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Addictive, easy, produce-rich pasta. July 16, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, produce season is in full swing. Green and yellow wax beans are ripening faster than we can pick them; our basil, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano are exploding. The farmers’ markets are full of fresh corn. Our own hot and bell peppers and tomatoes are coming on strong, and we have high hopes for our tomatillos and sweet potatoes. Snap peas, garden peas, and lima beans are available at every grocery, along with yellow summer squash, broccoli, kale, and spinach.

And that’s just scratching the surface. But it’s plenty to start with when planning a luscious summer pasta dish. Here are some tips for taking your summer pastas over the top:

* Use long pasta. I like spaghetti or fettucine, rather than the penne, shells, or elbows I enjoy with other dishes. The longer pasta just seems to go better with the veggies and sauce. And skip the flavored pasta to let the delicate flavor of the fresh veggies and herbs shine. The exception is artichoke pasta (such as DeBole’s), which adds protein thanks to its Jerusalem artichoke component without distorting the flavor.

* Blanch these veggies. Rather than tossing some veggies raw into your pasta, blanch them to get the perfect degree of tenderness. Dunk broccoli florets, chopped green and yellow wax beans, yellow summer squash slices or dice, and shredded carrots in boiling water briefly to soften them before adding them to a pasta dish.

* Saute the savories (plus). Saute diced sweet onion, minced garlic, mushrooms, and frozen white shoepeg corn kernels or fresh corn cut off the cob in butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or a mix of the two before adding them to the pasta. Ditto for the fresh herbs and greens like chopped kale or baby spinach. In fact, it’s far better to stir the pasta into them immediately before serving.

* Chop the fresh and canned stuff. Dice fresh red, orange, and/or yellow bell pepper. Don’t cook it at all, just spoon it in before serving. There’s no need to cook olives, pickles, or artichoke hearts if you’re planning to add them, or fragile herbs like cilantro or green onions (scallions). Just chop everything up and add at the last moment. But don’t forget that the oil from canned or jarred treats like artichoke hearts can enrich the pasta.

* Now for the sauce. When the pasta’s al dente and the veggies, herbs and etc. are ready, it’s time to make sauce. Drain the pasta; if you’ve sauteed veggies, you already have the base for a sauce. If you haven’t, it’s time to add olive oil, butter, or a mix, folding in the pasta and steamed veggies, with fresh-cracked pepper, salt (we like RealSalt, sea salt, Himalayan salt, or Trocomare), and the finish.

* Finishing touches. To make the sauce that you want, you’ll need to add something to your base. For a sauce that lets you see all the ingredients and tastes light and luscious, add dry white wine. For a rich sauce, add cream. For a creamy sauce that’s not quite as rich, add plain Greek yogurt. For a sauce that adds a surprising depth of flavor, add your favorite salad dressing: vinaigrette (not balsamic in this case), ranch, blue cheese, Caesar, green goddess. (Just make sure the dressing isn’t sweetened.) If you need a touch of heat, the finest-shredded jalapeno or a dash or two of chipotle pepper sauce would do the trick, but remember, this is pasta, so use a very light hand.

* Don’t forget cheese. Adding fresh bufalo mozzarella, or the shredded cheese of your choice (mozzarella, white Cheddar, Italian mix, Mexican mix, Parmesan, whatever), is a great way to bump up your pasta’s flavor and oomph.

This is pasta, not salad, so I would say no citrus, no fruit, no nuts, no seeds, much as I love them on salad. In fact, they’d be great on a salad that accompanied one of these pasta dishes. And again, let me just note that citrus and melon make luscious, low-cal desserts that are perfect after a summer pasta dish.

Yum! Now I’m hungry.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The best summer desserts. July 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. It always astounds me that people waste so much time obsessing about desserts, especially in summer when there’s such an abundance of delicious produce to choose from. However, my own home, Hawk’s Haven, isn’t immune from this dessert mania. Our friend Ben is a sherbet fanatic, and his favorite sherbet is one that combines several flavors and colors in a single carton.

Yesterday, we were at the grocery and, as usual, OFB began ranting about sherbet when we got to the dairy aisle. We began to think the search was hopeless: ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, but no sherbet. Then, I saw a tricolored, three-flavored sherbet called “Twisted Cactus.” It was pink, orange and yellow, made from prickly pear, blood orange, and marula fruit.

Okay, this doesn’t sound like the sherbet we grew up with, or the tricolored orange, pineapple and raspberry sherbet we all knew and loved. But I love the red-orange blood orange and deep red prickly pear fruit (called tuna, but no relation to the fish), which makes the best margarita going. I didn’t know marula fruit, but was willing to take a chance. OFB gamely agreed: anything for some sherbet. I got some red raspberries to put on top, and we were off.

