Friday, October 29, 2010

Cooking with Pumpkin

I picked up a butternut squash at the farmers' market on Sunday to make a bread pudding with all those leftover baguettes that are in my freezer.  I ended up only using about a third of the squash for the bread pudding, so I had to come up with some ways to use the rest this week.

The first experiment was butternut squash pizza.  Yup.  Pizza.  And it was tasty!  I made a whole wheat with honey pizza crust using my sourdough starter and added caramelized onions, the precooked butternut squash, and crumbles of blue cheese.  I think some roasted garlic would've been a nice addition, but this is definitely going in the would-make-again file.

I still had another few cups of squash leftover after those two dishes, so I got a bit excited when I spied a pumpkin cookie recipe on Make It Do's website.  I followed her cookie recipe except I used my butternut squash in place of the canned pumpkin.  I ran out of butter (only had 3/4 cup for the cookies) so I made a cream cheese frosting instead of the butter/brown sugar frosting.  I got a thumbs up from my husband on these!  I look forward to eating them for breakfast tomorrow morning with my coffee.

After all that, I still had more!  I popped the rest in a container and threw it in the freezer for the next time I get a hankering for risotto.

Pumpkins and other hard squashes are easy to bake.  Simply slice them in half from the stem end to the blossom end (top to bottom,) scoop out the seeds and the stringy bits, brush olive oil on the cut area, then pop them face down on a baking sheet to bake at 400 degrees for about an hour, or until they are tender.  When they are done, the flesh is scooped out of the skins easily.  You can do this a day ahead of time and keep the squash in the refrigerator until you are ready to add it to your main recipe. 

Hard squashes and pie pumpkins can be stored in the pantry for up to a few months, so stock up now while you can get them! 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Repurposing Halloween Costumes

I've made a lot of Halloween costumes over the years, some for myself, some for friends, some for my sister and some for my husband.  I've kept all of my costumes.  They live in the tiny closet in my sewing room as a reminder of years past.  But this year, I was having trouble motivating to make a costume.  Nothing was inspiring me...

... until one of the blogs I follow posted this fun crafting project for a boiling cauldron over on the Polka Dot Chair.  It's such a cool idea and I think I have all the materials to put it together.  It seemed like the perfect vessel for passing out candy to the trick-or-treaters on Sunday.  And so it followed that I needed a witch costume!  I haven't been a witch for Halloween since the third grade when my mom made me a black satin cape complete with a back slit to allow for my broomstick.  (Thanks Mom!)  I vowed not to spend any money on Halloween costumes this year since I have more than enough supplies around here to make something, so I went shopping in my costume closet and my fabric stash.

First up - the hat.  I had to make this one from scratch, and luckily, I've made enough hats that drafting up a quick pattern was easy.  (If anyone wants a tutorial on how to make a witch hat, post in the comments and I'll put one up.)  I used some black fabric I'd purchased for a costume last year that never happened and found enough heavy-weight interfacing in my stash to finish it up. 

Next - the outfit.  Not wanting to spend too much time on this project, I opted not to make a whole new ensemble.  Digging through the costume closet produced an old pirate costume.  A white floofy shirt with a black corset vest.  Depending on accessories, this could go from pirate to beer wench to renaissance lady to a witch.  The white shirt was just too clean and neat for a witch, though, so I slashed up the sleeves and the hem and made it pretty ragged.  And the white was too white.  But never fear!  I had a bottle of black Rit dye on my shelf!  I have no idea what the project was that made me buy a bottle of Rit dye, but it's over 10 years old I think.  I dropped the shirt in the bucket of dye and an hour later - a dark gray shirt!  And the edges got a bit more tattered, so that helped. 

For the skirt, I pulled out last year's time traveler turn-of-the-century skirt.  It's dark and has several layers - it'll do. 

Last - accessories.  I needed some pouches for my potions and talismans.  Using some leftover scraps from last year's accessories, I made a mini pouch to hang around my neck, adding some chicken feathers (my chickens have been molting the last two months - I have plenty,) an old button, and using a velvet ribbon for the chain.

A whole new costume for a few hours of work - no purchases needed!

What's in your costume closet?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Area for the Extras

Every once in a while, I have extra seedlings left over from planting the main vegetable beds.  I always have a hard time tossing those extras into the chicken coop or the compost pile, so a week ago, I decided to start adding another planting area in a section of the yard that has been unused for a few years.  I added some compost and planted the extra lettuce, beets and swiss chard in half of the area, and sprinkled a layer of lettuce seeds on the other half.  This week, I had a few extra celery and bunching onion seedlings that I put at one end of the bed. 

