal mush from dinner and adding basic pancake ingredients. I felt like a genius, but I never would have thought of it had I not made Bittman’s wonderful recipe many times. The pancakes are filling, but not heavy, and have become one of my favorite breakfasts for the warmer months when fresh fruit becomes abundant. I like them best with berries or peaches –any berries, but strawberries are the berries of the moment in my neighborhood.

Food Notes: Blue corn, if you can get it, is wonderful. It contains more protein than yellow or white corn. Also, Monsanto, developer of much genetically-modified corn, reputedly does not bother with blue corn, concentrating its research on yellow hybrids. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer not to ingest Monsanto’s experiments or products if I can avoid doing so. Vanilla adds a lovely flavor to corn, dare I say je ne sais quoi? I urge you to try it next time you make a sweet corn recipe.

Travel Notes: I am currently looking for hotels in Paris. Nothing expensive. Cheap is good. The room can be simple and I don’t care if the building is old. The hotel needs to be safe and near a Metro stop. If anyone has suggestions, or suggestions about how to find what I need please comment below or contact me. Merci beaucoup. — Sharyn

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