Once we’d had supper and were home, I made OFB a big bowl of sherbet and raspberries and had a spoonful myself, and whoa! It was sensational. So why didn’t I make myself a bowl? Well, because I had an even better, more refreshing dessert in mind: salted watermelon slices. They were so refreshing, so delightful, so salty/sweet, and so low-cal, the perfect summer dessert. Tomorrow, I’ll have some salted cantaloupe chunks with a few of those raspberries and maybe a few blueberries.

Yes, I did love the sherbet, it was really amazing. But I won’t be having more when I can have ripe fruit instead. (Even OFB has been grazing on our cache of grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, and I can’t wait to add cherries and peaches—along with more watermelon—to the mix.) A ripe, sliced peach topped with red or black raspberries and blueberries: What could be better than that? Unless it’s, maybe, a bowl of ripe cherries or some ripe (but not mealy) watermelon or mango or…

Don’t get me wrong, I love grapefruit and oranges and tangerines and bananas and apples and pears. I love stewed rhubarb, especially over Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. I love homemade jam made with ripe apricots. I love cranberry sauce. I love pretty much all dried fruits, especially dates. I love shredded coconut. About the only fruit I can think of that I don’t love, fresh or dried, is papaya. (I think it’s a texture thing, again, that mealy texture, but then why don’t I like it dried? Maybe it’s texture and flavor.) But in summer, I want fresh, ripe summer fruit. It’s the perfect summer dessert.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Creamed corn, grits, and mango rice. July 9, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I just got home from a weekend in scenic Annapolis, Maryland, where we went out into the Chesapeake Bay in a sailing schooner, saw lots of happy dogs (many sailing with their owners), learned a great deal about oysters, and sat on the dock every sunset watching the yachts, sailing ships, and pretty much every other kind of craft you could imagine as the waves lapped the dock and every imaginable kind of seabird, from seagulls, cormorants and ospreys to ducks and swallows, patrolled the ocean for food.

That two-hour cruise aboard the schooner Woodwind, with a high wind and high waves (not to mention a lot of spray) thanks to Hurricane Arthur, was an exciting and delightful adventure. The only thing I wasn’t expecting was that the winds and waves would tilt the sailboat so that our side was practically pitching us into the Bay for the first hour. I’m a strong swimmer, but flying overboard in front of a boatload of spectators wasn’t my idea of entertainment.

Fortunately, OFB kept a grip on me until the ship turned and I could enjoy the crashing waves and rocking of the ship, plus the occasional refreshing blast of spray, without having to worry if I’d be washed overboard. The trip as a whole was simply great—I love the water—and I’d recommend it to anyone. (And to note, neither OFB nor anyone else on board, from elders to the numerous children of all ages, seemed the least bit concerned about washing overboard, so it must have just been me.)

This was fun, as was sitting on the dock watching all the ships zip around or majestically sail in or waddle in, blasting their horns, as the golden light turned to darkness and the wind off the Bay cooled us beautifully, supplied as we were with delicious drinks—rum punch for me and Pusser’s Painkiller (medium strength) for OFB—from Pusser’s Caribbean Grill on the dock. I could have sat there all night, but OFB was getting hungry (shock surprise) and finally suggested that we get a move on and find somewhere to eat.

The first night, we decided to simply settle down where we’d started and eat at Pusser’s Caribbean Grill. Named, in case you’re wondering, for the only rum still manufactured to Royal Navy standards. Say Puss-er’s, puss as in pus, not puss. Eeewww. But the rum punch is outstanding, and OFB, who enjoys pina coladas, loved the Painkiller. (The name Pusser comes from “purser,” the guy who made sure a sailing ship in His or Her Majesty’s fleet was well supplied.)

I immediately discovered two dishes I need to recreate in the worst way, Pusser’s amazing mango rice and its even more amazing grits with goat cheese. OFB shared a taste of his mango rice, and it was SO delicious—not sweet, as you might think, but distinctively spicy—that if we’d eaten there again, I might have just gotten a plateful and forgotten about everything else (except unsweetened iced tea and rum punch).

As a Southerner, I love grits, and almost never get to eat them, since good grits are thick and luscious, but making them involves pain, since they love to spit on you as they reach that thick perfection, and being splattered by hot, sticky grits is torture. Here in the North, there are no grits to be found. And in far too many restaurants in the South, grits have become a gross, pasty, tasteless, runny side. Yecchh!!! So to find a restaurant that actually offered grits, and goat cheese grits at that, made me start drooling. But the grits were served as part of the famous coastal shrimp and grits dish. Would Pusser’s be willing to just serve me a side of goat-cheese grits sans shrimp? Indeed they would, and boy, were they delicious! I’m a grits-and-butter fanatic, but no butter was needed to supplement the goat cheese in this thick and luscious grits concoction.

