Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Favorite Appetizer

Our trip departure was delayed by a day so I thought I could squeeze one more little post in before we go. I'd like to share a simple 5-ingredient appetizer that I like to make. It is not particularly seasonal so it can be made any time of the year. I like to pair it with a frizzante, or semi-sparkling wine, like a Prosecco.

Rosemary Walnut Goat Cheese Honey Toasts
You will need:
a fresh baguette
6 oz. of soft goat cheese
1 T. fresh or dried rosemary
1/3 cup walnuts
some honey for drizzling
Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Chop walnuts and toast until fragrant in an iron skillet. Bring goat cheese to room temperature for ease of spreading. Crush dried rosemary with a mortar and pestle or with your fingers until it is in small pieces (~1/4") or chop fresh rosemary. Slice baguette into rounds. Spread with goat cheese. Place on a baking sheet in preheated oven for 9 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with toasted chopped walnuts and crushed rosemary. Drizzle with warmed honey and serve.


One last photo of my birthday bouquet looking Christmassy 
Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Less is More and the Concept of Enough

Lately I've been pondering the concept of enough. For many years now this country has held the philosophy that more is better. More money, bigger cars, bigger houses, larger portions, big box stores, more possessions, larger screens, more options, etc., etc. Corporations want to make more and more profits. When is it enough? Is there ever an enough?

A friend once told me a story about an experience he had on an island off of Papua New Guinea many years ago. He was with some native young men out in the forest. I can't remember if they were hiking or hunting or what. They stopped to make a fire. As the fire got going my friend started to add more wood. "No, don't do that," the boys said, "that is Enough". They lived on a small island, fuel wood was scarce, and from a young age they had internalized the concepts of conservation and sufficiency.

The Pre-Columbian native people of our country seemed to be innately conservation-minded as well. It would be crazy for anyone with a subsistence-based life tied to the land to be wasteful. But the conception of limitless resources and the ways of wastefulness and poor stewardship seem like such an inherent part of the collective American psyche. 

I think about the native folks living here just 500 years ago in this country. Their concept of enough was so tied to food, water, and fuel wood; the resources needed to get through the year. I can relate to this feeling when it comes to firewood. We heat almost exclusively with wood and much time and energy is expended to procure it. What a wonderful feeling when it is all split and stacked tightly in the shed. Ahhh, we have Enough to make it through the winter!
Our modern day concept of enough is complicated by money and the uncertainty of the "economy" and by unknown college expenses, health care, and "retirement". It is hard sometimes to really know what is enough when it comes to these things. But there are many day to day things where this concept of enough can be applied. An example that comes to mind around Christmas time involves excessive giving of presents, especially to children. Does a child really need 27 gifts? Could 1 or 2 or 3 be Enough? Could the few even be appreciated more than the many? Other examples for the exploration of Enough might include food, alcohol, technology, clothes, cars, power consumption; consumption in general.

A long ago friend's parents had the word PLENTY carved on a shelf in their kitchen. I try to embrace the concept of Plenty in my life especially as it relates to food and love and time. It is tied to the concept of Enough. Plenty is Enough's generous cousin.

We on this planet Earth have to realize that we ALL live on an island; an island in space, and that our resources are finite and precious. We in the U.S. need to stop using more than our share. Individuals and corporations need to re-examine the paradigm of continuous expansion. It's like that top 1% trying to hang on to every cent of their tremendous wealth as if their lives depended upon it. As if it were their food stores or firewood for the winter instead of the obscene surplus it is hard for most of us to imagine. (Oh, oops, I'm gravitating toward the political. But even food, my neutral topic, can be political.)

I believe there can still be Plenty for everyone if we can re-discover and re-define the concept of Enough.

My son's kindergarten class sang this song for their holiday concert today:

It's a world of laughter, a world of tears
It's a world of hope and a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all...