I figure this can be my back-up area in case some of the other plants fail, and I can share the extra harvest with my neighbors.  This spot will probably become my seed saving area in the future - a place I can let a few of each plant go to seed without interrupting the planting rotations of the rest of the garden.  And I get to use more of our excess broken concrete pieces to define the area!  I foresee another jackhammer rental in my future.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Herbs: Greek Oregano

Early in the spring, I spruced up an area under the feijoa tree by the front door with some perennial herbs from the garden center.  One of the herbs I purchased was Greek Oregano and I potted it up when it was quite small into one of my old ceramic pots.  I wasn't sure if I wanted it there by the door or eventually over by another area of herbs on the side of the yard.  It's been growing well where it is and I haven't thought much about moving it since I bought it.  I haven't thought much about it at all really, since I rarely use fresh oregano in my cooking.  Then, last week, I ran out of dried oregano while making something in the kitchen.  That's when I realized it was time to pick some herbs!

The oregano was obviously neglected.

I trimmed it up, pulled out the old woody pieces and pulled a bunch of leaves out of the pot.

And I disturbed this guy.

And was reminded that I need to buy gardening gloves soon.

But I picked out the snail that was next to the spider, fed it to the chickens, and brought my bounty of herbs inside.

Time to pull out the dehydrator!  My dehydrator used to belong to my parents, but after it sat in the garage for many years unused, they brought it down and now it sits just above my pressure cooker in the dining room.  I suppose I could've dried the herbs outside or in the oven, but the dehydrator is easy and all ready to go. 

I gently washed the stems and leaves, setting aside any damaged or brown leaves for the compost pile.

old woody section

fresh tender leaves perfect for preserving

I trimmed off all the leaves and spread them out onto the drying rack...

... set the temperature to 95 degrees and plugged it in.

The book that came with the Snackmaster said 2-3 hours for oregano leaves.  4 hours later, they still weren't dry.  A few hours after that... still not dry.  They were about halfway there, so I turned off the dehydrator and let them sit over night.  They were finally dry by the morning.  Next time, I think I'll leave the leaves on the stems and dry them on one of the mesh layers instead of the solid layer and strip the leaves afterward.

After making a mental note that I should dry more leaves next time, I poured the dry leaves still whole into an old clean jam jar and added it to my spice collection.

And I hope to never have to buy oregano in the spice aisle again.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Planting Garlic

After a few weeks of hemming and hawing over whether or not to order garlic bulbs online, I took the plunge and ordered some White Sicilian softneck garlic bulbs from Seeds of Change on Tuesday.  I thought about planting garlic from bulbs picked up at the farmer's market, but I wanted to know exactly what I was planting.  I am thinking about getting some from the market anyway and using them for companion planting around the garden in case the other garlic doesn't work out.  Anyway, this is what showed up in the mail today!

It even came with planting and harvesting instructions!

I also ordered sweet corn, bush beans, and echinacea seeds for next spring.

But back to the garlic.  Yesterday, in anticipation of the garlic arrival, I pulled out one of the remaining zucchini plants that hadn't produced anything in two months.  Today I added a layer of compost and loosened the soil down about a foot.  I pulled apart all the cloves from the garlic bulbs, leaving the paper intact around each clove, and laid them on the soil about 6" apart to see how much room I needed in the bed.

Then I placed each clove about 2" down into the soil with the pointed end facing up.

I covered them back up with soil and added several inches of straw.  Leaves would work just as well, but I happen to have lots of straw around for the chickens.

And sometime late next spring or early summer, I should have 24 garlic bulbs to braid for the kitchen!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Free calendula seedlings

The parkway in front of my house goes through many stages every year.  A month ago it was a brown mass of bermuda grass.  After all the rain this month, it is now a calendula and poppy seedling explosion.  I planted a colorful mix of poppy seeds two years ago which did well the first year.  I added a couple of calendula seeds to fill in the empty spots and those have done even better.  I let everything go to seed in that space so it's always fun to see what pops up when it rains.  Seeing all these calendula seedlings this morning inspired me to transplant some of them to a bare spot in the garden. 

It's a 4'x4' triangular spot next to the driveway that has been waiting for plants for a few years now.  Some day I'll make it out to Theodore Payne's native plant nursery and find some perennials, but in the meantime, I have free calendula seedlings!  If you are local and want some, come on by!  I'm happy to share.

I planted the seedlings about 8" apart in the new space and added the few poppy seedlings that were in that shovelful of dirt. 

I hand watered the area a bit with some of the rainwater from my rainbarrel as the soil under the feijoa tree is very dry.  Hopefully these seedlings will survive the transplanting and provide some much needed color in this empty spot.  I'll post more photos once they fill in.

To hold you over, here are some gratuitous garden close-ups.