Alas, OFB understandably wanted to try as many of Annapolis’s restaurants as we could manage for lunch and supper while we were there, so we didn’t return to Pusser’s and I never got my fill of goat cheese grits or mango rice. Nor could I find recipes for either online. Nor can I honestly say that I’m willing to endure the hissing, spitting grits agony to even try to make my own, or that I have a clue as to what went into the mango rice. I may just have to resign myself to waiting until our next trip to Annapolis to get the good stuff, and this time, plenty of it.

Which is not to say that Southern nostalgia didn’t play a big role in the rest of my restaurant menu choices. The last meal OFB and I ate in Annapolis, a late lunch after a tour of the Naval Academy’s amazing model ship museum, was at Factors Row Restaurant & Bar. (Like pursers, factors were also Colonial-era professionals, also responsible for goods coming in and going out. IRS, anyone? They eventually gave their name to factories, the places where goods were produced.) I was excited to eat there, since the restaurant prided itself on local sourcing, buying everything from its oysters to its beverages from folks who lived and made their living in the immediate vicinity.

But I was stunned by the artisanal drinks on offer. I had the best drink of my entire life at Factors Row, and only wish I could have tried the entire handmade, locally sourced drinks list. (Er, no. More unsweetened iced tea, please.) Factors’ bartender is a genius. Then there was the food.

I saw that the menu offered another classic Southern side dish, creamed corn. Yum! It had been SO long since I’d had creamed corn. After asking our server if it contained meat and receiving a negative, I ordered it.

If you don’t know creamed corn, here’s a little primer. First, forget the “creamed” part. There’s no cream, or even milk, in most creamed corn. Instead, it’s fresh white corn cut off the cob, then the cobs are scraped down to add the “corn milk” to the corn, then the kernels are mashed or chopped to release even more of their “cream.” To serve, the creamed corn is heated and served with butter, salt and pepper to taste.

To see this simple goodness offered on the Factors Row menu was just too much to resist. And oh my, when the creamed corn arrived, was it rich, creamy and good! Not buttery per se, just rich, mild, and delectably creamy. But it was a rather startling color, sort of a chrome yellow rather than a creamy white-yellow. What the bleep? I asked our server, who asked the chef, who revealed that the secret ingredient was avocado puree. Thank you, Factors Row chef! I would never have thought that avocado would have simply intensified the yellow color of creamed corn rather than turning it olive green or some other unfortunate color like khaki. Now it’s just a matter of perfecting that buttery, delicious creamed corn at home.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Fixing the Fourth’s leftovers. July 5, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. July Fourth’s eating extravaganzas may be over, but unless you planned perfectly or sent every last leftover home with friends and family, your refrigerator is probably groaning with the remains of yesterday’s feast. Assuming you took good care of your food, keeping stuff like deviled eggs and potato salad chilled on ice and out of the sun so they wouldn’t spoil and only bringing them out of the fridge at the last minute, I have some suggestions for transforming these dishes into new ones your family will love. And they’re all easy, because you’ve already done most of the work!

* Deviled eggs. Turn deviled eggs into easy egg salad by dumping them into a bowl and mashing them up with a fork until the whites and yolk mixture are blended. Voila! How easy is that? Now you have extra-yummy egg salad to spread on your morning toast, fill a sandwich of whole-grain bread with crunchy lettuce add tomato, or scoop up as a dip with celery, carrot strips or rounds (baby carrots are too slender and round for this), or broccoli florets.

* Potato salad. If your potato salad has a mayonnaise dressing (and you’re sure it’s been kept cold and covered), consider making a “composed” salad with layers of iceberg lettuce, potato salad, strips of red, yellow or orange bell peppers (curved ends removed), chopped scallions (green onions), arugula, sliced tomatoes, and sliced green olives. Make it in a circular ovenproof dish with straight sides or a glass brownie or lasagna pan (i.e., not in a bowl, or you won’t get even layers). Chill until serving time, then cut into individual servings, remove each serving with a spatula, and pass the salt, pepper and olive oil. If your potato salad has an oil-based dressing, on the other hand, you can heat it and serve as an extra-flavorful potato side dish. Yum!

* Pimiento cheese. Like egg salad, pimiento cheese is a great sandwich stuffer with lettuce and tomato. But don’t overlook its potential as a filler for omelettes and quesadillas, especially when coupled with crunchy red, orange or yellow diced bell peppers. It’s also a different and delicious topping for burgers and those leftover hotdogs. It’s a great dip for crudites, especially celery. And wait ’til you try pimiento mac’n’cheese!

* Grilled veggies. What, you have leftover veggies? Say it ain’t so! But if it happens that you do, it’s a real blessing in disguise. You have the perfect base for a great pasta dish! Just make your favorite pasta (spaghetti, fettucine, and penne all work well). Heat the veggies with a little extra-virgin olive oil and fresh basil or with storebought pesto. Mix them with the cooked pasta, top with shredded Parmesan, pass the salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, and dried oregano, and enjoy! They’re also great reheated over rice, or used in a tomato-based spaghetti sauce, or added to an Alfredo sauce, or folded into quiche or an omelette or other egg dish, or reheated as the veggie portion of fajitas.