Okay, well that was a big topic for the kind of time I have to post. I have written Enough. On another note our family is embarking on a 15-day road trip in a couple of days and will return early in the new year. I'm not sure whether I will have a chance to post along the way so there may be a Farm Girl Blog lull but I am excited about continuing my new hobby in 2012! I wish everyone a holiday season of Enough and Plenty!


Monday, December 12, 2011

The Enormous Bread Bowl and the Journey to My Happy Kitchen

When I was around 19 or 20 years old I used to bake these decadent poppy seed white-chocolate chip cookies and sell them at cafes in Sebastopol. My aunt, a baker, upon learning of my interest in baking gifted me with a bread bowl. It is an extraordinary bowl. It was made by Robinson Ransbottom Pottery out of Roseville, Ohio. I liked it at the time but I also felt a bit burdened by it. The thing is huge and weighs all of 15 pounds. At the time, I could fit all of my belongings into one vehicle. For years, I moved an average of once every 6 months and oftentimes shared a kitchen with numerous college roommates. After college I began my career by working seasonally for the Forest Service and so my nomadic lifestyle continued. For many years the bowl and I were separated. It sat in a closet at my parents' house, unused but not forgotten. 

Even my first house was too small for the bowl. In 1998 I bought a 700 square foot cabin at Lake Tahoe where I worked at the time. Oh, the joy of my own kitchen at last! It was small and dated but it was mine. I have fond memories of sushi get togethers, BBQs, fresh pasta, pesto shrimp, apple pies, baba ganoush, hummus, quiches, soups, salads, and scones. Cabinet and counter space were both limited. I remember one particular incident where I was blending some batter for apple clafouti. The blender lid was not secured properly and batter sprayed out all over me. I stepped back, right onto the edge of a pie plate full of brandy-sauteed apples and batter which, of course, flipped up, covering my shoe and the floor with a sticky mess. It was on the floor because I had run out of counter space. Actually, if I recall correctly, this occurred about 5 minutes after I had chipped my grandparents' old crystal liquor decanter as I pulled the bottle of brandy from the back of a crammed cabinet. Oh, how I longed for a bigger kitchen!

It wasn't until 8 years ago, when we moved into our current house, that the bowl had a kitchen to properly accommodate it. When not in use for baking, the bowl literally serves as our bread bowl. It sits prominently but unpretentiously in a counter corner where it holds our loaves of bread, baguettes, and chips. It is also the perfect bowl to mix large batches of dough and leave it to rise. I am not a weekly bread baker but instead am sporadic. But whenever I am ready the bowl is there. Although it has now seen a lot of use as a container and for pizza dough and bread projects it looks as new as the day I received it 20 plus years ago. It is made to last and down-homey and wonderful. It took awhile for me to settle down and find my happy and spacious kitchen and now the bread bowl is an integral part of it. 

Yesterday I used it to mix pumpkin bread batter.

Mom's Pumpkin Bread
Notes: My mom always made this with homemade fresh pumpkin puree and I do the same but I'm sure canned would be fine too. This recipe makes one large loaf (9"x5") but is easily doubled to make 3 medium loaves. Freezes well.

In one bowl mix:
1 3/4 cup flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
3/4 t. each cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger 
1/2 t. clove
In another bowl mix:
2 eggs 
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup water
1 1/4 cup pumpkin puree
 - Add dry to wet ingredients. Stir well. Add 3/4 cup of raisins and 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts or pecans. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/4 hour or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Birthday Blog

Many years ago today, I was born. This December 9th dawned clear and crisp with temps in the teens. Being a hungry farm girl, this day will be about food and cooking as much as anything. My birthday request to my husband was to keep up with the dishes as I cook my way through the day. The only way to keep our kitchen warm when it is 18 degrees outside is to keep that oven and stovetop going.

We are having a favorite local couple in for dinner. My friend, a kindred spirit, is bringing greenhouse grown arugula salad, a jar of homemade gooseberry jam, and her special ginger carrot cake. You can see why we are friends.