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Green Bean, Zucchini and Potato Stew

I found this recipe on Epicurious for Green Bean, Zucchini and Potato Stew over the summer when I had green beans and zucchinis coming out of my ears from the garden.  It's one of my favorite stews from this year.  I made it again today to eat with the bread from my baking adventures.  I still have several bags of frozen green beans from the summer's bounty, so I used those along with potatoes and onions from the farmer's market, the last yellow tomatoes from the vines out front, only a little parsley from the garden and a whole dried cayenne pepper.  I add about 2 cups of water to the stew and finish it with a bit of balsamic vinegar.  This time, I also added some precooked navy beans that I had leftover from the baked bean experiment. 

If you have any green beans left in your freezer, or can still get them at the farmer's market, I highly recommend you try this stew!

Baking Bread the King Arthur Way

Over the weekend, a friend and I flew from L.A. to Boston, then drove up to Vermont to take a baking class at King Arthur Flour's Baking Education Center.  I opted for the Baguette class since I've been making bread about once a week for the last year and had made some attempts at baguettes.  Apparently I was doing it ALL WRONG.  I had no idea there were so many little techniques specific to making baguettes! 

Some things I learned at King Arthur Flour:
  • Mix the dry ingredients together to be sure the ratios of dry ingredients remain consistent, then add water to achieve a wet, sticky dough.  (I'd been adding part of the flour and the water, then adding more flour to achieve the correct consistency.)
  • No sugar is called for in the recipe.  Just flour, salt, yeast, water.
  • Use all-purpose flour.  Bread flour and wheat flour are too stiff for making the long baguette shape.  The all-purpose flour allows the bread to be shaped without bouncing back.
  • Don't be afraid of super sticky dough getting all over your hands.
  • I really really want a new oven that can maintain a high temperature after the door is opened.
Even though I have 4 giant baguettes in my freezer that I brought home from the class stuffed into my carry-on bag, I wanted to try the techniques I learned from class here at home today before I forgot them. 

Sourdough vs. Instant yeast - 

We used instant yeast in class, but I try to always use my sourdough starter in breads at home instead of dried yeast, so I had to adjust the class recipe a bit to use the starter.  I fed my starter yesterday evening.  Then at about 10pm last night, I used 1 1/4 cups of fed starter and 1/2 cup of flour to make the equivalent of the "poolish" we used in class.  It was nice and bubbly this morning.

I added 2 3/4 cups of all purpose flour and 1 1/2 tsp of kosher salt to the poolish and mixed with my new plastic scraper.  Then I added 1/2 cup of water to the bowl to start.  I ended up adding about 3/4 cup of water total to make a very wet sticky dough. 

Scraping the wet dough out of the bowl and onto an unfloured counter, I started "kneading".  There were three steps of kneading the baguette dough shown in the class. 

The first is a little hard to describe and difficult to photograph with sticky hands.  Basically, you lay the dough on the counter, stretching it a bit, and dig your thumbs into the middle and tear a few holes down the middle of the dough.  Then you fold the dough onto itself from the top and bottom using the scraper, pick it up and turn it, then repeat the thumb tearing.  Do this several times.  Your hands will be covered in dough, but that's okay!  Just enjoy playing with the dough.

The second step involves cutting pieces of the dough off and stacking them back up.  It's easier to use a metal scraper for this, but the plastic one they gave us worked just fine.  Lay the dough on the counter and chop chunks off one end and pile them up until you've moved all the dough. 

Pick up the dough and chop it again several times.  The dough will be much less sticky at the end of this process. 

The last part of the kneading process is also a difficult one to photograph as it requires both hands.  First, since you still have sticky fingers from the earlier process, "wash" your hands with some flour. 

Using a little flour in your hands, rub them together over a trash can until all the sticky chunks come off and your hands are just nicely floured. 

Pick up the ball of dough with your hands pointed to the left.
pretend my right hand is holding the top of the dough like my left hand in the photo

Then turn the dough 90 degrees and throw it on the counter making the two ends meet each other on the bottom. 

Repeat until the top of the dough is smooth, then place the dough back into the unwashed, unoiled bowl and cover.

Allow to rise for 1.5 hours, folding the dough once half way through.

On a lightly floured surface, turn out the dough and cut apart into two pieces.  Fold both pieces and allow to rest, covered, for another 20 minutes.

Then form into the desired shape.  Since I have way too many baguettes already in my freezer, I opted to try a boule and a flat bread that were both demonstrated in class, but which we did not make ourselves.  I formed the boule, attempting the rolling technique from class, but not sure I quite got it.  I placed it on a floured towel for 45 minutes to rise while the oven heated to 500 degrees.

I also tried to shape the flat bread like the instructor did in class, but that was much harder than she made it look!  I had to do it twice, since the first time, after shaping it, I put it on the floured towel to rest, then when I tried to pick it up and transfer it to parchment paper, it collapsed and stuck to itself in a glop.  I shaped it again and placed it directly onto the parchment.  I brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt, garlic powder, dried thyme and basil, and a little grated parmesan cheese.