* Corn on the cob. This grilling favorite can be used in innumerable ways if there are leftover ears (again, gasp!). Stand each ear upright in a bowl (to keep the kernels from flying all over the place) or lay each ear on a cutting board and cut off the kernels. Add them to salads, burritos, or wraps. Mix them with canned black beans and heat for a yummy side dish, especially if mixed with diced tomato, jalapeno, bell pepper, and sweet or green onion just before serving. Saute them in a little butter as a side dish, with or without mushrooms and diced sweet onion. They’re great in quiche and corn pudding, and really enrich cornbread and corn muffins. Don’t forget corn pie and corn chowder!

* Coleslaw. What says summer like coleslaw? But what do you do if you have a big vat of it left after your Fourth of July guests depart? Well, here’s what I do: Use it as the ultimate flavorful topping on tossed salad. The combo of creamy slaw and crunchy salad is just about perfect. And if I’ve made one of my special slaws with tons of shredded red cabbage, carrots, diced sweet onion, cumin and cracked fennel seeds, oil and crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, plus lots of fresh-cracked black pepper and salt (we like RealSalt), I’ll mix it into a mixed lettuce base and won’t need to do another thing to have the best, most flavorful, healthiest salad anyone could ask for. If your slaw is oil- rather than mayo-based, there’s no reason you couldn’t roll it up in phyllo or eggroll sheets for a luscious hot snack or use it as a hotdog topping. And if it is mayo-based, I’ve heard that a popular sandwich is made from rye bread, corned beef, and coleslaw. Go for it!

* Veggie burgers. Gee, your guests didn’t go for the grilled veggie burgers? Not to worry. You can crumble those grilled burgers and use them as a salad topping, pizza topping, in spaghetti sauce, in a casserole, chili, shepherd’s pie, sloppy Joes, or lasagna as a meat substitute, or coupled with cheese in an omelette. Veggie burgers have come a long way: Some are really delicious, and some taste startlingly like meat. If you got them to appease vegetarian or vegan guests, don’t toss the leftovers. You may be pleasantly surprised.

* Buns. The bread bought for occasions like July Fourth is often an afterthought, but it’s still food that could potentially be wasted or saved, depending on your approach. Buns can easily be turned into garlic bread by smearing the inside surfaces with butter and chopped fresh garlic or granulated garlic or with jarred minced garlic with its oil, then heated. They may not reach the level of fresh-made garlic knots, but they’ll satisfy garlic bread-lovers’ tastebuds just as much as storebought, and you won’t need to do anything besides split each bun in half. You can also turn the buns into homemade croutons by cubing them, tossing them in a bowl with olive oil and herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and basil, then baking them ’til crisp and golden. Think about brushing the cut surface of each bun with a little olive oil, then baking it ’til just hot and topping it with sloppy Joe spread or barbecue, potentially topped with coleslaw, or with egg salad or pimiento cheese spread.

* Melon. If nobody finished off the watermelons and cantaloupes you got, and you’re not prepared to eat all those leftover chunks with salt (as I do), try this: Make salad with Romaine, arugula, and frisee (watercress and baby spinach are also options). Add diced red (aka Spanish) onion, fresh mint, and melon cubes, along with crumbled feta cheese if desired. Top with splashes of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and pass the salt and pepper. Or blend the melons into a chilled soup, with or without a plain yogurt base. Or add blueberries and strawberries (for cantaloupe) or blueberries and kiwi (for watermelon) for a refreshing fruit salad, with or without a topping of plain yogurt and pomegranate seeds.

Enjoy, and don’t waste all that good food!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Easy, yummy summer melons. July 2, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. When I was growing up in the South, my family loved melons in the summer. Well, we loved cantaloupe (aka muskmelons) and watermelon. Summers were sickeningly hot and humid, so a cold slice or bowl of cubed melon really hit the spot. But what took it over the top was salt. We salted our cantaloupe and watermelon, amping up the hydration and dose of minerals and enhancing the sweetness. Salted melons were our Gatorade.

These days, I read about grilled melon slices, and would really, really love to try them, but we don’t have a grill and I have zero grilling skills. Bet they’d be good, though. (With salt, maybe a brush of olive oil, maybe some fresh basil leaves and fresh bufalo mozzarella or crumbled feta.)

Then there’s the issue of honeydew melons. When they’re ripe, they taste like melon. When they aren’t, they taste like cucumber. My family hated cucumbers (unless they were pickled), so we grew up in a cuke- and honeydew-free house. It took me practically forever to appreciate raw cucumbers, and our friend Ben still won’t come near them. For those of you who appreciate cukes’ many virtues, I suggest adding honeydew melon chunks (if you get one that tastes like a cuke) to any salad or dish you’d normally put cucumbers in. I’ve yet to hear of honeydew dill pickles or honeydew raita or tzatziki sauce, but I don’t know why it couldn’t happen, and be delicious, for that matter.