My kitchen plans for the day include a miso sesame ginger sweet potato dip that I definitely want to share with everyone. It is a super healthy, simple but unique, and tasty recipe. I also plan to make spicy fennel almonds, ground turkey chili, Mexican wedding cookies, and pumpkin bread. On a wintery day, spending time being creative in the kitchen (especially with someone else on dish-duty) is my idea of a little bit of heaven.

Yesterday I made smoked-sea-salted caramels. I almost never make candy but I was inspired by an advertisement for salted caramels in a holiday Crate and Barrel catalogue that appeared in our mailbox recently.

These will make nice gifts for the neighbors

Below is the sweet potato dip recipe. You will need miso paste and sesame tahini.  
Miso, sesame, and sweet potato dip
1 lb. deep orange flesh sweet potatoes, peeled
   and cut into 1 to 2 inch chunks
2 t. minced fresh ginger
2 T. white or red miso paste
1 ½ T. tahini
2 t. soy sauce
2 T. thinly sliced green onion
1 ½ t. toasted sesame seeds

1. Steam sweet potatoes until tender (~20 mins). Drain reserving liquid and let cool slightly.
2. Whirl sweet potatoes, ginger, miso, tahini, soy sauce, and a bit of the reserved liquid in food processor until very smooth.
3. Transfer to bowl and stir in ½ the green onions. Sprinkle top with remaining green onions and sesame seeds.  *A drizzle of sesame oil is also nice.
4. Serve warm or at room temperature with cucumber slices for dipping.

The finished dip sans the green onions
(I thought I had some??)

Every holiday season our quaint downtown hosts a "Sparkle Night" where all the businesses stay open late and serve food and drink. There is a lights parade and carols and a Christmas tree lighting on the grand old courthouse lawn. It is always a cold night but a couple thousand intrepid men, women, and children bundle up and come out to meet their friends and neighbors, and share in the holiday cheer. On Sparkle Night 7 years ago I tasted these spicy almonds at a business and jotted down the recipe from the proprietor. They are quick and easy to put together and make a nice appetizer for company. My husband loves savory nibbles in the pre-dinner hour and these are perfect for that too.

Christmas Sparkle Spicy Fennel Almonds
non-stick spray
3 T. sugar
2 t. fennel
1 t. dried crushed red pepper
1 t. salt
1 c. raw almonds
1 T. water

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.
Line a small baking pan with foil and spray with non-stick spray. Combine sugar, fennel, red pepper and salt in a bowl. Add 1 T. water and mix well. Add the almond and stir to coat well. Spread in a single layer in pan and cook stirring occasionally (2 or 3 times) for approximately 25 minutes until the almonds are golden brown. Cool and break apart. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

SUSHi!! Part 2

This is the second part of a post on sushi making. See Part 1 (December 5th) for a list of essentials you will need before you begin.

Making the rice
1 scant cup of rice makes 4 sushi rolls (feeds 2)
1 heaping cup makes 5 sushi rolls (feeds 3)
Rinse sushi rice a few times in the saucepan you are going to cook it in. I even like to let it soak for a few minutes while I am pulling out other ingredients. Drain off water and add 1 1/2 cups water for each cup of rice. Bring just to a boil and then turn heat down. This rice is fast cooking so set the timer for 10 minutes. You can use this time to prep filling ingredients. Also place a couple tablespoons of rice vinegar and a couple teaspoons of sugar into a small saucepan and set aside. This can be heated quickly to dissolve the sugar as the rice is finishing. This mixture is then poured over the cooked hot rice as you are stirring to cool it.

The filling
Again, here is where the possibilities are great. You can go veggie or vegan, raw or cooked, spicy or mild. My fillings are dictated by what is available to me at the moment. Some suggestions: sauteed shiitake mushrooms, raw jicama, sauteed zucchini strips, pickled daikon radish......