I baked both at 450 degrees for 25 minutes, adding steam for the boule and forgetting to check the flat bread at any time through the process.  The boule came out looking pretty good, though I think it could've used another minute or two to get a crispier crust.

The flat bread...

Oops.  I'll have to remember to check on the flat bread after 15 minutes next time.  But there will definitely be a next time!  I can't wait to try again!  If you get the chance to visit Vermont, be sure to sign up for a class at King Arthur flour.  Here's a link to their calendar of classes:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fear of the Pressure Canner

I finally conquered my fear of the pressure canner today.  Well, maybe not conquered, but at least I faced it!  Hearing the weighted gauge rattle every minute is a little nerve-wracking.  I kept thinking I should be wearing safety goggles.  Or hiding under the table. 

I have a heavy-duty All-American pressure cooker/canner model 915.  It's fancy.  My husband bought it for me about two years ago for my birthday and it has sat unused on the shelf in the dining room until this morning.  I have been wanting to can up maple and onion baked beans for some time so I could stop buying them in the store.  I almost bought more cans yesterday, but went to the bulk aisle instead and picked up a giant bag of dried navy beans.   I followed these instructions for making baked beans and they came out alright!  Four hours of stress and anxiety about things exploding all over the kitchen, but nothing happened, and I have 7 pints of baked beans to show for it.  The only problem I had was trying to get the lid off after the pressure went back down to zero.  I had to use a rubber mallet to turn the lid and get it loosened enough to remove it.  I will definitely have to try this process again once I tweak the baked bean recipe a bit.  It needed more salt and more maple syrup and definitely needed some color.

Got a pressure canner?  Do you use it?  I'm inspired to make soups and can those up for days when I don't want to cook!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Growing Beets

I love beets.  I didn't know this growing up as I'd never even had a beet until I was 28 years old.  Now, I can't get enough of them.  I even put them on a pizza a few weeks ago (I loved it, my husband thought it was weird.)  I try to start new beet seeds every month to have a continual harvest available in the garden.  If you like beets and haven't tried planting them in your garden, now is a great time to start! 
These are beet seeds.

They are fairly large and are actually multiple seeds connected together.  When they sprout, you'll often get several seedlings from one seed, but sometimes only one sprouts. 

I'll show you how I start my seeds, but feel free to use whatever method you prefer.  I start most of my seeds in a half-sized wooden flat filled with garden soil and compost.
11" x 14" x 3" wooden flat

It is a smaller area to water while the seedlings are young.  It also gives me an extra month of growing space in the garden for other plants before putting in the new seedlings.  Another reason to start seeds in a flat versus directly in the garden, if any seeds fail to sprout, you won't have an empty space in the garden.

Plant the seeds 1" apart and at least 1/2" deep (up to 1".)  I use 1" chicken wire to help me space the seeds - makes it easy to keep track of how many I've already planted.
push the seed 1/2" into the soil, then cover the hole

Cover the seeds with soil and keep the soil moist, but not soggy.  Most should sprout in a week. Transplant the seedlings 3 to 4 weeks after starting the seeds.  I would err on the side of 3 weeks rather than 4 if you get busy doing other things. 

This is what 4 week old beet seedlings look like. 

This particular seed had two seedlings that sprouted.   You only want to end up with one seedling per 4" planting diameter. 

There are a few ways to thin beet seedlings:

Snip off all but the largest, healthiest seedling per sprouted seed.  You'll snip them off at the soil level, leaving one undisturbed.  If you are transplanting, you can do this either before or after you transplant them into the garden.  This is the best way to thin if you planted your seeds directly in the garden.  You'll want to thin them by the time they are 4 weeks old so they have room to grow full size.


Gently pull apart the beet seedlings and plant each one as a separate plant.  This is what I do.  I'm terrible at thinning seedlings once they are in the ground.  I either forget or I don't have the heart to kill off the extras and let them go to waste. 

Here's one seed that produced three seedlings.

Gently pull them apart keeping as much of the root system and soil attached.

Plant each one 4" apart.

I plant my beet seedlings so that the soil is just above the cotyledons. 

freshly planted beet seedlings
Add some mulch.  Cover with shade netting (if you've got it) for a few days to allow the seedlings to acclimate without melting in the sun.

They should be ready to harvest 45 to 60 days after transplanting.  This is what they look like after 45 days in the garden (70 days after starting the seeds.)

Harvest the beets by simply pulling the whole plant out of the ground, brush off the excess dirt then scrub the root and wash the leaves.

Cut the stems from the beet root (save the leaves and stems for another dish like this), wrap the beet in foil and bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 60-75 minutes until easily pierced with a fork.  Allow to cool, then slip the skins off the beet.  They should peel right off with your fingers.  Enjoy them in your favorite beet recipe!
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