I’m sticking to chunks or slices of melon with a sprinkling of salt (we like RealSalt) to give it that fabulous spark. Salt is the match that lights the flavor fireworks for July Fourth, or any other time you want some yummy melon.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The best saag paneer. June 29, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve made saag paneer, the Indian dish that combines spinach and other greens with cubed white, mild-flavored paneer cheese and sauteed spices for decades. It’s so delicious and easy to make! And those good-for-you greens have never tasted better, combined as they are with all the healing spices, not to mention super-healthy garlic and onion and lycopene-rich tomato.

I love to serve my saag paneer with basmati rice and plain Greek yogurt (as a baseline raita), sometimes also featuring a vegetable curry and embellished with luscious add-ons like tamarind and mint sauces and a fruit chutney, served with a generous helping of warm garlic naan. But that’s just for special occasions and guests. The simple meal of saag paneer, rice and yogurt is so good and so filling all by itself.

Incidentally, if you’re a saag paneer fan who buys it frozen and you’ve been confused by palaak paneer, which somehow seems just like saag paneer, the difference is that palaak (aka palak) paneer is made solely with spinach, while saag paneer has multiple greens, including methi, fresh fenugreek leaves. I’ve been able to find both dried methi leaves and fresh, frozen, cubed methi leaves at a nearby Indian grocery. As you’ll see, I try to keep the frozen cubes on hand to put in my saag paneer, but if I’m out of them, I’ll substitute dried.

I thought my saag paneer was perfect until I saw a recipe called “Authentic Saag Paneer” on Allrecipes.com. It had an ingredient I’d never seen in a saag paneer recipe—a half-cup of heavy whipping cream. Say what?! That would certainly raise the calorie count while lowering the health quotient considerably. But would it really make for an even more delicious saag paneer?

Turns out, the answer is a definite yes. This is mostly because of the luscious sauce that will permeate the rice you serve it over. (In this case, definitely serve the saag paneer over the rice, not alongside it, to catch every drop of the delicious sauce.) I find adding cream and simply serving the spiced greens over rice to make a perfect lunch, totally flavorful, totally satisfying. But unlike the Allrecipes.com version, I make no claim that my saag paneer is authentic, just that it’s great. And a great way to get your daily dose of supergreens.

Saag Paneer

1 large bag chopped kale
1 large bag chopped collard greens
1 large bag chopped spinach
2 cubes frozen methi (fenugreek leaves)
1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia or WallaWalla, diced
2-4 tablespoons ginger and garlic paste, to taste
1/2 to 1 package paneer, cubed (I like lots of paneer, you may prefer less)
1 tomato, diced
1 tablespoon powdered turmeric
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black or brown mustardseeds
1 tablespoon Trocomare, RealSalt, sea salt, or Himalayan salt
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
canola oil for cooking

In a very large, heavy pot (I use my very largest LeCreuset Dutch oven for this), add the bag of kale and sprinkle a little water over it. Cook, covered, over low heat until the greens have cooked down, stirring occasionally. When the greens have reduced, add the collard greens and repeat the process, adding a bit of water if needed and stirring the collards into the kale when they’ve cooked down. Finally, add the bag of spinach (again, with a little water if the pot seems dry), and stir the wilted spinach into the other greens, immediately turning off the heat.

In a second large, heavy pot (I use my next-largest LeCreuset Dutch oven), pour in canola oil to coat the bottom. Saute the onion with the salt until it clarifies, then add the spices, sauteing ’til fragrant. Add the diced tomato and the cubed methi (fenugreek leaves), stirring until broken down and incorporated. Now pour in the heavy cream. When it’s warmed, add the cooked greens and stir well to incorporate, then gently mix in the cubed paneer. Once the dish is hot, serve it over basmati rice and prepare to be blown away! It keeps well and reheats well, too. I make a big batch of basmati rice and stash it in the fridge, then prepare an ovenproof dish with some rice (and a little water) in the bottom topped with a helping of saag paneer, and tuck it in the oven at 250 degrees F. until it’s heated through. Yum!

Try it and see what you think.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Fast and easy strawberry-rhubarb pie. June 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s the end of local strawberry and rhubarb season here, which makes me want to cry. The local strawberries are so much more delicious than those store-bought, hard, tongue-curdling whitish berries you get in the store. You can smell the homegrown berries the minute you enter one of the Old Order Mennonite farm stands in our area. (They’re horse-and-buggy people like the Amish.) And the rhubarb is slender-stalked and tender.