Asparagus is yummy in sushi rolls and even when it is not in our garden I'll sometimes buy just four or five stalks just for this purpose.
I simmer these in a shallow pan until tender
You can also use bay shrimp or chopped up fish to make a spicy mayonnaise filling. Just add some mayo and cayenne and Joe's Stuff or other favorite spicy blend. My brother and I once made a filling like this with chopped cooked artichoke hearts. Use your imagination. Below are several ingredients I prepped for recent sushi rolling session. I seared the albacore with a wasabi/oil rub. The bowl contains a spicy shrimp mixture. Everything else is just cut up in thin strips.

Making the rolls
When you are ready to roll, you will need a small container of water (I use the cup measure I used for the rice) near your work station. (You know I just had the thought that there is probably a perfectly good YouTube video that shows you exactly how to do this!) Place the sheet of nori shiny side down on the flatter side of the rolling mat. Spoon some warm but not hot rice onto the seaweed and spread it out to make an even layer leaving half an inch at the bottom and 1 1/2 inches at the top. Lay your ingredients across the center of the rice. If you are a beginner, start small. Do not over-fill or it will be more difficult to roll. I keep a small bottle of sesame oil nearby to drizzle over the filling once it is in place. The rolling part just takes a little practice. If you've ever rolled a cigarette or...ahem...anything else like that, you already have the basic concept. 

Right before you begin to roll you will dip your finger in the cool water you have placed nearby and wet the top edge of the nori. Then, using the mat to help, roll the bottom edge AROUND the top of the filling and try to tuck the bottom edge of nori in under the filling with your fingers a bit. Then use the mat to continue to make as tight a roll as you can, making sure you get a good seal with your wet edge. Roll completely up in the mat and compress lightly with your hands. Unroll and presto:

Rolls can be cut up and eaten immediately or made ahead several hours and refrigerated. Remove from fridge a good half hour before serving. They are more flavorful when closer to room temperature. Use the sharpest serrated knife you own and saw into bite-sized pieces. Arrange on a platter and serve with wasabi soy sauce. Reconstitute the powdered wasabi with a bit of water before adding soy sauce.

I love raw fish but as you can imagine it is challenging to obtain sushi grade fresh fish here in the mountains. And then there is the sustainability issue. Here is link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's ocean-friendly seafood recommendations: Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch  

I buy sushi grade Ahi (Bigeye) tuna from a grocery store here in town. Here is what the seafood guide has to say about Ahi.

Tuna, BigeyeBest Choice: These fish are abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.Ahi, Po’onui, Patudo, MaguroU.S. AtlanticTroll, Pole-and-line
Tuna, BigeyeGood Alternative: These are good alternatives to the best choices column. There are some concerns with how they are fished or farmed – or with the health of their habitats due to other human impacts.Ahi, Po’onui, Patudo, MaguroWorldwideTroll, Pole-and-line
Tuna, BigeyeGood Alternative: These are good alternatives to the best choices column. There are some concerns with how they are fished or farmed – or with the health of their habitats due to other human impacts.Ahi, Po’onui, Patudo, MaguroU.S. AtlanticLongline
Tuna, BigeyeAvoid: Avoid these products for now. These fish come from sources that are overfished or fished or farmed in ways that harm the environment.Ahi, Po’onui, Patudo, MaguroWorldwide, Except U.S. AtlanticLongline

It looks like if you are going to get serious about eating ocean-friendly, you will need an open line of communication with your supplier. Not all of the information necessary to make an informed decision is always listed on the label. I have to admit that I am not sure about the Ahi I buy. I will need to ask how it was caught next time I am at the market. I'll let you know what I find out. It could be that I will not longer be able to purchase it in blissful ignorance....

Monday, December 5, 2011

SUSHi!! Part 1

I love sushi. It is sensual. I love the taste of seaweed and wasabi. I love the texture of raw fish. I think it is beautiful to look at and a treat to eat. It feels healthy and light. It is one of the only foods that I experience intense cravings for. Because of that, I make it often. If you also love sushi but are daunted by making it yourself, I hope to embolden you to get rolling! Making sushi rolls is as easy as making burritos once you get the hang of it.

It can also be super budget friendly. Like much Japanese cuisine, it features rice.  The rice is the canvas for your creativity. It is a great way to use up that last carrot, the ripe avocado, that half a cucumber from last night's salad, etc. It is easy to turn a few random veggies into an eye and palate pleasing presentation.

So, where to begin? You will need a few things to get started. Once these items have been procured, making sushi is a breeze. If you live almost anywhere but Quincy, you should be able to find these items in your area. There is an Asian market in Cotati, Ca that I stop at every time I visit my parents. That is where I pick up wasabi powder, nori (the sheets of seaweed for rolling), rice vinegar, extra rolling mats for friends, etc.

1) A rolling mat
A bamboo rolling mat costs a couple bucks. Here is one on bamboo mat
2) Nori sheets
A package of 50 costs me $7 at my Asian market. Make sure you get full-sheets not half-sheets.
3) Rice vinegar
Either seasoned or not. You can find this at most grocery stores.
4) Sushi rice
Sushi rice is typically a short-grained white rice. This does work the best to create the sticky consistency for spreading on the nori but I have used all different rices successfully in a pinch. Short-grained brown rice works well but its flavor can eclipse some of the more subtle fish flavors. It is a great healthy option for veggie rolls though.
5) Wasabi
A Japanese spicy hot horshradish sold in paste and powder form. I always buy the powder. 
6) Sesame oil
This is not necessary to make sushi but I love it drizzled in every roll I make.

Well, since I accidentally hit "post" at this point, I think I am going to make the sushi tutorial into two separate posts, part 1 and 2. Look for part 2 tomorrow. Here is a mouth watering photo to keep your interest.

Spicy shrimp, seared ahi, asparagus,
cucumber, and avocado roll

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Comforting Lamb Stew

I made a lamb stew last night for dinner. The nights are cold; the fire is warm; and this kind of dinner hits the spot. We bought a lamb awhile back from a local ranch. If you have ever purchased a butchered animal before you know that part of the fun is choosing how you want the butcher to cut, prepare, and wrap it. With the lamb, for example, we had a choice of ribs: chops or Frenched racks, legs: bone in or out, shoulder: chops or ground or stew chunks, etc. I have used the stew meat for shish-kabobs in the summer. Last night I created a tasty and satisfying one-pot meal I will now share.

I started with just a one pound package of lamb stew meat. Use more if you like a meatier stew. Cut the pieces up until they are truly bite-sized. Salt and pepper and cumin the chunks and then roll them in flour. Pour a few glugs of olive oil into a heavy pot and heat till hot.  Brown the meat in the pot and then remove.

Add 2 chopped onions and a large chopped garlic clove to pan and another glug of oil if necessary and saute until tender.

Add the meat back in. In the fridge I had a half a can of Amy's Organic Soups Chunky Tomato Bisque which I added at this point. You could substitute a cup of tomato sauce or diced tomatoes and maybe a teaspoon of sugar. Add 1 teaspoon of grated lemon zest and the juice from half a lemon. Also sprinkle on a teaspoon of cinnamon and stir well. At this point you can add 4 cups of beef stock and a bay leaf and let it simmer for 1 hour. After 1 hour add 2 cubed potatoes and a few sliced carrots.  Simmer for 25 or 30 minutes longer until vegetables are tender.  Salt to taste.  
Serves 4.

Ingredient List:
1 lb. lamb stew meat
2 onions
2 yukon gold potatoes
a few carrots
1 cup tomato soup or tomato sauce 
   or diced tomatoes
a lemon
a bay leaf
olive oil
a little flour for dredging
a little sugar (optional)