Do our friend Ben and I grow strawberries and rhubarb here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA? You betcha. But we have a little problem. Every year, the birds—who apparently know to the second when our strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and elderberries will be ripe—beat us to the crop. In the case of the strawberries, chipmunks (who invariably eat half a berry and leave the rest in plain sight just to torment us) and slugs also eat their fill. As for the rhubarb, ours grows into such huge, gorgeous ornamental plants that I can’t bear to harvest the stalks. Thus, on to the Mennonite stands.

I’m going to guess that rhubarb plants don’t flourish in hot, humid climates, since I’d never encountered rhubarb in any form while growing up in Nashville. But up here in scenic PA, it’s one of the first fresh treats of spring, along with strawberries, asparagus and young dandelion greens (unsprayed, please). I quickly fell in love with rhubarb’s distinctive flavor, stewed and spooned over vanilla ice cream or stirred into yogurt, made into pies (I actually prefer an all-rhubarb pie to the famous strawberry-rhubarb pie), or made into rhubarb jam.*

We’d had such luscious strawberries from a nearby Mennonite farm stand that we ate the entire box plain, then rushed back for more. But this time, the girl who took our order dumped the box of ripe berries into a plastic bag. By the time we got home, the berries were mushed and pouring out juice. I quickly put the bag in the fridge. We returned for more berries (in the box this time), and I saw the slender, tender rhubarb stalks on sale, so I bought a bunch of them as well.

To make the most of that luscious but mushy bag of strawberries, before they got moldy, I decided to try my hand at making strawberry-rhubarb pie. It was my first try at making any pie but pecan pie. You see, in the South of my childhood, pies were a lot different than they are in the North. There were pecan pies, chess pies, banana cream pies, chocolate icebox pies, and for super-special occasions, rum pies. Fruit (with the exception of bananas) was baked into cobblers, not made into pies as it is up here. Cobblers are so easy, so delicious, and so accommodating that it seemed ridiculous to put a blueberry-peach, raspberry-peach, blackberry, cherry, peach, or [your favorite fruit here] filling in a piecrust.

At this point, I wish I’d made strawberry-rhubarb cobbler. (In case anyone reading doesn’t know, a cobbler tops a jammy fruit filling with a crumbly, crunchy mix of flour, oatmeal, salted butter, and often spices like cinnamon, cloves, or cardamom.) We’ll get to why in a minute (I have to take the blame for actually asking OFB to do something without supervision, but that’s another matter).

To get started, I consulted my good friend Google to check out strawberry-rhubarb pie recipes. Yuck! Every one of them had you make a piecrust, and either a second piecrust for topping the pie or enough extra dough to make a lattice top. Making a piecrust involves cutting very cold, chopped-up butter (or lard or Crisco) into flour until it’s totally incorporated, then rolling it out on a chilled marble slab or your counter. Eeewww!!! If you hate touching greasy things like I do, much less cleaning up a floury, greasy counter, making piecrust is not for you. (This is also why I don’t buy delicious, locally made rhubarb or strawberry-rhubarb pies: I’m a vegetarian, and the crusts are all made with lard.)

Then, the recipes all had you cut up the rhubarb and strawberries, mix them with a cup of sugar, dump in flour or cornstarch to thicken the filling, and dump it raw into the piecrust before topping it with the second piecrust or latticing and baking it. Everyone warned that, without the thickening flour or cornstarch, the juices would destroy the bottom crust.

At this point, I decided that I was going to create my own recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household that considered the addition of flour or cornstarch as a thickener was simply blasphemy. Either one drastically degraded the flavor and texture of any food—soup, gravy, sauce, macaroni and cheese, you name it—to which it was added. No flour-or cornstarch-enhanced recipe ever passed our lips. Instead, our home rule was to use top-quality ingredients like cream and butter and simply take the time to cook them to the proper consistency.

So we stopped at the grocery and I asked OFB if he’d prefer a standard, Graham-cracker, or shortbread crust (all ready-made and pressed into their aluminum pans in the baking aisle). OFB chose a Keebler shortbread crust. Sounded good to me.

Once home, I chopped the rhubarb stalks (rhubarb leaves and roots are poisonous, only the stalks are safe to eat) and put them in a heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens) with a little water to keep them from sticking and burning as they cooked. Then I got out that bag of runny, yucky strawberries and totally grossed myself out by pulling off the stems and then chopping them and adding them to the rhubarb. When I’d finally chopped them all, I poured the juice into the pot as well. I also chopped some of the fresh strawberries we’d bought and added them.

As the rhubarb and strawberries cooked down, I added a ten-ounce jar of rhubarb jam to both intensify the flavor and thicken the filling. You could add strawberry jam if you wanted, but then you’d totally overwhelm the rhubarb flavor. Or you could add apricot preserves or apple jelly or even marmalade or what have you, but you’d definitely be changing the flavor.

Everything cooked down perfectly into a rich, thick, jammy pie filling, full of fresh fruit and with no yucky thickeners. I was very happy, but by that point, I was also very tired. So I asked OFB if he would spoon the filling into the shortbread crust and put it in the fridge while I got ready for bed. HUGE mistake, as I found out the next morning. OFB admitted that he’d put the filling in the crust, then attempted to pick up the aluminum-foil pan, at which point it had apparently folded in on itself and distributed a supernova of shortbread crumbs into the filling.

I still can’t imagine why this could have happened. That the crust might have broken in half is one thing; that it imploded all over the filling is implausible to me, yet, in the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The results of my wonderful pie now looked like vomit. I was devastated. I can’t eat something this gross, so I’ve made OFB swear that he’ll eat it with ice cream and whipped cream.

Before writing this post, I stuck a finger into the filling to make sure it actually tasted good and wasn’t gummy. And yes, make this and you’ll be so very, very happy: It’s delicious, fruity, fresh, and just the right texture, juicy but not runny. But if you make it, do what I’ll do next time: Put the crust and aluminum base on a plate before filling the crust, and put the plate into the fridge along with the plate so it can all set.

Fans of rhubarb, rejoice! And don’t forget that Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream.

‘Til next time,

Silence

* I’ve only found one source of rhubarb jam, Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA. Fortunately, you can order it online at http://www.kitchenkettle.com or call to order at 1-800-717-6198.

Kale: quick, easy, delicious. June 19, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. For me, kale was love at first sight (and bite). I loved the look of the curly leaves, and the taste and texture had me hooked. Even kale’s rise to stardom hasn’t made me abandon it for other greens people aren’t constantly raving about (though I love you too, mustard greens and arugula). But one thing drives me crazy about the kale fad: the idea that if you don’t fuss endlessly with the poor kale leaves, they’re not worth eating.

Okay, I love sauteed kale with minced garlic as much as the next girl. I love kale mixed in with other nutritious greens in a classic saag paneer, or wilted with spinach and served up with a good splash of balsamic vinegar and a dash of mineral salt (RealSalt, Himalayan salt, and the various sea salts all work for me). But spare me the kale chips, green smoothies (omg), and hand-rubbed salads, or the shredded kale salads smothered in gloppy dressing and coated with dried fruit, presumably to mask the taste.

Hey, guys, the taste and texture of raw kale are great. No need to fuss, fuss, fuss. My favorite kale salad is so easy, and so good. All you need to do is get some of that fresh curly-leaf kale and some greens that can stand up to it, like romaine lettuce and radicchio. Wash, dry, and rip the greens into bite-size pieces, then toss them in a big bowl.

If you can find those scallions (green onions) with fat onion bulbs on the bottom, cut up a bunch, slice the onions, and toss them into the bowl; otherwise, add half a diced red or sweet onion (such as Vidalia or WallaWalla). Add a diced red, yellow or orange bell pepper, some yellow, red, and orange cherry tomatoes (if you can find them, otherwise, use the color or colors you can find), and a heaping handful of pepitas (roasted, salted pumpkinseeds).

Mix or toss it all together, and top your salad off with sliced hard-boiled eggs and shredded sharp white Cheddar or crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Then all you need is some salt, fresh-cracked black pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar to make the salad sing. Protein, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and great flavor all in one colorful package! No kale-leaf rubbing required.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Red, white and gold pasta. June 13, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve posted this original recipe before, but it’s such a great, easy pasta recipe and such a crowd-pleaser that I thought it was time to offer it again. Like pesto pasta and pasta primavera, it’s a good summer pasta with a big, crunchy salad, and it’s great the rest of the year, too, with a side of broccoli, broccoflower, sauteed kale or spinach, carrots, or what-have-you. (Just don’t forget that crunchy salad!) So easy, so good.

This recipe will feed about six, or four if they’re really hungry and keep going back for more. Oh! I call it “Red, White and Gold Pasta” for the red and yellow bell peppers and the button mushrooms that are key ingredients.

Silence’s Red, White and Gold Pasta

1 large sweet onion (such as Vidalia or WallaWalla)
1 large (16-ounce) carton button mushrooms, or more to taste
1 large red bell pepper
1 large yellow bell pepper
1 16-ounce carton sour cream
1 package shredded sharp white Cheddar
2 tablespoons Italian seasonings (dried rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil)
1 tablespoon Trocomare or salt (we like RealSalt)
Fresh-ground pepper, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
Vegetable stock, as needed
1 box spaghetti (thick, not thin, spaghetti)

Heat water for the spaghetti in a large, heavy pot. (We prefer thick, or “regular,” spaghetti, for this, because it holds up better to the thick sauce than thin spaghetti.)

While the water’s heating, pour the olive oil into the bottom of a large, heavy pot to fully coat it. (I love my LeCreuset Dutch ovens for this.) While the oil heats, dice the onion, then add it to the pot. Slice and dice the mushrooms and add them to the pot. Add the Trocomare or salt and the herbs and pepper. Core and dice the bell peppers and add them to the pot. If the pot begins to dry at any point during this process, add a splash of veggie stock as needed.

Once the veggies have cooked down, add the sour cream. Your goal is to create a thick, creamy sauce, and this may take a while, so don’t put the pasta in the boiling water until you’re satisfied with the sauce’s consistency. (This is a great time to make that crunchy salad, and since the pasta sauce is rich, a simple olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette is a good counterpoint.)

When the pasta is al dente, turn off the burners and add the shredded Cheddar to the sauce, stirring well to melt it in, then plate up the pasta and sauce, give everyone a big bowl of salad, pour some Cabernet, and enjoy! This is THE most-requested meal at our Friday Night Supper Club.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Super, super-easy falafel sandwich. June 12, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. If you’re like me, you’re pretty much up for Middle Eastern and Greek food at all times, and falafel sandwiches are a definite fave. But until a few days ago, I’d never succeeded in making a decent one at home.

The key is in the falafel patties. When you get them at a restaurant, they’re fried, so the outside is lusciously crunchy and the inside is tender and succulent. When you buy falafel patties in a grocery and heat them up at home, unless you’re prepared to fry them—which I’m not, I won’t fry anything and have to deal with all that grease—they just won’t get crunchy. And even a flavorful falafel patty is a sad thing if it isn’t nice and crunchy. After numerous tries with numerous brands, I’d pretty much abandoned hope and resigned myself to forgoing falafel sandwiches unless I was in a restaurant that served them, maybe a twice-yearly treat.

Or so I thought. Our friend Ben and I were shopping at our local Giant this past weekend when OFB made a beeline for their section of ready-to-go deli goods. Before I could even say “Ben, what are you doing?!!” our grocery cart seemed to be filling up with jalapeno poppers, deviled eggs and the like. I was about to start complaining when I saw that they had falafel patties. Oh, sheesh, I thought, here we go again. But it had been such a long time since I’d had a falafel sandwich that I decided to try one last time, and the package of falafel patties joined OFB’s loot in the cart.

As fans of falafel know, a traditional falafel sandwich is made by putting fried falafel patties in a Middle Eastern-style (thin-walled) pita with shredded lettuce, diced cucumber and tomato, and tahini sauce. I wanted to tweak the recipe to make it heartier and easier to eat. Fortunately, our Giant happened to have Sabra Tzatziki Sauce, the fabulous Greek dip made with Greek yogurt and lots of garlic, minced cucumber and dill. I snagged a carton, along with a package of Stonefire Mediterranean-Style Pita Pockets, which are smaller and considerably thicker than the Lebanese-style pitas. (Stonefire also makes the fabulous Indian naan you can now buy in most groceries.)

I wanted something heartier and less liquid than the typical lettuce, tomato and cuke filling, and, since cukes were already in the tzatziki sauce anyway, I figured I’d just go with two coleslaw staples I had at home: shredded carrots and red cabbage.

This left the issue of the falafel patties: How to crisp them up without frying? Suddenly, I had (in the immortal words of a dear friend’s mother) a rush of brains to the head. I put the patties on a sheet of aluminum foil in a tray in our convection/toaster oven and drizzled them with olive oil. Oil! The missing link! Then I turned the oven to 250 degrees F. and let them sizzle. The heat was enough to crisp the outside, but low enough not to dry out the inside.

When I could see that the oil was bubbling, I split the pitas in half, forming two pockets from each pita, and set them on top of the falafel patties until they were heated through. Then I turned off the oven, took out the pita halves and opened them up, spread a generous amount of tzatziki sauce on the inside of each pita half, added two falafel patties to each half, then stuffed in the shredded carrots and red cabbage and patted the whole thing down to condense it to a size more appropriate for an easy bite.

Success!!! It may not have been traditional, but it was perfect, and perfectly delicious. Oh, yum!!! The olive oil gave the falafel patties the exact outer crunch they needed, while the inside remained tender, and the patties absorbed the drizzle of oil so there was no fuss, no muss, unlike frying. The thicker pitas contained all the ingredients with no breakage or dripping like thinner pitas. The tzatziki sauce, as I’d expected, was simply delicious with the falafel, and the shredded carrots and red cabbage were the perfect complements.

I can’t wait to get back to Giant and get more of the baseline ingredients. So easy, so good!!! You might want to go for other sandwich stuffings, from the traditional ones (tahini, tomato, cucumber, and lettuce) to adding minced sweet onion, parsley, cilantro, shredded kale, you name it. You could be a rebel and add horseradish sauce or ranch/Dijon mustard dressing instead of tahini or tzatziki. I expect it would be delicious any way you made it, as long as you crisp up the falafel patties and add plenty of sauce! Whatever you do, enjoy.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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